Attempt to outlaw justified anger
The demand that Corbyn should apologise for Labour ‘anti-Semitism’ is a demand to bow before US policymakers, writes Mike Macnair
Among the ‘olive branches’ Jeremy Corbyn and his advisers offered to the capitalist class and its agents in the Labour Party in his leadership acceptance speech on September 24 was the following statement:
Our party has a duty of care to our members. That means intervening to stop personal abuse and also abiding by the principles of natural justice in the way that we handle it. Politics is demeaned and corroded by intimidation and abuse. It is not my way and it is not the Labour way and never will be.1
When spoken as part of a short speech, this came across as conceding the fundamental claim of the capitalists’ representatives in Labour that they have been subject to unwarranted “personal abuse”.
In print, it is more ambiguous, as the apparent concession that there has been “personal abuse” and that there is a “duty of care” to stop it is balanced by the recognition that disciplinary or ‘compliance’ proceedings should “abid[e] by the principles of natural justice”. This is a fairly obvious dig at the processes of Labour’s ‘compliance unit’, whose operations would have been regarded by the Court of Star Chamber in the reign of Charles I as so biased and secretive as to violate the principles of natural justice (though they might just about have been acceptable to the Holy Inquisition or the KGB).
Labourlist on September 21 published the Parliamentary Labour Party’s - ie, the rightwingers’ - proposals for a new members’ pledge on the issue:
I pledge to act within the spirit and rules of the Labour Party in my conduct both on and offline, with members and non-members, and I stand against all forms of abuse.
I understand that, if found to be in breach of the Labour Party policy on online and offline abuse, I will be subject to the rules and procedures of the Labour Party.2
The second statement is on its face meaningless (all members are “subject to the rules and procedures of the Labour Party”), but is, of course, a mealy-mouthed way of saying that the person will be subject to the Inquisition-style operations of the compliance unit. It is no doubt intended to operate as a consent to be dealt with in violation of the rules of natural justice, but is probably too inexplicit to have that effect as a matter of law.
The pledge is to stand together with the Labour national executive committee’s “new social media code of conduct”, included in the same Labourlist post. This hits all the usual buttons, just like the ‘safe spaces’ policy we criticised in Left Unity:
A starting point for all our actions as members of a party and a movement is to treat all people with dignity and respect. This applies to all our dealings with people, offline and online ….
Harassment, intimidation, hateful language and bullying are never acceptable, nor is any form of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability ….
Debates amongst party members should be comradely, acknowledging that, whatever our diverse views, we are one party with shared goals. Derogatory descriptions of the positions of others should be avoided.
And so on, and so on ...
The practical meaning of this stuff is perfectly clear from the surrounding events. The rightwing Labour MPs are to continue to be free to pursue a smear campaign of defamation of Jeremy Corbyn, his associates and his supporters. In particular, this smear campaign accuses all opponents of the state of Israel, and even those merely opposed to the state of Israel’s illegal settlement activities on the West Bank, of ‘anti-Semitism’. It is conducted primarily by unattributed briefings of journalists - the exact equivalent in ‘old media’ of anonymous posts on social media. Any retaliation to this smear campaign by online postings is to be treated as ‘abuse’; as is any attempt to insist at all forcefully that the rightwing Labour MPs oughtto recognise that there is a majority against them in the party.
The rightwingers’ campaign of defamation is, moreover, to be elevated as ‘anti-racist’, on the ground that anti-Semitism is a form of racism. The real anti-Semitism which attempts to identify allJews with a particular political tendency - the Zionist project of colonisation of the Levant - certainly is a form of racism. Opposition to the Zionist colonisation project, however, is no more a form of anti-Jewish racism than opposition to Russian backing for the separatists in the Donbass is a form of anti-Russian racism. (I do not mean by this example to take any position for or against the separatist movement in the Donbass, which is a whole other argument; the point is merely that opposition to particular irredentist territorial claims is not, without more, racist.) It is complained that failure to outlaw criticism of Zionism makes the Labour Party ‘not a safe space for Jews’.
By this means ‘intersectionality’ serves the capitalist class and the oppressor. It already did so, of course, by being an instrument of disunity in movements of opposition. And, indeed, the particular form of complaining that opposition to Zionism as a political project meant there was not a ‘safe space for Jews’ had already been pioneered on US campuses before it came to this country.3 But it should now be obvious, even to people who have been promoting this stuff on the left for the last few years, that there is a problem ...
The Morning Star on September 21 perhaps pointed to a view of the matter held by some around Corbyn. An editorial characterised what has been going on as a “one-sided petty purge”, making the point that the rightwingers have been guilty of just as much ‘abusive’ language - to borrow a phrase from the old Public Order Act, “threatening, abusive or insulting” words - as the left; but it is supporters of the left, not the right, who have been purged for this behaviour.
Even so, the original concession, made by both Corbyn and the Morning Star, that Labour should regulate speech, fundamentally sells the pass. First, the concept of ‘respectful’ behaviour internalises social hierarchy. Second, the ‘safe spaces’ or ‘intersectional’ idea that those who find language oppressive to themselves are to determine the rules is not abused by complaints of ‘racism’ towards Zionists: this demand to protect the oppressor is inherent in ‘intersectionality’ itself.
I and other comrades have written about these issues on several occasions, in connection with ‘safe spaces’ and ‘intersectionality’ in Left Unity.4 In this article, however, I propose to argue about the issues in slightly more general terms.
I start on the first point with the figure of the polite bully. I guess everyone will recognise this character from their schooldays: the boy or girl who does not directly issue threats, and so on, but uses their position as prefect, or whatever - or merely their own popularity and their target’s unpopularity - to make life intolerable for them. A common outcome is that the target - the person bullied - ends up ‘cracking’, shouting at or attacking their tormentor, and then being disciplined by the school.
The polite bully should also be familiar from workplaces, behaving in the exact same way. In this context, the polite bully is usually someone who holds a position of power. Rude and violent bullies can also be found at work, of course; but not every workplace bully is even a David Brent. Polite bullying by policemen is also a commonplace ...
In the Labour Party, polite bullying by elected representatives and full-time officials has been utterly normal for the last 20 years or perhaps longer. It has served to enforce the right wing’s monopoly control over the selection of candidates and over whose views can be expressed - which, in turn, is a monopoly on behalf of the firms who pay lobbyists and contribute to MPs’ activities.
In this context, legislation - or party rules - to enforce ‘civility’ and ‘respect’ becomes profoundly problematic. These rules are apt to produce the common result in school bullying cases: that the bully’s victim is penalised rather than the bully. Consider, for example, the ‘Unison monkey trial’ victimisation of Socialist Party activists over a leaflet;5 or the ejection of Walter Wolfgang from the 2005 Labour Party conference for heckling Jack Straw over the Iraq war.6
Why? The answer is that the ability to bully comes not from the expression of anger, but from holding a position of power; whether it is an institutional position of power, as in the case of officials or elected representatives, or arises merely from relative popularity or the ability to manipulate, as in the case of classroom bullies.
The expression of anger is making a moral claim on the person against whom it is directed. This may be a claim against that person; or it may be claim for solidarity from the person you are speaking to against a third person or group. Whether it is morally justified to express anger depends, in essence, on whether the underlying moral claim is justified.
It may be tactically ineffective to express anger, but yet morally justified; this is commonly the situation of the victim of polite bullying. It is, on the other hand, possible - and, indeed, true in a great many cases - that all that is possible is to express anger, and hope that this anger will either shame the bully, or shame other people into solidarising with you. For an extremely important example, the Tory anti-union laws (maintained by New Labour) have made almost all coercive use of the strike weapon impossible, so that most strike action is exactly a protest which aims to shame the employer and evoke broader solidarity by displaying the anger of the strikers about how the employer is treating them.
The demand for ‘civility’ and ‘respect’, enforceable by disciplinary proceedings, is a demand that there be no expression of anger. The consequence is that it is, inherently, a demand that the existing social hierarchies of power should be maintained.
This point is not really a novelty. It was made by James Q Whitman in 2000 in his article, ‘Enforcing civility and respect: three societies’, which compared Germany, France and the US.7 Whitman argues that speech regulation on the basis of ‘dignity’ and ‘respect’ in Germany and France grew out of aristocratic claims that they be shown more respect than others.
Though Whitman does not discuss the point, we can say the same thing, in reality, of early modern English practice. 1650s-60s Quakers were accused of ‘abusing’ their social superiors by failing to doff their hats to them. What if you were not wearing a hat? You had to tug your forelock - an expression which, unlike doffing your hat, has passed into the language as a cliché of old-fashioned social subordination. In R v Keite (1697) defence lawyers argued that, where an employer, having been cheeked by his gardener (not received his due respect), hit the gardener with a sword and killed him, this was only manslaughter and not murder; the argument did not persuade the judges, but it did persuade the jury.
Juries would not accept such arguments now because of increased egalitarianism. The result is that the upper classes cannot quite enforce the same level of ‘civility and respect’ that they used to.8 “American incivility,” Whitman concludes, “is woven into the cloth of the American egalitarian tradition.”
The history equally shows a persistence of ‘intimidation’ as a form of class struggle; and of objections to ‘intimidation’ as a means of protecting the boss’s right to threaten his or her employees with adverse economic consequences, but to penalise employees’ threats to the boss. Thus for the 1700s EP Thompson’s 1975 study of ‘The crime of anonymity’.9 Thus in 1807 MPs were intimidated into voting for the abolition of the slave trade.10 Thus in the early 1800s, ‘Nedd Ludd’ and ‘Captain Swing’, and in south Wales ‘Rebecca’. Thus the employers’ arguments, episodically through the 1800s and into the early 1900s, for keeping trade unions illegal on the ground that they ‘intimidated’ scabs. Thus the decision in Rookes v Barnard (1964) to invent a loophole in the Trade Disputes Act 1906 for the benefit of employers under the name of ‘intimidation’. And thus the themes of the early stages of Heath’s, Wilson’s and Thatcher’s anti-union legislation, given to them by the legal profession.11
I do not mean by any of this to argue that threats and intimidation are to be the preferred means of political struggle. The point is, rather, that by illegalising most effective forms of collective action, whether by anti-union laws, or by central government and ‘judicial review’ control of local authorities, or by seizing control of the Labour Party through its right wing, the capitalist class has succeeded in restoring the politico-legal order of the restricted franchise (OK, you may vote, but only for the employers’ chosen candidates) and the Combination Acts. That is, that they have left only forms of intimidation as means of fighting effectively for collective interests.
Hence for Corbyn and his supporters, including the Morning Star, to accept in principle a regime of speech controls designed to impose civility and respect is to accept the whole principle of the anti-union laws and the regime of capitalist control.
I have written previously on the antecedents of ‘intersectionality’ and ‘safe spaces’ in the 1970s ‘western soft Maoist’ movement and the ideas of ‘liberated zones’ and ‘speaking bitterness’.12 For the present I do not propose to try again to trace the historical links.13 Rather, I begin with the simple, low-level, argument in favour of ‘intersectionality’, and work from there.
The low-level argument is this: that the specially oppressed - women, black and ethnic minority people and religious minorities, LGBTQ people and those with disabilities - are not to be required to ‘wait’ for socialist revolution (or whatever); rather, their demands as such, and irrespective of class and related issues, are to be non-negotiable ‘trumps’ in argument. The idea that only the oppressed can define their own oppression grows historically out of 1970s ‘speaking bitterness’, but it does not require this idea. The argument for ‘we won’t wait’ does logically entail that the specially oppressed must in the nature of things be able to define their own demands in abstraction from the general process of constructing a party programme for an alternative to the present-day order.
To take this approach is, however, explicitly and necessarily to disregard other issues, and in particular class, in defining the demands of the particular oppressed group. The fact that it is to disregard other issues is at the root of the idea of ‘inter-sectionality’, which demanded that, for example, white feminists needed to give attention to the demands and concerns of BME women about race (and about imperialism) and so on.
I said “in particular class” because the class relationship is rather different from the ‘inter-sectionality’ between various specially oppressed groups (and so on). This is because in relation to each individual specially oppressed group, members of the class elite form a minority which has a common interest with the other members of the group in opposition to forms of legal discrimination, media smears, and so on - but also have directly opposed interests to the other members of the group in relation to economic exploitation. Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook and author of Lean in (2013), can only be a great, celebrated business leader because of the exploitation alike of ‘techno-serfs’ and (far more severely) of IT product assembly workers in the far east. If their exploitation ceased, Sandberg could only be worth reading on some other ground. The same holds equally, if on a smaller scale, for small-business south Asian ‘community leaders’ and so on.
Of course, the advocates of ‘intersectionality’ would say (as the old 1970s ‘western Maoists’ did) that the ‘white’ and/ or ‘male’ working class also benefits from the oppression of black people (via immigration controls and other forms of discrimination allegedly keeping ‘white’ wages up) or of women (whether by job discrimination keeping male wages up, or by the ‘double shift’ in relation to housework and childcare). But the problem is not the same. If we ask the question - would it actually be against the interests of ‘white, male’ workers for wages to be levelled up, and/or for working hours to be cut without reduction of pay to facilitate sharing housework and childcare? - the answer is quite plain that it would not.
Indeed, in relation to migration - which is the more transparent case - it is clear that the effect of immigration controls is to facilitate the employers paying lower pay, by way of the fact that such controls do not actually work to prevent migration, but merely to illegalise and render vulnerable migrant workers. It is probable, though less easy to show because of the larger scale of the problem, that employment discrimination against women similarly undercuts pay in general.
The argument for the existence of ‘worker’ interests opposed to those of the specially oppressed thus works entirely on the suppositions, first, that the class order is to continue - and, second, that equalities gains are not to be at the expense of capital; so that equalities must be a matter of levelling down. Equalities gains at the expense of capital are not opposed to the interests of white, male, etc, workers. In contrast to this, the class-elite members of specially oppressed groups are absolutely dependent for the continuation of their positions of elite membership on the continuation of exploitation of the large majority - including the large majority of their own group of the specially oppressed.
The claim that the specially oppressed are not to be made to wait for an end to their oppression logically entails disregarding ‘other’ issues in formulating the demands of the oppressed. It is also a claim that an end to oppression can be won within capitalism and not immediately at the cost of capital - unlike class demands as such.
This may seem an odd statement. Much of the Trotskyist left argued in the 1970s precisely that the oppression of women, racism, etc, was necessary to capitalism, and thus could only be overthrown by socialist revolution; hence, that such demands were ‘transitional’. But this line of argument would not support the idea of the ‘autonomy’ of the movements of the specially oppressed. If overthrowing capitalism was necessary to liberation, what would be needed was a movement for this purpose whose demands included those in relation to special oppressions - necessarily to be negotiated, not to be imposed by the voice of the oppressed. And then, moreover, no-one could be ‘made to wait’ for liberation - except by capital and its regime. The ‘dual systems theory’ pioneered by Eurocommunist ‘socialist feminists’ offered precisely reasons why women’s concerns could and should be separated from class concerns, and could be won within capitalism - the ‘old left’ or the ‘class reductionists’ were trying to make women wait for socialism. The argument has then been copied in other fields of oppression.
Yet, just as the original argument for autonomy supposes that the common interests of women as women, BME people as BME people, and so on, trump the class differences within the section, this sort of argument, in turn, adds reasons for prioritising as ‘feminist’ or ‘anti-racist’ or whatever demands those demands which do not challenge the system of class power. It is precisely only such demands which can have a real prospect of being won without a challenge to the capitalist class as such and thus without ‘waiting’.
It is therefore no oddity or betrayal that ‘feminist’ commitment in these terms should mean precisely the unity of women with female exploiters against male workers, that ‘anti-racism’ should mean the unity of BME people with exploiters of their own ethnicity, and so on. It is, rather, the underlying logic of the argument which drives this outcome.
Sandberg is a classic example in relation to feminism. The same is blindingly obviously true of the ‘feminism’ which celebrated the election of Margaret Thatcher as the first British woman prime minister and now celebrates the coronation of Theresa May as the second; or which urges us to back the foreign policy hawk, Hillary Clinton, in the US presidential election. We have to ask the question, have the large mass of women been made better off by this ‘feminism’?
The answer, also pretty obviously, is that they have not. Everything which has been gained in access to jobs - and especially in access to managerial jobs - has to be set against these gains being constructed in the framework of a ‘liberty’ which is the liberty to be more intensively exploited. Then the gains are concentrated among managerial women (and the managerial sub-varieties of elected representatives and bureaucrats), and the costs fall largely among poor women (mostly in the global ‘south’, but in the ‘north’, too).
Analogously, the result of prioritising an end to race discrimination without an overthrow of capitalism can be seen most clearly in South Africa, where the apartheid regime, one of the most spectacular forms of racial oppression, is gone. But, although a black capitalist class and a black middle class has been created, the country remains one of the most deeply unequal in the world - and in some respects the capture of the African National Congress and hence the Cosatu trade union confederation by the new black middle class has worsened the position of workers, who have lost both powerful instruments to fight with and moral pressure on their exploiters to make concessions.
Even in the heartland of the case for deferring social demands in favour of discrimination demands, the USA, where the 1950s-60s black civil rights movement created massive changes and temporarily destabilised the system of rule, today the story looks less unambiguously one of victory. The creation of the black middle class, and even the election of a mixed-race president in Obama, turn out to have ‘left behind’ a very large part of the US’s black population. And as a result the events which have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement reflect the toxic combination of class and race, along with deepening militarisation of the police.
Just as the initial unwillingness of the 19th century English middle class to pay for clean water and sewers for the poor could only be overcome when it became clear to them that cholera and typhoid would not keep politely to the boundaries of the poor districts, so perhaps the US’s black middle class will learn from Black Lives Matter that the disease of militarised policing to control the ‘underclass’ they left behind will also not stay politely in the poor districts. Of course, it may well be that, when the black middle class realise this, they will find that actually the concessions made to them in the last 40 years are merely on condition that they help to keep the rest down ...
These are examples. They are examples of the fact that the logic of ‘multiple systems theories’, which underlies ‘intersectionalist’ approaches, is precisely acceptance of the continued rule of the exploiters, and as a result concessions made which deliver benefits only for the managerial minority of the oppressed and not for the large majority of the particular oppressed group.
The argument is about the logic of the method. If we reject the logic of the method, we should not be disarmed in face of the claims that anti-Zionism amounts to anti-Semitism, which are made in the name of ‘intersectionalist’ versions of anti-racism and the right of the oppressed (here, the Jews - and, moreover, ‘the Jews’ meaning here Jewish organisations committed to Zionism) to define what is ‘oppressive’. This claim to define is wrong when it is made by those targeted by imperialists, racists, misogynists and so on. Hence it is all the more wrong when it is made - as it is in the smear campaign over Labour ‘anti-Semitism’ - in the name of the Jews, but in the interest of US middle eastern policy.
The demand that Corbyn ‘apologise’ over anti-Semitism and so on is, in reality, a demand that he and his co-thinkers tug their forelocks, as Tony Blair did, to US policymakers. Here, as elsewhere, giving them some cheek is the right response - not turning the other cheek in the name of ‘civility’ and ‘intersectionality’.
3. Y Mather, ‘The tyranny of safe spaces’ Weekly Worker November 20 2111.
4. As well as other articles in these notes, see P Demarty, ‘Conway-Hudson school of censorship’ Weekly Worker September 26 2013; Y Mather, ‘How not to arm ourselves’ Weekly Worker April 16 2015.
5. ‘The Unison monkey trial’ Weekly Worker September 9 2009.
6. ‘Heckler, 82, who dared called Straw a liar is held under terrorist law’ The Daily Telegraph September 29 2005.
7. Yale Law Journal Vol 109, pp1279-1398.
8. But compare Michele Hanson, ‘The days of forelock-tugging have returned’ The Guardian July 8 2013.
9. In D Hay et al (ed) Albion’s fatal tree London 1976, chapter 6.
10. S Drescher, ‘Whose abolition? Popular pressure and the ending of the British slave trade’ Past and Present Vol 143 (1994), p136.
11. A part of the very extensive literature on this history is conveniently cited in M Macnair, ‘Free association versus juridification’ Critique Vol 39, pp53-82 (2011).
12. ‘A useless product of 1970s radicalism’ Weekly Worker April 11 2013; ‘Safe spaces are not liberating’ May 29 2014; ‘“Speaking bitterness” and Left Unity’, June 19 2014.
13. It has to be said that part of what is involved is a strong tendency for the academic left ‘children of 68’ to merely rename their ideas when they have been refuted or disproved by disasters in practice. The same is true of ‘structuralism’ - it mutated in face of criticisms into ‘poststructuralism’, which, once criticised, became ‘postmodernism’, and this in turn, after Alex Callinicos’s effective critique in Against postmodernism (1990), was renamed as ‘postmarxism’. The underlying case of these supposedly diverse theories for opposition to historical materialism remained identical.