Published in Race & Class 31/3, January 1990 (original footnotes appear here within the text)
Dedicated to those friends with whom, out of a different loyalty, I must now openly disagree.
New Times is a fraud, a counterfeit, a humbug. It palms off Thatcherite values as socialist, shores up the Thatcherite market with the pretended politics of choice, fits out the Thatcherite individual with progressive consumerism, makes consumption itself the stuff of politics. New Times is a mirror image of Thatcherism passing for socialism. New Times is Thatcherism in drag. **
Inevitably – since New Times’ gestation in Marxism Today was marked by the latter’s preoccupation with finding an electoral riposte to Thatcherism, in oppositional politics, taking a cue from Tory successes at the polls to formulate a programme for an anti Thatcherite coalition of forces. What was it about Thatcherism that appealed to such vast cross-sections of people? How could it be turned to Labour’s benefit? How should Labour itself change in terms of principles, policies, pacts, in order to wrest the electorate from Thatcher?
** I am interested here in the ‘economic, social and political shape of New Times as presented in the special issue of Marxism Today (October 1988) and elsewhere, not in the eclectic manifesto for New Times as presented to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).
There was an appreciation in these questions of the massive changes that Thatcherism was bringing about in society while Labour was still sulking in a troglodyte past, but, as yet, there was no understanding of the basis on which the Tories were able to carry these changes through. The answers owed not a little, therefore, to the Tory vision of change and tended to appropriate those areas in which the Tories were operating successfully (markets, share-ownership, council housing) to see how they could be re-cast in a Leftish mode or mould. There was no understanding, that is, that the ‘ideological hegemony’ that Marxism Today was so quick to construct for Thatcherism was based on the Tories’ instinctive and profound understanding of the sea-change in capitalist society issuing from the technological revolution in production, and of the consequent need to give people direction, guidance, ballast, ‘assure them of certain certainties’. Labour was adrift, rudder-less, its moorings in the working class unhinged by the dissipation of the class itself, and hanging on to the driftwood of trade unionism, while Thatcherism charted an assured and defiant course through troublesome seas. ‘Authoritarian populism’ only explained why Thatcherism had found a hold among the people, but not why people were prepared to put up with it.
There was no attempt on the part of Marxism Today to rethink society from the ground up in terms of marxist analysis – no attempt to rethink marxism itself on the basis of the new liberatory revolution in the production process. But, then, they had already arrived at a re-interpretation of marxism down a different route: through a disillusion with Soviet Communism and a leaning towards its revised mode in Eurocommunism. The first acknowledged the failure of ‘actually existing socialism’ to enlarge bourgeois democracy and enrich individual freedom, and the second subscribed to the view that the only way the working class was ever going to capture power in advanced capitalist societies was through bourgeois electoral politics and not through violent revolution. The split within the CPGB, with the ‘old guard’ taking the Morning Star (the party newspaper) and the new appropriating Marxism Today (the party journal), signalled the change in the journal’s direction towards a politics of the possible. But as yet it did not know quite what it stood for or where it was going. What was its philosophy? How did it see the world? Throwing out revolution and class-war empirically was all very well, but where was the ideological under-pinning for it? What was the journal’s constituency? To whom was it speaking if no longer to the working class? Where would it locate itself, find domicile?
In the beginning…
The philosophy came from the theoretical practitioners whose own disillusion with communism and marxist orthodoxy sent them back to re-examining the original texts in search of the true marxism, re-interpreting them for our times and setting up schools of thought, in the process, to interpret the re-interpretations and to announce, through sundry disciplines and theories (philosophy, linguistics, semiotics, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, deconstruction …), the consummate and conclusive finding that reality itself was a matter of interpretation, construction, presentation – of words, ideas, images. ‘Philosophers’, they might have said with a nod to Marx, ‘have interpreted the world; our task is to change the interpretation.’ And in an information society where ‘the word is … as “material” as the world’ and a consumer society where the mode of presentation is all, their claims found a ready home in a ‘with-it’ Marxism Today.
The ideology, along with the constituency, came from another strand of intellectual marxism* which provided theoretical confirmation that economic determinism and class reductionism were non marxist and things of the past. The economic base did not determine, even ‘in the last instance’, the ideological and political superstructure. They were all more or less ‘autonomous instances’, ‘articulating’ with each other, influencing and being influenced, in all sorts of ‘conjunctures’. Politics, therefore, was a matter of positioning in and through and vis à vis these conjunctures – and culture was the mode in which such positioning was expressed. Hence there was a cultural politics (as distinct from a political culture) or, rather, all sorts of cultural politics which, having challenged all sorts of ‘social blocs’ in civil society, would at some auspicious moment of time come together in a network of alliances heralding the transition from capitalism (to what they are not sure). Accordingly, the agent of change in the contemporary world was not the working class – which, in any case, had ceased (if it ever was) to be a class for itself and was therefore incapable of revolution – but the new social forces such as women, blacks, gays (and, soon, greens) who were themselves informed and impelled by the politics of the person. Later, the ‘new marxists’ would try to usher in a dimension of class through the backdoor of ‘the politics of difference’ but, for the nonce, it was the new social forces, irrespective of their differing class personae, which were the carriers of the new socialism or, rather, the trackers of the transition.
These, at any rate, were the building blocks of new marxist arguments, refine them how they would. How they put them together, from time to time, as required by various conjunctures’, would of course differ from the way that I have played around with them here. But that is the great strength of this sort of autonomy: it allows you to be ad hoc, opportune, open-ended, pluralist. The only thing you have got to be sure of is your identity – and there was a politics around that too, autonomous of course, that you needed to construct, but to that anon.
*I am not interested here in distinguishing the various strands of marxism or in periodising their appearance(s).
As for domicile, location, Marxism Today was to find these in the thinking of a Left intelligentsia eviscerated of class and the counsels of a Labour Party thrashing around for a showing at the polls. In France and Italy the Eurocommunists were parties in their own electoral rights, but in Britain Marxism Today, having broken with the ‘stalinists’, had no comparable base – nor, presumably, having broken so violently with the theory and practice of the vanguard party, could it countenance one. Labour, besides, was the established party of socialism. The point was to influence it, infiltrate it or, more accurately, ‘hegemonise’ it. (Old marxists infiltrate, new marxists ‘hegemonise’.)*
*If the Militants were the moles, Marxism Today were the cuckoos.
Thus, New Times was born in the throes of political pragmatism under the sign of cultural theory bereft of economic reasoning. And the last proved disabling of the whole project. For, in throwing out the tool of economic analysis along with the ideological baggage of economism, the new marxists were unable to bring to New Times the understanding that all the seismic changes in society and culture that they were so adroitly and bravely describing stemmed from (and in turn contributed to) the revolutionary changes at the economic level, at the level of the productive forces, brought about by the new technology. Here was an ongoing revolution, the size, scope, compre hensiveness of which had never been known in the history of humankind and it was passing the Left by – till Thatcherism inadver tently brought it to their notice. And even then what the Left understood was the scientific and technical magnitude of its achieve ments summed up in Sir Ieuan Maddock’s phrase that electronics had replaced the brain as once steam had replaced muscle. But its sociological size – that Capital had been freed from Labour – had escaped the Left altogether. The Labour Party was too sunk in its own stupor of trade unionism to see that the working class was decompos ing under the impact of the new forces of production and that old forms of Labour organisation were becoming frangible.
The old marxists were, similarly, too wedded to orthodoxy to see that the old relations of production were disintegrating and new ones being born in their place. They had for so long been fighting for the emancipation of Labour from Capital that they could not bear to think that it was Capital that was now being emancipated from Labour. So ensconced had they been in their own beliefs and dogmas and sentiments that they were fearful of venturing out into a changing world and taking it by the scruff of its neck.
And the new marxists, who had daringly abandoned all such fears and inhibitions and acknowledged and celebrated the cultural and social changes that were going on, were unable, because of their premature apostasy, to connect them concretely with the emancipation of Capital from Labour or root that emancipation in the economic basis of production. Instead, they held up the changes to justify their apostasy.
So that when Marxism Today finally came to acknowledge the importance of economic change for an understanding of New Times (in the special issue of October 1988), the economic was still given only a walk-on part on to the ‘post-Fordist stage. ‘Coming to terms with New Times’, wrote Martin Jacques in the editorial, ‘means first understanding what New Times are, what they mean . . . At the heart of New Times is the shift from the old mass-production Fordist economy to a new, more flexible, post-Fordist order based on computers, information technology and robotics.” But there the concern with the economic ceases – for “New Times are about much more than economic change. Our world is being remade.’ Yes, but how? ‘Mass production, the mass consumer, the big city, big-brother state, the sprawling housing estate, and the nation-state are in decline: flexibility, diversity, differentiation, mobility, communication, de centralisation and internationalisation are in the ascendant.’ That’s fine as a description of what’s going on, but where’s the analysis? ‘In the process our own identities, our sense of self, our own subjectivities are being transformed. We are in transition to a new era.’
Of course ‘we are in transition to a new era’. Of course things are changing radically. And of course these changes are not just at the economic level. But the changes in society, culture, politics cannot just be juxtaposed with the economic; the economic cannot just be ‘read off from them any more than they could be read off from the economic. They derive from the economic – still.
Or take Stuart Hall’s listings in his ‘Brave New World’ articles –one on the economy and the other on the broader social and cultural changes’. The first itemises a shift to the new “information technolo gies”, more flexible decentralized forms of labour process and work organization; decline of the old manufacturing base and the growth of the “sunrise” computer-based industries; the hiving-off or contracting out of functions and services; a greater emphasis on choice and product differentiation, on marketing, packaging and design, on the “targeting” of consumers by lifestyle, taste and culture rather than by the Registrar General’s categories of social class; a decline in the proportion of the skilled, male, manual working class, the rise of the service and white-collar classes and the “feminisation” of the work force; an economy dominated by the multinationals, with their new international division of labour and their greater autonomy from nation-state control; the “globalisation” of the new financial markets, linked by the communications revolution; and new forms of the spatial organization of social processes’. Brilliant, clear, to the point, exhaustive: all the elements of the ‘post-Fordist economy are there.
The ‘social and cultural list, general here, but worked out in the course of the article, lists ‘greater fragmentation and pluralism, the weakening of older collective solidarities and block identities and the emergence of new identities associated with greater work flexibility, the maximisation of individual choices through personal consumption’.
There is, of course, no causal connection here between the two, the economic and the social-cultural. They are associated’, they may even be seen to be walking hand in hand, but the one does not follow from the other, influence the other, make the other possible. What is it that makes for ‘greater fragmentation and pluralism’ (List 2) unless it is the fragmentation of the working class and hence the obfuscation of class in general? And how has that been brought about if not by a shift to the new “information technologies”; more flexible, decentralized forms of labour process and work organisation; decline of the old manufacturing base and the growth of the “sunrise” computer-based industries; the hiving-off or contracting-out of functions and services’ and a ‘decline in the proportion of the skilled, male, manual working class, the rise of service and white-collar classes and the “feminisation” of the workforce’ (List 1) – changes, that is, in the mode and relations of production? (Let’s keep the old terminology for now because the new is yet to be born with the new post-Fordist ‘system’.)
How have the older collective solidarities and block identities weakened’ (List 2) except through the decline of the old manufactur ing base’, the rise of ‘more flexible, decentralized forms of labour process and work organization’, and ‘the hiving-off or contracting-out of functions and services’ (List 1)? And how have these come about if not through the shift to the new technologies’ which enables Capital not only to do away with mass production lines and the mass employment of workers on the same factory floor but to move the workplace itself around, from one cheap labour pool to another, as required by profit and the market. (Note how, in his refusal to be determinist’, Hall leaves out of his reckoning the massed up workers of the Third World, on whose greater immiseration and exploitation the brave new western world of post-Fordism is being erected, and cannot be persuaded back to them even when the item on ‘multi nationals with their new international division of labour’ resonates with their presence.)
Similarly, ‘the emergence of new identities’ (List 2) cannot just be ‘associated with greater work flexibility’ (List 1); it is largely made possible by greater work flexibility which in turn is made possible by the new technology. And ‘the maximisation of individual choices through personal consumption’ (List 2) comes also from retailers’ ability to lay “a greater emphasis on choice and product differentia tion, on marketing, on packaging and design, on the targeting of consumers by lifestyle, taste and culture … (List 1) based on computerised information and supply systems which allow them to gear supplies to taste, demand and time.*
* Robin Murray says as much in his article ‘Life after Henry (Ford)’ in the same issue, but, judging from the attention he gets from his fellow contributors, he must have been inserted in the interests of pluralism.
And what is this ‘spatial organization of social processes’ Hall is talking about which exists apart from the spatial organisation of economic processes?
All the significant social and cultural changes that we are passing through today are similarly predicated on economic changes. To try to understand New Times without understanding that fundamental relationship is like trying to comprehend nineteenth-century society and culture without understanding the industrial revolution that gave rise to it. We are living through similar times where everything is being shaped, influenced, conditioned by the revolution in the productive forces. ** Economic determinacy might be said to have flagged with the economic decline and class failure’ of industrial capitalism in its last decades and to have been discredited by the success of ‘the cultural revolutions of the 60s, 1968 itself … and the theoretical revolutions of the 60s and 70s – semiotics, structuralism, post structuralism …’ (which Stuart Hall assures us were, along with feminism and psychoanalysis, ‘key episodes in the passage to “New Times” ‘). *** And all of this may have confirmed the theoretics that the economic was one of several (‘autonomous’, ‘articulating) ‘instances’. But today, when Capital has come out of its crisis, refurbished, regenerated and radicalised by the revolution in the productive forces – and Capital is nothing if not an economic project – how can we overlook the crucial role of the economic without offering hostages to Capital? Even as individuals, how can we here, now, caught on the crest of that revolution, impacted by it on all sides, believe that the economic shapes nothing? Even the question of personal transformation, the “reforging of ourselves as individuals’, and our pre occupation with our identities stem from the upheavals occasioned by the economic revolution of our times. Yes, we are being re-made, but if we overlook the occasion for that re-making, we overlook those myriad others
** The entire industrial revolution enhanced productivity by a factor of about 100… but the micro-electronic revolution has already enhanced productivity in information based technology by a factor of more than a million – and the end isn’t in sight yet?.?
*** Stuart Hall must have found it difficult to include the black struggles of this period in his key episodes’ (despite their being the precursors and inspirers of the feminist movement) because they combined the struggles of a people and a class: rooted the cultural and the political in the economic. who are being un-made by the self-same revolution.
The economic determines ‘in the last instance still – but shorn of its class determinacy. For the very revolution that restores the base/ superstructure relationship to something like its former importance is also that which does away with the working class in its pristine form, shape, size, homogeneity of experience, unity of will, clout, and emancipates Capital from Labour. And the more Labour tries to hold Capital in thrall by withholding its labour, the more Capital moves towards its emancipation through yet more information technology, yet more labour-less productive regimes, yet more recourse to the captive labour force in the periphery. The relations of production, that is, have changed with the changes in the level of the productive forces: information (in the sense of data fed to computers, robots, etc.) increasingly replaces labour as a factor of production; Capital no longer needs living labour as before, not in the same numbers, in the same place, at the same time; Labour can no longer organise on that basis, it has lost its economic clout and, with it, whatever political clout it had, whatever determinacy it could exercise in the political realm. What is crucial here is not that the productive forces have altered the balance of dependency between Capital and Labour, but that they have altered it so radically as to allow Capital to free itself of Labour and yet hold Labour captive.
And that is what moves the terrain of battle from the economic to the political, from the base to the superstructure and appears to throw ‘the language of politics more over to the cultural side’ and render the subjective important. However, the battle itself is neither about culture nor about the subject, but – still – about the ownership and control of the means of production and the exploitation of workers. Only now, the centre of gravity of that exploitation has shifted from the centre to the periphery and, within the centre, to peripheral workers, home workers, ad hoc workers, casual, temporary, part-time workers – all the bits and pieces of the working class that the new productive forces have dispersed and dissipated of their strength. Exploitation has not gone out with class determinacy or inequality and poverty with the working class as we know it. The battle is the same as before-only, it needs to be taken on at the political/ideological level and not at the economic/political level.
Thatcher’s real lessons
Mrs Thatcher saw the time and seized it. That was her genius. The productive forces were pregnant with a new economic and social order. Labour and labourism blocked its passage. It required Mrs Thatcher to take a knife to the unions before the new order could be born. And with that deft bit of political surgery, she determined what course the new economic order should take, whose interests it should serve. And she sold it to the people in a clear, simplistic ideology that spoke to their self-interest and their self-esteem in a time of deep uncertainty and pother – with the help of a press which was itself dying for change and knew it could get it only from her. The time brought forth the woman. And she cast the time in her image.
The new marxists, in addressing Thatcherism as an electoral and ideological phenomenon, failed to give sufficient importance to the economic and social order it was constructing. Themselves pre disposed towards a politics of position, their aim was rather to align the Labour Party with the new class of skilled and semi-skilled workers who were replacing the old Fordist mass worker, the expanding clerical and office workforce of the service sector which was replacing industry as the locus of employment and the new social forces that were increasingly replacing class constituencies. These were the people who could swing the electorate Labour’s way. What were their demands and aspirations? How should Labour refashion itself to meet the claims of the new share-owning working class? How could Labour be made to relate to the new social constituencies, such as women, blacks, greens, etc., which had no ‘clear-cut class identity’? “The whole point of Thatcherism as a form of politics has been to construct a new social bloc … Could Labour do the same? Could it abandon its traditional class perspective and accept that a social bloc has to be ‘constructed out of groups which are very different in terms of their material interests and social positions’. And could these diverse identities’ be welded together into a “collective will’? Thatcherism in its second term ‘did not make a single move which was not also carefully calculated in terms of this hegemonic strategy. It stepped up the pace of privatisation. But it took care, at every step, to harness new social constituencies to it, to “construct” an image of the new share-owning working class, and to expand the bloc, symbolically, around the image of choice.’ Could Labour relate to the fact that increasingly, the electorate is thinking politically, not in terms of policies, but of images – not that policies don’t matter but that they don’t ‘capture people’s imaginations unless constructed into an image with which they can identify’. If Labour was going to become the majority party in any deep sense, it had to find a strategy for modernisation and an image of modernity; instead of rallying and mobilising the past, it had to find a convincing alternative scenario to Thatcherism for the future’.
There is an outline of a programme here for Labour to win over the constituencies on which ‘Thatcherism’s electoral hegemony continues to rest’, but it is not one that speaks to the needs of that third of the nation that Thatcherism has dispossessed, which after all is socialism’s first constituency. And (hence?) there is no reference to the ideological shift that Labour would have to make to accommodate these new constituencies, though ideology, we are told, is ‘critical to the construction of new social blocs. What, in any case, is this (new) ideology that could relate to the interests of the new constituencies and the underclasses – and are the new social forces a classless monolith? Or (alternatively?)* is there a ‘hegemonic strategy’ that needs to be built around images that would ‘expand the bloc symbolically’ – for, ‘elections are won or lost not on so-called real majorities but on (equally real) symbolic majorities’. These images, would they be the same sort of images around ‘choice’, around a new share-owning working class, etc. that Mrs Thatcher constructs? And how shall these speak to the dispossessed, how capture their political imagination? Or are there alternative images/policies that Labour can construct which can still keep it socialist at heart?
* The writings of the new marxists are so non-committal as to make definition difficult.
How, again, should Labour relate to the race, sex, gender-based social movements? On what terms? What is so profoundly socialist about these new social forces is that they raise issues about the quality of life (human worth, dignity, genuine equality, the enlargement of the self) by virtue of their experiences as women, blacks, gays, etc., which the working-class movement has not just lost sight of but turned its face against. But if these issues are fought in terms of the specific, particularistic oppressions of women qua women, blacks qua blacks and so on, without being opened out to and informed by other oppressions, they lose their claim to that universality which was their particular contribution to socialism in the first place. And they, further, fall into the error of a new sectarianism – as between blacks versus women, Asians versus Afro-Caribbeans, gays versus blacks and so on – which pulls rank, this time, not on the basis of belief but of suffering: not who is the true believer but who is the most oppressed. Which then sets out the basis on which demands are made for more equal opportunities for greater and more compound oppressions in terms of quotas and proportions and that type of numbers game. That is not to say that there should be no attempt to redress the balance of racial, sexual and gender discrimination, but that these solutions deal not with the politics of discrimination but its arithmetic — giving more weightage to women here and blacks there and so rearranging the distribution of inequality as not to alter the structures of inequality themselves. In the process, these new social movements tend to replace one sort of sectarianism with another and one sort of sectional interest for another when their native thrust and genius was against sectarianism and for a plurality of interests.
Equally, what is inherently socialist about the issue-based new social forces such as the Green and Peace movements is the larger questions they raise about the quality of the environs we live in or whether we live at all. But to the extent that the Green Movement is concerned more, say, with the environmental pollution of the western world than with the ecological devastation of the Third World caused by western capitalism, its focus becomes blinkered and narrow and its programmes partial and susceptible to capitalist overtures. Or, to come at it from the opposite direction, it is precisely because the Green Movement overlooks the centrality of capitalism and imperial ism in the despoliation of the planet that it overlooks also the narrowness of its campaigns (the US Greens attack ‘addictive cons merism’ while ignoring the inability of whole sections of the population to consume at all) and the limitation of its vision (the German Greens boast that their movement is ‘neither to the right nor to the left but in front’).10 And for that self-same reason it fails, too, in its claim to connect the global and local, the collective and the individual – and therein fails its own trust and promise.
So, too, does a Peace Movement which does not, for instance, see that to preserve the world from a holocaustal nuclear war also involves preserving the Third World from a thousand internecine wars sponsored and financed by the arms industry of the West.
There are simple, basic connections to be made here within and between the various movements. They are connections which are organic to socialism, but they can only develop if the new social movements open themselves out to the larger social issues and to each other; move out in a centrifugal fashion without losing sight of the centripetal – move out, that is, from their particularities to the whole and back again to themselves, enriching both, in an unending traffic of ideas, struggles and commitments; weave the specific and the universal into a holistic pattern of socialism which, so far from failing the parts, continues to be informed by them.
But that is not how the new marxists visualise the new social forces. They do not ask what it is in the philosophy and practice of these movements that needs to be constantly reviewed and rectified if they are to make a continuing contribution to a modern progressive socialism. They do not seem to accept that there can be contradictions within and between the movements or that their practice often plays into the hands of capitalism and is therein negated. Instead, they tend to romanticise the movements – feminism especially, as though in a backlash of socialist guilt, romancing the feminine now where once they romanced the class – regarding them as the catalysts or, in their language, the leading edge’ of change. * Perhaps they needed to, as a tactic, as a gun trained on the male, heterosexual citadels of socialism, But it is one that has backfired precisely because it has not looked to its own fallibility. It is not enough to ask what it is that the new social forces bring to the socialist movement without also asking what it is within these movements that could be corrupting of socialism.
* In pursuing ‘the leading edge of change’, the new marxists ignore the basis of change.
But then, the axes on which the new social movements revolve are single-issue and identity-based politics which are of themselves self defining and enclosed particularities tending to burrow into them selves for social truths and answers. Identity politics, in fact, seems to claim that the struggles of the self over its various personae – social, sexual, gendered – are by their very nature (for one does not struggle alone) social and political struggles: they impinge on how society regards women, blacks, gays, etc. and challenge the prevailing mores and ideology, in a sort of metaphysical dialectic between the personal and the political. The laboratory of social change, it would appear, is the self, but the self is also in the world and so the world changes with the changing of the self and the self with it.
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards …
Eliot was also a dialectical metaphysician.
The new politics
Politics is not just out there any more, says Rosalind Brunt – in study groups and meetings and vanguard parties – but here in the person, in ‘the continuous making and remaking of ourselves, and ourselves in relation to others’. It is in the way people experience the world through ‘the many, and increasing, identities it offers: … a colour, a gender, a class, a nationality;“belonging” to a family, having a child of your own; relating to colleagues, friends, comrades, lovers.’ It can no longer be said that there is a politics outside ourselves – politics is in the person – or that to be political is to talk about the system, the state, the working class, the Third World’ – everything is political. ‘What people do as political acts’, remarks Beatrix Campbell in the same issue of Marxism Today (with a caveat that she is possibly being ‘trivial here’), ‘is they read, they buy, they refuse to buy, and they commit all sorts of acts which are about participation in the culture. It’s only nut-cases in ever declining political organizations who think the only political act is to go to a meeting. ‘
Power, for Brunt, is ‘not simply a force coming from above and governed by one set of people, the ruling class’. Power is everywhere and ‘it operates horizontally as much as vertically, internally as well as externally’. Even sex, goes on Rosalind Brunt paraphrasing Foucault, ‘so far from … being a natural, biological given, central to our identity . . . is socially and culturally constructed and has a history brimming with power points . . .’. But ‘where there is power there is also a “multiplicity of points of resistance”, particularly in the way that historical identities are constructed – in reverse discourse’, for example, where a homosexual subject, say, can start to speak on his/her own behalf, and begin to shift to another, more “empowering” discourse that describes an identity that transcends the original vocabulary of pathology and illness. Hence the self-defining movements of “gay” and “lesbian” politics – a defiant and celebratory “coming out”.’
That, according to the new-timers, is what is exhilarating about New Times: the shift to the subject, the personal, the individual. Everything is in our hands now. We are not determined by ‘impersonal structures’, ‘objective contradictions’ and ‘processes that work “behind men’s (sic) backs”, We are not conditioned by class, class is no more – the working class certainly, not as we knew it, anyway-and the dominance of production relations has gone with it. Everything has been thrown on to the cultural side. ‘All interests, including class ones’, says Stuart Hall, are (now culturally and ideologically defined. ‘ That is where the struggle is. That is where we challenge the various power blocs in civil society. And ‘far from there being no resistance to the system’, Hall assures us, there has been a proliferation of new points of antagonism, new social movements of resistance organised around them, and consequently, a generalisation of “politics” to spheres which hitherto the Left assumed to be apolitical: a politics of the family, of health, of food, of sexuality, of the body.’Or, as Beatrix Campbell puts it, ‘there’s a plethora of collective comings and goings in what you might call “civil society” that are outside the political system.’ There is, that is, not just one power game any more but several, and not just one political line but a whole lot of political positions – and hence a politics which is always positional.’
And personal. Because the personal is the political. And personal politics is also about the politics of consumption, desire, pleasure – because we have got choice now. New Times affords us choices, all sorts of choices, of how we dress, eat, live, make love, choices of style, design, architecture, the social spaces we occupy. The individual has been opened up to the ‘transforming rhythms and forces of modern material life’. Commodified consumption? Maybe, but ‘have we become so bewitched’, asks Stuart Hall, ‘by who, in the short run, reaps the profits from these transactions and missed the deep democratisation of culture which is also a part of their hidden agenda? Can a socialism of the 21st century revive, or even survive, which is wholly cut off from the landscapes of popular pleasures, however contradictory a terrain they are? Are we thinking dialectically enough?’
Equally, are we thinking socialist enough? And what, in any case, is this dialectic about materialism which is not itself materialist? Should we become so bewitched by “the deep democratisation of culture’ that we miss out on those who reap the profits from these transactions’? How do you gauge democratisation – by its spread or the spread of effective choice – and how deep is it that it deprives a third of the population of such choice? And why ‘in the short run’? Because profit is short and culture long? Or because subversion is a commercial proposition only in limited runs and the transactors know when to call the tune, change the demand, ‘democratise’ some other (reactionary) bits of culture. In an age of ‘designer capitalism’, as Robin Murray terms it, who ‘shapes’ our life-styles? Who still sells us the ideas that sell us the things that we buy? Who lays out for us the landscapes of popular pleasures’? Should we not be suspicious of those pleasures which, even in a post-Fordist era, tend to be turned out like hamburgers, mass-produced and mass-oriented? Should we not, instead, find pleasure in being creative in ourselves and in our relationships with others now that we have got the time to be creative in? Can a socialism of the 21st century survive which does not develop landscapes of creative leisure for people to be human in?
New Times also sets great store by the feminist concept of the personal is the political. But how that concept has been interpreted (because it lends itself to such interpretation) and used has led to disastrous consequences in Left local authority politics, especially as regards race, and in the fight against racism generally. By personalising power, ‘the personal is the political’ personalises the enemy: the enemy of the black is the white as the enemy of the woman is the man. And all whites are racist like all men are sexist. Thus racism is the combination of power plus prejudice. Remove the prejudice and you remove the cutting edge of power; change the person and you change the office.
Hence the fight against racism became reduced to a fight against prejudice, the fight against institutions and practices to a fight against individuals and attitudes. And those Left councils which carried out anti-racist policies on this basis found themselves not only ineffectual but open to the accusation that their approach to the collective good often ended up in individual injustice. The McGoldrick affair – where a white headteacher was suspended because her alleged (personal) racism was said to stand in the way of Brent Council’s wholly valid policy to recruit more black teachers – was a case in point. Another was the lesson introduced into some Racism Awareness Training (RAT) classes whereby people were so sensitised to the pejorative use of the term ‘black’ that they baulked at asking for black coffee. Which then gave credence to stories such as the one broadcast by the Daily Mail that Haringey Council had banned teachers and children from singing ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ in its schools as it was racist.
All of which went to create the image of the ‘Loony Left’ which, as Stuart Hall so rightly says, bolstered “Thatcherism’s hidden “moral agenda” around those powerful subliminal themes of race and sex? and helped her win the election.” But if, as Hall insists, the Left is to learn from its mistakes, it must also be said that it was precisely the ‘policies’ arising from ‘the personal is the political ‘line’ (around ‘those powerful subliminal themes of race and sex’) that played into the hands of the Right and provided them the modicum of truth necessary to sustain the Loony Left image in the public mind.
The “personal is the political” has also had the effect of shifting the gravitational pull of black struggle from the community to the individual at a time when black was already breaking up into ethnics. It gave the individual an out not to take part in issues that affected the community: immigration raids, deportations, deaths in custody, racial violence, the rise of fascism as well as everyday things that concerned housing and schooling and plain existing. There was now another venue for politics: oneself, and another politics: of one’s sexuality, ethnicity, gender – a politics of identity as opposed to a politics of identification.
Carried to its logical conclusion, just to be black, for instance, was politics enough: because it was in one’s blackness that one was aggressed, just to be black was to make a statement against such aggression. If, in addition, you came out black, by wearing dread locks say, then you could be making several statements. “The one which I think is important’, declared a black intellectual in a radio programme recently, ‘is the statement it makes to the white people that I have to deal with as a professional, as a scholar, as a historian and other things which I do, and it tells them that there are certain things they can’t do to me because I have a power behind me that they can’t comprehend.’ Equally, you could make a statement, by just being ethnic, against Englishness, for instance; by being gay, against heterosexism; by being a woman, against male domination. Only the white-straight-male, it would appear, had to go find his own politics of resistance somewhere out there in the world (as a consumer perhaps?). Everyone else could say: I am, therefore I resist.
Of course, the individuals who could leave the black community to its problems and mind their own were those who were not directly affected by them: the emerging black middle class of functionaries and intellectuals. The functionaries found commitment, if not profit, in ethnicity and culture, the intellectuals found struggle in discourse.
That way they would not be leaving the struggles of the community behind but taking them to a higher level, interpreting them, deconstructing them, changing the focus of struggle on the sites of another practice, theoreticist this time.
The flight of the intellectual, however, is not confined to the black community – that is a particular type of flight: new, raw, immediately noticeable, because the blacks have achieved some sort of upward social and economic mobility only in the last two decades or so. It is part of a larger, smoother, more sophisticated flight of Left intellectuals from class – a flight that was already intimated in the philosophical excursions of theoretical marxism and the politics of Eurocommunism but found objective justification in ‘post-Fordism’ and the disintegration of the working class.
The new class
From then saying ‘farewell to the working class’ to electing themselves the new agents of change in ‘new times’ was but a short and logical step. For the shift from industrial to post-industrial society or, more accurately, from industrial to information society did not just remove the industrial working class from its pivotal position but threw up at the same time a new information ‘class’. Since, however, information operated differently at two different levels: at the economic, as a factor of production (information in the sense of data fed to computers, robots, etc.), and at the political, as a factor of ideology, so to speak (information as fed to people), the combined economic and political clout of the old working class also got differentiated with the economic going to the technical workers and the political to the ‘information workers’, the intelligentsia. And in a society ‘over determined by the political/ideological, the intelligentsia, who had hitherto no class as such, had come into their own. Except that the Right intelligentsia knew that the means of information were in the hands of the bourgeoisie and they were merely the producers of ideas and information and ideology that kept the bourgeoisie in situ, while the Left intelligentsia were convinced that the ideas and information and ideology they produced would overwhelm, if not overthrow, the bourgeoisie itself.
Every mode of production, as Marx has said, throws up its own classes. Capitalism is still the ‘mode’ in his sense, but the method of production has undergone such qualitative change as to shift the balance of influence between the economic, political, ideological instances and, with it, the balance of class forces. In today’s post industrial society that balance has shifted to the middle classes and its most vociferous wing, the intelligentsia, who as purveyors of information, ideas, images, life-styles find themselves in an unusual position of power to influence the way people think and behave – or, as the new marxists would put it, the way the ‘subject’ is ‘constructed’ and, since ideologies ‘work on and through the subject, the way politics is constructed too. For the New Times intelligentsia this means dragging marxism with them to their own intellectual terrain, altering the battle-lines to suit their bent and equipment, engaging in wars of position that never lead to a war of overthrow or ‘manoeuvre’, challenging not the coercive power of the state but altering the ideological hegemonies in civil society, not through the instrument of the party as before but through the construction of alternative social blocs that would coalesce existing Left/centre parties. Central to the project, of course, are the new social forces.
But the mode is still capitalist, the struggle is still against its coercive power as embodied in the state. The working class might have disintegrated, but the bourgeoisie has, for that very reason, got stronger. There is still exploitation and oppression and hunger among the vast majority of the world’s population. There is poverty and unemployment right here, in our midst, that arises from the unequal distribution of wealth. * That again is in the hands of the state, held there by the state.
* In May 1988, 8.2 million people in Britain were dependent upon supplementary benefit. In the year 1988/89 tax cuts for individuals in the richest 1 per cent of tax payers were £22,680 per person, a sum greater than the total income of any single person in the bottom 95 per cent of the population.
There may well be all sorts of ‘resistance to the system’, as Stuart Hall suggests, in civil society today, all sorts of new social movements and ‘a politics of the family, of health, of food, of sexuality, of the body.’ And they may even succeed in pushing out the boundaries of individual freedom. But the moment they threaten to change the system in any fundamental way or go beyond the personal politics of health, food, sexuality, etc., they come up against the power of the state. That power does not need to be used at every turn, just to intimate that it is there is sufficient to change the politics of the new social forces, personal politics, to a politics of accommodation.
Civil society is no pure terrain of consent where hegemonies can play at will; it is ringed around, if not with coercion, with intimations of coercion – and that is enough to buttress the system’s hegemony. It is only in challenging state power that you expose the coercive face of the state to the people, sharpening their political sense and resistance, providing the temper and climate for “the construction of more effective ‘social blocs’. Conversely, you cannot take on the dominant hegemonies in civil society without at some point – at the point of effectiveness, in fact – falling foul of the system.
It is inconceivable that we should go on talking about resistances in civil society and ignoring the power of the state when Mrs Thatcher has used exactly that to limit the terrain of civil society, keep government from the people, undermine local democracy, abrogate workers’ rights, hand over water to businessmen, make education so narrow and blinkered as to make the next generation safe for the Tories. * The Greater London Council (GLC) might have succeeded in constructing all sorts of social blocs and movements the pride and joy of the new Marxists) to challenge Tory hegemony, but all that Mrs Thatcher had to do was abolish it. The abolition, though, might have been stayed if the social blocs and forces that the GLC had generated and/or supported had a politics that could have opened out to each other and formed a solid phalanx of resistance to the encroachments of the Thatcherite state. Instead, their politics of position only helped them to take it lying down.
* The interests of the state and of the government, declared the Attorney General, later Lord Chancellor, after the Ponting case, are identical.
Nor is civil society an even terrain of consent, a plateau of consent, with no ‘cliffs of sheer fall’. It drops sharply for the poor, the black, the unemployed. For them, the distinction between the mailed fist and the velvet glove is a stylistic abstraction, the defining limit between consent and force a middle-class fabrication. Black youth in the inner cities know only the blunt force of the state, those on income support (8 million on today’s count) have it translated for them in a thousand not so subtle ways. If we are to extend the freedoms in civil society through a politics of hegemony, those who stand at the intersection of consent and coercion should surely be our first constituency and guide – and a yardstick to measure our politics by. How do you extend a ‘politics of food to the hungry, ‘a politics of the body’ to the homeless, a politics of the family’ for those without an income?** How do any of these politics connect up with the Third World?
** In 1985, 15.42m people (10% of the population) were living in poverty or on its margins, a rise of 33% since 1979. Families with children experienced a steeper rise in poverty than other people on low income, 6.45m people in families with children (26% of all families with children) were living in poverty or on its margins, an increase of 55% since 1979. In 1987 there were 107,000 households who were homeless; 64% were households with dependent children; 14% had a member who was pregnant. (Poverty, Summer 1988 and Winter 1988/9.)
The touchstone of any issue-based or identity-based politics has to be the lowest common denominators in our society. A women’s movement that does not derive its politics from the needs, freedoms, rights of the most disadvantaged among them is by that very token reformist and elitist. Conversely, a politics that is based on women qua women is inward-looking and narrow and nationalist and, above all, failing of its own experience. So too the blacks or gays or whoever. So too are the Green and Peace movements Eurocentric and elitist that do not derive their politics from the most ecologically devastated and war ravaged parts of the world. Class cannot just be a matter for identity, it has to be the focus of commitment.
But even if, as the new Marxists have it, class is only one of a subject’s many identities, it is still his or her class identity surely that makes a person socialist or otherwise. What makes for that identity may be an individual’s direct experience of hardship, or it may stem from one’s capacity to see in his or her own oppression or oppressions as a woman, a black, a black gay, etc., the oppression of others, or it may derive quite simply from the truth of one’s imagination’. But unless it informs and underlines the subject’s other identities, the politics of identity becomes a narrow, sterile, self-seeking exercise. You don’t have to live in poverty and squalor to be a socialist, as Beatrix Campbell so derisorily implies, but the capacity to identify yourself with those who do, helps. By the same token, the ‘politics of pleasure’, which the new Marxists warn us we must not knock, could hardly be one of socialism’s priorities – nor the pursuit of personal gain its morality. Class, even as metaphor, is still the measure of a socialist conscience.*
* From the point of view of the new Marxists, of course, this may well sound like a class reductionism of the mind.
But there’s the rub. The new Marxists do not see the self as something forged in and forging the struggle to change the world, but as fragmented identities inhabiting different social worlds, ‘with a history,”produced”, in process. These vicissitudes of the subject have their own histories which are key episodes in the passage to new times’ such as the cultural revolutions of the 1960s . . . feminism’s slogan that “the personal is the political” … the theoretical revolutions of the 60s and 70s – semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism – with their concern for language and interpretation’. And it is this ‘return of the subjective with a vengeance’ that New Times proudly presents.
The ‘return’ of the subject to the centre of the political stage brings with it, of course, the politics of the subject: individualism, consumption, choice, the market, sexuality, style, pleasure, ‘international humanism’.
The big waffle
Individualism, for New Times contributor Charlie Leadbeater, is what the Left now needs ‘at the core of its vision of how society should be organised’ – a ‘socialist individualism’, of course, a ‘progressive individualism’, an expansive individualism’, a ‘democratic individualism’ even, in contrast to Mrs Thatcher’s ‘constrained, narrow, materialistic individualism’. Labour and the Left had abrogated individual rights and choices through statism, and Thatcherism had seized upon them to construct its own vision of society. It was time now for the Left to re-appropriate the individual – an individual with responsibilities, however, not just rights. For ‘if the Left stands for one thing, it should be this: people taking responsibility for all aspects of their lives’. No more nanny state, no more asking ‘what can the state, the council, the professionals, do to solve this problem for people’. Should this sound like Thatcherism, Leadbeater hastens to assure us that, in addition to individual responsibility, there would also be collective provision. But how, if not through the state and local authority – and for whom, if not the needy? And are we then not returning to the theological collectives … of state and class’? Through ‘intermediate collectives’, answers Charlie Leadbeater, composed perhaps of ‘individuals, private initiatives, even companies’ operating within a ‘space’ provided and regulated by the state. But how is this different from Heseltine’s compact for the inner cities?
The individual must also have choice, in consumption, life-style, sexuality and so on, because ‘the dynamic area of most people’s lives is where they can assert their difference from others’. There’s ‘new marxism’ for you, and yet the old man whose name they take in vain said that it was ‘only in community with others’ that the individual has ‘the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions, only in community … is personal freedom possible’.
But that apart, the question of choice in Leadbeater’s scheme of things does not emerge from the position of the choiceless, those deprived of choice, deprived of purchasing power. It relates, in the first instance, to those who already have and stresses, therefore, the importance of the market in delivering choice. When Leadbeater does turn to the problems of the less well-off, it is to tag on feeble provisos to market solutions, such as regulating competition, or to offer up sundry collective actions which are themselves ‘conceived and ex pressed individually’.
The stress on the individual leads Leadbeater to the market and Thatcherism, the anxiety not to be found out leads him to ‘collectivism’, and he ends up as a man divided against himself in ‘individually based collectivism’- i.e., as a social democrat. At one point he even goes beyond collective action’ to mention ‘redistribution’, but it is not the redistribution of wealth. That, though, would have been to shift the centre of gravity of new marxist argument from consumption to distribution – which, after all, is where socialism begins. The fulfilment of choice in an unequal society is always at the expense of others and is, in that, a negation of choice, of freedom.
It is in Stuart Hall’s writing, however, that consumption reaches higher, even more lyrical, levels and requires to be quoted at length if only for its poetry. If ‘the preoccupation with consumption and style appears trivial’, he warns us, it is ‘more so to men, who tend to have themselves “reproduced” at arm’s length from the grubby processes of shopping and buying and getting and therefore take it less seriously than women, for whom it was destiny, life’s “work”. But the fact is that greater and greater numbers of people (men and women) – with however little money – play the game of using things to signify who they are. Everybody, including people in poor societies whom we in the West frequently speak about as if they inhabit a world outside of culture, knows that today’s “goods” double up as social signs and produce meanings as well as energy. There is no evidence that, in a socialist economy, our propensity to “code” things according to systems of meaning, which is an essential feature of our sociality, would necessarily cease – or, indeed, should.’
I don’t understand the last sentence and even the previous one seems meaningless to me- or it is in ‘code’. But what social signs’ do “today’s goods’ have for the poor in ‘poor societies’ except that they have not got them, the goods. And what ‘meaning’ or ‘energy’ do they produce except that those who have do not give and those who haven’t must take? Who are these people who, in our own societies, ‘with however little money play the game of using things to signify who they are’ unless it is those who use cardboard boxes under Waterloo Bridge to signify that they are the homeless? They know who they are: they are the poor and they do not have things to play games with. It is they – both men and women – who think, who know that ‘the preoccupation with consumption and style’ is trivial. And Hall’s bringing in male sexism in matters of ‘shopping and buying and getting’ does not elevate consumption any higher. If, on the other hand, what Hall is trying to say is that poor people find meaning, express themselves, in ‘consuming’ the goods they can’t afford precisely because they are poor, that again is special pleading to bring consumption closer to the heart of socialism.
Consumption is also where Robin Murray, alas, stubs his socialist toe. He first, like the other New Timers, excoriates the Left for being reluctant to take on the question of consumption. And like Stuart Hall, in another passage to New Times, Murray too develops a powerful argument for those movements in civil society which have taken on the market and the state over those issues of consumption where ‘the social and the human have been threatened’: such as the effects of food additives and low-level radiation, of the air we breathe and the surroundings we live in, the availability of childcare and community centres, or access to privatised city centres and transport geared to particular needs. But he cannot help singing a paean to the market: ‘which local council pays as much attention to its users as does the market research industry on behalf of commodities? Which bus or railway service cuts queues and speeds the traveller with as much care as retailers show to their just-in-time stocks?’ One would have thought that the motive of market researchers and retailers alike was profit, not use value.
With ‘the return of the subjective’ has also gone the notion of imperialism out of new marxist reckoning – the ravaging of the Third World, the exploitation of its peoples, the theft of its resources, ecological devastation. The Third World is no longer out there as an object of struggle; it is here, in the minds of people, as an anodyne to consumption, in the personal politics of the subject – an object of western humanism, the occasion for individual aid, a site for pop culture and pop politics. The ‘famine movement’, the new marxists call it, ‘people aid’ to the Third World – making the plight of the Third World come through to people through mass gigs, mass runs, telethons – mass culture at the service of ‘mass politics’ – the politics of selfish consumption relieved by relief for the Third World – altering, if not the fate of the Third World, the views of government to alter the fate of the Third World – (governments tied up with multinational corporations, governments governed by multinational corporations) – altering people’s politics, lifting people’s horizons ‘beyond even the boundaries of Europe, to Africa’- a mass movement for the moment, initiated not by the Left but outside it – by caring people – by pop stars who put ‘caring for others’ on the map of rock culture (because ‘every fan knows how much it costs a star to give a free performance’ ) – millionaire pap merchants effecting a peaceful transition for the young from pap culture into pap politics.
‘Who would have guessed in 1979, or even perhaps in 1983′, ask Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques writing in 1986, that the plight of the Third World would generate one of the great popular movements of our time?’ And not just that: ‘with the rise of the Band Aid/Live Aid/ Sport Aid phenomenon, the ideology of selfishness – and thus one of the main ideological underpinnings of Thatcherism – has been dealt a further, severe blow’. In fact, ‘the famine movement’s capacity to mobilise new forces’, especially the youth, has helped to shift the political centre of gravity’.
On the contrary, all that it shifted was the focus of responsibility for the impoverishment of the Third World from western governments to individuals and obscured the workings of multinational corporations and their agents, the IMF and the World Bank. Worse, it made people in the West feel that famine and hunger were endemic to the Third World, to Africa in particular (the dark side of the affluent psyche), and what they gave was as of their bounty, not as some small recompense for what was being taken from the poor of the Third World. And, in the language of the new Marxists (more or less), a discourse on western imperialism was transmogrified into a discourse on western humanism.
What New Times represents, in sum, is a shift in focus from economic determinism to cultural determinism, from changing the world to changing the word, from class in and for itself to the individual in and for himself or herself. Use value has ceded to exchange value, need to choice, comunity to identity, anti imperialism to international humanism. And the self that new timers make so much play about is become a small, selfish inward-looking self that finds pride in life-style, exuberance in consumption and commitment in pleasure – and then elevates them all into a politics of this and that, positioning itself this way and that way (with every position a politics and every politics a position) into a ‘miscellany of movements and organisations’ stretching from hobbies and pleasure to services.
A sort of bazaar socialism, bizarre socialism, a hedonist socialism: an eat, drink and be merry socialism because tomorrow we can eat drink and be merry again … a socialism for disillusioned Marxist intellectuals who had waited around too long for the revolution – a socialism that holds up everything that is ephemeral and evanescent and passing as vital and worthwhile, everything that melts into air as solid, and proclaims that every shard of the self is a social movement.
Of course, the self is fragmenting, breaking up. But when in Capital’s memory was it never so? Capital fragments the self as it fragments society, divides the self as it divides labour, develops some aspects of the self at the expense of others, encourages specialisation, compartmentalises experience and hands it over to professionals for interpretation, conceptualisation, and keeps the self from becoming whole.
Up to now we had the homogenising influence of class to hold us together, but this, as the new Marxists so rightly point out, was a flattening process, a reductive process, mechanical, and as destructive of the creative self as Capital. * That influence of class is gone from us and all its comforting, stultifying adhesions of procedures and organisation. There is nothing ‘objective’ to hold us together, our selves are let loose upon the world, and even the freedoms won in that great period of industrial working-class struggle are being threatened.
* Capitalism … destroys the human possibilities it creates … Those traits, impulses and talents that the market can use are rushed (often prematurely) into development and squeezed desperately till there is nothing left; everything else within us, everything nonmarketable, gets draconically repressed, or withers away for lack of use, or never has a chance to come to life at all.’ (Berman, All that is solid melts into air).
The emancipation of Capital from Labour has left a moral vacuum at the heart of post-industrial society, which is itself material. The ‘universalist’ bourgeois values which Bill Warren wrote about – ‘equality, justice, generosity, independence of spirit and mind, the spirit of inquiry and adventure, opposition to cruelty’ – and which sprang precisely from the creative tension between Capital and Labour are endangered by Capital’s emancipation. The Factory Acts which took children out of work and women from the mines and gave them the light of day, the Education Acts that opened their minds out to other worlds and the world, the Public Health Acts which stopped the spread of disease and plagues – all came out of the tension, the hostility between Capital and Labour.
Freedom of speech, of assembly, the right to withhold one’s labour, universal suffrage, sprang not out of bourgeois benefice but from working-class struggle. All the gains of the period of industrial capitalism were the creative outcome of social contradictions – the heart of dialectical materialism. The welfare state was its apotheosis.
Those contradictions are not as eloquent any more. The ‘service class’ of the post-industrial society which has displaced the working class of industrial society does not contest Capital but is accommodating of it and secretes a culture of accommodation, a petit-bourgeois culture. Where once the tension between the bourgeoisie and the working class produced ‘bourgeois’ culture and ‘bourgeois’ freedoms, the lack of tension, of hostility, of ‘class hatred’ even, produces a petit-bourgeois culture and petit-bourgeois values.
But there are still the values and traditions that have come down to us from the working-class movement; loyalty, comradeship, generosity, a sense of community and a feel for internationalism, an understanding that unity has to be forged and re-forged again and again and, above all, a capacity for making other people’s fights one’s own – all the great and simple things that make us human.
Communities of resistance
Where those traditions have taken hold and come alive today are in the struggles of the people in those spaces that Thatcherism and new Marxism alike have obscured from public view: in the inner-cities, among the low paid and the poor, in the new underclass of home workers and sweat-shop workers, casual and part-time workers, ad hoc and temporary workers, thrown up by the putting-out system in retailing, the flexi-system in manufacturing, and the hire and fire system in the expanding service sector, and among refugees, migrants, asylum-seekers: the invisible workers who have no rights, no claims, no roots, no domicile and are used and deported at will.
By their very nature and location, the underclass are the most difficult to organise in the old sense of organisation. They do not submit to the type of trade union regimen which operates for the straight ‘official’ workforce – but they come together, like villagers, through hearsay and common hurt, over a deportation case here or a death in custody there, to take on the immediate power of the immigration officer or the police and to go beyond it, if that’s where it takes them, to oppose the power of the state itself as it presents itself on the street. They come together, too, over everyday cases of hardship to help each other’s families out, setting up informal community centres to help them consolidate whatever gains they make. These are not great big things they do, but they are the sort of organic communities of resistance that, in a sense, were pre-figured in the black struggles of the ’60s and ’70s and the insurrections of ’81 and ’85.
Broadwater Farm was such a community. Relegated to a concrete ghetto and deprived of basic amenities and services, jobless for the most part and left open to crime, the inhabitants of the estate came together to create a life for themselves. They set up a nursery, provided meals and a meeting-place for pensioners, established a recreation centre for youth and built up, in the process, a political culture that resisted police intrusion and proceeded to take on the judiciary and the press over the mistrial (the press trial in fact) of Silcott, Braithwaite and Raghip.
In 1979 the whole of Southall – Asian, Afro-Caribbean, white, the young, the old, women and men, shop-keepers and householders – shut shop and went off to demonstrate against the incursion of the National Front into their town and were savagely beaten up by the police. Hundreds were injured when mounted police and riot police charged into the crowds – and Blair Peach, a white anti-racist campaigner and teacher, died at the hands of the Special Patrol Group. But that death did not die in the memories and campaigns of white groups and black organisations who took up the question of police accountability and brought it to the attention of a larger and larger public. From these campaigns came the setting up of local police-monitoring groups and council police committees. People were alerted now to the deaths, especially of young blacks, in police or prison custody, and from that has grown a distrust of inquest procedures and the demands for public inquiries in their stead. In April 1989, on the tenth anniversary of Blair Peach’s death, activists from all over the UK and Europe gathered in Southall to commemorate his memory and pledge themselves to his legacy of struggle against racism and fascism.
It was also from the failure, well-night wilful, of the police to protect working-class Asian families from racial harassment and attack, following Mrs Thatcher’s ‘this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’ pronouncement, that the call for the self-defence of the black community arose. And when a few months later Judge Argyle imposed savage sentences on the Virk brothers for defending themselves with spanners and jacks (they were repairing their car at the time) against the unprovoked attack of a racist gang, the Asian community, elders and youth alike, realised that it was as futile to look to the judiciary for justice as it was to the police for protection. From that ‘self-defence is no offence’ campaign sprang similar campaigns – in Newham, for instance, on behalf of Asian youth who had defended young children against racist attacks on their way from school (the case of the Newham 8). Which in turn raised the question of the pastoral role of teachers in protecting children against racial harassment.
The most celebrated of these campaigns arose from the defence of Manningham against impending fascist attack by twelve young Asians (allegedly) armed with molotov cocktails. They were charged with conspiracy, a charge so wholly disproportionate that it outraged ordinary people and brought to the defence campaign support from a whole cross-section of groups – women, gays, students – who had hitherto not made the ‘racial attack’ issue their own. * Meetings across the country, regular newsletters and mass marches were to alert communities everywhere to the issues involved: problems in policing, attacks by fascists and racists in black areas, racism and political bias in the criminal justice system, a wish by the state to smash militant black organisations. It was the success of the community defence campaign as much as the legal representation in court (which was itself ‘changed’ by the community) which got the twelve acquitted.
* Amongst those who sat in on the trial each day was a young white home-help. Her anger and commitment was later to be channelled into a series of biting cartoons in the Institute of Race Relations publication How Racism Came to Britain (which the Secretary of State for Education then tried to ban from schools).
These campaigns in turn were to strengthen the resolve of local authorities to outlaw racism, from council housing for instance. And in November 1984 Newham Council took the unprecedented step of evicting a white family, the McDonnells, for persistent harassment of their black neighbours.
Similarly, the issue of deportation and of the rights of children to join their parents, taken up by trade unions and legal and civil rights bodies, were initially raised by women’s organisations — black and white. And from these issues the realisation arose that the question of deportation and children’s rights had got to be seen and fought in the larger context of the quality of family life generally – and gave rise to the campaigns over child benefit, unsavoury surveillance by the state of marriages (to make sure they were not bogus), the racist and sexist nature of nationality laws and the ‘internal’, unseen, unknown, unaccountable control of black families – via the police, education, welfare and social services.
It is a community of women again, predominantly middle-aged women, which has helped keep alive in Britain the issues of Israeli terror in the Occupied Territories, protested against the treatment of women Palestinian prisoners, collected funds for the children detained during the intifada, confirmed their fellow women in Israel in their struggle against the occupation. Week in and week out for two years a Women in Black picket stands each Saturday in silent protest outside the Israeli airlines office in London – informing people, collecting signatures, arguing the issues with passersby. The irony is that these women are for the most part Jewish women and that the catalyst for their movement came from a realisation in Jewish feminist circles that their politics of identity was too narrow, historicist and self-indulgent – and betraying of a sisterhood that should embrace Palestinian women as well.
Recently, the campaign to prevent the deportation of Tamil asylum-seekers to the UK involved a fight between the judiciary and the Home Office over their legitimacy. But the whole issue of the would-be-refugees, tortured by the Sri Lankan government, brought up Britain’s role in the training of the armed forces and intelligence networks of repressive regimes and the implications of tourism into such countries. And when two Tamil asylum-seekers working (for want of work permits) as night security guards in a Soho amusement arcade were burnt to death, the issue became one about the super exploitation of a new rightless, peripatetic section of the working class and led to an exposé of the profits made by the leisure industry.
It was, again, the migrant workers and the Refugee Forum which fought for the rights of Kurds who had to flee Turkey in 1989. The feeding, housing, clothing of the Kurds, help with translation, appealing for the right to remain, were all undertaken by community groups themselves. Outrage over arbitrary detentions and deportations by the Home Office (which led to the self-immolation of two Kurdish asylum-seekers) brought out various migrant and black communities on to the streets in demonstrations and meetings.* Just as in the case of the Tamils, the Kurds too threw up crucial issues which the ‘movement’ had to embrace: the conditions of work in East London’s sweat-shops (where the Kurds found employment), the use of chemical weapons (by Iraq) on the Kurds, Britain’s collusion through Nato with Turkey’s armed forces and, therefore, its harassment and torture of the Kurdish minority.
* These are not the party-hacks’ meetings that Beatrix Campbell inveighs against but practical meetings to work out rotas for volunteers at community centres, panels of lawyers to take up cases, etc.
The joint struggles of refugee, migrant and black groups in Britain not only help to sustain the links between racism and imperialism and between racial oppression and class exploitation, but have also been at the forefront of the attempts to build a network of European groups against a new European racism in the run-up to 1992. And only last month (November 1989) activists from black settler groups, migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers based in Holland, Germany, France, Denmark and the UK came together in a conference in Hackney to launch a Communities of Resistance Campaign across Europe.
All these activities may constitute a ‘miscellany of movements’, ‘a plethora of collective comings and goings’ outside mainstream party politics, as the new Marxists describe them. But there the resemblance to anything they have in mind ceases. In the first place, these are collectivities, movements, that issue from the grassroots (if the term may still be used) of economic, social and political life, from the bare bone of existence, from people who have nothing to lose but their chains, nothing to choose but survival, and are therefore dynamic, open, organic. They are not inward-looking, navel-gazing exercises like identity politics or narrow self-defining particularities like single issue politics. They do not, in other words, issue from the self but from the community, not from choice but from need and are organic in the sense of sharing a common life.
Secondly, these movements do not stop at the bounds of civil society or confine their activities to its boundaries. They know from experience that beyond civil society lies the state, behind civil society lurks the state, on every street corner the state, at the Job Centre and the town hall, in the schools and at the hospital, whether demanding your rights or asking for guidance or just trying to lead an ordinary family life – local state or central, it matters little, as Thatcherism goes on eroding local authority, except that that too is now their fight. The struggles stretch from civil society to state and back in a continuum, effecting material changes in the life and rights of ordinary people and extending, in the process, the bounds of civil society itself.
Thirdly, what these movements throw up, by their very nature, are not diverse cultural politics but a multi-faceted political culture which finds authority in practice, tests theory in outcome, and works towards a wider political movement commensurate with our times, but unrelenting still of its struggle against Capital. The point is to overthrow capitalism, not to join it in order to lead it astray into socialism.
Hence and fourthly, these movements have little sympathy with the notion of the personal is the political because this has tended in practice to personalise and fragment and close down struggles. The personal is the political is concerned with what is owed to one by society, whereas the political is personal is concerned with what is owed to society by one. The personal is the political is concerned with altering the goal posts, the political is personal is concerned with the field of play. The personal is the political may produce radical individualism, the political is personal produces a radical society. The personal is the political entraps you in the self-achieving, self aggrandising life-style of the rich, the political is personal finds value in the communal life-style of the poor.
Finally, there is an unspoken morality about these movements which stem from a simple faith in human beings and a deep knowledge that, by himself or herself, the individual is nothing, that we need to confirm and be confirmed by each other, that only in the collective good our selves can put forth and grow.*
* Whether this is a ‘moral agenda’ in the electoral way the new Marxists speak of it I do not know, but it is certainly the basis of another morality than Thatcher’s and one that she would want to abolish along with socialism.
This means that to come to consciousness of one’s own individual oppression (which the new Marxists so eloquently point to as a sign of New Times) is to open one’s sensibilities out to the oppression of others, the exploitation of others, the injustices and inequalities and un-freedoms meted out to others – and to act upon them, making an individual/local case into an issue, turning issues into causes and causes into movements and building in the process a new political culture, new communities of resistance that will take on power and Capital and class.
Moralistic? Morality is material when it is forged on the smithy of practice into a weapon of ideology. ‘If you want to know the taste of a pear’, a Chinese saying goes, ‘you must change its reality by eating it.’