Friday, June 29, 2012

Racial formation in Britain

The concept of 'racial formation' was coined by Michael Omi and Howard Winant, in what is really - despite its avowed distance from marxism - a Gramscian enterprise.  Although the authors focus on somatic racism, their arguments are relevant here.  Defining race as "a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies" (and, one would add, cultures defined in a univocal, essentialist manner), they described racial formations as: 

"the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed. Our attempt to elaborate a theory of racial formation will proceed in two steps ... [W]e argue that racial formation is a process of historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized. Next we link racial formation to the evolution of hegemony, the way in which society is organized and ruled. ... From a racial formation perspective, race is a matter of both social structure and cultural representation."

The work of cultural and ideological representation is done by 'racial projects'.  A racial project "is simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines".  Racial formation, then, is a conjunction of these various racial projects with the social structures (labour market hierarchies, criminal justice, educational selection etc) on which they act.

It was not long after the reality television show Make Bradford British was aired that George Galloway swept the bye-election in Bradford West by an overwhelming margin.  This victory was a long overdue rebuttal to the idea that the problems and aspirations of poor, working class areas like Bradford can be reduced to 'race'.  But the primary interpreters of the result in the media didn't see it that way.  For them, it could only be more proof of just how potent 'race' is as a determinant factor in people's behaviour.  'They voted the dreadful man Galloway in: Islam is more powerful than we thought.'  This is linked to two types of racial project, which I think are the dominant types in relation to British Muslims, and British Asians more generally.

The first is actually that produced in the Make Bradford British programme.  The title of the show connoted a racist precept - that is, an idea of Britishness as something that is disturbed by the presence of 'foreigners', racial Others.  The producers would claim, I imagine, that this is to misunderstand their goal; that their idea of Britishness is one of mutual tolerance, multiculturalism and respect, which extremists 'on both sides' would tend to threaten.  Such, indeed, appears to be the surface premise: the idea of bringing together diverse Bradfordians, from the racist copper, to the devout Muslim, and every shade of racist and racial subject in between, under the same roof.  And tolerance is not the most repugnant of misanthropic virtues, particularly when it is invoked as a shield against oppression.  However, whether the producers claim to have been aware of this or not, the very idea that Bradford needs to be made British is connotatively linked to an idea of British nationality as 'white'.  And the way in which tolerance is linked to this notion discloses the racist logic of tolerance in this case.  

If the explicit assumption is that 'divisions' arise from a lack of intimacy between different groups, the implicit assumption is that before the 'foreigners' there was a relatively stable British identity, which can only be restored through the domestication of these interlopers.  In this project, multiculturalism is explicitly embraced, even if the submerged logic tends toward integrationism; likewise, the projected resolution is consensual, organised around the sharing of experience and views, even if the hidden logic points to the need for coercive programme of 'British values'.  The meaning of race disclosed here is purely discursive; it has no positive reality either as a somatic fact or as a social structure, even if at root there may be 'legitimate grievances' which are crudely taken to be erroneously understood in the language of race.  This is a liberal, managerial racial project.  And I will leave it here, because this one is dying.

The second type appears in David Starkey's comments on the recent case of a gang of British men, of Pakistani origin, who were convicted of grooming children.  Starkey argued that this was a reflection of values inculcated in "the foothills of the Punjab or wherever", that it was a case of men who had never been taught that using girls in this way was inherently wrong, and who needed to be "inculcated in the British way of doing things".  (Yes, Britain, where children are happily unmolested except by foreigners with different ways to our own.)  Don't imagine that Starkey represents an insubstantial minority.  At the Times debate where he made these comments, and where Starkey was expertly trolled by Laurie Penny who called him out as a racist bigot, there was clearly a fairly substantial sentiment in favour of Starkey.  His supporters on this occasion included the dim libertarian ex-RCPer Claire Fox, who dubbed Penny a disgrace to women and the Left for not joining the kulturkampf against those whom tabloids have dubbed "Asian sex monsters".  

In fact, anyone who has followed the coverage knows that Starkey is not in this case pushing at the boundaries of acceptable discourse.  People like former Labour MP Ann Cryer, who began campaigning over 'Asian sex gangs' in 2000, are complaining that the police wouldn't take the problem seriously due to 'political correctness'.  (In fact, the trial seems to have disclosed that the girls were not taken seriously in their complaints because they were poor, from broken homes or care, and would not be considered credible before a court: an old story about misogyny, not political correctness).  Starkey's comments, malicious as they are, are in concert with the dominant tone of the media's coverage.

So, using the idiom of culture and nebulous 'values' (because apparently you have to subscribe to a nationally specific yet extremely vague set of 'values' to know that it is wrong to use children for sex), this project specifically rejects multiculturalism and the rhetoric of tolerance.  The explicit logic is coercive and punitive, not consensual.  Increasingly, since the 'profile' of the 'Pakistani street groomer' is being developed by police and popularised by the mass media, this means racial profiling and extended state surveillance and intervention into the lives of one million Britons.  But again, there is a slightly deeper logic in the call for an enforced pedagogy in the "British way of doing things".  For the suspects in Rochdale were all, bar one, born, raised and socialised in the United Kingdom.  Their life experiences, education and work were not those that one would receive in "the foothills of Punjab".  Therefore the assumption that their 'values' would reflect those of the Punjab, leaving aside the scandalous way in which those 'values' are being depicted, tends to shade into outright biological racism.  Otherwise, it segues into a cultural essentialism so deterministic that it makes no difference.  Social structure appears here only as an appurtenance of race.  And the implication of such a stance is that even assimilation is not possible, that coexistence is only possible at great distance.

So, here a set of antagonisms prevalent throughout the social formation - those engendered by patriarchy, poverty, the social care system, the depletion of public resources, policing, and the precarious existence of working class girls arising in that context - has been represented and signified through the bodies of 'Asian men' or 'Pakistani men' to create a racial meaning and struggle for a particular kind of racial solution.  This brings us to the role of racial formation in hegemonic practices.  Hegemony is not typically a state sustained over a long period of time, but rather a state which is constantly worked toward and worked on.  It signifies not a normal condition of rule, but an exceptional state of dominance in which a class or class fraction has assembled a broad social alliance along multiple axes of class, oppression and identity, behind a certain historical mission.  It involves not just the transformation of the 'common sense', as it were, but also the profound reorganisation of political violence and terror.

There is a tell-tale dimension of this Rochdale case referred to by Judith Orr here, which is the introduction of a racialised neologism in the context of moral panic.  In Policing the Crisis, Stuart Hall et al described the origins of the term 'mugging', which was introduced in the British popular press from the United States in 1971-2 to refer to an apparently new criminal menace which was strongly associated with young black men.  In the period 1972-3, there appeared in the press to be a 'mugging epidemic', connotatively linked to the 'ghetto', the black criminal 'underworld', etc etc.  There was, then as now, a totemic case, that of the violent robbery of a man in Handsworth, Birmingham.  'Mugging' was not a specific crime, but rather linked a number of types of criminal action to a set of racial connotations.  The media led with this, arguing that the police and courts were overwhelmed with this new type of crime, which was not new, and not significantly increasing in frequency.  And this provided the imaginary material for the New Right's articulation of an authoritarian-populist agenda.  

So today we have the invention of this term "street grooming" or "on-street grooming", which does not signify a specific criminal offence, but which is laden with racial connotation as it is used almost exclusively in association with sex crimes committed by 'Asian men'.  That's why statistics on this are so difficult to obtain and unreliable: the police actually arrest, charge and prosecute people accused of 'street-grooming' under a wide variety of offenses.  The main way in which newspaper reports get round this is to look at police figures to do with the detection and prosecution of extended gangs involved in sex with children.  This, they say, shows a greatly disproportionate cohort of men of Pakistani origin.  This is very much like the case of 'honour crimes', which reclassify existing crimes according to a racialised code.  Thus, according to this logic, you'll probably find that the overwhelming majority of honour crimes are committed by Muslim men, because you've re-defined the crime (say, the murder of family members) in such a way as to focus on one aspect of it, and thereby ignore most of it.  The same is true of the 'grooming' panic, which seems to be a stronger candidate for a racialised moral panic, where the resonant racist imagery of brown-skinned men preying on white girls offers a very potent way of turning the real experiences of exploitation and abuse into a language of authoritarian racist crackdown.

It is also connotatively linked to the ongoing mythos of British decline, something which reactionaries date to Indian independence and the arrival of Windrush.  In the context of real declines (in relative income, living standards, social services, employment, job security, infrastructure, pensions, etc.) and amid a turbulent and seemingly endless crisis, there is more than enough material, already saturated with racial meanings, to make this articulation work.  This would be linked to a project of British revivalism, already in the works: the 1945 reenactment society has been doing its best drape everything both literally and figuratively in the Union Jack, even as the union threatens to come apart.  It would obviously be linked to a belligerent europhobia, particularly as the EU looks like its leadership is barely capable of survival.  It would ally, as its pivotal class alliance, the most 'eurosceptic' and hyper-Atlanticist sectors of the bourgeoisie, over-represented in the ownership of the media, with the most nationalistic sectors of the petty bourgeoisie.  

Yet, for all its resemblances to early Thatcherism, it would have to be different in several particulars.  Neither the individualist rebellion against the nanny state or union bosses, nor the aspirational politics sharp-eyed and ruthless social climbing, has escaped the crisis without some stigma.  If such a project were to reach into the working class, its material substratum could not be a promise of rewards unleashed by financialisation and good pay for loyal, skilled, non-militant workers.  Rather, it would seem to call for a certain paternalistic turn - which is by no means incompatible with privatization and an increase in the rate of exploitation.  It would demand carefully targeted material concessions through the state, perhaps coupled with a punitive strike against those on the wrong side of respectability, such as single mothers and immigrants.  If and when David Cameron is deposed from the Right, I would strongly expect the putsch to be organised around these sorts of policy thematics, and it would be tailed relentlessly by 'Blue Labour'.

However, although within a racial formation a single racial project tends to be dominant, it is not exclusively or necessarily so.  The task of the Left is to link a politics of militant racial egalitarianism to the language of everyday experience.  This becomes much easier in the context of rising class and social struggles in which the appeal for unity has a clear experiential basis.  We can see from the example of antifascist organisation how the activation of concrete forms of multiracial unity can pose a different meaning of race.  We also saw how anti-racism formed the dominant culture of the antiwar movement, despite a reasonably large antiwar sentiment on the Right, and provided a counterpoint to the demonisation of Muslims.  So, if the dominance of a given racial project is decided by the types of situation that are popularly understood as 'racial', and if the Right tends to have the whip hand here, there are clearly resources on this front for counter-hegemonic mobilisation.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Is racism hardwired into the Daily Mail brain?

Scientists say, yes (according to my latest Guardian piece):

The Daily Mail has bad news for "right-thinking" people everywhere: Racism is "hardwired" into the human brain. Even well-meaning progressives "make unconscious decisions based on a person's race". It is inescapable.
The one small hitch in this story is adverted to in that shopworn phrase "scientists say". A discordant note should always sound in the reader's mind when a journalist opens an article with this assurance. For, in point of fact, scientists don't say.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Greek election results analysis

A detailed analysis of the latest election results has been published in Dawn, the Synaspismos-aligned newspaper. The results confirm a trend toward sharp social differentiation, with class, age and geographical boundaries hardening. The main findings are:

*Class polarisation. The business and employer class gave 35.9% of its vote to New Democracy and 20.3% to Golden Dawn. Self-employed farmers also gave New Democracy 35.9% of its vote, and Golden Dawn received 7.5%. Meanwhile, SYRIZA mobilised 32.5% and 32% of public and private sector workers, respectively. Intriguingly, it mobilised similar proportions of the unemployed and artisans, and slightly higher shares of the vote among the sub-categories of skilled workers and middle manager ranks in the public sector.

*Age polarisation. Existing breakdowns had indicated a sharp polarisation by generation, with voters over 55 years old giving the two main austerity parties a far higher share of the vote than the rest. This analysis confirms the trend. Among 18-24 year olds, only 2.4% voted for PASOK, but 45.5% votes for SYRIZA. Those over 65 gave 49.4% of their vote to New Democracy and 19.1% to PASOK. Interestingly, the generation politically formed in the dictatorship era and the struggle against the Colonels seems to be the last stronghold of the two parties which emerged as the dominant forces in the metapolitefsi.

*Spatial polarisation. Being unfamiliar with the geographical terrain in Greece, I don't find it easy to parse the results. The imprecision of Google's translation makes it harder. But it seems we can see the following trends: key to New Democracy's victory was the mobilisation of bourgeois votes in high to medium-sized areas; SYRIZA mobilised voters in working and middle class urban areas; PASOK held on to a high percentage of votes in middle income, medium-sized urban areas; while LAOS had mobilised an upper middle class urban vote, Golden Dawn's vote is more purely popular, based in the areas with a high concentration of employed workers.

Friday, June 22, 2012

London-wide strike: first for thirty years

My latest for The Guardian deals with today's bus drivers' strike:

The London-wide bus strike today is the first for 30 years. It is an offensive strike, in that rather than defending existing conditions the drivers want something more: a bonus of £500 for their work during the Olympic Games. It is also strategically offensive, since part of the aim of the union is to restore collective bargaining across the capital, rather than conditions being decided at the company level.

The significance of this may be lost on London's transport bosses. Most strike actions in recent years have tended to be defensive, attempting to either prevent or mitigate cutbacks. Moreover, the defining context for most industrial action today is the public sector's attempt to defend itself against the Tories' cuts. In this case, however, the vote for strike action over an offensive issue was 94%. The union says the strike is solid, and TFL is warning of serious disruption. This doesn't suggest that the workers are in a timid mood...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

American Insurgents: interview

I was interviewed by David Wearing over at the New Left Project about my book, American Insurgents.  You can read it here:
Richard Seymour's new book, "American Insurgents", presents a historical analysis of anti-war protest in the United States. His previous books are "The Liberal Defence of Murder", now published in paperback, and "The Meaning of David Cameron". He blogs at Lenin's Tomb, and writes regularly for the Guardian. Seymour is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics.  He discussed his new book with New Left Project's David Wearing.
David Wearing:  Can you summarise for us the subject of your new book?
Richard Seymour: American Insurgents is a brief history of anti-imperialism in the US, from the revolution to the present.  Now, this is an odd subject: what's so American about it?  What's so anti-imperialist about it?  It doesn't seem to sit right.  Apart from anything else, most pundits and historians imply that there's something profoundly paradoxical about the idea of an American Empire.  Thus, we are treated to lapidary formulations about the 'Empire of Liberty'.  This has to do with its ambiguous revolutionary legacy, which is something I explore in the book. 
What can be said is that the liberal-democratic ideas that animated the revolution are in some respects in conflict with imperialism.  The legatees of that revolution have often operated on that tension, using the inherited liberal-democratic discourse - the principle of self-determination, consent of the governed, etc - against imperialism.  Thus, the Anti-Imperialist League, a mass movement included such luminaries as Mark Twain, Henry James and Jane Addams, appealled to the constitution, and the declaration of independence, against the US colonial war in the Phillipines in 1898. That is what is specifically American about the anti-imperialism I'm discussing. 
As for what's so anti-imperialist about it, I should say up front that I have not restricted my purview to those movements which explicitly considered themselves anti-imperialist as that would be mainly a chronicle of marginalia.  This is a study of the concrete political formations that arose against specific imperialist ventures.  For, even if at an ideological level specific groups or individuals did not understand the problem as imperialism, the political struggle they were conducting was against imperialism.  This is not to say that it doesn't matter whether groups self-identify as anti-imperialist or not.  Their analysis matters, largely because it is a determinant of how successful they can be.  It is just that it would be unduly restrictive, and finger-wagging, to adopt an ideal-type of anti-imperialism against which to measure those whose struggles we need to learn from....

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Liberal Defence of Murder paperback

This will be formally launched in July, but the hard copies are out there.  They include a brand new Afterword approximately 16,000 words in length, which takes us up to the Middle East revolutions and the Libyan war.  I have also made various corrections - including some responding to the more bilious critics, recalling the old saw about stopped clocks.  And they have a swell looking new cover with lots of press recommendations.  You know the deal: if you want to fight the warmongers, you need this book.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Greek election

Of course, we want Syriza to win.  This is my view, I suspect it's the view of most readers, and it's the view of most of the people who disagreed with my earlier post about Syriza.  Incidentally, it is also the view expressed by Panos Garganos of Antarsya here.  It may not happen.  Syriza has undoubtedly pulled together most of the left workers' votes.  Their votes will stack up very high in the core working class areas, and in the main urban centres, especially Athens.  But the question is how much the fear of them has consolidated right-wing votes behind New Democracy (ND).

If one didn't know it already from the Greek media, the 'secret' polls have been showing an incredible amount of volatility in the country.  Syriza have had some impressive poll leads, and their rally on Friday was huge: by far the biggest they have ever had.  Yet the impressive leads for Syriza are interspersed by polls giving ND a narrow advantage, and that has been the trend more recently.  Most recently, these polls are driving the bookies and the stock markets to bet on a ND win, with even a 1% lead giving them the fifty seat bonus they would need to negotiate a government with other parties of the Right.  The earliest exit polls appear to show a dead heat between the two main parties, with some giving ND a very slight advantage and others handing it to Syriza by half a point.  Either party, based on results like these, would probably be able to form a two-party or three-party coalition government.  Whichever party gets the fifty seat bonus will do it.  And at the moment, I think it's probably ND.

However, the fact that it has come so close attests to the power of the two main dynamics - the workers' radicalisation, which has held up against tremendous pressure, and the ruling class counteroffensive, which is being organised across the continent and not just in Greece itself.  One must not forget, with all the radicalisation that is taking place, the immense power of the European ruling classes in this situation.  The EU has a way of getting the votes it wants, particularly in those 'peripheral' societies which are historically pro-EU because membership was seen as a route to capitalist modernisation and development.  We've seen this very recently in Ireland.  In Greece, every report, every sign from activists 'on the ground', suggests that the scaremongering campaign from the media, capital and the established politicians (who are in crisis, but still not finished), is having an effect.  If nothing else, it is creating a 'camp' around New Democracy, where right-wing voters are gravitating to stop Syriza.  We have seen echoes of this in the UK coverage. 

The thrust of this scaremongering is that Syriza will withdraw Greece from Europe, and thus implicitly plunge Greece into turmoil, bankruptcy and the ‘underdeveloped’ status of decades ago.  Of course, this is bullshit, but there is a material basis for this claim.  We know very well, regardless of what the press here says, that the leadership of Syriza has no desire to organise a 'Grexit' - even if, as I think, they probably should.  As I said before, this has been the cause of an unresolved tension in their agenda.  If they are serious about revoking the Memorandum laws - and despite some ambiguous and very cautious statements from Dragasakis about no unilateral measures, etc., this is still the policy on which they are standing - then they will end up in confrontation with the EU whether they want it or not.  And the EU have made it very clear that they will not renegotiate.  I don't believe they're bluffing about this.  The head of Bundesbank laid out the rationale very clearly early this week: if Greece doesn't honour its commitments, it cannot expect funding; if it has no funding, it will have to default.  Moreover, European bankers have been saying for some time that a Greek exit might be strategically better for them.  If Greeks vote the wrong way, the EU's rulers now appear to be saying, they will force a default and exit, and inflict a vicious punishment beating in the process.  That is the material basis for the scaremongering.  In other words, it's not just scaremongering: it's a live threat, which its authors have the ability to act on.

Tsipras gave his speech on Friday, and told tens of thousands of supporters in unequivocal terms that if Syriza was elected, the Memorandum was finished.  The expectations of Greek workers are being raised well above anything that the EU can cope with.  Now, in my earlier post, I said that it was most likely that Syriza's bottom-line tactical consideration is that if there is going to be a 'Grexit', they won't take responsibility for it.  I still think this is right.  Of course, I hear the arguments of those who say that it's also a strategic consideration, as the dominant forces in Syriza are historically pro-EU, and would like to play a mediating role in which they use their electoral mandate and the strength of the class struggle to try and force the EU leadership to accept a change of strategy.  And indeed, one can well see that this is the sort of approach that the dominant forces in Syriza would like to pursue.  

The one problem with it is that the EU have made it plain every single day that they will not renegotiate, and moreover would react badly to any attempt to force a renegotiation by cancelling the Memorandum laws.  Therefore, the scenario alluded to above is, in this circumstance, something of a Bottom's Dream.  Even if Dragasakis et al are desperately hoping for some new alignment of forces - a back-room axis of Hollande and Monti - to give them a break, it is unlikely that they don't see where the dominant trends are heading.  So, the logic of their position will either force them to back down on the Memorandum, and thus destroy their raison d'etre at the moment, or enter into a confrontation with the EU that the dominant forces don't want.  And if the balance of forces in Greece continues to favour the left and the ongoing militancy, then it will be very difficult to back down on the Memorandum.  Merkel et al must understand this very well, which is why they have been framing this election as a referendum on the euro, just as much as New Democracy are, even if Syriza are determined not to.  And this is another material basis for the scaremongering: the logic of the situation is one which makes confrontation more likely than not.

So, if it comes to be this close, then that reflects something important about the balance of power between the EU and the radical Greek working class.  If a large number of workers, peasants and middle class voters are more frightened of the possibility of 'Grexit' than the certainty of austerity, in other words, that is a
real tribute to the material power of European capital in this situation. The media hysteria, and the massive withdrawal of savings, has tilted the balance in the last week of the election.  

One last thing.  If it does turn out to be a ND government, please let us not, you and I, delude ourselves.  Please let us not say 'the real struggle begins after the elections'.  I well understand the sense of this, the sense in which it is true.  And I completely agree that elections are not the most important terrain in which political struggles are fought.  But, in the context, it's an abstract and consolatary idea.  In the concrete situation, the real fight has been going on for almost half a decade, and this was a real part of that fight, and the outcome will make a significant difference to the tempo, initiative and immediate class capacities of either side.  Just because the fundamental capacity of the Greek working class is not affected by this outcome doesn't mean it won't have a formative effect on future struggles.  It's a big deal.  The difference between a political earthquake for the whole European establishment and continued (for the time being) austerity rule.  No, we don't need doom-saying; just sobriety.

Friday, June 15, 2012

For Fair Pay and Academic Freedom: Why you should support the Post Graduate Workers Association

Guest post by @RBU81

The regular dwellers and occasional lurkers of the Tomb should be interested to hear of a campaign that has kicked off amongst postgraduate workers in British universities for better pay and conditions. Their starting point is a statement in support of basic employment rights, which includes holiday pay, sick pay, and it is unfortunate but necessary to say, the right to get paid full stop. They want people in HE to sign the statement in the link below, and pass it round any networks they are involved with. Numbers matter; they want 500 in a short space of time. Sign up here

What is the Post Graduate Workers Association?
The PGWA came together after a conference last month in London that brought together over 50 PhD students to discuss the deteriorating conditions of work for graduate employees in HE, and the state of the sector more broadly. It was a modest affair, but did win backing from London Region UCU and several student unions in London. It came out of shocking reports of PhD students being asked to work take ‘teaching internships’ at some institutions. Even at more financially secure institutions, unpaid overtime is the norm.

Research students employed in academic work are the junior partners in both an academic and economic relationship with their institution. This puts them in a uniquely vulnerable position at the best of times. It is then no surprise that the funding crisis in HE is hitting this group hard, and basic employment rights are being disregarded. This comes on top of increased pressure from the REF to finish PhDs on time, and to teach with pressure of the national student survey.

The PGWA was set up to self organise this group of workers, and to work in UCU and with NUS in doing so. Whilst the teaching charter produced jointly by NUS and UCU is good, it will only be implemented if there are networks of postgraduate workers that have the confidence to say no.  This also means standing in solidarity with the wider fights in education, in particular with our colleagues over pensions.
In only a month it has come into contact with 100s of other PhD students in the same situation, and met groups who have had some success in challenging their institution. Important next steps are making links with these groups and planning for the UCU’s anti-casualisation day of action. 

Why does it matter?
This group of workers may be perceived by some as relatively privileged. Theirs is not, however, a privilege that puts food in the fridge. In central London the Hare Krishna food handouts at SOAS and LSE are a de facto postgraduate soup kitchen. It matters because of the real poverty that exists for some in this position.
It also matters because the debates about the future of union movement are ones that are going to be proved in practice.  The PGWA, however small and nascent, points to a way of rebuilding union organisation amongst those not traditionally represented in any sector. It undercuts some of the divisive but fashionable arguments in academia about a precariat that has interests separate to those with secure employment (the up coming debate between Guy Standing and Ray Morell at Marxism 2012 will cover this). If employers get away with these practices on what they see as the periphery of their workforce, they will seek to implement them elsewhere.

Postgraduate workers belong at the centre of the UCU. Let’s win back the old union idea that an injury to one is an injury to all.

If you want to be involved, find us on Twitter @PG_worker, facebook/PGworkers and And if you are working in HE and are not a member of UCU, join the UCU here.
@RBU81 is a 2nd year PhD student and as from next month the Postgraduate Research Representative on the NUS NEC @RBU81. This article is written in a personal capacity.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Spanish civil war

My piece in The Guardian on Spain's miners' strike:

...However, the latest spending squeeze, which includes 63% cuts to coal subsidies resulting in thousands of job losses, has provoked furious and desperate resistance by Spanish miners. The cutback came just as the government spent billions rescuing the banks. So, toward the end of last month, approximately 8,000 workers went on strike, indefinitely. In the Asturias province where the mines are largely based, the main square of Oveido was occupied by workers using the same tactic as the indignados.

This is not to say that the miners are simply following the indignados. As one of their most widely seen banners put it: "No Estamos Indignados, Estamos Hasta Los Cojones" ("We Are Not Indignant, We Are Pissed Off To Our Balls")...

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Greece, the historical bloc, and populism

By far the most sophisticated explanation of Antarsya's position in the Greek struggles is this article by Panagiotis Sotiris, which attempts to ground a revolutionary strategy in Gramsci's concept of the 'historical bloc'.  I think the article is interesting for a number of reasons.  First of all, I appreciate its discussion of the way in which a 'left government' can potentially be a moment in a revolutionary sequence, in which the class struggle can be carried on for a time within the state apparatus.  The idea, which I take to be implicit here, that the apparatuses of the executive and legislature can be temporarily occupied in the manner of resistances, that a left government can potentially act as a resistant force within and to some extent against the state, is light years ahead of the view that any such government would immediately and simply be an instrument of capitalist rule.  This shows that, even if Antarsya (mistakenly in my view) decline to give Syriza critical support in this upcoming election, there is nothing in their general theoretical purview which excludes such a position.

Secondly, the most interesting aspect of the article was the attempt to recover the Gramscian notion of 'national-popular' from the sort of compromises with nationalist politics that it has been associated with:

"Also useful to this is Gramsci’s concept of the ‘national – popular’. I do not suggest a return to traditional left-wing flirting with a ‘national’ rhetoric that can blur class antagonism, but to the complex process, political, ideological and social, through which the people can re-emerge in a situation of struggle, not as the abstract subject of the bourgeois polity, but as the potentially anti-capitalist alliance of all those social strata that one way or the other depend upon their labour power in order to make ends meet. This also means a new form of popular unity, especially against the dividing results of racism, an urgent task in a country also facing the rise of the neo-fascists." [link added]

As far as I'm concerned, this would be worth an article by itself.  The problem is clearly one of how to link together forces from different classes (the workers, the petty bourgeois and the peasants) into a system of alliances that can contest the bourgeoisie's power.  That is, a conjunction of social forces that one would call an 'historical bloc'.  

For, the problem is that for Greece to enter a revolutionary situation, one of the conditions is not only the development of a generalised breakdown of state capacity, and a generalised situation of dual power, but also simultaneously a rising new form of legitimacy.  This requires the consolidation of a popular power coextensive with bourgeois power, a national political collectivity through which workers learn by means of their own experience that they can organise the society, and that the ruling class must be compelled to cede its power.  Part of the problem at the moment is that large sectors of society, including of the working class, believe that Greece's problems ultimately derive from a corrupt establishment, from supine politicians, and so on - certainly, this is a crisis of legitimacy for the political elite, but it doesn't involve fundamentally questioning the capitalist state or bourgeois democracy as such.  I think we can say this for most of the third of the electorate who voted for the anti-austerity Right, and for the third who voted for the pro-austerity parties.  So, there are large numbers of people who will have to be won to a revolutionary alliance but who are at the moment gravitating to the dissident Right.  How to bind together such an alliance in a way that isn't merely electoral?

The answer proposed, of an anticapitalist populism, strikes me as a very useful mediator between social-democratic and outright revolutionary subjectivity.  There is, after all, no iron wall between populism and communism; populism tends to be proto-communist to the extent that the popular-democratic interpellations which summon 'the people' into conflict with the 'power bloc' are susceptible to anticapitalist articulations.  Historically, it is rare to find a serious anticapitalist movement that has not been preceded by, or suffused by, some form of populism.

Of course, there can be more than one mediating form.  I would suggest that one such for millions of workers will probably be Syriza's own type of left-populism, which I gather is successfully assembling that linkage between workers, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and even some agrarian workers.  And bridging the gap between one type of populist interpellation and another is a delicate operation, one that would seem to involve a certain amount of stealthy appropriation as much as outright criticism.  What I mean by 'appropriation' can be illustrated with an example: if Syriza says, 'we intend to abrogate the laws implementing the Memorandum', one can either respond to this by dismissing it, or glossing over it; or one can embrace it, affirm it, and say that if anything they should go further: the logic of Syriza's position is that they should begin to prepare workers for a break with the EU, and for a confrontation with capital, etc etc.

Of course, those of us who live outside Greece will not face exactly similar scenarios (we should be so fortunate), but the broad strategic questions addressed in Sotiris's article will come to us in one form or another.  And that's why it matters what we think about Syriza, and Greece, the crisis of Europe.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The challenge of SYRIZA

The question of a workers' government arises in Greece only because it has been raised in a certain form by Syriza, and only because they have come to hegemonise the left workers' vote.  Current (unofficial) polling seems to indicate they have up to 35% of the vote, though there is still a great deal of volatility, and some recent polls have even given New Democracy a very narrow lead.  Nonetheless, with anything close 35% of the vote, they would be in a position to lead a government of the left.  So, a great deal rests on why Syriza are in the position they're in.  

Explanations for Syriza's success built on the insight that reformism is a first port of call for workers in struggle aren't wrong, but they are rather complacent and general.  Apart from anything else, Syriza aren't classical reformists.  Syriza comprises a coalition between  a Eurocommunist bloc, Synaspismos, which has roots in a breakaway from the Communist Party (KKE) in 1968, and various Maoist and Trotskyist groups.  The Eurocommunists are by far the dominant force, having comprised about 85% of the members before a rightist split in 2010, which I'll come back to.  But of course, they have their own internal differentiations, as Eurocommunism has always had its left and right currents, historically oscillating between centrism and reformism.  The Maoist group, the Communist Organization of Greece (KOE), is the second largest organisation in the coalition.  Alongside them are the Trotskyist group, the International Workers Left, and the Communist Left for Ecology and Renewal.  The trajectory and composition of these hetroclite elements are discussed by Stathis Kouvelakis here (original here).  Essentially, we are talking about divisions, redivisions, and realignments within the communist and non-communist left, with the leading role taken by a Eurocommunist organisation with an orientation toward what used to be called the 'new social movements'.  Not a typical reformism, then, and certainly more akin at an ideological level to Die Linke than to traditional social democracy.  Moreover, they're far from the only reformist option for workers, a point we will return to.

A refinement of the same argument is that since Greeks are overwhelmingly opposed to the Memorandum, yet simultaneously opposed to withdrawal from the euro, it is logical that Syriza, which favours continued membership of the Eurozone on a reformed basis, should have benefited from PASOK's collapse.  Hence, workers are gravitating to a reformist solution that matches their 'level of consciousness'.  

Again, though more specific, this explanation is inadequate to the complexity of reality.  Polls show that about half of Greeks oppose remaining in the euro if it means sticking with the measures contained in the Memorandum, and these voters are overwhelmingly concentrated in the base of the left parties, including more than two thirds of Syriza voters.  In other words, their attitude to the EU is context-driven.  Syriza itself is not that simple either.  As Kouvelakis has pointed out: 1) its position is that the EU can be internally reformed "but on the basis of denouncing all the existing European Treaties (Maastricht, Lisbon etc)"; 2) it contains other currents hostile to the EU, including significant Trotskyist and Maoist groups who comprise about 15% of the membership; 3) most importantly, its position on austerity is inconsistent with its pro-European stance, an ambiguity whose resolution will depend significantly on the continuation and outcome of struggles in which Syriza is partially embedded.

Recall, moreover, that it looked for a while as if a right-wing breakaway from Syriza, the Democratic Left (DIMAR) would be the main beneficiary.  DIMAR represented the 'Europeanist' Ananeotiki wing of Synaspismos, the dominant Eurocommunist component of Syriza.  It departed amid some grievance over the leftist direction in which the leadership of Alexis Tsipras was taking the coalition, and took with it the former leader of Syriza, four sitting MPs, and hundreds of members.  It selected Fotis Kouvelis as its leader, and lauded its attitude of "responsibility and accountability" before the press.  Strictly in terms of its programme and its attitude to austerity, it was somewhere between Syriza and PASOK, and slightly to the right of the Greens with whom it shared enough to cooperate in the 2010 regional elections.  After the May elections, Kouvelis even indicated that he would be willing to join a coalition government with some of the austerity parties if Syriza could be persuaded to join.  So, having thus launched itself as both a critic of austerity and a 'responsible party of government', at one stage it had 15% in the polls.  That is not far short of what Syriza actually received in the recent parliamentary elections.  There was no necessary reason, if what mattered was a pro-European anti-austerity stance, why Syriza should have overtaken them.  Syriza haven't just won people on their main programmatic points; they've won the trust of millions of workers and, at that, the most radicalised workers.

It is also true, but inadequate, to say that Syriza is the beneficiary of militant struggles including 17 general strikes, several mass demonstrations, workplace occupations, and the spread of rank and file organisation.  Syriza has benefited from this, but it has not been as important to these struggles as the KKE, so it was not inevitable that it should do so.  Likewise, that Syriza's claim on the majority of the left workers' vote is only a recent development, following from the formation of a PASOK-led coalition government, is true, but doesn't itself explain why Syriza should have benefited.  

There are, of course, many determining factors, but I would suggest that a key determination was Syriza raising the slogan of a left government to stop austerity.  This immediately distinguished it from its two main left electoral rivals - the respectability-hugging DIMAR, and the sectier-than-thou KKE.  This is why Syriza could win the election with about a third of the vote, much of which it coming at the expense of other left parties.  The Communists (KKE) have lost the most, with their vote pushed down to about 5%.  The anticapitalist left coalition ANTARSYA have also been squeezed, from 1.2% to about 0.5%.  DIMAR appears to be relatively steady on 7.5%. 

Of course, the KKE remains a powerful force in the workers' movement, but it is suffering from its appallingly sectarian position.  Not only does it refuse to work with Syriza, but in true Third Period fashion it actually denounces them far more than it does the Nazis or the parties of the Memorandum.  Its combination of militancy and sectarianism is partially rooted in the antiquated and mortified analysis of 'monopoly capitalism', and partially in its view of its role as the vanguard party uniquely tasked with taking on the EU and the 'monopolists'.  At any rate, the KKE have decided to make the EU the main point of division when it is clear that for most left-wing Greek workers, that is not the main antagonism.

Possibly, the KKE will comfort themselves with the idea that their electoral perdition is temporary, that soon the ideological and political vapours giving rise to Syrizismo will dispel as the KKE edge out their left rivals and take the leadership of the workers' movement.  But their strong industrial position is not written in stone, and this isn't just another election.  The choice is between a New Democracy-led austerity government, which would be immensely demoralising, and a Syriza-led anti-austerity government, which would give the whole continental left a massive shot in the arm and open up a host of new possibilities.  This is a key moment in which a great deal is condensed, which will be formative of a great deal of the political and ideological terrain for some time, and any formation that appears to bring the latter possibility closer isn't helping the industrial struggle.  The best hope is that the KKE's delegates will be persuaded to give a vote of confidence in a Syriza-led minority government, and support its measures from the opposition benches, even if they refuse to join it.  But one still can't be sure that they aren't waiting for the chance to say, "first the Golden Dawn, then us".

As for ANTARSYA, they are standing without illusions, expecting to incur a humiliatingly low vote.  They intend to use the electoral platform to organise around and push for a programme of anticapitalist transition.  You may say that it is unlikely that this programme will benefit from an electoral drubbing.  You may add that since the main locus of their leadership is in the industrial and social struggles, since that is where they are a most serious force, this is probably where such a programme could be raised most effectively.  And, going further, you might assert that in this election, with the stakes this high, the presence of ANTARSYA candidates is unlikely to add any new dynamic to the electoral contest, thus actually increasing the turnout among left voters.  You may say that say none of the usual reasons for the far left running no-hope election campaigns apply, while unusual ones why they shouldn't, do.  You may say all that.  I couldn't possibly comment, except to nod vigorously and say 'well, yes, of course'.

Nonetheless, the majority of Greece's left-wing workers will support Syriza in their attempt to form a left government.  And that may be enough to give them a parliamentary majority, or at least a working minority government, which can then revoke the laws implementing the Memorandum.  No small thing, this, if it happens.

Now, judging from online conversations and opinion pieces, a large section of the far left is waiting for the other shoe to drop.  The narratives of betrayal are already being readied, the old verities being 'proved' repeatedly.  There are many variations, but the core of it is that: 1) Syriza are straightforwardly reformists, notwithstanding the substantial revolutionary fringe - the tail does not wag the dog; 2) reformists are apt to compromise with the forces of capitalism, and as such a sell-out of the working class cannot be long following Syriza's election.  In its latest instantiation, this is expressed in the tutting, sighing, and fanning of armpits over Tsipras chatting up the G20.  There it is: the betrayal is already afoot, the reformists already making deals with the bosses.  Perhaps so, but thus far Syriza have not withdrawn from their fundamental commitments, which are: abrogate the Memorandum, and stop austerity measures.  They did not do so when there was pressure to do so after the last election, and are not doing so now.  

I would advise caution on this line of critique, therefore: it is very well to criticise what Syriza has actually said and done, but it isn't necessary to second guess what Syriza will do.  The point will be to support the mass movements capable of pressuring a Syriza-led government from the left.  No, they are not a revolutionary formation; no, they won't overthrow capitalism; no, their manifesto is not a communist manifesto.  Yet it is just possible that Syriza won't betray workers in the interests of European capital, and that all the stern augury will have been displacement activity.

Of course there is an unresolved tension at the heart of Syriza's agenda.  Of course they can't break the austerity deadlock within the EU.  But it is not inevitable that they will resolve it by capitulation.  For what it's worth, I think they know very well that the their policy will not be tolerable to the EU's masters.  I think the talk of Europe's leaders not being willing to see Greece exit is a knowing bluff.  Of course, the Merkozy consensus is weaker than before, and may well be weakened still by Spain's ongoing crisis, or by another plunge in Italy.  But one can't envision at any stage the EU's leadership allowing themselves to give in to a junior, peripheral EU state.  Tsipras talks about Greece joining Europe as an equal and a partner - that is exactly what the EU's leadership will never allow.  So, I think the Syriza strategy is simply to avoid being blamed for Greece being forced out, in view of the potentially apocalyptic consequences of doing so.  This is perfectly understandable, even if it is a position that one could not admit from a marxist perspective, since it means basically fudging the problem that the quasi-colonial, class-structured hierarchies of the EU can possibly be reformed, but they cannot be reformed away.  The latter is a problem that will return, even if a Syriza success is followed by a graceful default, and a 'Grexit' under the most benign circumstances, and it has to be faced.

Moreover, the strongest likelihood for a Syriza-led government is that it will be in perpetual crisis.  It would be a spot-lit enclave, under constant assault from capital and the media.  One could well imagine that the severity of the social crisis, and the pressure from European capital, would force splits in such a government and bring about its early downfall.  On the other hand, there would also be a pressure, which should be resisted, on the rank and file to temper its criticisms, and curtail its actions, in order to help 'our' government as it came under capitalist attack.  The best way to 'save' such a government from capital would be to keep up the pressure and organisation, but not everyone would see it this way.  And even if Syriza would lack a sufficient basis in the leadership of the workers' movement to effect a quietening of class struggle, it would have undoubted authority within the movement.  So, these divisions would not merely be in the party of government, but would exert effects throughout the resistance.  The election of a Syriza-led government will be a nodal point, not the end point, in the process of workers finding a solution to the problem.  

However, I suggest you should compare those antagonisms to the sorts of demoralising splits and recriminations that would likely follow from a New Democracy victory and the prolonged imposition of austerity.  Relatively speaking, the crisis of a Syriza government would be a benevolent crisis.  This is Syriza's challenge: the good crisis, or the bad crisis?  The first radical left government in Europe for a generation, in a situation more serious than any radical movement has faced since the Carnation Revolution, the further exacerbation of divisions in the European bourgeoisie, a step forward for the Greek and all European workers' movements, and possibly a new and uncertain terrain?  Or, terra firma, in permanent opposition and division, with our weaknesses and hesitancy constantly making up for those of the bourgeoisie?

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

American Insurgents book launch

I am pleased to say the organisers of my book launch in Boston, the fourth and final launch in the US, have posted the video up on the Howard Zinn Memorial Lectures website. I believe the audio from New York should be available soon. Here is the video: