Monday, September 19, 2011

The 'white working class' again

Shall we ever tire, I wonder, of dignifying racists and fascists with the mantle of oppression?  They, the pitiable, neglected "white working class".  They, the underdogs, oppressed in their own nation, by the politically correct, the educated, the middle classes and (sotto voce) the uppity minorities.  No matter how many faces they kick in, no matter how many people they stab, no matter how many times they pose with guns as if in tribute to their co-ideologue Breivik, there will always be those who entertain a patronising sympathy for these primitive oiks and their native moxie.  

For example, here is the knuckle-dragging bore, Brendan O'Neill, late of the RCP, explaining to his rich, white audiences that opposition to the EDL is the behaviour of a rich, white clique motivated by class hatred.  Here, he is followed by the Telegraph's leader-writer Damian Thompson, an Islamophobic reactionary who takes up the same theme while bringing his historical acumen to bear on it: "The street battles between the Anti-Nazi League and the National Front in the 1970s pitted white middle-class students against white working-class thugs: in both cases there was a sense that the ethnic minorities they were fighting over were almost irrelevant."  (Here, just for reference, is a picture of white middle-class students seeing off the National Front in the 1970s).  Why do I bother with these idiots?  Only because there's a sort of interesting story behind this.

After the recent success for anti-fascists in Tower Hamlets (again, here is a picture of the white middle-class students protesting against the EDL), there was a video that was circulated supposedly involving two UAF supporters giggling like schoolboys over a humiliating kicking allegedly inflicted on a female EDL member while their bus was caught in the middle of Whitechapel Road.  I do not know whether the assault took place.  But let us just say that from my perspective it would be indefensible if it did, as it would not appear to involve self-defence but merely a brutal beatdown.  Further, the two men laughing about it on the video appear to take a misogynistic glee in seeing a 'dog' beaten like this.  That is one reason why I instantly distrusted the video upon viewing it.  They don't sound like anti-fascists.  I know of no one in Unite Against Fascism or its periphery who thinks that misogynistic violence is a tactic of anti-fascism.

Still, the reason Brendan O'Neill decided to write about the subject is that he reads Laurie Penny's columns.  And Laurie Penny had written this frankly strange piece attacking 'class snobbery' against the EDL, in response to the Youtube video.  She wrote:

It's not just the incident itself which is shocking, but the attitude the video bears out, a smug, nasty condescension replacing real political analysis. The video was posted on EDLRaw – a pro-EDL YouTube channel – and its source has not yet been verified. However, when I shared it on social media, asking for confirmation, a handful attempted to excuse the jeering with the mantra "a fascist is a fascist".  The implication was that violence, class prejudice and misogyny can be tolerated on the left as long as its targets have attended a terrifying racist intimidation parade.

Now, having been involved in that social media conversation, I know that the argument "a fascist is a fascist" was not made by someone defending "the jeering".  Rather, the person claimed (wrongly in my view), that it made no difference whether the victim of the assault was male or female.  This issue should be judged, the person suggested, not as a case of potential misogynistic violence, but rather as an understandable, if tactically misguided case of someone lashing out at a fascist who had come to beat up Muslims.  This was poor, but it was also the closest anyone came to 'defending' any part of it, and no one defended "the jeering".  However, in the discussion a number of people did make the claim, which Laurie Penny also makes in this article, that said jeering reflects "a distaste for the far-right's working-class base that is as much about prejudice as it is about politics ... Class snobbery is part of the reason that the EDL are on the streets in the first place."  I will return to this claim in a moment.  

To her credit, Penny acknowledged that "the jeering" reflected nothing about UAF, or any other anti-fascist organisation.  O'Neill and Thompson were not as scrupulous.  While O'Neill used the issue to incriminate the left and anti-fascists in general, Thompson went further and asserted falsely that UAF describes EDL supporters as "chavs", and had no problem declaring the two men on the video to be "middle class [sigh] supporters of United Against Fascism".  Making up quotes and playing fast and loose with the facts is roughly the sort of behaviour that this weaselly scribe was lambasting Johann Hari for not long ago.  So, before going any further, it is worth noting that the men behind the video have nothing to do with Unite Against Fascism.  The charming personality on-screen is that of comedic hopeful, Anthony Richardson.  He, in a public apology for the video (to the best of my knowledge, this is genuine), explains that "We were bystanders and had not been actively involved in either side of the protest."  He goes on to say that: "I can categorically state that I am not part of any political party or particular leaning".  The pair were not anti-fascist protesters, middle class or otherwise.  Nothing they did or said, and nothing about how they did or said it, tells us anything about why people protest against the EDL.

So, let us return to this business about the EDL, the far right and their "working class base".  There are a number of things to say here.  First of all, just as a rule of thumb, any organisation that aspires to have any degree of political success, will develop some sort of working class support.  It is not possible to build an organisation that entirely excludes the class making up the majority of the population.  Even the Conservative Party has a sizeable working class electorate.  This does not make it a working class organization.  Secondly, the research on the far right is limited.  What research there is suggests that fascists do not identify themselves in class terms - it is not an idiom they are overly concerned with.  They are not motivated by class snobbery.  Far from it, they seem to be highly sensitive to minute hierarchical differentiations, particularly to ways in which they are superior to their neighbours.  (True, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon claims to represent the 'white working class', but as a wag put it, the guy is a small business man who owns a tanning salon - he actually represents the orange petty bourgeoisie).  Further, they tend not to be class-motivated voters abandoning Labourism for some nebulous fascist proletarianism, but rather tend to be traditional right-wing voters - people shifting their votes from Tories, UKIP and other right-wing parties.  And inasmuch as there is any research on their class basis, it concerns the BNP's electoral bloc.  And that shows that the BNP's working class supporters tend not to be the poorest of the working class, but rather is concentrated in the posher end of towns and estates.  Moreover, their acquisition of significant working class support is recent.  Like most fascist outfits, the BNP began with a largely lower middle class electorate, as the Democracy Audit survey published in 2005 suggested.  Later, they expanded into working class areas.  There is no such research into the EDL's base, or even any sure sign that they yet have much of a base beyond the extant far right, racist and hooligan fringe.  

Thirdly, it follows from the above that no one who identifies the EDL or far right as having a working class base is doing so on the basis of the evidence - for such evidence is thin on the ground.  How, then, do they identify this salt-of-the-earth working class volk?  Laurie Penny's article is clear on where the class contempt lies - the two buffoons in the video refer to the woman whose assault they describe as a tattooed "scrote", implying that she deserved a good kicking for being just that.  But how do we know what class this woman, or indeed any of the assorted weirdos, thugs and quacks accompanying her on the bus, belonged to?  How do O'Neill and Thompson divine the class location of EDL supporters?  How do they know so much about what estates they live in, and with whom they share those estates?  How, in short, do we divine what their class base is?  Did these writers simply look at the EDL dirt, the rabble, the scum, the ordure, and think "this is what working class people look like?"  Because, if so, it would seem that the snobbery is entirely on their side.*

* I mean this in a very precise way.  There is a conception of class implicit in this argument that has nothing to do with class as a category of political economy.  It is not even the old status-culture model of class that underpins official statistical classifications.  It is a chimera, a purely sentimental, pseudo-ethnic model of class, in which a working class person is defined by certain sumptuary and sartorial habits, attributes which make for convenient genre markers but which by themselves yield no sociological insight.  It is an object of nostalgia and melancholia, the deus ex machina of reactionary polemic that strictly does not coincide with the working class as it actually lives and reproduces itself.  That working class, the 'actually existing working class' for want of a better term, has anti-fascists and anti-racists in it.  And leftists, and trade unionists.  And students, and autodidacts, and other educated people.  And people who dress well.  Once this is clear, the identification of the working class as the natural home of the far right cannot but appear as a patronising slur; and talk of the 'white working class' a sleight against the actual working class, which stubbornly resists colour-coding.