Pat Stack makes the case for revolutionary Marxism rather than anarchism as the way of bringing about a better society…gulag anybody? We wouldn’t normally post such an ill-informed un-educated piece of Trot rubbish such as this but we’re sure it would get one or two hackles up, and for entertainments sake…over to you Pat!
Over the past few months we have witnessed a surge in political activity against Con-Dem government policies. Many of those coming new to the struggle will be asking questions—about the injustices being committed, but also about the whole capitalist system.
For those wanting to smash the system, as opposed to those who want to reform it, there will be two main alternatives—revolutionary Marxism or anarchism.
On the face of it there would appear to be much that is appealing about anarchist ideas.
A struggle waged with no leaders and no parties, and bringing about a society with no state and no rules, would seem to fit perfectly with acts of rebellion.
But if we want to rid ourselves of this rotten capitalist system we need to look beyond the superficially attractive, and try to understand just how such change can be brought about.
There are many different anarchist theories and practices that often appeal to people for quite diverse reasons.
So for some there is an exhilarating freedom in just taking action without waiting for the right conditions—just smash that bank window, clobber that cop.
For others there can be the very different appeal of “consensus”. Here voting in protests, such as student occupations, is banned because it is seen as coercive—majorities imposing their will on minorities.
Despite the variation of anarchist ideas and theories, there are four main areas of difference with revolutionary socialists: how the struggle is developed and led, the role of leadership, the role of the revolutionary party and the role of the state.
To understand how society can be changed we need to look back at Karl Marx’s view of capitalism.
Unlike the leading anarchists of the 19th century, Marx recognised the progress capitalism represented. For the first time systems of production existed that created the potential for a society without fear of poverty, starvation and hopelessness.
For instance, if droughts brought about famine under feudalism, people starved because there simply wasn’t enough to eat. Under capitalism enough food is produced many times over—there is nothing “natural” about the disasters that people in various parts of Africa and Asia face today. But Marx went on to explain that this potential could never be fulfilled because capitalist society subordinates everything to profit.
He also understood that by drawing together large numbers of workers to make profits for them, the capitalists were potentially creating their own gravedigger—a working class that could only move forward if it moved forward collectively.
The key question then was how this class could be organised to challenge the system. On the face of it, such change should be easy—the working class are many, the capitalists few.
Yet capitalism has lasted a long time. The capitalists retain their power through a combination of force and fraud.
The fraud takes many forms.
The greed of capitalism is portrayed as human nature. We are told that capitalism is as good as it gets, and that there have to be rulers and ruled. We are also continually being urged to turn our anger on each other in a variety of ways—skin colour, nationality, sexuality and gender are all used to divide us.
Workers in the private sector are told to blame workers in the public sector, the low paid to blame those on benefits and the unemployed to blame immigrants.
A consistent minority of workers reject all such fraud.
They see their class interests and their class enemies clearly and believe workers of the world should unite against the global system. A consistent minority accept the fraud completely—they buy into the racism, scab on every occasion and always vote Tory or to the right of the Tories.
In the middle lie the majority who at times act in the interests of their class and at times fall for the fraud.For Marxists the key to changing the world is the ability of the class conscious minority to win over the vast majority to act in their own interests.
This is what we mean by leadership.
This is not an important person giving orders or making grand pronouncements, but the most advanced sections of the class winning the majority. For many anarchists such concepts of leadership are seen as elitist.
Yet in reality it is much more elitist for a self-appointed group of activists to carry out actions regardless of whether they are taking wider forces with them.
Leadership does however mean battling for ideas.
In every struggle there will be arguments about the way forward and about the right demands—and out of such conflicts comes clarity. Consensus in such situations can only mean one of two things. Either we work only with those who already agree with us, cutting ourselves off from the wider audience we want to draw into struggle. Or we only travel at the pace of the most cautious, limiting our ability to carry the struggle forward.
The question that arises out of this is how do the most advanced workers organise themselves to win the allegiance of the majority? Here, the question of the revolutionary party becomes key.
Revolutionary Marxist parties are not like mainstream political parties.
They are not concerned about winning elections, dining with the Murdochs to win over the media or watering down their politics to gain popularity.
They are not made up of passive members dictated to by important leaders.
They are organised democratically and they act in a centralised way. Democracy in a revolutionary party means the coming together of members to understand the world and debate a strategy. It is vital to the possible success of the party.
And the centralism—unity in action—that comes out of this democracy is essential against a highly centralised and powerful class enemy.
For anarchists, the question of organisation remains a largely unanswered one.
Historically, organisation is either rejected outright or attempts to build it have floundered because of its loose and confused nature, or conversely because of the building of conspiratorial and elitist formations.
If fraud is one key weapon in capitalism’s armoury, the other is force.
The capitalist state is highly organised. The police, judiciary, armed forces and leading echelons of the civil service are not neutral—their role is to defend the status quo.
In periods where capitalists are losing the battle for ideas, force becomes more and more important. The bosses will not surrender their wealth, power and privilege just because we have voted for them to do so. They will fight to the death to defend their system. That is why they will have to be overthrown by force.
Here the question of violence is important. The system is violent in so many different ways. Millions have died in its wars, suffer torture and imprisonment, and experience the casual violence that daily exploitation brings. So we should take no lectures from their media or politicians about violence. At the same time we have to ensure that we take the widest possible forces with us in our actions.
Small elitist groups carrying out acts that make no sense to the majority who support their cause are likely to leave those supporters confused and demobilised.
If such elitist actions have a demobilising effect, then they do the class struggle real damage.There is also another difference.
While Marxists see the state as an apparatus that acts to protect the class system, anarchists tend to see it as the enemy in and of itself. This can lead to utter confusion.
The father of anarchism, French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, is most famous for stating that “all property is theft”.
But his alternative to the growing power of big capitalist firms was to look to small-scale production linked by a network of exchange of goods and services.
Proudhon went on to see private property as a bulwark against the “real enemy”—the state. He ended up describing private property as “Liberal, Centralist, Decentralising, Republican, Egalitarian, Progressive and Just”. This view of the state leads anarchists to reject not just the capitalist state, but post-revolutionary workers’ states that would be necessary to defend the revolution against its capitalist enemies.
Revolutionary socialists and anarchists share a hatred of the current system and all the misery it brings. However, how we end that misery and change the world is the key to our differences. When it comes to questions of leadership, organisation and the state, the superficially attractive appeal of anarchism fails to provide a coherent strategy to change the world.
If David Cameron gets his way on the government’s proposed Sentencing and Legal Aid bill it could have serious repercussions for political activists, radicals and especially those arrested on demonstrations and protests. Under new proposals put forward in his legal reform bill the right to legal representation will cease to be automatic for all those arrested and held in custody by police.
Currently anyone who is arrested is entitled to free legal advice from a solicitor paid for through the legal aid process which comes out of the government spending budget. In attempt to save £350m Cameron wants to introduce a means test for those arrested. This has been slipped in the bill under ‘clause 12′ which states only those who pass the test will be entitled to free legal assistance.
The bill states that a Director of Legal Aid Case Work, a civil servant designated by the Lord Chancellor, will be appointed to determine whether the arrested person qualifies for legal advice or assistance and will make that determination on financial considerations and tellingly “in the interests of justice”. It is not clear how this will play out when, for example, we have already seen it is in the interests of justice to arrest and charge 145 peaceful demonstrators at Fortnum and Mason. What is clear is that an arrested person will only get advice in the police station if the Government decides in the individual case that it is in the interests of justice for you to do so. If you are arrested for protesting against the government this makes the law a very fragile tool indeed.
In real terms it looks likely the police will once again hold all the cards during an arrested person’s time in custody. Once it was the police who had the power to charge people with a criminal offence – this was taken away from them and handed directly to the Crown Prosecution Service as the police were incapable of charging people correctly and without prejudice, especially relating to public order offences or offences against the police. With the inclusion of clause 12 it guarantees the ‘interests of justice’ will no longer be independent and universal but in the hands of the very people whose interests are best served in charging you. In assessing a person’s right to justice the director will be guided by the police’s interpretation of the facts.
It is a shoddy piece of legislation open to all manner of interpretation and abuse if implemented. It also shows the absolute contempt rich right-wing politicians have for the universal rights of ordinary people. If ‘clause 12′ does get passed into law it will have far reaching consequences on the nature of political policing and opens up the way for even greater miscarriages of justice.
For the first time in history, the mainstream left has no progressive agenda. It has forgotten a basic principle. Every progressive political movement has been built on the anger, needs and aspirations of the emerging major class. Today that class is the precariat.
So far, the precariat in Europe has been mostly engaged in EuroMayDay parades and loosely organised protests. But this is changing rapidly, as events in Spain and Greece are showing, following on the precariat-led uprisings in the middle-east. Remember that welfare states were built only when the working class mobilised through collective action to demand the relevant policies and institutions. The precariat is busy defining its demands.
The precariat has emerged from the liberalisation that underpinned globalisation. Politicians should beware. It is a new dangerous class, not yet what Karl Marx would have described as a class-for-itself, but a class-in-the-making, internally divided into angry and bitter factions.
It consists of a multitude of insecure people, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development, including millions of frustrated educated youth who do not like what they see before them, millions of women abused in oppressive labour, growing numbers of criminalised tagged for life, millions being categorised as ‘disabled’ and migrants in their hundreds of millions around the world. They are denizens; they have a more restricted range of social, cultural, political and economic rights than citizens around them.
A wake-up call for social democrats
Unlike the proletariat – the industrial working class on which 20th century social democracy was built – the precariat’s relations of production are defined by partial involvement in labour combined with extensive ‘work-for-labour’, a growing array of unremunerated activities that are essential if they are to retain access to jobs and to decent earnings.
Growth of the precariat has been accelerated by the financial shock, with more temporary and agency labour, outsourcing and abandonment of non-wage benefits by firms. The shock ended an era of delusion, in which workers’ living standards were held up by tax credits, subsidies and cheap credit. But the Canute phase could not halt the waves of globalisation, the logic of which entailed downward adjustment of labour remuneration in ‘the west’.
So the precariat swells. Most in it do not belong to any professional or craft community; they have no social memory on which to call, and no shadow of the future hanging over their deliberations with other people, making them opportunistic. The biggest dangers are social illnesses and the risk that populist politicians will play on their fears and insecurities to lure them onto the rocks of neo-fascism, blaming ‘big government’ and ‘strangers’ for their plight. We are witnessing this drift, increasingly disguised by clever rebranding, as in the case of the True Finns, Swedish Democrats and French National Front. They have natural allies in the US Tea Party, the Japanese copycats, the English Defence League and the originals, Berlusconi’s neo-fascist supporters.
Progressive politicians must wake up and realise that sanity and recovery from the financial crisis will depend on their response to the needs, fears and aspirations of this emerging class.
This is the first systemic crisis without a progressive vision on offer. Most of the world’s social democrats have lost the plot. Their rhetoric is stuck in the 20th century, with images suited to a closed industrial society, not an open tertiary society in which a growing proportion of humanity is engaged in what are euphemistically called services.
Some have been drawn by imagery of “the squeezed middle”. While not inconsistent with the idea of the precariat, it is unfortunate. It is unclear what is a middle in the class fragmentation associated with globalisation. It suggests that it is more important that a “squeezed bottom”. It brings to mind an image of an abused toothpaste tube. And social democrats should be careful in using the term, since it was the Third Way’s combination of labour market flexibility and targeted means-tested benefits for ‘the poor’ that generated the pressures middle-income families are experiencing. Social democrats should use the “squeezed middle” term sparingly. It could come back to taunt them. Better to reach out to the precariat.
The precarity trap
The precariat has no control over its time, and no economic security. Many in it suffer from what I have called in the book, a precarity trap. This is on top of the familiar poverty trap created by the folly of ‘targeting’ on the poor via means-tested social assistance. The precariaty trap arises because it takes time for those on the margins of poverty to obtain access to benefits, which means their hardships are underestimated, while they have no incentive to take low-income temporary jobs once they are receiving benefits.
Many people outside the precariat feel they could fall into it at any time. They fear becoming bag ladies, living in the street with a couple of plastic bags. Many suffer from a precariatised mind, unable to forge an identity, flitting electronically or between time-using activities.
The worst fear of all is that a large part of the precariat, and those fearing a life in it, could be drawn to neo-fascism. This is happening. Populist politicians, led by Berlusconi and Sarkozy, have played on the fears of their domestic precariat. Their venal populism will be defeated only by a politics of paradise, a strategy for enabling the precariat to gain control of their lives, to gain social and economic security, and to have a fairer share of the vital assets of our 21st century society. What are they?
The first is economic security itself. Put bluntly, a large and growing number of people of rich societies have no security at all while the affluent luxuriate in it. Insecurity is known to foster extremism, particularly an authoritarian kind. It chips away at the human instincts of altruism, tolerance, reciprocity and social solidarity. We need to be bold and realise that in open market societies in which flexible precarious labour is common, much of the insecurity is uncertainty (‘unknown unknowns’), which is uninsurable. Neither social insurance nor means-tested social assistance will reach the precariat.
The only way to provide sufficient economic security is to do so ex ante, through providing every legal resident in society with a basic income as a right. This is what great utopians have advocated, the likes of Thomas More, Tom Paine and Bertrand Russell, and has been supported by distinguished economists and other social thinkers.
Critics have screamed that it is unaffordable, would reward idleness and slow economic growth. We may soon find that we cannot afford not to have it. The idea that every person should receive a modest monthly payment is gathering legitimacy. Perhaps unexpectedly, it is doing so fastest in middle-income market economies, such as Brazil, where there is now a law on the statute books committing its government to bring in an unconditional basic income for all. Already over 50 million Brazilians receive a monthly cash transfer under the bolsa familia scheme; the number is rising steadily. Brazil is one of the very few countries that has reduced income inequality in the 21st century, has voted for progressive politicians and has been booming since the financial crisis.
Time poor lives
A progressive strategy for the precariat must involve more equitable control over other key assets of a tertiary society – quality time, quality space, knowledge and financial capital. There is no valid reason for all the revenue from financial capital going to a tiny elite who have a particular talent to make money from money. The only way to reduce income inequality in an open market society is to ensure an equitable distribution of financial capital.
As argued in the book, quality time is a crucial asset. We need policies to equalise access to it. Again, there is no inherent reason for the rich having so much more control over their time than the precariat. But the latter has to allocate so much time to handling bureaucratic demands, to chasing one short-term insecure job after another and to learning new bags of tricks called ‘skills’ that could become obsolescent before they have a chance to use them. Similarly, there is no reason to have a society in which the affluent have access to technical advice on how to run their lives profitably while the precariat cannot do so. These are forms of inequality that are structural, not derived from merit or laziness.
Why should the elite and salariat have access to so much of the quality space while the precariat faces a steady shrinkage of ‘the commons’, as they see parks, libraries and community facilities wither in front of them? The great industrial city of Manchester has announced the closure of almost all its public toilets. We need a progressive strategy to rescue the commons.
Why should the precariat have their dwellings exposed to ruin while those of the rich are protected? In cutting public spending in towns across the US, some fire services are limiting themselves to protecting the insured, leaving the uninsured to burn.
Why is it that the salariat can obtain much cheaper credit than those without long-term employment contracts? We know the reasons, but these are cumulative inequalities that do not stem from merit or diligence. The precariat observes with growing anger. The politicians had better respond or we will reap a harvest of discord. We can do better.
Guy Standing is Professor of Economic Security, University of Bath, England, and co-president of BIEN (the Basic Income Earth Network).This article draws on his new book, The Precariat – The New Dangerous Class, published by Bloomsbury.
British Islamism: Towards an Anarchist Response
by Paul Stott
In 2005 George Galloway defeated New Labour’s Oona King to win the parliamentary seat of Bethnal Green and Bow. It had been a highly charged campaign, with Galloway’s Respect Party working hard to particularly win over local Muslim voters due to King’s support for the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. Galloway, Respect and their backers celebrated at the East London Mosque, where Gorgeous George made it clear in his acceptance speech who he thanked for his victory: “I am indebted more than I can say, more than it would be wise – for them – for me to say, to the Islamic Forum of Europe. I believe they played the decisive role.”
This article aims to kick-start a debate about how Anarchists should respond to the development of Islam and Islamism, (which I define as the political presence of Islam and the desire to develop norms of Muslim behaviour) in the United Kingdom. It is a debate that is long overdue.
There are few things correct about Samuel Huntingdon’s clash of civilisations thesis, but one element he did get right was in recognising that the late twentieth century saw a global Islamic resurgence. That resurgence was – and is – an event as important as the French or Russian revolutions. The French expert on Islamism, Gilles Kepel, traces this resurgence to material factors. Urbanisation and population increases brought about by medical improvements fractured traditional rural brands of Islam in countries such as Egypt and Pakistan. This combined with the coming to power of anti-colonial movements in the Muslim world. These governments – whether nationalist, monarchical or ‘Socialist’ – usually failed to deliver the aspirations of liberated peoples, and instead became characterised by corruption and incompetence. Islamic evangelism provided – and continues to provide – ‘answers’ to such problems. That answer is Islam, a complete design for living. And that answer is applicable globally.
As late as 1989, it was very rare to talk about British Muslims, or Muslim communities. The existence of a conscious, political British Islamism arguably emerges from the most contentious background of any ‘ism’ – the agitation against Salman Rushdie, following his book Satanic Verses, and support for the death sentence issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Writers such as Kenan Malik and Anandi Ramamurthy have covered the fact that historically British Asian politics was both vibrant and often left leaning, via groups such as the Indian Workers’ Association and Pakistani Workers’ Association. A generic black or Asian identity was common – religious designation, and religious division only emerging after top down multi-culturalism was introduced from both national and local government following the 1980s riots.
Here communities were given labels, political representatives found for those labelled, and resources and political influence distributed accordingly. The realisation that sections within Muslim communities, voting as blocs, could come to hold considerable political influence soon became evident to all of the major political parties.
Political Currents and Developments
As left communists Aufheben illustrate [in their article Croissants and Roses, 17/2009 – the ed.], this stripe of multi-culturalism has little to do with progressive politics. One of those instrumental in calling for a national Muslim representative body was Conservative right-winger Michael Howard. In the decades since the Rushdie affair, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain have come to considerable prominence, and Kepel is not alone in arguing that this influence mirrors, in part, colonialism. Representatives of the local power simply cut deals, on a ‘you scratch my back and I scratch yours’ basis with the governing power. In time, it is in both sides’ interest to maintain such arrangements, providing they work.
Many English cities have witnessed the curious sight of Asian (usually but not always Muslim) councillors switching overnight from one political party to another. During the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 a group of Muslim councillors in Margaret Beckett’s Derby constituency made the shock discovery that the Labour government supported Israel and would not condemn it for bombing civilians. Whatever next! They promptly switched to the Lib Dems, although cynics suggested their move had more to do with thwarted local ambitions, and offers from their new party, than anything else. Perhaps the classic example of just how scurrilous local politics has become in some cities is the 2008 defection of Tower Hamlets Respect Councillor Ahmed Hussain – all the way to the Conservative Party!
It is important to stress the centrality of the mosque in some of these developments. For some years now a reading of sources as diverse as Private Eye, the East London Advertiser, academics such as Delwar Hussain or journalists like Andrew Gilligan would lead you to the conclusion that the most important political institution in east London is not the Labour Party or a trades union – it is East London Mosque, dominated by the Islamic Forum of Europe and Jamaat-e-Islami. The election of Galloway, and a mosque-backed Independent in the 2010 Tower Hamlets mayoral election, reinforced this. In Waltham Forest, at one point no fewer than 16 councillors were attending Lea Bridge Road mosque – what price political openness and transparency in such circumstances?
It is worth noting that in office, Islamists have proved as useless at representing the interests of the working class as anyone else. Whilst Tower Hamlets residents are paying for the dubious honour of being a ‘host’ borough of the 2012 Olympics, all the events scheduled to occur in London’s poorest local authority have now been moved somewhere else. Whilst Independent Mayor Lutfur Rahman mouths impotently about legal action to bring the marathon back to the East End, the Chairman of East London Mosque, Dr Muhammad Bari, sits alongside Princess Anne and Lord Coe on the board of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The presence of Dr Bari’s beard ticks the multi-cultural box, but delivers nothing for the people of Tower Hamlets.
Things That Go Bang
One area where national power expects local power to deliver is in the reduction of radicalisation and terrorist plots from Islamist youth. Although rarely acknowledged, a small, but not insignificant number of British Muslims have been fighting, killing and dying in their version of Jihad for the best part of three decades, in places as diverse as Bosnia, Kashmir, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Israel. The first British suicide bomber died in Srinagar as far back as 2000 – so much for the idea that such attacks solely occur because the government was stupid enough to follow the Americans into Iraq.
From 2009 Home Office figures, 92% of those in British prisons for terrorist offences affirm themselves to be Muslim. It is worth noting that these are not usually international actors – 62%, a clear majority, are British citizens. Since the 7/7 attacks the government has spent millions on de-radicalisation programmes, and a new term ‘Al Qaeda inspired terrorism’ has been coined. The fact that British Jihadis existed well before Osama Bin Laden’s name was widely known is conveniently forgotten, and a concerted government and police drive has occurred to remove any religious terms from discourse about terrorism. This has been the backdrop to an on-going conflict between government and Muslim representative organisations. Programmes such as Preventing Violent Extremism have been attacked for ‘stigmatising Muslims’ until Prevent was extended to include the far-right and even, ludicrously, animal rights extremism.
One consequence of such arguments has been that each new conviction following a terrorist plot, or each involvement of a Briton in a plot abroad, is presented as a surprise, or attention is instead switched to exposing ‘Islamophobic reporting’ by the media, rather than the act itself. This reached surreal levels when the 2009 Christmas Day ‘underpant bomber’ became the fourth former executive member of a University Islamic Society to be involved in an attempt to commit the mass murder of civilians. The Federation of Student Islamic Societies responded by insisting there was no evidence Muslim students are more prone to radicalisation than anyone else. What more evidence do we need?
An Anarchist Response?
Anarchists need to avoid the type of auto-leftism that dominates certain groups. We should be better than simply repeating the discourse of ‘Islamophobia’, and Muslims solely as victims, that the left has produced readily since 9/11.
Secondly, as Anarchists we should fear religious belief per se – because of its irrationality, its treatment of women, its ability to divide human beings and its long association with injustice.
We need to be realistic. Outside of the fantasies of the EDL and Muslims Against Crusades, shariah law is not about to be introduced in the UK. But there are politicians daft enough to cede power to shariah courts and Muslim Arbitration Tribunals at a local level (certainly for civil matters), and there are certainly Muslim organisations in our cities happy to soak up whatever power they can. If history has taught us anything, it should be that when power is ceded to religious currents, they rarely if ever give it back. Anarchist rejection of the law may not sit easily with campaigners such as Maryam Namazie and the One Law For All campaign, but we need to reflect on whether it is better to support such campaigns than see the consolidation of structures based on superstition, hierarchy and patriarchy.
Islamic organisations, backed by significant funding both from within the UK and abroad, are becoming a permanent presence in parts of the education and welfare systems. Having learned nothing from religiously divided education in Northern Ireland (where most children go to separate Protestant or Catholic schools from the age of five) the development of Muslim only schools is likely to not only do little for integration in our communities, but will even reverse it.
As London Mayor, Ken Livingstone awarded £1.6 million to East London Mosque for its welfare programmes – oh for the days when religious institutions that needed money for ‘good work’ did jumble sales! Such processes consolidate reactionary groups such as the Islamic Forum of Europe – they gain status, funding and power. There is no need for secular institutions to ask what services members of the public want or need when they can instead ask the mosque or any representative organisation that steps forward. We need to be aware Cameron’s big society may provide further opportunities for such nonsense, not less.
We must also fear the increased racialisation of politics. If there is such a thing as the ‘Muslim community’ with elected representatives, there is by definition such a thing as the white community. And we should know where that brand of politics takes us. There is a need to stress the type of alternative, bottom up multi-culturalism that we live with and support daily – getting on with neighbours, colleagues and school friends as people, not as identities based on their colour or creed. Joining together with people as fellow workers and fellow members of working class communities targeted by cuts will be a lot easier on that basis, than the multi-culturalism of the state and the left.
Such an approach to me is Anarchism, and we need to stress that practice, whilst never abandoning Anarchist principles such as ‘No Gods, No Masters’, in the years to come.
Paul Stott is currently in the third year of a PhD ‘British Jihadism: History, Theory, Practice’. Prior to that he was a member of the Class War Federation for 16 years. He blogs at http://www.paulstott.typepad.com/
in beyond belief: theatre, freedom of expression and public order (index on censorship, 2011) by Kenan Malik.
One way of reading the Behzti controversy is as a matter of miscommunication. When the Birmingham Rep decided to consult the local Sikh community about the play, it imagined that it was simply gauging the views of community elders about a potentially controversial work. As Trina Jones, general manager of the Rep at the time of the controversy, put in a panel discussion about Behzti, ‘We were clear that there were elements of the play that may upset folk… The purpose of that dialogue was really to share our concerns, not really to enter into consultations about the play itself; our intention was never to offer the play up for any development or change.’ Sikh leaders, on the other hand, believed that they were being consulted about the play itself, and that their views would be taken into account in determining its content and tone. Out of that difference of expectations, one could argue, emerged the Behzti controversy.
The problem, however, is clearly deeper than simply one of crossed wires. The differences of expectations were themselves an expression of the way that the role of the theatre has changed in recent years, as has its relationship to local communities. To understand the Behzti affair, we need to understand that change and in particular how two recent trends have combined to transform the very character of censorship. The first is a shift in the social meaning of theatre – and of the arts more generally – and in the perception of the role of the audience. The second is a change in our understanding of diversity and of how it should be managed. The consequence has been the remaking of censorship which, as Svetlana Mintcheva and Robert Atkins observe in the Introduction to their book Censoring Culture, has become ‘invisible’, operating increasingly as a moral imperative, or as the inevitable result of the impartial logic of the market, rather than as a legal imposition.
Over the past twenty years there has been a growing tendency to view the arts in terms of its social impact. There is nothing new, of course, in the idea that the arts should have a social function. What has changed, however, has been the development of an increasingly instrumental view of culture and the enthroning of the audience as the gauge of artistic value. These ideas have become embodied in two seemingly very different political philosophies: the Thatcherite free market ideology of the 1980s and the idea of social inclusion promoted by New Labour at the end of the following decade.
In the 1980s, the Conservative administration rowed back on state subsidies and opened up the arts to the market. This process of marketisation undermined ‘elite’ forms of art and encouraged more populist programming. It also led to a new emphasis on the audience as the arbiter of artistic (and social) worth. ‘We are coming to value the consumer’s judgment as highly as that of the official or the expert’, wrote the Arts Council chairman William Rees-Mogg in his 1988 annual report. ‘The voice of the public must… be given due weight.’ ‘The way in which the public discriminates’, he added, ‘is through its willingness to pay for its pleasures.’ The meaning of ‘the public’ had subtly changed here, referring not so much to the body politic of democracy as to the aggregated weight of individual consumers.
When New Labour came to power in 1997 these trends became intensified. At the heart of the new administration’s cultural policy was a belief that the arts had a crucial role in promoting economic growth, urban regeneration and, in particular, ‘social inclusion’. Cultural organizations had to think about how their work could support government targets for health, social inclusion, crime, education and community cohesion. In the words of one DCMS study, Culture in Demand, the wider social benefits of cultural involvement included ‘the reduction of social exclusion, community development, improvements in individual self-esteem, educational attainment or health status.’ The Arts Council insisted that only works that sought ‘to provide positive benefits for communities, such as bringing different groups of people together, reaching people who experience particular disadvantage or deprivation’ would receive funding.
‘Consultation’ became a centerpiece of arts policy. ‘Cultural planning’ as Graeme Evans and Jo Foord explained, ‘is a process of inclusive community consultation and decision-making that helps local government identity cultural resources and think strategically about how these resources can help a community to achieve its civic goals.’ It needed to be ‘a consultative and participatory process involving all interested groups within the local and artistic community.’ It was not enough to expect the audience to come to the theatre or gallery or museum. The cultural institutions themselves had to develop its audience by meeting the needs of diverse groups. All ‘ages, religions, cultures, sexualities, disabilities and socio-economic backgrounds… should be given the chance… to find their voice and to contribute to the culture, diversity and creativity of this country’, as the Brian McMaster’s DCMS review Supporting Excellence in the Arts put it.
And this leads us to the second important change over the past twenty years: the remaking of our understanding of diversity and of how it should be managed. In 2000, the . In 2000, the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, set up by the Runnymede Trust under the chairmanship of political philosopher Bhikhu Parekh, published its report. Britain, the Parekh report concluded, was ‘both a community of citizens and a community of communities, both a liberal and a multicultural society’. Since citizens had ‘differing needs’, equal treatment required ‘full account to be taken of their differences’. Equality, the report insisted ‘must be defined in a culturally sensitive way and applied in a discriminating but not discriminatory manner.’
The two arguments at the heart of the Parekh report – that Britain is a ‘community of communities’ and that equality must be defined ‘in a culturally sensitive way’ – have come to be seen as defining the essence of multiculturalism. These ideas first emerged in the 1980s as both local and national authorities attempted to respond to the anger of minority communities to the entrenched racism that they faced, an anger that exploded into the inner city riots of the late seventies and early eighties.
The riots led to the recognition that minority communities had to be given a stake in the system, a recognition out of which developed the policies of multiculturalism. The Greater London Council, in particular, pioneered a strategy of organizing consultation with minority communities, drawing up equal opportunities policies, establishing race relations units and providing funding for minority organizations. At the heart of the strategy was a redefinition of racism. Racism now meant not simply the denial of equal rights but the denial of the right to be different. Different peoples should have the right to express their specific identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles. In this process, the very meaning of equality was transformed: from possessing the same rights as everyone else to possessing different rights, appropriate to different communities.
At the same time as an instrumental view of culture encouraged arts institutions to view their work primarily through the lens of social inclusion, and the commodification of culture placed a premium upon audience development, the emergence of multicultural policies helped define both social inclusion and audience development in terms of the empowerment of local communities. And key to empowering the community was ensuring that its culture and beliefs were not disparaged or ridiculed.
For diverse societies to function and to be fair, so the argument ran, pubic discourse had to be policed both to minimise friction between antagonistic cultures and beliefs and to protect the dignity of the individuals embedded in those cultures. ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict’, as the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, ‘they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’
It was in the wake of the campaign against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses that this argument began to influence mainstream cultural policy. The philosopher Shabbir Akhtar became the spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques at the height of the Rushdie affair. ‘Self-censorship’, he insisted, ‘is a meaningful demand in a world of varied and passionately held convictions. What Rushdie publishes about Islam is not just his business. It is everyone’s – not least every Muslim’s – business.’ In other words, in a plural society each community should have the right to decide what can be written or said about any matter that it regards as being of crucial cultural or religious importance.
Rushdie’s critics lost the battle – they failed to prevent the publication of The Satanic Verses. But they won the war. Policy makers and arts administrators came broadly to accept the argument that it was morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures, and that every community possessed the right to be consulted over how it may be depicted. It was an argument that brought together a moral claim, a social aspiration and a commercial imperative. Multiculturalism gave communities the moral right not be traduced. Social inclusion required arts institutions to give communities a voice and to allow them to depict themselves. And the market established the audience as a key arbiter of both the artistic value and the moral worth of a work. All three of these strands were woven into the Behzti controversy.
But how do we define a community? That question has been all too rarely asked in the debate about cultural diversity and community empowerment. In fact, much cultural policy as it has developed over the past two decades has come to embody a highly peculiar view of both diversity and community. There has been an unstated assumption that while Britain is a diverse society, that diversity ends at edges of minority communities. The claim that The Satanic Verses is offensive to Muslims, or Behzti to Sikhs, or indeed that Jerry Springer: The Opera is offensive to Christians, suggests that there is a Muslim community, or a Sikh community or a Christian community all of whose members are offended by the work in question and whose ostensible leaders are the most suitable judges of what is and is not suitable for that community. All are viewed as uniform, conflict-free and defined primarily by ethnicity, culture and faith. As a Birmingham Council report acknowledged about the council’s own multicultural policies, ‘The perceived notion of homogeneity of minority ethnic communities has informed a great deal of race equality work to date. The effect of this, amongst others, has been to place an over-reliance on individuals who are seen to represent the needs of views of the whole community and resulted in simplistic approaches toward tackling community needs.’ The city’s policies, in other words, did not simply respond to the needs of communities, but also to a large degree created those communities by imposing identities on people and by ignoring internal conflicts and differences. They empowered not individuals within minority communities, but so-called ‘community leaders’ who owed their position and influence largely to the relationship they possessed with the state.
Shabbir Akhtar no more spoke for Muslims than Salman Rushdie did. Both represented different strands of opinion. So did Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti and the outraged protestors outside the Birmigham Rep. In both cases, the conflict was not between a community and the wider society, but was one within that community itself. In fact, in almost every case, what is often called offence to a community is actually a dialogue or debate within that community. That is why so many of the flashpoints over offensiveness have been over works produced by minority artists – not just Salman Rushdie and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti but also Hanif Kuresihi, Monica Ali, Sooreh Hera, Taslima Nasrin and countless others.
Thanks, however, to the perverse notion of diversity that has become entrenched, Shabbir Akhtar has come to be seen as an authentic Muslim, and the anti-Bezhti protestors as proper Sikhs, while Salman Rushdie and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti are regarded as too Westernized, secular or progressive to be truly of their community. To be a proper Muslim, in other words, is to be offended by The Satanic Verses, to be a proper Sikh is to be offended by Bezhti. The argument that offensive talk should be restrained is, then, both rooted in a stereotype of what it is to be an authentic Muslim or a Sikh and helps reinforce that stereotype. And it ensures that only one side of the conversation gets heard.
The Bezhti affair reveals the need to rethink ideas of community and diversity. Much of political and cultural policy contains within it unstated assumptions that have had devastating consequences for writers and performers, for arts institutions and for their audience. It also reveals the need to rethink the concepts of social inclusion and audience development. The combination of an instrumental view of culture, embodied in recent ideas of the arts as a vehicle for social inclusion, and a multicultural view of diversity has led, ironically, to the exclusion of many voices, and to the establishment of a culture of invisible censorship, a culture in which such censorship has come to be expressed as a moral imperative.
Any work of art will offend some people and inspire others. That is the nature of conversation in a plural society. It is not the job of arts administrators, or of policy makers, to decide who can speak or what they can say. It is their job, rather, to encourage, as best they can within an artistic setting, that conversation to flourish. That is the real social function of art.
Six antifascists were recently fitted-up and sent to prison. Because of ongoing legal issues, for the moment we are unable to say more about their case, but a full report will eventually be issued. Suffice to say, they have been well and truly fucked over and deserve our fullest support and solidarity. Please write to them. (One person has asked to be left off lists and therefere no longer appears here). As always, assume your letters are being read by our enemies and ensure you do not compromise your own security or that of others. Also please note that Thomas Blak and Austin Jackson are as yet unsentenced. For advice on writing to prisoners see the Leeds ABC website. La lucha continua!
Andy Baker (21 months)
HMP Wormwood Scrubs
PO Box 757
Du Cane Rd
Thomas Blak (Unsentenced)
HMP Wormwood Scrubs
PO Box 757
Du Cane Rd
Sean Cregan (21 months)
HMP Wormwood Scrubs
PO Box 757
Du Cane Rd
Ravi Gill (21 months)
HMP Wormwood Scrubs
PO Box 757
Du Cane Rd
Austen Jackson (Unsentenced)
HMP Wormwood Scrubs
PO Box 757
Du Cane Rd
London W12 OAE
The Life, Times And Legacy Of Joe Hill, American Labour Icon.
In 1914, Joe Hill was convicted of murder in Utah and sentenced to death by firing squad, igniting international controversy. Many believed Hill was innocent, condemned for his association with the Industrial Workers of the World-the radical Wobblies. Now, following four years of intensive investigation, William M. Adler gives us the first full-scale biography of Joe Hill, and presents never before published documentary evidence that comes as close as one can to definitively exonerating him. Hill’s gripping tale is set against a brief but electrifying moment in American history, between the century’s turn and World War I, when the call for industrial unionism struck a deep chord among disenfranchised workers; when class warfare raged and capitalism was on the run. Hill was the union’s preeminent songwriter, and in death, he became organized labor’s most venerated martyr, celebrated by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and immortalized in the ballad “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.”
Full details here http://themanwhoneverdied.com/