Left Unity: Playing it safe
Everyone involved in producing Left Unitys proposed safe space policy should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, argues Paul Demarty
There was once an exchange on an internet discussion list run by the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), a left student front associated with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.
During a particularly hot-headed intervention, a comrade made mention of the word “cunt” to describe an allegedly disreputable individual. Inevitably, a sea of complaints came forth. A feminist angrily denounced the allegedly sexist use of the word “cunt”; after all, a vagina is a beautiful thing, which should not be degraded by comparisons with an individual all were agreed was a bad egg.
Immediately, a trans woman took to her keyboard to decry the implicit association of womanhood with the possession of the full, double-X chromosome plumbing. Finally, the original poster argued that censoring the word “cunt” was oppressive to those from Scotland, where, apparently, it means something different (not that different, I suspect).
This event did actually take place.1 If it did not, however, one fears it would be necessary to invent it. The latest attempt to impose a ‘safe space’ policy on recalcitrant reality comes courtesy of a group of comrades, including Terry Conway of Socialist Resistance, in the form of a patience-testing, 11-page document outlining in terrifying detail rules for good behaviour, and leaving plenty of other things even more terrifyingly vague. This is to be adopted - or, preferably, ritually burned - by the Left Unity proto-party.
It barely needs to be said that it is an embarrassing dog’s dinner of a document, with barely any coherent structure, and a series of desperate attempts to address every possible grievance it is possible to call oppression in a single code of conduct. I reproduce my little parable above to demonstrate that such an endeavour is futile.
Why, indeed, should it be otherwise? ‘Safe spaces’ are, in origin, a product of the more bureaucratically minded part of the women’s movement; and if you posit violence against women as the material substrate of women’s oppression, it is not an entirely senseless notion. Throwing in every other axis of oppression, however, leads to an exponentially more complex balancing act, which inevitably leads to farcical bust-ups over curse words.
The comrades’ list of oppressions is meticulously thorough. “The great evils of racism, xenophobia, sexism, gender-based violence, disability hate crime, homophobia, transphobia and prejudice, profound and structural discrimination against working class communities are inherent in capitalist society and are increasing with its crisis,” they write (it is disputable whether any of these actually are inherent in capitalist society, of course - except the class question, which here has, alas, become merely another item on the oppression shopping list, in the manner typical of postmodernist-inclined liberals).
“Whilst we cannot be immune to problems inherent in capitalist society,” they write, “we intend to create an organisation committed to consciously and publicly overcoming these issues within our organisation, as well as in society at large.”
There then follows a long list of items guaranteed to reduce any political meeting to petty bickering over who oppressed whom first. Some of this stuff is, obviously, perfectly unobjectionable, although the notion that they need to be set down on paper is a little questionable. “We will aim to provide childcare or assistance with child-minding fees in all meetings (using the experience of Scandinavian ‘teachers’ unions),” they write, as if Scandinavian teachers unions invented the crèche - indeed, as if there was not a crèche at Marxism every year.
Likewise, the admonition for chairs to be “inclusive and democratic” is surely a courageous attack on all those who advocate undemocratic and exclusionary chairing … This aspect of the document reaches its farcical apogee with the suggestion that “members organising for the party will be expected to behave decently toward each other and try to consider other people’s needs (as would be normal in a well unionised workplace).” How difficult it is, in Britain today, to make a stand for common decency!
Such motherhood-and-apple-pie wags of the finger, however, are never as innocent as they seem. Because the question begged by all these utterly vague rules of conduct is - who is the arbiter of decency? “Discrimination of any kind is unacceptable and will be challenged”: by whom? “Respect each other’s physical (and emotional) boundaries.” What on earth counts as an emotional boundary - and who decides?
Where detail is forthcoming, it is frankly a disturbing glimpse into the ‘safe space’ mindset. “People’s sex and personal lives are nothing to do with the party,” the comrades write, before reverting with laughable haste to curtain-twitching. “No adult-to-teenager sexual contact. When one person is considerably younger, no relationships should be secret or clandestine.” This jibes interestingly with a previous formulation: “Tolerance of other habits and norms will be expected - for example, The Youth might make more noise!” Indeed, the unironically capitalised ‘Youth’ will almost certainly make noise if you start telling them who they are and are not permitted to fuck.
This mindset is something I have taken to calling ‘bureaucratic sentimentalism’. It has two progenitors: firstly, the increasing bureaucratisation of the official labour movement and mainstream ‘progressive’ campaigning. The unions have been reduced, by carrot and stick, to a situation where much of their day-to-day activity is sticking up for people quasi-judicially, rather than through workplace action; meanwhile, movements such as women’s lib have been subject to ‘NGOisation’: grassroots campaigners lose out to press officers and stale lobbying of careerist politicians in need of some right-on cred.
On the other side of the coin, there is the far left, which itself has degenerated rapidly in the recent period into a state of enraged liberalism; fighting for attention by making the most radical-sounding (which is to say, shrill) criticisms of the daily outrages of capitalist society. The perpetual pitch of hysteria comes inevitably at the cost of political clarity.
Put these two phenomena together, and the bastard lovechild is bureaucratic sentimentalism: a rigorously enforced touchy-feeliness, which like all bureaucracy rapidly sinks into departmental warfare. The ugly features of both parents are prominent in the LU ‘safe space’ document. “By vehemently and ostensibly [sic] proclaiming our stance on [sexual violence] we will keep women safer and effect real education on this matter,” it reads. No, you won’t - if screaming loudly enough about problems solved them, the Socialist Workers Party’s membership would number in the millions and Alex Callinicos would be leading us all into the glorious socialist future.
As far as the bureaucratic side goes, the evidence is all the more overwhelming. Not only is childcare justified with reference to “Scandinavian teaching unions”, and not only is decency ascribed exclusively to the “well unionised workplace”. In the grand plan of these comrades, “each new member joining the organisation should be offered a longer serving member as a ‘rep’. The purpose of the ‘rep’ is to ensure that the new member becomes well acquainted with the workings of the organisation and to act as a point of contact on matters of personal safety and the democratic workings of the party.” A rep!
The origins of this particular wing of the women’s movement are in a certain Maoism - the adoption of the model of the cultural revolution as a libertarian recipe for overthrowing all oppressive conditions almost by fiat, by the confrontation of the oppressor with his sins. For Maoist ideology, reaction could spring from the smallest seed, even - especially - in the party itself; and so Maoist factional struggles have tended to be Manichean, as political disagreements are invariably interpreted as the influence of ‘alien class forces’.
The thought-universe of the LU ‘safe space’ policy is a kind of zombie Maoism. Like Maoism, political discussion becomes sublimated as a kind of perpetual crisis - a sharp expression of the class struggle within the vanguard. The difference is this: the class struggle loses its apocalyptic register, and becomes domesticated to the level of a routine trade union dispute. In this world, the party is to be trade union, workplace and industrial tribunal rolled into one. Nothing, I am sure, will go wrong.
None of this is to say that sexism, racism and so forth are not historically intractable problems; the problem is rather that the comrades’ perspective is both too optimistic and too pessimistic. It imagines, falsely, that oppressive behaviour is so pervasive that only a bureaucratic apparatus can keep it in check; and equally that a bureaucratic apparatus will suffice to defeat it. This document should be discarded as rapidly as possible, and a political discussion as to the grounds and means of defeating oppression - on a strategic, long-term view - be opened instead.
At the end of this road, after all, lies NCAFC. The discussion cited at the outset concerned - nominally - the proper voting order for some insignificant National Union of Students position. A striking thing about it is that all participants considered the SWP candidate - deemed, in the atmosphere of this April, a prima facie ‘rape denier’ - beyond the pale. (They disagreed as to whether to call him a cunt, rather than whether it was a scab act to advocate a vote for some Blairite mediocrity over him on the ‘rape denial’ pseudo-issue. Just to be clear: it was.)
Since it was taken over by the AWL, the group has increasingly become an incubator for the most vapid and irrational forms of identity politics, culminating in a no doubt thoroughly dignified session at a recent internal event, which consisted of the women listing the ways in which the men had annoyed them in some way. AWLers are concerned that such elements are getting out of control; but they have only themselves to blame.
And it is no accident that a student organisation should achieve the apotheosis of the political method of the ‘safe space’; because that poisonous combination of leftwing moralism and bureaucratic inertia is, and ever has been, the very picture of the NUS. The substitution of right-on gesture for politics; the triumph of procedure over polemic - these are traits of the NUS, and stem from its peculiar position as a state initiative dressed up unconvincingly as a trade union.
It is this form of politics that the authors of the ‘safe space’ document wish to impose on Left Unity. They cannot be sent packing rudely or rapidly enough.
1. Full transcript here: http://pastebin.com/uDCUhXGa.