Criminalising National Action achieves nearly nothing, and may endanger us all

The horrific assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair left the nation in a deep sense of mourning, anger and confusion. As a result of his connections with National Action, perhaps the most extreme of Britain’s array of neo-Nazi and far-right groups, the latter have been listed as an illegal terrorist organisation under anti-extremism laws. Commentators cheered for the fact that National Action, and the grotesque politics they stood for, were to be consigned to the dustbin of history. However, although many of us might dearly hope this to be the case, a brief glance at the history of fascism and its opponents shows that what appears to be a sensible and effective policy move is underpinned by a profound misunderstanding of groups like National action, their politics, causes and motivations. Moreover, the forward march of ‘anti-extremism’ legislation poses a very real threat to those who dare to oppose the far right on the streets.

Not so long ago, during the heady days of New Labour’s first term in office, many could be forgiven for assuming that the far right was largely a thing of the past. The once-notorious National Front were in disarray – the intimidating street marches that had once buoyed them to what felt at the time as the de facto control of entire neighbourhoods were no longer as big or as menacing, and their new electoral strategy was pathetically unsuccessful. Their cousins in the British National Party, led by the (then) fresh-faced Nick Griffin, were equally small, ineffective and not taken seriously outside of one or two small pockets of the country. Thatcher, Major and Blair all had the same strategy: if declining industry and the emergence of a new, finance-driven, globalised economy leads to frustrations among those ‘left behind’, then over time they will simply adapt to this new environment.

For a while, this market-based strategy seemed to be working: incidents of racist violence and abuse dropped. However, it was underpinned by a range of other factors, including anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, community-focused policing approaches, dramatic crackdowns on football hooliganism, the growth of CCTV, and the reorientation of the far right towards electoralism. The long economic boom from 1993 onwards also helped to soften the uneven and complex impacts of the newly globalised economy emerging in the UK. For a while, this created a fragile but carefully cultivated sense of social peace.

The problem with this apparent social peace was that it was propped up on decidedly flimsy pillars. The economic buoyancy provided by the long boom was unceremoniously sunk by the global financial crisis of 2008; anti-discrimination laws led to the mainstreaming of ‘anti-PC’ discourses in the right-wing media which legitimised its more hard-right variants; the 2001 riots in northern cities illustrated how superficial community policing strategies were; CCTV was used more to criminalise the presence of working class teenagers in public spaces than it was to bring about any kind of ‘justice’ to the victims of theft or violence. The electoral successes of the BNP in the mid-2000s saw the far right poking their heads above the parapet once again – not in ‘white power’ t-shirts but in smart suits, and armed not with banner poles but with glossy leaflets.

The liberal, cosmopolitan centre-left were shocked, and their mouthpieces set about chastising BNP voters for their ‘stupidity’ and ‘ignorance’. Now, despite the demise of the BNP as an electoral force and the decline of the English Defence League as a unified social movement, the far right appears as present and as dangerous as it ever was in the 1980s, and attitudes towards immigration, nationalism and ‘law and order’ that were once the preserve of the far right are now widely accepted as mainstream.

Although this is well-documented, important pieces of the story have been conveniently forgotten. In the decline of far-right politics, alongside policy choices and economic growth that operated ‘above the heads’ of ordinary people, decidedly more grassroots factors were at play – namely, the anti-fascist movement. In particular, between the mid-1980s and the early years of Blair’s New Labour, one important element in the successful struggle against the far right was a group by the name of Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), which was arguably one of the most effective anti-fascist organisations the UK has ever seen. Along with a range of other so-called ‘militant’ anti-fascist groups (such as the Asian Youth Movements that formed to defend Asian neighbourhoods against far-right attacks), AFA sought to confront the far right with a combination of ideological and physical approaches. Distributing leaflets, knocking on doors and holding public meetings was one element of their approach; the other involved physically fighting the far right and disrupting their capacity to organise. The violence of AFA’s strategy was a point of contention – not least because it arguably cultivated an exclusionary culture of macho prowess among its street fighters – but it nevertheless played a key role in beating back the far right (sometimes literally) in the 1980s and 1990s. The trouble with the new-found sense of peace in the late 1990s and early 2000s is that the organisational memory, strategies and skills developed among anti-fascists during the previous two decades were lost, forgotten or actively dismantled.

So, if AFA and similar organisations were so effective, why have they all but disappeared from our collective memory? Alongside its commitment to radical left politics, which may have played a part in side-lining it in relation to relatively ‘apolitical’ organisations like the Anti-Nazi League, its explicit support for non-state-sanctioned violence rendered AFA a particularly ‘ugly’ element in a struggle that is persistently represented by the centre of politics as clearly divided between ‘peace versus violence’ or ‘love versus hate’. If only it were this straightforward. What’s more, AFA threatened the state’s monopoly of legitimate violence by acting outside of the state’s definitions of ‘reasonable’ protest. This is a crucial point, since it means that the people were in some areas doing a better job of policing the far right than the police themselves. Indeed, it is well known that the police themselves have had a long history of racism – both individually and institutionally.

Importantly, the violence in the strategies of AFA and similar groups has always been a convenient excuse for governments to crack down on political radicals – take the various socialists and trade unionists of London’s East End, for example, who in the 1920s and 30s were at the forefront of the bloody struggle against Oswald Moseley’s blackshirts, or the anarchists and communists in the same period who severely delayed the rising tide of fascism in Italy, Spain and Germany. Even in the aftermath of World War II, socialist Jewish veterans found themselves having to regroup and physically fight off a resurgent fascist movement on the streets of Britain. During those periods, it was the anti-fascists who suffered most severe state repression – even those who were not radicals but aligned broadly with the anti-fascist cause. These groups threatened the status quo far more than the fascists they opposed – the latter didn’t want to overcome capitalism but simply to reinforce it with anti-democratic authoritarianism and underpin it with racism as an explicit state policy.

Historically, there is little doubt that state crackdowns on ‘extremism’ have tended to sweep up those confronting the far right as much as – or even more than – the fascists themselves. But this is not just a historical issue, as mass arrests at recent anti-fascist demonstrations, and the especially harsh sentences that followed, indicate. In many cases, it was ordinary people, not the state or the police, who were the most effective at closing down opportunities for the far right to grow. The problem for AFA and other anti-fascist groups is that in order to effectively confront the far right, they needed to refuse the standard rules of engagement that are expected of ‘civil society’. This has been the case even when they have not undertaken violent activities, such as blockades or pickets. Many anti-fascists have paid a heavy price for their activities – not only hefty prison sentences but also disablement or even death. As we have seen with the assassination of Jo Cox, this can be the case even when people do play by the rules.

It is important that policy-makers and wider society recognise the implications of criminalising neo-Nazi gangs like National Action, and the laws used to do so. Clearly this approach will slow National Action’s activities and make it harder for them to organise in the short term, but criminalisation is a superficial, tokenistic and temporary measure, and is certainly no silver bullet for addressing the root cause of the growing wave of far-right activity across the UK and Europe. Relying on punitive legislation to deal with the complex social issues that lie at the base of communities’ struggles for survival and wellbeing in a turbulent world is a recipe for dangerous, counter-productive complacency. And if the lessons of history teach us anything, they teach us that the far right are not the only ones who stand to suffer from the vague and dangerous agenda of ‘anti-extremism’.

Grief and distance in the digital age

A week ago today, a young woman called Maria died unexpectedly in her sleep. She was a little under years old and lived in a city in Ohio. Ever since I heard the news, I’ve been grieving – and not just a little down in the dumps, I mean actually crying like a little baby. I’ve not cried this much for as long as I can remember, certainly not in my adult life. And I’ve never grieved for anyone so intensely – not even, dare I say it, my own grandparents.

The strange thing about this grief is that I’ve only met Maria once. Back in summer 2007 I was doing PhD fieldwork in the USA, researching the contemporary renaissance of the radical labour union, the IWW. Maria was a member of the branch when the union’s HQ was based in her home town, and I spent a few days with her, wandering around town, walking in the woods, listening to music at her place, meeting some of her friends and union comrades. It was a nice encounter – we got on well, had fun, became Facebook friends, and when I returned to the UK we moved on with our lives. We kept in touch on-and-off after that – right up until her death – even joking occasionally about flying over to see one another, but it was never anything serious. She was a really lovely woman, and that was that.

But now I’m inexplicably filled with grief and barely a day goes by without spending a little while thinking about her, and maybe having a(nother) little cry. Given how little we were connected, I just don’t understand quite why her death has hit me so hard. Now, there is a lot written online about why people grieve celebrities so intensely, but nothing that I can find that explores why we grieve – in a very real, deeply visceral way – for ‘ordinary’ people we barely know.

So this is my attempt to put the grief to bed and to work out why on earth it has had such an unexpectedly enormous impact. Spoiler alert: a lot of it, but not all, revolves around Facebook.

  • Social media and the intersubjective cultivation of self: This is a fancy way of saying that we construct our identities in relation to others around us, and my ongoing interactions with her on Facebook created a feeling of togetherness across a vast distance. Even though we would usually only ‘like’ one another’s updates, the pattern of this distant interaction was enough to build a certain form of connection, especially when it became comments or private messages.
  • Those damn algorithms: Facebook creates structures in its system to try and predict what users are most likely to enjoy or find interesting. Part of that is linked to how we have reacted to others’ posts in the past. The ongoing pattern of Maria and I liking, sharing or commenting on one another’s posts will have been ‘learned’ by Facebook and would have reinforced itself over time, meaning that we would receive a steady stream of each other’s updates tailored to what we want to see. Much like the Polymorph in Red Dwarf, Facebook’s algorithms amplified our emotional attachment through presenting itself as that which we would want to see (a fantasy, of sorts, but in this case very much based on reality).
  • The ‘public archive’ of others’ reactions: Facebook acts as an archive of interactions, and I discovered that Maria had died through others tagging her in their photographs and messages. I saw her cousins, aunts, uncles and even her brother pour their hearts out right in front of me. I saw her childhood friends doing the same, posting pictures of Maria as a young child. I saw her band-mates and friends from the local punk scene talk of the happy times they had spent together. So much humanity and grief and shock was captured and frozen in time through these incredibly personal messages. I already knew Maria was a glowing, friendly, up-beat, talented, caring human who was incessantly wonderful to be around, but literally hundreds of messages confirmed and amplified this over and over and over again.
  • The condition of not-being-there: In contrast with the emotional shrinking of the distance between us – this intensified level of knowledge and the unfolding nature of all the messages of grief across her Facebook page – I am still far, far away. I don’t know what caused her death, I don’t know if she suffered, and despite seeing pictures of her grave, I almost certainly will never, ever be able to pay my last respects. This distant-proximity, then, has built an infrastructure of connection that has no ‘release valve’, no way of finding an end-point, a goodbye, a closure. (And here come the water-works again).
  • Commonality in real life: Put simply, despite the clever computer wizardry of Facebook, Maria and I genuinely were friends, we had a set of broadly common values and interests, shared a similar sense of humour, and we enjoyed one another’s company (if only for a few fleeting days). Had I visited her town again, I would definitely have seen her, and, I’d like to think, vice versa. No matter what the internet is capable of, if you don’t have a basic human attraction (in this case, largely of the non-romantic kind!), then you will not connect. This point is not at the end of the list because it’s not important; in fact, it’s the most important of them all. Real life gives substance to the ‘structures’ through which it passes, and breathes life into an otherwise empty matrix of logics and digital connections.

So there you go. Distance can indeed make the heart grow considerably fonder.

Here’s to you, old buddy.

 

 

* I’ve deliberately avoided including Maria’s surname for what I hope are fairly obvious reasons. If you know her, you’ll know who I’m talking about.

What would Brexit mean for the radical left?

As a growing number of commentators across the radical left are outlining, the choices in the EU referendum are decidedly depressing. On the one hand there exists the Vote Leave camp, whose primary focus involves rambling on about booting out all the immigrants; on the other, most of the Remain campaign seems blissfully unaware that the EU is so riddled with neoliberalising rules and regulations as to make any kind of radical – or even just vaguely progressive – EU practically impossible anytime soon. Thus, the immediate choice is between two bad options: do we want to be ruled by racist toffs or neoliberal oligarchs?

As has been articulated by a number of individuals and groups, at the very least, the EU does provide a number of very basic protections that would be immediately under threat should the UK leave the EU, especially on workers’ rights, human rights, and the right to free(ish) movement. As such, it seems that the majority of the radical left is leaning towards a reluctant vote to remain.

However, a recent Guardian poll suggests that the vote could be extremely close, with only 4 percentage points dividing the two camps. We therefore need to think seriously about left strategy in the event that a leave vote wins. As an initial foray into these murky waters, I have identified some threats and opportunities that may face us if the UK leaves the EU.

Threats

  • A much friendlier political environment for the right. Spurred on by nationalist and xenophobic fervour in the wake of Brexit, and freed from the ‘restrictions’ of EU regulation, the right would be far more buoyant and confident in its ability to push through ever-stronger anti-immigrant, anti-union and anti-working class legislation. The Conservatives would almost certainly win the next general election and UKIP could make gains too.
  • With a much more open political environment for the right, there could be greater opportunity for a violent, street-based far-right to emerge and begin terrorising immigrants and leftists alike, with relative impunity from an already right-leaning police force with new confidence to turn a blind eye. Alternatively, those attracted to far-right politics may well become absorbed by the new ‘mainstream’ and lose their need/desire to engage in politics of the street. Either way, it’s very bad news.
  • The combination of market uncertainty, a period of renegotiating treaties, and increasingly stringent laws on workers and benefits, would almost inevitably lead to a significant reduction in income and quality of life for many, especially the working class, unemployed, and those with low education levels. A new recession, at least in the short term, would be likely.
  • Another Scottish referendum on independence, this time with a much stronger pro-independence vote, could be on the cards. Should Scotland leave, a major section of the British left would ‘disappear’, leaving a proportionally much bigger right in what would remain of the UK.

 

Opportunities

  • The destabilisation of the UK economy and reductions in quality of life for many may create a new political vacuum for a resurgent left (with nothing left to lose!) to make a stronger case against the increasingly visible failings of the right. Many who initially supported Brexit and the exclusionary politics that drives it could turn to the left as a result.
  • The removal of extremely powerful neoliberal EU rules against re-nationalisation could see opportunities for new collective forms of ownership – not only state ownership but also other (e.g. co-operative and other worker-owned) forms of management of public services.
  • An increasingly aggressive policy approach towards immigration, workers’ rights, human rights and basic social protections could see a significant convergence of different interests and campaigns into a broader movement against the Tory government and (what would become) their de facto allies, UKIP.
  • The possibility of large-scale resignations in the Conservative Party could signal a split within the party and some level of fragmentation and disarray among the right.
  • Mass deportations or a block on new immigrants could cause havoc for the labour market. Our highly segmented labour market depends on Filipino nurses, Polish warehouse workers, Romanian bricklayers and so on – their sudden removal from the labour market could lead to catastrophic labour shortages if managed badly. This could, for example, signal opportunities for new struggles around demands for stipendiary vocational education and even paid domestic labour to emerge, as well as an increased leverage for workers with skills that are in demand to force better pay and conditions in those sectors.

 

These are, of course, all speculative suggestions, but it is important to imagine what the UK would be like outside of the EU, and how it might affect the possibilities for the radical left. In light of these suggestions, I would like to propose a number of priorities that radicals, revolutionaries and other extra-parliamentary leftists of all stripes should consider in preparation for a possible Brexit:

  1. Learn from our mistakes

The left spectacularly failed to capitalise on the global financial crisis of 2007-8, and we cannot afford to make the same mistakes again. What went wrong? How can we prevent it from going wrong again? This short blog is not the place to go into detail about these things, but the question must be asked – crucially, not as individual parties or groups (“Why didn’t we manage to build our membership?”) but as a broader movement of black, green and red (“Why were we unable to shift the political discourse? Why did we lose momentum? Where did our splits come from?”). Blaming external factors for these problems (other groups, corporate media, big business, ‘the system’) is not good enough – the buck stops here.

  1. Build networks and connections

The fragmentary nature of the left never fails to undermine its projects and defeat itself. This is not to say that we should not debate our differences but that our current weakness means that different left tendencies need to seek some level of common ground in order to be able to collaborate when/if the time comes that we must be united against a common threat. This doesn’t just mean formal coalition-building between organisations but also – crucially, in fact – it means to nurture existing relationships as individuals and to build new ones. Our ‘non-political’ relationships with the pub landlord, yoga classmates, church group or five-a-side football team could prove to be just as important as our ‘political’ relationships with members of our collectives, parties and unions.

  1. Get clued up on alternative forms of getting stuff done

The standard binaries that we have become accustomed to, across the political spectrum, may no longer apply in the Brave New World of post-Brexit Britain. Authoritarian vs horizontal; nationalisation vs autonomy; collectives vs parties; workplace vs community; ‘old-fashioned’ vs ‘innovative’; networked vs formal; legal vs illegal; violent vs non-violent; state vs non-state – and so on. The established order is built upon such distinctions, not only in terms of our organising strategies but also in terms of people’s broader political imaginaries. This could be an opportunity for rethinking our established ways of doing things. Can we imagine an anarchist think-tank that conducts research, writes policy documents and holds press conferences? Is it possible to build forms of labour organisation that not only promote workers’ rights but also provide spaces, skills and cheap credit for alternative economic practices? What would a democratic, co-operative health clinic, university or transport system look like?

  1. Think intergenerationally

It is clear that older generations are most likely to vote to leave the EU. With an ageing population and most of the baby-boomers who led us to this abyss reaching retirement age (someone born in 1947 is now 68 or 69 years old), there may be a number of new dynamics in the coming years. Firstly, pensions may become a growing area of struggle, where state pensions are scrapped and the excesses of offshore pensions schemes laid bare. As employers wrestle with the difficult transition to life outside the EU, having already cut back as far as they already can in terms of labour costs (e.g. wages) in the last 8 years, they may seek to cut back on pension funds too. Secondly, as the baby-boomer generation ages there will be increasing strain on the neoliberal health and social care business model leading to greater workplace conflict and increased pressure to ‘socialise’ these conflicts. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, with a new ‘era’ of British politics we need to think about where new generations will find their niche: what are the hopes, fears and aspirations of the average 16-year-old? What kind of left would they identify with and want to be part of?

  1. (Re)new(ed) forms of action

Winning through the established modes of ‘democracy’ (A-B marches, voting, petitioning, social media, occupations) will become far harder in a UK with a strengthened and buoyant right wing and a strengthened and buoyant police force. What can we discover (or rediscover) that will leverage victories for us and put politicians and bosses on the back foot when they don’t have EU free market rules to fall back on? The notion of the social strike has been raised in the wake of the Junior Doctors’ struggles, but other ideas such as workplace take-overs, good work strikes, rent strikes, bossknapping, and even good old-fashioned sabotage could become amplified in a newly-isolated UK.

  1. Be prepared

This is a fairly simple one. Organisations and groups that seek to enter into conflict with a resurgent post-Brexit right need to be ready for what is coming to them. This must involve resourcing ourselves appropriately, in a range of areas: finances (hardship funds etc), materials (good quality, well designed templates, reliable suppliers), organisation (proper structures and processes), physically (eat healthily and, if you can, get fit!), tactically (direct action, legal knowledge), technology (both skills and materials) and so on.

  1. Be present

We can easily forget that bourgeois politics is essentially a conversation between the streets and the halls of power – it’s not just a top-down process of indoctrination. We need to be aware of what people are discussing, enjoying, frustrated by and concerned about. Being present means consciously thinking about these things and finding connections; spaces of everyday, boring, mundane – even altogether unarticulated – political imagination that can be nurtured and brought to life. Can we feed insights from what we hear in idle chit-chat at pubs and cafes and sports centres into how we frame our campaigns? This is exactly what the big political parties do, and exactly what businesses do, and they don’t just do it for fun.

 

These are just some initial sketches of what could be done in preparation for a Leave vote at the end of June. It’s stuff we can start thinking about now – individually and within our respective organisations. Although most of the debate around the EU is a combination of frighteningly nationalist, painfully neoliberal and astonishingly boring, we on the radical left do need to think carefully about what our future might be like if the UK was to leave the EU.

One thing is for sure: it cannot be business as usual.

We need to talk about the police

These days, there is absolutely no doubt among many people where the police stand. They stand for the protection of elite-driven laws (whether or not they are just). They stand for privileging the rights and freedoms of a very select group of people (usually rich white men). They stand on the side of property. A friend of mine from the USA explained passionately about the growing police brutality and growing numbers of (predominantly black) deaths that occur at their hands. He said that for every person they protect and serve, there is another who they are brutalising – to protect one is to necessarily dehumanise the other, and vice versa.

This is all absolutely correct and the growing distrust towards the police in much of the Anglophone world can only be a positive thing. The police as an institution originated as an army of private thugs for hire to the highest bidder, protecting the rich and powerful against the transgressions and resistances of the majority. At the same time, for a while now I’ve been increasingly realising that we, as anarchists, need to develop a more nuanced understanding of the police in relation to the future world we want to create. Now I know what this sounds like, but don’t sharpen your knives just yet…

One of the most recurring points that people (even other radicals) make about anarchists and our attitudes towards the police is that we only see the bad stuff. So the argument goes, they do a lot of good work and are just nice people trying to make life better, even if their good intentions can end up fuelling negative dynamics. This is of course a very one-dimensional understanding of the police that reduces their political impact to an individual scale of care, ethics and civic responsibility; a convenient smokescreen for overlooking their active role in fostering division, imposing coercive state violence, and ‘outsourcing’ social solidarity to a group of undemocratic specialists with axes to grind.

However, we cannot deny that it also has an element of truth in it. One of the most powerful developments in policing in the late 20th Century was to blur the lines between ‘attack dog of the state’ and ‘friend of the community’. The police force is not just about committing a range of spectacular and ‘ordinary’ violences against transgressive groups and individuals (ethnic minorities, radicals, working class communities), it also performs other roles that are actually socially useful, e.g.

  • Managing large events
  • Disaster relief
  • Emergency support (e.g. car crashes, collapsed buildings)
  • Regulating / diverting the flow of people or traffic in crowded areas
  • Addressing conflicts and disagreements
  • Acting as figureheads of civic duty and responsibility

What anarchists often seem reluctant or afraid to articulate to a broader public is that all of these things, and more, will be necessary in any post-revolutionary society in which the monopoly of violence held by the state (and exercised by the police) no longer exists. Since general, if critical, support for (or acceptance of) the police in many circles is so hegemonic, it is easy for us to always see the police as always doing bad stuff – it is our responsibility to expose the injustices that they commit and are complicit in. But sometimes, outside of their core role as the protectors of state and capital, they are socially useful, and some of the specialist skills and techniques that they have developed can be applied to society in ways that stretch beyond their violent underpinnings.

What is needed is a rearticulation of the police that continues to push back against their violence but also recognises that in any society there is a need for a group of specially trained people to deal with public situations related to circulations, conflicts and emergencies in a future anarchist world. Examples of community self-management and forms of what we might call ‘popular security’ are plentiful, but it’s all too rare that anarchists link these examples to people’s fears about a world without the ‘protection’ of the police. Presenting this message in relation to anarchist principles of self-management, participatory forms of democracy, accountability and solidarity is therefore an important step to take.

[PS. I wrote this a while ago – a few days before the Hillsborough inquiry’s findings came out. In hindsight, it probably isn’t the best timing to make this kind of call so please don’t read this as some kind of ‘provocation’ against the absolutely correct and throughly deserved rage against the lying, cheating, smearing scum of the South Yorkshire Police!]

6 notes towards a real sharing economy

SharingEcon1

Sharing has such an emotional power; an almost primal force that we all enact in everyday life, and in so many ways. The past week was Global Sharing Week, a week-long series of high-profile events (and frantic hashtagging on Twitter) to promote the sharing economy, led by the frightfully keen and whimsically-named The People Who Share. The sharing economy is an extremely broad, politically ambiguous concept that is generally defined as any organised practice in which resources that might otherwise be privately owned, bought and sold are made available and exchanged collaboratively. It has become a catch-all label for any vaguely networked, collaborative initiative, from co-ops to co-housing, from DIY to dinner clubs, from tourism to transport. Increasingly, businesses and entrepreneurs are seeing sharing (or what some call “collaborative consumption”) as a lucrative new marketplace, in which the human capacity to share, care and help one another can become a new focus for capital accumulation. And in the UK/European context – of policy-makers’ obsession with ‘resilience’ (e.g. here) in the context of permanent austerity – it has growing purchase among elites in the mitigation of societal risk stemming from state-led cuts and the ongoing volatility of capitalism in general. This is part of what some have rightly come to call “sharewashing“, in which the sharing ‘brand’ is used to enhance the power and/or wealth of dominant elites, obscure injustices, and fails to critically address the status quo.

The big question is: in the context of sharing becoming problematically incorporated into government and business, can the notion of a sharing economy be reclaimed and reworked genuinely for the common good? Can radicals use the sharing economy as a focus for social change, and if so, how?

Below are six key factors in making this happen.

1. Sharing as non-commodified and cumulative

If sharing is to be useful for radical and progressive politics we need to draw clear boundaries between what is sharing and what is profit-making. A genuinely shared resource cannot be a commodity, since its value must rest exclusively on its use. If you make a profit out of sharing something, part of its value takes the form of profit (i.e. exchange value) and is extracted and kept by whoever is making that profit.

Take AirBnB, for example. People with spare rooms are renting those rooms out to tourists. This means that the room is not just valuable as a space to sleep, read, relax etc., but it is also valuable as a source of income both to the host and (much more significantly) to AirBnB bosses. This does two things: first, the introduction of money affects the social relationship between the host and guest, potentially hindering the chance of direct and equal experiences of one another’s cultures as you might expect from a non-financial equivalent such as CouchSurfing. Second, although most people renting their rooms on AirBnB are not rich entrepreneurs, money still disincentivises the possibility of reciprocity or mutual aid – i.e. I am less likely to offer my spare room to someone for free (i.e. genuinely share it) if they charged me to stay in their spare room. I’m probably less likely to share it for free with others, too.

In contrast, non-financial hospitality platforms such as CouchSurfing – or, better still, user-run and non-profit initiatives such as BeWelcome – encourage non-commodified relationships because no money is exchanged. Guests are more likely to offer their own spare room, sofa or floor to others in the future since they recognise the value of receiving that hospitality from their own experience. It doesn’t always work this way, but it is much more likely to happen in a genuine sharing situation.

2. Sharing as open and accessible

Non-commodified forms of sharing therefore accumulate not money but social bonds that are likely to lead to a greater number and a wider diversity of sharing relationships. And since there is no money exchanged, you do not need to have money to blow to become part of a sharing initiative. But the parasitism of capital in the sharing economy also has a friend: specialism.

I don’t mean specialism in the traditional sense of knowing skills such as how to wire a plug or cook. I mean particular forms of social, cultural and economic capital that currently create boundaries around much of the sharing economy. It’s things like knowing your way around Twitter (to find events, stalls and projects), having access to the right circles (e.g. knowing artists, bakers, travellers), having sufficient level of education to seek it out and value it (e.g. the environmental knowledge to know why it is better to collect and cook out-of-date food than to throw it away). Many of these are quite specialist skills but they are often ‘soft’ and can easily go unnoticed.

What this really boils down to is that there is a set of social and academic skills and knowledges linked (especially but not only) to class that facilitate or inhibit people’s participation in the sharing economy as it is currently manifested. Currently, much of the sharing economy (both capitalist and non-capitalist) is unashamedly and unreflexively middle class, accessible to a minority of people who have the time, money and skills to enjoy it.

It doesn’t matter if it is cheaper to make your own clothes than to buy them – if it takes up valuable time that you can’t find unless you can pay for expensive childcare, then it is not accessible. Likewise, pastel-coloured Union Jack bunting, to take an admittedly caricatured example, does not appeal to us all; for many, it is a “KEEP OUT” sign, carefully defining the social, cultural and economic boundaries of a space (see also cupcake fascism). A real sharing economy must be not only sensitive to these issues (of class, yes, but also gender, ethnicity, disability, colonial legacies etc., which also structure how accessible an initiative is) but, crucially, it must also actively confront and address them in the way it is organised, managed and promoted. One example of how people are already doing precisely this is the supper clubs linked to housing struggles in London.

3. Sharing as strategic

A sharing economy that consciously addresses issues of material wellbeing, justice, and survival is one that can become part of an everyday politics for social change. While the introduction of money has been used as an incentive for participation in sharing businesses, making the direct cost of services cheaper than commercial equivalents and potentially encouraging more sustainable lifestyles (e.g. lift-sharing costs money for the driver and passenger, but less money than two separate cars), this remains located firmly within, and in support of, the existing status quo.

One positive dimension of the sharing economy that the business interests have not (yet) entirely done away with is precisely this focus on material needs and goods – cheap X, low-impact Y, convenient Z. Given the right conditions, and bearing in mind points 1 and 2, these can materially improve our lives and the environments we live in. However, we need to think more strategically if we are to leverage sharing as a) a universal good that all can participate in, and therefore b) a potential force for radical social change.

One possible focus for this more strategic thinking could arguably be what’s known as the foundational economy, which comprises the essential structures and institutions that make most ordinary people’s everyday lives possible, such as public transport, food production and processing, utilities, and public healthcare and education. Many initiatives already engage directly or indirectly with these foundational issues, but they tend not to be focused on reshaping them, let alone replacing them with something radically different. We would do well to think about how sharing can become a (or the?) central component of the foundational economy, and find ways to put it into practice. Initiatives like the Swedish fare-dodging ‘union’, Planka, are admirable and inspiring, but how much more powerful could these be if we developed ways to retrofit existing transport systems so that they can be used, maintained and expanded through collaborative sharing practices between workers and passengers? Not only could they be effective and responsive, but also they would serve to demonstrate the power of self-management in material terms to the wider public. Indeed, in the case of Planka, this is an issue they are already thinking about (in Swedish).

4. Sharing as not (outwardly) political

Perhaps the most powerful dimension of the sharing economy is that it is not an especially politicised phenomenon. This is a double-edged sword: it makes sharing vulnerable to capture by capital and state (as we can clearly see in policies of resilience and sustainability, and in how entrepreneurs have jumped onto the sharing bandwagon), but it also opens up alternative forms of relating and resource use beyond the hierarchies and exclusions of capital and state.

We see similar dynamics in the Global South, where the informal economy is widespread: while it is an economic form that is highly vulnerable and precarious, the possibilities for autonomous, collective organising can be expanded through the networked spaces of self-organisation that it engenders. It may not be a focus for entrepreneurs in the same way as the sharing economy is in the Global North, but the capacity for retail and food businesses to use the ‘market trader’ or ‘street food’ soundbite in their branding is nonetheless very powerful.

In a contemporary political landscape in which the majority of the population is not engaged or interested in traditional forms of politics and only a very small majority of eligible people even vote, the sharing economy may therefore represent ‘ways in’ to more politicised activities and rationalities by means of its grassroots, networked character and orientation towards self-organised problem-solving. Participation in sharing economies might take place through consumer choice (i.e. a decision based on desire or style preferences), need (i.e. a decision based on the necessity to access certain resources for cheap or for free) or social networks (i.e. participating due to friends, family or other contacts), but the outcome could well be positive if organised and managed in a way that provides a gateway to possibilities of political agency and participation.

However, rather than the proselytising or missionary style of past and current examples of this (e.g. the Salvation Army or political ‘front groups’), it is important to remain vigilant to the clear risks involved in setting up initiatives purely for the purposes of mobilisation or recruitment.

5. Sharing as a principle of struggle and conflict

Although we need to be vigilant about the dangers of cynically latching onto the sharing economy ‘wave’, it might also prove useful for thinking more carefully about how political movements can use sharing principles more effectively in their own internal organisation and resource use. In-fighting and splits are common in the Left, which leave a trail of personal bitterness and organisational fragmentation. Regardless of their underlying politics, networks and umbrella groups that are hospitable to a diversity of politics and tactics, such as the People’s Assembly and recent Radical Assemblies in London, represent possible models for a stronger culture of sharing that we can take inspiration from. Likewise, sharing resources (e.g. materials, information, tactics, ideas etc) could potentially lead to a stronger Left with greater capacity and more efficient resource use within our meagre means. Green and Black Cross needs some cheap printing done? The local IWW branch has access to a printer that they can use. The Anti-Raids Network needs some information on new deportation guidelines? No problem, an RS21 group at the other end of England has a contact at the UK Border Agency. And so on. Some of this is already taking place informally, but these kinds of sharing could be considerably expanded and solidified for mutual benefit.

6. Sharing as already around us

Finally, perhaps the most powerful thing that a radical approach to sharing needs to bear in mind is that sharing is not something that flashy entrepreneurs simply made up one day. As a key part of broader practices of mutual aid, it is one of the oldest and strongest tools for human survival and wellbeing in human history. It is everywhere, right under our noses. I borrowed a guide book to Moscow from my neighbour only a couple of days ago. Did she charge me? The thought never entered her head, and not because she particularly cares for me, nor even because she wants something else in return. In South Africa a few years ago, I helped pull someone’s dog out of a river; the same principle applies.

We share to survive all the things in life that are pitted against us: capitalism, patriarchy, state bureaucracy, racism, homophobia, and so on. We also share because it gives us joy and satisfaction and human contact. We share because the best way – indeed, the only way! – to have a genuinely fulfilling life is to do a million little forms of sharing, mutual aid, and solidarity, that are beyond the logic and reach of the dominant social order even though we live through that social order every day. If ever we need reassurance that the best order of things is a world collectively managed by and for ourselves, if ever we find ourselves feeling like a new world is never going to happen, we just need to look around us and think about all the many different ways we share and care for and with one another. We thrive when we share – and when we thrive, we thrive despite capital, not because of it.

The circular etymology of the state

Derived from ‘stare’ [Latin for ‘stand’] which began to be used to describe ‘standing’ or ‘status’ in Middle English. Status/standing became an increasingly legal term in the 17th Century, referring to legitimacy and right in the eyes of the law. Status is also the basis of the English ‘estate’, the condition of land ownership and property rights. Thus etymologically the state is built upon a legalistic basis, in which the legitimacy of the sovereign ownership of a territory is affirmed and legislated. Affirmed and legislated by whom? By the state of course!

*facepalm*

Electoral pie charts and left recomposition

In the days since the EU election results were announced, there have emerged three distinct groups in the British left’s efforts to make sense of the dramatic rightward shift that we have witnessed.

First is the group – probably the majority – which denounces the ‘idiots’ and ‘racists’ who chose to vote UKIP. Struggling to come to terms with these ‘irrational bigots’, they claim “UKIP duped them into voting for them!” and “this is what happens when good people don’t vote!” They propose a classic liberal line: play the game fair, and justice will prevail. Their moralising is admirable, but their understanding of the problem falls woefully short of the mark.

The second group includes those who point out that UKIP, although receiving the largest number of seats, still only represent about 10% of the voting-age population. “It’s not that bad,” they aver, “we’re not all racists!” These outbursts of reassuring tones is indicative not of a political discourse of hope but of an effort to reassure themselves that the majority remain firmly on ‘our side’. Like the first group, they play by the rules of the game: if the non-voting majority were to vote, they would have political perspectives that could be shoe-horned into one of the options on the ballot box, and they would probably be liberal or left. If only.

Third are the anti-voters. They point to the same pie-chart, heavily laden with a large, non-voting majority and declare the moral high ground for refusing to participate in the alienated, undemocratic process of representation, rotten to the core with political spin, media lies and an uneducated, malleable electorate. “Who cares?” they chide, echoing the one-liner of Oscar Wilde, “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal!” Sitting smugly at a distance, they survey the wreckage of the electoral system, having extricated themselves from its muddy ‘business as usual’.

All three perspectives are decidedly lacking. In each case, they fall foul of the same old routine, with the same old relationships to the same old institutions. The ongoing woes of the left will not disappear, and the far-right will not slow its growing influence, if any of these perspectives takes hold. This is because they are fundamentally rooted in the same logic – the logic of (electoral) representation. This is the notion that elected leaders accurately reflect political preferences and opinions. Even the anti-voting group – characterised usually by the anarchists and extra-parliamentary left – links itself to the notion that representative politics is a reflection of reality by aligning itself as an alternative preference – a kind of anonymous, unofficial party. They make an electoral decision not to vote; to be represented not by a person or party but by a void. Yet they are represented nonetheless.

Representation is essentially an abstraction from everyday experience to a set of (vague, unspoken, or even clearly-defined) demands or policies. As such, we are always representing – ourselves, our peers, our class, our national culture and so on. While electoral democracy exists, we can’t escape political representation’s stark and depoliticising boundaries, but what we can do is find other ways of articulating collective interests that don’t adhere so strictly to the ballot box. This means that we need to look at the way political subjectivity (our sense of who we are, as people with political power or identity) is formed.

While I don’t want to go deep into this heavy, philosophical question, it is worth making a few observations in the aftermath of the EU elections specifically. First, UKIP did not ‘win’ anything as such, but they represent another stage in the underlying emotional and discursive ‘structures’ of British (and, to some level, European) politics. What I mean by that is the fact that UKIP are one outcome of the way we (the diverse collectivity of voting-age people in the UK) think, relate, and act.

We make sense of the world by constructing an image of what the world looks like, and making our opinions and analysis in relation to that structure. This structure is conditioned by a vast range of things, including, but not limited to: our upbringing, working arrangements, experiences of trauma, domestic situation, family and friend relationships, as well as the ‘usual suspects’ of the media, politicians, trade unions, political parties, NGOs and other institutional actors. We are not robots, however, and we do have an influence over how this structure looks to us – hence political difference – but the huge range of external factors mean that our influence is generally quite limited. So UKIP is an outcome, or an effect, of much bigger forces.

There is a somewhat lacking but standard-issue story that covers these forces, their origins and outcomes. It goes something like this. Probably the most obvious forces of change in recent years are located among the cumulative negative economic and cultural impacts of capitalist globalisation (from which, incidentally, Farage and many of his henchmen made their millions). While the left was (on one level, correctly) campaigning against the global inequalities and exploitation that corporate globalisation created through the late 1990s and early-to-mid noughties, we forgot what was happening on our front doorstep. We were so preoccupied by the need to confront the IMF, G8 and World Bank over their structural adjustment policies that brought poverty and misery to literally billions of people in the Global South, that we did not engage enough with our own communities, homes and workplaces – themselves heaving under the pressure of neoliberalisation. Housing bubbles, wage deflation, outsourcing, subcontracting, debt – all of these things created an image of prosperity and ‘growth’ but it was built on sand.

The 2008 financial crisis should have been the rallying call for the radical left to regroup and focus, but by then we had become so distanced from our communities, so specialised and professionalised in our working lives (for unions, charities, universities etc) that we had all but lost touch. It’s not that the techniques that we had developed to shut down summits and build websites were of no use, or interest, to fighting and surviving in post-crisis times, but that we had lost many of the common bonds that upheld trust and solidarity within place-based communities and workplaces.

Moreover, economic change had led generally to a much more mobile, fragmented and specialised existence… for some. Those left behind by these macroeconomic shifts towards brain work (intellectual, cultural and service economies), short-term employment, and mobility, were those on the front line of neoliberalisation. On the one hand, neither they nor their children were equipped to thrive in this Brave New World, and on the other hand, the left were no longer equipped to forge solidarities with them. The political vacuum that the left had deserted was then available for appropriation by the right. First the BNP, then they imploded through internal splits, then UKIP mopped up the rest, and a sizeable chunk of the right wing of the Tories and Labour. Easy peasy.

BUT – wait. This story makes some problematic assumptions: first, it assumes that the left is exclusively resident in the mobile, cosmopolitan world of neoliberalism; second, that those outside of this milieu are passive and uncritical recipients of political propaganda; third, that the left as it currently stands is the ‘saviour’ of these allegedly helpless, shallow, racist-fodder communities; and fourth, that all UKIP voters and activists are the put-upon working class left behind by neoliberal ‘progress’. There is some element of validity in the story, but the assumptions on which it is based are both elitist and classist, and we can’t fall into the missionary paternalism of ‘helping the uneducated and brutish poor to see the error of their ways’.

But on the whole, economic change, increased mobility, and a recent history of poor strategy on the left, have indeed affected our ability to make impacts among groups most negatively affected by capitalism and the state. Just look at the August 2011 riots and the left’s absolute failure to make any useful interventions among a huge mass of raw, visceral discontent. The underlying structures that shape political debate and subjectivities – i.e. people’s understandings of how the world works and how it should work – are not so clear-cut as the boxes on a ballot sheet, and the latter – although a very rough guide to the general mood – happily serves to mask the complexity of political subjectivity.

So what can we, the radical left, do? In lieu of a more detailed discussion of strategies, here are a few thoughts:

Listen (selectively). The grievances of those who are likely to have voted UKIP now, and the BNP before, are real, material, and they come from experience. There will always be hardened, ‘professional’ racists who require physical and ideological confrontation, as well as a number of ruling and upper class types who deserve similarly swift treatment, but the majority are not these people, and their votes and opinions are partly a reflection of our inability/refusal to take them seriously.

Confront the ideology of the liberal mainstream. They are already on the back foot, and a shift in discourse and terms of debate is doable, as the far-right have shown.

Meet people and participate in community life. This is not just going to picket lines with other lefties to support other lefties, but also participating in local events, activities, campaigns and so on over a long period of time. There is no substitute for long-term, real-life encounter.

Build solidarities. This is the one thing we’re (supposed to be) good at. Getting someone to join a union is one thing, but real solidarity at work and in the community is another, and is often linked to the point above.

Debate positively. The caricature of ‘whining lefties’ has, sadly, a strong element of truth in it. We spend our lives critiquing and complaining and demanding but rarely actually building, suggesting, inspiring. What do we want to do? How could we do it together? The right has a vision that is clear and simple: 1) restore law and order, 2) close the borders, 3) support businesses. A positive and clear message from the left – especially the extra-parliamentary or revolutionary left – may be more tricky, but needs addressing. (A very rough first stab: 1) build grassroots self-management, 2) fight for equality and real democracy, 3) dismantle structures of authority and coercion)

Judge less. ‘Calling out culture’ has become a mainstay among some left circles. We adhere to such high standards in our speech, our theoretical understanding, and our physical actions that we are prone to burning out and giving up. But with those beyond these circles, the stakes are much higher. The vast majority of people (including lefties) sometimes use non-PC, racist or sexist language from time to time, usually without any bad intentions. If the left is going to get anywhere, there is no way we can hold up unsustainable and unrealistic standards, and we have to engage with people on level terms. Listening, real active listening, (see above) requires that we go beyond our comfort zone and try to see situations from outside our ‘right-on’ elite discourse of the left-wing intelligentsia.

Be confident and remember what’s at stake. It’s literally the future of the world – let’s not mess it up because of petty squabbles, cutting corners or going for glory. but we can do it. We might not have all the right answers right now but, as Durruti poetically put it, “we have a new world in our hearts. That world is growing this minute”.

That’s enough for now. This has been very hastily written – a ‘brain vomit’ moment after listening to the buzz and the clatter of the left implosion of the last few days. Don’t read it as a manifesto but as some offerings and reflections on the current state of the left in Britain today. It’s welcome to hear about the emergence of the likes of Plan C and LCI who are trying to grapple with these kinds of questions, but there’s still a lot to do…