- Category: Analysis
- Published on Sunday, 23 June 2013
- Written by Brenna Bhandar
Race, gender and class: some reflections on left feminist politics and organising
These are notes from a short talk that I gave at the IS Network meeting on 8 June 2013; they are a reflection of an informal discussion of some key issues facing left feminist politics and organising.
One of the speakers just noted how the organised left contingents at recent anti-fascist demos against the English Defence League and British National Party have been largely white, and that there was a need to cultivate an anti-racist politics on the left that included more people of colour. I want to suggest that one reason for this absence is the perception among many people of colour on the left that socialist organisations and parties have had, and continue to have, a very poor track record of taking issues of race and racism seriously. Taking race seriously requires more than mentioning the word “anti-racism” and acknowledging that racism exists, and goes to the core of how we analyse political problems. This is what I want to focus on today.
Building a radical left political movement or network means taking race and racism, along with gender and sexuality (and we should also add, disability), seriously. And while there are great instances of solidarity and activism between left organisations and particular campaigns (the SOAS cleaners’ campaign, for instance), or in a different context, the efforts of the organisers of the Historical Materialism conference to account for race and gender, reflected in the stream being organised on Race and Capital: Marxist Legacies of Anti-Racism and the Black Radical Tradition that explicitly accounts for black feminist activism and scholarship, and critical indigenous theory, there remain quite serious obstacles to advances being made on this front.
An example of socialist feminist work that has failed to take into account issues of race and racism as a core part of its analysis of gender oppression can be seen in Nancy Fraser’s recent work, The Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis (London: Verso, 2013). A panel to discuss her work and to reflect on the future of feminism was held recently in London. Did the organisers of the session on the future of feminism not think it necessary to include any women of colour or scholars whose scholarship deals centrally with both race and gender? One of the panellists, in fact, mentioned at the conclusion of her remarks that race was a problem in the composition of the panel. (The session can be listened to here.) This is important as it reflects a cognisance among left feminists that race is something that needs to be accounted for in feminist theorising.
This problem of representation is complex; it is not merely about the visible representation of women of colour, although this remains a very important issue because we are all too often absent from these sorts of discussions and our points of view rendered invisible. Representation, however, is a larger and more complicated problem because the left has not got very far in reconceptualising the very categories of analysis that people use to understand political phenomena, such as patriarchy. If socialist feminism(s) had reached a point where race formed a core part of its analyses, then it would perhaps not matter as much, as to whether or not the panel was all white. But chances are that one’s standpoint or epistemological framework is still determined by one’s experiences in the world. How is it, that 40 years after the publication of Selma James’s Sex, Race and Class, and 30 years after the publication of Angela Y Davis’s Women, Race and Class, race has yet to really permeate socialist feminist theorisations of patriarchy and capitalism?
And here we can briefly turn to Fraser’s book (although there are many others that would serve as equally valuable objects of critique), and some of the problems with her frame of analysis that doesn’t seem to account for the scholarship of black feminists, women of colour, subaltern and post-colonial feminism. The Fortunes of Feminism is a collection of Fraser’s essays spanning the past 30 years or so. The collection is a testament to Fraser’s original and highly significant contributions to the fields of feminist theory and philosophy.
When it comes to issues of race, gender and sexuality, however, I am not the first person to critique the manner in which race figures (and is also absent) in her work. The chapter entitled ‘A Genealogy of “Dependency”: Tracing a Keyword of the US Welfare State’ (co-authored with Linda Gordon) analyses the “racial and gender subtexts” of the discourse of welfare dependency in the US. While the chapter usefully unpacks some aspects of the political development of the term ‘dependency’, including its colonial and neo-imperialist dimensions, the repetition of the “housewife, pauper, native and slave” quadrumvirate as the focal point of analysis certainly recalls the criticism of black feminists Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith encapsulated in the title All the Women are White, All the Men Are Black, But Some of Us are Brave (NY: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1982). Black feminists have critiqued modes of analysis that fail to consider how the categories of race, gender, sexuality and class cannot be kept analytically distinct if one is to understand how oppression operates along these axes in an interlocking manner.
In some of the later essays, Nancy Fraser focuses on the need for a post-industrial welfare state. In the chapter entitled ‘After the Family Wage: A Post-Industrial Thought Experiment’ race disappears entirely from the discussion of waged labour and domestic work in the home. Issues of income equality between men and women take no account of how race and racism operate to devalue the work of women of colour in ways that differ markedly from that of white women. In fact, “‘racial’-ethnic justice” is posited as an entirely separate goal from gender justice, to be “handled via parallel thought experiments”. The experiences of women of colour as workers in and outside of the home are not accounted for in devising the framework of analysis.
Feminists have revealed the ways in which traditional Marxist understandings of labour as waged labour don’t account for the socially reproductive work of women. Marxist feminists have also shown how theories of capitalist accumulation have invisibilised the reproductive labour of women who reproduce “the most essential capitalist commodity – labour power” (Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation (NY: Autonomedia, 2009,.p8).
Feminists who take race as a fundamental part of their gender analysis have taken this critique much further, deepening our analysis of the contradictory ways in which capitalist exploitation operates. As Patricia Hill Collins has noted, black women’s relationship to both paid labour and unpaid work in the home is significantly different from that of white women:
A less developed but equally important theme concerns how Black women’s unpaid family labour is simultaneously confining and empowering for Black women. In particular, research on US Black women’s unpaid labor [sic] within extended families remains less fully developed in Black feminist thought than does that on Black women’s paid work. By emphasising African-American women’s contributions to their families’ well-being, such as keeping families together and teaching children survival skills… such scholarship suggests that Black women see the unpaid work that they do for their families more as a form of resistance to oppression than as a form of exploitation by men. (P. Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (London: Routledge, 2000, p46))
If time permitted, Collins’s argument could lead to an interesting discussion of James’s political demand for the remuneration of work done in the home. However, the point I want to make here is that when we try to understand the way in which labour as an analytical category needs to be reconceptualised to account for women’s reproductive labour, this becomes a much more complex and contradictory endeavour when race is also a material concern. And this is really important for political organising. These debates have been going on in feminist communities in Britain since the 1970s when Marxist feminists identified the home and domestic work as a key site of women’s oppression, without accounting for the very different experiences and understanding that black women had of their labour and its relationship to the labour market.
I would be remiss in not mentioning the one, albeit very brief mention of the work of Southall Black Sisters by a panellist in the Futures of Feminism session. A brief but welcome attempt at refuting the analytical distinction between a politics of recognition and redistribution that is central to Fraser’s theory of recognition. The issue of race seemed largely reduced to an issue of cultural difference or diversity. From there, it follows that race is understood as a category of identity, and on that basis, Fraser critically assesses an identity-based politics of recognition (while simultaneously acknowledging its importance) as having drawn attention away from the pressing political objective of redistribution.
However, in ignoring the ways in which women of colour have out of necessity integrated their claims for equality, recognition and redistribution (for it is impossible to separate these out practically or analytically when racism and sexism always already constitute the specific form of class exploitation that one is faced with), their experiences, histories and scholarship are rendered irrelevant. As Aslan and Gambetti have skilfully shown in a related context, Fraser’s work has a tendency to “disregard the differences between feminist movements in their cultural, political and geographical contexts” (‘Provincialising Fraser’s History: Feminism and Neo-liberalism Revisited’, in History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History, Vol.1 No.1 Summer 2011, p133).
One effect of this approach (and the failure to criticise it) is to universalise the experience of white, and most often, middle class women. The word “woman” is used as though it applies to all women when it actually represents and signifies the experiences and histories of white women. This means that the experiences of black women, Asian women (and, in other contexts, indigenous women) are erased or suppressed by the theories and politics of left feminisms. It means that the analyses of political problems that are being presented are partial and incorrect – because (as we know), capitalism has been forged through colonial dispossession, the Atlantic slave-trade, and now, a globalised form of capitalism that depends on third world labour whose value remains fixed – to some degree – by racism and a persistent belief in white superiority.
Now this is not a new problem, and I can only chalk the resistance of white feminists to put race at the forefront of their understanding of patriarchy and capitalism to a few possible things. One is a wilful blindness. Another is the reluctance, perhaps unconscious, to give up the many privileges that accrue to those who are racialised as white. A third is perhaps an inability to distinguish between simply declaring that racism is a problem and actually bringing a critical race analysis to bear upon their theorisations of gender oppression.
And it’s clear that feminists outside of socialist and Marxist organisations are doing some of this work, and in some instances, it seems to me, are further ahead on this score. One need only look to Critical Ethnic and Critical Race Studies for evidence of this in academic contexts.
Taking account of race, gender and sexuality
There is a long and varied tradition of black radical thought and Marxist feminism that has sought to, in the words of Frantz Fanon, “stretch Marxist categories” in order to account for colonialism. It’s important to recognise that the relations of exploitation established during colonialism have not ended. While formal decolonisation swept through Africa and Asia from 1947 onwards, contemporary patterns of globalised capitalist exploitation rely on the economic and political patterns and relationships established during colonialism. Settler colonialism continues as an ongoing and continuously unfolding event – in places such as Palestine, Canada, Australia and others, colonialism has not ended from the perspective of indigenous communities and First Nations.
To take another example of someone who incorporates an analysis of gender and race into her work, Silvia Federici has argued (drawing explicitly on earlier work of feminists like Selma James) that the making of the proletariat was only possible through a capitalist system that was committed to both sexism and racism. She writes, “Primitive accumulation, then, was not simply an accumulation and concentration of exploitable workers and capital. It was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as ‘race’ and ‘age’ became constitutive of class rule and the formation of the modern proletariat” (Federici, op cit., p64).
So we can see that the sort of analysis that we need to cultivate if we are to take race, gender and sexuality seriously is one that seeks to reinterpret and reshape our conceptual toolkit. Federici has done this in relation to the category of the proletariat; Cheryl Harris in relation to property, gender and whiteness; historians of slavery and revolution – Eric Williams and CLR James for instance – have done this in relationship to our understandings of how race shapes relations of labour and property, and we could go on with a multitude of other examples.
When I was invited to participate in this session, an IS Network member mentioned that young activists turning their gaze towards feminism and anti-racism are interested in the idea of intersectionality as a method. Intersectionality emerged from an American academic discourse that was aimed at making liberal legal rights frameworks a bit better at accounting for how some people do not simply suffer discrimination along one axis, either gender or race or sexuality. While intersectionality usefully opened a conversation in the North American, and 20 years later, the British legal academy about how equality law could better function, in my view its usefulness has really run its course. Intersectionality is primarily a left-liberal law reform project that does little to account for class. As a discourse that is primarily academic and law reform-oriented, I don’t think that this has much to offer left political movements or radical Marxist critique. Having said that, a major qualification of this background to the concept of intersectionality is the work of British feminist Avtar Brah, who has used the term to describe a more radical and less limited method of analysing race, gender and class.
I want to conclude with another example of how to rethink the concepts that we use to explain political events. Stuart Hall and others, in Policing the Crisis, explore the work that “labels” do when they are applied to certain phenomena. So they look at the label “mugging” that is deployed in the 1970s to construct particular sorts of crimes as novel, and in doing so, racialise acts of theft. They analyse how the label of mugging is used to criminalise black communities and bring in harsher forms of policing and sentencing in criminal trials.
What work are the labels that have been used to describe the Woolwich murders doing? When we see headlines in mainstream press such as “Beheaded!” Or “Bloody Terror: Islamist Beheads Soldier on London Street!” or “Blood on his Hands, Hatred in his Eyes!”
• By interpreting this event as one that is primarily if not solely about Islamic fundamentalism, what gets obscured?
• What work does the label of “jihadi” or “Muslim terrorist” do? What have these terms come to represent over the past 11 or 12 years?
• How do these labels detract from the other factors clearly of relevance when we think about the causes of radicalisation – i.e. racism, class disaffection and the experiences of immigrants in this country?
• These were disaffected young black British men; one of whom was subject to a violent racist attack right before his conversion to radical Islam. How do these facts fit into the narratives being created by mainstream media?
Richard Seymour has written about this eloquently and incisively and so I will refer you to his piece.
So to sum up, whatever priorities this network sets for taking action, for organising, for analysing and theorising, I think what is really vital is not simply using the language of anti-racism or anti-sexism. What is needed is some thinking through of how political campaigns for a living wage, or campaigns against the increasing privatisation of security and prisons, campaigns aimed at fighting increasingly draconian and punitive immigration policies, anti-austerity politics, etc. need to be conceptualised in ways that take account of how capitalism is committed to and thrives on racism, sexism and hetero-normativity in all their complexity.Add a comment
- Category: Analysis
- Published on Friday, 24 May 2013
- Written by Richard Seymour
I knew John Wilson Street sounded familiar. I lived on that street as a student, just adjacent to the barracks and close to the Woolwich campus of the University of Greenwich.
There is a tawdriness to the setting of yesterday's killing that adds to its sadness. The main thing going for Woolwich, then as now, is the fact that almost everywhere else nearby is even more grim: Plumstead, Thamesmead, Charlton, North Woolwich. These charmless suburban wastelands surrounding Woolwich actually improve its plight, as by comparison it starts to look like a thriving little metropole. But the postcode area, SE18, was and still is one of the poorest in the country. The Woolwich campus of the University of Greenwich, formerly a Polytechnic, was then quite a neglected, dilapidated set of buildings - quite a contrast to the stunning neoclassical facades of the Greenwich campus. It is long closed.
There is a 'common' that looks derelict and abandoned - because it has been abandoned by Olympics planners who flew in with a bunch of promises, then fucked off just as quickly once the shooting was over. Whereas Greenwich town centre has been the focus of neoliberal gentrification and tourism-driven growth, unemployment in the borough is especially concentrated in the two wards, Woolwich Common and Woolwich Riverside. There is nothing there. No amenities, no jobs, no future. Every day is like Sunday.
In addition to being the site of an army base, which was incorporated into an already militarised Olympics Games, it is a racially mixed area. These, in themselves banal facts, provided the backdrop for a (no doubt partially sincere) attempt by local MP Nick Raynsford to respond to the attacks with a classic New Labour 'integrationist' racial project. In essence, Raynsford defended a form of 'Britishness' where militarism could co-exist with lived multiculture, as in Woolwich: black people can fight our wars too. Their loyalty, their collusion in our shared martial values, is what makes them British.
But why does race come into it? Why does multiculturalism come into it? David Cameron has hinted at 'indications' that the killing was a 'terrorist' incident. He has provided the usual assurances of British resilience in the face of such attacks, although such histrionics say the opposite of what they are supposed to: they imply that the British state, one of the most powerful and well-armed in the world, might conceivably one day actually yield, give up in the face of two men with knives. What does 'terrorism' have to do with this? Why is British grit, as opposed to a standard police investigation, the order of the day? The statement from the IS Network highlighted the speed with which the narrative changed once it became clear that the victim was a soldier, even while details remained scarce. Why did the narrative change, and what purpose did that serve?
This is not a post about the killing of a soldier, about which there is little to say, nor about the 'double standards' in the use of the term 'terrorism'. It is about how the notoriously pliable category of 'terrorism' has been put to work in developing fables about our racial selves, about 'Britishness' and its others.
The Muslim in British raciology
Through 'race', social relations, events and bodies are symbolised and come to be seen as 'racial'. Take, for example, the northern riots in 2001. There were a number of conjunctural elements involved: a struggle over local council resources; protests against police brutality; right-wing and fascist violence against Asian businesses and citizens; anti-fascist mobilisation; police repression; and so on. Among the structural elements were the deindustrialisation of former mill towns and ensuing poverty and unemployment; the institutional racism of local governments, which led to struggles over resources being racialised; the degeneration of Labourism, which provided some of the raw material for a right-wing populist politics; the racism of local police forces, who stigmatised Asians as 'anti-white', violent drug-dealers.
This was clearly a complex web of political struggles: the media saw only 'race riots'. Subsequently, a more detailed government response saw 'self-segregating' Asians, 'no go areas for whites', 'parallel lives' and a crisis of 'Britishness'. Subsequently, after 9/11, this view of the Asian as self-segregating, hostile, and anti-British, was re-deployed in an Islamophobic variant which has since become a neo-Powellite folk wisdom. The plausibility of these responses depended on the prior acceptance of their basic precepts. Race is something that has to be believed in order to be seen.
With that said, what does a Muslim look like? When the victim of yesterday's killing was revealed to be a soldier, now known to be a fusilier who had served in Helmand, sections of the media instantly began to seek a Muslim connection. The media has form here. One only has to remember how the Utoya attacks prompted instant speculation about Muslim involvement and hand-wringing about the 'failure of multiculturalism', even well past the point at which it was clear that the attacker was an Islamophobe inspired by the EDL. In this vein yesterday, the BBC's Nick Robinson set the tone by describing one of the assailants as being of "Muslim appearance".
Yet both assailants, as evidenced in the morbid footage, were black men wearing casual clothing. One, who addressed a passerby recording the incident on a camera-phone, was wearing jeans, a hoodie and a beanie hat. Even by the conventions of British raciology, it seems a stretch, or at least a new departure, to say that this is a stereotypical 'Muslim appearance'. The police's blunt Identity Categories would, as Symeon Brown pointed out, classify the assailant as being an IC3 male - a man of African/Caribbean descent. Challenged about his description on social media, however, Robinson replied to his critics that he was quoting a description from a Whitehall source, who was in turn quoting police. Such reporting at third hand demonstrates the mutually corroborative effect different wings of the state and media connecting to one another in a perpetual feedback loop. But it also suggested a strong will on the part of the authorities to 'see' a 'Muslim appearance', as that would instantly provide the fable they desired.
It was also suggested that there was some chanting of the phrase "Allahu Akhbar" after the attacks, the story attributed to two men who reportedly heard it. This story was circulated by all the major news media. Once ITN News broadcast video footage of one of the assailants, Michael Adebolajo, all doubt seemed to pass. He said that the beheading of this soldier was a message to David Cameron, who has sent British troops to Arabic lands: "We must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." He went on: "You think politicians are going to die? No, it's going to be the average guy - like you - and your children. So get rid of them. Tell them to bring our troops back so you can all live in peace." While a Muslim man spoke those words, they do not constitute a religious diatribe but rather a straightforward, and perfectly coherent, political message. The only directly religious phrase used, as far as I can tell, is biblical rather than quranic.
Adebolajo, notably, came from a Nigerian Christian family, and is a convert to Islam. He went to the University of Greenwich when he turned eighteen, and lived in student accomodation in 2004 and 2005. He must have studied at the Avery Hill campus if he lived in Eltham during that time. I'd like to know what he studied, and what degree he ended up with. It was in 2005 that he first came under surveillance by MI5. I'd like to know what groups spoke to him, and converted him. There is a vague report that he was 'radicalised' by the group Al Muhajiroun in 2003, a suggestion which seems to ignore something fairly massive and bloody which began to happen in that year. I'd like to know how he ended up living in a miserable housing estate in Woolwich, handing out Islamist literature in the high street every week, probably not far from where I used to proselytise for revolutionary socialism.
I think his conversion to Islam, and particularly to Islamist politics, may have had something to do with the anger and misery arising from the many sleights, insults and exclusions of living in a racist society. I think his affiliation with a network of combat jihadists may have given him a sense of power and purpose: they had an analysis of their problems, a strategy for resistance, and a utopian horizon to aim for. Certainly, this bloody action seems to have been committed with a sense of empowerment: they seemed, to witnesses, to be completely in control of what they were doing, and to relish the opportunity to explain why they had done it. They were not 'on something', and they were not 'disturbed'. They were political militants who had killed an enemy combatant as far as they were concerned. One thinks of Richard Reid's trial. He had been to prison before: that is where he had converted. But this time, he was not afraid. He sat before the judge and stated with a smile: "I am an enemy of your country and I don't care."
'Terrorism' and its Other
Before the body of Drummer Lee Rigby was cold, his mutilation was already being registered, not simply as a killing, but as 'terrorism'. The Telegraph refers to the perpetrators as "Al Qaeda-inspired Islamic terrorists", situating the attacks as a 'return' of the 'terrorism' last seen in July 2005. The Guardian likewise referred to the killers' "typical Al Qaeda rhetoric". The Independent warns us, citing a former Flying Squad Commander, of an emerging "new type of terror threat". David Cameron is reportedly attending an emergency meeting of Cobra, presumably intending to contrive a 'tough' new response to 'terrorism'.
Glenn Greenwald has done the usual sterling work in anatomising this response. Without duplicating his points, a simple comparison suffices to convey it: of all the freelance racists who have murdered black people in the UK over the years, sometimes in groups and sometimes individually, how many have been characterised as 'terrorism'? And it seems worth asking what is left of the term 'terrorism' once one has discounted for the consistent inconsistency of its usage? No one can agree on a definition. No serious scholarly book on the subject dares venture a definition that isn't either weighed down with caveats or ultimately self-cancelling. Suffice to say that in some cases, violence with a clear political and symbolic purpose is classified as 'terrorism', and in some cases it is not, and there appears to be no explicit, principled distinction between those which are and those which are not.
The distinctions which are offered, say between 'terrorism' and 'just war', are pure ideology. Talal Asad points out that there are typically three such distinctions offered. First, a just war is fought in pursuit of virtuous, liberal, humane and democratic ends, while terrorism is waged only for nefarious, fanatical ends. Second, a just war is restrained, seeking to avoid civilian casualties, while terrorism is unrestrained mayhem that if anything actively seeks out a civilian body count. Third, a just war takes place only at the last minute, after all alternatives have been exhausted, while terrorism is capricious, and barely needs provocation. It goes without saying that this is pure ideology: no serious examination of the course of, say, the 'war on terror', would bear out any of these claims.
The term 'terrorism' is concretely used here, not to signify a method, a goal, or a form of organisation, but rather to signify a particular genre of story-telling. It is a narrative device. In this context, the counterpoint to 'terrorism' was the "absolutely indomitable British spirit", as the Prime Minister called it, exemplified in the acts of members of the public who spoke to the assailants and attempted to guard the already mutilated corpse against further assault. Cameron went on to say: "The terrorists will never win because they can never beat the values that we hold dear. The belief in freedom, in democracy, in free speech, in our British values, Western values."
Thus, a pitiable scene in a cold, grey-skied summer day in Woolwich, was attached to a world-historical battle mantled with abstract values. More to the point, it was linked to a contemporary metaphysics of race. Using David Theo Goldberg's terminology, we could classify this as a 'historicist' type of racial metaphysics. Whereas a 'naturalist' racial metaphysics treats biology as destiny, 'historicist' types treat racial differences as a result of differing degrees of cultural and political development. For the subordinated, 'historicism' holds out the promise of eventual racial uplift, full citizenship, pending the fulfillment of certain conditions - acceptance of our values, integration, passing a citizenship test, and so on.
Once examined, the terms 'British values' and 'Western values' unspool into a sequence of connotative links connecting territory, birth and culture in a roughly 'historicist' manner. It is a given that 'the West', for example, is not a geographical entity so much as a historically produced caste of national states comprising Europe and its colonies, from North America to Australasia. This white West is connected to its supposed values through the crucial vector of culture. Thus, it just so happens that white people are the legatees of a particular level of civilizational and cultural development that give them these unique, priceless assets such as democracy. This necessitates forgetting how passionately and often violently democracy was resisted within the social formations of 'the West', as well as how much modern democratic revolutions owed to the decidedly 'non-Western' Haiti. But the link between territory and values is most forcibly made through the example of the Second World War, with the Cold War providing a distant second point of reference, which is why 'terrorism' is always discussed as if it's the equivalent of the Third Reich stamping on the toes of the British Empire.
It goes without saying that the meaning of culture, in this neo-Powellite culturalism, is greatly reduced. Culture, aside from being cross-sected by multiple antagonisms, never ceases to be constructed, its points of reference continuously displaced, and thus never arrives as a finished essence. But in the dramaturgy of 'Western values' and 'British values', culture has to do perform the same theatrical purpose as biology once did, and thus it has to be frozen and essentialised. If biology is not destiny, culture certainly is: in the warmed up 'modernisation theory' of the post-Cold War era, it is the destiny to which all formerly abject peoples were suddenly racing.
What the race fable tells us, then, is that we belong to an indomitably superior culture that is radiantly attractive to others, part of whose superiority lies in its generosity, its openness, and its ability to incorporate those of lesser cultural breeds - whether through an overly relaxed immigration policy, or through an excessively benign policy of military intervention. It tells us that there are some who, given this priceless opportunity, decline to accept it; they revert to type, repudiate it, and spit in our faces. With few resources, but endless guile, they seek to persuade others of their status also to repudiate the gift, and kill us instead. And in doing so, they come to resemble their kin in the non-West, while 'we' resemble ourselves only more perfectly as 'we' stoically respond to the challenge. This is 'terrorism'.
The race fable was illustrated by ITN News which, after showing the footage of a bloodied Adebolajo, referred to the scene in Woolwich as a day when 'Baghdad-style violence' came to south London. It was a catchy line, precisely because it resonated with the media's own conventions when reporting from imperial frontlines. Others, such as the Telegraph, have evoked untamed bestiary, and in one typical article speculates on a possible link to a Nigerian group which has waged "a bloody campaign against Western values of freedom and democracy". In other words, though the 'terrorism' was home-grown, it has actually penetrated from the outside, smuggled in by immigrants and the internet. The juxtaposition in the Baghdad line reminds us where such violence really belongs.
Yet the vector through which the pathology spread is more specific than immigration as such, or the internet. In this connection, the plight of other British Muslims in all this has not been forgotten. It has been a mainstream political doctrine for some years that 'terrorism' is a specific pathology of Islam, that it is something which Muslims have a particular duty to seek out 'terrorism' in their midst and report it to the authorities. Governments from Blair onward have seen it as their particular business to coerce and coopt British Muslims in this way. This is the doctrine of 'muscular liberalism' that David Cameron has boasted about; it lets British Muslims know that their national status is still in question and that this is largely because of their own shortcomings.
Cameron was briefly magnanimous enough to say, yesterday, that the attack was not the fault of Islam but of the individuals alone. The Muslim Council of Britain and the Ramadhan Foundation corroborated this exoneration of the faith with their strenuous denunciations of the killing. But they will know very well that such corroboration implied that the exoneration was needed. They will also know that in his speech Cameron also referred to the problem as one of 'extremism', and it is this which he charges ordinary Muslims with tolerating or harbouring. They will know that Cameron's government will hold Muslims and Muslim organisations answerable for this, irrespective of diplomatic statements made in the heat of the moment. Their every statement can now be combed for potentially disloyal nuance. Police searches, internment, a few more Forest Gates - all this is possible until the government is satisified with the degree of cooperation it is receiving.
The consequence of over a decade of syncopated Islam-baiting has been a pronounced political turn to the Right, especially on questions of immigration, nationality and 'race'. Coterminously, 'Britishness' has increasingly been merged with militarism. The ultimate test of one's integration, one's loyalty to 'British values', is to fight for said values. The ultimate proof of one's betrayal is to insult the soldiers who defend them. One can be against war, on the ground that it is too much benevolence for an undeserving mob, but one can't denounce the troops themselves. The case of Azhar Ahmed, whose sole offence was to castigate British soldiers on Facebook, indicates the potential costs of doing so, particularly for a Muslim. It also illustrates the centrality of the state to the development and implementation of these ideologies.
And it is because of the dominant role of the British state, and in the context of that state's action, that a right-wing 'counter-jihadist' politics of street mobilisations and violence has developed. The 'lone wolf' mosque attacks in Woolwich and elsewhere were followed up by an English Defence League 'protest' in Woolwich. The EDL had exhausted itself until recently in a sequence of miscues and hyper-activism, but last night mobilised a contingent of masked combatants to descend on Woolwich within hours of the attack. Their Facebook page experienced a surge of new supporters, and they have shown up in some cities this evening for the first time. They now plan to march in central London this weekend, and are probably emboldened in their recently revived scheme of staging at least one successful march in Tower Hamlets. Even if they succeed at none of these objectives, it is quite plausible that some of them will succeed in shedding some blood before the immediate consequences of this have worked themselves out.
The dominant political response to this threat is largely dismissive. Nick Raynsford has suggested that the EDL simply need to 'grow up' and realise that causing trouble is 'counteproductive'. He presumably did not mean to imply that his disagreement with the EDL is mainly a tactical one, that they threaten to scupper shared objectives. A New Labour politician is emphatically not on a par with a proto-fascist football casual. Nonetheless, I think his slip is meaningful. The account of 'terrorism' and 'Britishness' which I have just given above describes a set of ideological parameters that are virtually unchallenged in the mainstream, and which validate the Islamophobic far right, making it nearly impossible to seriously oppose them, or to discern anything but a completely misconceived appropriation of 'real concerns'. This is the role that 'terrorism' is playing in British politics today.Add a comment
- Category: Analysis
- Published on Thursday, 23 May 2013
- Written by IS Network
A horrific murder was committed on the streets of London. When it became clear that the victim was a soldier, the narrative changed. The police began to treat it as an act of terrorism. David Cameron caught the first plane back from Paris. The government called a meeting of its emergency committee, COBRA, and all other news was swept aside. Speculation filled the gaps.
We could point out the contrast between the rolling news coverage devoted to this murder while the constant, grisly killings committed as part of the West’s wars around the globe barely register. And how the decade-plus of the ‘war on terror’ is the context behind this tragedy. Al Qaeda was created, funded and trained by the West during the Cold War – now it is sustained by recruiting those driven to despair by the never-ending bombing that was supposed to pacify it. Yet hypocritical politicians refuse to acknowledge any such link, explicitly telling us that it would be wrong to do so.
In the wake of yesterday's events in Woolwich, the immediate issue for the left is this: we must resist the racist backlash.Add a comment
- Category: Analysis
- Published on Wednesday, 3 April 2013
- Written by Richard Seymour
We've been waiting five years for a coherent left wing response to the recession. We've been waiting three years for a coherent left wing response to the cuts. Two years ago, I was asked at a talk how we could communicate the socialist solution to the crisis; I said it would be nice if we had one. It would still be a step forward today. If the extant strategies, groups or alliances were sufficient to deliver this, we would have it by now.
As it is, the only interruption to our "pervading dysphoria and utter perplexity" was brief, if giddy – followed by the briefer tumult of the riots and the panicked reaction from the Party of Order. The trade union movement fought, not an expansive struggle allowing it to hegemonise a wider movement against the cuts, but a typically narrow "economic-corporatist" battle for a pensions deal roughly equivalent to what a Labour government would have offered. The last year was one of uninterrupted, quiet defeat for the most part. Labour continued to adapt to forces to its right. The government promised more cuts. The left-of-Labour forces remained fragmented, with each group championing its own "united front" project. As for a left electoral project, a look at TUSC is enough to die a little inside.Add a comment
- Category: Organisation
- Published on Monday, 1 December 2014
- Written by Yorkshire Region of the IS Network
This weekend has seen another outbreak of recriminations and counter-recriminations in the IS Network, culminating in resignations, the cancelling of our women's caucus and the final limping demise of the We Want a Women's Mag project. Most of us have felt outside this chain of events, and not particularly understood what has happened, leading to a bizarre situation when we learn about resignations from our own organisation via Facebook pages and rumours.
As members of two of the functioning branches of the IS Network, members of Leeds/Bradford and Sheffield IS Network met today for our Yorkshire regional meeting. We had looked at putting on a northern meeting but comrades from Manchester and the North East were not able to attend. Over the course of the day we sought to debate the latest outbreak of crisis in the IS Network within the context of the political situation inside and outside the organisation. The feeling of the meeting was that if more of our members were involved in active branches, then this affair might not have come to the fore, at least in the public, and at times vindictive, way that it did.
Fundamentally, the question is one of political culture, in particular the degeneration of our style of argument and concomitant relations, as a result of them having basically no political content. This says terrible things about our health, politically and organisationally. Ultimately, this stems from a lack of any functioning national politics. To be blunt, a complete lack of almost any attempt to develop a shared analysis, strategy or perspectives.
This is not a demand for the abstract "centralisation" of the network, nor is it a statement designed to smooth a path for our exit from our organisation, nor is it a backward northern attempt to return to some imagined certainty of the past. On the contrary, it is a wake-up call and a plan for saving and consolidating what is best about the IS Network: the members and branches that make it up, and the beginnings of political insights like some of our antifascist and international work, recent pamphlets and extended articles, joint meetings with other revolutionary organisations and some individual comrades' work around the Scottish question.
We intend to meet again before the National Members' Meeting, and publish our views and debates. We welcome other comrades' views, and look forward to the coming debates.Add a comment
- Category: Organisation
- Published on Tuesday, 6 May 2014
- Written by Tim Nelson
On Saturday 26 April, members of the International Socialist Network, revolutionary socialism in the 21st century, Socialist Resistance, Anticapitalist Initiative and Workers Power met to discuss a number of questions facing the revolutionary left. The day was divided into four topics - trade unionism, Left Unity, feminism and Ukraine. Despite there being sharp disagreements between many of the organisations on all these questions, the tone of the day was comradely and the manner in which the debates were conducted was positive. It is clear that divisions, most obviously between comrades in Socialist Resistance and Workers Power, are not going to disappear overnight, but hopefully continued discussion and joint activity will help break down artificial divisions on the revolutionary left and help us towards a new united organisation in the future. One of the reasons that the IS Network believes that this meeting should be the beginning of the process, rather than launching into immediate organisational unity as was proposed at our conference last year, is exactly because we feel that unity on a firm political basis, which in our view is a prerequisite for serious organisational unity; can only be achieved through a process of ongoing discussion and activity.
The first session was on the question of how revolutionary socialists should work within the trade union movement. In the bulletins which preceded the meeting, there had been a debate as to how revolutionaries should relate to the trade union bureaucracy, and whether they should be concentrating on building within the rank and file of the trade unions. This debate was reflected in the meeting, with comrades from Socialist Resistance arguing that the level of struggle and organisation in the class isn’t such that building a new rank and file movement is possible at this time, and furthermore that there is a clear distinction between right wing union leaderships and the left, such as Christine Blower in the NUT and Mark Serwotka in the PCS, who they referred to as “class struggle” union leaders. They also argued of the dangers of seeing the working class as poised for action, and only held back by the trade union bureaucracy. It has to be recognised that there is a dynamic relationship between the rank and file and the union bureaucracy, and union leaders cannot be held entirely responsible for the weaknesses of the movement. However, it was recognised that union leaders, particularly right wing union leaders, have a lot to answer for in terms of weaknesses of the movement and the failure of any serious fightback against austerity to materialise. While Socialist Resistance do not overestimate the mood of the workers to fight, they clearly have a tendency to go in the other direction, towards a certain pessimism with regard to workers, which can lead to conservatism. Their opinion, not at all unfounded, that the building of a rank and file movement is unfeasible at this time leads them towards arguing for reliance upon alliances with the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy , which in turn can lead to a tendency to apologise for the actions of some of the trade union leaders. This was most obviously displayed in discussion about the role of the leadership of the NUT. In the tradition of left wing meetings, there were many teachers present on Saturday. Some, mostly members of the IS Network, Anticapitalist Initiative and Workers Power, pointed out the failure of the “broad left” strategy of alliances with the left wing bureaucracy in the case of the NUT. This was argued against by Socialist Resistance members, who argued that the NUT had a “class struggle” leadership.
Socialist Resistance comrades were clearly the minority during this debate, with most others arguing for a rank and file, rather than a broad left approach to trade unionism. Workers Power members argued that the “crisis of leadership” in the movement was not just restricted to the top layers of the trade union bureaucracy, but rather was evident top to bottom. While we should work both with and against the bureaucracy, our focus should be on organising within the workplace. Similar arguments were made by IS Network members, who also countered the argument made by some in Socialist Resistance that a rank and file analysis meant viewing the working class as poised for radical action, but held back by the conservatism of the trade union bureaucracy. Both the view that the trade union bureaucracy needed to be replaced by the leadership of a revolutionary party, and that the right wing of the bureaucracy needed replacing by left wing, or “class struggle” bureaucrats, both fall into the same mistake of seeing the working class as an amorphous mass in need of proper leadership. The rs21 speaker focused on the failure of the left over recent years to correctly analyse what was happening in capitalism and the working class, and therefore failing to understand the “nature of the period”. The onus was on socialists to correct this, and work out a perspective for how to organise. Other rs21 members who contributed supported the argument for a rank and file approach to trade unionism.
There were some highlights of this session, which were when comrades in the meeting discussed real examples of rank and file activity they had engaged in. The IS Network lead speaker spoke of the contrast in her workplace, Tower Hamlets College, between an all-out strike led by the rank and file, and the bureaucratic one-day strike over pensions in 2011. The former won, the latter lost. Another member of the IS Network spoke of how members in his workplace defeated the imposition of performance-related pay by boycotting assessments. Another highlight was a comrade from rs21, a militant member of Unite, discussing his direct experience of Grangemouth oil refinery, its long history of militancy and potential power, and how the role of the “left” leadership of Unite was crucial to their recent defeat. Overall, this discussion was extremely positive, and Socialist Resistance members should be commended for how they comported themselves considering they were in a clear minority on this question. The discussion would have benefited, however, from Socialist Resistance members highlighting the rank and file work which they do in fact carry out. While they disagreed with many people in the meeting on any number of issues regarding the trade union bureaucracy, Socialist Resistance comrades are active in workplaces and their members have a good history of rank and file organisation. Also, an unfortunate false polarity developed, where a perception was of what a rank and file strategy was - where workers were poised for action and the main obstruction was the trade union bureaucracy - was argued against as opposed to what comrades in favour of the strategy were actually arguing.
The session discussing Left Unity was less interesting than any of the others. This may be because views generally on this subject are less well established - Left Unity has existed for about a year, while trade unions have existed for a couple of centuries - and therefore, the position tended to be divided between “optimism” and “suspicion” rather than anything more concrete. An issue which was present during the discussion on trade unionism came more to the fore in this discussion, which was it felt like comrades from Workers Power and Socialist Resistance to argue with each other over everyone else’s head. Another reason why the Left Unity debate was less useful than the others was probably the number of straw men which were constructed. The polarity, it was maintained by Socialist Resistance, and one IS Network member, was between those who wanted Left Unity to adopt a “maximalist” programme - as in, they want Left Unity to be a revolutionary party. This was not the position of Workers Power, or any others, who tended to argue that revolutionaries in Left Unity should be seeking to pull its members leftwards, rather than pursue them rightwards.
Socialist Resistance members argued that the left was not in a position to build a revolutionary party at this moment, and all that was possible given the current conditions was to build a united left organisation which did not alienate those to the right of the far left. Once a broad left organisation such as Left Unity was built and the left as a whole was able to grow, we would be able to concentrate on winning people to revolutionary politics. The key task at the moment was to build Left Unity. While the lead speaker for Socialist Resistance claimed this was not a “stagist” perspective, where we first win people to more left wing politics generally, and from that pull people to revolutionary politics in the long term, it certainly seemed that way. He himself argued that it was a “step by step process”. Workers Power, on the other hand, argued that the revolutionary left should be concentrating on building a revolutionary current organisation rather than moving to the right to accommodate reformism. IS Network members tended to argue for the need for all revolutionaries, whatever their perspective on these questions, to join and help build Left unity, as it is one of the most important initiatives currently being built on the left. rs21 members did not have a position on Left Unity, though most tended to be less involved in the organisation than members of other groups. They therefore tended to ask questions in the meeting, rather than make arguments one way or the other, such as whether Left Unity would always be the best vehicle for every issue, such as within the trade union movement.
In the session discussing feminism the debate centred on two key issues, one was the role of feminist theories and intersectionality in the movement, and whether they can be incorporated, or have a positive relationship with Marxism. The other was how to increase women’s participation in the left generally and our own organisations in particular. Workers Power maintained that Marxists should reject identity politics, such as feminism and intersectionality, as they do not accept that the fundamental oppression which cuts across all other modes of oppression is that of class. They argued in favour of a “working class women’s movement”. Women are some of the most exploited in society - austerity, for instance, is disproportionately effecting women. Building a women’s movement based on working class women self-organising is what is needed to combat this. Socialist Resistance, on the other hand, have incorporated feminism into their own theory, and argue that while Marxism has effectively analysed class exploitation, we need other theories, such as feminism, to explain other forms of exploitation, such as the oppression of women. rs21 were clearly divided on the question of intersectionality. Their lead speaker argued that intersectionality views class as just one of several oppressions, which is a break from Marxism. Other rs21 members, however, argue, as others do in the IS Network, that it instead simply acknowledges that how people experience oppression is effected by the various forms of oppression they either experience or do not.
There was also an important discussion about how to increase women’s participation in left organisations. The lead speaker from the IS Network pointed out the dominant role men played on the left in general, including in this meeting. She pointed out how women’s self-organisation, through initiatives such as independent publications and caucuses could help overcome this. Women often feel unable to contribute and participate on the left due to the socialisation of women which can lead to less confidence in such situations. Both Workers Power and Socialist Resistance have, for a long time, supported self-organised women’s groups, while rs21 members remain in many instances sceptical.
The meeting on the crisis in Ukraine wasn’t the “bloodbath”, as one rs21 member put it, that everyone was expecting, and was actually conducted very fraternally. On this issue, it tended to be Workers Power who were in the minority. Workers Power’s main focus was on the fascist and far-right nationalist influence over the Maidan protests and the government they installed, and the role of US and EU imperialism in supporting them. The role of fascists in the Kiev government, and their increasing integration into the state apparatus means that the main role of socialists should be to call for its overthrow. Socialist Resistance and rs21 members tended to emphasise the progressive elements of the Maidan movement, and argue that the turn towards the EU was largely a democratic demand, based upon the Ukrainian people’s desire to break from Russian imperialism. This tended to be supported by IS Network members, who, however, also tended to argue that the reactionary nature of the Kiev government shouldn’t be underplayed, and that it should be opposed. IS Network members also highlighted the political bankruptcy of the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition’s position, both on Ukraine, and the Syrian revolution, and argued that a new anti-imperialist movement needed to be built.
Overall, the discussions were very useful, and actually showed that such debates can in fact be productive when they rise above the usual tit-for-tat polemics, and comrades actually engage with each other’s views. One problem, which was present throughout the day, was the dominant role men, particularly white, non-LGBTQ men, played in the discussions. In the last session on Ukraine, no women spoke at all, and it was only in the session on feminism where women were at least 50% of the contributors. These issues are not unusual to the groups involved in these discussions - this is common throughout the left. However, in light of recent problems on the far left with sexism it is something that the left will need to get much better at in future, both in getting more women involved in revolutionary politics, and in encouraging them to be more prominent in meetings such as the ones we held on Saturday.
- Northern unity meeting 1 February
- Portsmouth Socialist Network: Moving forward after December
- Welcome to the wilderness
- A moment for revolutionary ambition
- Notes on a footnote
- Undoing the politics of anathema
- A letter from Socialist Resistance
- Can liberation politics be 'vulgarised'?
- A proposal to take to Left Unity: an organising party
- The politics of anathema in the IS Network