Saturday, October 13, 2018

Asad Haider - Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump

Donald Trump's election made bigotry mainstream. Racists, homophobes and misogynists have been empowered by Trump's right-wing rhetoric. How the left understands and responds to this will be crucial in terms of building a united movement that can beat back the right and win real change for ordinary people, as well as protect and defend the rights of those that are under attack from the bigots. As Asad Haider's important new book shows, these battles are not confined to America and the debates are crucial for left-wingers around the globe.

But Haider begins by showing how, perhaps surprisingly, the main way that progressives have attempted to understand oppression - identity politics - has undermined their ability to build the united movements we need. Haider argues that identity politics has moved away from its original usage, as an attempt to make sure that marginalised voices and experiences were not lost to wider movements, and has become an end in itself, helping to undermine movements. He writes:
In its campus activist usage, however, 'intersectionality' appears to move in the opposite direction, retreating from the coalition-building practises of the CRC and instead generalising the condition of the plaintiff: equating political practice with the demand of restitution for an injury, inviting the construction of baroque and unnavigable intersections consisting of the litany of different identities to which a given person might belong. Those whose identity is inscribed with the most intersecting lines can claim the status of most injured, and are therefore awarded, in the juridical framework to which politics is now reduced, both discursive and institutional protection. This protected status implies neither the political subjectivity that can come from organising autonomously, nor the solidarity that is required for coalitions that can enrage in successful political action.
Here, the CRC referred to by Haider is the Combahee River Collective, a group of "black lesbian militants" in Boston, SA who in 1977 issued a statement responding to the racism and sexism in the movement which they said had "undermined" revolutionary socialism. They believed that raising questions of identity and intersectionaility would allow socialists to build stronger movements and coalitions that could be more effective.

Sadly, argues Haider, the opposite has been the case and he gives a number of examples of the ways that contemporary movements have instead become undermined by such politics. Haider points out, for instance, that the Black Lives Matter movement frequently involved groups and individuals who argued that only "black-led organisations" could organise around these issues, but the problem is that there are frequently "deep political divergences among those organisations-some of which represented the elite interests of a black bourgeoisie and explicitly sought to suppress grassroots militancy".

Against this, Haider tries to show how movements can effectively link class struggle and put anti-racism at their heart (Haider focuses on the question of race in this book, though he does not ignore other questions of oppression) including the US Communist Party in the 1930s. He also attempts to understand the retreat of left-wing politics in the context of the neoliberalism introduced by Thatcher and Reagen and followed up by many other politicians. His analysis of events in the UK draws heavily on the political theorist Stuart Hall, but I found this the least convincing part of his argument. For instance, Haider argues (along Hall's lines) that the Miners' Strike (the most damaging defeat for the British working class in the 20th century) was unwinnable from the start. But what he misses is that the Miner's almost did win on several occasions, because he neglects the role of the trade union bureaucracy and the Labour Party. As a result, I think he almost sees the rise of neoliberalism and identity politics separated from its original class-based politics, as inevitable. That said, Haider is correct to see where it ends up, "as a result, the progressive languages of the new social movements, uprooted from their grassroots base, would be appropriated by a new ruling-class strategy."

Haider finishes his wide-ranging, short book, with an appeal for a return to a new politics of universal liberation. He takes inspiration from movements today that fight for solidarity for other groups - such as the "refugees welcome" movement in the US against Trump's Muslim bans. Despite it's short length there is a lot here, from the novels of Philip Roth to a detailed examination of the origins of racism in the Atlantic slave trade. At time I felt a little bombarded by information, but I think that this is a book that deserves a wide-readership for those of us engaged in trying to rebuild radical left politics in the 21st century.

Related Reviews

Fryer - Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain
Richardson (ed) - Say it Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against RacismDresser - Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol
Slorach - A Very Capitalism Condition
Orr - Marxism and Women's Liberation

Friday, October 05, 2018

Brian W. Lavery - The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca & the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster

2018 is the 50th anniversary of 1968 and among all the mass movements and great upheavals seen in that year, there were countless other events that year that made their mark on history. One of these is the struggle of the women of Hull to improve the safety of the fishing trawlers that their husbands, fathers and sons crewed in the dangerous northern waters around Iceland. The beginning of 1968 saw three trawlers sink in one of the most powerful storms that fishers had ever seen. 58 men lost their lives and there was only one survivor.

The tragedy hit the close-knit working class community hard and in the aftermath of the sinking one woman, Lillian Bilocca, launched a petition that rapidly became a national movement demanding improved safety equipment aboard the ships. Mrs Bilocca's son was one a trawler at the time (though not one that sank) and she knew, as did many other women, that it could easily have been her son. One key demand, and it seems incredible today that it wasn't a legal requirement, was to have a qualified radio operator on board each ship. Another was against the use of "Christmas Cracker" crews - inexperienced crews sent out over the winter when more experienced crew members wanted to remain at home with their families.

Author Brian W. Lavery has a long association with Hull, and describes this book as being the result of a promise that he would "set the record straight" about Mrs Bilocca. The book begins with an account of life for fishers on the trawlers. This was an incredibly hard job;  the work required huge physical effort, long hours and often took place in appalling conditions. The ships themselves were frequently dangerous with safety equipment damaged or missing. Lavery points out that at the time ships from European fleets had better equipment and sailed with a command ship that helped look out for the smaller vessels as well as providing support. Crew members were handsomely rewarded for their dangerous work, though the real profits were made by the owners.

Venturing out in the depths of winter into appalling weather was not done out of greed on the part of the crews, but by the ship-owners knowledge that they could make a fortune from a successful return. The short-cuts, dangerous voyages and lack of equipment helped improve the profit margins, but it was the workers on the boats who paid the price. If one anecdote demonstrates this, it is that in the aftermath of the disaster as fishers who had been rescued from a Grimsby trawler were recovering in Iceland, listening to the news of the women's campaign on the radio, their skipper interrupted them.
'You are not going to believe this, lads... but they are only telling us to go back out fishing.' The men were agog but even further astonished by the skippers' next words. 'If I were you lads I wouldn't go. I'll have to get back to them with an answer. Shall I just tell them you are refusing to go? After all, we can hardly blame you.'
Not surprisingly the men said no, the first time a "company command" was refused. Nor is it a surprise that Mrs Bilocca's petition was instantly supported by thousands of locals. Together with several other outspoken women they proceeded to launch a mass campaign for safety. Brushed off by the ship-owners, and in the midst of a media storm the women took their campaign to parliament and, together with the trade union movement, were able to win promises of significant improvements.

Lillian Bilocca inspects ships for safety equipment
Mrs Bilocca found herself at the centre of a national media storm. The tragedy was just the sort of thing the national presses loved and there was a fine angle involving the grieving families and the women's campaign. Unfortunately the media was then, as now, a fickle friend, and was quite capable of turning on those it had held up a few days previously. Mrs Bilocca's working class accent and plain language was turned on her, and some sections of the media erroneously suggested that she had called for a sex strike until their men joined the campaign. Such slurs undermined the campaign and seriously upset Mrs Bilocca, as did the vicious letters sent to her accusing her of interfering in men's work and hitting the community in the pockets. Her campaign was a challenge not just to the bosses, but to many in the community itself.

Lillian Bilocca's campaign had forced the government to introduce a moratorium on fishing in the dangerous area and grant an official inquest into the disasters. Ship owners were forced to make major improvements to safety and politicians made to act. These gains were won extraordinarily quickly - and there is no doubt that this was the result of Mrs Bilocca's personal bravery and commitment. What is also clear is that while a minority of the community disliked her interference, most were of the opinion that "something had to be done" and despite the vicious threats from a small number, Mrs Bilocca's actions led to victory.

Despite the personal tragedies, and the sadness that clearly dogged Lillian Bilocca after the events (she lost her job as a result of her campaigning and never worked in the fishing industry again, having to take cleaning jobs to make ends met) this is a remarkable book that demonstrates that ordinary people can win. Lavery suggests that Lilian Bilocca and her comrades' "Headscarf Revolution" might have been a "naive" one. There is no doubt that she and the others underestimated the power of the media to make and break heroes. But struggles that explode onto the historical stage are usually led by ordinary people who have never played such a role before. In many ways it is precisely their naivety that means they are free of the chains that hold back many seasoned activists.

It is worth highlighting that this book has relevance to today's world. Lavery highlights the limitations of the official union movement in both building among fishers and winning change. The workers might have been considered impossible to organise - much like the fast food workers or other "precarious" workers of the 21st century. Fishers were home for a few days before disappearing for weeks. Yet Lillian Bilocca's campaign proved that the community and the workers could win change. Fishers were also limited by the Merchant Shipping Acts that prevented strikes (though it didn't stop the refusal mentioned above!) Secondly I was struck by how radical movements can explode out of nowhere and rapidly win real change. As one of the union officials said, it is a shame that such a tragedy had to happen before changes were made. But this book is a fitting tribute to Lillian Bilocca and her comrades who, when the time came, stood up and refused to back down.

I'd like to take this opportunity to also highlight a new album about Hull's Fishing Community by Joe Solo. Due out in January 2019 it's title track is about the disaster and is very moving.

Related Reviews

Harman - The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

David Williams - The Rebecca Riots

The Rebecca Riots are some of the most famous examples of rebellion in Welsh history. For a brief, intense period, the Welsh countryside was aflame with resistance as large groups of rebels, frequently disguised as women, destroyed toll gates, threatened the forces of law and order and made a mockery of the authorities attempts to catch the rebels. This classic book was first published in 1955 and has been reprinted regularly since. It is easy to understand why - it's a comprehensive account of the Riots that puts events into their economic and historic context, but doesn't fail to neglect the telling of a brave and remarkable story.

The book begins with a detailed look at the Welsh economic situation in the first decades of the 19th century. This was a period of intense poverty, and great transition. Wales from moving from being an agricultural economy to one dominated by industry. As with other parts of the British Isles, the development of industrial capitalism led to a transformation in social relations in the countryside. As the need to move goods and raw materials, messages and people around Wales increased, one aspect of the changing world was the need to maintain an adequate system of roads. The responsibility for this was, as David Williams explains in detail, devolved to private companies of individual investors who would pay for road upkeep through the maintenance of tolls.

These tolls had a dramatic impact upon the local population. Depending on whether a cart or a herd of animals were being moved, farmers, traders and businessmen had to pay to move their materials. These tolls were high, and due to the multiplicity of companies, could be levied multiple times for a single journey. Taking inspiration from the Bible (Genesis 24, 60) "And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them." mass protests threatened the toll companies and then smashed them down.

Williams argues however that the riots against toll gates weren't an isolated example of rage at the owners. Instead, "the Rebecca Riots were the growing pains of a new society, an example of the disturbances which so often accompany any change in the social structure." Thus the riots cannot be separated from earlier struggles against tithes, evictions and poverty. Nor can they be separated from the growing numbers of struggles over pay and conditions in the new industries, however as Williams stresses, Rebecca was led, not by the working classes, but by small farmers - though workers and agricultural labourers certainly took part in the protests. Rebecca's "success" argues Williams, led to a "general breakdown in society". But he continues by arguing that other forces also rose up. His description of these as "scum" is unfortunate and unfair. In a highly poverty stricken society of deep class polarisation it is not surprising that a small number of individuals used the opportunity of chaos to settle some scores. More interestingly the riots were also accompanied by other demands. A journalist at The Times managed to gain entrance to a secret mass meeting of Rebecca's followers and noted (via an interpreter) that
The grievances included the toll-gates, the tithe, church rates, and high rents. But Rebecca also resolved that no Englishman should be employed as a steward in Wales (for the landlords had made a practice of importing English and Scottish stewards who would be out of sympathy with their tenants. Farmers were urged not to get into debt, but, if any man endeavoured treacherously to obtain his neighbour's farm, or took a farm which had been given up because the rent was too high, 'the Lady' must be acquainted and encouraged in her exertions.
Once again, I was struck by parallels with other agrarian rebellions in the British Isles - the threats against those who took over farms vacated by others mirrors struggles in the 1820s in Ireland, and there are multiple examples of anonymous threatening letters from England and Ireland.

Williams finishes by highlighting the very real success of Rebecca. While a few individuals were punished for their involvement, some with great severity, most were not and tolls were dramatically reduced, made uniform and crucially supervised by the County. Williams notes that remarkably, "for the next thirty years, South Wales enjoyed a better general system of roads than any other party of the country". Rebecca went down in local history as an inspirational period - quite rightly. It demonstrated that ordinary people could challenge the military forces of the state through their local knowledge, numbers and experience, and that small farmers, rural and urban labourers could work together. Crucially it proved that ordinary people could change the world for the better.

Related Reviews

Jones - Before Rebecca
Donnelly - Captain Rock

Monday, October 01, 2018

Philip Pullman - La Belle Sauvage

I still remember the Christmas that I first read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series - a mad rush to the bookshop before it closed on Christmas Eve to make sure that I had the final volume before the holidays began. The trilogy is probably one of the best young adult series ever written and I shall never tire of recommending them. La Belle Sauvage is the first volume of a new trilogy - this one set a decade or so before the start of the original books and serves as both an origin story of Lyra Belacqua the hero of those stories and as a further fleshing out of the parallel Earth that they are set on.

But it is also a bloody good read. We have two new heroes and their daemons, Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, who live with his parents in their Oxford pub and Alice, a few years older than Malcolm and in her grumpy rudeness she presents a neat foil to the honest and soft spoken Malcolm. Thrown together by chance and the need to protect the baby Lyra, these two go on an epic journey and their relationship is transformed. It's an exciting adventure with some classic evil characters and organisations each trying to stop the children and capture Lyra. But I was struck by how wonderful Malcolm and Alice were written. Alice in particular is a brilliantly portrayed young woman, simultaneously confident and wary, angry and loving. Both of them are resourceful in a way that I imagine most young adult readers would like to be, and yet their mission nearly comes apart under the pressure of their enemies, the nature and the more fantastical elements of their world.

Pullman fleshes out a lot here too. For fans of the original series he answers some questions about the relationship between humans and their daemons though, to a slight extent, I thought he ret-conned a few details here and there. It is a fast passed novel though and it would be easier to miss some of Pullman's deeper musings on spirit and soul. As previously religion plays a major role, here the equivalent of the Catholic Church forming a powerful anti-democratic force in society. In some brilliantly written scenes that send a chill through the reader's spine school children are encouraged to inform on adults who don't conform to the Church's needs. Parents and teachers are sent to "reeducation camps" as a doctrine and personal settling of scores is used viciously by some of the children. This was one of several genuinely tense and frightening parts of the book.

The problem with returning to an existing fantasy world for an author is that its hard to recreate that sense of wonder and excitement the reader gets from learning about its differences and its similarities. But if La Belle Sauvage is not as brilliant as the books in the Dark Materials series, its' mostly because they were such amazing works. Again, highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Pullman - The Subtle Knife
Pullman - The Amber Spyglass
Pullman - Northern Lights
Pullman - The Ruby in the Smoke