Monday, 19 September 2011

The EDL, class, and the fallout from Tower Hamlets

Since the English Defence League's demonstration (almost) in Tower Hamlets, the fascists have been doing their best to portray themselves as victims of class snobbery as well as leftist violence and police persecution. They've been backed up in this by several mainstream commentators. However, whilst there are class issues connected with fascism, it is important to continually untangle the distortions from the right.

Before moving onto the subject of class, it is worth looking at EDL leader Tommy Robinson's brief status as a "political prisoner." Declaring himself such, he went on hunger strike and the EDL declared him a "martyr" for his cause, declaring that "we are all Tommy Robinson." They even demanded that Amnesty International divert its attention from the plight of victims of the Burmese Junta to speak up in Tommy's favour. After all, since his bail conditions explicitly forbade him from attending or promoting EDL events, wasn't he too being denied freedom of speech, association and assembly?

Well, no. At least, no more than any other person arrested during a demonstration. If we're playing the "but what about" card, I don't recall the EDL speaking up for the freedoms of those arrested on March 26th for sitting down in a shop. In fact, as I recall, their only response to anti-cuts demos was to declare their support for the police. It's kind of hard to play the defenders of civil liberties when you've previously thrown your hat in with the state, and continue to say nothing on the repression of those other than yourself. Aside from which, Tommy was neither the first nor the last person to receive bail conditions barring him from activism until his case had been heard. Not to mention that goading the police to arrest him was just plain stupid.

The other significant issue to arise from the Tower Hamlets demo came when an EDL coach broke down near the mosque and was attacked by locals. Video footage shows a woman lying on the ground and being kicked by attackers as the coach drives off. Then there is the video of two lads telling the story of the attack and laughing about it.

Even as somebody who believes in using direct action - and if necessary physical force - to repel fascists on the street, it is hard to find words for this. This was not a defensive act, and whilst there is an argument for provoking a bus load of EDL to flee the area as fast as possible, there is no legitimate argument for attacking a lone woman (or man for that matter) abandoned in the meleƩ. There is no threat to the local community, and misogynistic violence doesn't suddenly become acceptable because the victim is an EDL supporter.

However, as far as claims that this is a reflection of anti-fascists or anti-fascist tactics more generally, Richard Seymour of Lenin's Tomb hits the mark here;
While [Telegraph blogger Brendan] O'Neill used the issue to incriminate the left and anti-fascists in general, [Telegraph leader-writer Damian] Thompson went further and asserted falsely that UAF describes EDL supporters as "chavs", and had no problem declaring the two men on the video to be "middle class [sigh] supporters of United Against Fascism".  Making up quotes and playing fast and loose with the facts is roughly the sort of behaviour that this weaselly scribe was lambasting Johann Hari for not long ago.  So, before going any further, it is worth noting that the men behind the video have nothing to do with Unite Against Fascism.  The charming personality on-screen is that of comedic hopeful, Anthony Richardson.  He, in a public apology for the video (to the best of my knowledge, this is genuine), explains that "We were bystanders and had not been actively involved in either side of the protest."  He goes on to say that: "I can categorically state that I am not part of any political party or particular leaning".  The pair were not anti-fascist protesters, middle class or otherwise.  Nothing they did or said, and nothing about how they did or said it, tells us anything about why people protest against the EDL.
Which brings us around to the subject of class, and the idea - expressed by both O'Neill and Thompson - that opposition to the EDL marks some kind of burgeoning hatred for the working class from middle class activists. Thompson goes further to ask if the EDL are "the new voice of the white working class," an idea that the group themselves have offered previously and which I've dealt with here.

The argument about class and fascism keeps rearing its head for the simple reason that there is relevance to it. Now, it's not the relevance that the EDL or their Telegraph apologists would ascribe to it, but the fact remains that the far-right have been able to play off a media narrative which ties social class into ethnicity and offers racial and religious out-groups - asylum seekers, Muslims, etc - as a scapegoat for anger at the problems afflicting society, which we know is better aimed at the ruling class.

Richard Seymour also makes an important point on the juxtaposition of "working class" fascists with "middle class" anti-fascists;
There is a conception of class implicit in this argument that has nothing to do with class as a category of political economy. It is not even the old status-culture model of class that underpins official statistical classifications. It is a chimera, a purely sentimental, pseudo-ethnic model of class, in which a working class person is defined by certain sumptuary and sartorial habits, attributes which make for convenient genre markers but which by themselves yield no sociological insight. It is an object of nostalgia and melancholia, the deus ex machina of reactionary polemic that strictly does not coincide with the working class as it actually lives and reproduces itself. That working class, the 'actually existing working class' for want of a better term, has anti-fascists and anti-racists in it. And leftists, and trade unionists. And students, and autodidacts, and other educated people. And people who dress well. Once this is clear, the identification of the working class as the natural home of the far right cannot but appear as a patronising slur; and talk of the 'white working class' a sleight against the actual working class, which stubbornly resists colour-coding.
He makes this point whilst refuting the idea that the EDL or the far-right more broadly has a "working class base," arguing that those who gravitate towards fascism "they tend not to be class-motivated voters abandoning Labourism for some nebulous fascist proletarianism, but rather tend to be traditional right-wing voters - people shifting their votes from Tories, UKIP and other right-wing parties."

However this is the point where I would find myself disagreeing. Although this may be true in some cases, my own experience with fascists - from pensioners campaigning with the British National Party to young lads wearing swastikas and giving Nazi salutes - is that class only serves to make racial questions more potent for them. This is why fascist groups are able to gain support in times of crisis, and why key questions of working class need - jobs, homes, public services - are the same ones given prominence by the far-right.

It may be a "purely sentimental, pseudo-ethnic model of class" that the EDL et al promote, but it is the same model of class that the mainstream media promote also. Socialists and communists are not in the majority in society, and you can be sure that most people who identify (largely correctly) as "working class" do so not on the basis of their relation to capital but because any number of cultural and sociological norms. Plus, whilst we might recognise the rich intellectual culture which has long defined the working class, an awful lot of people far beyond the ranks of the far-right equate education with being middle class.

This means that conceptions of class are skewed, and that the questions of class conflict in society are being distorted to suit racial narratives (or simply divisive narratives of any kind in some cases). But it doesn't mean that the EDL lacks a working class base or that class plays no part in driving people into their hands.

The answer to this, as I've said before, is not to dismiss the grievances of the white working class but "to put forward the arguments as to why fascism divides the working class, why unity between natives and migrants is the only way to end the exploitation of both, and why capitalism - not a perceived lack of border controls - is the root of working class problems."