Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Has identity politics killed solidarity? - (Janet) Guest post!

Social media has manipulated and capitalised on our emotions in order to usher in a new era of fascism, and it’s also managed to silo some movements and render them ineffective (check out the final third of Adam Curtis’ Hypernormalisation). More than that though, it’s also facilitated a very dangerous sense of individualism.

This individualism has taken form in the new manifestation of Identity Politics. In the past, Identity Politics has been a vital tool in talking about lived experience, inherent prejudice and using privilege to help others, platforming those struggles. The next steps for identity politics should be as follows, beautifully summarised by Devyn Springer:

It is not an end to identity politics we seek, rather a politic that encompasses the realities of different identities infused with class analysis and observation of power dynamics.

However, many are cultivating a new version which has manipulated Identity Politics into a method of avoiding solidarity and even justifying prejudice. After all, and this needs to be said loudly: identity doesn’t make you instantly Left-radical or active. Bigoted, neo - Conservative and any kind of people of marginalised identities exist in abundance. Fascists of marginalised identities exist, such a Milo Yiannopoulos, who use they their identities to validate their fascism.

I want to discuss how something so positive has been misused, and I want to rally people of marginalised identities into real action against the state and all forms of oppression.

To tackle this trend, I need to outline the value and limitations of identity politics first, not least to avoid giving ammunition to a racism and bigotry that even the Left think they’re immune to. I’ll also need to discuss this in three sections, to be as thorough as possible, and speak essentially to different audiences, all of which I am personally a part of myself in some way. This will make this piece longer, but far less susceptible to clickbait manipulation (hopefully).

Why identities are important and the limitations of identity.

Lived experience is incredibly important - it’s the reason why White Feminism (well satirized here, although White Feminism can indeed be LGBTQIA inclusive and racist) is a failure and reinforces racism. These are people with literally no idea of the reality of racism openly ignoring or capitalising on the struggles of women of colour. Look no further than the “I’m with her campaign” or photos of white liberal feminists hugging cops. It’s an intentionally exclusionary phenomenon of people who are benefitting from racism, naturally continuing in that fashion. The conundrum which occurs though, is the platforming of these people solely based on their identity, without consideration of their politics. A similar danger occurs when we analyse transphobia in ‘feminism’, most notably illustrated by Trans Exclusionary ‘Radical’ Feminists (TERFs), ‘feminists’ with an incredibly fascist agenda against transgender people. People are uncomfortable calling out their racism and transphobia because of their identity as ‘women’. As women, their experiences are genuine and a lot can be learned - but identity isn’t a default authority, it’s not research or statistics, and it doesn’t trump the safety or experience of other marginalised people. It’s only an element, only a part of a wider thought process or idea or stance.

You see racism in other movements designed to facilitate freedoms for oppressed people too, even in the actual anti-racist movement. You can wear a solidarity safety pin or have an antifa t-shirt and be racist. For the record, being an ally, or preferably an accomplice, doesn’t give you the right to treat other people in a bigoted way. The marginalised people you may have ‘helped’ shouldn’t be grateful to you.

Arguing this with those who feel like they’re immune to racism takes us unfortunately to this weird fetishization of the White Working Class in England. An identity (obviously) but apparently different to identity politics (somehow). This is a harrowing example of the feeling of entitlement and victimhood from some on the Left.  The White Working Class sounds like something from a BNP pamphlet circa 2009, but it’s actually a term now used by some to pander to casual racism. It’s also something US Nazi poster boy Richard Spencer is interested in bringing to the Right even more:

Donald Trump's movement, whether [Trump strategist] Kellyanne Conway wants to admit it or not, was fundamentally about identity for white people. - Richard Spencer, not just a man from those gifs getting punched by an antifascist.

A Left trying to mobilise the working class community avoids introspection of racism and class engagement when they validate the term White Working Class. Yes, academic circles and posturing are alienating and exclusive, but it’s not because of their whiteness that people are excluded, it’s a class thing. Middle class people of colour exist, but they’re not propelled to this status in harmony with their colour. This renders the term useless, and in a white majority and racist West, it literally reinforces racism and a victim complex employed by the ideology of White Supremacy. If they’re clutching at straws to justify why their engagement with working class communities is low, stop trying to sell papers and actually listen to people. Chances are, those you might identify as such actually hugely resent the term White Working Class.

Identity is important in that it’s vital to know and celebrate your history and who you are in a place which marginalises you for that. Identity is why Bernadette McAliskey called upon other Irish people and people of Irish descent to stop partaking in the oppression of Black people in America, so the Irish know who they are and where they’re from. Identity isn’t however, a currency or an all confirming view, so shouting about ‘white people/the Irish were slaves too’ when engaging with Black people on the topic of slavery is literally using a struggle to defend your own white supremacist ideas and victimhood. That is not the solidarity that Irish people called for. Without genuine solidarity with other movements, struggles and people, none can really succeed.

Worse still, there is the incredibly harrowing trend where celebrities, millionaires and brands are being praised as activists, while working class people putting everything on the line to make a stand against the state are ignored. Someone living in a mansion can assert themselves a feminist or flirt with radical iconography, and profit from it, especially if of the right identity (see Miley Cyrus for example). Philanthropy is scraps from the table. In this age, even politicians are given a break based on identity. Of course, if you only attack celebrities and politicians of colour/who are female or non-binary, then you are, of course, a piece of shit.

Racism, which is my main focus in this conversation, concentrates most violently in poorer, working class areas. What you see at Goldsmiths or a SOAS campus is not life in Stoke on Trent. The kinds of language used in some of the London-centric scenes and university social circles, for example, aren’t used frequently in other places. The focus on smaller cultural gains and spaces is a haven only for people who have the luxury of being part of those circles. It’s not a reality for the rest of us. Trends like the new Identity Politics don’t translate at all in places where racism is intense and our spaces are limited. Our approach in Stoke, Bradford and Portsmouth (to name but three places) is more immediate, dangerous and vital, therefore an individualist approach isn’t an option.

The middle class scenes which perpetuate this new kind of Identity Politics focus on maintaining a micro-environment while being very removed from the more intense threats.

How identity can be misused by people of marginalised identities.

Here, I’ll write but a couple of examples of my experience as a Pakistani woman which have pushed me to write this article, these are more the issues which are festering on the Left, as opposed to the overt examples (Sikhs of the EDL etc.).

  • Seeing a Muslim person saying something to the effect of “as a Muslim person the responsibility of that knowledge [knowledge of the death tolls and inaction of the world in regards to the Holocaust] or acknowledgement isn’t on me”. When did we, South Asians, become incapable of or above solidarity, empathy and basic research?
  • In 2016, where a transgender model and activist posed in a dress made of 76 countries where homosexuality was illegal. The liberal Left, and Right, celebrated this, but Writer Sarah E. for Anti Imperialism.org rightly noted:

It not only glosses over the general anti-Queer violence of the global north, but entirely ignores the relationship between the imperialist north and the conditions of these southern peoples...The constant message playing in the back of the First World population’s mind is asking “why can’t they be more like us? What’s wrong with them?” entirely forgetting how we got here.

This perfectly shows our complete ignorance of the wider struggles of the world, colonial history, foreign policy. It shows actually an ignorance of our real identities and their uncomfortable histories. We want to celebrate Nike having a campaign featuring women in hijab, but we don’t want to talk about the Muslim and indigenous women in Nike sweatshops. All we see is identity, binaries and single ‘facts’ in a Western bubble. It’s easier to like and share a meme than to analyse nuance and history, than to consider the complex and acknowledge responsibility.

This change from using identity to know oneself and your struggle, to only caring about your own existence, has occurred hand in hand with social media. Here the gamification (turning something into a game for better engagement) of social interactions has happened seamlessly - getting likes and validation is winning. Selfies garner likes, being visible gets you interactions. This obsession with self promotion, including using your identity as a USP (Unique Selling Point), has killed any radical notion associated with celebration of a marginalised people. This depressing phenomenon is SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) friendly too - keep your politics simple (read: without nuance or research) and you’re onto a winner. It’s a celebration of you, desolately, only you.

A further example of this is an article by Nico Quintana, a transgender, QPOC and Latinx activist who argued this year that Black Bloc is a racist tactic, urging white activists to stop employing it. Concealing your identity from the police is actually:

a) not a white invention
b) literally what’s keeping any radical movement afloat, police will target you at a vigil let alone a protest, surveillance is 80% of the game
c) not a privileged thing: many people, namely working class people, will lose their jobs, homes and sometimes even children should they be exposed supporting ‘radical’ protest.

We shouldn’t ask white people to de-mask, we should mask up ourselves.
The current dangers for all oppressed people right now are immense. We need solidarity: knowledge and action, resource and time, seeing the links between struggles. Focusing on isolated identities is the reason why anti-blackness is rife in South Asian circles for example - now Identity Politics makes us more inward, and often more bigoted, totally removed from radical politics. Arguing over whether Beyonce is allowed to wear South Asian dress in a music video becomes the most important discussion to be had according to the Internet vanguards (cultural exchange dies alongside solidarity too). These critics certainly aren’t the ones campaigning for justice for Kingsley Burrell, or any number of black people being brutalised by the state. They’re not frontline contributing to any radical change or the safety of a people. Nuanced cultural discussion and direct action can of course both occur, but I’m telling you that right now, they’re not.

Where do we go from here: Utilising identities for action, not complacency.

Legendary radical Audre Lorde was right when she said that self care isn’t self indulgence, however, anyone who uses this radical Black woman’s voice for passivity is appropriating works beyond their understanding.

We need to look after ourselves in a dangerous world which threatens us because of who we are. We must take care of ourselves while we fight the fascists, the state, and all other threatening bodies that are advancing quickly.

Identity shouldn’t be used as a way to shirk responsibility for starting, joining or having solidarity with movements: it should be your motivation. Identity cannot be the end-all-and-be-all of activism. This tired student/middle class/liberal reflex to poke holes or declare something vaguely problematic means more hypothesizing the abstract instead of acting on the reality. Which is the intention. And no, I'm not saying critique as something progresses isn’t important. This isn't the same.

I’m arguing that this new evolution of Identity Politics is holding back action. Not in a “if we acknowledge our differences and dynamics it’s divisive” way, which is of course bullshit, but in a “my identity means I won’t act” kind of way.

The use of identity to shirk of responsibility is one I’ve experienced more intensely recently in England.

“I won’t join an anti-racist group or general movement with lots of white people/males”

This exists in two veins:
  • We want allies, the ones we know have privilege in society, to take action. We see it as their responsibility as they benefit from the racist or sexist dynamic.
  • We don't want white and other privileged people involved, and we won't do anything to change the movement or make our own. So, it'll remain white and we'll remain passive.

In either case we want autonomy. However we won’t take the lead, and we don’t fight for that autonomy.

A group in England (an intentional anchor back into the context I’m discussing, these ideas can’t and shouldn’t be wholly applied to an environment like France or the US, for example) will remain white until you walk in and say this is my thing now, let’s get stuff done, and invite other POC to join. A group may indeed be inherently bigoted and so you start your own local movement. It can be difficult, it can be scary, but activism is hard.
At this stage, inaction is facilitating fascism. Let's just think about the messy hypocrisy of “I want freedom but only when white/men facilitate it for me and/or stop fighting for it with me”.

Of course these groups can be shit, but there are so many people of marginalised identities doing nothing tangible, all these people who actually can get together, and make something new. There are so many people of marginalised identities making their own movements, struggling, because you’re not showing up for them.

Our actions need to reflect our ideology - do we really love our roots and people? Do we really believe in justice and freedom for all people? If so then we need to act, otherwise we only love ourselves.

There were three racist White Lives Matter demonstrations in England toward the end of 2016 - if everyone who was able was there or contributed in some way (activism isn't of course just physical bodies) these would have been much more successful demonstrations on our side. We love to talk about White Supremacy in the states, but it’s apparently not as interesting here.

It’s true, some activism is actually more popular than other kinds, some has a social element and is popular on social media - you can even tag yourself at events. What isn’t so glamorous, however, is waking up at 6am to help the residents of Bradford fight off the EDL, or the community of Rotherham where a Pakistani man was literally murdered. You know what’s a real drag? The police violently targeting activists at these kinds of demos, so Facebook tagging is kept to a minimum. If it didn’t happen on Facebook, did it happen at all? Was it worth doing? Judging by the turnout of ‘anti-racist’ activists or people, apparently not.

Some struggles are just easier to talk about and not as harrowing. Sure, some identities can mean facing state brutality and fatality, but why not focus solely on an issue like white body positivity instead? Why would you act on black and brown people being detained or murdered by the state when you could focus only and exclusively on your own struggles? Least likely still is considering the intersections between say, body positivity and being black or brown. Let’s try something even bigger and more complex: Why think about the way every facet of capitalism is racist when you can hone in exclusively on your own experience?

In writing, I’m not trying to put all responsibility on marginalised people. I acknowledge too that everything around us encourages us to be insular, ‘selfish’ and isolated, we’re supposed to feel like movements won’t work but signing a petition might do the trick. Facing a world of complexity and violence, a violence targeted at every facet of our lives, is difficult. Being active in fighting it is even harder. What I’m doing is putting urgency into how we move forward, so yes, we have revival of movements like the Asian Youth Movement, seeing organised communities work in solidarity with others. Let’s give more time and support to Black Lives Matter UK and Jewdas, let’s actually take a stand with other struggles.

Let’s self organise, let’s join movements and the ones that need it - let’s diversify them, let’s lead the way. Can you write? Design? Flyer? Babysit? Do admin? Cook? What skills can you contribute to an active anti-fascist movement which confronts racism head on, irl? Think about it, then do it.

To summarise in two key points (TL;DR):
  1. Identity is a key element in any social and political discourse, but it’s not an absolute or total authority on a subject. Lived experience is incredibly valuable, but it isn’t the entire story.
  2. Identity should be used as a motivation for action, a way to map different privileges and help others, and not to shirk responsibility to focus only on your own struggles.

Who you are does define what struggles you face, but where you sit in the world and how you fight different oppressions together is key to completely fighting fascism.

The eerie emergence of the spectacle

Yesterday I visited the houses of parliament. When I arrived I was looking at the tower which houses Big Ben. I've seen so many representations of Big Ben in film, in drawing and painting and in photographs that I couldn't help thinking of the real Big Ben as 'a' Big Ben rather than 'the' Big Ben. We've reached the point that so much of our lives are lived in the virtual world that even the real world doesn't seem real anymore.

Later on, while still reflecting on my Big Ben experience I saw an advert for a 'Broadway' style show on the escalator on the tube. I thought about the fact that my only knowledge of the world of theatre has been through what I've seen in films. It's sometimes multiple layers of representation.

I'm not saying all this is necessarily a bad thing. In the future archaeology will be done online. Researchers will dig up artefacts, on old forgotten websites. There will be direct access to the words of the personalities who shaped our age on their memorialised social media accounts. I can't help but find that fascinating.

Later on at home I got thinking about the first attempts that humanity must have ever made at a scientific 'representation' of ourselves and of our environment.

Weirdly, maybe appropriately, listening to the sounds and looking at the pictures and films is quite an eerie experience. It's literally the dawn of the age of the spectacle, where, from the perspective of the virtual world, a 'represented' humanity which before this had known nothing but real organic experience first came blinking into view.

First ever recorded human sound (1860)

The first ever motion picture (1878)

First ever photograph - 1826

First ever photograph to contain a human - 1838

First ever self-portrait - 1839

Earliest born person to appear in a photograph - born 1749 (photograph in 1852)

In 2017, as I write this blog post 1749 is 268 years ago. 

Anyone born after that date is potentially liable to have been photographed and not long after to have also have had their voice recorded and be filmed. Now the real existence of celebrities is nothing compared to their virtual existence and we're all celebrities on Facebook.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Anti-fascism in action

Wrote this in reflection after some of my experiences of anti-fascist action last year had it sat on my computer, thought it would be better posted up here. As will be seen I'm favouring mass anti-fascism (as opposed to elite fighting units), trying to get local people's support where possible and being willing to resist the fascists physically where necessary. This is specifically 5 points to refute the idea that antifa are 'just as bad as the fascists'. 

From Jan 2016

If you are reading this from the UK you might have seen some of the video clips and pictures of the clashes between fascists and anti-fascists in Dover at the weekend. The hype will soon die down but for a few days it's been a bit of a talking point in some circles. A problem with a lot of the talk, is that it represents opinions that have been formed mainly from seeing a handful of pictures and 10 second video clips or reading brief summaries of the events written by other people who don't really understand what has happened either. This leads to well meaning people making claims that we are all as bad as each other or that there really isn't much difference between the two groups.

The fascists and the anti-fascists actually couldn't be much more different, lumping us all together and dismissing us as violent hooligans is lazy, but, maybe a tiny bit understandable. The scenes that the news reports focus on are unsettling for most people but behind those scenes there is a lot more going on. So to try to clear things up here are five reasons why the anti-fascists are very different to the fascists:
  1. The number one, and obviously the most important difference is that fascists come to towns and cities across the country to promote fascism whilst anti-fascists come to stand against it. Fascists come waving banners and flags about white pride and nationalism and making Hitler salutes and loudly chanting that they don't want any more refugees or migrants coming to the country. Anti-fascists stand for solidarity between people everywhere against the systems that divide them and oppress them, our banners and flags and chants are messages about welcoming people and opposing hate and bigotry.
  2. Absolutely crucially for those who struggle to understand what is happening when they see images of fighting is that fascists come on the offensive whilst anti-fascists are there to defend. Fascists always start throwing bricks and bottles and trying to get around police lines to hurt people who are opposing them, they bring knives and knuckle dusters and threaten to kill people in advance. The anti-fascists come to block them, to physically stand in the way of where their march is supposed to come and not to let them pass. This is dangerous and the difference between anti-fascists and many other protesters is that anti-fascists are ready to defend themselves in order to hold key positions blocking them from entering a town center or rallying in a symbolic location like a high street or a town square. This can result in fighting breaking out, it's a price some people are willing to pay, not a game or an excuse for some gratuitous violence.
  3. One reason people may be increasingly confused is that some fascists have recently begun to copy the look of anti-fascist protesters (we often come dressed in black in order to try to blend in with each other and to avoid being singled out or recognised by these violent fanatics). But underneath all that the anti-fascists are a much more diverse bunch comprising of people of a range of different ethnic groups, ages, genders, sexual orientations, levels of ability etc. Fascists tend to be older white men. They celebrate an imagined purity, we celebrate, and want to increase, our diversity.
  4. Another thing you don't see unless you are more intimate with what is going on is the fact that the two groups organise themselves very differently. Anti-fascists don't just turn up and randomly run around the streets, where possible there is a plan and the group tries it best to act with unity or not at all. Fascists are opportunists, if they corner someone who opposes them they will brutally attack them, whether this is a local person, a peaceful protester or someone who can try to stand up to them. Given the opportunity they destroy the place, shops and businesses thought to be run by migrants will be trashed anyone who gets in their way will be hurt. Anti-fascists try to be respectful, we are always pleased when local people support us but on occasions where some people don't we try to avoid interacting with them at all, we certainly don't attack local people. If some of us are tempted to be disrespectful most of the rest of us will reign them in.
  5. Lastly, anti-fascists are united. All groups of people contain some differences of opinion and different types of characters but anti-fascists stick together. Fascists contain groups which are just as likely to attack each other as they are everyone else, some are hardcore neo-nazis who praise Hitler, some see themselves as British patriots. Their groups splinter off into numerous factions allowing for even the darkest and most fanatical extremists to find a home for themselves within their movement.

So, maybe you still don't feel entirely comfortable with the anti-fascists but at least now you know what is really going on! If you do find yourself interested and want to join your local group visit the website to find out more antifascistnetwork.org/about/   

Saturday, 4 March 2017

The Free Society

Kropotkin's book 'Conquest of Bread' is a classic statement of what an anarchist society of the future would actually be like; how society would be organised and why all the problems that people imagine would come up in a stateless, classless society really wouldn't be problems at all.

Rojava in northern Syria
Whilst an obsessive fascination with how a free society could or should operate in great detail is pointless (as no one can know the particularities yet), protest without offering any kind of alternative vision for what society could be like will almost certainly fail to inspire the masses. So it's necessary sometimes, for the purposes of inspiration and trying to attract more people to our cause to just talk a little bit about the kind of world we do want to see:

What do we want?

Anarchists claim that society is currently organised along authoritarian grounds. I split these into 3 main areas - political authority, economic authority and social authority. We will transform these 3 areas of life:

Instead of government we will have communal ways of making decisions. Issues that effect a group of people will be decided on together but issues that mainly just affect an individual will be left up to that individual - and this will be maximised. As far as possible communal decisions will be decided on by consensus - but direct democracy by majority vote on some issues will probably have a place too. There will be no more feeling like you're powerless, insignificant and passive.

Zapatistas in Mexico
Instead of having bosses and shareholders and bankers and CEOs setting the agenda and running businesses on the basis of how much profit, interest or rent it can line their pockets with, production will be geared towards the needs and wants of the community. Necessary work will be reduced to 3 or 4 hours per day and will be varied and collectively self-managed. Beyond this people will be able to free there free time with art, music, science, leisure... whatever their interests. We're not looking to wind the clock back or have everyone work on communal farms or go back to hunting and gathering. We think that with a new anarchist basis for technology we could do so much more. We aim for long, healthy, happy and comfortable lives for everyone on the planet - not like now.

Instead of having a social hierarchy where people's life outcomes can be predicted based on their race or gender or sexuality or other categories that are part of the established hierarchy we will have social equality and freedom for everyone.

The Paris commune
These general ideas are shared as a rough end goal by most people on the far left, particularly anarchists and Marxists. Other individual thinkers may also have dreamed up ideal sounding societies a bit like this too but anarchists and Marxists have been repeatedly calling for this for the last 150 years and have been trying to organise a movement to achieve these things - with some successes.

It's important to note that this is not just a product of some great thinker having tried to dream up the coolest way for a society to work that we've all decided we like the sound of. These are a summary of what tens of thousands of people have sought to express through books, pamphlets speeches or just over a drink with their friends. These are relevant goals that attempt to sum up what most of us are yearning for - not to be bossed around, to have more free time, to have security, more fulfilment and the chance to dedicate ourselves to something we feel is meaningful and make a real contribution to society, to be taken seriously and treated equally to others. This is absolutely crucial because none of this would work if these goals had to be preached to people and imposed on them as some kind of external doctrine. Of course this won't appeal to the people who run society now, who have all the authority and all the money and privileges, they're going to use everything they've got to hold on to it, but that struggle is what we always talk about. This post is about reflecting on why we do any of this in the first place.

Anarchists in the Spanish revolution

It's about working together to get the good things in life, the things we're currently expected to have to strive for alone, the things that most people will live an die and never experience precisely because they're alone and powerless and poor. As part of a mass movement we're not striving on our own and we're not trying to grab the good things at anyone else's expense.

Note the pictures. All of them are photographs of the times when we've actually glimpsed some of the goals that we're talking about working out in practice. All of them show evidence that they are still engaged in a struggle but there is also an element of celebration, colour, smiling faces. It's not going to be shit you know.