Left Luggage

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Archive for the ‘Working class’ Category

Accounting for culture in class analysis

Posted by Left Luggage on July 18, 2009

It seems one of our recent posts about the social class composition of the Left has come in for some criticism in the blogosphere. One blogger who linked to our piece this week reveals his inclusion of us in the round-up “led to some criticism in [his] inbox for [his] endorsement of that kind of class analysis”. It is a pity these comments were confined to private emails as we very much welcome constructive (in the sense of comradely) discussion and criticism on all the articles on Left Luggage.

In the post in question we tried to delineate two definitions of class, one based on a structural economic analysis (a broad definition) an one based on social or cultural criteria (a narrow definition). The point seems obvious to us. However, we can understand that many on the Left will recoil at such an argument. I had a debate recently with a friend who argued university lecturers were very bit as working class as factory workers. True in one sense, as we admitted. Yet to be blinded to the very obvious differences between these two groups of workers is to be blinded by one’s own ideology.

At its heart this is a strategic point. It is obvious that those on the Left are constantly having to make decisions about what issues to take up, what tactics to adopt, who they attempt to reach and how. Much of this is automatic and, one might say, unconscious; poeple do what is “common sense”. Equally, much of this, particularly in the far-left parties, takes the form of commands from above. Regardless, the point still stands.

Obviously there are an infinite number of possible options facing Left activists in making these decisions. Even more obvious is the fact that some actions (and slogans, arguments, issues etc.) will resonate more with ordinary people than others, some will be better at mobilising, some will be more effective in their goals etc.

Our argument is essentially culture plays a central role in defining what is “common sense”  to different people. It would not be unfair to say that the Left pretty much has its own subculture that is reproduced by its members. It is also true to say that the social class demographic of the Left as a whole is not representative of either the population at large nor working class people.

If one takes account of culture and how ideas about what seems “natural” are formed, it becomes clear that an economic account of class is too crude a tool; even if the university lecturer and the factory worker have a similar position in the relations of production, this does not mean their ideas, experiences, culture etc. will be identical. Such an understanding, while valuable, needs to be supplemented by an understanding of social class and the role this plays in making choices. This affects the Left all the way down the line strategically.

Blogger Vengeance and Fashion makes the point well that the Left needs to engage the working class where it is, rather than where we wish it would be. He is referring the “ultra-Left” groups and the tendency to prioritise theory over action, and also the danger of action for action’s sake. But the point applies equally to the Left’s attitude towards “intervening” in struggles with its own ideas of the important issues facing working class people, rather than attempting the long hard task of understanding and building from where things stand:

More than anything, we need to open our ears and listen not just to other Leftists, but other workers, who often have a complex set of views that don’t fit into a box.  Once we’ve listened, then we can make our comments, dealing with their concerns and interests, and broadening it out to the big picture, hopefully setting them on the way to looking at the system itself as a problem.

Criticisms, comments and stinging ripostes are, as always, very welcome.


Posted in Class, Strategy, Working class | 9 Comments »

Leftovers #13 – Debating anti-fascist strategy

Posted by Left Luggage on July 11, 2009

The debate about the lessons to be learned from the British National Party’s (BNP) victories in the European elections continues to loom large on the Left. We recently provided an analysis of trends and problems within mainstream anti-fascism, and others have been adding to the discussion. Unfortunately many are continuing to argue for the same ineffective strategies that have failed to halt the BNP’s rise up to now. Here’s a summary of what’s being said.

“Electoral fronts are not enough”

First up is Kofi Kyerewaa writing at The Commune on the notion of “no platform”. No doubt the tack of the article was inspired by the Unite Against Fascism (UAF) action outside the Palace of Westminster that saw BNP leader Nick Griffin’s press conference curtailed under a hail of eggs, placards and chants of “Nazi scum, off our streets”, along with the potential prosecution of the party by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Kyerewaa places the origin of “no platform” with National Union of Students’ policy of the early 1990s, a point those with a history in the militant anti-fascist movement might resist. He argues strongly that the Left should oppose attempts to encourage forms of state action against the BNP:

Electoral victories for the BNP shows that it isn’t working. Such adherence to the principle of being willing to physically fight but not ideologically fight the BNP is absurd when they are close to controlling councils and have elected members of the European Parliament. The BNP are not going to be banned. Neither should we clamour for it: fascist ideas are not defeated by state diktat.

Though the idea that the Left as a whole is currently willing to “physically fight” the far-right is rather odd (and it would be a ridiculous strategy if it were the case), we must take the point that we need to combat the far-right ideologically and in practice. At present although the Left is willing to do the former (contra what Kyerewaa suggests) the problem is that the Left is stymied by its strategies and priorities. Ideology is inherently related to action and it is on both fronts that the Left is weak. Kyerewaa ably stresses this point, and proposes some attractive solutions that have long been avoided:

When socialists are campaigning on bread and butter issues like council housing or unemployment, working class people are dealt out rhetoric and propagandistic activity rather than mutual aid and support. The hard-left’s love-hate affair with the Labour Party has crippled it in acting independently on delivering social solutions. The BNP have been growing steadily in councillors, a prelude of bigger electoral gains, because they canvass through door-knocking much more than the radical left. Electoral fronts are not enough: we need a political project that is long-term in thinking and is relentless in building a constituency in communities and not just in remote trade union bureaucrats’ offices. […]
-Keep reading>

Posted in Anti-fascism, Strategy, Working class | 2 Comments »

Breaking the vicious circle of irrelevance

Posted by Left Luggage on July 8, 2009

Regular readers of Left Luggage will know we regularly distinguish between working and middle class people in many of our analytical pieces. We largely take this distinction for granted and also stress its significance, unlike much of the Left which favours a more widely encompassing notion of working class.

To an extent we agree with this economically-based definition of class, which stresses workers’ place in the structure of the economy as being the crucial variant that both provides the material interest in and the strategic location for an overthrow of existing social relations. On the other hand, if we confine ourselves to an economic definition of class we exclude important elements of power and culture without which we can easily become strategically hamstrung.

We have argued previously that the Left in Britain is currently dominated by middle class people. What do we mean by this, why is is significant, and how?

One measure of the social class of the British Left would be to examine the social and occupational backgrounds of activists. Dealing with generalities is unavoidable here, but we would argue it is patently the case that middle class people (on this definition) predominate. While many on the Left baulk at the measure, the standard sociological grading of class – using the ABC1 C2DE system – provides a useful measure. It is obvious that for much of the Left, sets B and C1 are vastly over-represented. It is impossible not to generalise, but think of teachers, administrators in the public sector, university lecturers, and students from parents in such occupations. This is purely anecdotal, and many people may disagree. But studies have also shown that so-called “new social movements”, issue-based campaigns such as peace and environmental movements, are dominated by socially middle class people.

Why is this significant? Well, if we acknowledge there is more to people’s ideas and ideologies than simply their relationship to the means of production, we have to start to take account of culture as an important variable. On a simple level, the point is obvious: people with different life experiences will have a different conception of the world, different assumptions and expectations about what is normal, desirable, or possible. We would recognise this intuitively when comparing, say, someone educated at a public school with wealthy parents with someone from a comprehensive school with working class parents. But we fail to recognise less glaring differences between middle class and working class people. So social class creates gaps that are perfectly bridgeable, but nonetheless need to be recognised.
-Keep reading>

Posted in Class, Strategy, Working class | 5 Comments »

Stressing the social in anti-social behaviour

Posted by Left Luggage on June 27, 2009

Does the Left have any adequate answers to anti-social behaviour? And does it need to? These questions were posed to me by a friend recently who’s life has been made hellish by his neighbours. The story points to some critical issues regarding social liberalism and the Left’s approach to community politics:

My friend lives in back-to-back terrace house in a northern town. A few months ago, a young couple with a child moved in next door. At first there were a few minor problems: rubbish left piled up in the shared back yard, the dogs defecating in his garden and their owners not clearing the mess up. But the young man would take care of these things when asked.

Soon, though, the young man had left the scene, and was replaced by the comings-and-goings of numerous young men calling at the house at all hours. Problems intensified: more and more rubbish, then setting fire to the rubbish, a succession of loud parties until the earlier hours, drunk poeple spilling out of the house in the earlier hours, loud arguments, drug use, and the (now noticeably emaciated) dogs let out to roam the streets.

The response from the authorities has been negligible. The fire brigade wasn’t interested in the cause of the fire, the police didn’t follow-up on the matter as promised after sending a PCSO round, the council say they can’t remove the rubbish, and the RSPCA say they can’t do anything about the dogs unless they’re being “mistreated”.

Meanwhile, my friend has visited some his neighbours who are all equally sick of what has been going on. But all of them are too fearful to take action, either by contacting the authorities or doing anything else. It seems the young woman is notorious in the town and is well known to the police and many local people.

In essence this reads like the kind of “neighbours from hell” story you might find in right-wing tabloids like the Daily Mail or the Express. But that does not mean we should automatically discount it; there are real and serious issues here that those on the Left need to consider. So how would we approach this? I would argue two responses are most common:
-Keep reading>

Posted in Crime, Morality, Working class | 3 Comments »

What Left?

Posted by Left Luggage on June 7, 2009

I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine recently, in which he questioned Left Luggage’s strategy. He asked why we direct our arguments towards the section of the Left populated by groups whose names contain the word “Socialist…” or “Workers’…”, rather than towards much larger groups involved in global justice, human rights or environmental campaigns. He acknowledged that the latter groups were not explicitly socialist (or often even left wing) in orientation, but argued that they were preferable to the groups we currently address in a number of ways.

Firstly, he argued that these groups had far more members and supporters than the openly socialist groups, even if most of those members were middle class. This, he said, gave the “soft Left” a greater reach than the “hard Left”, and a greater potential for influence.

The second argument was that the soft Left was far more internally democratic than the hard Left, and less attached to the kinds of symbols, slogans and dogma that might put ordinary people off. These two advantages make the soft Left better able to launch creative campaigns that capture the attention of the public, he claimed.

My friend felt that the involvement of the soft Left in environmental and global justice campaigns was proof of their progressive values, and suggested that it might be a strategic error to ignore such a numerically significant and (potentially) influential demographic.
-Keep reading>

Posted in Class, Environmentalism, Left Luggage, Socialism, Working class | 4 Comments »

Political field wide open to challengers

Posted by Left Luggage on June 4, 2009

Well, the votes for the Euro elections are in. Apparently we will learn of the results on Sunday. In the meantime, and away from the latest in the macabre spectacle from the living dead of Britain’s political classes, we came across this interesting report by the University of Manchester on support for the far-right.

What’s remarkable about this survey is the size of the sample: close to 200,000 people were interviewed by polling company Ipsos Mori. So it can be considered fairly reflective of attitudes among the British population. Apparently the study showed widespread support for many British National Party policies among the population, including “the re-imposition of the death penalty, a total halt to migration and large expansions in police powers.” However, the study found that the BNP suffers from an “image problem” insofar as when many people learn of a connection to the party, they immediately become more hostile to a policy. One of the researchers, Dr Rob Ford said:

The data shows that many Britons are in favour of the sort of draconian measures regularly proposed by the BNP, such as a complete halt to migration, the denial of benefits to migrants and even repatriation of settled migrants. It suggests the BNP could appeal to an electorate far larger than it currently wins over – perhaps as many as 15-20 per cent of voters. […]

Most British voters hold very negative views about the BNP, and one recent survey suggested that British voters become more reluctant to endorse a policy when they become aware of a BNP connection.

This would seem to give some support to the advocates of anti-fascist strategies that focus on “exposing the BNP” or “unmasking them as Nazis” etc., contrary to the approach we have advocated. Yet this was not the most significant part of the findings, because the research shows that even with this so-called “image problem” the BNP is theoretically capable of building support among as much as a fifth of the electorate in the future. Clearly to prevent the far-right reaching this level of support, we require other strategies such as filling the political vacuum left by Labour’s desertion of the working class. -Keep reading>

Posted in Anti-fascism, Strategy, Working class | 5 Comments »

Moving beyond the sect

Posted by Left Luggage on May 29, 2009

Our essential reading for the weekend is a new article by The Commune’s Dave Spencer which aims to draw some lessons from his decades of experience with far-left groups. It’s a little heavy on obscure and now obsolete sects, but at its core is a searing analysis of the problems of vanguardist parties and the Left’s methods of organising in general:

A key feature of the failed politics of the Left is its aping of the hierarchical and adversarial politics of the bourgeoisie. Without exception the parties and groups on the Left were and are bureaucratic. They conduct policy-making in a Machiavellian manner, doing deals behind the backs of the members. Internally their regimes are undemocratic and characterised by bullying and the use of personal abuse. Our politics has to be the opposite — open and democratic and comradely. This will not be easy because we are not used to it. We have to make a conscious effort.

This is not just a broadside against easy targets, however, but an attempt to highlight examples of where the Left has been effective in organising and how these efforts have been stifled and why. He contrasts the creative and effective developments initiated by grassroots working class members with the centralising tendencies of party leaderships, which too often moved to shut down activities that were not within their control. He first cites the Socialist Labour League (SLL) which, working through the Labour Party, organised social events for working class youngsters, a strategy initiated by young SLL members in Wigan that apparently met with some success:

The way the SLL achieved this was by getting University students to go into Council Estates to organise weekly discos and weekly meetings for the youth of the area. Delegates from the youth groups were then sent into their local constituency Labour Parties.

Next he cites the case of the International Socialists (IS) in the late 1960s, before the organisation became the Socialist Workers’ Party in the early 1970s. Within this group -Keep reading>

Posted in Sectarianism, Socialism, Strategy, Working class | 2 Comments »