For the last couple of months the radical left, across the English-speaking world, has been in the grip of a furious online debate around intersectionality. Near the start of that period author Mark Fisher published an article with the title ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle.’ In this piece he portrayed those who favored an intersectional analysis as monsters engaged in a campaign of online bullying which is intended to bring down important left leaders like Owen Jones and Russell Brand. In a later interview with Doug Henwood he made it clear that the intention of the piece was to exclude such people, including anarchists, from left debate.
At the time I was surprized to see how popular the piece was, as indicated by the number of friends who were sharing it on Facebook. This included many anarchists who are among his intended victims. This dissection of his argument has formed slowly since, in a period where many excellent replies have already been published.
Once you understand that Fisher’s intention was to exclude his targets from the left the level of monsterisation he uses makes sense. There can be no dialogue with monsters. In the picture he presents there are once more witches in the woods scheming to corrupt the righteous and pull good men down. Almost everyone is terrified into silence save one brave soul (Fisher) who regardless of the risk he is taking is determined to expose the witches and burn them alive in their vampire castle. Of course when Fisher whipped up the anti-intersectional mob he was presumably aware that referring to his never named opponents, as ‘witches’ would probably go down badly. The witch trials have a strange relevance both in terms of method (see below) but also because Feminists have overturned traditional histories of that terrible period to argue in Silvia Federici’s words “that hundreds of thousands of women could not have been massacred and subjected to the cruelest tortures unless they posed a challenge to the power structure.”
When I started to talk to friends about what they liked in the piece it became clear that in almost all cases they feared 'the intersectionalists' not from direct personal experience but because of having heard some stereotypically awful examples of 'calling out.' However is it the case that many of us in the older generation have only noticed the raw anger of the layer of relatively new/young activists? Have we either not noticed or perhaps chosen to ignore the homey coated venom of the older layer of 'nostalgic left' writers who, like a secret policeman, have the skills to deliver a nasty beating in a way that doesn't leave such shocking giveaway bruises for everyone to see and sympathize with? Particularly in the UK there is a good deal to be angry with, chiefly the recent shameful cover up & rape apologism of the SWP leadership.
Whether it is intentional or otherwise I tend to read Fisher's piece as a defence of the sort of top down party methodology that made that awful story not only possible but also inevitable. I suspect Fisher would want nothing to do with the SWP and certain isn't defending Delta. My point here is that a lot of what he is criticising in terms of 'call out culture’ is something that has been developed by those without power as a tool to challenge the systematic abuses of those with power. Our first instinct in such situations shouldn't be to destroy the legitimacy of such mechanisms, even when there are also worst case uses of them as forms of peer bullying.
At this point I hit an obvious problem with my response to Fisher. My experience of being marginalised is fairly limited, certainly far too limited to talk about what his response feels like or what its effects are. But I’d sent a link to a Lenka, a friend with whom I’ve been talking about intersectionality over the last year. Well, perhaps it’s more accurate to say we’ve had a lot of heated discussions about marginalisation, including more than a couple of shouting matches with me called out on my own (privilege based) ignorance. Lenka sent me an initially personal response reaction, which I asked for permission to include as it speaks from a range of experiences of being marginalised that I don’t share and to acknowledge the role our discussions had in shaping my point of view in this piece. As we still argue around these ideas neither of us necessarily agree with everything the other has to say here (’terms & conditions apply’).
----- Lenka's section starts ----
“I come from pretty traditional patriarchal eastern European country, which means that for me as an individual saying something to my friends back home, lets say calling them out on their lack of respect of women's opinion doesn't do anything, while I’m on my own. Only once there was enough people (generally women) supporting and agreeing with what I'm saying was some weight put to my argument.
And somewhere between the 2 stages there was a shouting stage. When the only way for me to be heard was to shout, defend myself, forcing other people to stop and think, to force the stronger majority to stop behaving in the way which is hurting me. And from my experience the people who had power and suddenly see themselves loosing it kick back, and kick back bad.
When it's in writing kicking back can come across, very astute, and thought out, but without any willingness to recognize that it's out of fear, defensive, lashing back. Even if with some valid questioning, it’s focused on destroying the opponent who dared to challenge, without the ability to take responsibility for the impacts of holding power over others.
I feel there is this big misunderstanding - that power is bad, evil thing we need to try to get a rid of, and feel guilty about having.
Power feels good, power is what we need to feel ok, to have control over our lives, to choose, loosing it is always scary. What’s wrong with it is when it’s used over others to oppress.
That's why I generally just don't follow all these debates. They are not going to resolve the problem. They are not the problem, something is changing (as always), and this is a process of a change.
It's not possible to achieve the change we might think we all agree on that we want, without ourselves being accountable for the violence we perpetuate by living out our roles within the system where we inherently oppress each other. Either we learn to accept challenge, listen, be accountable, and start to take leadership from those who are most oppressed and marginalised, or those people will come and take power from us, those who hold it.
(This is me paraphrazing Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin, ex-Black Panther - talking about white dominated radical left/anarchist left in the States and in Europe/UK/Ireland. He also said that it wouldn't be up to us in the future, either we listen now or we are the enemy. We either deal with our internalised bullshit or we will become the oppressor and so have to be part of the problem and so fought. He talked about the London Riots in 2011 being an example of this. What side do we want to be on?)
I want to choose to spend my time and energy towards that, instead of trying to be part of debates, which satisfy those, whose main agenda is to maintain their status and power, if intentionally or not.
And we do need to talk about what is accountability versus punishment.
Mark's article is one of what feels like millions of the same defensive reactions of someone who's power is being threatened. I read with it a bit of sadness, as I like reading some of things he wrote, I learn from them, they’re accessible, and seem to connect the dots for me.
I always wonder what people who criticize things like “calling out” think about the use of violence. What do they think about patriarchy/racism etc., how do they understand the mechanisms of it, their own positioning within it and how power works. I mean the power to oppress the oppressed.
Firstly I'm not really sure what he's talking about, as his article seems to be a reaction to something quite specific. The only clue he gives is “The most frequent object of this resentment is Owen Jones, and the attacks on Jones – the person most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years – were one of the reasons I was so dejected.”
But the article is then generalized into one on “call out culture”. That shows me a lack of awareness of how that generalization can be misleading. As someone who got politicized because and through my identity “calling out” has been an empowering tool, being able to address someone's behavior, to suddenly finding a practical way of how to resist something I always thought impossible to change.
The beauty and difficulty of it is, that to be able to “call out” someone, and hold them accountable for their behavior you need to have some power, some respect, otherwise you're only a fool shouting nonsense (for everybody else).
So that's where in his article I don't see just a personal defence, but a structural one of someone who's used to having quite a bit of power, and now there are all these people, who were silenced before, (for him meaning non existent, and now they have found hammer and megaphone).
I’ve never come across a constructive criticism of “calling out” - as in recognizing the value of it, and talking about challenges it brings. Basically mostly I just see - if you have a problem say it nicely, learn to write and communicate the way we do, ideally get some kudos within our structures, come along to the meetings, and than we might listen to you, but first comply, recognize my authority. Oh, you’re saying you can’t? Well, your fault. Somewhere there is lot of work to be done.
Sometimes I want to make a comic strip about it.
Some reasons why the article pisses me off:
The part with Owen Jones ! I'm not going into whole thing about leaders vs. leadership etc. but the way Fisher talks about it is quite appalling. Someone who done so great! And was criticized for something? As in lets say Michael Jackson is not an asshole for abusing children, because he was such an amazing musician? And I mean that, what he did for music and the black community was amazing, at this moment I can't come up with any better example.
See why I might like intersectionality?
I get very frustrated with people who still do not recognise, who do not understand that things are not black and white, that there are contradictions, that reality is messy and is not going to fit our dreams of heroes.
In terms of the whole Owen Jones section, and argument of “why would anyone want to follow him into the mainstream?” (I assume that what is Fisher talking about as “what happened to Jones” is about something he was called out for). I mean, people are not stupid! Only people who follow like sheep will follow an asshole, or will stop following someone they otherwise respect because the person fucked up. The change we need to happen within society is to stop being sheep, not to find the ideal hero to follow!
Than other bit where he says:
“The atmosphere was anti-racist and anti-sexist, but refreshingly free of the paralysing feeling of guilt and suspicion which hangs over left-wing twitter like an acrid, stifling fog.”
He's talking about real life meeting and comparing it to the atmosphere of twitter!
Social media and the Internet in general gave lots of power to those who normally don't experience it, and through that they can call out someone and actually having an impact.
In terms of experiencing the “atmosphere” of twitter, this is the Internet's beauty – it's so subjective. I feel empowered by the fact, that I can express and access criticisms written by people who I normally don't get to hear. One of the big moments in my life was to read so much from other people who feel like me, who think like me, when I stopped being the lone voice in my hometown shouting at the world to stop treating me like a baby incubator without a brain and other nuances of that worldview.
So I guess another challenge here for me, is about how to go about transforming guilt culture into accountability culture. The internalized guilt, imposed guilt...It's not about how to put a leash on someone's neck to teach them how to correctly say their grievances. It is about
- How to be more self aware and aware of different perceptions and positioning.
- How to listen and accept that you won't always have an answer that you can articulate.
- Learning and changing is slow. But it’s our choice if we are focusing on listening, and learning or on defending our positions.
I do believe that there is big connection between the individual/personal behaviour and the collective structural action; I think it’s important to be looking at this if we are going to be able to be in solidarity with other movements/groups of people etc.
What I struggle within political activist circles in the UK and Ireland, is that conflict is ignored. Willfully and actively ignored. You are going to be listened to only if you can articulate yourself calmly and clearly. Believe me I had better/more productive discussions with older men in rural Ireland about patriarchy and racism through shouting at each other, than on twitter or any real life activist meeting.
So to me these discussions, even though they might feel to people as being stuck, are part of a process, a conflict, it's a pity it happens online more than in real life. I do think we need to have more of the existing (hidden) conflicts out. We need learn to recognize them, manage them, learn to live with them, communicate...If there's no conflict there's no diversity, and our unity is false. I do think that to use the word unity as a possible goal can be very misleading.
If someone tells me that their movement fails to grow, because I'm not part of it because I have problem with how structurally I'm oppressed within that movement, instead of hearing what my problems are; of course I just turn around and leave or pull out my hammer.
There's quite lot of little bits about Russell Brand which piss me off in that article, I’m not going into all that, just this bit that follows.
“It is right that Brand, like any of us, should answer for his behaviour and the language that he uses. But such questioning should take place in an atmosphere of comradeship and solidarity, and probably not in public in the first instance – although when Brand was questioned about sexism by Mehdi Hasan, he displayed exactly the kind of good-humoured humility that was entirely lacking in the stony faces of those who had judged him. “I don’t think I’m sexist, But I remember my grandmother, the loveliest person I‘ve ever known, but she was racist, but I don’t think she knew. I don’t know if I have some cultural hangover, I know that I have a great love of proletariat linguistics, like ‘darling’ and ‘bird’, so if women think I’m sexist they’re in a better position to judge than I am, so I’ll work on that.”
I mean why does Fisher think he has the right to decide how Brand should or shouldn't be questioned and in fact I think what Brand said is a pretty perfect example of how “call out culture” could work.
Brand is honest – although not understanding how he is sexist, he has recognition of his positioning within gender, recognizing that he might not know, and if women say he is, he will work on it.
Ok, this is a lot about individual behaviours, it's not very structural. But I find it difficult to agree with that approach, the one that insists I have to have an understanding of wider structural historical politics in order to have valid opinion. I guess that is a part of a reason I never made a proper effort. Because I think that if that is the pre-condition for change in society to come, than we're fucked. That's not going to happen, the majority of people are not going to have that much theoretical and intellectual knowledge.
So there is a lot in his article, I don't think I can comment on, or maybe I can, but it would take me too long, and it's not worth it to me.
One thing though – that's the bit about neo-anarchists. I guess I assume that I would be included there by Fisher, because of the way I've been working and organizing. And in fact I do have to agree with a bit about “purism” I think that is very privileged self serving way of acting.
But again, lot of people like me, have never been “self proclaimed” anarchists. I have been categorized into it by people like him, those who write, who understand academia, those who go online and are part of the whole political discourse. I think the anarchism we need to look for is not going to be based on political theory but about the values that are spread and become mainstream in a society where there are many different hues and colours. This is not me completely trying to dismiss the political theory and possible discourses within it, just saying that it’s not the thing which is going to find solutions.
The conservative left way of organizing which Fisher talks about in positive way, interactions with that kind of organizations, people who are part of them are people who kept me away from politics.
What politicized lots of people like me is our identity. It can quite piss me off, when union activists, and lets say WSM like people tell me that what people like me do is pointless and only destructive. It’s not true, the big difference is that now we're heard more, and the hidden conflict is not under the lid anymore. (and i’ll keep reading his books...i like them.. they’re pretty accessible..)
It’s ok to include this if you want to in your blog. I just want to make sure it’s clear it’s understood for what it is - a rant/response to a friend as a part of ongoing fights and conversations. It’s certainly not something I would think to publish as a response to Mark Fisher’s article or the whole debate online over the last while. Neither is it a statement or attempt to represent anyone.
---- Lenkas section ends ----
Vampire Castle is extremely well written in the sense of having a very clever construction. If feeds off people's fear of being called out. It conscripts a popular leftist celebratory and on the surface it appears to simply express some 'can't we all get along niceties.' Fisher isn't even so rude as to actually name or reference the dreadful monsters he wants to warn us against. This is also a classic method of good horror films; the scariest monsters of our childhoods are not those created through hours of painstaking CGI but those we never actually view. The unknowable terrors that are hinted at, but never fully described, always lurking on the edge of our vision.
Returning to Caliban & the Witch its useful to remind ourselves of the methodology of the Witch hunters as explained by Federici
“Before neighbor accused neighbor, or entire communities were seized by a "panic," a steady indoctrination took place with the authorities publicly expressing anxiety about the spreading of witches, and travelling from village to village in order to teach people how to recognize them, in some cases carrying with them lists with the names of suspected witches and threatening to punish those who hid them or came to their assistance
...witchcraft became one of the favorite subjects of debate for the European intellectual elites. Judges. Lawyers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, theologians all became preoccupied with the "problem," wrote pamphlets and demonologies, agreed that this was the most nefarious crime, and called for its punishment.
..witch hunters were less interested in the punishment of any specific transgressions than in the elimination of generalized forms of female behavior which they no longer tolerated and had to be made abominable in the eyes of the population"
But lets try to leave all this monsterisation behind us. For me to refer to Fisher as a Witch finder General or compare him to secret policemen is about as nasty as him referring to his opponents as vampires. The name calling method is a technique of 'othering' that the left should try and avoid, forewarned as we are by the dreadful historical experience of the 20th century. What is at stake here is not exposing the plots of evils monsters but instead real differences in politics and as importantly political methodologies for shaping the internal dynamics of movements.
You don't have to read his piece all that carefully to realise that what Fisher is really aiming to do is shut up people with legitimate criticisms of the left as it is, as it has been and as he wants to reconstruct it. When he was on Doug Henwood's radio show he abandoned any pretence and said "the reason I wrote that was really as permission to us, people who identify as communists, socialists and social democrats, permission to disengage from kinda liberals, and what I call neo-anarchists. I think we take anarchism far too seriously. There is a sleight of hand in anarchist reason that is often employed that they'll judge social democracy, communism or whatever by what it actually historical achieved but anarchism by what it would achieve in its ideal society. I think we look at the meager historical achievements of anarchism and also the meager achievement of the anti-capitalists movement .. ultimately of course we don't want to be debating with the vampires.." [Listen to the Fisher interview]
The interview with Henwood has a number of unintentionally hilarious but revealing moments such as when Fisher argues, without so much as a giggle, that “these discourses are not coming off the streets." What is more he tells us these ideas "have their origins in the university". Fisher then goes on to demand "who talks that way except for people who have come into contact with universities, these discourses are very academic" before falling back on the more traditional slur of describing them as "forms of petit bourgeoisie moralism."
Discourses is the giveaway phrase, no one on 'the street' discourses. Here Fisher who has clearly 'come into contact with universities' is having a go at other people because they have also 'come into contact with universities.' What exactly is the meaning of 'contact with universities' except a backhanded admission that some of the people using intersectional methods of analysis have never even been students. This is a modern repeat of the ‘your students are more middle class that our students’ game that various student dominated left groups used to play out in the 80s, a pretty meaningless exercise even then, before the massive surge in university admissions & all the 'life long learning' policies of neoliberalism.
Discoursing aside is the jargon of the emerging intersectional left really more off-putting that the jargon of the old Marxist left in any of its manifestations? It’s very common to see intersectionality dismissed as ‘coming from academia’ by left intellectuals who otherwise advocate Das Kapital reading groups. Why this sudden development of anti-intellectualism when it comes to intersectionality?
Specialties require specialist language to express complex ideas without having to first explain them every time from the root. People who look for new ideas to understand the world around them and who discover these specialties will, not very surprisingly, start talking that language. Is this a problem? Yes, it often is, other people won’t understand the terms and so there us a danger of speaking / writing for the bubble of the already converted. This however isn’t some new problem created by the intersectionalists, Orwell was writing against the careless use of political jargon in 1946.
When Henwood and Fisher were expressing so much concern in their interview that intersectionality came from ’the academy’ what was really being expressed? It can’t be the idea that no one should touch universities. Henwood went to Yale and Fisher not only has a PhD but lectures at both East London University and Goldsmiths. Both are clearly comfortable playing with complex ideas. Henwoods radio show Behind the News is a wonderful collection of interviews about almost everything under the sun that might be of interest to the left. So why are they recoiling in apparent horror with the possibility of ideas coming from the university?
I’m going to be harsh here and suggest this apparent horror is simply a sleight of hand. One that is intended to write off awkward ideas - to try and exclude them from the ground of legitimate left discussion based on their perceived origins. It’s an unfortunate truth that this sort of behaviour is all too common on the left, many organisations and individuals simply don’t like the existence of ways of looking at things other than their own. In particular because if you are trying to sell a package of complex new ideas to people coming into activity it becomes much harder if they also find detailed critiques of those ideas.
Left organisations, and all too often writers, are forever wishing for ‘blank slates’, people who can be safely inscribed with their ideas and their ideas alone. In many organisations this translates into actively discouraging people reading outside the party cannon. In writing on the current crisis in the SWP sovietgoonboy revealed that “Being seen reading, say, Mandel or Castoriadis was as big a faux pas as walking into a branch meeting with a copy of Penthouse under your arm.” The purpose of repeated sneering at ideas as being from the university is to try and convince people not to even consider them. It's a mechanism to shut down a discussion before it even begins.
Members of left organisations quickly learn to speak in the language of their organisation. For those who see left organisations as unproductive but still see a need to understand the world around them, academia or at least some of it, is a reasonable alternative path to such an understanding. And just as if you joined the SWP you tended to end up speaking a certain left jargon and being exposed to a certain set of ideas so if you enrolled in women’s studies or peace studies you ended up with another jargon and exposure to another set of ideas. It's a necessary hazard of politicisation that people going through the process are transformed and that this may make it harder to relate to the world they came from.
Politicisation in that broad sense of the word doesn't take place in a vacuum, people reach out and use the resources that are around them and then in turn are shaped by that usage. Delia Aguilar argues that whatever about the origins of the exact terminology the key concept of intersecting oppressions comes from movements of the 1970’s. Minna Salami suggests the core concept is found in the speech given by African-American abolitionist and women's rights activist to an 1851 Women’s Rights convention in Ohio. In this speech she illustrated how the movement seemed to be using women to just mean white women by asking
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody helps me any best place. And ain’t I a woman?
Look at me! Look at my arm. I have plowed (sic), I have planted and I have gathered into barns. And no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman?
I could work as much, and eat as much as any man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?
I have borne children and seen most of them sold into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain’t I a woman?
Whatever about where you see the historical origins it must be obvious that intersectional tools have exploded in popularity very recently. It’s useful to think about why that might have happened. Quite a few commentators credit the October 2011 My Feminism Will be Intersectional or it will be Bullshit blog as the major factor in initiating this. The timing of that blog was significant, October 2011 was at the peak moment of the global resistance to the crisis that was Occupy. Many, many Occupy camps saw significant problems of sexism, racism etc, including sexual assaults. In some places those who tried to talk about these or about the fact that decision making and discussion processes often reproduced the dominating behaviours of society were told that they were being divisive by giving too much attention to such problems. So this essay circulated at the moment when many marginalised people who had negative experiences in local Occupies were looking for texts to help understand why that was so.
I know very little about Fisher beyond that he is a published author who claims to be terrified of people who only have twitter accounts to their name. Unnamed people whom he asserted and which Henwood repeats at the start of that interview are 'rather posh people.' I’m not sure how you measure poshness on twitter but I suspect this is the same sort of trickery as is blaming intersectionality on the influence of the universities. It’s simply intended to scare people away from looking at the ideas themselves.
In addition while nostalgic left commentators often decry identity based 'oppression Olympics’ they seem to forget the deep love on the orthodox left for denouncing rivals as not being quite working class enough is also the same 'identity politics' game with a slightly modified rule set. If ‘identity politics’ can seem like a game of Top Trumps the leftist class warrior version is Top Trumps where one card always trumps regardless.
Fisher, in common with most of the anti-intersectional nostalgic left, treats class as an identity and then has to argue that this particular identity is much more important than other ones. In the case of Russell Brand what Fisher sees as defining are his working class roots rather than his current status as a self-made millionaire. He didn’t even argue this point, he just dismissed out of hand unnamed others who “told us that Brand couldn’t really be working class, because he was a millionaire.”
Maybe in the 19th or early 20th century class origins would in itself tell the complete story after that capitalism in many places escaped far enough from feudalism to allow, indeed encourage a certain degree of class mobility for the lucky few. An individual’s current class position is no longer determined with certainty by their accent, school they attended or where they grew up. For ease of expression I’m going to refer to the idea that it is these factors that determine someone’s class position as ‘class as identity’.
The entire basis of one of the most important bedrocks of capitalist ideology in achieving mass penetration, ‘the American Dream,’ is premised on the belief that any worker who puts their head down and works hard will have a chance of escaping their currently miserable reality. Class society has a pyramidal structure so mobility is limited as for a few to be on top huge numbers have to make up the base. But some who start near the base do get lucky, including Brand.
For the ‘class as identity’ crowd mobility is awkward as their politics relies heavily on organising around the oppression of those with what they perceive as a working class identity. This is why they tend to be so hostile when the primacy of class oppression is challenged.
As with other oppressions, moral outrage at injustice become less of factor to mobilise people around when the system is changed sufficiently to allow some lucky, talented or particularly ruthless individuals to escape and join the ranks of the elite.
No doubt there is an ‘old money’, posh crowd that are horrified to have to rub shoulders with the former 'working class. It is particularly true that in Britain the aristocracy and their attitudes still have a very significant existence and influence. A fair few of that Downton Abbey lot would probably be really unhappy to find Brand seated at the family dinner table, he would face a form of oppression because of his perceived class identity. Intersectionalism, which has a pretty weak class analysis, would refer to such prejudice as classism.
For anarchists on the other hand the fundamental problem with class society is not the limited mobility between classes, less still the non-acceptance of those who move upwards. It is the existence of class division at all and the continuation of class society. Capitalism today has room for the rise of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ and the rest of us are no better off for that.
For some people to be very rich a lot of people have to be work for them. And to stop the workers simply taking what they need the very rich need to have a lot of power. It's that dynamic of inequality between classes that lie’s at the bottom of almost everything that is rotten in this world. Classist poshness & snobbery are side effects, not causes. Even if we randomly assigned every baby at birth to a particular class we'd still live in a fucked up society because it’s the current collective class interests of the ruling class that drive the essential grimness of capitalism. For them to stay rich & powerful they have to keep the rest of us poor and powerless and because we are many and they are few the means they use are manipulation, the sowing of division and straight up brutality.
So what is up with the use of ‘class as identity’ by people who in theory should know better? Treating class in this way has a number of significant advantages for those who want to sell reformist politics. This acceptance of class as identity allows those who have risen to positions of power, but who can present themselves as from the right background, to defend the indefensible because of their ‘authentic voice’. If your movement is led by trade unions leaders, academics and members of parliament making 100k plus a year placing such a large value on class background helps to keep them on board. Treating class in that way is also useful if your pool of recruitment is ‘middle class students’ making minimum wage in Starbucks who might otherwise call out such leaders. The whole essence of reformism is playing within the system and as part of that getting the rewards the system delivers to those who play well. The contradictions are even recognised by some radical electoral parties that only allow their representatives to keep the equivalent of an average worker’s wage.
It’s a particular problem when left parties are in power as they use such people to defend their attacks on the working class. Roughly around the time Fischer published his essay we had an example of this when the leader of Ireland’s largest union, Jack O’Connor, was wheeled out to defend Labour Party imposed austerity here. O’Connor said “The Labour Party is defending working people and civil society within this Government to the limits of their electoral mandate. They are battling at the very gates of hell, outnumbered by more than two to one and against the background of the straightjacket of the Troika Agreement.” And then “The left has a responsibility to embrace the lessons of history and to build a unified, cohesive and credible alternative that faces the hard choices.” Fire eating words are deployed here to justify health & education cuts, erosion of living conditions, pays cuts and the destruction of protections for workers.
O’Connor earns 108,000 euro a year. That’s a lot of money, certainly enough to completely insulate him from the real impact austerity has on those living off the average wage or dependent on social welfare. But should we take O'Connors word uncritically over someone who is unemployed themselves but whose parents were for instance doctors? Asking that question, regardless of how you might answer it, reveals a version of identity politics and 'check your privilege' rhetoric that is almost universally accepted on the revolutionary left. When O’Connor claims to speak for workers, who unlike him are actually suffering the impact of austerity, he clearly needs to be told to ‘check his privilege’.
The entire way that Fisher conscripts Brand to the nostalgic left is a sleight of hand of epic proportions. While he may admire what he sees as Brand’s authentic voice and his demolition of Paxman’s ‘poshness’ Fisher shares far more politically with Paxman in the BBC interview than Brand. Fisher as we saw in his interview with Henwood is hostile to the ‘anti-capitalist movement’, Brand has presented one of its early protests as a personal moment of political awakening for him. Fisher is writing in support of the neo-reformism of the ‘People’s Assembly’, ‘indirect action’ and voting better people into power. As he put it in that unguarded Henwood interview “you can't take direct action against capitalism .. what we need is indirect action, not direct action, changing the ideology of the society in which we live..” Brand’s conflict with Paxman was precisely because Brand rejected indirect action, in particular in the form of voting. I would be hard for Brand to have been any clearer than ‘yea I don’t vote’. Fishers against the neo-anarchists thus follows Paxman’s sneers against Brand for ‘not even being arsed to vote’.
So apart from trying to capture some of the reflected glory of Brand's appearance for another purpose altogether what is Fischers 'defence' of Brand about? Basically he tries to use Brands popularity as another weapon to be deployed against looking at the ideas & methods around intersectionality. For that purpose Fisher insists it was entirely unreasonable for some people to openly ask ‘what about the sexism’ when Brand’s article and subsequent interview because so popular. Instead, ‘if’ there are issues with Brand they should have confined themselves to having quiet word in his ear. An approach that of course assumes you have access to Brand in the first place.
Brand on the other hand openly admitted both his current position as part of the ‘privileged elite’ and his sexism, saying in a follow up interview in the Guardian that when after his shows he talked to audience members about the Paxman interview he found
“Not everyone I chat to agrees with me but their beliefs are a lot closer to mine than the broadsheets, and it's their job to be serious. One thing I've learned and was surprised by is that I may suffer from the ol' sexism. I can only assume I have an unaddressed cultural hangover, like my adorable Nan who had a heart that shone like a pearl but was, let's face it, a bit racist. I don't want to be a sexist so I'm trying my best to check meself before I wreck meself.”
Brand understands that he needs to check his privilege even as Fisher tries to deploy him as the ultimate proof that even the very idea of suggesting such a thing has to be cast out of the left.
Those with power, including celebrities and authors are a special case, one least deserving of protection because they have a voice that most people lack. Russell Brand isn’t my mate, which is not a comment of how I feel about him, but by which I mean I have no access to him except as it happens twitter (@rustyrockets, 7.5m million followers to my 1,100) . People calling out Brand online about his misogynistic episodes are using the only mechanism they have for ensuring that the conversation is not simply a great/terrible leader one of the type that orthodox left politicians love.
Despite his capacity to be an arsehole I like Brand and the way he puts himself across and have done ever since seeing his demolition documentary on a BNP youth organiser. I’ve mates quite like him, including the problematical parts, and with people I actually have access to I’ve normally gone with the quiet word in the ear, that was a little bit sexist / racist path, rather than publicly calling them out. And others have certainly done the same with me. I’d even go so far as to say that sometimes ‘call out’ culture has become too much of a first stop with problematic behaviour among peers and this does create problems in movement building, in particular when its used to exclude people.
This isn’t an amazing revelation but something under discussion - see below - by many who do not use such critiques as a Trojan horse for other agenda’s. As part of the generation of older mostly male leftists I'm inclined to see my limited role in the debate as explaining to my cohort why the anger should not be dismissed in the defensive way they adopt as an easy evasion. [ Two useful examples are On cynicism, calling out, and creating movements that don’t leave our people behind and Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism ]
Ultimately I suspect my greatest difference with Fisher is that I don’t share his attraction to the ‘rock star / great leader’ method of movement building whether it's Russell Brand or Eoin Jones he wants to put on the pedestal and protect from the ‘vampire hordes’ who might point out feet of clay. The problem of socialism in the 20th century was in part a problem of building up great leaders whose judgment it became impossible to question. To say Soviet Russia could have done with a Safer Spaces policy is an understatement of such epic proportions that it can't even be read seriously!
Brand correctly understands that, as a millionaire, he is now part of the ‘privileged elite.’ Even in his original piece Brand checked his privilege, a as he spoke from his "velvet chaise longue, in my Hollywood home like Kubla Khan, drag my limbs from my harem to moan about the system? A system that has posited me on a lilo made of thighs in an ocean filled with honey and foie gras’d my Essex arse with undue praise and money." Rather than following Fishers attempts to deny / hide that privilege under ‘working class intelligence’ Brand makes the very much more reasonable case that he is trying to use the position he has obtained to generate a conversation where we “all contribute ideas as to how to change our world”.
So why does Fisher want to erase the challenging aspects of what Brand says and reduce his input to a ‘working class’ identity? The neo-reformist project knows it cannot but leave the pyramidal shape of class society in place, reform can squish the pyramid a bit flatter but class societies are always going to be pyramidal by definition. So instead of opposing the existence of class our neo-reformists instead talk about class as if it was just another oppression / identity - just one that they consider to be somehow more fundamental. I write ‘Somehow’ because as soon as you sideline understanding class as exploitation it’s not very clear why class oppression deserves primacy against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia etc. I can very easily accept that other people’s experiences any of those oppressions could be considerably worse than my experience of class oppression as a skilled worker in a somewhat secure job.
If oppositional politics could really be reduced to a game of Top Trumps we can see why those who focus on class as identity need to that assert class as always the top-scoring card to play. It’s not an assertion that holds up to a reality where someone subjected to multiple oppressions doesn’t see an obvious hierarchy but rather a set of intersections that impact on each one. Trying to sort impacts a universal stack with class always on the top doesn’t describe the wide range of realities formed by the intersections.
Class is different not because the worst experience of oppression is that of the working class but because the near universal experience of most people in modern society is that of exploitation. Having to work for someone else who pockets the value of the work we carry out is an experience that unites the many against the few. To transform the world in a way that involves the mass of the populations then we have to have a way of uniting the many against the few.
Lets not overstate this class unity - if it was that simple we’d have had an anarchist revolution long ago. Our experience as workers of what exploitation feels like can vary drastically from those who live under near slavery through indentured labour and starvation level wages to skilled workers like myself who have enormously more privileged lives. But we have a common experience in that a chunk of the value of what we do is stolen from us.
There is a world of difference between a trafficked Burmese migrant forced to work off their debt on a run down Thai fishing trawler and a skilled programmer at Google. But in both cases what they produce is determined by others, bosses & shareholders, who take a large chunk of the value of what they produce. The Burmese migrant is certainly more oppressed though the monetary value of their work is relatively low. The programer may suffer no significant oppression but has more of the value of their work taken off them in dollar terms. With start-ups that can run into tens of millions. Both stand to gain from a world without bosses.
Class is also different because the ‘other side’ of most oppressions have very limited benefits. Often these amount to bad things being less likely to happen to them. Straight cis men are far less likely to be randomly assaulted on the street then people who are openly queer. Black men are far more likely to be subjected to police harassment or even jailed. Men in general are paid more than women, more likely to be promoted and are expected to take on a smaller segment of unpaid labour in the home. The benefit of many of these is slight to non-existent - unpaid home labour being one exception.
One widely circulated blog post tried to explain white straight male privilege as being the equivalent of playing a video game on the easy setting while others played with various and possibly multiple difficult disadvantages.
This analogy illustrates the other problem of treating class simply as being about oppression. In that ‘Life on Easy’ blog post the author actually didn’t even include class as one of the oppressions but that’s a minor quibble. More fundamentally being from the ruling class isn't just playing life on easy, it's literally getting someone else to play all the hard bits for you. Those with real wealth have an army of cleaners, nannies, personal assistants, drivers, accountants, lawyers and pool cleaners to deal with the vast bulk of the tedious, difficult and time consuming challenges of life.
In his essay Fisher is using identity politics to try and conscript Brand to his neo-reformist cause by pretending to stand on his side with his ‘working class intelligence’ against ‘posh people on twitter’. To the neo-reformist ‘class as identity’ crew the problem of class society becomes the problem of posh people being mean to ‘chavs’, ‘football fans’ or other figures they introduce to represent the working class.
Class is a relationship with the means of production, you either own it or you work for those who do. For revolutionaries it is not usefully understood as an identity based on the way you speak or where you went to school. The left is too fond of talking of ‘the working class’ in a way that defines it as an amalgamation of the poorest section of society coupled with (mostly white males) who work in factories, transport & construction.
There was never a point in history where you could take simply take that identity as a reasonably complete indicator of class - it always excluded huge section of the working class in particular women and those outside the industralised core of the imperialist countries. But if there was a point where the left might have thought it fitted it is perhaps the post war compromise of 1945-50, before large-scale migration into Europe and started and after women had been removed from the jobs they had taken on during the war.
Those good old days of a universal working class not confused by ‘identity politics’ were when women were excluded from most skilled work, migration wasn't significant in Europe and Jim Crow limited the horizons of the Black population of the USA to 'Am I not a man’ protests demanding the most basic of rights. This was a period when there was widespread acceptance of extreme policing of the boundaries of gender and sexuality, gay men were considered by most on the left to suffer from a ‘bourgeoisie deviation’ that the revolution would cure. Until very recently gay men were subject to jailing, electro shock aversion 'therapy' or chemical castration almost everywhere. The welfare state and the spirit of ‘45 included, at least on the basis of ‘for now’, acceptance of that reality. But even then outside the European imperialist core there were the massive anti-colonial revolts, demonstrating that even then the usefulness of refusing to take an intersectional approach was limited to the very narrow geographical range of the European core.
At that point in time the left did take the white male worker as a universal behind which everyone had no choice but to unite, between racist lynching and state led queer bashing the risks of even trying to visibly organise were enormous. But in the todays world, because of the victories of the 60s, 70s, everyone else in the working class is no longer forced to accept such a secondary position and hold their tongues until the revolution can liberate them.
I don’t think the neo-reformists hold what amounts to a class reductionist position because they are either bad people or foolish. There is almost certainly some significant element of privilege in the mix as many of them don’t ‘see’ what they are doing but that in itself doesn’t explain its persistence under criticism. The problem is more fundamental than that and boils down to the old problem of the enlightened left vanguard and the limitations it projects on the possibilities of a collective class-consciousness. Essentially the neo-reformists of the nostalgic left want to return to a simple idea of a homogenous working class because they believe the class is not collectively capable of dealing with the complications of reality. For them these complications simply stand in the way of unity against the common enemy, the unity required to implement their project and so their response is to argue that we should ignore the complications of an intersectional approach.
On one level I can understand where they are coming from, the idea that radical change requires a working class that is not simply objectively defined by its relationship to the means of production (‘class in itself’) but moves to being subjectively self defined as a ‘class for itself’ remains fundamental to all on the left. Again we need to unity the many against the few if we are to know what it is to win. That subjectivity would be created very much easier if we were indeed all identical proletarian units in matching boiler suits.
This however is a fantasy and just like the great leader fantasy so common on the left the fact that its adherents are well meaning is irrelevant to the damage it does. The combination of these two supposed short cuts is toxic to the left as the outcome will always be to bottle up dissent and create a ‘unified’ working class that is unified behind a 'typical worker' whose image excludes large sections of the working class. It is a false unity under which unchecked great leaders will enter into the same sort of abuses that great leaders have always perpetuated on those under them.
In other words this idea of a road to class unity which lies through eliminating what the nostalgic left terms as 'identity politics' is a false road, and one already travelled and abandoned. Far from being good for the left it has been disastrous as its pursuit is one of the important mechanisms where the left self-reduces itself to the same old collection of older white men engaged in obscure ideological point scoring. This seems to happen particularly at the moment when a period of mass struggle starts to come to an end, presumably because that’s the point at which those who have remained silent in the interests of unity go 'enough'. The surge of interest in the intersectional critique and Twitter might be new to this process but these fights are not.
The way forward is not through monsterisation and trying to exclude the intersectionalists (never mind the anarchists) from the left. It is through recognising the limitations of the left, understanding why intersectionalism is suddenly popular and seeing the tools it has produced as among those the left can useful take up in order to reinvent itself.
WORDS: Andrew Flood & Lenka (Follow Andrew on Twitter )
With thanks to Aileen for extensive editorial advise and proofreading