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.

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Trying to get to grips with privilege theory

Sometimes it’s best to get your head round a particular issue by using an analogy – so here goes… I work as a freelance photographer and recently had to do a photo shoot at a warehouse in Basildon. It was a freezing cold day and having worked for the best part of four hours, I felt frozen to the core. Yet the lads in the warehouse had to put in an eight hour shift in the freezing cold – so that put me in a better, more privileged position than them. When I was working there, some of the lads were loading up a consignment of blankets, sleeping bags and other items which the company had donated to a group helping homeless people in Southend. We all agreed that frozen though we were when working in the warehouse, we were all better off than the homeless in Southend having to fend for themselves on the streets in sub-zero temperatures.

This could be described as a hierarchy of privilege with me sitting on top in the most privileged position as I only had to endure the freezing cold for four hours! This analogy may seem flippant to the purists but it’s a useful starting point in understanding privilege theory and seeing where you stand in relation to others. Let’s face it, privilege theory can be a minefield and it’s all too easy to inadvertently put a foot wrong and find yourself blown sky high for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time! So anything that helps in gaining an understanding of it is to be welcomed…

Is there any point to privilege theory or is it, as some commentators have suggested, a way for a certain section of the activist community to signal how virtuous they are? I see privilege theory as an extension of intersectionality that as I’ve written previously, has plenty of merits, so I should see privilege theory as also having some merits. Acknowledging that someone involved in a struggle with you is getting screwed over worse than you are because of their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. should really be a matter of basic human decency and common sense.

Listening to someone who is being screwed over in more ways than you can be a useful and educational experience as they could well have some useful insights into the power structures that dominate the society we endure and more importantly, some useful tips and tricks on how to fight against them. The aspect of privilege theory that says those who are more marginalised, exploited and oppressed need to be able to have a voice should be taken as a non-problematic given, with one caveat… Namely that the range of experiences articulated be aggregated as far as is possible in order to come up with a coherent analysis of the situation and more importantly, a strategy to deal with it. That means those of us who are perceived as more privileged also being able to take part in the discussion in a role of solidarity to help to formulate an analysis and a solution.

Check your privilege! This is one statement that delivered in the wrong tone, can get peoples backs up and start to drive them out of activism altogether. We live in a deeply flawed and dysfunctional society and it’s a struggle to avoid internalising some of the shite assumptions that underpin it. Some of us do out level best to recognise that we have inadvertently internalised some crap assumptions and try to not let them creep into our conversation or the way we behave. But you know, we’re only human and sometimes we slip up and come out with stuff that on reflection we shouldn’t have. Shouting at someone who’s slipped up to ‘check your privilege’ isn’t going to help matters in any way, shape or form.

Following up ‘check your privilege’ with ‘it’s not my role to educate you’ only serves to make the situation even worse. Believe it or not there are some of us in activist circles who have not had the benefit of a university education and might need a few pointers to resources that will educate us as to how the existing structures of power screw some groups over more than others. So instead of coming out with a snotty ‘it’s not my role to educate you’ response, how about showing some common human decency and help to point people who want to learn more in the right direction?

What makes things really shite is when someone you don’t know makes assumptions about you based on your appearance. I may be white, male, working class and (just) the wrong side of sixty but it doesn’t mean I’m narrow minded, set in my ways and not prepared to listen to a different point of view. All I ask is that if I make an inadvertent slip, that could well be down to the jingoistic, patriotic shite we had rammed down our throats when we were at school in the 1960s. Please accept that not everyone is perfect and in what is still a racist society, with the best will in the world, dodgy assumptions do get internalised. All we ask is that we’re helped in acknowledging and overcoming them rather than written off as uneducated trash.

It’s all about the context though… If I’m being pulled up over an inadvertent slip, how I react very much depends on who is doing the pulling up. If for example, I’m being pulled up by a woman of colour who is at the sharp end of the shite society throws at her ranging from having to look over her shoulder to avoid any racist bonehead who wants to abuse or assault her through to trying to avoid unwanted attention from Home Office immigration vans, I’ll listen to her and happily acknowledge my error. That’s because that with her experiences, it’s probable that she’ll have some pretty sharp insights into the way power structures work that me in my relatively more privileged position may well not have picked up on. Listening to her story will be an educational experience and an act of much needed solidarity.

On the other hand, at the end of 2013 when an Oxford educated writer from a well off background with a regular column in a left leaning weekly publication pulled me up in an online discussion and suggested I ‘check my privilege’ please forgive me for having gone ballistic! This was in relation to a massive online row involving numerous participants over comments made about the Multiculturalism & Identity Politicshttp://www.iwca.info/?p=10146 – article I wrote for the IWCA back in September of 2009. At the time this happened, I was scraping a living as a door-to-door leaflet deliver on the streets of Thurrock while struggling to deal with what was then an undiagnosed prostate condition. Being told to ‘check my privilege’ when I was feeling anything but privileged didn’t exactly help matters. As I stated earlier, it’s all about the context isn’t it?

There are certainly merits in acknowledging where people are being screwed over in more ways than you are, listening to them, showing solidarity and being able to aggregate their experiences with those of others to develop an analysis of a situation and devise a strategy to deal with it. This should be one of the basic building blocks of any movement that’s serious about delivering radical change.

Where it goes wrong is when certain elements in radical movements twist privilege theory to suit their own agendas of shutting down debate with people they disagree with. I’m not talking about debate with right wing bigots because we don’t debate with them! I’m talking about the disagreements we have in radical circles where people in a certain clique shut down debate with any other radicals who they disagree with by saying ‘check your privilege’ in a tone which pretty much suggests they’re beyond redemption. It’s this holier than thou attitude from certain elements that’s creating a level of toxicity which is driving good people away from the movement. Given the dire threats we face from a resurgent right, we cannot afford this level of division so please, can we all just chill out, learn to accept each others imperfections and then work together to overcome them?

Dave (the editor)

Intersectionality – some tentative thoughts

Dave (the editor)

When I wrote Multiculturalism & Identity Politics for the IWCA way back in 2009, I hadn’t heard of the term intersectionality. If it had been explained to me at that time in plain, understandable, jargon free language, I may well have taken some of the concepts on board when writing Multiculturalism & Identity Politics and would have written a better piece. This is because some aspects of intersectionality dealing with overlapping discriminations echoed what I found when I was out doorstepping for the IWCA in Thurrock.

Simply talking to working class people on the doorstep brings home the fact that while people obviously experience issues because of their class, other aspects such as gender and ethnicity also have an impact as well. It should be a matter of common sense to recognise that these issues overlap with each other and that a bit more nuance is needed when coming up with an analysis of a situation. If that’s intersectionality, then believe it or not, there are aspects of it I’m happy to take on board.

However, intersectionality is one of those concepts that’s open to a variety of interpretations… Some people have come up with interpretations that far from bringing different struggles together, are creating hierarchies of oppression that only serve to create division in progressive movements as people are afraid to say anything in case they’re accused of denying someone else a voice. It’s with this in mind that I’m going to make an attempt to tackle the issue with the possibly naïve aim of trying to create some degree of unity on how we see intersectionality and start to move away from some of the toxicity that is characterising the discussion.

A starting point in looking at intersectionality is going back to when the concept first emerged and more importantly, why. Back in the 1980s, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia, articulated the concept of intersectionality using the legal case outlined below as one of the starting points: In 1976, Emma DeGraffenreid and several other black women sued General Motors for discrimination, arguing that the company segregated its workforce by race and gender: Blacks did one set of jobs and whites did another. According to the plaintiffs’ experiences, women were welcome to apply for some jobs, while only men were suitable for others. This was of course a problem in and of itself, but for black women the consequences were compounded. You see, the black jobs were men’s jobs, and the women’s jobs were only for whites. Thus, while a black applicant might get hired to work on the floor of the factory if he were male; if she were a black female she would not be considered. Similarly, a woman might be hired as a secretary if she were white, but wouldn’t have a chance at that job if she were black. Neither the black jobs nor the women’s jobs were appropriate for black women, since they were neither male nor white. Wasn’t this clearly discrimination, even if some blacks and some women were hired? [1]

The workers in question should have had the option of being able to sue General Motors for discrimination on the grounds of both gender and their race. The US courts didn’t see it that way – they wouldn’t acknowledge that the workers were being discriminated against in multiple ways and insisted they had to make a choice of which grounds to sue General Motors. The application of basic common sense and human decency should mean that anyone looking at this case would recognise that the workers were being screwed not only because of their class but also because of their gender and race. My understanding of what Crenshaw set out to achieve with the concept of intersectionality was to devise a toolkit that could draw attention to situations where people were experiencing multiple oppressions. So as well as acknowledging the obvious class imbalance that informed the way General Motors treated their workforce (cynically using divide and rule) the intersectional analysis also focused on the extra levels of discrimination various sections of the workforce experienced due to their race and / or gender.

Maybe, I’m being naïve, but an analysis which highlights the varying levels of discrimination and oppression people endure should ideally be getting used in a way that draws different struggles together. It’s certainly something that can be used to draw attention to the cynical use of divide and rule and to highlight the way that various oppressions overlap each other and why struggles against them should strive to achieve unity while acknowledging the different experiences of the various groups involved. The hope being that it will generate solidarity between a range of groups on the basis of all for one and one for all.

One issue that has to be dealt with in unifying a range of struggles is acknowledging that some people face more in the way of discrimination and oppression than others. What needs to be born in mind is that while recognising that someone is getting screwed over in more ways than you are, is that it’s not done in a patronising way. This is simply because from my experience, people who are having to deal with multiple oppressions can turn out to be the most effective and feisty campaigners going! They have to be in order to deal with all the issues being thrown at them and we should be listening to and learning from their experiences.

What I’m discussing goes by the name of privilege theory. Which in theory should be the decent and common sense acknowledgement of when someone is more oppressed / discriminated against than you are and acting accordingly to show solidarity and support. One of the problems of privilege theory is that it can all too often come across as a hierarchy of victimhood. When it becomes understood as such, it becomes a real problem as it denies people the agency to fight back against the system that’s oppressing them.

Giving people being screwed over by multiple oppressions a voice shouldn’t be a box ticking exercise – it should be a learning experience for all involved. People who are being oppressed on multiple fronts generally have a pretty sharp perception of what’s wrong with the social, political and economic order as it stands and what needs to be done to change things. Listening to them talk not just about their oppressions but how they fight back against them is a learning experience. In other words, let people more oppressed than you have a voice because more often than not, they have a valid contribution to make to the struggle.

Having said this, we have to have the leeway to aggregate people’s experiences to draw general principles from them which will guide our action. This is what political theorist, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper has to say about this: Listening to people’s stories is important. But if it is to have any value, besides satisfying people’s desire to be heard, then we need to do more than listen. We need to be able to generalize from those stories to more abstract principles, which then inform our action and guide policy. Particular experiences and personal testimonies are of political importance because they can help to illuminate general principles; they cannot trump those general principles. [2]

For various reasons, one being the crap education system that many people at the bottom of the social ladder have endured, not everyone is going to be as articulate as someone who’s had the privilege of a university education. On the other hand, the experience of life of those at the bottom will most likely be more real and just because they can’t spout the right kind of jargon, it doesn’t mean their opinion should be disregarded. Sometimes – and only sometimes, they may need some assistance in articulating their opinions. That should simply be a matter of tact and done in a way that helps to empower them and doesn’t patronise them.

One of the problems of privilege theory is that it can come across as a hierarchy of victimhood. That’s an incredibly patronising way of viewing the situation when it’s the most oppressed who can often be at the forefront of the fight for a better world. The struggles of cleaners, delivery workers and others across London is a case in point. In London, these sectors are primarily operated by migrant labour who refuse to accept their allotted role of cheap, disposable labour and they’re vigorously fighting back against that with demands for decent pay and to be respected for what they do. Somehow, while they will acknowledge the multiple oppressions they experience, I don’t think they will recognise the hierarchy of victimhood that some proponents of privilege theory describe.

Another example of intersectionality in practice is the setting up of Sisters Uncut Doncaster. [3] Yes, Doncaster – about as far away from cosseted middle class liberal privilege as you can get. A town that to all intents has been thrown under the bus with issues ranging from high rates of domestic abuse, low wages and part time work for many women through to the trauma of adjusting to a post industrial future in a society that still judges people by what they do (or don’t do) in the way of work for a living. A town where austerity cuts threatened the only Women’s Aid in South Yorkshire.

A worker at Women’s Aid contacted Sisters Uncut in London to see what help they could offer. Sisters Uncut in London responded and as a result Sisters Uncut Doncaster was set up and Women’s Aid was saved. This was an intervention that drew a whole range of issues from class through austerity to toxic patriarchy together and came up with a practical, cohesive response. Sisters Uncut may be better known for their dynamic direct actions on the streets but it’s this grassroots graft in places like Doncaster that will seal their reputation for putting intersectional principles into action in a way that brings about real change where it matters.

What I’ve written so far is my personal attempt to draw out the positives from intersectionality and hopefully start a constructive dialogue on how they can be used to unify struggles. I’m only too well aware that with some of the interpretations of intersectionality that have manifested themselves, it has become a contentious issue and to say that some of the discussion around it has turned toxic is an understatement. There are a number of reasons why this is the case and dealing with them would entail at least one or more full length posts. For the purposes of this piece, looking at how and why some of the debate around intersectionality has become so toxic is something I would rather leave for the future.

To conclude this piece, I’ll leave you with this quote from Rebecca Reilly-Cooper: Recognizing that there are multiple and interacting forms of oppression, and wanting to work to eradicate the negative effects of this on the most oppressed people, can and must divorce itself from this incoherent, self-defeating, nihilistic identity politics. It we are going to do anything to make people’s lives better, we have to be able to draw general conclusions from people’s experiences, and be allowed to represent those who cannot represent themselves. [4]

References

[1] Kimberlé Crenshaw – Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait – Washington Post, 24 September, 2015 – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2015/09/24/why-intersectionality-cant-wait/
[3] Vicky Spratt – How Sisters Uncut are changing the way politics is done – The DeBrief – 9 August, 2016 – http://www.thedebrief.co.uk/news/politics/sisters-uncut-who-are-they-20160864469
[2], [4] Rebecca Reilly-Cooper – Intersectionality and Identity Politics – https://rebeccarc.com/2013/04/15/intersectionality-and-identity-politics/