I knew John Wilson Street sounded familiar. I lived on that street as a student, just adjacent to the barracks and close to the Woolwich campus of the University of Greenwich.
There is a tawdriness to the setting of yesterday's killing that adds to its sadness. The main thing going for Woolwich, then as now, is the fact that almost everywhere else nearby is even more grim: Plumstead, Thamesmead, Charlton, North Woolwich. These charmless suburban wastelands surrounding Woolwich actually improve its plight, as by comparison it starts to look like a thriving little metropole. But the postcode area, SE18, was and still is one of the poorest in the country. The Woolwich campus of the University of Greenwich, formerly a Polytechnic, was then quite a neglected, dilapidated set of buildings - quite a contrast to the stunning neoclassical facades of the Greenwich campus. It is long closed.
There is a 'common' that looks derelict and abandoned - because it has been abandoned by Olympics planners who flew in with a bunch of promises, then fucked off just as quickly once the shooting was over. Whereas Greenwich town centre has been the focus of neoliberal gentrification and tourism-driven growth, unemployment in the borough is especially concentrated in the two wards, Woolwich Common and Woolwich Riverside. There is nothing there. No amenities, no jobs, no future. Every day is like Sunday.
In addition to being the site of an army base, which was incorporated into an already militarised Olympics Games, it is a racially mixed area. These, in themselves banal facts, provided the backdrop for a (no doubt partially sincere) attempt by local MP Nick Raynsford to respond to the attacks with a classic New Labour 'integrationist' racial project. In essence, Raynsford defended a form of 'Britishness' where militarism could co-exist with lived multiculture, as in Woolwich: black people can fight our wars too. Their loyalty, their collusion in our shared martial values, is what makes them British.
But why does race come into it? Why does multiculturalism come into it? David Cameron has hinted at 'indications' that the killing was a 'terrorist' incident. He has provided the usual assurances of British resilience in the face of such attacks, although such histrionics say the opposite of what they are supposed to: they imply that the British state, one of the most powerful and well-armed in the world, might conceivably one day actually yield, give up in the face of two men with knives. What does 'terrorism' have to do with this? Why is British grit, as opposed to a standard police investigation, the order of the day? The statement from the IS Network highlighted the speed with which the narrative changed once it became clear that the victim was a soldier, even while details remained scarce. Why did the narrative change, and what purpose did that serve?
This is not a post about the killing of a soldier, about which there is little to say, nor about the 'double standards' in the use of the term 'terrorism'. It is about how the notoriously pliable category of 'terrorism' has been put to work in developing fables about our racial selves, about 'Britishness' and its others.
The Muslim in British raciology
Through 'race', social relations, events and bodies are symbolised and come to be seen as 'racial'. Take, for example, the northern riots in 2001. There were a number of conjunctural elements involved: a struggle over local council resources; protests against police brutality; right-wing and fascist violence against Asian businesses and citizens; anti-fascist mobilisation; police repression; and so on. Among the structural elements were the deindustrialisation of former mill towns and ensuing poverty and unemployment; the institutional racism of local governments, which led to struggles over resources being racialised; the degeneration of Labourism, which provided some of the raw material for a right-wing populist politics; the racism of local police forces, who stigmatised Asians as 'anti-white', violent drug-dealers.
This was clearly a complex web of political struggles: the media saw only 'race riots'. Subsequently, a more detailed government response saw 'self-segregating' Asians, 'no go areas for whites', 'parallel lives' and a crisis of 'Britishness'. Subsequently, after 9/11, this view of the Asian as self-segregating, hostile, and anti-British, was re-deployed in an Islamophobic variant which has since become a neo-Powellite folk wisdom. The plausibility of these responses depended on the prior acceptance of their basic precepts. Race is something that has to be believed in order to be seen.
With that said, what does a Muslim look like? When the victim of yesterday's killing was revealed to be a soldier, now known to be a fusilier who had served in Helmand, sections of the media instantly began to seek a Muslim connection. The media has form here. One only has to remember how the Utoya attacks prompted instant speculation about Muslim involvement and hand-wringing about the 'failure of multiculturalism', even well past the point at which it was clear that the attacker was an Islamophobe inspired by the EDL. In this vein yesterday, the BBC's Nick
Robinson set the tone by describing one of the assailants as being of "Muslim
Yet both assailants, as evidenced in the morbid footage, were black men wearing casual clothing. One, who addressed a
passerby recording the incident on a camera-phone, was wearing jeans, a
hoodie and a beanie hat. Even
by the conventions of British raciology, it seems a stretch, or at least
a new departure, to say that this is a stereotypical "Muslim
appearance". The police's blunt Identity Categories would, as Symeon
Brown pointed out, classify the assailant as being an IC3 male - a man
of African/Caribbean descent. Challenged about his description on
social media, however, Robinson replied to his critics that he was quoting a
description from a Whitehall source, who was in turn quoting police.
Such reporting at third hand demonstrates the mutually corroborative
effect different wings of the state and media connecting to one another in a perpetual feedback loop. But it also suggested a strong will on the part of the authorities to 'see' a "Muslim appearance", as that would instantly provide the fable they desired.
It was also
suggested that there was some chanting of the phrase "Allahu Akhbar"
after the attacks, the story attributed to two men who reportedly heard it. This story was circulated by all the major news
media. Once ITN News broadcast video footage of one of the assailants, Michael Adebolajo, all doubt seemed to pass. He said that the beheading of this
soldier was a message to David Cameron, who has sent British troops to
Arabic lands: "We must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye, a
tooth for a tooth." He went on: "You think politicians are going to die? No, it's going to be the average guy - like you - and your children. So get rid of them. Tell them to bring our troops back so you can all live in peace." While a Muslim man spoke those words, they do not constitute a religious diatribe but rather a straightforward, and perfectly coherent, political message. The only directly religious phrase used, as far as I can tell, is biblical rather than quranic.
Adebolajo, notably, came from a Nigerian Christian family, and is a convert to Islam. He went to the University of Greenwich when he turned eighteen, and lived in student accomodation in 2004 and 2005. He must have studied at the Avery Hill campus if he lived in Eltham during that time. I'd like to know what he studied, and what degree he ended up with. It was in 2005 that he first came under surveillance by MI5. I'd like to know what groups spoke to him, and converted him. There is a vague report that he was 'radicalised' by the group Al Muhajiroun in 2003, a suggestion which seems to ignore something fairly massive and bloody which began to happen in that year. I'd like to know how he ended up living in a miserable housing estate in Woolwich, handing out Islamist literature in the high street every week, probably not far from where I used to proselytise for revolutionary socialism.
I think his conversion to Islam, and particularly to Islamist politics, may have had something to do with the anger and misery arising from the many sleights, insults and exclusions of living in a racist society. I think his affiliation with a network of combat jihadists may have given him a sense of power and purpose: they had an analysis of their problems, a strategy for resistance, and a utopian horizon to aim for. Certainly, this bloody action seems to have been committed with a sense of empowerment: they seemed, to witnesses, to be completely in control of what they were doing, and to relish the opportunity to explain why they had done it. They were not 'on something', and they were not 'disturbed'. They were political militants who had killed an enemy combatant as far as they were concerned. One thinks of Richard Reid's trial. He had been to prison before: that is where he had converted. But this time, he was not afraid. He sat before the judge and stated with a smile: "I am an enemy of your country and I don't care."
Glenn Greenwald has done the usual sterling work in anatomising this response. Without duplicating his points, a simple comparison suffices to convey it: of all the freelance racists who have murdered black people in the UK over the years, sometimes in groups and sometimes individually, how many have been characterised as 'terrorism'? And it seems worth asking what is left of the term 'terrorism' once one has discounted for the consistent inconsistency of its usage? No one can agree on a definition. No serious scholarly book on the subject dares venture a definition that isn't either weighed down with caveats or ultimately self-cancelling. Suffice to say that in some cases, violence with a clear political and symbolic purpose is classified as 'terrorism', and in some cases it is not, and there appears to be no explicit, principled distinction between those which are and those which are not.
The distinctions which are offered, say between 'terrorism' and 'just war', are pure ideology. Talal Asad points out that there are typically three such distinctions offered. First, a just war is fought in pursuit of virtuous, liberal, humane and democratic ends, while terrorism is waged only for nefarious, fanatical ends. Second, a just war is restrained, seeking to avoid civilian casualties, while terrorism is unrestrained mayhem that if anything actively seeks out a civilian body count. Third, a just war takes place only at the last minute, after all alternatives have been exhausted, while terrorism is capricious, and barely needs provocation. It goes without saying that this is pure ideology: no serious examination of the course of, say, the 'war on terror', would bear out any of these claims.
The term 'terrorism' is concretely used here, not to signify a method, a goal, or a form of organisation, but rather to signify a particular genre of story-telling. It is a narrative device. In this context, the counterpoint to 'terrorism' was the "absolutely indomitable British spirit", as the Prime Minister called it, exemplified in the acts of members of the public who spoke to the assailants and attempted to guard the already mutilated corpse against further assault. Cameron went on to say: "The terrorists will never win because they can never beat the values that we hold dear. The belief in freedom, in democracy, in free speech, in our British values, Western values."
Thus, a pitiable scene in a cold, grey-skied summer day in Woolwich, was attached to a world-historical battle mantled with abstract values. More to the point, it was linked to a contemporary metaphysics of race. Using David Theo Goldberg's terminology, we could classify this as a 'historicist' type of racial metaphysics. Whereas a 'naturalist' racial metaphysics treats biology as destiny, 'historicist' types treat racial differences as a result of differing degrees of cultural and political development. For the subordinated, 'historicism' holds out the promise of eventual racial uplift, full citizenship, pending the fulfillment of certain conditions - acceptance of our values, integration, passing a citizenship test, and so on.
Once examined, the terms 'British values' and 'Western values' unspool into a sequence of connotative links connecting territory, birth and culture in a roughly 'historicist' manner. It is a given that 'the West', for example, is not a geographical entity so much as a historically produced caste of national states comprising Europe and its colonies, from North America to Australasia. This white West is connected to its supposed values through the crucial vector of culture. Thus, it just so happens that white people are the legatees of a particular level of civilizational and cultural development that give them these unique, priceless assets such as democracy. This necessitates forgetting how passionately and often violently democracy was resisted within the social formations of 'the West', as well as how much modern democratic revolutions owed to the decidedly 'non-Western' Haiti. But the link between territory and values is most forcibly made through the example of the Second World War, with the Cold War providing a distant second point of reference, which is why 'terrorism' is always discussed as if it's the equivalent of the Third Reich stamping on the toes of the British Empire.
It goes without saying that the meaning of culture, in this neo-Powellite culturalism, is greatly reduced. Culture, aside from being cross-sected by multiple antagonisms, never ceases to be constructed, its points of reference continuously displaced, and thus never arrives as a finished essence. But in the dramaturgy of "Western values" and "British values", culture has to do perform the same theatrical purpose as biology once did, and thus it has to be frozen and essentialised. If biology is not destiny, culture certainly is: in the warmed up 'modernisation theory' of the post-Cold War era, it is the destiny to which all formerly abject peoples were suddenly racing.
What the race fable tells us, then, is that we belong to an indomitably superior culture that is radiantly attractive to others, part of whose superiority lies in its generosity, its openness, and its ability to incorporate those of lesser cultural breeds - whether through an overly relaxed immigration policy, or through an excessively benign policy of military intervention. It tells us that there are some who, given this priceless opportunity, decline to accept it; they revert to type, repudiate it, and spit in our faces. With few resources, but endless guile, they seek to persuade others of their status also to repudiate the gift, and kill us instead. And in doing so, they come to resemble their kin in the non-West, while 'we' resemble ourselves only more perfectly as 'we' stoically respond to the challenge. This is 'terrorism'.
The race fable was illustrated by ITN News which, after showing the footage of a bloodied Adebolajo, referred to the scene in Woolwich as a day when 'Baghdad-style violence' came to south London. It was a catchy line, precisely because it resonated with the media's own conventions when reporting from imperial frontlines. Others, such as the Telegraph, have evoked untamed bestiary, and in one typical article speculates on a possible link to a Nigerian group which has waged "a bloody campaign against
Western values of freedom and democracy". In other words, though the 'terrorism' was home-grown, it has actually penetrated from the outside, smuggled in by immigrants and the internet. The juxtaposition in the Baghdad line reminds us where such violence really belongs.
Yet the vector through which the pathology spread is more specific than immigration as such, or the internet. In this connection, the plight of other British Muslims in all this has not been forgotten. It has been a mainstream political doctrine for some years that 'terrorism' is a specific pathology of Islam, that it is something which Muslims have a particular duty to seek out 'terrorism' in their midst and report it to the authorities. Governments from Blair onward have seen it as their particular business to coerce and coopt British Muslims in this way. This is the doctrine of "muscular liberalism" that David Cameron has boasted about; it lets British Muslims know that their national status is still in question and that this is largely because of their own shortcomings.
Cameron was briefly magnanimous enough to say, yesterday, that the attack was not the fault of Islam but of the individuals alone. The Muslim Council of Britain and the Ramadhan Foundation corroborated this exoneration of the faith with their strenuous denunciations of the killing. But they will know very well that such corroboration implied that the exoneration was needed. They will also know that in his speech Cameron also referred to the problem as one of 'extremism', and it is this which he charges ordinary Muslims with tolerating or harbouring. They will know that Cameron's government will hold Muslims and Muslim organisations answerable for this, irrespective of diplomatic statements made in the heat of the moment. Their every statement can now be combed for potentially disloyal nuance. Police searches, internment, a few more Forest Gates - all this is possible until the government is satisified with the degree of cooperation it is receiving.
The consequence of over a decade of syncopated Islam-baiting has been a
pronounced political turn to the Right, especially on questions of
immigration, nationality and 'race'. Coterminously, 'Britishness' has increasingly been merged with militarism. The ultimate test of one's integration, one's loyalty to 'British values', is to fight for said values. The ultimate proof of one's betrayal is to insult the soldiers who defend them. One can be against war, on the ground that it is too much benevolence for an undeserving mob, but one can't denounce the troops themselves. The case of Azhar Ahmed, whose sole offence was to castigate British soldiers on Facebook, indicates the potential costs of doing so, particularly for a Muslim. It also illustrates the centrality of the state to the development and implementation of these ideologies.
And it is because of the dominant role of the British state, and in the context of that state's action, that a right-wing 'counter-jihadist' politics of street mobilisations and violence has developed. The 'lone wolf' mosque attacks in Woolwich and elsewhere were followed up by an English Defence League 'protest' in Woolwich. The EDL had exhausted itself until recently in a sequence of miscues and hyper-activism, but last night mobilised a contingent of masked combatants to descend on Woolwich within hours of the attack. Their Facebook page experienced a surge of new supporters, and they have shown up in some cities this evening for the first time. They now plan to march in central London this weekend, and are probably emboldened in their recently revived scheme of staging at least one successful march in Tower Hamlets. Even if they succeed at none of these objectives, it is quite plausible that some of them will succeed in shedding some blood before the immediate consequences of this have worked themselves out.
The dominant political response to this threat is largely dismissive. Nick Raynsford has suggested that the EDL simply need to "grow up" and realise that causing trouble is "counteproductive". He presumably did not mean to imply that his disagreement with the EDL is mainly a tactical one, that they threaten to scupper shared objectives. A New Labour politician is emphatically not on a par with a proto-fascist football casual. Nonetheless, I think his slip is meaningful. The account of 'terrorism' and 'Britishness' which I have just given above describes a set of ideological parameters that are virtually unchallenged in the mainstream, and which validate the Islamophobic far right, making it nearly impossible to seriously oppose them, or to discern anything but a completely misconceived appropriation of 'real concerns'. This is the role that 'terrorism' is playing in British politics today.
Speaking of politics and the internet, it's worth highlighting that the remaining SWP opposition, which has been under deep cover since the revolting spectacle of the special conference, has 'come out' with a new blog. The Fault Lines has some quite telling posts, and for those who have followed this story and have an interest in the future of the British Left, it is essential reading. The IS Network has written an 'official' response, and Network member Jules Alford has written very well on the subject here.
I have never been motivated enough to write anything detailed about the political valences of 'the internet', despite plenty of goading, and despite having 'debated' the subject in a slightly off-the-cuff manner on a couple of occasions. To be honest, I found the whole idea incredibly boring. What was there to say that wasn't obvious? I know this is philistinism.
Prior to leaving the SWP, the subject suddenly became much more important, and I co-authored a piece for the 'Internal Bulletin' before the party's 'special conference'. The piece was informed by some of the usual academic readings, but eschewed the scholastic debates (Castells vs Morozov; slacktivism vs creative autonomy; etc) and language in favour of a practical argument intended to explain why political parties - to the extent that they ever could - would no longer be able to maintain a culture of secrecy, even if such was desirable. Of course, there could be a degree of confidentiality in restricted circumstances, all depending on the good will and political discipline of those involved - but secrecy, the idea that one's discussions take place outside of the scrutiny of either members or the public, is over. One practical consequence of this, as far as the IS Network is concerned, is that we make a point of keeping records of our 'internal' discussions and publishing the minutes on the website - something that was unthinkable in the SWP.
Here, as a starting point for discussion, I want to spell out some more general arguments about politics and the internet which have, in their totality, clear practical consequences. I make no claim to originality in any of this.
I. 'The internet', as such, doesn't exist. This is a cultural commonplace. Comical attempts to represent 'the internet' as a 'thing' might involve depicting it as a giant broadband hub device (as in South Park, where a shortage of 'internet' was solved by pulling the giant plug out and putting it in again) or a normal sized one (as in The IT Crowd, in which Jen is gulled into thinking that the small blinking box she holds is 'the internet'), but the joke is very clear: 'the internet' isn't a tangible 'thing'. But when it comes to analysis, the temptation is always to take the object of analysis for granted, to become entranced by it. A great deal of cyber-idealism derives, in my opinion, from 'forgetting' that what is called 'the internet' is a set of processes and relations; that the tangible effects which appear to confirm its existence are the various results of these processes. And that cyber-idealism is shared even - especially - by morose critics of cyber-utopianism such as Morozov who maintain a strict online-offline dichotomy. If 'the internet' doesn't exist as such, neither does a strict demarcation between 'the internet' and 'not the internet'.
II. These processes and relations are all inflected by the specific materiality of Web 2.0 - that is, its specific technological bases and protocols, and its evolving systems of signification, of encoding and decoding. Beyond this simple fact, their base of commonality is quite narrow. For instance, the relation between a sole Twitter user, those whom she follows, and those who follow her, is qualitatively quite different to the relationship between a corporate Twitter user, its follows and followers. The processes, the habits of posting, tagging, re-tweeting and so on, are remarkably different in each case. This is because the technology is articulated on existing social (economic, political, ideological) relations. It modifies these relations, and I will be particularly concerned with its effect on ideological relations, but it cannot substitute for them or resolve their antagonisms or 'contradictions'. To believe otherwise is to succumb to technological fetishism.
III. One consequence of this is obviously that there are pronounced inequalities in access to and use of the internet, whether in terms of bandwidth, or the languages permitted in the dominant websites, or the political controls operating on it. The vast majority of Twitter accounts are followed by less than a 100 people, and a relatively tiny proportion of tweeters makes up for the greatest volume of tweets. Celebrities, companies, governments, PR firms, news and media outfits, and so on, all make up the vast bulk of social media traffic. James Curran et al have demonstrated this consequence with ample rigour -
albeit at times slightly overzealous in their prosecution of internet
utopianism - and I feel no need to go into detail here. It may be said that because the internet favours networked relations, it therefore favours more more horizontal, flexible and decentred types of organisation. While the business-minded (cf., capitalist scum) would point out that this reinforces similar tendencies in the organisation of industries, some activists have claimed that it echoes the increasingly rhizomatic, non-centralised forms of political action that characterise social movements. But networks do not necessarily mean 'no hierarchies', particularly when they are articulated on profound political, ideological and economic hierarchies. What is true is that it is incredibly difficult simply to exclude certain ideas or agents outright. Whereas a person can go through her whole life without ever being a guest on BBC Newsnight, it's increasingly implausible that she will never have a post re-tweeted or shared by far more people than she knows. The main benefit of social media for political activists is to help break through the ideological monopoly of the ideological-state apparatuses.
IV. 'Social media' as such is not a novelty; the authentically popular presses of the last century were social media. The types of social media made available by Web 2.0 are not totally sui generis. When theorists such as Castells celebrate the 'creative autonomy' facilitated by social media, they are not completely wrong; but they are mistaken to the extent that they think this is a totally original feature of the internet. Nor is the novelty in the use of electronic data interchange; before social media, there was texting, and before texting there was telexing and faxing. What is distinctive about social media in this respect is: i) the scale of user-generated content, allowing for the ideological monopoly of the existing ideological-state apparatuses to be challenged at certain decisive points; b) the scale at which it has accelerated communications, such that the spread of information is unpredictable, and almost impossible to stop; c) and the fact that its celerity is bound up with a networked form wherein obstacles such as censorship (or privacy) can generally be routed around.
V. Technology is not socially neutral. One of the more naive types of social criticism is expressed in the idea that a technology is indifferent to its social uses: you can use a hammer to bash in someone's head, or nail up a picture, it doesn't care which. The reality is that certain technologies do incline toward certain social arrangements more than others. Nuclear power tends to support more hierarchical, secretive structures. If anything, social media tends to encourage the opposite: a panopticon effect. It is easier now for state secrets to be exposed, but also easier for surveillance to be implemented. It's not simply that one can be spied on by the state or by one's employers - think of Azhar Ahmed, the famous #twitterjoketrial, the people locked up for things they said during the riots. It is that there are consequences for political subjectivities. A bit crudely, Morozov has claimed that people sign petitions or share activist material online simply to impress their friends. The kernel of truth in that is that whatever you say has to be gauged not just for an intimate audience of friends and family, who know and understand your attitudes and affective dispositions, but for potentially the whole of the internet. Getting it right, projecting the correct image, and receiving the appropriate feedback, becomes extremely important: why else would you stay up all night because "someone is wrong on the internet"? Lasch's worries about capitalism engendering a collective retreat to narcissistic fantasy now look sweetly naive. But aside from that, the tendencies toward ideological conformity at certain crucial moments, the coercive power of ideology, is reinforced by this. Think about the horrors of social media during the England riots in 2011, think of the 'spontaneous' outpouring of support for the police and the tidal wave of racist authoritarianism, as people outbid each other to come up with the thickest thing to say, drawing on the dominant ideologies that they had imbibed from the ideological-state apparatuses over the years.
VI. The major impact of social media on agents is not the sharpening or modification of existing tendencies toward individualisation, but rather the sharpening and modification of tendencies toward the destruction of the individual. The individual on social media is not the self-sufficient ground of its communicative structure, but rather a contingent assembly of networked nodes, projects, etc. The algorithms of searches, trending topics, and the logic of 'sharing', 'retweeting', 'hashtags', and so on - leaving aside the paid for advertising promotions of certain companies - supports an 'emergent order', wherein the real 'brain' of communication is not the individual with her 'creative autonomy', but rather the medium itself. As Mirowski points out in his new book, Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste, this tends to give it an elective affinity with neoliberalism, which re-defines the human in a similar way. It is not 'networked individualism', but the fragmentation of individuals into several networked nodes, that is taking place.
VII. It follows from this that the idea of a dramatic increase in 'creative autonomy', pivoted on the autonomous individual as the ground of communicative activity, is in need of serious qualification. Because the emergent order of social media, that hive mind, is clearly structured by the materiality of Web 2.0 and the social relations on which it is articulated. How successfully a node can project its message depends on how well it masters the protocols of these social media, how much resources it is able to dispose of in doing so, and how much access to the traditional ideological-state apparatuses it has. Further, the process of what Castells calls 'mass self-communication', as opposed to simple one-way 'mass communication', is similarly dependent: the forms of representation, ideological interpellations and subjectivities that form the basis for 'mass self-communication' are produced within the existing ideological-state apparatuses, and whatever counter-hegemonic apparatuses exist. Not only that but the commodification of the internet and the acceleration of monopoly tendencies within it ensures that the last thing people are is ultimately autonomous: the business model tends to be selling audiences (eyeball attention, personal information) to governments and advertisers, and with user-generated content the users' labour is directly harnessed to the profitability of the providers. The autonomy and creativity that people enjoy here is only relative to the completely passive position of television viewers.
These points should hopefully underline a few practical consequences: that the internet and social media in particular offers unprecedented opportunities for marginal groups that exploit it effectively (and I would say 'early', but...); that it renders absolute secrecy increasingly obsolete; that it disrupts the monopoly of the dominant ideology, but also reinforces it at critical junctures; that it cannot substitute for a radical infrastructure, for counter-hegemonic apparatuses; that the 'autonomy' it affords is only relative and highly insecure, and therefore one needs a 'back-up' in case it fails or is withdrawn.
As I say, this was intended as some starting points for political discussion, especially among IS Network members, but it's also my late entry into a wider discussion that has been going on for some time.
I spoke at the Subversive Festival in Zagrebon Friday. I think the video will go online at some point, but because I spoke too fast I promised to post the transcript of what I said online. I also append my notes from what the other speakers - Haris Golemis, FrancineMestrum, and Waltraud Fritz Klackl - said.
I have to say, parenthetically, that the city went mental for the festival. The tourist board and local hotels were in on it, there were banners across main streets in the centre, there was a raft of institutional and media sponsorship - even, dare I say it, corporate sponsorship. There were some big names, Oliver Stone, Zizek, Tsipras, etc - but mostly people were there for the high minded leftist debate. Given how long the festival went on for, and given the easy distractions of the cafe culture - cafes with big outdoor awnings everywhere - it was remarkable that it was sustained.
Most of the below will be familiar to regular readers.
I think the title of this talk, The Rise of a
New Left, is clearly to some extent projection of a desired outcome; of course,
there are elements of a New Left visible.
Not just the indignados and occupiers, but also the radical left
challengers: Syriza, the Portugese Left Bloc, Die Linke, the Scandinavian
Red-Green alliances, Front de gauche, maybe some elements of the Pirate
Still, we have to begin by acknowledging that
we are speaking from the waste ground of a world-historic defeat that is, even
at this moment, being inflicted on us. I say this right off because there is too much
invested in the abstract idea of resistance - look at the beautiful sparks of
resistance, if only we have more resistance, then the problems can be
solved. Of course, there has been
resistance, social movements, strike waves, quite remarkable events - the Arab
Spring, the Occupy movement, student rebellions, riots, near-insurgency levels
of strikes and protests in Greece. Yet,
one outstanding fact is that not one serious defeat has been inflicted on
austerity, not one.
And the neoliberalism which we all hoped was
going to experience an emaciating crisis when the credit crunch struck in 2007,
and especially when the idols of Wall St from Lehman Brothers to Bear Sterns
started to crumble, lives and thrives.
Far from being weakened, it has adapted and come back more coherent in
its objectives, more daring, and more successful.
Of course, the current success of the
ruling classes is no surety of their future success. Our present predicament is no guarantee of
ongoing failure. But we have to drop the
consolatory notions - that the fight hasn't really begun yet, wait until next
year, you'll see. We have been waiting
five years for a win. Syriza is the
closest we have seen, a point I'll return to.
Or, we hear that however weak we are, the ruling class is also weak. In
some respects they are. Ideologically,
the traditional parliamentary parties are weak, and the traditional sources of
authority are diminishing. The dominant
conservative and social democratic forces are degenerating. But the ruling class's control over markets,
their colonisation of all the major state apparatuses, their command of the
dominant institutions, the dominant media, the academic and ideological
mainstream, and so on, stands in stark contrast to the Left's paucity of
infrastructure, its lack of institutional
advantage, its disarray, its dumbfounded attempts at analysis, the disorganised
state of the working class underpinning it, the morbid symptoms arising from
the secular decline of social democracy and the trade unions.
tendency to enthuse about various substitutions - social media will make up for
our lack of an infrastructure, forgetting that its 'individuating', commodifying
tendencies pose as many problems as are solved by the creative autonomy
facilitated by social media; or, we suppose that a new class of degraded
subjects, the urban poor in the US, the graduates with no future in the Middle
East and Europe, or relatedly the 'precariat', will make up for the
degeneration of the organised working class; or, as mentioned above, the
weakness of our opponents will make up for our weakness and give us a more
level playing field. I think all of this is dangerously complacent and
I don't think the answer to this crisis is
simply to bet on more 'resistance' 'kicking off'. It isn't kicking off everywhere There's a real problem here. We should expect as materialists that a
crisis of capitalism would also be a crisis of the Left. Insofar as we have built up our patterns of
self-reproduction in the existing spaces of capitalism - say in student
politics, the public sector, manufacturing workers, etc - a crisis necessarily
threatens to erode the bases for our ongoing existence. We have to find a new way to develop if we
are even to continue to exist.
Eventually, this crisis is going to be resolved in some way - probably
to the massive disadvantage of workers and the Left. The pieces of the kaleidoscope will fall into
place, as it were. What is then left is
quite plausibly what we will have to work with for a generation or so. So what we do now, counts for a lot. And we have found ourselves torn between
inertia and hyper-activism, the latter often covering up for the former, while
basically getting nowhere. This is not
to say that none of what we have done is worthwhile - it is to say that we have
been impeded by old catechisms and fetishes that prevent us from seeing what is
I won't focus here on why neoliberalism has
proved far more resilient than any of us expected. On this, I recommend three books: The Making of
Global Capitalism by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin; In and Out of Crisis, by Greg Albo, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch; and Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To
Waste, by Philip Mirowski. Rather, I
want to look past the Left's strategic perplexity for a second, and try to find
the seeds of a possible solution in what we've been doing for the last five
I think three types of strategic orientation
for the Left have emerged in the folds of this crisis. The first is that signified by the
autonomist-inflected democratic movement of the indignados, Occupy and so
on. This is based fundamentally on the
idea of claiming a visible space - the idea of protest as communication - then
using it to organise a form of communal democracy - the idea of protest as
prefiguration - and then letting it become a launch pad for other forms of
direct action - the idea of protest as disruption. I think this was enormously fruitful, but it
has run into the problem that visible spaces are not necessarily the
strategically most important spaces to control and, anyway, the authorities
didn't take that long to figure out ways to smash our protests up. Our disruptive capacities, and our resilient
capacities, turned out to be too weak in this case. The second is a more traditional strike-led
approach, in which it is hoped that through the exertion of working class
muscle in the public sector, the rank and file will gain in confidence and
their militancy will encourage other workers to start organising. This is not so new, and it relies on the idea
that there is a rank and file or a vanguard waiting to fulfil such a role. Nonetheless, I see this strike-led approach
as containing a necessary part of a viable strategy.
The third, which has posed serious dilemmas
for us, is the strategy of building radical left parties to occupy the terrain
vacated by a declining social democracy.
The dilemmas are familiar - how far does one end up moving to the Right
in order to be elected? Once elected, what will one have to do to maintain a
functional government? How much pressure
from the dominant forces both inside and outside the state apparatuses can one
withstand? Already, we have seen Tsipras
move to the Right on a number of issues, and attempting to placate
Washington. The Dutch Socialist Party
moved sharply to the Right before the last election and did very poorly anyway. And of course we should remember the debacle
of Rifondazione, collaborating with a centre-left government and implementing
both neoliberal policies and imperialist policies, then diving into historical
oblivion at the next election.
But just because these are dilemmas doesn't
mean we can avoid posing the question - the question of alliances, political
representation and governmental power (not the same thing as state power). It was once possible to say that between the
old reformist parties and the far left, there was nothing. This period, marked by the long-term
decomposition of once dominant social democratic parties, is quite different. A
typical feature of emerging radical left parties and coalitions is the
involvement of a left breakaway from the old reformist parties, as well as a
realignment of some of the Communist parties associated with them. There is a
structural gap between what such forces represent on the ground and what they
can project in elections, which makes any success extremely fragile.
Nonetheless, today there are quite serious forces between us and social
democracy. And in the circumstances, this is no bad thing
Syriza, the Greek radical left party, was the
first radical left party to get within reach of taking power, but it is
unlikely to be the last. For, unlike in
previous crises, this process is marked by the long-term decomposition of once
dominant social democratic parties. This
is one reason why a consistent feature of the New Left parties is the
involvement of a left breakaway from the old centre-left parties. Amid the breakdown of the old, there has been
a profusion of the new: red-green alliances, pirate parties, neo-communist
parties, and anticapitalist coalitions.
They strive toward unity, recognising their fragmentation as a weakness. Often this plea for unity is pivoted on the
question of governmental power. Syriza
won mass support in Greece on a slogan calling for a united Left government to
block austerity measures. That same
demand is likely to resonate in other situations, where austerity combines with
However, as I've said, there is also a
profound fragility about this. Syriza’s
basis in Greek society, for example, has hitherto been relatively shallow. Yet it is now potentially a government in
waiting. The anticapitalists around
Olivier Besancenot in France, whether in the form of the Ligue communist
revolutionaire (LCR) or the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA), represented a
groupuscule in terms of their real social weight, but could muster up to 10% in
parliamentary elections - before, of course, being out-manoeuvred and overtaken
by the Front de gauche (FG).
I actually think this is not limited to the
electoral terrain, it is a feature of the conjuncture. When you think about how very small and
unrepresentative groups can suddenly project disproportionate influence in
situations like student movements or occupations, it is clear that this is
because the breakdown of the old hegemonic forces of the Left has not yet
resulted in any clear successor. This is
partly a problem though, of course, the unpredictability presents opportunities
Well, I think if we want to see a New Left
emerging from this, we need to change the relationship between these strategic
First of all, we need to
recognise the limits of a strike-led strategy based on public sector
workers. These groups of workers are too
narrow for the most part, and their conditions of work too atypical, for them
to transcend the 'economic-corporate' moment by themselves and become the
vanguard of a counter-hegemonic movement.
Their strikes, while important, are going to be largely defensive. Given what neoliberalism has wrought, we have
to stop identifying the working class with its organised minority, and start
think about strategies for organising the unorganised workers, and that
includes confronting the problem of precarity.
Second, we need to go beyond the
utopian moment of Occupy, and think about how we can deploy its principles of
communicative, prefigurative and disruptive power. So, for example, one might ask, is there a
way that we can introduce these principles into a new labour movement, one
based on the ideas of social movement unionism?
Third, we need to see think of these radical left formations not as
better, upgraded versions of the old social democratic left. One problem with social democracy was that
it always tended to rely on a degree of political passivity in its base. It would support a limited degree of
'economic' action by trade unionists, but political action had to be strictly
channelled through the controlled, top-down structures of social
democracy. And there would certainly be
a temptation for any radical left formation, particularly once in office, to
try to use any social depth or influence that it attained to try to politically
control its supporters in order to allow it to translate its ideas into the
language of state policy, which would mean all sorts of compromises and
betrayals. These formations should not
be captivated by electoralism, nor should elections be conflated with politics
as such. Rather, we need to develop
parties with a much broader repertoire of political actions - including the
sorts of actions that would not be good for an electoral strategy, but which
can be said to enhance the wider objectives of the movement.
After this, Haris Golemis (Nicos Poulantzas Institute, central committee of Syriza) introduced a discussion of Syriza that differed from my approach in a few respects. First of all, he suggested that while the main question in 2009 was why the radical left was not increasing its influence amid a profound capitalist crisis, this was no longer the question at least in parts of Europe - Greece, Spain, Portugal, and France had seen leftist upsurges. Second, he offered an analysis of the reasons for Syriza's growth and success, which wouldn't be familiar to most readers - the destabilisation of the parliamentary system, the erosion of Pasok's base, the social movements influenced by Tahrir Square, social resistance by trade unions and unorganised workers, Syriza's role in the movements, its opposition to a 'government of national unity', its principled call for a government of the left, opposition to the memorandum and support for renegotiating the debt based on substantial debt repudiation and a 'growth clause' similar to that reached with West Germany after WWII. He defended the stance on Europe, which he characterised by referring to the slogan 'not one sacrifice for the euro, but no illusions in the drachma', but acknowledged that Antarsya's call for an exit was supported by a left-wing within Syriza. And he added that despite the problem with relying on charismatic leaders, Tsipras's persona played an important role. He concluded that the success of the radical left in Greece was perhaps due to a series of phenomena as singular as that leading to a meeting of two planets; but if it is replicable, the extra-Greek Left should support Syriza and try to creatively apply some of its lessons. Later he added that he didn't think Tsipras's trip to Washington was necessarily a bad thing: it was just sensible to exploit inter-imperialist rivalries.
Waltraud Fritz Klackl (European Left Party secretariat) commented briefly on the development of the European Left Party, and added a few points on the idea of a 'New Left'. She argued that at the centre of the current struggles was the problem of political
representation. For those looking to build left parties, it was necessary to move beyond the concept
of representation and think along the lines of providing a political space
*including* representation where people who want to meet and take action. She added that it was right to address such a project to the organised minority of workers, and to the 'precariat', but said that it was also necessary to somehow include
the 'excluded' who are turning their backs on any party, left or right - unlike the 'precariat, who may often be well-educated, the 'excluded' are denied
education and services, and are ironically often the ones who are often brought into the
bargain against the Left.It was necessary to offer such people a place where they
can find themselves again: we need to build
alliances around these stratas of society, orwe lose the fight for sure.She added that while the left is rising, it is not adequate and not uniform across Europe. Addressing herself to my comments, she pointed out that it would be wrong to appropriate the social movements for the Left: not all
indignados are on the Left; these movements we cannot claim as such. Regarding
political power, she argued that we must not refuse to take governmental power; it is different now, of course,
because managing the state is not the same as before, because you have fewer
possibilities; the political class has much less before than ever before. But we
need to fight for it because real democracy cannot be split from
power. All very well, she said, for the indignados to experiment with direct democracy, but
this has nothing to do with having power.It is pedagogical. Later, commenting further on the question of representation, she said that she thought people had a right to be passive if they wanted: that people have the right to be at home, and read a book, and rely on representatives to carry out their agenda. She said that she was suspicious of the idea of democracy based exclusively on active participation, as if being an activist should give your voice for weight.
Francine Mestrum (Belgian sociologist, activist) explained that she had never belonged to any of the left parties, and that her frustration with these had to do with the fact that left-wing people begin by interpreting a desire for change as a desire for socialism. And since it is not clear that most people want socialism, and since no one has defined what it is, it makes more sense to focus on what we need to do right now. She argued that our main enemy is not institutions, it
is an ideology, it is neoliberalism, it is capitalism: in that fight, we may
find we have to change institutions, but we do not start off by seeing institutions as the problem.But
if you want to fight an ideology, she added, we need power.How do we get that power?The audience for the Left is not that large in
Europe, so how can we enlarge that audience: what kind of change do
people want now?She explained that beginning with the obvious needs that people had - jobs, healthcare, pensions - she started to work on rethinking the idea of
social protection.Whatever regime you have, people need protection: the Right offers it traditionally in the form of police, and the
military; the Left, traditionally through socioeconomic rights.But then, by posing the question of security, this forces you to think about
changing the mode of production, and the form of democracy.Social protection has to come from the grassroots,
since people have to express what their needs are.If you start from social protection, people's needs, you start to find
yourself forced into transformative agenda. She acknowledged that for a New Left, we need both democracy and power - but we should not forget that we already have power, that we are not powerless, and we should make use of the spaces we have.
The guy from C-Span gets me in to talk about Unhitched, and in the end we get talking about imperialism, communism and, briefly, the crisis in the SWP. (This was two days after I left.) Note: I was recovering from a chest infection, which accounts for the slight croakiness of my voice.
The idea that a middle class protest party of the Right is polling 22% in the UK seems rather improbable. Of course, the poll was commissioned by a right-wing lobby, the Coalition for Marriage, and may have been skewed in all sorts of ways. Even so, the stable polling figure for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is now over ten percent, and the last UKIP was taking this much support was in 2004, before Kilroy-Silk joined in a subtle left-wing entryist plot, posing as a gaffeur and splitting the party. (And let's just remember what Kilroy-Silk looked like at this glittering zenith: see left).
I describe UKIP as a middle class party. I would suggest that this is true of the core of the party membership.
Godrey Bloom MEP's message to his party bosses about the difficulties of
controlling the party membership indicates its class basis very well:
"we have doctors who fancy
themselves as tax experts, painters and decorators who know all about
strategic defence issues, and branch chairmen, retired dentists, who
understand the most intricate political solutions for the nation."
Electorally, however, the party's support appears to be spread evenly across social classes [pdf] at the moment - provided you are prepared to use social grading as a proxy for class. This is indicative of the way that the party has built broad support by conjoining the insecurely affluent lower middle classes with sections of the working class. Though the pundits tend to assume this means UKIP is picking up 'Labour types', I suspect they're victims of the 'ecological fallacy' - that is, just because certain voters come from a certain social class, a certain region and a certain profile that is typical of a type of Labour voter, it is assumed they themselves were Labour. (Connotatively linked to this idea is a whole series of myths about the 'white working class'.) I suspect that UKIP, like the BNP, mainly win over working class Tories rather than ex-Labourites.
What cements the disparate elements of UKIP are the usual thematics: mass immigration is linked with the insecurity, social decay and racial ambiguation of the once 'respectable' working class; the social distress of small businessmen is linked to Eurocrats riding their backs, and scroungers on the welfare teat; the stasis, corruption and high-handedness of parliament is linked with the rule of politically correct Metropolitan elites who impose unpopular, un-commonsensical policies while giving the country away to every sort of foreigner. And so on.
Anyway, as a result of this success, the party has finally attracted some media attention to its more outré elements.
We don't need to linger on these: the usual screenshots of Nazi
salutes, knife-wielding loons, crusader posturing, and Holocaust-denial -
all the staples of right-wing subcultures. If you want a sense of how
the party's heavyweights think, consider one of the party's major recent
gains for UKIP: the defection of Roger Helmer MEP from the Tories.
Helmer has the usual fat compendium of petty prejudices and thick
comments under his belt. Look him up on rape, climate change,
homosexuality, or indeed deploying the armed forces against civilians. No, we shouldn't linger on these examples, not because they are unimportant, but because it induces a terrible smugness. It is simple enough to point and laugh at their 'fruitcakes', but if we're all that smart they shouldn't be polling in the double digits.
However hateful (and actually impracticable, from the capitalist point of view) their agenda is, I think there is an intelligent strategy behind this assortment of kooks. Essentially, I think the UKIP leadership are consciously seeking to provide a milieu in which the fragments of the hard
and far right, maintained in disabling division for a decade despite propitious circumstances, can circulate and congeal around a common agenda. If the party is filled with ex-BNP members and other assorted members of the far right, it can be assumed that this is because they are among the sorts of forces that Farage et al will need to confederate if they are to displace the Cameronite centre. After all, there is absolutely nothing new about UKIP being stuffed with assorted neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers: go back and look at the news reports during their last peak around 2004, and it's the same story. They may not represent the centre of gravity within UKIP, but they are an element of the fragile coalition which the leadership are constructing.
One side effect of this, of course, will probably be to give schismatic and weather-beaten British fascists a space in which to recuperate, in the revitalising ambience of the reactionary petty bourgeoisie. But that is someone else's problem, not UKIP's. So, Farage is prepared to take the heat for the behaviour and affiliations of UKIP members and candidates, selectively sacrificing the more extreme offenders while offering the thinnest of rationalisations for the others. Lately, these rationalisations included the claim that a seig-heiling election candidate was actually imitating a potted plant, and that the disproportionately large numbers of other hair-raisers and arm-raisers was just a product of a lax recruitment policy - some got through the net, nothing more. And Farage is to an extent right to think he can get away with such flimsy, shrugging responses. If all he wants is to mobilise the widest possible coalition of reaction in Britain, he knows that the people he is appealing to don't really care all that much about Nazis: not as much as they care about purging the country of Romanians/Bulgarians/Poles, Muslims/Pakistanis/Asians, strikers/rioters/criminals, etc.
UKIP is not without its allies and outriders within the Conservative Party. Lord Tebbit, the last of the Thatcherite hard men, continually defies the Conservative establishment by urging right-wing voters to back anti-European parties. He did so in 2009, just as the Tories were supposed to be making a comeback, and he's doing so now. His reasoning is simple: he wants to force the party back to the hard Right: on taxes, immigration and Europe, above all. Politicians of the Labour Left would never be so ruthless, hindered as
they are by sentimentality and a certain vulnerability to emotional
blackmail. But Tebbit isn't stupid: he is playing a long game. Even if it costs the Tories in the short run, there is every reason to expect that radicalising the Tory base will bring dividends in the long run. Not only will it pull the whole political field to the Right, but if it has the feel of a real insurgency it might help create the basis for a renewed 'popular' conservatism, helping to slow or even reverse the Tories' secular decline. And if the Tory establishment resists the Rightist lurch, then further decampments from the backbenches, and a larger political realignment, are not impossible.
So, this is UKIP: a fragile, fruitcake alliance it may be, but it is one with an intelligible purpose and strategy.
"Obituaries are typically concerned with the accomplishments and worthwhile qualities of the deceased. Thatcher’s achievements are undeniable. She was a “Modern Prince” of the Right, intervening at a moment of crisis and great danger for the Conservative Party, taking control of the elements in flux and recomposing them. She utterly transformed the state, party politics, and the economy, institutionalizing a form of neoliberal statecraft that is almost unassailable from within.
"To describe Thatcher’s accomplishments in this way, though, is already to hint at the problem with the obituary format. Thatcher’s most important achievements were also what made her so vile, and reprehensible. Her energy, her ruthlessness, and her political guile were harnessed to such bigoted, class-supremacist ends, that it is hard to admire them. Reviewing the wreckage of those years, it is difficult not to be transfixed by horror.
"There is also the danger, in focusing on Thatcher’s qualities and successes, of overstating the role of an individual leader. Thatcher’s efforts depended not just on a wide coalition of popular and business interests, with the petty bourgeoisie and “new middle class” as its lynchpin, but on a series of institutional powers – from the popular press to the International Monetary Fund. Her strengths, as often as not, derived from her opponents’ weaknesses, divisions or downright cravenness.
"Yet, there is no denying Thatcher’s leadership qualities. And this obituary will pay close attention to the factors that made Thatcher the most successful politician in the post-war period — in the spirit of learning from the enemy, the better to defeat them in future."