Bahar Mustafa: once on the left

The Goldsmiths ideology

The rightwing press campaign against Bahar Mustafa puts the parlous state of student politics under the spotlight, writes Paul Demarty

Let us begin with the formalities: Bahar Mustafa - whose energetic tenure as student diversity officer at Goldsmiths College is currently gathering so much national press attention after she tweeted ‘Kill all white men’ - should not lose her job; still less should she be prosecuted for inciting racial hatred, as sillier commentators demand.

Those laws, in fact, are profoundly anti-democratic and ought to be struck off the statute books. To put things clearly, if Mustafa was an open neo-Nazi, we would say the same thing. (Electing a neo-Nazi as your diversity officer would be bizarre, but perhaps an interesting conceptual art stunt of the sort for which Goldsmiths has become rightly famous.)

This is the minimum case possible in the defence of freedom of speech, of course, and little more can be offered in this instance. For, while Mustafa’s ironic demand for the death of all white males has become a free speech issue, Mustafa herself is no stranger to political censorship, having motivated her student union to ban Socialist Workers Party members from campus - a cheerful general meeting ended with the local intersectionalist clique ritually burning leftwing literature outside. Some of that literature belonged to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, and it was AWL supporter Tom Harris who was called “white trash” in another eloquent missive from the official Goldsmiths diversity Twitter feed.

Marxists are often in the business of trying to work out when ‘quantity has turned into quality’ - when a series of small shifts tips over into a decisive transformation. In this instance, we are concerned as to whether we can now clearly say that the intersectionalists have lost the right to be described as left wing. After all, so much more intersectional energy is expended on excluding the traditional (they would say ‘white, male’) left and radical (they would say ‘white’, again) feminism, wherever they have any measure of petty bureaucratic authority, than attacking the traditionally identified opponents of the oppressed.

Mustafa’s SWP ban is emblematic. If you are actually concerned about the safety of female students at Goldsmiths, the Socialist Worker Student Society is hardly going to be first on the ‘to ban’ list (the rugby club is typically a good place to start). This is because all the chatter about safety and inclusiveness is either delusional or deliberately mendacious - a way to gaslight discussions to the detriment of political opponents. Either you want to boot potential rivals of Bahar Mustafa off campus or you are a rape apologist - or a white supremacist, or whatever it is this week.

The closest analogue here is the behaviour of the Antideutsche and their inheritors in Germany - at this point more or less placemen for the Springer press and the labour bureaucracy, providing Marxisant cover for outrageous smears and cynical manoeuvres.

The emergence of such political trends - leftwing in origin, anti-left in current practice - is common enough: we could add, from the 1970s, the American Larouchites and the French nouveaux philosophes. Each of these trends is generated by unique circumstances, however - objective and subjective. On the objective side, we must note first of all that there are relatively few amenable breeding grounds for the intersectional bacillus: principally, social media and student unions.

We have dealt at length before with the relationship between social media and weapons-grade identity politics (‘The internet in the epoch of decline’, March 27 2014), and will not reprise beyond the bare minimum here - in essence, despite the apparent vastness and diversity of material available on the web, there is a strong tendency towards cliquery and groupthink. The internet, now that it is a mass phenomenon on a scale unimaginable anywhere 20 years ago, is a buyer’s market for fellow feeling. Thus it is fertile territory for brittle ideologies like intersectionality, which resent all external challenges.

Education market

As things stand, Bahar is in trouble primarily over a Twitter post, but her antics are more generally situated within contemporary student politics, and thus are incomprehensible without reference to the shifts happening within higher education as a whole. Those shifts, of course, are taking place under the rubric of what is called neoliberalism: universities are reinvented as pseudo-businesses, vice-chancellors as wannabe CEOs (with wannabe-CEO salaries) and courses of study as not-quite-commodities.

In this country, the decisive economic transformation is the introduction and ratcheting-up of tuition fees. Today, students are expected to take out loans of £9,000 per year for their courses, with living expenses on top of that. While it would be a vulgar economist indeed who believed that this change has succeeded in introducing anything like a market into British higher education, it nonetheless degrades campus politics for two main reasons.

First of all, the huge fees amplify an element of the relationship between student and university which had previously been subordinated, and even thought a little dirty in polite circles: students are consumers of educational services offered by the university ‘firm’. Many commentators, especially those of a donnish and leftish persuasion, have bemoaned this consumerist attitude as an affront to the noble pursuit of knowledge, but it is difficult to blame freshers staring down the barrel of a £50,000 debt for wondering what’s in it for them.

The central consequence is that students are less likely on average to engage seriously in politics. Campus activism - of left and right - was always more common among arts and humanities cohorts, who have more spare time to read ‘off piste’, as well as to do political activity. A renewed focus on the ‘bottom line’ makes these financially unrewarding courses less attractive in the first place; and also renders those on other degrees less likely to risk costly failures by prioritising any extra-curricular activities unlikely to look good on a CV. Sharpening labour discipline among academics, meanwhile, threatens those very ‘red professors’ who would formerly slip students a volume of Marx or Bakunin.

Secondly, the pseudo-capitalist ethos of the modern university has a tendency to spread into every capillary of the campus. Many academics have lamented the transformation of the very buildings they work in - security gates popping up everywhere, every spare inch of space put out for hire for private conferences and so forth. The old leftwing tactic of taking a punt on a trestle table outside a freshers’ fair becomes less rewarding, the more jealously guarded is the area around the entrance.

This tendency, of course, also affects the student unions themselves, whose activities are more and more hemmed in by boards of trustees and charity law. They, too, become reduced to service providers. Here, we rejoin the Goldsmiths intersectionalists.

Much ill-tempered rightwing newsprint has been dedicated to the apparent hypocrisy of Mustafa’s banning of white people from anti-racist events, but we would perhaps do better to look at its even more apparent pointlessness. After all, black people are unlikely to be racist against themselves: are they really high-priority targets for anti-racist propaganda? One of these events, ironically, was a screening of a film called Listen, white people (from the next room maybe).

Intersectionality, not uniquely among the different strands of identity politics, thus elevates the self-organisation of the oppressed to the cardinal principle of political strategy; but in doing so it renders concrete expressions of such organisation profoundly useless. The manufactured outrage over ‘BME only’ signs at Goldsmiths meetings makes these gatherings sound rather more grand than they are: if fact, they are social occasions for a brittle and incestuous clique, barely more political in the last analysis than the rugby team’s hazing rituals.

The triumph of intersectionality in these circumstances cannot be explained, however, without reference to the traditional left’s failures. Bahar Mustafa and her cronies were able to ban the SWP from Goldsmiths only because the SWP had already destroyed its own student organisation; no more than a handful of campus SWPers can have been effective. My spies tell me they did not even turn up to the crunch meeting - it fell to the AWL, Platypus and others to defend them.

The direct result of the SWP’s implosion is a sharp reduction in absolute numbers of campus lefts, and the scattering of hundreds of comrades lacking any serious political education, many of whom have become foot soldiers for intersectionality. (Mustafa herself is not from an SWP background, but was a member of the defunct libertarian-communist Commune group - a detail that has somehow escaped the notice of her many rightwing critics, and which she is none too keen to advertise, now that she has changed her tune somewhat.)

We are dealing, then, not with the downfall of civilisation as we know it, as rightwingers would have it; nor with an unstoppable insurgency of the marginalised, as intersectionalists and their outliers would say. Rather, the Goldsmiths leaflet-burners and white-men-baiters are an illustration of defeat: the failure of the student movement of 2011 to create a new generation of left activists, a failure that can be blamed squarely on those on the left who seemed almost determined to piss their gains away.

Student politics is by no means over for good; any change in the political situation, however unfortunate, creates opportunities. The new regime in higher education has still to stabilise - we may expect further differentiation between top and not so good schools, greater inequality of status among their students and other grim phenomena, and equally expect them to mingle in unpredictable ways with students’ political instincts. If anything effective is to come of a revival, however, the intersectionalists will have to be left behind.