June 3, 2009
My Indefinite Leave to Remain FINALLY came through from the Home Office yesterday. So, I am now allowed to remain in the UK indefinitely, and I can access public funds, which is something of a relief in this economy. I mean, I’d rather not lose my job, but 3 weeks ago the government would have happily watched me starve.
However, in this incredibly obnoxious article in The Guardian yesterday, Phil Woolas reminded me that the new Citizenship, Immigration & Borders bill is on its second reading through parliament. This bill will make it harder to get citizenship, with longer waiting times and a stupid “probationary citizenship” stage. Oh, and you’ll be expected to volunteer somewhere to show that you’re “worthy” of citizenship. From September I’ll be working 4 days a week at a job that requires a lot of travel (I’m away from home at least once a month), and doing a PhD part-time. And continuing with No Borders and setting up a Feminist Fightback North branch. But hey! I’m sure I can fit some volunteering in somewhere. Unfortunately, activism doesn’t count.
According to the current regulations, because I actually entered the country in June 2006 on a Working Holiday Permit, I should be eligible for citizenship in about 4 weeks. So my partner and I have decided it’s worth scraping together the ludicrous sum of money required to apply right away, so that I don’t have to jump through any of the hoops above, and because the fees are only going to keep going up. Though apparently it’s taking up to 6 months to process applications, begging the question of What the hell the government are spending my money on.
I’ve worked out that, post-citizenship, I will have paid over £2000 in various visa fees. Which is a lot of money, particularly when we first got married and my partner wasn’t working (we’re still paying off that credit card bill). We are very fortunate that we are able to put aside money each month to cover these fees, but I honestly wonder what less fortunate people do. These fees aren’t optional – if I hadn’t had the £800 for the Indefinite Leave to Remain application, then I would have had to leave the country.
So love becomes a privilege reserved for those who can pay for it –I’m sure that’s exactly what Keir Hardie had in mind.
May 8, 2009
There’s a really good article in current LRB by Gareth Peirce about the UK government’s possible (likely) complicity with torture in Guantanamo Bay and other overseas detention centres.
It’s interesting for several reasons, one of which is that it highlights something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: middle-class political apathy. Peirce argues that the government uses secrecy to maintain general apathy towards the possibility that the government is torturing people; people don’t know, so they can’t care. For me, what is particularly frightening, is that I think a lot of people are happy not caring.
When activists talk about the democratic deficit – the fact that a million people can march against a war and it will happen anyway, the fact that no one thinks ID cards are a good idea, and yet we all know the government will push them through anyway – we are angry and frustrated. We start trying to think of new strategies; if conventional activism isn’t working, what do we do now?
But when I talk to many non-activists about the democratic deficit, there is almost a sense of relief underpinning their words. I can’t do anything about injustice/poverty/the war/racism/torture; so therefore, I don’t have to bother.
European elections are coming up, and there’s been a lot of discussion about the BNP, and the inroads the BNP are making in traditional Labour-supporting white working-class communities. I have a lot of issues with the way this discussion is framed, which I will be talking about more in the future. But one factor in the rise of the BNP that is continually overlooked is middle-class apathy.
Part of this apathy is grounded in the fact that a lot of middle-class white people don’t actually disagree with BNP views on immigration even while condemning the BNP. If they did, then the Labour & Conservative parties wouldn’t be trying to out-xenophobe each other every election.
But even the (middle-class) people in my office who agree with the Labour & Tory immigrant scapegoating (I don’t count as an immigrant for them, what with being white & Canadian) are pretty scathing about the BNP. Yet, if I sent around an email encouraging people to vote in the European elections, or stuck a “hope not hate” postcard on my desk, I’d get in trouble.
The people in my office, by and large, are not going to vote. They will condemn the BNP verbally, but they think I’m eccentric, at best, for actually going to protests and having political opinions. They don’t understand why I actually care about stuff like this.
So the BNP might get an MEP seat, and everyone will tut-tut, feeling morally superior to the BNP while having done nothing to stop them. The government wouldn’t listen anyway. Which is just fine, because to quote Phil Ochs “demonstrations are a drag…” And I hear Debenhams is having a really good sale this weekend.
January 13, 2009
Make a date with Feminists!!
GENDER/ RACE/ CLASS: AN ANTI-CAPITALIST FEMINIST EVENT
Sat 14th Feb, 10.30am -6.30 pm, Tindle Manor, 52-4 Featherstone St EC1 (nearest tube Old St.) Fully accessible venue. This event is free!
for more info see www.anticapitalistfeminists.co.uk
to register email firstname.lastname@example.org
Discussing and organising our fight for women’s liberation – open to all those who want to learn, think and plan for grassroots feminist activism… Join us for workshops which identify the interconnections between oppressions and our struggles against them. Work together with other feminists to find ways to actually change the material conditions of women’s lives.
Workshops include: learning from feminist history/ sex workers’ rights/ challenging domestic violence/ international solidarity/ a woman’s place is in her union?/ reproductive freedoms/ rape and asylum/ community organising/ queer and trans politics/ prison abolition/ self-defence workshop/ feminists and the capitalist crisis/ films, stalls and campaign planning
Free creche – please register by email by Friday 6th February
Stalls available – email email@example.com to book
Organised by a coalition of groups and individuals. Groups involved so far include: Anarcha-Fem Kollective, All African Women’s Group, Black Women’s Rape Action Project, English Collective of Prostitutes, Education Not for Sale Women, Feminist Activist Forum, Feminist Fightback, Left Women’s Network, London Coalition Against Poverty, Permanent Revolution, RMT Women’s Committee, Women Asylum Seekers Together, Women Against Rape, Workers’ Liberty.
PLEASE FORWARD FAR AND WIDE AND ADVERTISE ON YOUR BLOG.
November 26, 2008
I will admit to a feeling slightly piqued generally that Feminist Fightback could probably single-handedly engineer total gender equality in the UK and we still wouldn’t get a mention in The Guardian. However, it my more sober (and less attention-seeking) moments, I recognise that this is probably a good thing. On the one hand, some of the campaigns we’ve been running would really benefit from media attention, particularly the Tube Cleaners Solidarity campaign, in order to shame Transport for London into paying them a living wage, and also, frankly, in order to shame coerce convince other feminist groups into participating in the actions. On the other hand, if we ever did get into The Guardian, the article would probably ignore all members over the age of 30, and focus on our snazzy dress sense rather than our actual politics (though we are pretty snazzy dressers).
The issue with The Guardian’s coverage of feminism (other than, as already discussed a lot by Zenobia, their tendency to lump “feminism” with “lifestyle issues”) is that they basically define it as activism of mainly young white women against “male violence against women” where the latter is conceived as something that happens solely between individual men and individual women. Which means that a lot of what Feminist Fightback (and Feminist Activist Forum, and The Crossroad’s Women’s Centre, and Southall Black Sisters, etc.) do is not even conceived as feminism.
Take the Tube Cleaners Strike. Some women Tube Cleaners have been sexually harassed and assaulted at work; but even here, the issue is not just about individual male responsibility for commiting these actions (though the men involved should be held responsible), but also about the women’s inability to complain because of their working conditions. The men are their superiors, and if they complain, they will be fired. The other issues around which the Tube Cleaners are striking are gendered, racialised, class issues – the disproportionate representation of women of colour in “heavy care” jobs; the racialised and gendered stereotypes that make this seem normal and justify underpaying them; the way in which the uncertain immigration status of the workers is being used to blackmail them into compliance; and the whole issue of how no one is responsible because of the way TfL has outsourced cleaning to a company, which has itself further outsourced the cleaning. So when we wrote to TfL, the letter we got back essentially said “hey, we don’t pay them directly, so it’s not our problem.”
These are systemic issues – while these women are experiencing violence (especially if, like me, you very much believe in the Jesuit idea that purposefully keeping people poor is a form of violence), their experience can’t just be reduced to the actions of an individual man against an individual woman. Plus, there are women on the TfL board, and I bet there are women in the upper echelons of the various outsourcing companies. And of course, women take the Tube everyday, and benefit from it being clean. So more privileged women are participating and benefiting from the oppression of the Tube Cleaners.
All of which is to say, I guess, that Zenobia, if you are planning a socialist feminist magasine of some kind? Sign me up.
November 14, 2008
So at the last Feminist Fightback meeting, we were having a debate about where capitalism and racism fit in our analysis of women’s oppression. One woman, B, was arguing that women’s oppression had it’s origins in class exploitation. As is obvious if you’ve read this blog, I strongly disagree with that. What really disturbed me about some of what she’d said, however, is that she outright denied the existence of white privilege – all working-class people, in her opinion, are equally oppressed.
I was arguing for the intersection of all oppressions, but because of what she’d said about race, I spent a fair amount of time on white privilege. I figured someone in a feminist group might say that sexism is less important than class exploitation, but she’s here, right? However, white privilege is clearly a huge issue in the British feminist movement, and one which I struggle with alot myself.
Somewhere, however, things went horribly, horribly wrong, insofar as I managed to alienate B’s friend C, who is one of the few Afro-Caribbean women to ever come to a Feminist Fightback meeting, who said she felt as if I was being condescending and that she generally felt alienated and erased.
Now, I think there are things on which C & I would disagree no matter what. But clearly, I must have made several serious errors of communication if I ended up alienating C to that extent.
My comments are below. Where do you think I went wrong? I’d really, really appreciate feedback. There are very few people that I can talk to about trying to develop as an anti-racist feminist. Feminism here is really segregated, and rarely goes beyond trying to get a woman of colour to speak at your event. There’s no real commitment to fighting racism as a key structure of UK society. So I really need your help & input. And yeah, if you think I was completely out of line, please say so – there’s no need to try to soften the blow or anything. Thanks!!!
NB for non-UK readers – BME means Black & Minority Ethnic and is the preferred term (I think) for people of colour in the UK, at least in non-academic circles. I tend to use both terms.
What I said
When I went to get my visa in Liverpool, my partner and I were the only couple in the room where both parties were white. Most of the other people in the room were people of colour. At the time, we were worried because we technically did not have enough money to support ourselves – luckily, the immigration officer barely checked. She literally flipped through my paycheck and said “what’s important is you have a steady job. Come back in an hour.” Meanwhile, we couldn’t help but notice that the immigration officers treated my partner & I way better than everybody else in the room. When I came back to pick up my visa, the same woman was speaking rudely to an African couple.
This is what I mean by white privilege. It’s not my fault that the immigration officers were polite to me and rude to the BME people. I was unhappy that they were like this. But I benefited from it nonetheless, regardless of whether I agreed with the immigration officers’ behaviour.
Class exploitation does not directly cause women’s oppression. Yes, women’s oppression began in a class based society, but that does not mean it was caused by a class-based society – after all, women’s oppression also came about in a world where the atmosphere is 80% nitrogen, and women’s oppression is not caused by nitrogen.
Even if you do think that class exploitation causes women’s oppression, it should be clear that today sexism as an ideology exists independently of capitalism as does racism, as do numerous other oppressions, like transphobia, homophobia, ableism, ageism, etc. In the interests of simplicity, I am going to focus on Capitalism, Sexism and Racism.
Basically, I would argue that Sexism, Racism and Capitalism are interconnected systems of oppression. What that means is that they all feed into each other, and shape each other, and you can’t really consider them separately. I tend to think of this as a tangled ball of yarn. Sometimes, you can tug a small piece of yarn free – and women get the vote; a Black man is elected President; a minimum wage is achieved. But you will never untangle the yarn completely unless you are working at all the oppressions at once.
So, women’s oppression won’t be ended while capitalism exists, but ending capitalism won’t automatically end women’s oppression. And as a white woman, I think it’s important for me to fight against racism, not out of a sense of charity, but because I will never be liberated while racism still exists.
I think we realised this when we were campaigning in solidarity with the tube cleaners. We didn’t say that they were working-class people who happened to be immigrant women from Africa & Asia. Rather, we recognised that their gender and their race and their immigration status were also key to their oppression. That they were underpaid because their work was viewed as “women’s work”, but that the type of work they were doing is often assigned to BME women. For example, the Windrush generation of women often found themselves employed in the heavy care industry, because it fulfilled the gender stereotype of women doing care work, and the racial stereotype of black people doing the heavy lifting.
And in the tubecleaners campaign, we were able to use the privilege that some of us have of being white and holding British passports (not me, obviously) in a subversive way in service of the tubecleaners campaign, by risking arrest.
So, white privilege exists and that has to be recognised. You can’t change the world unless you recognise how the world works. And once you recognise your white privilege, you can then try to figure out who to use it subversively.
We’ve been quite properly critical of the Fawcett Society’s sexism in the city campaign because they treat the sexism experienced by the CEO and the sexism experienced by the cleaner the same. Of course, the sexism experienced by the cleaner is very different from the sexism experienced by the CEO. If we don’t recognise white privilege, I think we risk becoming the class-based version of the Fawcett Society. Women experience sexism differently because of their race and class, and our campaigns have to recognise this. We have to fight all oppressions simultaneously, not out of a sense of charity, but because while racism exists none of us will be free.
November 13, 2008
There’s actually a fairly interesting piece in The Guardian today by Zoe Williams on the subject of prostitution. I say fairly interesting, because I think she’s right about how prostitution is viewed by the general public.
Basically, Williams argues that the current discussion around sex work tends to divide sex workers into three areas – “high class” prostitutes like Belle De Jour; street workers feeding drug habits, and “proper low life sex industry hookers” with no “personal agency” and who are so disadvantaged they can be considered as “kidnapped.” Therefore, the issue becomes less that people go to prostitutes full-stop but that they exploit vulnerable people (and Williams gets serious bonus points from me for including European women who travel overseas for sex from local men as exploiters; shockingly, I find exploitation based on racial and class privilege as appalling as exploitation based on gender privilege). This is especially true if you take the stigma out of sex – then it does seem like for “high class” prostitutes, sex work is just a job like any other.
Williams argues, though, that ultimately no feminist can align herself as “pro-prostitution” because so much of it involves violence against women.
First of all, I think it’s very perceptive of Williams to recognise that “ordinary” sex workers, the ones working in brothels, flats, etc. are often constructed as having no personal agency, and I think that the feminist movement actually has a lot to answer for here. I remember having a surreal conversation once with some radical feminists where they argued that it was OK to chant outside a strip-club because the strippers were colluding with the patriarchy. About 5 minutes later, the same women were arguing that all sex workers are effectively slaves since no one can be said to “choose” sex work. Obviously, both of these statements can’t be true.
Any discussion of sex work has to involve a discussion of what we mean by personal agency and “choice.” No one makes completely free choices; are options are limited not only by material factors (ie I’d like to do a full-time PhD but I can’t afford it) and also by ideological, discursive factors (I don’t like showing my bare legs when they are hairy, which is clearly internalised sexism). I do believe that within these confines, however, free will is possible. I can’t afford to do a full-time PhD, so I’ll do a part-time one; but I’ve still made a decision regarding whether I want to do a PhD. I don’t feel comfortable in bare legs if my legs are hairy, but I can choose whether to shave my legs or whether to wear trousers. This is the arena of personal agency.
Most of the writing I’ve read by sex workers, and many of the sex workers I’ve met, are people trying to make the best of some fairly appalling situations. There was a well-known case in Thailand a few years ago where some American missionaries attempted to “rescue” a whole bunch of sex workers, who then ran away from the American mission at the earliest available opportunity. The missionaries weren’t going to feed their families.
This doesn’t mean that sex work is a “good job” – and I’d really appreciate it if certain radical feminists could stop caricaturing everyone else’s beliefs in this way. I agree wholeheartedly with Williams that it usually involves appalling violence and exploitation. What it means is that we should be focusing on the structures that put people into situations where sex work seems like the best of a lot of bad options – not only sexism, but capitalism, racism (First Nations women are disproportionately represented among sex workers in Canada), imperialism, homophobia, migration controls, transphobia (trans*people are disproportionately represented among sex workers), the lack of routes out of sex work, a justice system that treats an illness (drug addiction) as a crime, etc. And clearly, neither side of the criminalise/decriminalise debate addresses these issues. I believe in the decriminalisation of sex work myself, but only because I think it would make addressing a lot of the above issues a lot easier.
I also do think it’s fair to say that not only are some people properly forced into sex work (kidnapped and held against their will), but that for some people the constraining factors are such it’s hard to see whether they are actually exercising agency. I’m thinking particularly of people who get into sex work to feed a drug habit, and also people who were subjected to such appalling sexual abuse as children, and have so many mental health issues because of it, that it’s hard to see what they are doing as a choice. I know at least one person who falls into the latter category, and she does not see herself as having “chosen” sex work, but does see herself as having been “forced”.
But what of “high class” sex workers? Victims? Or are they colluding with violence against women by suggesting that sex work is a job like any other? I certainly feel Williams’ discomfort on this issue. As a friend of mine once said “I don’t judge sex workers, but I feel perfectly comfortable judging their clientele.” No matter how “high class” the sex worker in question is, no matter how able to choose his/her clients, I still have this gut feeling that buying sex from someone is somehow inherently exploitative. And I can’t tell you exactly why – as sex workers have pointed out, there are a lot of people whose jobs are just as intimate and are “affective”, ie. designed to make other people feel something. Is the care worker being paid minimum wage to give people sponge baths really less exploited than the “high class” sex worker?
I think part of it is that we live in a society where sexuality is considered key to our identity in a way that washing other people is not. And I do think it’s significant that most sex workers are women in a society where women are often reduced to sex; in that light buying sex from a woman seems almost equivalent to buying the woman (though I know many sex workers find this idea objectionable).
I do think the existence of people like Belle de Jour serves as a sop to the patriarchal conscience. She’s not a victim, so it’s perfectly OK to buy sex, even from women in more dire straits!! However, that seems to hold the sex workers accountable for the actions of their clients, which is clearly unfair. Sex work as an industry exists because people are willing to buy sex; is it fair to blame the people who take advantage of this to make ends meet? If all the Belle de Jours of the world gave up the sex industry, that might put a dent in the idea that buying sex is OK, but it wouldn’t end the industry in and of itself. So while “high class” sex workers might be reinforcing the sex industry, that reinforcement is dependent upon a complete abdication of moral responsibility on the part of the clients. Guess who I think is really responsible in this case?
Additionally, I’ve met a couple of “high class” sex workers and they’ve always said that they felt less exploited as a stripper/dominatrix/porn star, etc. than they did in their regular jobs. That’s pretty significant and suggests, once again, that the overarching issue of capitalism has to be addressed when discussing the sex industry.
With regard to the aforementioned care giver – I think we have to stop seeing it as a competition. Certainly, this is also something the feminist movement is responsible for; the notion that no other job is as exploitative as sex work and consequently that no other workers are as exploited. It’s not a competition. The care giver is alsoexploited, and you know what – that’s a feminist issue. Please see BFP’s fantastic post on migrant farm workers in the US and then ask yourself if you still believe that sex workers are automatically the most victimised people in the world.
As in so many other areas, I think often feminists are looking for a “magic bullet” or a quick fix – and I definitely think that’s what Harriet Harman is looking for. There is no quick fix; prostitution is the consequence of multiple systems of oppression, not the cause, and it will not be solved by a simple legal change. The best statement I’ve ever read on the issue of sex work was from UBUNTU! a sex worker’s collective from North Carolina (h/t BFP). They argue that activism around sex work should move away from criminalisation v decriminalisation and reconceptualised as being responsible to the communities involved? What would this look like?
November 4, 2008
In today’s Comment is Free, Khaled Diab writes that the Dutch government wants to bring in a law that would sentence women deemed to be unfit mothers to take contraception for two years. If they become pregnant during this time, their newborn infant will be taken away from them.
I’m not even sure where to start with this. Such a law is clearly a serious violation of women’s rights. First of all, it forces women to take contraception, thus denying them their right to bodily autonomy and to choose whether or not they want to have children. Secondly, it places the onus of good parenting entirely on women – notice there’s no mention of what happens to “bad” fathers. Thirdly, it denies the presumption of innocence – a person might be a bad parent for some reason, possibly beyond their control (ie postpartum depression) but then be a very good parent to their next child.
Finally, as Diab points out, this law might end up being used to target “undesirable” groups like Roma and immigrants. Realistically, I think there’s no “maybe” about it, and that impoverished mothers should be included in Diab’s list of “the undesirables” targetted by this law. The Netherlands, like the rest of Europe, is getting more and more xenophobic. I read an article in Le Monde Diplomatique about 6 months ago describing campaigns by far-right groups throughout Europe “encouraging” white women to have more children and trying to prevent people of colour and immigrants from having more children, in order to “preserve white Europe” (of course, in reality, Europe has neverbeen a completely white continent). Across Europe, including the UK, family-friendly workplace policies have been promoted, which is good, but they have been promoted on the grounds they will enable European families (and really, if you examine the policies, middle-class European families) to have more children – thus meaning that immigrant workers will no longer be required. Meanwhile, the demonisation of impoverished people and people on benefits continues, and there is less and less support for parents and children on social assistance.
Diab seems to think that the bill will fail in Parliament because it violate the Dutch Constitution. We can only hope.
October 31, 2008
I discussed a lot of the issues I brought up in this post with my friend The Historian, as well as reading the excellent posts on Pink Scare. This led to an email, which part of which I’m publishing here as well.
So I actually spent a fair amount of today, when I wasn’t busy with work, thinking about our conversation last night. Basically, I would agree that at this moment class seems the best site of struggle for revolutionary change. I think that’s true because the gains made by other movements, like feminism, anti-racism, and gay rights, have been important but are often co-opted by capitalism. Capitalism is able to modify itself and live to see another day.
I will however attach the caveat that such a movement can only succeed if it recognises that capitalism intersects inextricably with racism, sexism, abelism, homophobia, transphobia and other oppressions.
There are two reasons for this. First, the intersection of oppressions means that if an anti-capitalist movement isn’t also fighting sexism, racism, etc., it’s probably not doing a very good job of fighting capitalism. A woman worker’s experience of capitalism can’t be separated from her experience of sexism, nor can that experience be reduced to class. Moreover, sexism, racism & capitalism all work together – and not just in a simplistic “dividing the working-class” way. “Heavy care” work in the NHS, for example, is largely done by women of colour because of the combination of gender roles (women do care work) and imperialist racial roles (people of colour as little more than pack animals). An anti-capitalist movement that fails to understand this can’t possibly succeed. Our modern ideas of gender & race were forged during the industrial revolution but are not merely byproducts of it. Pardon the academia, but the relationship is more dialectical; they fed into each other, shaped each other, promoted each other & supported each other. At this point in time, these oppressions are like a giant ball of tangled wool – it’s impossible to pull at one strand and hope that that particular strand will come free, or that the ball will magically unravel. Instead, the hard work of carefully picking our way through individual strands lies ahead of us.
Secondly, as with so-called identity politics, a movement based solely on class will just lead to the privilegeing of working-class white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cissexual men at the expense of others. We will have a socialist utopia where women are still doing all the dishes. Lesbian separatism came under a lot of fire in the 1970s from working-class women of colour, not only because it failed to address these women’s needs to work with men in their community in opposing shared oppressions (like racism), but because it just ignored the differences of race and class among lesbians. Rather than creating a non-hierarchical movement, white lesbians became the elite.
In envisioning this class-based movement, how we define class obviously matters. There are disadvantages in this case to both the Marxist and what I’ll call Liberal (North American) view of class. Interestingly, I think it should be noted that these definitions are not completely separate. Obviously, the Marxist working-class are more likely to be “poor”. But, there’s also a fair amount of slippage in how the terms are used, even among orthodox Marxists. When I said in the last meeting that assuming that everyone has a garden in London is classist, which everyone agreed with, I was using the Liberal definition. A well-paid lecturer or accountant can afford a house with a garden, so clearly not everyone in the Marxist working-class is living in flats. When we object to classist stereotypes in the feminist movement or in the media, like the use of the term “scally” what we are really objecting to is the denigration of the poor. Our activism also tends to focus on the most vulnerable workers, like the Tubecleaners, who are struggling the most financially.
The Liberal Definition of class is in a way more inclusive when we talk about organising along class lines, as it extends to basically anyone who is low-income. However, as you pointed out last night, there is serious potential for conflict within the movement because of different short-term interests (I’m assuming the end of capitalism is in everyone’s interest in the long-run). Farmers and workers might not necessarily see eye-to-eye because of their different short-term goals – it is not necessarily obvious to farmers why they would benefit from the workers seizing control of the means of production, and certainly small business owners would not like this at all. Organising around the Liberal Definition would also mean probably not working with the more affluent members of the “marxist” working-class. However, these people often have the most resources and the most personal freedom, and therefore can participate in social and political movements with the most impunity. When I was helping to organise my call centre, the reason I was brave enough to do it was the fact that I knew I could afford to lose my job.
However, there are also serious issues with organising solely along the Marxist definition of class. First, a lot of orthodox marxists I’ve met have an unfortunate tendency to an “us & them” mentality. Some of the conversations at the Marxism 2007 conference were fairly bloodcurdling, as speakers suggested with a straight face simply killing the entire bourgeoisie if you wanted your revolution to succeed. People’s politics aren’t reducible to class – farmers, small business holders, doctors, other professionals, even people from wealthy backgrounds may support or come to support an anti-capitalist movement. Ultimately, like racism & sexism, capitalism damages the people who benefit from it most as well. We shouldn’t assume the existence of enemies. Furthermore, in a socialist utopia, we’re still going to need farmers, doctors, etc. Someone has to grow food, someone has to cure the sick. The revolution is going to have to include people who aren’t working-class.
There is also the issue, already discussed above, of privileging white working-class men by organising solely from a Marxist standpoint. Affecting both kinds of class-based organising is the fact that other oppressed peoples may simply have different priorities. Women may feel that sexism is more significant; people of colour may feel that racism is more significant. They may feel that sexism and/or racism is why they’re poor. Any class-based movement has to figure out how to reach out to these people and work with them – and not just lecture them about how wrong they are. I think organising along the Liberal definition of class probably makes this easier. Women who see sexism as the reason they are poor will still get involved in an anti-poverty movement, but may not want to be involved in an anti-capitalist movement they don’t see as reflecting their reality.
My solution is that we should be organising along both definitions of class. Ultimately, despite my criticisms, I believe the Marxist definition is more transformative, but the Liberal definition is more inclusive and provides an answer to the plight of impoverished people who do not fall under the Marxist definition of working-class.
I think here it is important to differentiate between short-term and long-term goals. While both kind of organising should go on simultaneously, in the short-term, the Liberal definition is in my opinion more useful. It allows the linking together of various groups and social movements, and for increased popular education. It allows us to improve the material conditions of the lives of small business owners, for example (because no one should be struggling to make ends meet), while working to convince said small business owners of the wonders of anti-capitalism. Alot of these changes will happen in the short-term within the system – I would favour, for example, government help to small business owners provided certain workplace conditions are met. This may not be revolutionary in the short-term, but the revolution is unlikely to happen tomorrow and small businesses not only provide jobs, but their owners should be able to pay their heating bills. In the long-term, organising along Marxist lines is more transformative, but the use of the Liberal definition in the short-term should have allowed us to integrate small business owners, professionals and farmers into our revolutionary society.
One thing I find really interesting and sometimes really upsetting about Britain in general and the British Left in particular is that everyone but me and Tony Benn identifies as working-class. At the Marxism conference a few years ago, I attended a session discussing “non-productive labour”, which I interpreted to mean people working in call-centres and similar areas. Imagine my surprise then when university lecturers and senior civil servants start discussing the difficulties they face as non-productive labourers and members of the working-class generally.
Until yesterday, I thought this identification was based on two things. First, an effort to ignore one’s own privilege. People identify as working-class so they can think of themselves as oppressed, and therefore avoid having to take responsibility for being middle-class, not to mention being white or male if they happen to be either of those things. In feminist groups I’ve been a part of, one of the biggest obstacle to discussing race has been the working-class identity of group members. People honestly believe that if they are working-class then they can’t possibly have white privilege.
Secondly, I figured that part of it was cultural, especially Up North. Most people here actually do have proletarian grandparents – my partner’s grandfather, for example, worked in the steel mills in Sheffield until they were closed. So people were identifying with working-class as part of their culture without looking to closely at their current economic realities.
Last night, however, thanks to a very interesting discussion with some orthodox Trotskyists, I realised that in fact, we’ve been talking at cross-purposes. We’ve been using different definitions of class.
For me, class is about a combination of things – the amount of money a person earns, the amount of money their parents earn(ed), the amount of options they have at a given time, the choices they are able to make, and envision making and generally the lifestyle they are able to lead. I know that a lot of this is pretty intangible and nebulous, but so is the concept of class. My mother likes to say that we’ve been broke, but we’ve never been poor. Money was tight at various times in my childhood, but I never doubted I’d go to university – and neither did anyone else. In primary and secondary school, I was seen by my teachers and peers as a bright, middle-class student – the principle demographic of universities in Canada.
More recently, my partner and I have been flat broke – I mean, “how are we going to pay the gas bill this month” broke. But if you look around our flat, we have a ludicrous amount of stuff – a tv, a freeview box, two computers (I have a laptop, he has a PC), various kitchen gadgets, etc., – all bought for us by middle-class family members and friends at various times. Even when there was mould growing in our wardrobe (I wish I was joking) we knew that if we ever were in serious danger of being evicted, our families would lend us money. Most importantly, we knew it was temporary – even when things were at there most bleak, we had this sense that things would get better eventually (and they did).
So, by my definition your average university lecturer is at least middle-class. They earn a higher-than average wage, they’re very well educated and have options as a result of this, and most of the lecturers I know own their own house and their own car and lead comfortable lives. They may have debt from acquiring their PhD, but they will be able to pay it off without it seriously infringing on their lifestyle. This is obviously not universal – a single parent, for example, at a low-paying university may not have a middle-class standard of living. But on average, a university lecturer is middle-class.
However, the radical left in the UK tends to use the orthodox Marxist definition of class, which measure your class by your relation to the means of production. So lecturers are working class because they don’t own/run the university. When my Dad was working as a salesman he was working-class but when my parents ran their own business, we were petit bourgeoisie, even though we actually had more money and more financial stability when my Dad was working for someone else. The people with whom I was talking tried to explain this as an issue of solidarity – there is no solidarity among the petit bourgeoisie. But, actually, my parents continued to be decent people who treated their employees well when they ran their own business, whereas some of the other salespeople at the company for which my Dad worked were completely unethical and had no issues with exploiting anyone they could. And it’s not just my parents – my experience of working for small businesses has been positive, whereas my line managers when I worked for a call centre (theoretically, my fellow workers) were very happy horribly exploiting me.
I don’t think the traditional Marxist definition is very useful today, because it erases the genuine economic privilege held by a lot of people who don’t own the means of production. There is no comparison between lecturers and call-centre workers. Solidarity is not going to spontaneously appear between those two groups. Furthermore, it’s not clear that those two groups HAVE much in common. Is a middle-class lecturer going to vote to increase her taxes to provide cheap housing for a call centre worker? We know for a fact that a lot of them don’t.
The reason for the dissonance between my idea of class and the Marxist definition is a great example of this. Most radical leftist North Americans would use my notion of class. The cradle of parliamentary socialism in Canada is the Prairies – farmers who could only make ends meet if they all worked together started a political party. Socialised medicine in Canada basically started as towns pooling their resources to pay for a doctor who would then see anybody as required – because no one in town could afford a doctor by themselves. But by the Marxist definition of class, these farmers – who were up to their ears in debt, and there was a depression and a drought happening simultaneously – were petit bourgeoise, ‘cause they “owned” the farms and farming equipment (usually heavily mortgaged) and as such did not sell their labour but owned the means of production. The fact that they were dirt poor doesn’t seem to matter.
In other words: imagine what Soviet socialism would have looked like if the peasants had run the revolution.
In fact, I think using this definition actually leads to more economic exploitation. There was a great article in the LRB in which the author pointed out that, according to polls on this subject, most people in the UK, including a lot of wealthy people, identify as working-class. So why aren’t we in a socialist paradise then? Because if someone who owns a car and a house and doesn’t worry about making ends meet genuinely believes herself to be working-class, then the people who are struggling, who live in council housing and need benefits, etc., they are then demoted to the lumpenproletariat – an underclass. If I, as a “working-class” person, has no trouble making ends meet, those who do are just lazy. And thus, we have a society where everyone is working-class, and using terms like “scally” and “chav” is considered perfectly OK.
As I’ve indicated above, this definition of class also erases other kinds of privilege. Traditional Marxism didn’t even attempt to deal with racism. Engels made a brave attempt at dealing with sexism, but ultimately fails to properly account for the origin of sexism. Yes, it’s probably true that once men got ahold of private property, they felt the need to control women’s reproductive systems in order to ensure that the property went to their biological children – but why? Why should we care if our children our biologically ours? And how did men get ahold of property to begin with, instead of women? Engels puts it down to men being hunter/gatherers – but why were they? And why should that matter? Especially as in a lot of societies, women are in charge of agriculture (like most of Africa today), so you’d think that land would be in women’s possession, as we were the ones working it.
If everything is seen through a Marxist lens, then, there is no such thing as race privilege or gender privilege. Being working-class is the ultimate oppression, and being white does not mitigate this. There’s not even much class privilege, because there’s no difference between the university lecturer and the woman cleaning the university.
Unfortunately, having finally realised what the issue is, I have no idea what to do with this information. Simply saying “look, I am using a different definition of class than you, and also, you’re still white” is not actually going to accomplish that much. Orthodox Marxists will just say that my definition of class is wrong.
September 16, 2008
Zenobia at The Beadshop has a great post up about feminist relationships, in particular her experience as a secretary in a feminist group where a lot of the members were economically privileged, had postgraduate degrees, and their own secretaries.
As I’ve posted about before, I had a pretty negative experience in one of the feminist groups I joined, but in many ways it was the mirror of Zenobia’s. In this group I was conspicuously well-educated (formally); one of the only members of the group with a postgraduate degree. I was also one of the only members who identified as middle-class, even though I was flat broke at the time; everyone else in the group identified as working-class.
I want to write a post one day about how a “working-class identity” in a lot of activist groups becomes a way of denying any other form of privilege – “I couldn’t have said something racist, I’m working-class” or “my fear and loathing of transpeople isn’t transphobia, I’m working-class”.
Today though, I want to discuss my experience of privilege within a group, and how to better take responsibility for my privilege in the future.
To a certain extent, my privilege within the group didn’t necessarily do me a lot of good in terms of group dynamics. Everyone else in the group adhered to a pretty rigid radical feminist line (one that, weirdly enough despite the working-class identity, wasn’t much interested in doing anything practical to challenge capitalism), and as I didn’t, I usually found myself being ganged up on.
BUT, I also know that my privilege can be intimidating and, to my shame, that sometimes I can use that to defend myself. I’m wicked smart, and I’m well educated, and I’m very articulate. I speak better than I write, generally speaking. And when I’m angry or nervous, I actually get MORE articulate – if I feel backed into a corner, out come the £10 vocabulary words and bibliographic references. My middle-class, white, English-as-a-first-language upbringing means that I speak in a generic, mid-Atlantic accent – no regional or class-based accents for me! I sound like the people on Canadian television. My middle-class upbringing and education means that I have the self-confidence to believe that what I’m saying is important and worth listening to – and the ability to fake that confidence where I don’t have it.
So, I could actually hold my own when everyone else in the group was against me, which isn’t to say that it wasn’t an incredibly stressful experience. But I know I appeared to others (based on comments people occasionally made) completely convinced of my own correctness and also of my own superior intelligence.
This leads me to wonder two things. First, could things have gone better in the group if I’d been more aware of my privilege and done something to counteract it, so I didn’t make others feel stupid, or inferior? And how do I do this in the future? It seems really patronising, to me, to suddenly “dumb down” your language, for example. But clearly, somewhere between talking to everyone like they’re 5, and talking to everyone like they have a PhD, there’s a happy medium.
Secondly, to what extent did my privilege keep me from hearing valid criticism? People in the group did tend to use their working-class identity to fend off any accusations of other kinds of privilege, particularly around transphobia and racism. But, to what extent did I begin to assume that any attempts to call me on my privilege were just attempts to avoid these discussions? Looking back, I wonder if the frequent references to working-class backgrounds were also an attempt to let me know I was alienating other people with my class privilege, and that consequently people were feeling defensive. Was I inadvertently constantly reminding people that they were working-class (in comparison to my privileged self)?
I have an extremely biased memory of many of these events of course because even after all these months I’m still pretty angry about the whole experience. But I do think the time has come for me to be honest with myself and examine the experience in a way that may not be terribly self-flattering.
P.S. This was dashed off in about 10 minutes as I was leaving the office, so there may be errors, and I may come back to edit it more.