Some perspective…

This short tribute was originally published by the Independent Working Class Association. We’re posting this in a bid to bring some perspective to the somewhat heated discussions about identity politics that are currently taking place in anarchist and radical movements…

On this day in 1969 Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, died. Hampton was murdered by state forces assigned to the office of Attorney Edward Hanrahan, whose anti-gang rhetoric Fred had called a “war on black youth”.

Fred Hampton began his political journey in the Youth Wing of the NAACP. Hampton was soon attracted to the Black Panther Party and was inspired by its working class socialist vision as outlined in the 10 Point Program.

He then joined the Illinois chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee where, alongside his comrades, he began to score gains. These gains included, but were not limited to, encouraging and negotiating a nonviolence pact between Chicago street gangs.

Hampton realised the class nature of the struggle against poverty, racism and all other by-products of capitalism, including black struggles. He strove to push identity aside and ploughed time and effort into bringing together working class people of all races on a common ticket, one of social class.

Hampton and the rest of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party forged alliances with the Hispanic Young Lords and the white migrant Appalachian Young Patriots Organisation. The Black Panther Party in general, Illinois chapter in particular under Hampton, without foregoing the specific struggles faced by their own part of the community, pushed a class agenda.

This was the unifying factor upon which they chose to lay their foundations, under the leadership of Hampton. This is what the state and capitalist society found most terrifying: working class people foregoing arbitrary notions of identity, instead emphasising what brings us all together. For this, they murdered Fred Hampton in cold blood in his bed.

We learn from the past to shape the present and the future, and we must look at and become the legacy of genuine working class heroes such as Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party.

Rest In Peace Fred Hampton!

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Trying to find a way forward

Where we are

Surveying the political, economic and social landscape, the curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ has never seemed more apt. The last couple of years have seen a series of political events that have caught most commentators off guard and there’s a feeling that the world is becoming more unpredictable and volatile by the day. To any rational observer of a radical persuasion, it’s clear that the political, economic and social system we live under is in crisis. Just one symptom of this are the divisions among our so called rulers over Brexit – these are not just about the arguments for and against but also what it actually means and how to implement it. They’re giving every appearance of not having a clue and are basically winging it from day to day.

We’re in a situation where a reasonably united radical movement should be putting a fractured, divided ruling class on the ropes while pressing the case for fundamental change and the overthrow of a system that’s reaching its use by date. There are groups and people out there fighting the fight but the ones we’ve worked with and stood alongside in solidarity tend to come from outside of anarchism. Focus E15 and Movement For Justice are two we’ve stood with this year in various forms, mainly because they get on with the job and aren’t prone to endless pontificating – more on this later…

What follows is a subjective piece based on our experiences. We hope people will recognise that we’re using these experiences as our contribution to what needs to be a constructive discussion on moving the various currents of opposition that are around forwards in a way that brings about a badly needed element of unity.

Building from the grassroots upwards

When it comes to ways of building a movement that’ll bring about fundamental change, there has to be a base at the grassroots on our estates and in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces and our colleges. As to how building from the grassroots happens, sorry folks, there’s no definitive template you can apply. From our experience in working with Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) every estate is different and has it’s own issues and characters. It’s a case of learning from the experiences of others and then working out how to apply them to the situation you’re facing while always bearing in mind the ultimate aim of what you want to achieve. What follows are our experiences of working at the level of the estate and neighbourhood…

There was one very important lesson we learnt from our Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) days, particularly when we stood in the local elections in the Stanford East & Corringham Town ward in 2007 and 2008. The lesson was that the vast majority of people are apolitical and generally don’t think about politics until it’s coming close to voting day. That’s if they’re intending to vote – bear in mind that when it comes to local elections in our area, the participation rate tends to hover round the 30% mark. Another lesson is that when you start talking to people on the doorstep, pinning them down to a particular part of the political spectrum is not easy. Someone may be quite radical on some issues but reactionary on others – you just have to use your own political nous to decide if there’s a basis for a dialogue in these situations.

Doorstepping isn’t the time or place to start adopting a holier than thou attitude with the person you’re talking to. We found that listening to someone in order to understand where they’re coming from without interrupting or hectoring them generally earned us enough respect to start a dialogue or debate. Sure, we did come across a few hardened racists and bigots and it soon became clear we’d be wasting our time pursing the argument with them as well as potentially compromising our own security. In those situations, we found it best to politely terminate the exchange and move on while making a mental note of where the bigots lived.

When it comes to gaining respect, one thing we have found from our experience that works is getting your hands dirty by getting stuck in on activities such as a neighbourhood clean up or building a community garden. Whether it’s organising it, facilitating the residents in running it or going along and learning some lessons from well organised residents who know what they’re doing will depend on the situation you face on the ground. The thing is getting stuck in and being seen to do so…

To reiterate, it’s a case of what needs to be done and what works given the circumstances and the resources to hand. Our experiences are determined by the demographic we’re dealing with and the political colour of the local authority area we’re working in. The issues and solutions we deal with and offer are going to be very much different from those facing activists in a London borough such as Newham. Having said that, the experiences of activists operating in all areas regardless of the different circumstances they may be encountering need to be shared to put all of our struggles into a broader, unifying context.

Getting the propaganda right

From our experiences with the IWCA and subsequently working with BASHA, we’ve realised that writing propaganda that appeals to ordinary working class people is a tough call. With the Stirrer and it’s predecessor the Heckler, we still feel that we’re on a learning curve and that we’ve still got a fair way to go before we really crack this one. We’re trying to do a number of different things with our blogs and papers…

Firstly, we’re trying to put our anarchist / radical spin on events happening across the area we cover and using that to point out that the system we have is no longer fit for purpose. We’re trying to do this in a way that’s not preachy or hectoring and acknowledges that there are a fair number of people who have been at the wrong end of the system and are sceptical about what (if anything) it has to offer. If we’re writing about the situation on some of the more troubled estates such as the ¾ in Vange, we’re acutely aware residents there know what’s wrong and what they want are some pointers or support that will start to bring about change.

Secondly, we’re doing our level best to inspire people to start changing things on their estates and in their neighbourhoods. Along with our partners at BASHA, we can’t be and don’t want to be everywhere leading the fight for change. We actively want people and groups to start agitating and organising for change on their own account with our role being to nudge them in the right direction when it comes to their politics and analysis and to offer practical support as and when we can.

With facilitating grassroots action there really is no blueprint for how to do this – it’s entirely dependent on the individuals making up the group who want your assistance. Sometimes you have to accept that there’s going to have to be a bit of a political journey, at others times you may be pleasantly surprised at how much people actually ‘get it’. We have to start with where people actually are and work from that point because a perfectly formed group with just the right politics just isn’t going to pop up in your neighbourhood in the current political and social climate. Which means that we cannot afford to sit back when it comes to our propaganda – it’s something we constantly review and if it’s not working, it gets changed and will keep on being changed until it does bloody work!

The point we’re trying to convey is that all of us need to think about the audiences our propaganda is aimed at and what results we want from disseminating it. This is as much a reminder to ourselves as it is pointing out that a lot of material produced by radical and anarchist groups could be a lot better. We’ve probably been as guilty as everyone else of turning out papers and blog posts for the sake of it rather than thinking what we want to get from each one. It’s relatively easy to write material for people who are already engaged in politics and activism – it’s a lot harder coming up with something that will appeal to and engage people who are pissed off with the way things are going but have had no prior involvement with political or campaigning activity.

Building alliances

When it comes to alliances, out here in southern Essex, we take a pragmatic attitude. We cannot afford to be political purists – if we were, we would be very lonely… So yes, despite the bashing of Labour’s shameful record on social cleansing in London in the name of ‘re-generation’, if our friends at BASHA find a Labour councillor who can work the system and get things done for them on the estates, we’re happy to use them to secure our aims – the emphasis being on ‘use’… Resident and neighbourhood action groups come in all shapes and sizes – while we always undertake a process of due diligence on them, on the basis that we start with where people are, more often than not, we’ll work with them.

When it comes to working with political groups anarchist or otherwise, it can prove to be a little bit problematical… We work with Class War on housing and other issues as well but as for the other anarchists in London, sadly we’re wondering where they are a lot of the time… As stated earlier, we’re pragmatists and if a group is heading in the same broad direction of travel that we are on an issue such as housing, we’ll work and stand in solidarity with them.

Which is why we’ve stood in solidarity with Focus E15 a fair few times over the last couple of years, not least because social cleansing from Newham has a direct impact on the housing situation out here in Essex. Yes, we’re well aware that the work of Focus E15 is facilitated by the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG) and as anarchists, we shouldn’t have anything to do with them. Sure we don’t see eye to eye with the RCG on everything but where it counts for us on issues such as housing we do. They stepped up to the plate a few years back to facilitate Focus E15 and for us as housing activists, to not work with them because of differences over what happened a hundred years ago during the Russian Revolution would be a gross dereliction of our duty.

Given the way things are going and the threats we face, we need allies. It doesn’t have to be any formal alliance – just a tacit understanding that on certain issues we have a common aim and that it makes sense to work together on those issues. We see this as a fluid, flexible way of working where we work together with groups as and when the need arises and not get too hung up about differences while we’re trying to get a result. Taking this stance means we tend to work alongside groups who are at the sharp end of things and who generally are happy to work in flexible alliances as and when required. Just imagine what could be achieved if people just eased off the dogma pedal a bit and took a more open approach to who they worked with…

Identity politics has to recognise the need for unity

For the record, this is what we’ve had to say about the issue of identity: Is identity fixed or does it change?https://onuncertainground.wordpress.com/2017/02/22/is-identity-fixed-or-does-it-change/ While we have some very strong reservations about identity politics and the call out culture that accompanies it, there are certain strands of thinking on intersectionalism that make some useful and salient points: Intersectionality – some tentative thoughtshttps://onuncertainground.wordpress.com/2017/03/09/intersectionality-some-tentative-thoughts/ We’re giving you these links rather than re-hashing all of the arguments here in this piece which would make it unwieldy to say the least…

We understand that identity politics had its origins with particular oppressed groups justifiably fighting for their rights. What concerns us is the way that some people have twisted the meaning of identity politics so that it becomes a parade of competing victimhoods as opposed to a fight against oppression. Which is why we see hope in some currents of intersectionalism which while they draw attention to the varying and sometimes shifting oppressions people experience, they’re placed in a broader structural context and seek to aggregate the different struggles people are pursuing. This may well be over-simplifying things but while we have no issue with people’s different experiences and cultural backgrounds being respected, we want to see unity when it come to the fight for justice. As a matter of urgency, we have to work out what unites us so we can build the movement we need, sooner rather than later.

We’ll say it again – we’re in a period of great uncertainty and potential volatility… If the various strands of radicalism and anarchism could bury their differences and work together, the current situation could be the best opportunity we’ve had in a generation or more to seriously start to bring about radical change. However, if the current level of toxic fractiousness that’s all too prevalent in radicalism continues unchecked and we remain divided and fighting among our selves, we’re facing the direst threat there’s been for many generations.

We’re not just talking about the threat to us as activists which potentially is dire enough but to the working class, regardless of ethnicity, race or gender who as we’ve already seen with social cleansing from London and the Grenfell Tower disaster, face a direct threat to their existence. A fair number of middle class activists may not see this threat – those at the sharp end being forced out of the capital or having to constantly look over their shoulder in fear of the immigration squads or a racist attack live with it every moment of their lives. In these circumstances, can we really afford to continue to squabble among ourselves?

It has to be said it’s given us no pleasure to have to write it. We want to find ways of moving things forward in what is a challenging and difficult period so we can all realise our aim of overthrowing the crap we have to put up with and bring in a saner, just, equitable and sustainable society. We’re aware that many of you will not agree with this piece. For the record, we’re more than happy to receive constructive criticism and engage in a reasoned debate about the points we’ve raised.

Is identity fixed or does it change?

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Is cultural identity fixed or is it something that’s always evolving, adapting and changing? There are elements on the right and in particular, the far right, who see cultural identity as something that’s more or less fixed and only evolves slowly. What follows is an outline of why the notion of cultural identity as something that’s pretty much fixed stems from a flawed understanding of how humanity has evolved before moving on to start the process of explaining why this is dangerous and why it needs to be debunked…

Cultural identity is fluid and dynamic

If cultural identity is fixed, it begs this question – how has humanity evolved to where we are today? Surely the history of humanity is about cultures meeting, adapting and evolving as a consequence ? As cultures meet, interact, borrow from each other and evolve, the sense of identity that’s bound up with belonging to a culture inevitably changes. The evolution of humanity is a dynamic process so by definition, the development of culture will also be a dynamic process with the consequence that to a greater or lesser degree, a sense of identity will always be fluid. This is what Emily Galea wrote on the issue: Nevertheless, what is commonly overlooked is the relationship between identity and culture and the ever-changing nature of such cultures, meaning that identity cannot possibly be a fixed entity which a person carries throughout their life time. It is a living, breathing concept, constantly changing according to the trends and attitudes of said time. [1]

Obviously when a militarily dominant culture has encountered a militarily less dominant one, there are issues of conquest and cultural destruction that need to be taken into consideration. When this happens, the issue of cultural appropriation has to be acknowledged and addressed in a nuanced way. The problem is that certain elements on the left and in the anarchist movement have developed a view on cultural appropriation that has made it a toxic and contentious issue…

For the moment, there’s this quote from a post on Everyday Feminism which concisely explains the difference between cultural appropriation, cultural exchange and assimilation: A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group. That’s why cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other – because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic. It’s also not the same as assimilation, when marginalized people adopt elements of the dominant culture in order to survive conditions that make life more of a struggle if they don’t. [2] Yet when cultures meet on a relatively level playing field, there will be an exchange of ideas where all participants can adapt, evolve and develop as a consequence. This is taking a positive view of human progress where cultures interact and feed off each other as part of that process. To accept the idea that cultural identity is fixed and unchanging is to stand in the way of the notion of human progress.

A retreat into cultural identity

We’re living through a turbulent and increasingly pessimistic period of human history. When times become tougher, there tends to be a retreat into cultural identity to compensate for the lack of social, political and material progress. People become more inclined to celebrate what they are rather than what they could become through political struggle. This is particularly the case when any notion that fundamental, systemic change that could result in a more just, equitable society has been getting systematically discredited ever since the start of the rise of globalised neo-liberalism in the 1980s.

The demise of the left as it seemingly becomes more fixated on identity politics than achieving fundamental, systemic change has contributed to the retreat into cultural identity. Moving away from a politics that generates solidarity based on broadly shared material and social demands to one that divides people based on notions about their identity has led us to where we are now. The political project of social and material progress that can benefit the many has been more or less put on hold, with the fall of the Iron Curtain being a catalyst in accelerating this tendency. A tacit acceptance of gobalised neo-liberalism by the left has left them with nothing but identity politics to champion. This is what Kenan Malik wrote about the issue: 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?’ [3]

Populist nationalism and identity politics

While elements on the left and in the anarchist movement have become more focused on identity politics, many people left behind by gobalised neo-liberalism feel they’ve been abandoned by those supposedly espousing progressive politics. As the globalised neo-liberal order continues to fray at the seams after the financial crisis of 2008, the left has been caught wrong footed by a resurgent, populist, nationalist right who are gleefully filling the vacuum that has been created by the abandonment of any universalist project that seeks social justice and material progress for all.

The populist, nationalist right play on people’s fear of change, particularly the rapid change that has characterised the period of globalised neo-liberalism that’s now coming to an end. In particular, they play on a fear of change that people feel they’ve absolutely no control over. Paradoxically, that fear of change is shared by pretty much everyone on this planet whose lives have been turned upside down by the adverse impact of globalised neo-liberalism. This ranges from the inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa who in the face of increased desertification are forced to become refugees through to the inhabitants of the former mill towns of northern England who have seen the industries that used to provide them with a living exported to locations where workers can be more easily exploited.

Regardless of what may seem to be massive differences between the peoples involved, they have all been severely disadvantaged by a globalised neo-liberalism that puts profits way ahead of the needs of ordinary people. Yet in the absence of an inclusive, universalist project seeking social justice and material progress for all, the latter are being encouraged by the various forces of the right to see the former as an threat to their way of life and existence. When a unifying politics that engenders solidarity across a range of groups struggling for social and material progress has imploded, we end up with the situation we now face.

It should not come as a surprise that some elements in the white working class component of those left behind are starting to become more receptive to the siren voices of the populist, nationalist right. This reactionary political tendency sees cultural identity as something that’s pretty much fixed and only changes and evolves slowly. They play on the fears of those who have seen their communities change as a result of inward migration, citing supposedly irreconcilable cultural differences as a reason why immigration not only has to stop but why repatriation should be ‘encouraged’. They start to apply elements of the language of identity politics that suit them, twist them around and confer upon the white working class, an identity of their own. After all they will say, if having a cultural identity is acceptable for every other group, why should it not be acceptable for the white working class to have their own (traditional and reactionary) identity?

The material and social interests of the working class as a whole have been largely subsumed by an identity politics which the right have co-opted elements of to confer upon the white working class. A united response to the depredations of a failing globalised neo-liberalism becomes an impossibility to achieve as the populist right completes the process of fragmentation inadvertently started by elements of the left. So when a section of the white working class feel they have been left behind and are powerless to influence the forces that are changing their lives, they will be receptive to those political elements who promise them stability, self respect and so on. It matters not that the populist, nationalist right are exploiting the white working class for their own cynical ends – in the absence of a credible, forward looking alternative from the left that will put people in control of their lives, communities and workplaces, it’s the reactionaries who are gaining ground at an alarming rate.

The dangers of class becoming a fixed identity

While an embittered section of the white working class may well buy into the notion that their cultural identity is more or less fixed and has to be defended, they fail to see how that has the potential to be turned against them. It cannot be overstated that the populist, nationalist right sees the white working class as something to be used for their own cynical ends. Which is why the notion of cultural identity as something that’s fixed being one that could also be applied to class differences always seems to get overlooked. Which is a surprise given the eugenicist literature that says class differences are more or less immutable and that if society is to ‘progress’, the lower classes should be ‘discouraged’ from ‘breeding’.

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 a relatively fixed 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’s 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’s a natural and unchanging aspect to class divisions. One example of how these notions can be sown came in this 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. [4]

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. [5]

If you think that such thinking about the poor belongs in the past, then ponder the de-humanising, cruel way the Department of Work & Pensions treats benefit claimants. Consider how increasingly hostile attitudes towards claimants have been whipped up by a predominantly right wing media. Think about where this climate of hostility could lead if the assumptions behind it are not challenged and thoroughly discredited.

We are facing a future where technology and automation has the potential to destroy millions of jobs. Unless there’s a radical re-structuring of the political and social order so we have a society that can share the benefits of that automation among all of its citizens, then we face a dark future. One where the notion of culture as fixed and unchanging has also been applied to thinking about class differences. With the ruling elites pondering on how to accommodate millions upon millions of people who have no useful role in the automated world they rule over, the notion that the poor are poor because of their chromosomes will be incredibly useful for them…

Conclusion

This is the first of a number of posts that will be going up as part of the project of revisiting the Multiculturalism & Identity Politics piece that I wrote for the Independent Working Class Association back in 2009. [6] At this point, it would be presumptive to start writing definitive statements of intent as to how we move from the perilous position we are in now to one where a political project that has the unifying objectives of social and economic justice with power coming from the grasroots is in the ascendant.

However, there’s a need to up the ante in promoting the notion that cultural identity is fluid and changing because of the meeting and mixing of cultures and the dynamism of the development of humanity. Without this nuanced understanding of the complexities of identity development and how it’s always shifting and changing, there’s little hope of defeating the reactionary notion that cultural identity is fixed.

One of the aims of the process of revisiting Multiculturalism & Identity Politics is to attempt to overcome some of the toxic divisions over the issue of identity politics in relation to class that are holding us back from challenging the increasingly reactionary climate we have to operate in. This is intended to be a collaborative process – constructive criticism and comment are always welcome.

References

[1] Emily Faye Galea – Cultural Identity is Continually Being Produced Within the Vectors of Similarity and Difference – http://www.academia.edu/8171866/Argument_Cultural_Identity_is_Continually_Being_Produced_Within_the_Vectors_of_Similarity_and_Difference
[2] Maisha Z. Johnson – What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm – Everday Feminism, 14 June, 2015 – http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/
[3] Kenan Malik – Against multiculturalism – New Humanist, Summer, 2002 – http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/against_mc.html
[4] 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
[5] Saturday Review – 16 January, 1864
[6] Multiculturalism & identity politics – the reactionary consequences and how they can be challenged – Independent Working Class Association, 28 September, 2009 – http://www.iwca.info/?p=10146