Saturday, 3 September 2011

D'Ya Wanna Be In My Gang? Erm, No Thanks!

It’s been suggested elsewhere on the blog that the ‘organisers of discontent’ are no longer charismatic militants - maybe so. Perhaps there’s also a grain of truth in the comment that the ‘deeply conservative and reactionary’ responses to the recent riots are ‘rooted in the culture, history and politics of this country’.

However, in putting forward the case for militancy, Bammy seems to have forgotten a point he himself made a while ago when commenting on the NUM, i.e. that militancy is not necessarily radical in its intent, often seeking to protect very narrow interests. Indeed, history can offer us many examples of militancy that is itself conservative in its aims or, at least, seeks to establish a state of affairs where conservatism will inevitably prevail.

A good example would be the case of the Suffragettes led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter, Christabel, who are widely offered up as the militant faction of the female emancipation movement and thus too readily associated with universal female liberation. Scratch even a little beneath the surface, however, and you find that their militancy in smashing windows, etc was largely undertaken to achieve a property-based vote for their comfortably middle-class sorority. In fact, after a remarkably brief time spent with working class women in Manchester, Christabel Pankhurst branded them ‘too handicapped by poverty and lacking in prestige to be of any practical use’.

But let’s not pretend that this ‘conservative militancy’ was a middle-class affliction. In the period of jingoistic hysteria around the time of WWI (when, incidentally, Mrs Pankhurst abandoned the ‘votes for women’ campaign to support the war effort), the syndicalist Wilf McCartney said of his fellow workers:
‘Realising that this war had given workers better conditions for a short while (and saved capitalism) the workers would not tolerate anybody opposing the war or asking for peace. Harmless German shopkeepers had their shops wrecked, their goods thrown into the street, their homes ruined, and endured personal injury, all in the cause of smashing Prussian militarism. For the first time in my life I was ashamed of my class.’
Of course, it could be argued here that in the wider class struggle it was not the nationality of the ‘harmless Germans’ that was relevant, rather the fact that they were shopkeepers, but that was not the reason they were targeted, nor was that the case in Britain’s cities a few weeks ago. Later, during WWII, a dachshund was stoned to death by a mob because it was German, even though there was no evidence that it held petit-bourgeois aspirations of any kind!

Today, it’s more than depressing that so many young people are so desperate to ‘belong’ that the vacuous culture of celebrity and consumerism holds so much sway over them, more so that they will fight and/or kill one another to forge an identity - whether as part of street gangs or in the better equipped military gangs that, for some reason, are deemed more socially acceptable, even admirable. When we then have to listen to Cameron et al telling us about ‘broken Britain’ whilst unleashing what is by far the country’s biggest (and most corrupt) organised gang to restore order, the situation is even more grim.

But what have working class youths supposed ‘homeboys’ in the trade union gang done to make young people, or anyone for that matter, think that there’s something more to life than being trodden under foot? Yes, they’ve sometimes been militant but rarely radical and their aims are usually specific to their own narrow world view. Ultimately, they’ve achieved the right to work all their lives but feel good about doing it because they might have secured a few extra crumbs from the master’s table. The Daily Mail reader is certainly ripe for contempt with their whining about the ‘nanny state’ whilst expecting the government to defend everything that their spurious middle class morality holds dear but perhaps they are also too easy a target here. Personally, I’m equally worried by those who see cradle-to-grave wage slaving as a badge of honour and look on those who reject this with contempt. These people might have the ability to be militant when their own situation is threatened but most don’t actually want to change things in any truly radical way.

Mainstream historians certainly have a penchant for airbrushing out genuine radicals but let’s not be too quick to convince ourselves that the left’s pantheon is therefore populated by those excluded elsewhere. Charismatic militants may make the headlines and, in the wake of the rise of ‘social history’, university textbooks, but they don’t necessarily represent a radical world view, in fact, they generally seek to uphold authoritarian and hierarchical social structures but with themselves in charge. If you want a strategy and agenda that offers real alternatives, it has to be one that acknowledges this, as well as also offering something more contemporary and familiar by way of example than the Lord of Misrule, or, dare I say it, the Spanish Civil War.

Given the current circumstances, this will undoubtedly be a ‘hard sell’ but it’s not like the ‘charismatic militant’ line is being eagerly consumed (or even looted) either.


bammy said...

I have re-read what I wrote about the problem of 'managing discontent' in a modern society such as England today. Far from making a case for 'militancy' I thought I was merely representing the situation we and the Government now find ourselves in, and describing how it differs from the 1970s and 80s. Jim Pinkerton, a thoughtful northern anarchist from Ashton-u-Lyne, use to point out that no nation is easy to govern, but the difficulties that presented themselves in the 1970s could be 'managed' and negotiated between the leaders of Labour and the politicians of the day. Today, for better or worse, I was arguing that this is no longer the case because the dynamics of society has changed: you could either argue that we have moved back to a pre-industrial situation or on to a post-modern set-up depending on your point of view. I was trying to point out that Thatcher by castrating the unions had simply shifted the political scene from one of industrial conflict and strikes to other forms of social disruption like riots.

Rachel said...

Ok, I was a bit terrier-like with that particular aspect of your various posts on the riots but you did seem more than a little seduced by the charisma of the ‘substantial’ figures you mentioned, even if it was in the context of comparing them favourably to the unions of today.

That said, I’d argue that it was the unions themselves who changed the dynamics of society by replacing the wider context of collective protest with strike action increasingly based around their own industrial interests. That Thatcher was so easily able to ‘castrate’ them (I see you still gender the unions as a masculine entity) was partly due to the lack of collective identity and co-operation between the various unions, which, although it may not be a fashionable term any longer, often amounted to little more than an aristocracy of labour where some workers saw themselves as more important than others.

Even in Tom Mann’s era, when his ostensibly syndicalist ‘general unionism’ specifically side-lined the anti-statism of anarcho-syndicalism to offer a more palatable programme of basic workers’ control, his attempts to overturn the internal hierarchies of labour failed.

It would be naïve to suggest that before the trade unions were established the workers, lower orders and ‘lumpen’ were a unified anarchic force, defending each other’s rights against those above them in the social order but it’s equally so to suggest that the trade unions haven’t been as instrumental in propping up capitalism or, at least, their own perceived interests within it, as the bankers or the politicians.

Perhaps seemingly apolitical rioting or looting the trappings of consumerism denied to you by exclusion from the labour market isn’t exactly what we’d hope for by way of revolutionary zeal but I’m not sure that your suggestion that the riots were simply ‘inarticulate’ hold firm either. As Chomsky suggests, even feudalism at least acknowledged a natural right to live, albeit within a strictly defined and oppressive social hierarchy, whilst under capitalism…

... people had to have it knocked out of their heads that they had any automatic “right to survival” beyond what they could win for themselves in the labour market.

I would say that in the context of a society where, for a majority, the trappings of consumerism are perceived as basic human rights, the looting of consumer goods is a reasonably articulate response by those who are unlikely to achieve them by other means. And as full employment is not, nor has it ever been, an aim of capitalism, it might even be seen as ‘collective bargaining by riot’ by those who can’t adopt the consumerist moral high ground of rewarding themselves for being ‘decent hardworking folk’, i.e. wage slaves.

bammy said...

Oddly enough, yesterday I came across a quote by Raphael Samuel that relates to this matter. It describes the cultural shift from an infatuation with the Northern metaphor of a preoccupation with blunt, straight-talking, tough, manly and parochial blue-collar workers in the films and books of the 1960s 'new wave', to more white-collar concerns and a fascination with soft, effete, capricious, cosmopolitan causes of political correctness and feminism: chacteristics more associated with the Southerners. Ralph Samuel wrote:

'The very qualities (of the North) which had recommended it to the "new wave" writers and film-makers now served as talimans of narrowness. The rich associational life, such as that of the workingmen's club, was seen not as supportive but as excluding, a way in which the natives could keep newcomers and strangers at bay ... The solidarities of the workplace were reconceptualised as a species of male bonding, a licence for the subjugation of women; while the smokestack industries which had been the pride of the North now appeared, retrospectively, as ecological nightmares. In another set of dialectical inversions, the modernizations of the 1960s were stigmatized as planning disasters, imprisoning the local population in no-go estates and tower blocks.'

These must have been tough realities to swallow and Ralph Samuel suggested that after deindustrialisation in the 1980s and 90s the North of England became 'a byword for backwardness'. Liverpool suffered most having, in the 1960s, been part of a cultural rebirth it later came to be defined as 'Britain's Beirut' a model for all that is wrong with our major cities so much so that Southern football crowds began to sing 'I'd rather be a Paki than a Scouse'. Rachel will no doubt be aware that Ralph Samuel was a bit of a mate and mentor of Dave Douglass.