by David Graeber
Chances are you have already heard something about who anarchists are and what they are supposed to believe. Chances are almost everything you have heard is nonsense. Many people seem to think that anarchists are proponents of violence, chaos, and destruction, that they are against all forms of order and organization, or that they are crazed nihilists who just want to blow everything up. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Anarchists are simply people who believe human beings are capable of behaving in a reasonable fashion without having to be forced to. It is really a very simple notion. But it’s one that the rich and powerful have always found extremely dangerous.
At their very simplest, anarchist beliefs turn on to two elementary assumptions. The first is that human beings are, under ordinary circumstances, about as reasonable and decent as they are allowed to be, and can organize themselves and their communities without needing to be told how. The second is that power corrupts. Most of all, anarchism is just a matter of having the courage to take the simple principles of common decency that we all live by, and to follow them through to their logical conclusions. Odd though this may seem, in most important ways you are probably already an anarchist — you just don’t realize it.
Let’s start by taking a few examples from everyday life.
- If there’s a line to get on a crowded bus, do you wait your turn and refrain from elbowing your way past others even in the absence of police?
If you answered “yes”, then you are used to acting like an anarchist! The most basic anarchist principle is self-organization: the assumption that human beings do not need to be threatened with prosecution in order to be able to come to reasonable understandings with each other, or to treat each other with dignity and respect.
Everyone believes they are capable of behaving reasonably themselves. If they think laws and police are necessary, it is only because they don’t believe that other people are. But if you think about it, don’t those people all feel exactly the same way about you? Anarchists argue that almost all the anti-social behavior which makes us think it’s necessary to have armies, police, prisons, and governments to control our lives, is actually caused by the systematic inequalities and injustice those armies, police, prisons and governments make possible. It’s all a vicious circle. If people are used to being treated like their opinions do not matter, they are likely to become angry and cynical, even violent — which of course makes it easy for those in power to say that their opinions do not matter. Once they understand that their opinions really do matter just as much as anyone else’s, they tend to become remarkably understanding. To cut a long story short: anarchists believe that for the most part it is power itself, and the effects of power, that make people stupid and irresponsible.
- Are you a member of a club or sports team or any other voluntary organization where decisions are not imposed by one leader but made on the basis of general consent?
If you answered “yes”, then you belong to an organization which works on anarchist principles! Another basic anarchist principle is voluntary association. This is simply a matter of applying democratic principles to ordinary life. The only difference is that anarchists believe it should be possible to have a society in which everything could be organized along these lines, all groups based on the free consent of their members, and therefore, that all top-down, military styles of organization like armies or bureaucracies or large corporations, based on chains of command, would no longer be necessary. Perhaps you don’t believe that would be possible. Perhaps you do. But every time you reach an agreement by consensus, rather than threats, every time you make a voluntary arrangement with another person, come to an understanding, or reach a compromise by taking due consideration of the other person’s particular situation or needs, you are being an anarchist — even if you don’t realize it.
Anarchism is just the way people act when they are free to do as they choose, and when they deal with others who are equally free — and therefore aware of the responsibility to others that entails. This leads to another crucial point: that while people can be reasonable and considerate when they are dealing with equals, human nature is such that they cannot be trusted to do so when given power over others. Give someone such power, they will almost invariably abuse it in some way or another.
- Do you believe that most politicians are selfish, egotistical swine who don’t really care about the public interest? Do you think we live in an economic system which is stupid and unfair?
If you answered “yes”, then you subscribe to the anarchist critique of today’s society — at least, in its broadest outlines. Anarchists believe that power corrupts and those who spend their entire lives seeking power are the very last people who should have it. Anarchists believe that our present economic system is more likely to reward people for selfish and unscrupulous behavior than for being decent, caring human beings. Most people feel that way. The only difference is that most people don’t think there’s anything that can be done about it, or anyway — and this is what the faithful servants of the powerful are always most likely to insist — anything that won’t end up making things even worse.
But what if that weren’t true?
And is there really any reason to believe this? When you can actually test them, most of the usual predictions about what would happen without states or capitalism turn out to be entirely untrue. For thousands of years people lived without governments. In many parts of the world people live outside of the control of governments today. They do not all kill each other. Mostly they just get on about their lives the same as anyone else would. Of course, in a complex, urban, technological society all this would be more complicated: but technology can also make all these problems a lot easier to solve. In fact, we have not even begun to think about what our lives could be like if technology were really marshaled to fit human needs. How many hours would we really need to work in order to maintain a functional society — that is, if we got rid of all the useless or destructive occupations like telemarketers, lawyers, prison guards, financial analysts, public relations experts, bureaucrats and politicians, and turn our best scientific minds away from working on space weaponry or stock market systems to mechanizing away dangerous or annoying tasks like coal mining or cleaning the bathroom, and distribute the remaining work among everyone equally? Five hours a day? Four? Three? Two? Nobody knows because no one is even asking this kind of question. Anarchists think these are the very questions we should be asking.
- Do you really believe those things you tell your children (or that your parents told you)?
“It doesn’t matter who started it.” “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” “Clean up your own mess.” “Do unto others…” “Don’t be mean to people just because they’re different.” Perhaps we should decide whether we’re lying to our children when we tell them about right and wrong, or whether we’re willing to take our own injunctions seriously. Because if you take these moral principles to their logical conclusions, you arrive at anarchism.
Take the principle that two wrongs don’t make a right. If you really took it seriously, that alone would knock away almost the entire basis for war and the criminal justice system. The same goes for sharing: we’re always telling children that they have to learn to share, to be considerate of each other’s needs, to help each other; then we go off into the real world where we assume that everyone is naturally selfish and competitive. But an anarchist would point out: in fact, what we say to our children is right. Pretty much every great worthwhile achievement in human history, every discovery or accomplishment that’s improved our lives, has been based on cooperation and mutual aid; even now, most of us spend more of our money on our friends and families than on ourselves; while likely as not there will always be competitive people in the world, there’s no reason why society has to be based on encouraging such behavior, let alone making people compete over the basic necessities of life. That only serves the interests of people in power, who want us to live in fear of one another. That’s why anarchists call for a society based not only on free association but mutual aid. The fact is that most children grow up believing in anarchist morality, and then gradually have to realize that the adult world doesn’t really work that way. That’s why so many become rebellious, or alienated, even suicidal as adolescents, and finally, resigned and bitter as adults; their only solace, often, being the ability to raise children of their own and pretend to them that the world is fair. But what if we really could start to build a world which really was at least founded on principles of justice? Wouldn’t that be the greatest gift to one’s children one could possibly give?
- Do you believe that human beings are fundamentally corrupt and evil, or that certain sorts of people (women, people of color, ordinary folk who are not rich or highly educated) are inferior specimens, destined to be ruled by their betters?
If you answered “yes”, then, well, it looks like you aren’t an anarchist after all. But if you answered “no”, then chances are you already subscribe to 90% of anarchist principles, and, likely as not, are living your life largely in accord with them. Every time you treat another human with consideration and respect, you are being an anarchist. Every time you work out your differences with others by coming to reasonable compromise, listening to what everyone has to say rather than letting one person decide for everyone else, you are being an anarchist. Every time you have the opportunity to force someone to do something, but decide to appeal to their sense of reason or justice instead, you are being an anarchist. The same goes for every time you share something with a friend, or decide who is going to do the dishes, or do anything at all with an eye to fairness.
Now, you might object that all this is well and good as a way for small groups of people to get on with each other, but managing a city, or a country, is an entirely different matter. And of course there is something to this. Even if you decentralize society and put as much power as possible in the hands of small communities, there will still be plenty of things that need to be coordinated, from running railroads to deciding on directions for medical research. But just because something is complicated does not mean there is no way to do it democratically. It would just be complicated. In fact, anarchists have all sorts of different ideas and visions about how a complex society might manage itself. To explain them though would go far beyond the scope of a little introductory text like this. Suffice it to say, first of all, that a lot of people have spent a lot of time coming up with models for how a really democratic, healthy society might work; but second, and just as importantly, no anarchist claims to have a perfect blueprint. The last thing we want is to impose prefab models on society anyway. The truth is we probably can’t even imagine half the problems that will come up when we try to create a democratic society; still, we’re confident that, human ingenuity being what it is, such problems can always be solved, so long as it is in the spirit of our basic principles — which are, in the final analysis, simply the principles of fundamental human decency.
I gave a talk called ‘Beyond the sacred’, on the changing character of ideas of the sacred and of blasphemy, at a conference on blasphemy organised this weekend by the Centre for Inquiry at London’s Conway Hall on Saturday. Here is a transcript.
To talk about blasphemy is also to talk about the idea of the sacred. To see something as blasphemous is to see it in some way as violating a sacred space. In recent years, both the notion of blasphemy and that of the sacred have transformed. What I want to explore here is the nature of that transformation, and what it means for free speech.
For believers, the idea of the sacred is key to moral life. Detachment from the sacred, the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor claimed at the installation ceremony for his successor, Archbishop Vincent Nicholls, has been responsible for war and terror, sin and evil. In this view the acceptance of the sacred is indispensable for the creation of a moral framework and for the injection of meaning and purpose into life.
I don’t want to get into a discussion here about the relationship between religion and morality. As an atheist, I do not see myself as lacking a moral compass, or being unaware of boundaries, or being burdened by a sense of a purposeless life. What I do want to do is look more carefully at what we mean by the ‘sacred’. Religion, Leszek Kolokowski, the Polish Marxist-turned-Christian philosopher, acknowledged, ‘is man’s way of accepting life as inevitable defeat’. ‘To reject the sacred is’, as he puts it, ‘to reject our own limits.’ In this Tragic view of the human condition, the sacred exists to protect human beings from the flaws of their own nature. ‘The sacred order’, as Kolokowski observes, ‘has never ceased, implicitly or explicitly, to proclaim “this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise”.’
The sacred, in this sense, is less about the transcendent than it is about the taboo. The sacred sphere, as French sociologist Émile Durkheim pointed out a century ago, constitutes a social space that is set apart and protected from being defiled: a set of rules and practices that cannot be challenged. It provides a means of protecting not the kingdom of heaven but the citadels of earthly power. The sacred, Kolakowski observes, ‘simply reaffirms and stabilizes the structure of society – its forms and its systems of divisions, and also its injustices, its privileges and its institutionalized instruments of oppression.’ Blasphemy, and the sacred, in other words, are not simply about theology and religion, but also about politics and power. We can see the way that blasphemy and the sacred have helped speak to social and political power if we look at the history of blasphemy in Britain.
Until the abolition of the offence in 2008, blasphemy was committed in British law if there was published ‘any writing concerning God or Christ, the Christian religion, the Bible, or some sacred subject using words which are scurrilous, abusive or offensive, and which tend to vilify the Christian religion’. The origins of the law go back a millennium. After the Norman Conquest of 1066 two orders of courts were established. Church courts decided all ecclesiastical cases, under the guidance of canon law, which legislated on moral offences. The civil or king’s courts were concerned with offences against the person or property. In 1401, King Henry IV empowered bishops to arrest and imprison suspected heretics, including ‘all preachers of heresy, all school masters infected with heresy and all owners and writers of heretical books’. If a heretic refused to abjure, or if he later relapsed, he could be ‘handed over to the civil officers, to be taken to a high place before the people and there to be burnt, so that their punishment might strike fear into the hearts of others’.
Despite the concern with God and Christianity, the outlawing of blasphemy was less about defending the dignity of the divine than of protecting the sanctity of the state. In 1676 John Taylor was convicted of blasphemy for saying that Jesus Christ was a ‘bastard’ and a ‘whoremaker’ and that religion was a ‘cheat’. ‘That such kind of wicked and blasphemous words were not only an offence against God and religion’, observed the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Matthew Hale, in front of whom Taylor was tried, ‘but a crime against the laws, States and Government; and therefore punishable in this court; that to say religion is a cheat, is to dissolve all those obligations whereby civil societies are preserved; and Christianity being parcel of the laws of England, therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law.’
Any challenge to Christian doctrine was, in other words, also a challenge to the secular social order. The heresy that troubled Lord Chief Justice Hale was the kind of heresy that promoted ‘subversion of the law’, the kind of dissent that might unstitch civil society. The outlawing of blasphemy was therefore a necessary defence of traditional political authority.
Four hundred years after Taylor’s conviction, Lord Denning, perhaps Britain’s most important judge of the twentieth century, made, in 1949, much the same point about the relationship between blasphemy and social disorder, though he drew the opposite conclusion about the necessity of the law. Historically, he observed, ‘The reason for this law was because it was thought that a denial of Christianity was liable to shake the fabric of society, which was itself founded on Christian religion.’ But, Denning added, ‘There is no such danger in society now and the offence of blasphemy is a dead letter.’
Not only had Christianity become unwoven from the nation’s social fabric, but over the next half-century other faiths and cultures wove themselves in. The multicultural transformation of Britain made even less plausible the traditional arguments for the blasphemy law. In 1985, three years before the Rushdie affair, the Law Commission published a report on blasphemy entitled Offences against Religion and Public Worship. ‘In the circumstances now prevailing in this country,’ the Commission argued, ‘the limitation of protection to Christianity and, it would seem, the tenets of the Church of England, could not be justified.’ It should be abolished ‘without replacement’.
But if the reweaving of Britain’s social fabric provided an argument for the abolition of the blasphemy law, it also provided a reason, in some people’s minds, for its refashioning into a new offence that embraced non-Christian faiths and cultures. ‘A significant number of lawyers, clergymen and laymen’, wrote Richard Webster in A Brief History of Blasphemy, a book that came out a year after the Satanic Verses controversy and was highly critical of Rushdie and his supporters, ‘have begun to take the view that some protection of people’s religious feelings is necessary not primarily for religious or spiritual reasons but in the interests of social harmony.’
One such figure was Lord Scarman. Two years before he wrote his famous report on the Brixton riots, he was one of the Law Lords who presided over thelast great blasphemy trial in Britain. In 1977 Mary Whitehouse had brought a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against the newspaper Gay News. It had published a poem by James Kirkup called ‘The Love that Dares to Speak its Name’, about the love of a centurion for Jesus Christ at the crucifixion. Whitehouse won the case and Gay News appealed against the conviction.
In 1979 the case finally came to the House of Lords, then the highest appeal court in Britain. The Law Lords, one of whom was Lord Scarman, upheld the original verdict. ‘I do not subscribe to the view that the common law offence of blasphemous libel serves no useful purpose in the modern law,’ Scarman wrote in his judgement. But such a law must be extended ‘to protect the religious beliefs and feelings of non-Christians’. Blasphemy ‘belongs to a group of criminal offences designed to safeguard the internal tranquillity of the kingdom. In an increasingly plural society such as that of modern Britain it is necessary not only to respect the differing religious beliefs, feelings and practices of all but also to protect them from scurrility, ridicule and contempt.’ ‘The internal tranquility of the kingdom’: the role of blasphemy, in other words, is again acknowledged not as protecting religion but as defending social peace.
In 1985 the Law Commission looked into this and rejected such an extension, arguing that the deficiencies of the law ‘are so serious and so fundamental that… no measure short of abolition would be adequate to deal with these deficiencies’. The Commission dismissed the idea that religion should have special protection, observing that ‘Reverence for God… does not differ fundamentally in character from reverence accorded to any person against whom those according respect are unwilling to entertain grounds of criticism.’ It pointed out that ‘one person’s incisive comment (and indeed seemingly innocuous comment) may be another’s “blasphemy” and to forbid the use of the strongest language in relation, for example, to practices which some may rightly regard as not in the best interests of society as a whole would, it seems to us, be altogether unacceptable’.
The Law Commission inquiry was, however, far from united in its view. Two of the five members appended a Note of Dissent to the majority report. The dissenters were particularly influenced by an outside working party that had insisted that some legal constraints were necessary for the protection of social harmony. ‘If scurrilous attacks on religious beliefs go unpunished by law,’ the working party suggested, ‘they could embitter strongly held feelings within substantial groups of people, could destroy working relationships between different groups, and where religion and race are intimately bound together could deepen the tensions that already are a disturbing feature in some parts of this country.’ The Note of Dissent proposed the replacement of blasphemy by a new offence that recognized ‘the duty on our citizens, in our society of different races and people of different faiths and of no faith, not purposely to insult or outrage the religious feelings of others’.
In the end both the majority and minority views came to fruition. The blasphemy law was finally repealed in 2008. But it had already been replaced by a number of laws that secularized the offence of blasphemy. Two years before the blasphemy law was abolished, parliament had passed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which made it an offence to incite hatred against a person on the grounds of their religion. The aim was to extend to Muslims, and other faith groups, the same protection that racial groups, including Sikhs and Jews, possessed under Britain’s various Race Relations Acts. In fact, it was already an offence to perpetrate hate speech. In 1998 the Public Order Act had been amended to make it an offence to ‘display any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress’.
Blasphemy was a form of social regulation for society that thought of itself as homogenous. For a society that thinks of itself as plural, blasphemy can no longer play that role, at least in its traditional sense. Society was, in fact, never as homogenous as we now imagine that it used to be. Contemporary society is not as plural as many insist. What matters, however, is the perception of this shift, and the consequences of this perception for ideas of the sacred and of blasphemy. As people came to see themselves as living in a far more plural society, so blasphemy became reworked to be an offence not primarily against God, or even religion, but against an individual’s identity.
Consider, for instance, Ziauddin Sardar’s account of his encounter with The Satanic Verses. Sardar is a liberal Muslim, highly critical of Islamism and other fundamentalist strands. In his book Distorted Imagination, he describes reading Rushdie’s novel on a plane from Kuala Lumpur to London. By the time he landed at Heathrow, he writes,
It felt as though Rushdie had plundered everything I hold dear and despoiled the inner sanctum of my identity. Every word was directed at me and I took everything personally. This is how, I remember thinking, it must feel to be raped.
Sardar’s friend Gulzar Haider, Professor of Architecture at Carleton University in Ottawa, was ‘lying on a sofa’ when he heard the news of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa. ‘So catastrophic was the effect’, Sardar reports, ‘he couldn’t move, it was as though his body had been struck down by a disease. He was sofa bound for almost a year. His friend and colleague Merryl Davies ‘bellowed like a fiery dragon goaded by a million arrows, writhing by turns with sorrow and rage.’ It is almost as if Sardar and his friends were driving themselves into a kind of self-induced hysteria, as if they felt that they had to suffer personally for their faith to be meaningful.
This intensely personal, deeply emotional response marks a shift in the way that believers understood their relationship to belief. Faith has always had an emotional components and for some faiths such emotional spirituality has been central to their outlook. Nevertheless there has been a fundamental shift in the character of religious belief in recent decades. Sociologist talk of the rise of the ‘therapy culture’ to describe the growing emotionalism of our age. Scholars such as the philosopher Charles Taylor and the sociologist Olivier Roy have described how such emotionalism has become central to new forms of ‘expressive’ faiths. Faith, as Charles Taylor observes in his book A Secular Age, has become disembedded from its historical culture, and reconstituted instead as part of the culture of ‘expressive individualism’, forms of spirituality grounded in the primacy of individual experience and rooted in the social values of what the writer Tom Wolfe has called the ‘me generation’. ‘All religious revival movements of the late twentieth century’, Olivier Roy writes, are marked by an ‘anti-intellectualism that favours a more emotional religiosity’, so that ‘feelings are more important than knowledge’. This is true not just of radical Islam but also of other ‘born again’ religions such as charismatic Christianity, the Lubavitch, one of the largest Jewish Hasidic communities, and the Hinduvta, a Hindu revivalist movement. Such faiths, in Roy’s words, ‘play on emotion through ritual and collective expressions of faith, using symbolic and ostensible markers of belonging’.
In Spiritual Revolution, their study of religious practices in a small town in northern England, the sociologists Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead show that while traditional religious congregations are on the decline, ‘New Age’ forms of spirituality are beginning to fill the gap. But more than this, many once-traditional believers are beginning to adopt New Age attitudes and rituals, developing new forms of faith that celebrate the emotional aspects of spirituality and seek to fulfil the believer’s inner needs. Such congregations often combine a literal reading of the Holy Book, and an insistence on the unchanging character of religious truths, with a God that speaks to their individual, subjective needs. ‘We don’t go to mass because we feel like it, or not go because we don’t feel like it, we go because the church gave us an obligation to go to mass’, an elderly Roman Catholic lady explained to Heelas and Woodhead. For all the literalism of the new forms of faith, such obligation is alien to them. Instead, they provide ‘more space for each every individual participant to explore and express his emotions in his own way, and to let those emotions set the agenda of the religion rather than vice versa.’
In recent decades, faith has, in other words, transformed itself into the religious wing of identity politics. Religion has, ironically, become secularised, driven less by a search for piety and holiness than for identity and belongingness. The rise of identity politics has transformed the meaning not just of religion but of blasphemy too. Blasphemy used to be regarded as a sin against God. These days it is felt as a sin against the individual believer, an offence against the self and one’s identity. That is why for Sardar, ‘Every word [of The Satanic Verses] was directed at me and I took everything personally’, why he imagined that Rushdie had ‘despoiled the inner sanctum of my identity’. This is also why many laws these days that ostensibly protect faith – such as Britain’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act – are framed primarily in terms of protecting the culture and identity of individuals or communities. In today’s world, identity is God, in more ways than one.
The transformation in the meaning of blasphemy has not, however, transformed its underlying role. The prohibition of blasphemy remains a means, in Kolokowski’s words, of ‘reaffirming and stabilizing the structure of society’, of ‘proclaiming “this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise”’. But it has become a means of protecting beliefs deemed essential not to society as a whole, but to specific communities, and to an individual’s identity and self-esteem. What, however, defines a community? And who defines which beliefs are essential to a community? Or to the identity of individuals within it? These, too, are matters not of theology, or even of culture, but of power. The struggle to define certain beliefs or thoughts as offensive or blasphemous is a struggle to establish power within a community and to establish one voice as representative or authentic of that community. What is called offence to a community is in reality usually a debate within a community. – but in viewing that debate as a matter of offence or of blasphemy, one side gets instantly silenced.
Take the row over Salman Rushdie’s appearance, or rather non-appearance, at the Jaipur Literature Festival. The Islamists who, with connivance from the state and the festival organizers, successfully prevented Rushdie from appearing, even by video link, no more spoke for the Muslim community than Rushdie himself did. Both represented different strands of opinion within different Muslim communities. And this has been true since the beginnings of the Rushdie affair. Back in the 1980s Rushdie gave voice to a radical, secular sentiment that in then was deeply entrenched within Asian communities. Rushdie’s critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands. Their campaign against The Satanic Verses was not to protect the Muslim communities from unconscionable attack from anti-Muslim bigots but to protect their own privileged position within those communities from political attack from radical critics, to assert their right to be the true voice of Islam by denying legitimacy to such critics. And they succeeded at least in part becausesecular liberals embraced them as the ‘authentic’ voice of the Muslim community.
The same is true of, say, the controversy over Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti which was driven off stage by protestors in 2004. The protestors outside the Birmingham Rep outraged by Kaur Bhatti’s play no more spoke for the Sikh community than did Kaur Bhatti herself. Both spoke for different strands within that community. But, as in the Rushdie affair, only the protestors were seen as authentically of their community, while Kaur Bhatti, like Rushdie, was regarded as too Westernized, secular and progressive to be authentic or truly of her community. To be a proper Muslim, in other words, in secular liberal eyes, is to be offended by The Satanic Verses, to be a proper Sikh is to be offended by Behzti. The argument for the necessity of blasphemy laws, or for the outlawing of offensiveness, is, then, both rooted in stereotypes of what it is to be an authentic Muslim or a Sikh and helps reinforce those stereotypes. This, of course, has nothing to do with the reality of being a Muslim or a Sikh, but everything to do with the reality of identity politics. Identity politics has rendered communities into homogenous, distinct, authentic groups, composed of people all speaking with a single voice, all driven by a single understanding of their faith. Once authenticity is so defined, then only the most conservative, reactionary figures come to be seen as the true voices of those communities.
The idea that certain views are off limits because they are offensive or blasphemous is both an expression of an essentialized view of what constitutes a community and a means of justifying that view. On the one hand, the contemporary, identity-driven notion of blasphemy only makes sense if we accept the myth of communities as homogenous, distinctive, authentic, composed of people all speaking with a single voice. On the other, it is a means of instantiating that myth by asserting the power of one strand of opinion within that community, by establishing that strand as the true authentic view, and hence of silencing all opposing views. Or, to put it another way, ‘You can’t say that!’ is the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be contested, that certain beliefs are so important or valuable or essential that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. It is the creation of a sacred space safe from the prospect of violation.
The idea of blasphemy or offensiveness speaks to power in a second sense too. It has become an important means not just of grounding the power of particular community leaders, but of allowing the state to regulate relations between social groups. The modern argument for blasphemy laws from liberals such as Lord Scarman or Richard Webster is that such laws are necessary ‘in the interests of social harmony’, to protect ‘the internal tranquillity of the kingdom’. In fact the consequence of such laws has been the creation of greater disharmony and turmoil. Every group has sought to create its own sacred space, upon which no one may encroach, leading to an explosion of sectarian rivalries as each one demands its right not to be offended or blasphemed against. As the novelist Monica Ali has put it, ‘If you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, “My feelings are more hurt than yours”.’
But the marketplace of outrage has created not just a problem but an opportunity too. For in a fragmented, tribal society, the state is able to step in as peacemaker. Speech regulation has become a mechanism through which to regulate social relations between groups in an era of identity politics. And that only establishes even more securely the need for a secular sacred space, or rather for a plethora of secular sacred spaces, none of which must not be violated.
The importance of blasphemy is in providing a language of power. To decree certain views, certain ideas, certain practices, even certain thoughts, as taboo is to demand that certain forms of power cannot be contested. The importance of the principle of free speech is, on the other hand, in providing a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence in acting as an ever-present test to authority. Its importance is in insisting that nothing is so sacred that it cannot be questioned or debated. Once we give up the right to offend or to blaspheme, once we accept the idea of a sacred space, whether religious or secular, then we erode our ability to defy those in power. Human beings, as Salman Rushdie has put it, ‘shape their futures by arguing and challenging and saying the unsayable; not by bowing their knee whether to gods or to men.’
Sad to see that one of the most progressive organisations in student politics of recent times, the NCAFC, have once again fallen plague to the parasites of Trot organisations and other ‘liberal intelligentsia’ . How long will it take before people realize these groups are not your ‘comrades’ and will do nothing other than suck out the life blood of forward thinking organisations. Steer well clear.
Here is a report back from the Extermination Without Pity Blog.
The behavior of some groups at NCAFC conference this weekend was pretty shocking; they should be ashamed of themselves, but they won’t be. In fact from their tweets after conference they seem pretty proud. But despite repeated calls to respect some kind of safe space – to not shout over speakers, to not laugh or insult or comment about people while they talked, to not clap (which we agreed as a conference not to do), to respect the chairing – they made absolutely no attempt to do so. I have been involved with student and left politics for around nine years now, I’ve spoken at plenty of conferences and worked with a lot of people I didn’t agree with; I think I’m pretty confident in these situations. But I had to step down from the chair of the second motions session at conference and was genuinely quite upset by the reaction I got from the floor while I was chairing. Prior to this my co-chair had already had to step down after bullying from the attendees and a statement had been made saying how inappropriate the behaviour of some people was.
Gallingly those same people then complained about a lack of time given to debate liberation motions (particularly on women, internationalism and racism) while ignoring the requests from the liberation caucuses at conference. The actions of Student Broad Left, the Socialist Workers Party and Counterfire seem to be motivated far more by “embarrassing” the AWL and disrupting conference than any genuine sense of caring about these issues.
Moreover, whilst the impact of cuts, fees and privatisation on BME and women students certainly needs to be addressed, why does the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts need a position on war with Iran? And if we’re going to have a position condemning any possibility of war why is it a problem to include comments asking for engagement with Iranian trade unionists and criticising the incredibly authoritarian, theocratic government there? That so many attendees felt they had to speak and vote against that amendment says a lot about their priorities, and the suggestion that those who criticise the Iranian government must be imperialists in favour of war is utterly appalling and must be disingenuous.
I head home from Liverpool pretty demoralised frankly. We have a national committee with far more factions and far fewer independent students and on the basis of this weekend I have very little faith that the committee or the campaign more broadly will be able to coordinate any successful action in the coming months. Months, which it should be noted will be crucial in a number of important fights: over the pensions dispute in universities, schools, colleges and the public sector; over changes to employment law that will make it far easier for employers to sack someone and which are currently being opposed by no one; and in the continuing fight to stop the HE white paper being brought in b y the back door.
I hope I am wrong and the NCAFC can help provide effective opposition to these attacks, but I doubt it.
PS congratulations to newly elected reps on the NC from Scotland, Naomi Beecroft and Aidan Turner, make sure you keep it radge and don’t let all the stalinist bullying get to you.
It’s time I put the text of my speech to the South London Anti-Fascist Group’s AGM online.
The talk nearly did not happen. Much to my surprise, Hope Not Hate objected to me speaking, describing my presence as ‘intolerable’. Hope Not Hate’s predecessor organisation, Searchlight , long enjoyed a monopoly over media coverage of the far-right – it is worrying if Hope Not Hate believe they have a similar monoply over analysis of fascism, or even of opposition to it?
Anyway, after the AGM’s business those present had a talk by Hackney Unites on their work in east London, and performances by Dean Atta and the Ruby Kid . That gave me the most difficult slot of all – the last one. Here’s what I said:
Talk To South London Anti-Fascists
I am slightly embarrassed at being described as an activist. I’m as active as anyone with 3 part time jobs, twin sons and a PhD to finish.
I was very active for best part of two decades, a member of Class War for 16 years, I was involved with Anti-Fascist Action on an occasional basis (those who remember Red Action will know Anarchists were always kept in reserve for when the numbers were short, we were the auxillary force) and a founder member of No Platform and Antifa.
If I have theme this evening it is that things are very different today to 1992 or 1993 – but in some ways they can still be rather similar.
In 1993 anti-fascists had to contend with a large, fluid group of disparate young men, ostensibly protesting about terrorism. Their numbers certainly contained organised fascists, loyalists and ex-soldiers, but also from football firms, people with little or no political background, and people looking for a scrap. Those anti-IRA demonstrations – the cries of No Surrender – were the precursors of the EDL demonstrations of today.
Those demonstrations passed. Indeed they were a distraction from doing what was necessary – reaching a mature peace in Ireland. And the EDL are a similar distraction
- The first is that they will stimulate racist attacks – either on lone Muslims on the fringes of demonstrations, or as we have seen in Luton in an attack on a mosque.
- That EDL actions will stimulate racist attacks by Muslims on whites. At the counter-demo to the EDL in Birmingham at least one white passer by was beaten up, with footage of the incident displayed across the papers.
With hindsight, there are other dangers we could perhaps add, although I have to say the idea of the EDL as an electoral force conjoined with the British Freedom Party is one that at this stage I don’t fear. Social movements tend to lose something, some of their sparkle when they try and become political parties.
3. The third danger I saw, which is by far the biggest, is that the EDL retard debate about Islam, and more importantly Islamism, in the UK. There is something different potentially about the EDL to the anti-IRA – read anti-Irish – demonstrations of the 1990s.
Lets consider where the EDL emerges – in Luton – following the Al-Mujihiroun demonstration against the Royal Anglian Regiment. Historically Luton is a town with comparatively good race relations. It has good relations between white and black, and good relations between Irish and British. It has very poor relations between Muslim and non-Muslim. Those problems long predate the EDL.
In 2009 I argued the presence of the EDL runs the risk of dividing debate into racists on one side, and professional anti-racists and Muslim representative organisations on the other, with little or no space for anyone else to operate in. Melanie Phillips on one side and the Muslim Council of Britain on the other. And that divide excludes the vast majority of people in this community, and indeed the UK.
There is a problem, for people on the left, in considering issues in those terms. Look at the hysterical reactions from some on the left when, I think it was Nick Lowles, made the comment that Al-Mujihiroun and the EDL were two sides of the same coin. It was hardly a bizarre comparison to make.
There are problems, and indeed real concerns with some of the brands of Islam we now see in the UK. In Tower Hamlets, the most important political institution is not the Labour Party, trades unions or a particular community group – it is East London Mosque. How we articulate and discuss these issues is an even bigger challenge than dealing with the EDL. They are another distraction from where we want to go, from where we want society to be.
I want to say a few things about multi-culturalism. It is something I suspect everyone in this room is comfortable with. As an Englishman of Irish descent with an African wife, I know I am. A London where we get on with our neighbours and our workmates precisely because they are our neighbours and colleagues. That gives us shared interests and things in common. A multi-culturalism where we see people as people, not as representatives of particular ethnic or religious groups, to be spoken to and interacted with on those terms.
I don’t usually see the need to articulate most of the problems of London in racial terms. That is not to say racism does not exist – it does. But there are two types of multi-culturalism. Kenan Malik’s attack on a top down multi-culturalism, where identities are imposed by authorities – read his book From Fatwa to Jihad – is I think essential reading. He sets out how in Birmingham identities were imposed, by the local authority, and funding and power allocated on that basis. And within two decades, you have blacks and Muslims fighting each other in the streets. In the 1980s they had been fighting alongside one another against the police.
Onto the contemporary far-right. As in the early 1990s, the main far right party is underachieving. The spivvy nature of Griffin’s BNP has been understood by his own supporters, taking a lot of his base away. Griffin’s sole priority is probably to get re-elected as an MEP – those who have served two terms in the European Parliament get a very significant pension. It is hard, but not impossible to see him getting the BNP back to where it was.
These are still challenging times though for anti-fascists. I would recommend to you some of the work Matthew Goodwin of Nottingham University has done on far-right voting patterns and opinion poll data across Europe. In most countries the populist (read fascist) party has a rising vote – Norway and the UK being the most noticeable exceptions. It is not hard to see why the vote is collapsing in Norway – in Anders Breivik, they have seen fascism in action. In France and Austria the majority of white working class voters indicated they would vote for the ‘populist’ party.
I am not sure anything about a trend ensures its continuation. To me, a whole series of dangers exist, but one of the most dangerous is to play into the hands of fascists. If there is such a thing as ‘the black community’ or the ‘Vietnamese community’ or the ‘Muslim community’, with fixed leaders, structures and needs, can we really wet our pants in shock and distress when someone says “I represent the white community vote for me”?
Yes we need multi-culturalism. It is what I live. But we need a bottom up multi-culturalism, not a top down government approach that plays into the hands of our enemies.
No Platform, which I tried to uphold for two decades, is harder than ever to implement. Firstly because of police repression – consider the six Antifa members jailed last year, the amount of CCTV, the limitless expenses these specialist police units seem to have. Secondly look at the rise of social media and the Internet – the BNP could be prevented from leafleting, but that same leaflet placed online and seen by hundreds of people within minutes. Which makes no platform more of an occasional tactic than part of a sustainable, permanent programme.
We have to beat the fascists in argument. And we can. Our ideas are better than theirs.
Thank you for listening.
While today marks the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the Nazi holocaust that killed 12 million people including 6 million Jews, 500,000 Roma and Shinti, countless Slavs, Poles and Russians among numerous other nationalities from all over the globe, the disabled, the mentally ill, trade unionists, communists, freemasons, LGBT people…we also remember all the other genocides that have been and are the terrible blight of humanity.
May the victims forever be remembered and may we continue to fight against those who would commit future atrocities whatever political persuasion, colour, faith, creed, religion or self declared righteous dogma they may come from.
The United Families and Friends Campaign (UFFC) are continuing their campaign to call for an independent judicial inquiry into all suspicious deaths in custody.
UFFC, a coalition of families and friends of those that have died in the custody of police and prison officers as well as those who died in psychiatric and immigration detention. It also has members and supporters from campaign groups and advocacy organisations from across the UK.
The issue of deaths in custody were back on the agenda last year when American civil rights icon Reverend Jesse Jackson backed calls for a public inquiry at a press conference held at Operation Black Vote’s headquarters.
There is further concern following a report published by the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody report in 2011 which stated in total, there were 5,998 deaths recorded for the 11 years from 2000 to 2010, an average of 545 deaths per year. Despite the fact there have been 11 unlawful killing verdicts since 1990 there has never been a successful prosecution.
However, UFFC believe these reforms have not addressed the lack of justice in outstanding cases and say that equitable dispensation justice in the UK must be done and be seen to be done if the general public are to enjoy high levels of trust and confidence in the fair administration of justice.
The poor quality and speed of independent investigations conducted by the Independent Police Complaints Commission and an Inquest process that is seriously under resourced, subject to delay and limited in remit and is not fit for purpose. Both critically fail to protect or support the rights of victims or their families.
UFFC’s demands include:
1. Replacement of the IPCC to ensure open robust transparent and thorough investigations from the very outset of police deaths in custody – with a removal of all ex-police officers for it to be a truly independent body.
2. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman should be placed on a statutory footing.
3. Deaths in psychiatric detention and / or of those detained under the Mental Health Act must be subject to a system of properly funded investigation that is completely independent of the Health Service.
4. Officers and officials directly involved in custody deaths are suspended until investigations are completed.
5. Immediate interviewing of officers and all officials concerned with the death.
6. Officers and officials should never be allowed to collude over their evidence and statements of fact.
7. Full and prompt disclosure of information to the families affected.
8. Prosecutions should automatically follow ‘unlawful killing’ verdicts at Inquests and officers responsible for those deaths should face criminal charges, even if retired.
9. Implementation of police body cameras and cameras in all police vehicles in the interests of both the officers and the public.
10. There should be an automatic right to non-means tested legal aid for families. There is a lack of funds for family legal representation at Inquests whilst officers and NHS staff get full legal representation from the public purse – this is unbalanced.
The UFFC are encouraging people to sign an online petition to get the government to address the issue of deaths in custody. Click on the link below
An episode from 1998 which sees a Tory Councillor staying a week with New Travellers.
Whilst the lives of travellers have over the last decade changed drastically since this was made with many forced off the road due to more and more legislation, it’s interesting to note Tories remain the same…completely anal and still wishing to dictate how the rest of us should live out our lives!