Sunday, December 29, 2013

Notes on a fascist Christmas card

The BNP's 'white Christmas' card got a lot of press attention.  

The immediately ‘shocking’ thing about this, apparently, is the use of imagery that seems to be directly inspired by Third Reich iconography - the pale, golden-haired Aryan child of Christ representing both the native innocence of the rural fuckwits people, and the spiritual hopes of the race.  Of course it would not be the first time that fascists have appropriated a religious ritual because it seems to offer spiritual sustenance for white nationalism.  And sure, this is not insignificant.

However, in addition to the eye-rollingly obvious racial signification here, there is the Muslims-stole-our-Christian-festival shit-stirring implied here.  Chairman Griffin's pronunciamento on the festivities this year alighted on precisely this thematic.   The strategy here appears to be to appropriate language from the US culture wars (the ‘war on Christmas’) and articulate it with a reactionary ‘common sense’ about Muslims and their confederates ruining Christian festivals.  The United States is increasingly providing the European far right with its most successful ideologies - this is evident in Breivik's manifesto, which plagiarises relentlessly from the discourse of the American Right.  Yet, the BNP's leadership will have noticed - because who did not? - that the dominant cultural racism of the last decade segues fairly easily into straightforward somatic racism.  And the point, presumably, in associating this pretty standard boilerplate with a completely obvious 'dog whistle' about race, is to repeatedly make that segue as 'naturally' as possible.

I think this is partly about UKIP.  It’s clear that the BNP are fighting a losing battle to hegemonise the 'populist right' ground that they have been trying to occupy with their ‘moderate’ strategy since 2000 - in no small part due to the efforts of antifascist forces, which resisted their normalisation.  Following the high point of electoral success in 2009, the far right has been in a state of internal turmoil and schism since 2010.  For the BNP to continue fighting for that terrain, they evidently need to continue working on the material supplied by tabloid scaremongering, while ideologically hardening their message to lend them a certain distinctiveness.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The apparatus [dispositif] of security

Take a completely simple penal law in the form of a prohibition like, say, “you must not kill, you must not steal,” along with its punishment, hanging, or banishment, or a fine. In the second modulation it is still the same penal law, “you must not steal,” and it is still accompanied by certain punishments if one breaks this law, but now everything is framed by, on the one hand, a series of supervisions, checks, inspections, and varied controls that, even before the thief has stolen, make it possible to identify whether or not he is going to steal, and so on … at the other end, punishment will not just be the spectacular, definitive moment of the hanging, fine, or banishment, but a practice like incarceration with a series of exercises and a work of transformation on the guilty person in the form of what we call penitentiary techniques: obligatory work, moralization, correction, and so forth. The third modulation is based on the same matrix, with the same penal law, the same punishments, and the same type of framework of surveillance on one side and correction on the other, but now, the application of this penal law, the development of preventive measures, and the organization of corrective punishment will be governed by the following kind of questions. For example: What is the average rate of criminality for this [type]? … What, therefore, is the comparative cost of the theft and of its repression, and what is more worthwhile: to tolerate a bit more theft or to tolerate a bit more repression? … first form … is the system of the legal code with a binary division between the permitted and the prohibited, and a coupling, comprising the code, between a type of prohibited action and a type of punishment. This, then, is the legal or juridical mechanism … the second mechanism, the law framed by mechanisms of surveillance and correction, which is, of course, the disciplinary mechanism … a series of adjacent, detective, medical, and psychological techniques appear which fall within the domain of surveillance, diagnosis, and the possible transformation of individuals … third form is not typical of the legal code or the disciplinary mechanism, but of the apparatus (dispositif) of security … Rather than imposing a binary of permitted and prohibited “one establishes an average considered as optimal on the one hand, and, on the other, a bandwidth of the acceptable that must not be exceeded. …
— Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France, 1977-1978, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, pp. 19-21

"Blaming white women"

So there is a Twitter furore about the hashtag slogan, apparently not a troll, #StopBlamingWhiteWomenWeNeedUnity.  Its author is no one particularly interesting - an Islamophobe struggling to reconcile her feminist commitments with her utter disdain for the moral agency of Muslim women - but what is of interest is how the politics behind this slogan actually work.  It seems very odd to demand 'unity' on the basis of non-white women shutting up.  But, of course, this is part of a tendency.  In the context of the war on terror, 'feminist' arguments for anti-Muslim repression were far more widespread than they are now, contributed to a revivified far right, and formed part of a generally deleterious context for any potential women's movement.  But that tendency has not exhausted itself.  The strange patriarchal organisation, Femen, is simply its most outrĂ© manifestation.  There is a useful analytical approach developed by the feminist theorist Angela McRobbie, which is summarised in the following quote:

"Elements of feminism have been taken into account, and have been absolutely incorporated into political and institutional life. Drawing on a vocabulary that includes words like 'empowerment' and 'choice', these elements are then converted into a much more individualistic discourse, and they are deployed in this' new guise, particularly in media and popular culture, but also by agencies of the state, as a kind of substitute for feminism. These new and seemingly 'modern' ideas about women and especially young women are then disseminated more aggressively, so as to ensure that a new women's movement will not re-emerge. 'Feminism', is instrumentalised, it is brought forward and claimed by Western governments, as a signal to the rest of the world that this is a key part of what freedom now means. Freedom is revitalised and brought upto-date with this faux-feminism. The boundaries between the West and the rest can, as a result, be more specifically coded in terms of gender, and the granting of sexual freedoms." - Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism, 2009

The concept of 'disarticulation' is central to McRobbie's approach here.  This involves the attempt  prise away elements of feminist signification, and absorb them into a new neoliberal articulation.  The 'chains of equivalence' which once linked feminism to a profound social-structural critique with implications for the division of labour, race, sexuality and so on, were disrupted.  The purloined elements of feminism - freedom from domesticity, access to the wage, access to the adventure of life - were absorbed and neutralised.  Feminism was deemed 'taken into account'.  What remained of feminism was identified with an, at best, outdated struggle, or at worst with a profoundly unattractive form of politics that was at odds with precisely the freedom that, so it was claimed, had already been won.  According to McRobbie, this successful offensive left young women profoundly alienated by feminism and thus deprived of the political agency they needed to challenge the new forms of oppression and exploitation they faced.  And of course, it permitted a new type of gendered global racial formation.

Since McRobbie's book was published, of course, a radical new women's movement did emerge, one which has at its heart the concept of intersectionality, and which is acutely conscious of the relationship of women's struggles to class struggles, and anti-racist struggles, and anti-imperialist struggles, and LGBT struggles, and disabled people's struggles, and so on.  Again and again, the argument is made: you can't have feminism if it doesn't reflect the needs of working class women, black women, gay women, and so on.  A narrow, bourgeois feminism isn't feminism in any meaningful way.  

This new movement, and the complex popular energies it exhibited, should have infused the Left with new life.  And to an extent it did.  But it also exposed the extent to which sexist ideas and practices remained sedimented within sections of the Left, who responded with lip-foamed anti-feminist bombast and often a form of crude class-reductionism.  Still, the movement is here.  It doesn't appear to have diminished yet.  The feminist societies are bigger on campuses than most other political societies.  The issues of sexism, rape culture, violence and even intersectionality have been forced, through the percolations of social media, onto the agenda of the mass media, even if not always in the most productive way.  The 'chains of equivalence' are expanding rather than being dismantled.  The work of 'disarticulation' has started to become undone, some effort has been made to retrieve the purloined elements, and the idea of feminism as something unattractive and outdated has been subverted by a new current of highly modern, techno-literate young women.

So, this is a thumbnail sketch of the framework within which, I think, one has to judge a hashtag slogan like #StopBlamingWhiteWomenWeNeedUnity.  Such a politics - linked as it is to the standard reactionary baiting of 'multiculturalism' and the assertion of a highly parochial 'universalism' in its stead - cannot but end up hostile to a considerable chunk of the feminist coalition while being aligned with forces that are actually profoundly hostile to the new women's movement.  And obviously, the one thing it can't achieve is 'unity'.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cops off campus


Cops off campus, they said.  And how right they were.  There wasn't a copper in sight for the whole length of time I was there.  This lack of expected fisticuffs accounts for the comically pathetic news coverage, which mainly alights on the scandalous conflagration of a bin near Senate House.  When I arrived, there was a horde of journalists snapping and filming around this goddam bin, like moths drawn to a lightbulb.  It's a bin, on fire, and this is the most intriguing thing the entire city of London has to offer today.


Police vans had certainly been queued up as if a major confrontation was planned, photographic evidence of which was posted on social media.  The ubiquitous helicopter was sent aloft, although it kept its distance.  But at Senate House, I found about a thousand (I would guess, but please correct me) politicised students marching around the campus confidently.  The only person who genuinely looked nervous was ULU president Michael Chessum.  Later I found a bunch of students malingering outside the Royal Court of Justice.  Actually, student protesters seemed to enjoy relatively free movement of the city, with none of the usual brutality and kettling.  I hear roads were blocked with no real difficulty or obstruction.  The police, it seems, simply went into hiding for the day.  However you judge the tactics of this this, and it certainly seems to have been wise for the cops to be off campuses on this occasion, this does provisionally constitute something of a victory for the students.

What about the students?  Can we understand their mood, without merely getting swept along by the giddiness of the moment?  Maybe I can explain something about this with an anecdote.  The other day, I spoke in a debate for UCLU about whether there is a class war in Britain.  Our team won, by a good margin.  The two issues that the students responded to most passionately were the 3 Cosas campaign, and the University of London's insanely arrogant decision to seek a court order banning protests on its campuses.  When we said that you'd have to be utterly solipsistic not to notice class war when cleaners had to struggle for equal pension, holiday pay and sick pay - that raised a powerful cheer.  When we said that, if the university bans your protest, that's war - the assent was vigorous.  And when we said that, if the cops bash Alfie Meadows' head in for protesting, that's war - the resounding applause spoke volumes.

I think the main reason why the students decided there is a class war in Britain is because they can see it, and because they can see the effects of a very successful ruling class war on their immediate environment, and on their prospects.  Laurie Penny suggests that there's a germinal alliance forming here between workers and students.  This is true.  The student occupations have been, very often, in solidarity with striking lecturers, or with low paid staff.  And a large part of the reason why this is true is that increasingly students are workers, and they are able to identify with low paid staff as people much like them.  

I am in an interesting position in this respect.  Like most students, I work.  Unlike most students, my work consists of teaching other students, rather than serving coffee or scanning groceries.  So I am both a teacher and a student; both a worker and a learner at the University of London.  As a student, I'm in the same boat as all the other students, and as such those who are ready to fight are allies.  As a teacher, I have a certain obligation of care toward the students, which seems to me to extend beyond the formal remit of imparting to them the skills they need to get a 2.1 or a first.  At the very least, I think I have to be interested in whether the marketisation, standardisation and bureaucratisation of the education system is serving them well.  Of course, in the light of a certain ideology of excellence, it will serve some of the students very well.  It won't serve well those students, largely from subaltern groups and lower social classes, whose life chances have already put them at a disadvantage in the institution; whose needs cannot be met by a disciplinary regime; whose sense of their general interest is larger than their career path; and who must perforce occasionally protest because the system fails them.  So, while most students resign themselves to this as a simple fact of life, get their heads down, turn in their work and hope to be doing something better soon, it falls to a politicised, militant, scapegoated and - if the university authorities get their way, apparently - brutalised student layer to oppose this.

Unless the lecturers and teaching staff want to join in.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Panic on the streets of London



One has to be capable of noticing when the state fucks up.  And the overbearing police assault on students at Senate House this week looks like a fuck up to me.  Not that we should confuse violence with weakness, and not that such a fuck up is not intelligible within a generally effective series of strategies.  But this intervention by police, invited by the university administration, comes amid a mini-wave of occupations, many linked to the higher education strikes involving my union, the UCU.  And the specific confrontation that they chose to escalate by means of such ham-fisted tactics (pun obviously intended) is a particularly overdetermined one.

The occupation at Senate House was linked to, as John Harris puts it, "a tangle of issues that runs from the privatisation of university jobs and facilities, through the low-end pay and conditions of workers on campus, to what many students see as the toxic effects of higher education being pushed towards the logic of the free market."  It's also worth bringing up the general pattern of radicalisation against sexism on campuses, the remarkable growth of the Feminist Societies, and the impact this has had on occupation practices - women's caucuses, safe space and zero tolerance policies, etc.

The two most pressing issues in the University of London (UoL) are the closure of the University of London Union, and the 3 Cosas campaign, one of the few genuine rank and file workers' campaigns in the country.  Both speak, in their way, of the increasingly autocratic pattern of university management.  The closure of ULU, for example, is taking place without the smallest shred of democratic legitimacy or consultation.  University managers simply decided that they wanted a management-run services centre in place of the student-run union.  This is a simple act of uncompensated expropriation and enclosure.

The 3 Cosas campaign is if anything more significant.  This campaign is based on a series of demands of outsourced cleaning staff for equality with UoL staff.  They want equal sick pay, equal holiday pay and equal pensions.  It was initiated by cleaning staff at Senate House - largely migrant workers from Latin America - when they were still in Unison.  Having found the union leadership resistant to supporting their campaign, they left and formed a pop-up union.  They have waged their own militant campaign, and have not hesitated to take strike action - the last two-day strike gained 92% support from cleaners.  Given that these workers have been subject to terrifying immigration raids and selective deportations, with the connivance of university authorities, this degree of self-organisation and confidence signifies a real breakthrough.  To its credit, the ULU leadership (with whom one has differences), has backed this campaign, and indeed integrated its demands into its own campaign against the closure of ULU.

Now, however, as a result of this brutal police intervention, the focus of most politicised students is on the police themselves.  As the trending topic had it: #copsoffcampus.  I'll come back to the police in a moment, but the authoritarian way in which university bosses are proceeding in the coalition era is not coincidental.  There is a clear incentive now to restructure labour relations, relations with students,  departments, university facilities, and so on, all along commercial lines.  Costs must be streamlined, less profitable departments shed.  Since students are now clients rather than citizens or stakeholders, they are to be offered 'services', not democracy.  The universities belonging to the UoL are part of the Russell Group, which is essentially an 'ivy league' in the UK: what they want is to sell the finest commodity, 'excellence in education', to the future elites of the country.  No good having messy occupations, student democracy, or excessive labour costs if that is your agenda.

At any rate, all these antagonisms are now being channelled through the issue of police repression, because that seems to be set up as the immediate obstacle to the achievement of other objectives.  The police crackdown produced a backlash and an outcry sufficient to grab international news attention.  We have seen some frenzied police violence against teenagers during previous student protests.  We have seen a student hospitalised with a serious head injury, then victimised for months and months by Metropolitan Police.  However, the occupations were generally left alone, and it was down to university management to handle them.  For an occupation to be busted up in this manner is new and clearly an attempt to set a new precedent.  So it's important that this is answered.

A national day of action is planned for next Wednesday.  The usual exhortations apply - join in, bring people, spread the word.  But there's a hard question we need to start asking ourselves now.  Suppose there is a large student protest next Wednesday - large by British standards, I mean.  In this country, that could be anything from 10,000 up.  And given that this is being supported by small protest groups via social media, rather than a major institution such as the NUS or UCU, such a turnout would not be insignificant. What then?  The immediate objective of 'sending a message' (i.e. demonstrating that the police cannot repress and crush student protest into non-existence) having been achieved (or not), will it be satisfactory if the momentum once again drains and people filter back onto their campuses and return to whatever micro-campaigns they were engaged in before?  

It seems obvious to me: that as presently organised these campaigns are less than the sum of their parts and therefore there is a need to draw them together at a national level; that they should be linked through the development of a real grassroots democratic infrastructure which outlasts each particular moment of protest (obviously, I'm thinking of Quebec here); that the NUS, even if it can't be abandoned as a terrain of action, is not the forum in which such a democratic infrastructure can be developed; and that the existing 'campaigns' and 'networks' are either fronts for far left groups or ineffectually narrow in other ways.  We surely need a national, democratic body in which the most politicised students, whatever their specific background, can operate and organise.  A militant student forum, if you like.  Of course, just because all this seems obvious to me is no reason why anyone should pay the slightest attention.  I could be talking through my hole: it's been known to happen.  However, if I was the sort to attend meetings, and rabble rouse and run around with protesters, I would strongly argue that existing groups of student activists coalesce around the idea of calling a national meeting for students to launch such an initiative.