Posts Tagged ‘ the state ’

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’.

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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!]

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…