analyses the experience and draws lessons from the Occupy movement almost a year after the establishment of the first Occupy camps in the UK.
The global Occupy movement (often referred to as #Occupy) has been popularly presented as the beginnings of an organised, popular resistance to austerity. Although all but dissolved in organisational terms in the UK, the rhetoric of the “99%” still retains strong resonance within both corporate and social media as representative of the conditions of proletarianised workers, students and sections of the middle strata faced with the increasingly brutal logics of capitalist accumulation and the social disparity between themselves and the “1%” (more controversially largely represented as the CEOs and big financial firms continuing to benefit from the crisis). While for our counterparts in the US, Occupy still appears to have some mobilising potential, in spite of continuing contradictions of the organisational model (at least that is our perception as outsiders), in the UK Occupy it was a largely geographically and temporally fixed phenomenon – being largely represented in a few cities over a time-scale of approximately late 2011 to early 2012.
In spite of this, the experience of Occupy UK illustrates a number of critical concerns for British anti-capitalists. Strategic conclusions can be drawn from analysis of the camps themselves, there are questions left open by the general lack of a sustained anarchist presence (and the subsequent drift of already quite politically plural camps into wholly liberal reformist positions) or whether it is possible to “camp” popular opposition to austerity (all of which are address below). Occupy UK, or to put it more concretely the failure to actualise the popular anti-austerity movement that Occupy UK was premised upon, also raises a broader concern for us – what, if any, will the shape of popular resistance to capitalism take in the UK in the 21st Century? Occupy UK indicates a two-fold failure in this respect – failure to mobilise a popular movement around anti-austerity positions (and win a broader public debate concerning austerity) by Occupy itself and a failure of anti-capitalist intervention to expunge anti-austerity positions of the illusions of liberal reformism, or to offer meaningful analysis and orientation of the barriers experienced in building that movement (in terms of a class-based approach to social change).
We should be honest about this balance sheet. There has been a tendency within the wider anarchist movement, and we were witness to this at the recent international gathering at St. Imier, to champion Occupy as a demonstration of the “victory” for anarchist ideas. Not only does this show a misunderstanding of the content and composition of Occupy itself, as well as being misplaced in terms of the general absence of clear anarchist involvement and influence, but shows an unwillingness to really take stock of the genuine position of disorientation that many libertarians find themselves in the current context. The state is determined to plunge the working class into ever deeper conditions of poverty and insecurity, and this is a situation replicated across Europe. In the face of this escalating onslaught resistance does not appear to be forthcoming. In the wake of the burning passion and creativity of the student occupation movement we have been offered only the disorientating and muted action of the Occupy camps on the one hand, and the disconnected and tired politics of (trade union led) anti-cuts coalitions on the other. More importantly the ultimate ineffectiveness of Occupy UK is not something we should wish to claim as a mantle for our tradition. Such a position only bolsters the arguments of the authoritarian Left who locate the weaknesses of the movement in its commitments to autonomy and self-organisation and the absence of a centralised leadership – elements that we ultimately celebrate.
The questions to which we turn in this article and the analysis developed from them are the product of collective and self-critical discussions between Collective Action militants as well as drawn from our own experiences of the camps as participants in this movement.
Occupy UK: origins and aims
On October 15th 2011, the first incarnation of the then international “Occupy movement” established itself in the UK when a coalition of activists and organisers occupied the forecourt of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The original intention, following the Occupy Wall Street model, was to create a visible presence of anti-capitalist activity within the economic heart of the capital; in the case of London, the Stock Exchange and the “Square Mile” where the majority of international financial and banking services are based. Like its American cousin in Zuccotti park, Occupy the London Stock Exchange (“Occupy LSX”), initially fell short of “reclaiming space” directly from financial institutions (attempts to occupy Paternoster Square were quickly thwarted by the police) and was instead based at St. Paul’s Cathedral nearby.
This was a decision, perhaps unforeseen at the time, which was to later cause a great deal of difficulty in terms of clarifying the message of the camp with a particularly zealous campaign by the right-wing press to “clear the cathedral” and the majority of the initial negotiation for the space taking place in relation to the Canon of St. Paul’s. That is not to say that action against religious institutions is necessarily an exercise detached from campaigns for social justice – in Sheffield it was joked that the Occupy camp closing the cathedral may have been the only perceivable victory the camp there could claim – but in terms of building an explicit anti-austerity message it certainly contributed to the camp failing to make substantial gains as the debates it sought to provoke were often overshadowed by arguments about the camp’s location and disruption to the cathedral. It also immediately threw up some difficult issues for organisers to grapple with in terms of religious tolerance and co-operation with the church.
In spite of this, Occupy LSX did coalesce around a specific set of aims, to be followed in the months after by camps set up across the UK. On October 16th, a gathering of over 500 Occupy London protesters collectively agreed upon and issued the following ‘Initial Statement’:
1. The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives; this is where we work towards them.2. We are of all ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, generations, sexualities dis/abilities and faiths. We stand together with occupations all over the world.
3. We refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis.
4. We do not accept the cuts as either necessary or inevitable. We demand an end to global tax injustice and our democracy representing corporations instead of the people.
5. We want regulators to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate.
6. We support the strike on the 30th November and the student action on the 9th November, and actions to defend our health services, welfare, education and employment, and to stop wars and arms dealing.
7. We want structural change towards authentic global equality. The world’s resources must go towards caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich.
8. The present economic system pollutes land, sea and air, is causing massive loss of natural species and environments, and is accelerating humanity towards irreversible climate change. We call for a positive, sustainable economic system that benefits present and future generations.
9. We stand in solidarity with the global oppressed and we call for an end to the actions of our government and others in causing this oppression.
This was later synthesised by Occupy LSX to:
Reclaiming space in the face of the financial system and using it to voice ideas for how we can work towards a better future. A future free from austerity, growing inequality, unemployment, tax injustice and a political elite that ignores its citizens, and work towards concrete demands to be met.
It is fair to say that a great deal of what Occupy claims, or claimed, to be about lies in its processes – movement-building, participation, direct democracy, collective living, etc – and as a result it is perhaps unfair to judge it on the basis of its objectives alone. It was also very clear that many participants considered objectives to be secondary to a far more inclusive process of uniting progressives under the banner of anti-austerity (a commitment which will be discussed in more detail later). Nonetheless, in spite of this the camps clearly did, initially at least, have a driving rationale, and however embryonic in practice this may have been after a little over a year since the occupations, media coverage and public attention, it is necessary to reflect on these aims, their viability as means of struggle and whether future incarnations can be successful. It should also be emphasised that even in an embryonic state the content of these initial aims had immediate practical effects in terms of the processes themselves. Many, for example, cite the errors of a failure to include a more concrete “safer spaces” policy (a commitment to create spaces free from discrimination and prejudice) within the Occupy platform as a contributing factor to the incidents of sexism and rape reported at certain camps.
Occupy UK: a balance sheet
As already stated the actions of the police, along with the fact that Paternoster Square is private property and, therefore, was easily granted a High Court injunction, meant that Occupy LSX was not able to follow its initial plans of a camp in the centre of the financial district. This was later, at least partially, rectified by the “public repossession” of disused offices owned by UBS and their conversion into the “Bank of Ideas,” which hosted teach-ins, seminars, film screenings and, probably most widely covered by the media, a free gig from the bands Radiohead and Massive Attack (the site was evicted January 30th 2012). The picture across the UK, however, was much the same as the London camp with Birmingham, Brighton, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester, Sheffield and many more cities and towns failing to occupy a financial space and being based in public squares and parks instead. Following the religious building trend, Occupy Sheffield squatted the “Citadel of Hope”, an empty Salvation Army Citadel, for the Occupy National Conference, but this ceased to be operational after the event and is now only used by a circus training group.
Of course many pointed to the successes of Tahrir Square as a precedent for public occupations that did not rely on such a direct, physical confrontation with the “spaces” of power. However, sentiments to “Take the Square” – aiming to recreate the scenes in Egypt – marginalised the significance of wider social mobilisations present in these events, for example the April 6th Youth Movement which supported striking workers. More profound ideological changes such as the newly found solidarity and confidence within the Egyptian working class was absent from spectacular media coverage and this led to the emphasis on the form, as opposed to the content, being reproduced in many of the copycat protests that followed.
Confrontation with financial and political institutions, leaving aside the role of the church, actually largely occurred on a terrain in which activists were weakest – through the courts. This was where the City of London Corporation was able to secure a forcible eviction of occupiers in a move that was replicated by councils and local authorities across the country. It also forced Occupy into a position in which it had to adopt bourgeois legalism – freedom to assemble, freedom of speech – to justify its activity.
What then of the politics?
In many ways it is difficult to judge the goals of Occupy here even on its own terms. Certain positions are barely distinguishable, particularly in terms of the call for “a positive, sustainable economic system that benefits present and future generations”, from the language of Westminster (this may have been appropriate given the presence of MPs such as Caroline Lucas and John McDonnell within the London camp) and, therefore, makes it difficult to gauge what objectives are actually being proposed here. It would be fair to say that Occupy did not necessarily talk about “an” alternative but of the need for alternatives. So to what extent was it successful at building and mobilising others towards a political spectrum of progressive currents against austerity?
It is impossible to create a complete picture of every camp across the UK here but it is our aggregate experience, particularly outside London, that praxis was largely limited to creating a camp site and creating a community within it. These are the immediate practical tasks which arise from forming an ad-hoc community with very loose over-arching values, in often quite adverse conditions (exacerbated by poor weather and anti-social elements). In all cases the priorities of refining and developing political positions were secondary to the cohesiveness (or lack thereof) of the camp as a whole – the lowest common denominator being a liberal pluralist position of hoping to keep everyone happy at the expense of following any specific initiative in a sustained way. The camp environment also threw up other issues in this respect. The longevity of the camp site is unclear, making long-term plans uncertain. Such an environment may be familiar territory for activists but may alienate other members of the working class. Many camps did hold public assemblies as a means of opening up the processes and forming a more inclusive space for those unable to camp, but when the principle agenda items are the practicalities arising from camp life it would be easy to question what relevance such a gathering has to the wider public. In light of this it is necessary to reflect on whether camping is compatible with the original Occupy aim of mobilising alternatives to austerity (if alternatives can be said to exist in the Occupy platform).
In this respect the British Occupy movement could perhaps learn from aspects of the North American Occupy. Under strong influence from revolutionaries in organisations such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) the movement has made tangible links to the working class and local communities. For example, they joined in on the struggle against the foreclosure of homes, made common cause with labour struggles, while in Oakland they shut down the docks there. Like Occupy in the UK these were ultimately limited in both duration and scale, although less so, but they were important added dynamics in two senses. First that it showed the potential of Occupy as a tool for broadening social struggle in terms of using the model to build and solidify links within and between otherwise stratified or partially stratified sections of the class. Secondly, it set the course for moving the occupation tactic away from spectacular assemblies and public protest to occupation in the true sense – seizures and appropriations. These are tactics that are not only more economically disruptive in practical terms (and therefore a stronger and more sensible basis for promoting the use of Occupy as a means of fighting austerity) but also orientate strategy towards the true location of social power – collective struggle driven by class unity.
It is hard to say as outsiders what the key to Occupy US’s increased size and radicalism was. It could be speculated that a) the US camps contained more united elements than the UK’s loosely networked and multiple anti-cuts groups, b) that there existed a degree of self-reflection and criticism lacking in the UK, c) that Occupy US was more successful in reaching out beyond the physical camps; or a combination of all these things. Perhaps the experience of Occupy UK simply stands as an indictment against the willingness of British anti-capitalists to fight for their ideas in a comparable way to their US counter-parts. Whatever the weaknesses of the camp model, elements within the North American occupiers have at least acknowledged that to be effective anti-capitalists you have to disrupt the flow of capital. Hence the moves towards the “General Strike” as the principle demand there. In the UK no such connection has been made on any organisational level. Occupy can barely be described as anti-capitalist in most UK incarnations with many campers displaying open hostility to anti-capitalist ideas and practices. In the case of Glasgow, for example, statements were issued on behalf of the camp that argued for more “ethical” capitalism.
Likewise no direct, explicit link was made to the student movement, even at a time when student militancy was reaching escalating levels and the state was employing massive repression against them. In London, Occupy also failed to make any strong connection in the sparks’ struggle, as electricians shook off the inadequacy of union bureaucrats to take workplace grievances into their own hands – an ample opportunity for Occupy to provide support and assistance. More importantly Occupy didn’t really offer anything substantial to these struggles in terms of their ability to escalate resistance or offer alternative means of widening or broadening methods of struggle, other than just a wider constituency of potential supporters. In spite of the diversity of the camps the actual repertoires of action offered by Occupy was surprisingly limited – camping and the occasional squatting of buildings – a poor record to even the “Climate Camps” and summit camps of recent history, which although also limited in different ways were at least geared towards facilitating action and interventions beyond the gathering of activists.
Occupy: critical reflections
As the practice of a tactic Occupy is unusual in that traditionally occupations are an advanced organisational expression of the escalating resistance of social movements. While the more immediate public memory of occupations is of Tahrir Square and the (seemingly) spontaneous mobilisations of the Arab Spring, it would be more consistent to think to the actions of the striking teachers of Oaxaca in 2006 and the APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) as well as the occupations of town halls and municipal buildings during the 2008 Greek riots as better contemporary representations of the practice. In both cases occupations were not a starting point but emerged both out of concrete necessity of the struggle and as a practical consequence of the solidification of communities in resistance. In Greece, occupations provided a base for activity that replaced the spontaneous communities of insurgents in the streets, as well as reflecting the ideological evolution of the struggle, e.g. the occupation of trade union offices against the class collaborationist position of the trade unions. In Oaxaca the public square occupation was a hub for solidarity with striking teachers bringing together all manner of social movements against the state’s governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. Barricades in this sense were indications of the emergence of community bonds and networks of solidarity through the struggle while acting as a very practical defence of the violence of the state against militants. In both cases, although ultimately facing some limitations, occupations posed a direct threat to the resumption of social order on both an economic and political level.
By contrast, occupy camps in the UK emerged as a mild and not very disruptive social or economic force. Neither did they emerge from a specific struggle but rather a more general ideological climate of pro-austerity ideas and policies. This is not to say that there have not been material struggles arising from cuts to public services and declining living standards, it is just that these particularities are unrelated to the formation of Occupy camps. The reality is that camps have acted more as “publicity bureaus” or public forums for anti-austerity organising – where this practice has been successful. This is not necessarily a negative thing in itself, but the limitation of the form, political maturity and the lack of self-awareness have meant a failure to capitalise on this as a specific tactic. Tailoring Occupy more concretely to the need to build anti-austerity alternatives could shed new light on the tactics that are used, e.g. is camping the most effective tactic which can be used? Are there other means of intervention/outreach that can be explored? Could Occupy be transformed, for example, to form something along the lines of the Zapatista Consulta, e.g. radicals doing outreach within and amongst communities?
Material struggles carry within them a potential trajectory for a) generalisation and b) systemic critique (anti-capitalism) by virtue of the terrain in which they are situated (confrontation within capital along class lines) and, more importantly, the social location of their participants – their class. While it is almost always the case that class struggle finds some form of accommodation within the system, e.g. a pay rise, more welfare, or is simply defeated, it also carries within it at least the potential for supersession in respect to the conflict between capital and the class. There is a logic contained within class struggles that ultimately leads to the constitution of class as a negation of capital. Occupy was based more on the need for “alternatives” as a reaction to the pervasiveness of the all-consuming austerity narrative. It is of no surprise in this sense that unity often devolved to the very practical tasks of maintaining camps (and in the worst cases an insider vs. outsider mentality amongst some campers). With the absence of a material condition that brought campers together, e.g. as students fighting cuts or workers on strike, and the absence of a clear political programme; being an occupier represented anything from an anti-capitalist anarchist to a reformist liberal or conspira-loon. This absence of basic shared values meant huge obstacles for the next step of a radicalising process – assigning the means and methods by which we collectively tackle the austerity narrative. As opposed to representing a spectrum of radical ideas, this pluralism simply delivered the base assumptions of the camps – that campers are against austerity – while delivering no practical means to actually act on these assumptions.
Occupy is far more continuous in respect to existing protest activity than is often acknowledged. It expressed a model of militancy essentially voluntaristic in character, not especially distinct from the existing composition and practices of Leftist groups. Crucially, Occupy offered no sustained or integrated way of introducing anti-austerity activity into working life. Camping is simply not a viable practice for the majority of workers, so what to do when you cannot camp? Occupy was largely built and mobilised by the unemployed, students, the homeless and those off work. This did not necessarily have to be a point of weakness. If Occupy was to give rise to a movement of the jobless sections of our class this would be a positive achievement. But a lack of self-criticism and particularly the need to be seen to be being “representative” of a wider constituency – under the rubric of representing the “99%” – meant missing opportunities to develop the strategy and tactics of camps into a definitive programme suited to the needs of those involved.
The problem with the 99%
As popular and as useful as the slogan of the “99%” may have been in propagandistic terms, from a communist perspective a number of issues arise from the analysis associated with this slogan. Many of these criticisms have been covered extensively elsewhere, and some raised in the context of the movement itself, so here we believe it is sufficient to only provide a summary of key issues as an extension of our critique of Occupy’s inability to mobilise or extend resistance against austerity. As anarchist communists it is our position that austerity is only one facet of the management of capitalism and that it should be understood as a particular manifestation of systemic structures rooted in the existence of social classes. As a result we argue that the only means of creating a society based on social justice is through challenging these fundamental structures via revolutionary confrontation with the state and the capitalist class. The slogan of the “99%” is therefore problematic to us for a number of reasons.
The “99%” overlooks important stratifications that exist within and between members of our class. Those who are, for example, not millionaires and city bankers but still benefit from capitalism or play a part in its administration, e.g. the managerial strata, the police, bailiffs, border agency staff. The confusions associated with this analysis led some Occupiers to claim the police, the likes of the English Defence League and other reactionary elements as part of the “99%”. Technically they are correct, but this exposes exactly the problem with this analysis. Inequality is not simply about ownership and wealth but relations of power. Class relations often manifest themselves in and between communities in spite of a very similar economic context, e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia. In fact these stratifications are exactly the divisions that capitalists periodically stoke up to ensure that workers are competing against each other and perceive each other as a threat rather than the power of the bosses. Likewise with the adoption of liberal policies, the capitalist class has found that providing a little privilege and power to certain sections of workers, effectively stratifying the class and providing the illusion of ‘social mobility’, allows capitalists to stabilise social order through the creation of a strata of middle-managers who do not appear so removed from the workers themselves. The police and the border agencies similarly play critical roles in maintaining class relations and carrying out the institutional violence that keeps workers in their place. These forces will inevitably come into conflict with movements that attempt to challenge the social structures that underpin our society. Confusion on these issues creates obvious organisational problems some of which were clearly apparent in the camps, e.g. co-operation with the police, lack of a safe-spaces policy and incidents of sexual violence against women.
The 99% analysis represents the problem of austerity as an issue of unconstrained finance. Finance, however, is only a part of the circuit of capital whose influence is, in contemporary terms, predicated by a number of more fundamental structural changes in the management of capitalism, including the declining profitability of the “real” economy. It is impossible to provide a comprehensive analysis of this here but this does include the increasing internationalisation of capital, the move away from Fordism (and with it social democratic corporatism) into neoliberalism and increasing reliance on debt to maintain standards of living. A more complete criticism should be tied to the organisation of capitalism as a whole and how finance is simply one aspect of class control that is exercised by the capitalist class. Critics may point to the way that finance has played a particularly prominent role in undermining (bourgeois) democratic values and subverting state accountability. Our critiques of capitalism are, however, far more fundamental than this. Even a “democratised” capitalism (should this ever be possible) would be reprehensible to us given the coercive nature of the system itself – a system whereby workers are forced to work to survive and where the full product of our labour is stolen from us through our work. What is required is not a levelling of the system, raising up the 99%, but a humanisation of the values which structure the economy away from the motivation to accumulate profit to one based on human need, where products are fundamentally social in character (and not present as spectacular commodities) and where time away from necessary labour is maximised.
The extent to which the “99%” slogan has seeped into public discourse is impressive and an indication of how well it speaks to a common feeling of injustice, but as the above indicates, it also very comfortably lends itself to reformist ideology – injustices are seen to need to be rectified. The mobilisation of the Greek movement “We Won’t Pay” might be an interesting comparative example here in terms of a popular movement organised in response to austerity. “We Won’t Pay”, as its title suggests, is an organisation that uses direct action to disrupt what it considers to be unfair or exploitative levies on public services. This has included raising barriers on the toll booths on private roads, encouraging mass rides of public transport, sabotaging of ticket booths, sharing the skills to allow people access to free electricity as well as community-based work that organises the distribution of free food and clothing to those who need it. Like the “99%”, the “We Won’t Pay” slogan is expressed as a statement of outrage and injustice – we won’t pay for a crisis we claim no responsibility for! It is also, more importantly, a discourse of expropriation, of seizure of those necessities that communities depend upon, all of which is facilitated by direct action. “We Won’t Pay” gives a clearer sense of the immediate confrontations that are involved in social struggle, e.g. security staff who protect toll booths, fascists thugs who roam public transport, while also sowing no illusions in the state’s ability to mediate the injustices visited upon working people. It provides a more forthright assertion of the strength and objectives of collective action as well as a positive vision of the autonomy of communities in struggle, i.e. “these things are necessary to my continued existence and I am entitled to them without your (the state/the boss/the security guard) interference”.
Wot, no resistance? Broader questions
A basic reality that we must face here in the UK, and the experience of Occupy broadens this perspective, is the collapse of mass-based challenges to capitalism. That is either in the form of popular, militant trade unionism or as mass workers’ parties, however inadequate these may have actually been in superseding the conditions imposed by capital. If we are to look to the role (or the absence, as was actually the case) of anarchists in respect to Occupy this is a perspective that needs to be adopted. Occupy was treading new ground in many ways in that fundamentally, as inadequate as its answers ultimately were, we do not know what concrete shape popular resistance to austerity will, if it indeed does, take in the current context. There have been ongoing localised struggles of both workplaces and communities against specific cuts and state policies. Both the student occupation movement of 2010 and the August riots of 2011, without drawing too strong an equivalence between the two, suggested at least the emergence of a new resistant subject against the austerity regime – the newly proletarianised youth. This was only to be subsumed by parliamentarism and state repression, in the case of the former, and the absence of any basis for coalescence and the criminality in the case of the latter. The sparks likewise showed the propensity for the British organised working class to re-activate resistance, but this seemed to express more the resilience of a long-standing tradition of struggle, conditioned by black-listing and other cultures unique to the industry, as opposed to anything emerging against austerity per se. Since then the only general mobilisations have been in the form of the TUC (Trades Union Congress) “days of action”, themselves an exercise in the defeatism of the trade union bureaucracy and their wholesale retreat from workplace action. These have only served to reinforce the existing schisms evident during the riots, resulting from the 26th March 2011“March for the Alternative” when thousands marched to listen to Ed Miliband’s (leader of the opposing Labour Party for international readers) address in Hyde Park while just a few hundred radicalised youth rioted through the heart of the city.
In respect to Occupy in particular it was necessary to recognise the continuities, in the form of cross-class umbrella organising, something very familiar within the context of the workers’ movement, and discontinuities – the dimensions of Occupy that were “demand-less”, sought to transfer consensus on austerity into an attack on private space and debt and build popular opposition to austerity – present within the embryonic movement. This required an awareness of the underlying structural problems the Occupy project highlighted (at this point we really don’t know the current social basis for any fight back against austerity, if indeed there is one), while also arguing those positions on which we, as anti-capitalists, are certain of: resistance has to be rooted in working class unity and emerging from the politics of everyday life. The management system of capitalism may have changed but its essential logic – and the transformative role of the proletariat – remains the same.
This is where anarchists perhaps squandered an opportunity to use the, albeit often quite limited and even politically hostile, space that Occupy opened to argue for this orientation and really investigate what mass resistance can and cannot look like in the current context. As it stands we really didn’t learn anything other than those self-fulfilling prophecies with which we were already aware – that a cross-class movement with no root in material struggles and premised on a manufactured community of resistance was likely to collapse into reformism, peter out or get crushed by the state (or often all three simultaneously). This is while, ironically, many anarchists were claiming the mantle of Occupy as a vindication of anarchist methods and ideas. Undoubtedly there was a lot of resistance to genuine anti-capitalist positions among campers, and we experienced these ourselves, but this was compounded by the failure of anarchists to effectively intervene. Both factors together allowed the anti-capitalist position to be easily characterised as extremist, when the intention was actually the opposite in terms of bringing Occupy as a meaningful thing to the class, and allowed pacifistic and activist methods to dominate. In London, the camp descended into in-fighting after some campers erected a “Capitalism is Crisis” banner, with liberal and pacifistic campers arguing that ‘capitalism isn’t the enemy, greed is’.
Anarchists advocate mass movements against the capitalist system. In the present condition, these are clearly lacking. The so-called ‘labour movement’ doesn’t do much ‘moving’ at all and the UK is as devoid of militant unions now as it has ever been. Anarchists uphold that mass movements have to be organic in order to create transformative social change. Why then did so many uphold Occupy as a vindication of anarchist ideas? Could it be that without any existing mass movements, and without any modern ideas of what form mass movements today should take, we were simply blinded by a romanticism that something was kicking off?
While it is possible to muse over whether the downfall of Occupy UK came from its failure to claim Paternoster Square, or to adopt a more anti-capitalist stance; it should be clear that even if Occupy had successfully taken the Square, and even if it had outright advocated ‘camping for communism’, substantive change cannot come about through camping. Yes we should welcome that libertarian modes of organising based on direct democracy are becoming more popular, however, as previously stated, we should also critique Occupy to the grounds of what it claims to be ‘about’. In this sense, Occupy failed to increase participation in anti-austerity struggles, and also failed to make links with ongoing struggles, such as the student movement, the sparks’ struggle and striking public sector workers. Beyond this, Occupy UK also failed to reflect on this and seek to remedy it. Here lies one area where anarchists could have intervened and attempted to take the well-meaning organisational sentiments of Occupy to ongoing and organic struggles in actual communities such as workplaces, neighbourhoods and educational institutions.
Occupy was successful in terms of its ability to express a commonly felt sense of injustice and outrage towards further shifts of wealth away from the class – e.g. cuts in public services and to benefits, erosions in living standards, declining wages – and into private hands. The speed and spread of the mobilisations, something that cannot be explained by the new role of social media alone, was a strong demonstration of this. However it lacked purpose and was plagued by many of the issues which continue to alienate activist cultures from wider communities. Occupy needed to provide more concrete answers, practical solutions and, most importantly, a more thorough critique of the social system. It needed to engage more strongly on the issues of practical necessity that are being thrown up by austerity politics showing how social solidarity is a viable and sensible alternative to the alienating and hope-less politics of Westminster. It could have done more to catalyse existing groups in struggle and speak to those groups at the harsher end of the austerity drive, embracing specificity over the woolly narrative of the “99 percenters”. It could also have spoken more about itself, both in terms of the discourse that emerged out of the camps but also the need to address how composition and experience relates to the kind of actions a movement can take.
This analysis can be situated in a wider social and political context; a context which helps to explain the immediate appeal of Occupy (and some of its failures). Principally, we find ourselves amidst a de-politicised political culture in which organised anti-capitalism is not a viable alternative to a more pervasive radicalised liberalism, such as that propounded by Occupy, where class identity has been dislocated by an onslaught of capitalist realism and where activists, where they are present, often lack the skills and experience to act as organisers mobilising and strengthening communities in struggle. Almost a year since the first camp it seems unlikely that Occupy will re-emerge as a continuing tool for anti-austerity struggle. What we should take from it, however, is the desire for an alternative to the present system. The only way to achieve this is through the self-organisation of the class in the communities of everyday life, and if we want libertarian communism to be that alternative, this is where we have to start.
Additional footage courtesy of Mind The Cam, do check out their films at:http://realdemocracygr.wordpress.com/
Pre-order DVD: http://reelnews.co.uk/reelnews-32-our-present-is-your-future-pre-order-now/
Help keep Reel News going: http://reelnews.co.uk/donationssubscriptions/
More reports from Greece: http://reelnews.co.uk/category/news/greece/
Lightly edited by Libcom.
Currently there is much discussion on how the rise of the far right can be halted. The truthful answer, says Joe Reilly, is that an anti-fascism joined at the hip with multiculturalism cannot do so.
Britain ‘has the highest number of interracial relationships in the world’ according to the Institute for Social and Economic Research. This supremely natural and healthy state of affairs, is however, not due to multiculturalism but in spite of it. For multiculturalist ideology, which believes that ‘culture makes man’ rather than the other way round, sets its face firmly against miscegenation, integration and assimilation – on principle.
“Multiculturalism actually promotes racism. It engenders confusion, resentment and bullying and prevents people developing a shared British identity. This idea should have been dumped long since”, claimed Minette Marrin in a Guardian article on May 29.
Though evidence to support her claim is legion, in the same paper on the same day, Vivek Chaudry a Guardian journalist rather underlined her point, by inverting the Norman Tebbitt ‘cricket test’. He castigated England captain Nasser Hussain for bemoaning the fact that people with origins in the Indian subcontinent continue to support teams from that part of the world rather than England. “My message to Hussain is this. You need to get in touch with your brown side” Chaudrey advised.
Though small, a not insignificant number of journalists are now beginning to publicly ask questions of multiculturalism. Marrin’s though is not a typical liberal view, nor is she a typical Guardian journalist. She is in fact a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, which explains why her article was entitled ‘A view from the right’. But is it? Might it not as easily, or more accurately have been entitled ‘A view from the Left’?
Mainly, what prevents the conservative left assessing the multicultural impact honestly, residual dullness aside, is the fear of being denounced. So instead of properly mocking the Robin Cook ‘chicken tikka’ statement, the conservative left feel under obligation to denounce any misgivings as ‘right wing’, and from that same standpoint feel under obligation to push the agenda toward what it sees as the opposite fundamentalist conclusions, when, and where ever, the opportunity presents itself.
Thus in Oldham, while the British National Party canvass the white working class neighbourhoods, the Socialist Alliance (SA), whose analysis sees the white working class as the sole culprits, nevertheless distributes its propaganda, only in the exclusively non-white areas.
What political purpose, one asks, is served by such tokenism, when if it took its responsibilities at all seriously the SA would have put up candidates against the BNP in the area to begin with? As it is, while the SA ‘intervention’ allowed impeccably white liberals to wear their multicultural heart on their sleeve for a few hours, the BNP went about its business establishing a bridgehead for the local elections in 2002 unhindered. None of this is not to suggest that the SA is politically equipped to win white working class minds. It is merely to point out that it has no ambition to do so. Instead it is perfectly happy to strike a pose, and pronounce on events from a thoroughly partisan, that is to say dishonest, perspective.
Other factors detected within the debris of multiculturalism that is Oldham, are also worth mentioning. First of all, there is the carefully cultivated myth that anti-racism is the preserve of social groups A, and B. Only with ‘education can there be enlightenment’ The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee announced recently. This is so often said, that it is now widely believed among all sections of society, to such an extent that for many, to be properly anti-racist it is necessary to be anti-working class.
Indeed to be properly anti-racist, it may for some, be necessary to instinctively feel ‘anti-white’. “What we now have is a new version of the deserving and undeserving poor – the noble new British working class, who are ethnic, and the thoroughly swinish old working class, who are white”. (Julie Burchill, The Guardian, 5.5.01)
Yet, even a casual glance at the make up of any inner-city community, reveals the conceit of an ‘inherently racist’ white working class to be a lie. It is among the working classes, and statistically, only among the working classes, that interracial relationships thrive. Elsewhere, apart from genially nodding to the man behind the counter in the corner shop, classes A and B contribute nothing to the project they loudly proclaim loyalty to.
On top of that there is the self-serving multicultural pretense that all ethnic communities are homogeneous, and in an ideal world, all would be treated as such.
Not only that, but while some such as ‘Operation Black Vote’ for instance, insist Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sikhs and Hindus, as well as African and those of West Indian and even Chinese descent, must for general electoral convenience you understand, be treated as ‘black’, along side this form of forced integration, other multiculturalists are working just as hard to see the term ‘black’ further sub-divided on the grounds of ethnicity and religion.
The aim? To have strict segregation in schools and housing (to begin with), not only for Blacks and Asians but, for Muslims, Hindus, Bangladeshis and so on, ad infinitum, finally ending in racial, cultural and political balkanisation.
Of course, in the midst of this racial engineering, one word is carefully avoided. That is the word ‘class’. For the very good reason that the promotion of cultural diversity is intended to kill off, and replace the idea of social diversity.Yet despite such sleight of hand, that ‘class’ is as big a factor in the sense of alienation experienced by ‘Pakistani’ youth in Glodwick, as it is in the predominately white Fitton Hill is undeniable. For what is striking about their situation, is that unlike many Indians, the Pakistani and Bangladeshi inhabitants of Oldham show little sign of the fabled enterprising spirit, all of Asian origin, are we are told possess.
They came here with nothing, to work in the mills as labourers, and labourers whether in work or not, they largely remain. They have not broken out – or up. Some pious humbugs like Ken Livingstone, will insist that this is entirely due to endemic racism in British society. But if true, how to explain the equally downtrodden white counterparts with whom they are at war? If racism is the root cause, how to explain the inability of ‘Fittonhillites’ to rise out of the ghetto? ‘Oh them, they are you know, just so much white trash’, many a multiculturalist will explain without blushing.
Recently describing for the New Statesman, a visit to Oldham a couple of years ago when he more or less predicted the ‘backlash,’ Darcus Howe uses that very expression, unashamedly, and apparently in ignorance of its American Deep South origins. No matter, his observations make a nonsense of the working assumptions of the ANL/SA, that there is ‘a uniform access to power for all whites, denied to all blacks’.
“For the first time in this country, I had seen people who fitted the American description ‘white trash’. Their homes had a stench of decay: of damp, sweat, and stale food cooked days before. The little picket fences were collapsing. The roofs were leaking and pallid faces staring.” These are the labour aristocracy, benefitting from imperialism and eager to protect their privileges and ill-gotten gains by voting BNP are they?
For a further insight into how skewed mainstream multiculturalism thinking really is, it is necessary only to take stock of the racially loaded invective of the ‘anti-fascist’ visitors to the National Front ‘guest-book’. These startlingly ugly contributions are, bear in mind, should you be tempted to look, all products of a multicultural education of thirty years standing.
In a further tribute to the influence of such teaching, one Asian group, allegedly set up to fight the NF and Combat 18 has chosen for itself the title; ‘Combat 786′. Like Combat ’18’ which represents the A and H in the alphabet, ‘numbers 786’ are The Observer reports, ‘a numerical representation of Allah’. The similarities do not, I suspect, end there.
Meanwhile that the segregationist ‘peace line’ solutions proposed by the BNP, are these days impeccably multiculturalist in tone and delivery is the final irony. ‘In one area’ an Observer article mentions ‘where an alleyway leads from Fitton Hill into an Asian street, the council plans to erect a metal gate to separate the communities’. Remarkably, the metal gate has since been erected in line with the Griffin edict.
How effortlessly euro-nationalism has appropriated the language of multiculturalism to meet its own objectives, also demonstrates just how far the anti-racism of the 1970’s has drifted. Furthermore, the ease and comfort of the euro-nationalist fit, unmasks the lie that multiculturalism is naturally progressive.
In reality it is more trouble than it’s worth. Not to say that people from the Indian subcontinent or anywhere else ought to be compelled to meet the ‘Tebbit cricket test’. But neither should it be demanded of them out of some sense of racial fidelity that they meet the Chaudrey test either. Multiculturalism however, more or less insists they must. And it is largely when the the left promotes or defends multiculturalism’s right to do so, that it becomes a politically dangerous liability, Oldham has exposed it to be.
Like many of the second generation Irish, whose support for the Republic at football is not entirely separate from an antipathy to England, similarly, as the unprovoked attacks of as many as 30 pubs in the Oldham area have illustrated, being pro-Muslim is not always entirely divorced from being anti-white. Clearly, such an ideology does not enhance authentic anti-racism – it subverts it.
Some commentators on the ‘SPIKEONLINE’ website (ex-Living Marxism magazine) have arrived at precisely such conclusions. “There was a time when the left was accused of stirring up race riots. Now it is the the far right that is accused of starting the violence. Where politicians once denounced violent blacks, today they are more likely to denounce violent racists. The establishment no longer relies on traditional British nationalism, but is more likely to talk in the language of anti- racism.”
Continuing in a similar vein another adds: “When every issue and incident is racialised and seen through the prism of race, it is not surprising that people start to see their problems in racial terms. The end result can only be more division and conflict.”
Professor Frank Furedi, one time mentor to the now defunct RCP is sure-footed on this subject at least: “today it is the race relations lobby and particularly New Labour that finds it difficult to avoid the temptation of playing the race card. By treating every routine conflict as racially motivated they are racialising everyday life. This process is as destructive as the old-fashioned racism.”
It is a process he warns that can only end in “Everyday human contact” becoming “recast in racial terms, with the consequence that racism becomes normalised. This confuses and disorients people, breeding a climate of suspicion and mistrust.” A by-product of this racialistion is that “it also trivalises the real experience of racism and distracts from confronting real cases of injustice” he concludes.
Currently there is much discussion on how the rise of the far right can be halted. The truthful answer is that an anti-fascism joined at the hip with multiculturalism cannot do so. Indeed the higher the activity of the likes of the ANL, and now, and even more ridiculously the SA, the more entrenched the respective working class communities will become. Put bluntly, ‘racialising social problems’ is the motive force of both euro-nationalism and multiculturalism alike. For purposes of anti-fascist strategy, if for no more principled reasons, multiculturalism is ‘an idea that should have been dumped long since’.
We are very pleased to be able to announce that two of the UK antifascists sent down last year were released on 30/12/11 on ‘Home Detention Curfew’ (electronic ‘tag’). We wish sean Cregan and Andy Baker the very best of luck and hope that they can successfully rebuild their lives. Thank you to the many groups and individuals who have allowed us to properly support these comrades. For the moment, the other three antifascists sentenced in relation to the same case remain inside and in need of support.
A recent article by Sean Cregan:
“Mick, Sean’s up at the bloody window!”
My dad took the stairs three at a time and caught me just before I fell. The window was nailed shut with six-inch nails… That was my earliest bid for freedom. I was not yet a year old but somehow I had made it up to that ledge, as my folks nattered to the neighbours downstairs.
Looking from that point to this, my own struggle for freedom has been and still is a major factor in who I am as a person today. Indeed it is the reason why I write this from a prison cell.
Born to Irish parents, growing up on south London’s housing estates was always going tbe a challenge. I loved my Irish roots but to other “real” Irish I was just a “plastic Paddy”. The English hated me for being Irish. I couldn’t win. My feeling of always supporting the underdog, the downtrodden, probably took root at that early age and has never waned. If a human or animal had no voice and was being mistreated, I’d be there to fight for what I believed to be right.
In my late teens the world of punk rock opened up a whole new world for me. I listened to bands that sang with anger and passion about the way humans and animals were treated. The “safe” music in the charts didn’t rock the boat and that’s how the authorities liked it. Punk music had such a profound impact. It made me aware of things I’d been ignorant of. I was inspired to form my own band to add my voice to the call for freedom and justice.
I naturally gravitated toward like-minded people: people who questioned everything they were told; people who did not blindly accept what they were told; people that cared for others outside the immediate circle of family and friends. These were heady days for me and I felt alive and part of something good and exciting.
In time I moved into the squatting “scene” and started to attend demos and actions, from CND marches to animal rights and anti-nazi demonstrations. I met punks, hippies, crusties and junkies! Many colourful people, some from privileged backgrounds and from all over the world. I found lots of common ground as well as uncommon ground. My working-class roots found some of the people a bit rich. Literally!
Most of my new-found friends considered themselves as anarchists/activists. After a while it became clear that many of these folk used that label to look the part but actually do little more than take drugs and do nothing; a part of the problem not the solution. I remember one time at a squat in Tooting we were sat smoking weed and putting the world to rights when the doorbell rang. I swear not one of us would-be revolutionaries could be bothered to answer the door! I never smoked another joint. It made me paranoid anyway. There were other drugs that I liked better; speed and acid, mushrooms and pills. We were having the time of our lives, squatting rent free, going to gigs and travelling the country to actions of every description. It was a bit hedonistic but I was happy.
The feeling of living in those squatted communities was one of belonging. It was as if I’d found my second family, my tribe even. We believed in freedom of expression, mutual respect and activism against the oppressive system. We shared a common hatred of the state; the futile wars fought in our names, the corrupt politicians, the greed of big business and the sad consumer materialistic society that had grown in the wake of the Thatcher era. What really was free? Not much as far as we were concerned unless you were part of the privileged few.
We live in this western “democracy” and believe we are truly free, and compared to some countries it may well seem that we are, but that is a skewed way of looking at things. In our society today we are more controlled, restricted, spied upon and monitored than at any time in our history. The last twenty years have seen more
and more of our rights taken away from us under new laws that the government stealthily introduce, by for instance telling us it’s for our own protection in the case of powers granted to the police in the fight against terrorism. It may
initially be used for one section of society but could have a range of implications for the public as a whole. We have more CCTV cameras than anywhere else in Europe. We are constantly watched and tracked, and with “smart” phones the authorities can pinpoint you to a place in seconds while Oyster cards keepa handy record of where we have been.
Our mainstream media is largely run by a handful of millionaires that feed us whatever party line they support through their papers; a nice cosy arrangement with the politicians who in turn get their media mates to bury news they don’t want us to know about. We are given a set of rules, laws to abide by. They claim to be for the common good but we are constantly shown that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. A truly fair and equal society would indeed be free. Free from injustice and a place where we could all meet and live as equals sharing our collective wealth, but that is just not the case. Something like five per cent of the population own ninety per cent of the land! How did these people get to own land in the first place? By taking it by force manyyears ago. I’ve personally always thought that owning the land is a ridiculous notion but their laws ensure that we have no freedom to roam where we choose.
We are told it’s wrong to steal and yet we are robbed every single day by landlords, banks, big business marking up huge profits, taxed to death by the government – the list is endless. Most working people are lucky to have enough to get them through to the next week and once they’ve paid out the bills there is preciouslittle left. And that’s just the way the state wants the lower classes to be: reliant wage slaves, given just enough but not nearly enough!
We are also bombarded with the lives of the rich and famous. The TV and magazines like OK and Hellosell us glimpses into their luxury lifestyles. The ever-pouting Posh Spice and her gormless jet-set equals Paris Hilton et al
flaunt their unbelievable wealth in our faces while doing absolutely nothing to earn it. The poor lap it all up and long to be them, knowing the likelihood of that ever happening is zero. The uber-rich live in countries where they can
avoid paying their taxes – so it would seem freedom is obtainable at the right price. If you have the money you can buy it!
Violence, we are told, is not permitted in a civilised society. Yet we watch as those in power sell masses of arms to corrupt regimes around the world that end up in the slaughter of innocents. When there is money at stake and oil to be controlled it would seem that people’s freedom is way down the list where the men of Mammon are concerned. How many indigenous people have been crushed, uprooted and in some cases eradicated in the name of oil, timber or whatever commodity it is that they desire?
There is only the freedom that tyrants and despots around the globe allow us to have. Their double standards and hypocrisy are disgusting and how they still manage to pull the wool over the masses’ eyes is a mystery to many.
As the years passed my involvement in direct action increased. I became a hunt saboteur and regularly attended hunts in defence of the animals’ liberty. The rich and infamous took exception to their “sport” being disrupted and violence was never far away. Arrests inevitably followed with the law firmly on the side of the well-to-do hunters.
I lost my freedom after being sent to prison for kicking a police riot shield on a May Day protest demo. The police had held us for over six hours using the new “kettling” tactic for the first time. We had been crushed and bashed with batons all day and my temper broke loose with one kick. I was sentenced to six months. This did little to deter me and only underlined the injustice of law and order. Losing my liberty was the worst feeling ever.
In recent years my political life has been dominated by the fight against the rise of the far right. On a wet weekend in March 2009 myself and fellow anti-fascists tried to stop a concert by the extreme nazi organisation Blood and Honour. Given the chance, these fascists would deny many of us our freedom. Their message is one of intolerance and hatred. As the police seemed indifferent we felt it was our duty to try and stop these vile people preaching their politics of hate.
I was involved in a fight with one of the “master race” and myself and twenty-two others were arrested in dawn raids in a massive operation by the authorities.We were charged with conspiring to commit violent disorder. Six were found guilty and sentenced to twenty-one months.
I try to make some sense of why I am sitting in this cell. It seems that those who are prepared to stand up for what is right are treated as criminals. I don’t know if losing my own freedom in defence of others’ freedom is too high a price, but I will always believe freedom is worth fighting for. How I carry on that fight remains to be seen.”
NCAG members travelled down the A11 to HMP Wayland to visit Ravi Gill, one of the seven antifascists jailed for twenty one months last June. For those unfamiliar with the trial and how they were fitted up, a website by supporters has been set up here http://antifascistprisonersupportuk.wordpress.com/about-2/ .
Ravi is in good spirits and sends his thanks and best wishes to all who’ve been sending him mail and financial help in the form of postal orders while he’s banged up.
However we believe that the initial abundance of solidarity has of late tailed off somewhat and we’d urge that people continue to write to all the prisoners regularly in order to help keep them positive in the knowledge that they’ve not been forgotten.
While we all lead busy lives it’s often too easy to put off writing until a later date, but bear in mind though that being locked in a cell for much of the day gives a lot of time for thought and naturally negativity will sometimes set in, hence the importance of staying in touch and remembering the old adage…
“They’re inside for us…we’re outside for them.”
Full details on how to stay in touch with the Welling Seven can be found here http://antifascistprisonersupportuk.wordpress.com/addresses/
IWCA article looking at the politics of race and identity.
Recent weeks have seen racial tensions in the news once more, with the antics of the ‘English Defence League’ and those responding to them featuring high in the headlines. Like the BNP, the EDL claim to be defending the rights of the majority culture in the same manner as minorities, with support from their liberal sympathisers, defend theirs. As times get harder and the economic cake shrinks over the coming years, the battle for the crumbs will, as things stand, be fought along racial lines. This is the legacy of identity politics and multiculturalism.
The purpose of this article is to start the process of taking our analysis of multiculturalism and identity politics to a new level. The aim is to ensure we have the tools to be able to challenge the stance of both the left and the right on this issue. With regard to the right, it is not just the BNP we want to challenge but the more deferential kind of conservatism that may fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the neo-liberal project. A key part of this challenge is to highlight how backward and reactionary the embrace of multiculturalism and identity politics is. In particular, we want to draw attention to the way in which identity politics traps people and denies them the opportunity to transcend their circumstances – a vitally important aim given the parlous state of the economy and the coming age of austerity.
The 30 year experiment with neo-liberalism has crashed and burned. The bubble economy of the last ten years was built on the triple pillars of a debt fuelled consumer boom, supposedly ever rising property prices that were meant to underpin that debt and last, but by no means least, the shenanigans of high finance. These three pillars have crumbled to dust leaving an economy with no dynamism and no means of renewing itself. Neo-liberalism has been responsible for the decline of upward social mobility from the working class over the last thirty years. With a moribund economy, the downward mobility of those who thought they could buy the middle class lifestyle on credit will, if anything, swell the ranks of the working class.
New Labour are in the process of self destructing, Unless Gordon Brown can pull off the miracle of all times, the Tories look set to form the next government. With the failure of neo-liberalism leaving a vacuum on the political right, conservatives are grasping around for a new narrative that will fit the looming age of austerity. Further investigation is needed to enable us to predict with some certainty what that narrative will be. However, in an age where prevailing economic circumstances have made upward social mobility from the working class almost an impossibility, an acceleration of the return to a more hierarchical, rigid society is pretty much on the cards, albeit one assuming a 21st century form utilising the green rhetoric of limits. In this kind of climate, any kind of thinking that implies peoples’ identities are fixed, whether they are cultural, religious or based on class, will only serve to reinforce social and cultural divisions, thwarting any attempts to move society onto a more dynamic, progressive footing.
We have a responsibility to challenge backward notions about the immutability of peoples’ identities and to fight for a vision of a society where the majority of ordinary working people, regardless of their ethnic, religious or social background, can fulfil their aspirations.
The left’s obsession with identity politics
To be brutally honest, there never was a golden age of the political left. But there was a time when there was more of a commitment to universal values and aspirations. The problem for the left was that they never had a convincing or successful programme that could deliver equality for all along with economic and social justice. The left certainly never had an analysis or programme that convinced the vast majority of working class people to fully place their faith in them. This failure inevitably led the working class to give up on the left and the left to emphatically turn their backs on the working class. The rest is the grisly history of the left’s retreat into the world of identity politics.
It is a travesty that so called progressives should embrace the politics of identity. For what are identity politics other than a celebration of what you were born into? Celebrating an accident of birth denies the possibility of transcending what you are and striving for a better future for yourself, your family and your community. The only people who would willingly embrace such a limiting and rigid society are the more traditional conservatives who long for a more stable and hierarchical society, even if upward social mobility is a casualty of this. Which makes it all the more odd that so called ‘progressives’ are quite happy to promote identity politics and multiculturalism when it is clear they only serve to consign people to a fixed status in society. It may not be the explicit intention of these ‘progressives’ to do this but it is certainly the unintended consequence. What they also fail to see is that conservative notions about identity and culture being immutable can also be applied to class. When a devastating economic crisis has effectively ended any chance of upward social mobility for the working class, championing the politics of identity is a betrayal of their aspirations.
So this begs the question, why has the left embraced identity politics? While the purpose here is not to undertake a post mortem on the failure of the left, the answer to the question does lie in some of the numerous wrong turns they have made in the past.
The liberal left’s inexorable drift into identity politics has its roots, in part, in the struggles against imperialism and racism. The problems the left has brought upon itself in the course of those struggles stem from an over-emphasis on the cultural aspects of these issues and an underplaying of the material and economic factors at play.
The failure of much of the liberal left in their analysis to effectively take on board the political, material and economic factors which fuelled imperialism from its inception in the 19th century have led to the cultural and moral aspects of the issue being over-played. The politics of guilt and self loathing that are the hallmarks of the liberal left are a direct consequence of this failure. A few of the more orthodox Marxist sects certainly had a much better understanding of the dynamics of imperialism but the very nature of these groups meant there was always going to be a very limited audience for their analysis.
This liberal left self-loathing guilt and the automatic, unthinking and uncritical reflex of West-equals-bad and anything non-Western must be good sits uneasily with the fact that many leaders of the liberation struggles from the 1940s onwards respected the learning and thinking of Western civilisation. These leaders wryly observed it was a great shame the colonial powers didn’t live up to the Enlightenment values they supposedly espoused. Kenan Malik describes this outlook thus:
Those who actually fought Western imperialism over the past two centuries recognised that their struggles were rooted in the Enlightenment tradition. ‘I denounce European colonialist scholarship’, wrote CLR James, the West Indian writer and political revolutionary. ‘But I respect the learning and the profound discoveries of Western civilisation.’ 
The struggle against racism in Britain has been diverted into the sidings when it comes to upholding universal values such as economic and social justice for all. There have been plenty of barriers to immigrants over the generations that have prevented them from achieving their aims of building a new and better life – one being active racial discrimination and the other being the limits to the ability of the economic system we live under to guarantee the chance of improvement for all. While it was essential to fight racial discrimination, the left failed to effectively link this struggle with a challenge to the material, economic and social constraints that prevented immigrants and the working class as a whole from moving up the ladder. The consequence of this was to allow the issue of racism to become one of culture and attitudes with the material and economic aspects of the matter only paid occasional lip service.
Merely stepping onto the terrain of culture and attitudes sets in motion a chain of consequences that lead to blaming the majority population for the continuance of racism and the finger wagging, moralising approach to anti-racism that has been a hallmark of the left for over thirty years now. The situation was reached where the ethnic minorities could do no wrong and the white working class were condemned pretty much every time they expressed concerns over the impact of immigration or the unfairness of multiculturalism. The bitter legacy of the embrace of identity politics is the cleavage of the working class along the lines described by Frances Fox Piven thus:
Identity politics fosters lateral cleavages which are unlikely to reflect fundamental conflicts over societal power and resources and, indeed, may seal popular allegiance ‘to the ruling classes that exploit them. 
On the other hand:
Class politics, at least in principle, promotes vertical cleavages, mobilizing people around axes which broadly correspond to hierarchies of power, and which promote challenges to these hierarchies. 
The consequence of this is the division of the working class as the liberal left fawns over the ethnic minorities while barely concealing their contempt for the white working class. A contempt which once you examine the language used and the motivations behind it, is racist. The left long ago abandoned what was at best, an uneasy relationship with the British working class when it was judged that the class wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the political programme on offer. That breakdown of the relationship has over the decades, morphed into a despairing contempt for the British working class and the assumption that they are irredeemably reactionary and resistant to any attempts at enlightenment. In other words, the left has implicitly embraced the notion that there are certain characteristics of the British working class that are immutable and unchanging. When you consider the consequences of ascribing immutable characteristics to any social or ethnic grouping, then it has to be said the liberal left are on very dangerous ground indeed in their demonisation of the white working class.
The BNP are multiculturalists
The BNP claims to despise multiculturalism. While it can be said they deplore what they see as the consequences of the liberal left embrace of multiculturalism, the far right see each and every culture as immutable and unchanging, hence the need to preserve the cultural identity of the white majority by taking a stand against inter-marriage. The BNP will claim they respect the premise that other cultures have a right to their own existence, the proviso being that differing cultures have to be kept separate in order to preserve their ‘purity’. They also claim that cultural divisions are natural and attempts to eradicate or even dilute them run against the natural order. Alastair Harper writing in the BNP journal, Identity, stated that:
As the Duke of Wellington said “Being born in a stable does not make one a horse” – Britishness is chromosomal not residential. 
The far right have looked at how the left has embraced identity politics and have appropriated some of the terminology and language of the left to celebrate the culture of the majority white population. After all, when the BNP say that if such and such a group can celebrate their culture, then surely the white majority has as much of a right to celebrate theirs? If you are of a liberal left persuasion and have already signed up to the notion that minority cultures have a right to celebrate what they are, then it can be said it is hypocritical of them to deny that right to the white majority. Such is the dilemma faced by the liberal left as the consequences of their embrace of identity politics start to bite them back.
The BNP in their desire to defend and enforce cultural and ethnic boundaries face a potential flaw in their desire to portray themselves as the ‘friends’ of the working class. The fatal flaw is that the far right’s assertion that cultural divisions are natural can also quite easily be turned around by conservatives and applied to class divisions…
Why traditional conservatives love identity politics
With an allegedly reformist leader in the person of David Cameron who has been frantically re-branding conservatism to make it relevant to the 21st century, why are we talking about ‘traditional conservatism’? As stated in the introduction, the disintegration of the neo-liberal economic and social experiment has left a vacuum on the political right. We are moving into a period where even if there is a technical recovery from the recession, the pace of growth will be so sluggish that there will be no feeling of dynamism in the economy. Allied to this will be the inevitable raising of taxes and painful cuts in public spending as the government of the day attempts to work off the massive public debt, a considerable chunk of which was incurred in the desperate bid to avert systemic bank failure.
To put it bluntly, for any incoming government after the next election, the prospect they face is a nightmare of the worst order. Given New Labour’s complete and utter disintegration, it is more than likely that the next government will be a Tory one. The Tories are going to have to find a narrative to help them in presiding over at best a sluggish economy, austerity and the ever present threat of the IMF having to pay a visit if insufficient progress is being made in reducing the crippling level of public (and private) debt owed by UK plc. The Tories are going to have to find a way of telling the vast bulk of the population that they can forget about their dreams and aspirations as the nation hunkers down to generations of austerity.
Talk of economic growth, dynamism and the prospect of rising living standards will be off the agenda for a long while. Instead, the discussion will be about limits, making do, and accepting what you have and where you are in society. While it would be difficult for the Tories to openly return to the hierarchical view of society they embraced in the past, they will be making every effort to develop a narrative of limits and accepting what you have that will be relevant to the 21st century. There are considerably more subtle ways of promoting this notion, one being green rhetoric about limits to growth being appropriated and twisted around to a dialogue about people learning to be more content with what they have. As well as this, the Tories will have the extremely delicate task of having to explain why upward social mobility is an ever receding possibility for the bulk of the population. As stated earlier, the issue of how the Tories will develop this narrative will be the subject of further investigation.
Traditional conservatives claim that cultures do not mix successfully and that different peoples are best left to get on with their own affairs. This stems from the assumption that culture is an immutable characteristic of any given society and one that only evolves slowly. The same argument has been used by some conservatives to justify the continuance of class divisions, hence their making every effort to depict class as something that is more or less immutable with only a few being deemed capable of making an upward move out of their class. Obviously, it is a rare conservative who will explicitly state such open prejudice – most will choose a form of language that either implies or sows the seed of a notion in peoples’ minds that there is a natural and unchanging aspect to class divisions. One example of how these notions can be sown came in this recent utterance from the former chief schools inspector, Chris Woodhead, on the issue of social class and life chances:
I think it would be unlikely that large numbers of grammar school kids would come from those disadvantaged areas – the genes are likely to be better if your parents are teachers, academics, lawyers, whatever. And the nurture is likely to be better. But that doesn’t mean that there are not going to be DH Lawrences. 
With a long period of austerity, a moribund economy and upward social mobility a thing of the past, it will be tempting for at least some conservatives to revisit past thinking about class divisions having at least in part, a natural element to them, albeit that thinking will have to be re-presented in a form that has relevance to the 21st century. It is worth taking a brief look at the history of such thinking. Racial thinking in the 19th century had its origins in the deterministic notion that the poor were poor because of the lot dealt to them by nature and that in the main, there was little chance of the majority of them ever being able to transcend their circumstances. This account of working class life in the Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the Victorian era, typifies the English middle class attitudes of this era:
The Bethnal Green poor… are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact. And although there is not yet quite the same separation of classes or castes in the country, yet the great mass of the agricultural poor are divided from the educated and the comfortable, from squires and parsons and tradesmen, by a barrier which custom has forged through long centuries, and which only very exceptional circumstances ever beat down, and then only for an instant. The slaves are separated from the whites by more glaring… marks of distinction; but still distinctions and separations, like those of English classes which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship, produce a general effect on the life of the extreme poor, and subject them to isolation, which offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.
In the 21st century, it would be hoped that this kind of deterministic thinking would have been thoroughly discredited. However, a scan through the comments left after any article on social mobility and class in a right wing paper such as the Telegraph will reveal that these prejudices are alive and well. The quote below is just one example of how these views can be expressed:
More children is not a solution or a good idea if those children are born to those at the bottom of the social ladder. Intelligence, either of the genetic or acquired variety, does not occur naturally at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder at anything like it does at the middle or upper ends. Having a disproportionate number of children born to parents at the bottom of the mental acuity scale will not save anything. It will create an intractable feudal society with an educated, intelligent elite and a far larger uneducable underclass. We must encourage educated women to bear more children or do it ‘artificially’ if we are to avoid this dysgenic nightmare. 
While conservatives condemn the obsession of multiculturalists with celebrating the identity of minorities while ignoring the majority, privately they must be delighted at the message that is implicitly conveyed by the liberal left. The left’s obsession with encouraging minorities to celebrate the culture they have in a world where upward social mobility is a fading dream, sends out an implicit signal that identities cannot be transcended and that people have little choice but to accept what and where they are. In other words, there is the danger that where there is little or no upward social mobility, class divisions become naturalised. This has to be music to the ears of those conservatives who hanker after a stable social order where people know their place in the pecking order…
Why multiculturalism and identity politics are reactionary and backwards
The celebration of a particular culture is in fact, a recognition that in a society where material and social progress can no longer be guaranteed for the mass of the people, cultural identity is the one constant that people can hang onto when times are hard. It is an implicit admission that the project of achieving material, social and economic progress for the mass of the people has effectively been abandoned by the left. As Kenan Malik states, this outlook is the consequence of the narrowing of political options.
As the meaning of politics has narrowed, so people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people ask themselves are not so much ‘What kind of society do I want to live in?’ as ‘Who are we?’ 
The liberal left is unable to understand that there is nothing progressive in unthinkingly encouraging people to simply celebrate what they are. This is particularly the case when reactionary and backward social practices not only go unchallenged but are excused on the basis that they are an ‘integral part of the culture’. This unthinking encouragement for ethnic minorities to celebrate what they are is at odds with the prime motive of any immigrant which is to start a new life in a new country and to leave the past behind.
The major failure of the left was promoting this uncritical celebration of culture for pretty much every ethnic and religious minority while at the same time, strongly condemning and such expression of pride from the white working class majority. Not only did the left turn its back on the white working class, they embarked upon an ideological trajectory that would guarantee the white working class turning its back on the left in utter disgust!
Fairness for all
When the IWCA have been canvassing and the issue of race and multiculturalism has been brought up, the vast majority of white working class people we have talked to simply want fair treatment. They rightly object to public funding for community projects that benefit one small ethnic minority at the expense of the majority.
The liberal left’s encouragement for various minorities to celebrate their culture stands in stark contrast to their thinly veiled contempt for any of the white working class who simply want an acknowledgement of their Englishness / Britishness. As discussed earlier, part of this is down to liberal guilt about the colonial past plus an anti-imperialism that unthinkingly assumes that anything Western is bad, so by definition, anything anti-Western has to be good. However, that is only part of the explanation for their dismissive attitude towards any white working class assertion of English / British identity. Again, as discussed earlier, there is a thinly veiled contempt for the working class who had the temerity to snub the patronising, middle class, Fabian, social democratic political model. One clear consequence of this contempt is that the white working class majority can never expect fairness from a middle class left who despise them. This is why we need to have the argument out with the left on how backward, reactionary and ultimately their unthinking support for multiculturalism and identity is.
Despite the siren promises made by the likes of the BNP, the working class cannot expect a fair society to be delivered from an authoritarian political tendency that supports a rigid social structure. The far right’s implicit support for a rigid social hierarchy has to be brought out and shown as the barrier to working class advancement it really is.
Firing our guns in both directions at once is the only way we can offer a distinctive analysis and critique of identity politics that once and for all, labels it as a reactionary and backward doctrine that only serves to hold working class people back. This means paradoxically, de-racialising identity politics and showing it to be nothing more than support for a social hierarchy where people are expected to know their place. Once this can be achieved, the more fundamental questions of what kind of social economy we want can then start to be seriously addressed.
The following points are intended to act as a brief summary of why we think multiculturalism and identity politics have dangerously reactionary consequences.
1) Over recent decades, the left has increasingly abandoned the working class and class politics in favour of identity politics: the politics of race, gender and sexuality. In turn, this has caused the working class to increasingly abandon the left.
2) Taken to its logical conclusion, identity politics is a conservative, anti-human concept that sees society as static – a view that can translate just as easily to rigid class hierarchies as it can to competing and incompatible cultural and racial identities.
3) Defining people in terms of the ‘identity’ they were born into is a rejection of the idea of a dynamic society, where it is seen as possible – and desirable – for class and cultural identities to be transcended so that everyone can reach their full and unique potential.
4) The promotion of identity politics fosters artificial divisions within the working class and helps to encourage a racialised view of the world, preparing the ground for race-based politics. This view of society simply doesn’t reflect fundamental conflicts over economic and societal power yet it has the potential to fatally fragment each and every progressive working class movement in the future. Like the Labour Party, the BNP is fully signed up to the notion of identity politics, to the extent that their magazine is called ‘Identity’.
5) We support the concept of full equality, where people are judged on what they do rather than on what they are perceived to be. As a consequence of this, we oppose funding for initiatives that are restricted to particular ethnic and cultural groups as they undermine community solidarity. We support efforts to end discrimination, with the aim being equal treatment for all.
 Kenan Malik – Against multiculturalism – New Humanist, Summer 2002 –http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/against_mc.html
[2&3] Frances Fox Piven – Globalising Capitalism and the rise of
Identity Politics – http://socialistregister.com/socialistregister.com/files/SR_1995_Piven.pdf
 Alastair Harper – Blood of the Isles – Identity, June 2007 –
 Polly Curtis – ‘Don’t say I was wrong’ – The Guardian, 12 May 2009 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/may/12/chris-woodhead-teaching
 Saturday Review – 16 January, 1864
 Comment made by Scott on: Can we pay for pensions without working until we drop? – Daily Telegraph, 7 May, 2009 –http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/edmundconway/5286906/Can-we-pay-for-pensions-without-working-until-we-drop.html
 Kenan Malik – Making a difference: culture, race and social policy – Patterns of Prejudice, Vol 39, no 4, December 2005 –http://www.kenanmalik.com/papers/pop_multiculturalism.html