Author Archives: whileromeburnsjournal

Poppies are opiates that make you forget: the politics of remembrance and the rise of nationalism

This is a previously unpublished piece from 2012. It seemed relevant now.1

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“The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” – Milan Kundera.

It is true that often to resist is to remember, but I would add that historical memory can in its own way be as toxic as forgetting. Remembering too can be a tool of power. What you choose to remember as well as how you choose to remember it is always a political issue. Take Serbian nationalists’ ‘remembering’ of their national origins in the 14th century Battle of Kosovo or Zionist ‘memory’ of a land given to them by God which they can legitimately ‘return’ to. Every nation state constructs a semi-mythological history, an origin story which we are encouraged to believe in as part of the ideology binding us to the state. This is continually reinforced through rituals and ceremonies of remembrance.

We have seen this in abundance in this year’s seemingly endless succession of flag-waving celebrations, one after another with barely breathing space in between – Euro 2012, the Diamond Jubilee, Wimbledon and the Olympics, leading finally into the ever-increasing spectacle of Remembrance Day.

And as if to make the point about the far from harmless and not merely historical relevance of all of this national boosterism, throughout the year, as the endless tragedy of the war in Afghanistan plays slowly in the background, episodes of mass public patriotism have been interspersed with British sabre-rattling political bravado over Iran and Argentina.

Although perhaps not deliberately planned, this year’s intersection of national celebrations has undoubtedly been a boon for the government and they have been busy trying to preserve and maintain the spirit of national unity that was apparently generated by the Olympics and figure out how to ‘leverage the Olympic bounce’. You can be sure they are trying to think of ways to pad out the gap and squash in a bit more flag waving between now and the 2014 commemorations of the First World War they have planned (commemorating the beginning of the war mark you!).

In a divisive time of austerity and class war by the rich against the poor, any shred of cross-class flag waving ‘we’re all in it together’ that they can muster up must feel beneficial to them.

The changing of remembrance

Every year the spectacle of remembrance becomes larger and more and more compulsory. It has changed and grown, part of a larger tide of jingoism and military chauvinism which it has played a large part in helping to create. And over time remembrance has become less about remembering and more about contemporary wars and military interventions. So it is not so much about bringing to mind the hideous slaughters of the past and re-dedicating ourselves to the idea that this must never be allowed to happen again, but has become much more about supporting the troops now and by default supporting whatever bit of the enforcement of ‘British interests’ on the other side of the world they are currently being used to prosecute.

There is a convergence of nationalist tendencies spreading out from sport, the monarchy (the Royal Wedding and Diamond Jubilee having revived their popular fortunes) and support for ‘our boys’ – the three are bleeding into one another and merging.

Remember Gordon Brown and his obsession with ‘Britishness’, promoting flying the flag, citizenship classes and nationality tests? The Tories are carrying on this legacy more effectively than Brown could himself.

Larger forces are at work too. Over the course of the last decade or more there has been a sizeable attempt to shift the understanding of history – a resurrection of apologetics for the British Empire. Apparently it wasn’t so bad after all and we have much to be proud of. Most notable is the work (on paper and on TV) of Niall Ferguson, but many others follow in his footsteps. The Tories have latched on to this (and onto Prof. Ferguson) and are trying to turn the teaching of history into a propagandistic story of national glory – a way of inculcating national pride from childhood. The cult of the poppy is a central part of this – the sacred apex of the whole enterprise. “Wearing a poppy is an act of … national pride.” as Cameron said.

The opium of the masses

In what is commonly agreed to be one of the most secular countries in the world, there isn’t much that is really treated as sacred. More or less the only thing that nowadays arouses that sort of passion is the secular state religion of the troops and the poppies.

Our boys are always ‘heroes’ more or less regardless of what they have done, in the same way the enemy are always ‘cowards’. Criticism of British troops or their actions is treated as blasphemy (indeed as far more blasphemous than actual blasphemy, which no one really cares about) and the ceremony of remembrance and the symbol of the poppy has been used to bolster that sacred aura.

The unmentionable nature of criticism of the troops is used to shut down dissent against war. This was seen before the 2003 Iraq war when it was politically acceptable to oppose the invasion up until the point it actually started, when criticism of the war suddenly became no longer legitimate as ‘we all had to support the troops’.

We are used to hearing stories of crazy Muslims who object to ‘insults’ to their religion and call down all sorts of horrendous punishment upon people who have written or drawn something somewhere in the world which is deemed offensive. This same attitude is on display with regard to the treatment of the sacred artefact of the poppy. Burning a small piece of red paper is now an arrestable offence.2

And of course, lest we forget, it was insults to the troops that set off the EDL as some kind of vast enraged troop-defending King and Country mob. So even if the EDL seem to be not quite the force they once were, nevertheless the culture from which they sprang is as strong as ever.

It was always refreshing to me that people in Britain were largely uncomprehending and derisive of Americans and their secular state religion of the flag. Now it seems we have created our own poppy religion.

In a way a little similar to George Orwell,3 it always makes me feel almost patriotic to observe the general lack of overt patriotism in this country. Go almost anywhere else in Europe and national flags assault your eyes, hanging from every shopfront and often from private houses, whereas in Britain you can happily go for days without encountering a national flag anywhere. When a flag is seen hanging from a window or flying in a garden, the person concerned is generally regarded with suspicion, as a bit odd, a bit of a weirdo. This combined with the generally self-deprecating and sarcastic attitude of most British people to their country often comes as a blessed relief after spending time elsewhere. And how many people know any of the words to the national anthem or the date of St. George’s day? Thoughts like these almost make my heart swell with patriotic pride.

And yet, now we have the slow subtle rise of this new jingoism and nationalism, which becomes particularly focussed around Remembrance Day. The season for wearing poppies and for displaying poppy-related paraphernalia grows longer like Christmas and the merchandising of poppy tat expands year-on-year like Halloween broomsticks and chocolate spiders.

And every year there’s a little crop of ridiculous stories – about Jon Snow not wearing a poppy on the news, about FIFA not allowing the England team to wear them on the pitch, about kids in Northern Ireland or Cambridge burning poppies on the internet and getting their collars felt by the law. All of which demonstrates the spread and enforcement of the pseudo-religious cult to which all must subscribe as a test of loyalty.

The real nature of the contemporary poppy obsession is also shown by the abuse that people get for choosing to wear a white poppy – a symbol that remembers all victims of war. Who could disagree with that? Unless of course it’s really about a big display of my-country-right-or-wrong jingoism rather than mere remembrance.

Lest we forget what?

Remembering is not a simple act of factual recall, or indeed a single act at all. You remember meanings and stories and morals.

So when we are remembering the dead of previous wars, what is it that we are remembering? Are we remembering just the soldiers from ‘our’ side who died or all the other soldiers and the civilians too? Are we remembering them as glorious heroes who nobly sacrificed themselves for our benefit, as unfortunate victims sent to die by an arrogant elite or as perpetrators of war crimes and aggressors against other peoples? And this of course affects our attitude to current and future conflicts – are we thinking that dying in the armies of the British state is a great and glorious thing to do, or a sometimes regrettable necessity for which we may be called upon, or as being used and duped by the ruling class to become their hired mercenary killers?

When I was at school we had a history trip to the cemeteries and battlefields of the First World War. As a school trip I guess it succeeded because I have never forgotten it. It may even have been a politically formative experience. I remember the uniform military cemeteries with their perfectly symmetrical grid of white headstones stretching away to the horizon and the Menin gate with lists of names that vanished beyond sight high into the arch. The predominant feeling that I came away with was that this was sick and wrong beyond belief. Not just that so many had died, but that there was something wrong about the form of remembrance – that in death the soldiers with their ranks of uniform white headstones were still regimented as in life – the arms of their regiment and their rank inscribed above their names.

The soldiers were being remembered and yet their humanity was being forgotten. The individual men were being dehumanised and de-individualised. In this form of remembrance they were being remembered only as soldiers – becoming interchangeable uniform components in a military machine of remembrance as they were pieces of a war machine in life.

Equally repulsive is the cenotaph with its motto “The Glorious Dead” or other war memorials which state “They died for King and Country”. This is the very people who sent millions to be killed based on lies of duty and dreams of glory then using the memory of their victims to continue to justify further slaughters into the future.

Is this the sort of remembering which will ensure that a similar war will never happen again? Or to the contrary is it the sort of remembering which is specifically designed to create support for the state and which therefore reinforces all the prejudices and attitudes that led to disasters like the First World War in the first place? Idiot patriotism, my country right or wrong, the nobility and glory of war, doing your duty, following orders…

We forget the struggles of the past

And what is forgotten as well as what is remembered is full of political meaning. We remember what it suits the ruling class to have us remember but we forget the opposition to every war – conscientious objectors but also the mutinies that ended wars, and the desertion and army resistance.

We forget that after the First World War there was a huge pacifist and anti-war movement and the form the remembrance of the war should take was contested from the beginning: “When the Cenotaph was first built, the authorities were afraid that it might be ‘desecrated’. Indeed, a few weeks before it’s unveiling, in November 1920, unemployed ex-soldiers rioted in Whitehall. Some even used the slogan: ‘Bread not mortar!’.”

The purpose of the ceremony of remembrance right from the outset in 1919 was to paper over cracks in society and to generate a bogus myth of national unity.

Have Anarchists Forgotten Their Principles Once Again?4

From an anarchist point of view, the growing cult of remembrance opens up a lot of interesting dilemmas. Of course, with many people, we would oppose the use of remembrance to sell tat to people, or even to sell weapons (Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, ex-British Legion president, described Remembrance Day as a “tremendous networking opportunity” for arms dealers). And of course, with many on the left, we would oppose the use of remembrance to generate support for new wars.

But should we not also as anarchists be opposing this gigantic ceremony of the glorification of war and the state? Generally, along with everyone else on the left, we try to steer clear of the whole issue. Similarly as with other outbreaks of popular patriotism (Jubilees, Olympics), we generally keep our heads down till it all blows over and we can get back to campaigning about hospitals closures or benefits cuts. Generally we keep our heads down so much that we even avoid confronting the annual NF demo on Remembrance Day.

A general strategy of avoidance might be a tactically sensible thing. Do you really want to confront the enraged beast of media-stoked ‘public opinion’ if you stick your head above the parapet and join the poppy burners?

But, on the other side, where do you end up if you only ever take the politically easy options? If you don’t confront unpleasant things because it’s a bit difficult and so much easier to talk about things where everyone already agrees with you? If this cult of the poppy really is a central part of a rising tide of jingoism, militarism and nationalism, then there might be the utmost importance in opposing it, however difficult that might be.

The argument could be made that one should avoid challenging ‘soft’ patriotism which has few real political consequences (much like having a go at everyone waving England flags when the football’s on might not be a very politically useful thing to do), for fear of giving succour to the ‘hard’ nationalists, who could recruit on the basis of your attacks. Instead one should concentrate one’s efforts at driving a wedge between the soft patriots and the hard nationalists.

So far so tactical. However, if soft patriotism always slides further to the right and always provides a bed of support for hard nationalism then shouldn’t we challenge it too? And if it is the patriotic support for the troops that allows the government to continue to wage war at will across the world, doesn’t that supposedly soft opinion actually have far more disastrous consequences than politically irrelevant nationalists, who might seem personally unpleasant, but don’t have an air force?

This seems like an issue that needs more thought and debate. Do we adopt the line espoused by Billy Bragg that we shouldn’t let the right ‘have’ patriotism and that the left has just as much claim to it as the right?

If not, and we acknowledge that patriotism and flag waving is reactionary, binding us to the ruling elite, persuading us that we share the same interests as our rulers, then maybe we need to more actively say so.

And what of an anarchist attitude to the military? Anarchists, and the left in general, tend to veer between two completely different attitudes. One, a Vietnam-era ‘support the troops and bring them home’ line, combined with sympathy for the working class kids sent off to die for the interests of the elite and rather romantic memories of mutinies and revolts when troops rose up against their officers. And another entirely separate attitude that more or less equates soldiers with cops – the paid guardians of ruling class power, doing the dirty work of the state.

If it was a question of troops in Northern Ireland one attitude comes to the fore, if it was troops in the Falklands it was another. This rather schizophrenic attitude continues to persist. Are ‘our boys’ the torturers of Abu Ghraib or victims of IEDs in a war they don’t understand?

And the question can be asked, if we are all so clear that the cops are the enemy and that appealing to them or expecting them to come over to our side is naïve idealism in the extreme, why is it so different in the case of the military?

There are a couple of possible reasons – people in the UK (Northern Ireland excepted) do not generally have an experience of direct oppression at the hands of the military. Soldiers are not generally used for purposes of internal control. In the past this was different – as Orwell remarks in a passage on the anti-militaristic cast of English society: “Well within living memory it was common for ‘the redcoats’ to be booed at in the streets and for the landlords of respectable public houses to refuse to allow soldiers on the premises”.5 Not so far back, soldiers were used for internal repression, and you can imagine that you would have a different attitude to the military once they start shooting at you. However, now it is not the soldiers shooting at us but cops and all that feeling is directed at the immediate enemy.

Also, people leave the army. They do their time and they do other things in society. Often, not being from especially privileged backgrounds and being somewhat abandoned and left to fend for themselves by the military, they turn up in radical struggles. Many of us know ex-squaddies and count them amongst our friends, considerably fewer of us know or like ex-cops.

However, lots of anarchist rhetoric and thought about the military is more appropriate to the conscript armies of the First World War or Vietnam. Today’s troops are reasonably unlikely to rise in revolt against their officers. It seems like romanticism to imagine otherwise.

Also, if we are serious about international solidarity we have to acknowledge the suffering the British military cause around the world – you can’t just blame everything on Tony ‘Bliar’ and absolve everyone else of responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

I want to open up a bit of a debate on attitudes to patriotism and the military and what our response (if any) should be to these things and to remembrance. Do we in some way speak out or act against the cult of the poppy and the troops or do we tactically keep our heads down? Even if we don’t oppose those things directly, should we still oppose the spreading group-think of compulsory poppy wearing and this new wave of jingoism? We should at least surely defend the space to disagree – the ‘free speech’ right to hold and express a different opinion (and to burn poppies as well).

For one example of an anti-nationalist, anti-militarist response to remembrance after the original date of this article see here.

 

Notes

1 I know it’s the wrong sort of poppy but I am at least not the first person to utilise that confusion for literary purposes.

2 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/poppycock-mans-arrest-for-posting-image-of-burning-poppy-on-facebook-is-condemned-by-civil-liberties-activists-8306784.html
http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/nov/03/poppy-burning-northern-ireland-arrests?newsfeed=true
http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/mar/07/muslim-extremist-fined-for-poppy-burning

3 “In England, all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by minorities.” – The Lion and the Unicorn, part I

When the captain refuses to go down with his ship: Yaxley-Lennon quits the EDL

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All ex-extremists together apparently

Well, it’s been an interesting day’s news and my only regret in saying anything about it is that I will in some small way be adding to the vast amount of publicity that Yaxley-Lennon has gained for himself in one day by his canny shift sideways in the Islamophobic marketplace. He’s the topic of conversation and has made all opinion gravitate around himself, so that love him or hate him, we’re all talking about him.

Anti-fascists should not be automatically celebrating Yaxley’s move. The real thing to celebrate in this is not anything to do with Yaxley-Lennon’s phoney personal journey but the confusion and chaos generated in the ranks of the far-right by the hand-grenade he has thrown into their midst. In the short term, we’re going to see a lot of confused and demoralised racists arguing with each other, and that’s good news for everyone else. Eventually a general re-alignment of the far-right seems likely – what the end result of that will be is hard to say now. The most likely outcome is that either under the EDL name or another we will see the EDL free to become more openly racist and fascist, which is the pattern we have seen with the splinter groups – Infidels, Casuals and EVF. Certainly the EDL isn’t going to have to pretend so hard not to be racist anymore as apparently even their erstwhile leader found it easier to leave than to expel the racists.

From Yaxley-Lennon’s point of view the whole thing is clearly a very smart tactical career move rather than any remarkable transformation in his views – he has given no indication that he has changed his opinions at all. It was the EDL cannon fodder who he is trying to distance himself from who got him where he is now of course. He has elevated himself to appearing on Newsnight on the backs of the numbers who turned out for demos. None of us would know who ‘Tommy Robinson’ was were it not for 4 years worth of violent racist EDL confrontations in towns across Britain. Rather than any change of opinion, this is rather an exercise in cutting himself loose from those people who are now a liability to his political career.

It’s a little like current celebrity culture. Half the contestants on ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ or ‘I’m a Celebrity…’, no one can remember what it was they did to get famous in the first place. But that doesn’t matter – once you have by some means entered the magic circle of ‘celebrity’ then whatever you say or do is news. Yaxley-Lennon has managed to elevate himself into the media world as a personage -– as a name and a face that is known and recognised, as someone that gets invited on chat shows and asked his opinion about things. In the future we may see a free-floating ‘Tommy Robinson’ appearing on a media that conspires to forget how it was that he got to be there in the first place.

His decision has already paid off for him – he’s got more media attention today than he’s ever had before. Nick Griffin doesn’t get invited on Newsnight. And the media will now presumably be waiting on Yaxley-Lennon’s every future move with bated breath.

Unfortunately it appears from Newsnight tonight that there’s lots more to come: For the last 9 months while Yaxley-Lennon has been cooking this thing up, he’s been followed by cameras for a BBC documentary to be broadcast ‘this autumn’. So we are to be treated to the full Tommy Damascus conversion story in excruciating detail as we hear about how hard it was being the public face for far-right loons for 4 years trotted out again ad nauseam.

Yaxley-Lennon said today that street based protest was no longer ‘productive’ rather than that there was anything wrong with it. It seems clear that he is looking at setting up some new rather more respectable political formation de-linking Islamophobic racism from the rather unfortunate violence and thuggery of the EDL which is keeping him from mainstream acceptance. Because his racist message has plenty of very respectable and mainstream supporters but the rather uncouth behaviour of the EDL has kept him beyond the pale. It seems clear from today that apparently all you have to do is jettison the unfortunate street thug image and associations of violence and you will be welcomed into the fold as a legitimate voice in the democratic debate.

In the longer term, we could potentially be looking at a more dangerous situation all round – an ‘acceptable’ voice of racism in the mainstream (could Yaxley-Lennon become the English Geert Wilders?) combined with more virulently racist street protests courtesy of his former comrades.

Quilliam
The alliance with Quilliam is certainly interesting. Who’s using who is the obvious question that arises. Maajid Nawaz thinks Quilliam will be “training and guiding” Yaxley-Lennon and Carroll. Is this really how it’s going to work?

Have Quilliam just been foolish to fall for his shtick with no actual apologies or renouncing of anything he’s said or done? Without this, it looks more like an endorsement of his views rather than any hard won conversion of the ex-racist. It certainly seems that Quilliam set the bar rather low for being an ex-extremist. Would the same leniency and media coverage be granted to a former Islamist militant leader without them being forced to publicly recant all the previous views? In the press conference Nawaz kept emphasising what a great thing it was to have got Carroll and Yaxley-Lennon to leave the EDL, but without any indication of why they might have left or what for. It seemed that as far as Quilliam were concerned, simply getting them to leave the EDL at all was enough.

It could be that both parties benefit from their association and get some political capital out of it. Certainly this is a big boost in kudos and status for Quilliam who are now the people that got ‘Tommy Robinson’ to leave the EDL. From Yaxley-Lennon’s point of view, he has the official stamp of approval from a counter-extremism organisation, so QED he can’t possibly be an extremist can he? With this clean bill of health from unimpeachable source (actual Muslims!) he can now go forth into the world sanitised and embark on his future career untainted by the label of being a right wing extremist.

A question or two for us too
Have anti-fascists inadvertently made this manoeuvre more possible by too often taking the easy option and harping on about Nazis all the time? In his various interviews today Yaxley-Lennon has tried to equate the “far-right” only with “neo-Nazis” and has sought to identify the problem only with neo-Nazis or the far-right ‘infiltrating’ the EDL. He has thus cast himself and the EDL as the unwitting victims of the far-right rather than its primary manifestation. ‘Tommy’ has painted himself in the role of a valiant anti-fascist who has spend the last 4 years desperately keeping the Nazis at bay, rather than as we know having actually spent the last 4 years hanging out with them in branches of Wetherspoons across the land.

The easy way to criticise the EDL has always been to call them Nazis, because of course everyone knows Nazis are bad. This has avoided confronting head-on forms of far-right racist ideology that are not Nazi or even classically fascist, which is where the majority of the EDL sit. And now we have Yaxley-Lennon managing to go more or less unchallenged on primetime TV as he defines the far-right to mean only neo-Nazi ‘fringe elements’ of the EDL. It’s hard to avoid feeling that perhaps we handed him that one on a plate.

One thing for sure is, whatever the new Yaxley-Lennon political project turns out to be, we’re going to have to collectively sharpen up our arguments a bit – shouting ‘Nazi scum’ at him probably isn’t going to cut it any more.

Rules of Engagement: Anti-Fascism After Tower Hamlets

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The Tower Hamlets demonstration against the EDL on September 7th was a big day for those of us who have been hoping for a renewed opposition to be able to tackle the rise of the far-right and the new forms of racism spreading in this country.

There were a lot of expectations riding on what happened on the 7th and a lot turns on how it comes to be perceived and what lessons are drawn from it.

Context is everything

Since the last time the EDL were in Tower Hamlets in 2011 many things have changed. They suffered a general decline in their fortunes and early this year we were all getting ready to write their epitaph. Then everything changed in May when the EDL managed to swiftly exploit the murder of a British army soldier in London. Suddenly there were 2000 of them on demos again, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon was being interviewed on TV all the time, their Facebook likes went from under 24,000 to over 100,000 within a day and they seemed to have leapfrogged further ahead than they ever were before. The last few months have in general been a frightening time when the far-right have looked like they were winning.

More recently, the effect of their exploitation of Lee Rigby’s death seems to be wearing off a little, but the support and sympathisers that they have gained in this period will not go away so easily, even if they are not always willing to turn out on the streets.

In addition, since May, there has been a huge spike in anti-Muslim attacks both on people and mosques, including nailbomb and firebomb attacks. Many of these attacks have been directly linked to the EDL through EDL graffiti left at the scene or EDL members convicted for the attacks. Even without these direct links it is clear that a general rise in far-right activity creates a climate where such attacks happen.

It feels like the clock is rapidly rolling back to the racist murders of the early ‘90s associated with an increase in support for the BNP (of which Stephen Lawrence was to become the most high profile victim), or possibly to the murderous violence of the late ‘70s rise of the NF, which claimed the life of Altab Ali among others. The EDL have not been alone in this effort to drag us back into the racist violence of the past. A whole alphabet soup of splinter groups to the right of the EDL now hold their own marches and rallies across the country, mostly in limited numbers, but making up for that in more overt traditional racism than the EDL is willing to openly espouse. The rise of UKIP and the phenomenon of ‘Woolwich Strong’ both indicated a large passive basis of support for nationalistic, racist and anti-immigrant politics. And all along official state racism has been providing the grounding context for this, slowly shifting the middle ground of politics to the right with its normalising of ‘go home’ rhetoric. The government not-so-subtly borrowed the idea of the BNP’s ‘truth truck’, turning it into the UK Border Agency’s notorious ‘racist van’ and has introduced squads of Border Agency staff illegally stopping and demanding papers from foreign-looking people on the street like we were living in pass-law era South Africa.

Evolving anti-fascism

There has been a general failure to adequately deal with the change represented by the rise of the EDL in the last 4 years.

The anti-fascist and anti-racist movements have been found wanting in the swift change from combating the electoral politics of the BNP to the sudden re-emergence of far-right street gangs with the EDL.

The ‘official’ anti-fascist movement represented by Hope Not Hate and UAF, for all the good work they do, are hamstrung by their close ties to the authorities – they are not willing to risk breaking the law in order to effectively confront the fascists on the streets. Politically they are tied to Labour politicians, union bureaucrats and conservative religious leaders which means their proclaimed politics can only be a fairly shallow liberal celebration of ‘multicultural Britain’, which is fine as far as it goes, but leaves them struggling to combat the EDL either ideologically or physically.

Additionally anti-fascism has been hit by the fall-out from the SWP’s ‘Comrade Delta’ scandal. For those that haven’t been following all the Trot gossip – the SWP is Britain’s largest far-left group and the main driving force behind UAF, but earlier this year the party was thrown into disarray by allegations of rape and sexual abuse against a senior party member. As a consequence of the party leadership’s flawed handling of this, significant numbers of SWP members have left the party and there are many disaffected Swappies in the ranks. The effect of this on UAF is hard to precisely judge for those not involved themselves, but it certainly seems to have had an impact on their organisational capacity.

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The EDL national demo in Birmingham in July this year was a shock to many of us. This was the first EDL national demo which both we and they had had time to build for since May. The Newcastle demo immediately after Rigby’s murder got vastly more numbers than had previously been expected, with 1500-2000 EDL turning out. And yet UAF only called a regional Midlands-wide counter-mobilisation for Birmingham and didn’t even make a very good job of that – doing almost no publicity or building for the demo in Birmingham itself. As a consequence, in the country’s second largest city, there were very small numbers of anti-fascists corralled out of sight by police while 1000 EDL were very visibly taking over the city centre largely unopposed.

Meanwhile the autonomous anti-fascist movement, largely composed of anarchists and smaller left-wing groups, has had its own problems dealing with the changing political situation. The rise of the EDL has meant for the first time in a long time that we are seeing large groups of far-right supporters on the streets. For many years militant anti-fascists were only dealing with small groups of skinheads and Nazis, who were effectively kept in their place by similarly small groups of committed militant anti-fascists. This tactic, known as ‘squaddism’ has been shown to be not enough to deal with the EDL. Anti-fascists have realised there is a necessity to mobilise numbers on the streets to be able to oppose the EDL effectively.

This realisation has involved breaking with a strong ingrained prejudice of large sections of the anarchist and far-left movements. For decades the assumption has been that the larger liberal left will always be there to do the slog work of getting out the numbers and that it would be impossible for us to do this work ourselves. But the world has changed since the 1980s and the fact is we cannot any longer rely on the mainstream left (in this case the UAF) to do ‘their job’ while we content ourselves with hanging round the fringes of their demos, slagging them off and lacking the confidence to do our own thing.

Changing the rules of the game

Hence the importance of the Tower Hamlets mobilisation – it was a response to the changing nature of the far-right and the general inadequacy of anti-fascism both militant and liberal to deal with this. Clearly a huge amount of effort went into calling a mobilisation under the name of the Anti-Fascist Network (AFN) and to do the sort of work that we normally rely on UAF to do. It was a bold attempt to change the rules of the game – to try and do something new.

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For a few days in advance of the demo, it looked like the cops might actually march the EDL right up Whitechapel High Street, but luckily in the end, this didn’t happen. Unlike 1936, they weren’t quite foolhardy enough to try and force a fascist march through a largely hostile area. So the EDL marched but they didn’t get to go where they wanted and suffered a relatively poor turnout. The general lack of booze on their demo was an improvement on the Brummie cops’ tactic of corralling all the EDL in a bar for 3 or 4 hours before letting them loose on the city streets and then being surprised when they caused trouble. Mr. Yaxley-Lennon got arrested – my suspicion is probably as balance for all the anti-fascists who were arrested, so the policing didn’t look too one-sided in the media.

UAF had their rally. They got good numbers out and once the EDL had left town they declared ‘victory’, which seemed slightly hollow as the police had facilitated the EDL march on exactly the pre-arranged route and they had not even come in sight of the UAF crowd.

We did our breakaway march from Altab Ali park to try and disrupt the route of the EDL and were surprisingly successful. We got large numbers of people to join us in leaving the park and got damn close to the EDL.

Most people were probably not expecting mass arrests on the scale that was experienced, although the 58 people arrested at the anti-BNP mobilisation in June did provide a warning of possible police tactics.

afn bloc gets close

Antifascist black and red flags by the police van. Some of the AFN bloc got really close to the EDL march

Intents and purposes

The primary aim was of course to stop the EDL marching, or to get as close to that as possible – to disrupt them, interrupt them, delay them – to make a visible public display of more than vocal opposition.

In a broader sense it was an attempt to organise mass direct action and to bridge the gap between small-group squaddist anti-fascism and UAF-style rallies – to be both militant and accessible to people. Was it possible to mobilise a large crowd of people who were up for attempting to get close to and confront the EDL?

Another related aim was to talk to people, make links and connections, even beyond the demo, to create anti-racist, anti-fascist alliances that may bear more fruit in the future. And to spread the idea that it is possible to do different things – you don’t just have to do the UAF rally in the park – other things are possible and can be effective.

The Tower Hamlets mobilisation involved a change to doing the sort of work UAF normally do – stalls in the streets, leafletting sessions, press releases. But with the intention to be less politically compromised than UAF and with the clear guiding principles that we would not talk to or negotiate with the police or the authorities or have a hierarchical structure where discipline is imposed by the central committee.

This was really a ‘coming out’ for the AFN, which originated as a less ambitious structure for allowing small autonomous anti-fascist groups across the country to travel to support each other when there was a counter-mobilisation against the far-right. But AFN has now stepped out of the shadows to publicly become an alternative and an addition to the rather more politically compromised UAF.

Actions and reactions

On a straightforward appraisal of the day, it seems pretty clear that the cops were the main winners, with the cowed EDL sticking to the police orchestrated demonstration plan, and 286 anti-fascists arrested; complete with repressive bail conditions, DNA, fingerprints and details recorded.

However, seeming defeats can sometimes be more of a boon than what appear to be victories. We succeeded in gathering a significant crowd of people (approximately the same numbers as the EDL managed to get out for a national demo) who were willing to move beyond listening to the speeches in Altab Ali park and take the further step to trying to actively confront the EDL.

Small groups of individuals did harangue the EDL along the route of their march but the breakaway AFN bloc was the only large visible opposition the EDL saw all day.

So it is a real positive that people were up for joining the group leaving the park and being willing to try and block the EDL. We got a good mix of people joining us. This shows that there is an appetite for anti-fascism that goes beyond listening to the mayor and religious leaders in the park while the fascists march nearby. It shows that it is possible to get large numbers of people to take more confrontational direct action.

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At the UAF rally in Altab Ali park, just before and after the AFN bloc departed. See the timelapse video

Clearly it would have been better if there hadn’t been 300 arrests and it would have been better if we had been more effective at blocking or disrupting the EDL march. But sometimes you only discover strengths and weaknesses when you do try something. It’s only through action that you discover and determine what you are capable of.

Fashion rules/ground rules

Some of the things that could have been better there was little we could do about. Other things were pretty much within our power to affect.

There were some mixed messages put out by the organisers that I think may have originated with people’s differing ideas of what they were imagining the AFN mobilisation on the day would look like.

On the one hand there was extensive leafleting around London but especially in the local area, a well attended public meeting with well-chosen speakers a week before the demo, links and liaisons made with local community groups etc. All of this and the general look and tone of the publicity and propaganda was relatively inclusive. We looked organised and together, like we were connected with local people and none of it looked too subcultural or too much like ‘this isn’t for you, this is for some special group of people…’

Slightly undercutting this message was some of the information put out in advance of the demo which encouraged people to adopt black bloc dress and tactics. There were strange-looking videos of black blockers practicing weird formations in a field somewhere in Germany and encouragements to ‘wear anything as long as it’s black’.  A long list of ‘safety guidelines’ was circulated in advance of the demo criticising such things as ‘attention grabbing behaviour’ that were then adapted into another set of shorter rules/guidelines by the mobilisation organisation.

It seems bizarre to be putting lots of effort into giving out thousands of leaflets all around Whitechapel and Brick Lane, encouraging mass participation in the demonstration and then a few days before the demo telling all those same people that really they all had to find an ‘affinity group’, mask up in black and leave all their ID and their phone at home.

Not that any of the advice was necessarily bad advice – most of it I follow and advocate myself. But we have to consider who is actually going to follow or not follow this advice and who will be put off coming altogether by being given the impression that it is only for certain sorts of people to attend.

It’s hard trying to square the circle of mass participation and community involvement while also maintaining some particular politics and a commitment to direct action. Certainly we don’t want to go too far down the road of eulogising the black bloc. Not that there’s anything wrong with militancy or confrontation, but it’s a particular tactic associated with a particular subculture.

If you become too identified with that subculture then you cease to attract anyone else, which apart from being politically ineffective, leaves you vulnerable. A wider basis of community support can be a sort of safety net for all of us in case of repression.

Also it’s a question of imagery and representation – how will this event be circulated and represented? If all the images that circulate look like black bloc stuff, that will create a certain version that will go down in history, and will in turn determine who turns up to the next AFN mobilisation.

marching bloc

Rules of engagement

It has been suggested that we shouldn’t have met in Altab Ali park as this made it intrinsically difficult to leave. Clearly it is easier and there is a certain safety in numbers in choosing to meet at the UAF meet point. As became apparent on the day, it also allowed us to draw a large number of people along with us who were bored to death with listening to the Mayor.

However, if we had known in advance that we were capable of getting out healthy and respectable numbers of people then we may well have done better to do as the EDL do and not announce the precise time and place until close to the day of the event. We could publicise the date and rough area in advance so people can make travel plans and keep the day free but only announce the precise rally point when we have more of an idea of the route the EDL will be taking. Or we could announce a time and place but just be willing to change it right up to the last minute. Both of these options would take out the practically difficult task of ‘getting to them’ and give us a better chance of being in the right place to potentially stop them marching.

We could have announced our meet up point to be the south side of Tower Bridge – meeting right where they were meeting – then there would be no issue of them not seeing or hearing us and we might have had more of a chance of stopping them marching.

We should also have been more willing to split up and regroup to get to a particular location. If the twitter and text information had been more oriented to giving members of the crowd the information they needed to be in the right place then potentially we could have simply informed everyone of where the police were and where the EDL were and let everyone get there in whatever way they chose. This would also help people avoid police kettles. In addition we’d be trusting the crowd we had mobilised to find a way that worked for them – not everyone is up for or capable of running through the back streets with the cops on their tails. Rather than putting all our eggs in one basket, if we had split up, there would be little chance of us all being kettled at the first crossroads.

Perhaps something like the Sukey application created to help people avoid kettles in the student protests of 2011 could be in place separate from the mobilisation organisers. Simply relaying information via text and twitter about where the EDL are and where the cops are is not incriminating in itself and might have avoided a lot of people running around the streets a little cluelessly.

After Tower Hamlets

It may be that with ourselves attuned to every slight fluctuation in support for the EDL that we are now feeling that they are in decline again. However it would not be wise to get so focussed in on the micro level of week-by-week changes in their fortunes that we lose sight of the big picture. And especially it would not be wise to start to relax and take our eye off the ball because we think they might be declining.

Every time they have a surge it’s like a high tide mark, and they may rapidly recede from that line, but the basis of passive support for them has been laid, and next time it will be that much easier for them to make that mark and then to surpass it. Hence why their level of activity and support seemed to explode out of nowhere after the killing in Woolwich. I suggest that even if their obvious level of activity does drop down a bit now, the groundwork has been laid for the next surge if it comes.

And even if they do seem to go down, our back-slapping is entirely relative – last year the EDL got 1500, this year they got 600, so hooray. But 5 years ago nasty mobs of racists marching down the street didn’t exist. So what is there to celebrate?

The point is not to get complacent. If they seem to be in some slight period of decline, that’s the time for us to organise. Better to redouble our efforts when they are in decline and try and finish them off, rather than relax and wait for the next opportunity for them to blame something on Muslims and increase their support. And if this does happen then we need to be ready to confront it, rather than being taken by surprise.

Quite arresting

Obviously, the number arrests in Tower Hamlets was exceptional and may represent a new tactic by the Met police aimed at intelligence gathering, taking people out of action through bail conditions and intimidating people from attending any protests not organised with the police in advance.

It is important to provide good support for those arrested, whatever that might be: solicitors, publicity, supporters at police stations or courts etc. We’re unlikely to get out numbers on demonstrations if we fail to support arrestees now. And collective support can help prevent the effect of intimidation that the police aim to produce through mass arrests.

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That said, it should be recognised that almost all the anti-fascist arrests were for the same minor offences and are likely to go nowhere. Getting arrested is pretty much par for the course for anti-fascism, and arrests were always on the cards for the 7th. We shouldn’t get too outraged or excited about it and we shouldn’t get too allergic to it. If we let the fear of arrest stop us confronting the far-right then that is a clear win for the cops and the fascists. And if we are successful there will unfortunately probably be more of this to come.

It is important that we don’t regard the arrest of 286 people as our failure, that requires intensive soul searching and large changes of behaviour on our part. The number of arrests is not ours to control. We didn’t get those people arrested. The police arrested them. It is important that we see the mobilisation in a positive light and don’t get distracted by raking over ‘if only we had done this we could have avoided the arrests’ or conclude that we must never organise big anti-fascist demos in London ever again because of the risk. It is not possible to manage every particular situation and eliminate all risk from anti-fascism. That could only be achieved by becoming totally ineffective.

The BNP demo in Westminster in June at which 58 people got nicked prompted some to suggest that the movement could not afford arrests in such numbers and others to say that central London was an especially arrestable area where people should be discouraged from confronting fascists. However, as a result of our actions, the BNP are pretty much finished on the streets – I very much doubt that they will try anything similar any time soon. So Britain’s premier neo-fascist electoral party was dealt a massive body blow to its prestige. People being arrested is not automatically so bad that it outweighs any good that may have been done. Some arrests can be worth it.

We shouldn’t let ourselves get too distracted into arrest support and defence campaigns. These things are important clearly, but we should remember what we are here for and the focus should remain on confronting racism and fascism. If all our energies are absorbed into arrest support and defence campaigns then that is a victory for our enemies and a betrayal of the people who were arrested.

Love to hate U(AF)

Another thing that is in danger of overshadowing the important aspects of the Tower Hamlets mobilisation is our perennial obsession with bashing UAF.

This UAF-hating is really a subset of the traditional alignments of the British anarchist and far-left movements. UAF is essentially a creation of the SWP and large sections of the British left define themselves by all the ways in which they are not like the SWP. Anarchists hate they SWP because they are Trots and anarchists hate Trots (apart from a few who are alright). All the other smaller Trot groups hate the SWP if anything even more than anarchists do. Now with the ‘Comrade Delta’ scandal half the SWP hate the SWP too.

There has been some discussion of bad things UAF did or supposedly did on the 7th September and none of them are really news, none of them are really that shocking or massively damning. UAF are what they are and they do what they do. We probably should not expect anything else.

In Tower Hamlets, UAF held a rally in the park and did not brave the police to go and confront the EDL directly. That is not the worst thing in the world. I am sure we all believe in using a diversity of tactics in combatting fascism, including those that are non-confrontational. If UAF had not organised a rally, we would have had to have done it ourselves to give an option to people who did not want to risk arrest or confrontation.

Certainly things could have been very much worse. We didn’t get denounced as ‘outside agitators’ or ‘troublemakers’. I’m sure many of us have been on the receiving end of such accusations before. And to be fair we did steal half their crowd and march them off to do something they disapproved of.

Since the demo there has been quite a lot of crowing over the ‘collapse’ of the UAF and how it’s a good thing that they are finished. People have been celebrating the end of their dominance over anti-fascism with the arrival of AFN on the scene to take their place. Firstly, this is very premature – one big demo does not a national anti-fascist movement make. Also, this betrays a very skewed set of priorities – anyone would think from the way some people have been talking that it was the UAF we were demonstrating against on the 7th. In case we need reminding: It’s not a party-building competition with the SWP – it’s about defeating the far-right.

I disagree with much that UAF do and how they do it but we would be really screwed if they didn’t exist. They have opposed the EDL across the country and in many places have been the only people organising. Autonomous anti-fascists do not have the organisational capacity to replace UAF anytime soon.

We don’t want to come across as sectarian, and should consider how our sniping at UAF looks from outside – we like to laugh at the Infidels and EDL slagging each other off. No doubt airing our dirty laundry in public appears similar to those outside the anti-fascist movement and probably does not inspire them to get involved. We should just get on and do our thing and try and be as effective as possible against the far-right and let our actions speak for themselves.

AFN rules OK

The main thing for autonomous anti-fascists is to keep going and keep focussed. Whether it’s the risk of throwing all our energies into arrest support rather than combatting fascism or into slagging off UAF, we need to avoid the temptation of such sidetracks and keep on target.

Specifically we need to keep organising. We have had this successful mobilisation in London, but across the country the picture is very different. In many places EDL marches have gone virtually unchallenged and they have also been able to intimidate anti-racists, closing down anti-racist meetings and gigs or attacking people from the left in the street. Anti-Muslim attacks continue unabated.

We need to be more ambitious. Instead of taking the opportunity post-Tower Hamlets to relax a bit or rest on our laurels, we need to try and reproduce the level of resistance we managed for Tower Hamlets across the country and ideally better it. Whenever the EDL have a national demo there should be an AFN bloc there to confront them. We need to organise nationally for this. We cannot entirely rely on the local anti-fascists in a particular city to do all the organising work. Anti-fascists across the country should be mobilising whenever the EDL announce a demonstration.

We need to think about effective strategies to have large militant crowds and to get around the police. We don’t want to lose those people we brought out by getting a reputation for leading peoples into mass arrests.

We need to engage with people, build support and a wider anti-racist culture. Open accessible public events can be good for this – film showings, public meetings, gigs etc.

park crowd

EDL outnumbered everywhere

The EDL are eminently beatable. They are not huge. They have a lot of fair weather support that fizzles away to nothing when conditions do not favour them. They had dwindled down to next to nothing before Rigby’s death. The far-right have been chased off the streets before – they can be again. For most of my adult life there was practically no far-right on the streets, due to the efforts of past generations of anti-fascists. The EDL have been going 4 years or so and got 600 or 700 out for the national demo in Tower Hamlets they had been plugging for months. We got that number on just the AFN part of the counter-mobilisation. It is totally possible to outnumber them.

Don’t imagine it’s no work though – huge amounts of effort has gone into any counter-mobilisation that has been successful. A key reason other mobilisations have not been successful is that people haven’t put the work in.

Also, although the EDL are beatable, the wider context of popular anti-immigrant, xenophobic racism and state/police racism is rather harder to challenge. But it is important not to think of this as a separate thing from confronting the EDL. Part of the point of fighting the EDL is to keep the space open to be able to confront wider racism and oppression, both ideologically and practically. The EDL rally support for the state and its foreign imperialism (as well argued in the ‘Incubus’ blog) – they are essentially a modern-day King and Country mob – a loyalist mob. So they shift the political spectrum right. By fighting them and asserting an opposing set of values of solidarity and respect we help resist that trend.

Also practically, the far-right attack left-wing, anti-racist, pro-migrant and progressive meetings. If we don’t deal with the threat of the far-right there won’t be the political space to challenge racism, imperialism, the rule of the rich or to fight for our collective interests.

We can do these things as long as we don’t start accepting fascists as part of the furniture and start thinking that it’s normal in 2013 for 300 racists to be marching down the High Street in Anytown. There’s no rule that it has to be this way. They weren’t here 5 years ago. Lets make sure they aren’t here a couple of years from now!

Note: There was a rumour doing the rounds that the group of AFN people who got to the junction of Cable Street and Mansell Street had forced the EDL march to be diverted up Minories. Unfortunately this is not true – the march was always going up Minories, as stated in the police conditions of the march and repeated to the EDL over and over again through police loudhailers.

Countering the Resurgence of the EDL: Report and Thoughts from the anti-EDL counter demo at Downing Street

In the last week the extreme right has been making all the running in the aftermath of the killing of soldier Lee Rigby on Wednesday. We have seen a sudden outpouring of racism and speedily-organised mobilisations by the EDL. The demonstration at Downing Street on Bank Holiday Monday was the first ‘official’ EDL event organised in response to the killing which anti-fascists had any time to respond to. Luckily UAF called a counter demonstration so the racists did not meet unopposed. The EDL demonstration was advertised for 3pm, although they had all organised to meet up earlier in Leicester Square. The rally organised by UAF was announced for 2pm, also at Downing Street.

When I arrived, the main UAF/anti-fascist contingent were behind police lines outside Downing Street and the cops were not letting anyone else join them. There was a small number of EDL the other side of them (estimated at 150). As I was unable to join together with the anti-fascist crowd, I tried to walk around the perimeter of the demonstration. It was then that I encountered a large number of EDL coming down Horse Guards Road. There were at least 500 of them and they appeared to be going wherever they pleased, marching freely through central London chanting, shouting and waving their flags with almost no police in attendance and no opposition. Apparently this main group of 500 or so had come from Leicester Square. There were some police vans tail-ending the march and a small number of police on foot were following them. However, when asked, one of the cops in attendance claimed to have no idea where the EDL were going. So it could be that the EDL were just being allowed to have an impromptu march wherever they liked or that the route had been agreed with the police but the cops were just unwilling to share this with members of the public.

Either way, the most concerning thing about this whole situation was the radically different policing strategy being adopted when compared to previous EDL demonstrations. In the past, EDL demonstrations have often been very constrained – hidden in car-parks out of town, restricted to static demonstrations or stuck behind huge police crowd control barriers. Now far be it from me to complain about a lack of cops controlling the streets, but the police seemed to have decided for the main part on a very ‘hands-off’ approach which involved the EDL getting to go more or less wherever they wanted. This situation did not feel especially safe in an area with a very ethnically mixed crowd of people from all over the world. Also, in addition to the actual marchers, throughout the day there were EDL everywhere wandering the streets individually and in gangs.

Eventually the group of 500 which had come from Leicester Square arrived at Downing Street for their rally. It appears that the anti-fascist crowd had initially occupied the intended location of the EDL rally and so the police had to remove them before the arrival of the EDL. From reports on the day, it seems there was some fairly heavy policing as the cops pushed the anti-fascists down the road. However, the anti-fascist crowd stayed for the duration of the EDL rally to oppose them.

Later on, once the EDL had had a couple of speeches, the police let them disperse up to Trafalgar Square and there were gangs of them roaming around. They mostly all headed for Leicester Square where there is a large Yates Wine Bar and a couple of other big pubs. On the way to Leicester Square I witnessed a gang of about 30 grouped around Glorious Leader Tommy Robinson (née Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) start on a guy seemingly purely because he wasn’t white. They totally surrounded him and it looked fairly ugly. To his credit he stood up for himself but was physically pulled out of the EDL mob by some cops. At Leicester Square about 200 or more EDL took over the street outside the Yates Wine Bar and were chanting, waving flags and banners, making impromptu speeches and singing some of their charming ditties including one about ‘ragheads’ and some of their old favourites including ‘Allah, Allah, Who the Fuck is Allah?’ and ‘Muslim Paedos off our Streets’. I watched one EDLer get nicked for trying to hit an anti-fascist with a stick.

The whole day felt generally unpleasant. Large groups of EDL marched around central London chanting their racist chants and were free to intimidate people in the street largely unconstrained by any significant police presence or opposed by any anti-fascists. From about 5.30 onwards they marched around the West End larging it up all through Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square, again unopposed.

However, credit to the people that organised the counter-demonstration – it would have been far worse had there not been any visible opposition. And throughout the day there were some brave and up-for-it anti-fascists who stood up to oppose much larger groups of EDL in what was generally quite an intimidating atmosphere.

EDL resurgence

The last week and the continuing pace of events has hopefully been a salutary reminder not to underestimate the EDL. They have moved quickly and been quite smart in their exploitation of the killing in Woolwich. The death of Lee Rigby was a gift for the EDL and they have not been slow to utilise it. They have been swift enough to capture an element of the public and media mood – to get in that window of opportunity while everyone’s feelings are still raw. They had a demo the same day as the attack, attempting to march on the Greenwich Islamic Centre; Yaxley-Lennon put out a video statement very quickly; they stepped up organising for their pre-planned demo in Newcastle and also announced the demo at Downing Street two days later. Yaxley-Lennon also publicised a sponsored walk to Woolwich to raise funds for Help for Heroes and they have announced wreath-laying events across the country for Saturday. There’s an EDL ‘meet and greet’ in Leeds on June 1st to deal with all the new interest they are receiving; their Facebook ‘likes’ have gone from 30,000 to 130,000 in a week and they are planning demonstrations outside the court when the men accused of the Woolwich attack appear. Plus there have been impromptu spontaneous events in cities across the country – some sort of drunken march in Bristol, blocking the road in Wolverhampton etc. That’s a lot of activity for less than a week. In addition to this ‘official’ EDL activity, there has also been a big spike in anti-Muslim racist incidents in the last few days. There have been193 anti-Muslim incidents recorded in the last 6 days and 10 attacks on mosques, including a firebombing.

No doubt the EDL may still be capable of shooting themselves in the foot, but after a year when they seemed to be in terminal decline, this sudden resurgence is a proper wake-up call for anti-fascists.

The reaction to the killing of Lee Rigby

The singular thing over the last few days has been the seeming scale of the racist reaction to the killing of Lee Rigby. I don’t recall there being a similar level of anti-Muslim backlash even after the more obviously ‘terroristic’ attacks of the 2005 7/7 bombings. I think a large part of the reason for this is the groundwork that the EDL has laid over the last 4 years. This demonstrates the circular nature of the relationship between the EDL and wider racism in society – the existence of the EDL has emboldened racists and made anti-Muslim sentiment seem more acceptable. The EDL have then reaped the reward of the last 4 years of marches and demonstrations with the scale of the racist reaction to the killing in Woolwich, which has in turn given them a real shot in the arm. The recent rise of UKIP probably hasn’t hurt any either – lots of people were saying after UKIP’s election results that now they finally felt free to say the racist things they had been thinking all along.

This gives us an important cue that we need to be tackling the wider racism in society and not limit ourselves to only trying to stop the EDL when they raise their heads publicly.

Following the killing in Woolwich, the EDL were ready placed as the go-to guys if you don’t like Muslims and have been providing a convenient way for people to funnel their emotions over the killing. The state is not providing anything in the way Bush did after 9/11 – no way to ‘get the bad guys’ – neither is anyone else providing anything ‘to do’ about it. The EDL are the only people providing an outlet for anger and a ‘thing to do’.

Despite this phenomenon and although EDL numbers have been boosted by recent events, they haven’t been boosted as much as might have been feared. Although both this and the Newcastle demo had numbers higher than recent showings, neither were in excess of what they’ve had in their heyday. Importantly, they don’t seem to have had a huge breakthrough outside of their normal constituency (at least in terms of those who are willing to come out on a demo). This still looked like an EDL demo and the vast majority of people on it fitted the stereotype of middle-aged fat white men with bald heads. My guess is that dormant or disaffected EDL sympathisers – those who drifted away in the last year or so of their decline – have been motivated to get out of bed for this one. When they were just trudging round city centres there was dissention in the ranks. But now here’s the enemy they were wanting. So they have roused their core constituency but have not (yet) made a breakthrough. With any luck the drunken racist antics of this core constituency will make this unlikely, but there is also important work to be done here too – to de-legitimise the EDL, to show them up for what they are and to make it clear that the majority of people oppose them and that they do not represent a legitimate political position.

Don’t bury the meaning and significance of this in mockery

One way of de-legitimising them in the eyes of wider society is to publicise the times when they fuck up from a PR point of view. When EDLers display their racism on Facebook for example, the Left gleefully seizes on this. Although this is all valuable and worthwhile, we should remember that this is probably not going to affect their appeal to their core constituency. The more they are known as those people who are against the Muslims, some people might be put off, but other will be attracted. And when some incident like Woolwich does occur, they are right there, well-known and positioned to take advantage of it. So now you get people re-assessing them saying ‘I always used to think you guys were racists, but now I’ve changed my mind…’

Spending too much time getting excited about when the EDL embarrass themselves does feel a bit like clutching at straws – we weren’t able to effectively oppose them in the streets this time so we’ll find another way to laugh at them and declare their demonstration a failure. It’s certainly good to expose the EDL for what they are, but anti-fascists circulating film of people making Nazi salutes to crowds of hundreds in the middle of London or recordings of EDL leaders being cheered for saying ‘send the black cunts home’ and then feeling like that’s somehow a good thing, like we really got one over on them there, feels a little perverse. It is horrific that these things are happening and it’s not really a victory for us that they are. If anything, it’s the opposite, really – it is a failure that they are bold enough to do these things in public.

Mocking and dismissing the EDL as idiots has not proven to be a useful tactic, because here we are and they have managed to bounce back out of the doldrums. All they needed was one appropriate incident that fits their ‘clash of civilisations’ agenda and the nous to exploit that effectively and they’re making hay. We can say ‘oh they’re just trying to capitalise on this terrible incident’, but the fact is they are being very successful at capitalising on this terrible incident.

Anti-fascists have to up our game

It appears anti-fascists have been left lagging somewhat and unable to keep up with the speed of events. Respect to UAF for actually getting something together for Monday – it looked initially like no one was going to say or do anything. It was very important that the EDL were opposed.

However, some weaknesses have been exposed in anti-fascism in recent days. It appears we can get good numbers and outnumber the EDL when given large amounts of advance notice and months to prepare. Normally this has worked in a specific locality when the mobilisation has played a lot upon locals coming out to oppose the presence of the EDL in their area. But the EDL have a culture in which they have large numbers who are willing to travel across the country for their events. The committed anti-fascist movement who will travel anywhere to oppose them is considerably smaller. Also we seem slow compared with them. It’s probably good that we don’t use Facebook for everything like they do, but nevertheless, their use of social media and the internet does enable them to organise with speed. We don’t seem to be able to move so quickly.

We need to build the culture that the EDL will be opposed wherever they go – we shouldn’t have to wait for someone official to make a call out. The EDL are doing stuff every day at the moment. It’s too slow to wait for call outs. If the EDL have announced an event, that should be enough to make sure that anti-fascists are there. We also need to be able to move quicker and communicate quicker and cultivate numbers of people who are willing to travel to oppose the EDL wherever they are.

The EDL are on a roll at the moment – they will get bolder if not effectively opposed. As we have seen over the last week, the success of the EDL will lead to an increase in racist attacks as racists are given the impression that theirs are acceptable opinions that people can openly espouse and that they are not alone and have support in society.

What we need to do

This last week has confirmed many of the things I argued in a previous blog post. Particularly that the EDL can bounce back from seeming decline, that we can expect activity in the far right to spring up and circulate quickly via the internet, that we need to be able to respond quicker, we cannot rely so much on merely mocking them, that autonomous anti-fascists can’t just tail-end UAF demonstrations but need to get stuck in to mass organising and that we need to combat the whole background culture of racism on which the EDL feeds.

Ideally anti-fascists need to move quickly – things are changing day by day at the moment and in two weeks things will have moved on and changed again.

So, at the risk of setting down an arrogantly proscriptive list of things to do…

We need to:

ACTIVELY

– build the culture that they will be opposed wherever they go.

– get the numbers out quickly – we have to be willing to travel and be able to organise quicker.

– build autonomous local anti-fascist groups united in a wider movement separate to UAF. Build the Anti-Fascist Network.

– oppose the EDL not only at their official rally. Whether they feel like they are free to roam the streets at will before and after their official event is key. If their events feel fun and successful for them they are going to keep coming back. Our task is to try and make them feel rubbish.

– And no back-slapping until we outnumber them 10 to 1.

POLITICALLY

– de-legitimise them – show them to be beyond the pale of what is acceptable.

– make the arguments against their Islamophobic politics – not just the identify the minority of Nazis among them, accuse them all of being Hitler-worshippers and consider our job done.

– tackle wider racism in society with other approaches, not just at the public manifestations of EDL.

– actively promote an anti-racist and anti-fascist culture. Maybe doing our own events and demos separate from just opposing the EDL.

DON’T

– retreat into merely mocking them and think that is an adequate response.

– under-estimate them or write them off – they’re not dead till they’re dead.

Walthamstow 2 EDL Nil. What next for anti-fascism after the ‘return to Walthamstow’?

This Saturday’s attempt by the English Defence League to return to Walthamstow marked another chapter in the decline in fortunes of the organisation. Time was when they could get 3000 to a national demo. Now they only managed 60. After a previous national demo at Walthamstow where 300ish EDL were outnumbered by a couple of thousand opposition, leader ‘Tommy Robinson’ (Stephen Yaxley-Lennon to his mother) announced there would be a return to Walthamstow. A strange strategy… what made him think that re-running the whole thing two months later would change the result is mysterious.

Saturday also topped off a week of misfortune for the organisation – 53 of them all got nicked apparently on the way to do something to an East London mosque including glorious leader ‘Tommy’ who has been remanded till January. This meant that ‘Tommy’ and the leadership were unfortunately unable to attend the return to Walthamstow.

In the event, the Home Secretary proscribed all demonstrations in the Walthamstow area and the EDL were given the option of a static demo outside the Houses of Parliament for an hour. The UAF and community opposition held a victory rally in Walthamstow, while the EDL headed for Westminster.

So far so sorry for the EDL. However, despite their low numbers, the EDL in Westminster still managed to outnumber the opposition by some considerable number. It is a shame that more anti-fascists didn’t turn out to Westminster.

It was not entirely inappropriate to hold the victory rally in Walthamstow – it was by no means certain that all the EDL would go to Westminster and there was talk on the internet of some of them heading to Walthamstow anyway (apparently a grand total of two made it to Walthamstow!). Also it served a function in cementing alliances that have been made in opposition to the EDL.

However, the EDL are very good at bravado, so they made a lot of noise for a meagre showing and it felt dispiriting being in Westminster to oppose them. If a small fraction of those that went to Walthamstow or the Anarchist Bookfair had stopped by Westminster for an hour we could have comprehensively drowned them out and made them feel a little smaller and more insignificant. As it was, they got to shout their shouts, wave their flags, make some short speeches and retire to the pub mostly unopposed, with the added irony of a large anti-racist deaths in police custody demonstration just round the corner at Downing Street complete with SWP paper sellers selling copies with headlines calling on people to oppose the EDL in London (“they’re behind you!” I felt like shouting).

Perhaps it might have helped if an organisation had responded quickly to the change in location of the EDL demonstration and had announced a call-out for people to assemble at Westminster. However, of course, there was one organisation which did announce an official demonstration at Westminster – the EDL. You would have thought that that would be enough for anti-fascists. If the EDL have said they are going to be somewhere then we should try and be there too.

Some Objectivity Needed

It’s hard to get a very objective picture of the state of play between the EDL and the anti-fascist opposition because much of the analysis and opinion on both sides is designed for the other side to read and is essentially propaganda. In this brave new world of the internet and social media, both the EDL and the opposition are well aware that everything they say is in public and that many of the readers and posters on their blogs and forums will be trolls from the other side. Hence if there are failings on the anti-fascist side, no one much wants to discuss that publicly for fear of giving ammunition to the EDL. I’m sure the same is true on the nationalist side. So then on both sides you get a culture of bigging yourself up and mocking and denigrating the opposition, no matter what you do or what they do. Regardless of whether the EDL get a good turn out or a poor one, no matter whether they achieve their aims or not, often the commentary will be much the same – mocking them for being failures and hypocrites etc.

Some of the problems with this were made evident by online responses to Saturday’s  demonstration. Some have been lambasting anarchists and anti-fascists for their failure to turn up to Westminster, to which has come the fairly reasonable response – “We’re constantly being told that the EDL are failures and are an irrelevant laughing stock. In which case why is it so important to get out to oppose them?”

Maybe we need to try and have a more objective look at the successes and failures of  recent anti-fascism.

A Little Bit of History

The emergence of the EDL three years ago came like a bolt out of the blue and was a real wake up call for the left and anti-fascists. Prior to this there had not been any mass street mobilising of the far right for 20 years or more. The BNP had moved from street mobilising to an electoral strategy and was being opposed by the UAF and other anti-fascists on this ground. Anti-fascism had split into this sort of electoral politics on the one hand and on the other, the slightly underground world of AFA-style anti-fascism, where you had small closed groups of anti-fascists lurking round pubs looking for small groups of fascists, often where both sides were personally known to one another.

Both these forms of anti-fascism were inadequate for dealing with the emergence of the EDL, who were both ideologically different from the old far-right and also practically mobilised in different ways. They were confrontational and on the streets in numbers. Ideologically opposing them as people had been doing with the BNP was not effective, neither was having small semi-underground groups of militant anti-fascists when faced with hundreds or thousands of the far-right marching through city centres.

The left in general were caught on the hop and were very slow in catching up. It seemed for quite a long time that people were crossing their fingers hoping the EDL would prove to be a flash in the pan and burn themselves out quickly so that we would be spared the effort of having to confront them.

The emergence of the EDL marked the coming of the New Right to Britain.  Across Europe this new form of far-right politics had emerged that ditched many of the symbols and preoccupations of the traditional far-right. Out went anti-semitism, in came support for Israel and counter-Jihad politics. Out went talk of race and in came talk of ‘culture’ and ‘values’ and even ‘anti-capitalism’ and opposition to globalisation. Out went the boots and braces skinhead look and in came a variety of different images from respectable suited politicians to the black bloc-style ‘autonomous nationalists’ of Germany. You had politicians like Geert Wilders presenting themselves as defending liberal Dutch cultural values against Islam. This shifting ground of the far-right had the potential to short-circuit traditional left responses and arguments against the right.

Luckily the EDL weren’t quite smart enough to pull it off and were hamstrung by their reliance on traditional racists to make up the numbers on their demos.

However, initially at least, this confusion over what exactly the EDL were added to the delayed response from the left. The right had innovated – politically in their language, technologically through the use of social media – and we were playing catch up.

You had the phenomenon of people shifting the goal posts and celebrating the fact that the EDL ‘only’ got 500 people for a march whereas two years before the idea of 500 overt racists marching through British city centres would have been inconceivable. You still have that phenomenon now – although we can all pat ourselves on the back about what low numbers the EDL managed on Saturday, that’s still 60 loud overt racists going mostly unopposed the centre of London.

Although it is traditional amongst anarchists to slag off the more mainstream left anti-fascist organisations such as UAF, Hope Not Hate, Love Music Hate Racism and all their various incarnations, it has to be said that this time round the UAF have been instrumental in regularly opposing the EDL wherever they go and in getting some numbers on the streets, where often anarchists and other non-aligned or autonomous anti-fascists have managed only small groups.

For a while the EDL were making all the running. There was a turning of the tide however and it seems to have come about through a number of factors…

What Turned the Tide?

Over the last year or so the EDL have notably declined, with Saturday’s ‘national’ demo probably marking the lowest point so far.

A combination of factors has led to this. Which seem to be, briefly: the EDL’s own splintering and internal acrimony; a change in the initially uncertain media coverage of the EDL to a fairly unanimous representation of them as racist thugs (with the possible exception of the Daily Star’s attempt to make itself the house paper of the EDL); ‘robust’ policing of EDL demos resulting in them being increasingly less fun to go on; and continuous and increasingly effective anti-fascist opposition.

To take these in turn…

For those who follow these things, there has been ongoing and increasing diet of tales of woe from within the EDL. Individual people and entire ‘divisions’ have been leaving in droves. Some of this was inherent in what allowed the EDL to expand so quickly seemingly out of nowhere in the first place. As an extremely loose organisation essentially focussed on a single issue and a single tactic, they could draw people in very quickly, who have then left again just as quickly when things started going in a direction they didn’t like.

Equally the attempts of the leadership to square the circle of keeping their core constituency of thugs, racists and nazis on board while also trying to deny their existence and to present themselves as merely ‘peacefully protesting against militant Islam’ has resulted in mass defections to the more overtly racist Infidels.

And as usual in the far-right, individual egos and arguments over money have also played their part. As the EDL has slowly become a Tommy Robinson personality cult, people who didn’t like this have marched off to found rival sects.

The change in media representation and public perception of the EDL has made a big difference to their fortunes. Initially people were not sure what to make of them and many people took their statements and public pronouncements at face value. There was a possibility at one time that they could have gathered much wider public support and sympathy.

Luckily, the EDL have been their own worst enemy in this respect and have unfailingly  revealed themselves to be nasty bigoted racists. Again some of these problems were inherent from the outset – with an organisation that largely exists on internet forums controlling the ‘message’ was always going to be difficult.

The police have also gradually developed more strategies for dealing with the EDL and nowadays EDL marches and demonstrations are very restricted. This must also have played its part in their decline. A key attraction of the EDL demos of being able to gather together in large numbers, have a few drinks and go where you wanted, saying what you wanted has been largely curtailed. Travelling across the country to be frog-marched by hundreds of cops from a deserted car park 200 yards to another deserted car park, all the while inside a giant cordon or pen, before being hurriedly stuffed on to buses and packed off home must start to lessen the attraction of attending.

Some have claimed that the EDL are being used by the state. The traditional argument is that the state uses racism to divide and rule the working class, that racism serves the interests of the ruling class. While this may be generally true, in the specific case of the EDL I don’t see it. They have had fairly significant amounts of trouble from the cops and I certainly get the impression that the state doesn’t like them any much more than it likes anarchists or lefties.

From the anti-fascist point of view the key thing that changed was bringing back together the two sides of the split in anti-fascism. Having numbers out on the streets but also having those numbers committed to directly opposing the EDL – stopping them marching or haranguing them along the length of the route of their march. Previously any strategy of getting numbers out was tied to having a UAF ‘celebration of diversity’ rally or some such on the other side of town from where the EDL were. On the other side, any commitment to physically opposing the EDL was limited to small clandestine groups of militants. Bringing together the two sides of that equation, as has happened with more recent community mobilisations against the EDL (Bristol, Brighton, Tower Hamlets, Walthamstow), where you have had large, diverse crowds of people committed to filling the streets and stopping them marching has been a key factor in turning the tide of the EDL.

All these four factors have worked together and reinforced one another. For example, the policing of EDL demonstrations has become more restrictive for them partly because wherever they go they have been meeting counter demonstrations and protests. Also, the shift in public perception of the EDL has been aided by continuous anti-fascist opposition both physically and ideologically. All of these things have then put increasing pressure on the EDL, which has in turn been splintering and disintegrating as a result.

So the unfortunate truth is that although opposition has played an important part, anti-fascism cannot claim full credit for the decline in fortunes of the EDL and that this is probably as much a victory for their own crapness and for the state as for the massed ranks of anti-fascists.

It’s Bigger Than The EDL

The EDL calls itself a ‘grassroots social movement’ which might stick in the throat for those who normally associate these words with liberal or left politics, but is nevertheless more or less true. Following this thought I have sometimes found it helpful to compare the experience of the EDL to experiences of grassroots protest and activism familiar to people involved in anarchist or left politics.

Thinking about how it was that the EDL seemingly sprang out of nowhere, rapidly spread and circulated, why it is that it now seems to be in decline and what the future might hold, it seems useful to compare the experience of the EDL with other rapidly emerging, fast-circulating protest phenomena.

For example, the Reclaim the Streets movement in the late ’90s emerged very quickly, seeming to catch the zeitgeist, was copied very rapidly across the country and then across the world, expanded very rapidly and then went into decline.

Key to the growth and expansion of RTS street parties was the experience of being on the thing. This combined the opportunity for some fun, having a bit of a go at the cops, the chance for a bit of excitement, seeing all your mates, having a beer, being part of something a bit audacious, and seemingly being able to go where you wanted and do what you wanted and to get away with things you couldn’t normally get away with.

This has many similarities with EDL demonstrations I think. When they have attracted large numbers I think it has been for many of the same basic reasons, although the politics are entirely different of course.

People want to be on the winning side and to be part of things that feel successful. In their heyday, RTS events were seeming to build success upon success. You didn’t want to miss the next RTS event because you might be missing the best thing ever. RTS had somehow managed to create a virtuous circle and had created a buzz around their events – everyone was talking about them, asking when the next one was going to be…

Again, this has similarities with the EDL I think – at their height, the success of each large demo fuelled the success of the next.

The virtuous cycle of RTS events ended (in London anyway) with the Mayday event of 2000 which spawned the Maydays of 2001, 2002 etc. – each one promoted more and more as a riot, turning out less and less people and attracting more and more aggressive policing. Then a virtuous circle turned to a vicious circle as heavy policing lead to people staying away and it being less fun – the events started to be perceived as a probable arrest or a long kettling.

The idea of ‘moments of excess’ applies to the far-right as well as to the left. RTS brought a whole load of people into contact with politics, politicising a whole generation and gave them some really formative experiences that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately I think a similar thing may be true of the EDL – even if they disappear now, their malign legacy will continue.

So the positive thing we can take from this analogy…

People were aware that one key way to fight the EDL was to make the experience of coming on the demonstrations dispiriting, boring and not fun – making them feel like a failure. Getting the spiral to flip the other way so that the less people come the worse the demos are and then even less people come next time. Having seen things work in this way with anarchist and left mobilisations, it’s applying the same thing in reverse. Through the combination of factors outlined above, this now seems to have happened.

And the slightly less happy truths we need to face also revealed by the analogy…

The EDL didn’t come out of nowhere – they emerged out of a much wider culture of Islamophobic, anti-immigrant racism sweeping Europe that is still there and that has been reinforced by the existence of the EDL.

In fighting the EDL and physically getting out there on the streets to put forward an anti-racist message we are fighting that whole culture of racism that has grown up and in some ways it’s a good thing that this media/ideological culture took physical form and manifested itself in the EDL to allow us to physically oppose it. It is easier in some ways than opposing that which surrounds us everyday.

Although harder to oppose, that whole culture is still there and needs opposing even if the EDL disappeared tomorrow. It is necessary to oppose this cultural background racism lest we wait until it spawns another proto-fascist monster like the EDL (and also because, as has been pointed out, it is actually more deadly than the EDL, for all their bluster – the EDL just talk about blowing up muslims, the British government actually does it).

Secondly, like RTS, through the EDL, thousands upon thousands of people have had this really formative, life-changing experience which they will not easily forget. Those people are all still out there – they haven’t gone away just because EDL demos stop being fun and successful feeling for them. And the unfortunate fact is that as I’m sure we know from our own experiences, for every 100 people who come on a demo there are probably hundreds more who would support it but not come on the demo.  So there’s a lot of racists out there.

The EDL could turn its fortunes around – they could resurrect themselves. Pull off a success that turns their vicious circle of decline back around. Or there are all these splinter groups – one of them could take on the mantle of the EDL, perhaps a little smarter and less prone to self-destruction.

So to draw some brief conclusions from all of this…

We should beware of declaring victory too soon or of resting on our laurels (especially when they have not really all been won through our own efforts). We don’t want to have to rely on the inherent rubbishness of the far-right or on the cops to stop the nazis for us. If a smarter far-right emerges or elements of the state decide they have an interest in promoting them we would be in a very different situation.

Right now we need to…

Respond quicker to where the EDL say they’re going to be.

Make definitely sure that they can’t bounce back and resurrect themselves – all they would need would be one perceived ‘success’ and it could turn things around for them.

Ensure that we are not subsisting only on propaganda – it’s OK to mock the EDL but we also need to explain why they are a serious threat too.

Have unity with the UAF and other left anti-fascist organisations if possible, but equally we can’t rely on left groups to do all the big overt public organising so that anarchists and autonomous anti-fascists can then tail-end and lurk around the fringes of their mobilisations. We need to get stuck into mass public mobilising too.

And even if the EDL now disappear or become insignificant…

We need to remember the lessons learnt from this struggle against the EDL. We need to try and keep the memory of what worked and why.

Ideally we need to be quicker to respond to new threats and to try and maintain what level of anti-fascist organisation that has been achieved, as to counter the threat of the EDL we had to start almost from square one, reinventing the wheel as there was a very limited existing anti-fascist movement.

We can expect future far-right phenomena to spring up fast and circulate quickly using social media – we will have to respond quickly.

We need to try and fight the whole culture of Islamophobia and racism that spawned the EDL.

Although there are sometimes things to mock, far from being a joke, this phenomenon of the EDL, which is hopefully now dying a death, has been one of the most frightening and worrying developments in this country for many years. Equally worth remembering is that some of the victories against them have been amongst the most inspiring and invigorating mass community mobilisations we have seen in this country for a long time.

“The most important thing with anti-fascism is to show up. There are a thousand excuses we could give to other people and ourselves, so I believe the hardest part of anti-fascism is getting out of bed.“ – K. Bullstreet

Watch This Space: Cuts Cafe Opens in London

On the same day that George Osbourne announced an even greater round of welfare cuts to add to those already previously announced…

"Welcome to Cuts Cafe" banner

Front view Cuts Cafe London

Front Door Cuts Cafe

The Cuts Cafe opened in Southwark in central London yesterday evening. It is intended as a meeting place for people opposed to the government’s austerity programme in the run-up to the TUC demonstration on the 20th October.

1 Stamford Street in 1975

1 Stamford Street back when it used to be a bank in 1975

The building, which looks a lot like the bank it used to be, has been squatted by activists to provide a venue for workshops and meetings, talks and discussions to take place – to be a point where people can engage with each other about how the cuts programme is affecting them and how we can collectively resist it.

On its first evening’s opening it was obviously still a work in progress, and seemed a little underpopulated considering everything that needs doing, but hopefully as more people turn up and contribute and get involved it will evolve and start to come together.

Part of the plan for the space is that it is only going to exist for the two weeks leading up to the demo. This is quite a smart way of doing things – allowing everyone to focus and to maintain their energy, knowing that it’s only ever for a short period of time. It avoids everyone getting tired and burnt-out and the whole thing dribbling off to a messy end.

It seems like people have put a lot of effort into being very open – their statement about the cafe is really good – very inclusive and non-threatening. Hopefully they can get the main doors open soon and given its location it could be a really brilliant space with huge numbers of people coming in to have a look around. If it seems a bit like a dank squat where you have to knock three times on a barred window to gain entry, the inclusiveness of their aspirations could suffer.

There is already a fairly full programme of events scheduled to run in the space. But hopefully this isn’t all that’s going to happen – there need to be more open discussions planning for the 20th and for the wider movement beyond that day, not just lots of anarchist-bookfair-style talks by different campaign groups (we’ll get all those again in a couple of weeks anyway…)

Get down there and help out! Help make it into what it has the potential to be. This could be an important focal point for building the links and connections necessary for a real grassroots movement against the cuts.

Cuts Cafe logo

1 Stamford Street, SE1 9NT
07842 631370
cutscafelondon.wordpress.com
cutscafe@riseup.net

Everyone to the Stacks! Some contradictions in the occupation of the squatted library

Friern Barnet Squatted Library

North London’s squatted library has made some headlines. An element of novelty helps no doubt – a new take on opposition to the cuts.

It sounds like there has been a fine and determined campaign to save the library from Barnet Council’s axe, including a sit-in on the day of closure and regular pop-up libraries since then on the green next to the old library. Now squatters connected to the Occupy movement have reopened the old Friern Barnet library, running it with donated books and opening six days a week with volunteers. They have also hosted some educational classes, talks and music events.

In many ways this is a fine example of exactly what ought to be happening across the country – tactics, ideas and practices cross-fertilising between local anti-cuts campaigns and the more ‘activist’ anti-cuts groups such as Occupy and UK Uncut. It shows people going beyond their own particular group and linking up to make connections in a wider movement while using direct action to galvanise opposition.

However, when I visited, it became obvious that all is not completely at ease among the stacks. The local campaigners who have worked for months to oppose the closure and the squatters who have more recently reopened the library have not all been seeing completely eye-to-eye. Although it seems that the local campaigners and library staff are broadly supportive of the reopened library, there have been concerns and dissenting voices which go beyond the traditional ‘locals’ vs ‘activists’ tensions.

The campaigners’ demands have been for the library to stay open as it was, in the same building, as a properly funded public service. The council have been trying to persuade them to both accept a relocated library and to run the library themselves as volunteers – approaches which have been soundly rejected. Now a bunch of DIY direct action types have come along who have reopened the library and run it entirely with volunteers! Unsurprisingly the council leapt at the chance and instigated meetings with the squatters to discuss a new relocated volunteer-run library.

Front view squatted library Friern Barnet

This is not happening in a vacuum. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is an effort to justify cuts to public services and replace state provision with an ethic of voluntarism and philanthropy – NGOs, charities and community groups will step forward to fill the space left by the retreat of the state. So far we have not seen much evidence of this in action. It remains largely an aspirational goal for the Tories. However, libraries have been specifically targeted as probably the first place where this could be put into action (so much less controversial that trying to have fire stations or clinics staffed by volunteers) and therefore serve as a precedent for the rest of the public sector.

And of course we have seen with the progress and exposure of the workfare scheme what the government’s idea of volunteering is – once the principle has been established that it’s OK for libraries to be run by volunteers then conscripted benefits claimants will soon be stacking the shelves as ‘volunteers’.

Some local councils have already started replacing library staff with volunteers, so much so that CILIP, the librarians association, has taken a stance against this use of volunteers in public libraries, as they are being used to undermine the jobs of professional librarians. The response to these council moves has been mixed, with some groups, as in Friern Barnet, taking a principled stand against new volunteer-run libraries while others, as in Kensal Rise, have been campaigning for the right to reopen closed libraries with volunteers.

Inside view squatted library Friern Barnet

Inside view squatted library Friern Barnet

So it is in this context that the campaign against the closure and the squatting of the library has taken place. However, there doesn’t seem to be much recognition of this on the part of the squatters – rather than ‘Stop the Cuts’, their predominant line appears to be that they are demonstrating an example of DIY anarchistic living – showing how people can do things for themselves without the need for jobs or money or local government.

Now, under normal circumstances this is a fine message and no doubt I have in the past found myself saying very similar things from the steps of some squatted social centre or other. But taking over a derelict building, opening it as a social centre and declaring you are running it as a living example of how people can do things for themselves without money is a very different thing to doing this in a recently closed library which people have campaigned to save as a proper public service employing paid staff.

An equivalent would be in a campaign against the closure of a hospital, a load of hippy anarchists coming in saying they weren’t going to oppose the closure because everyone should be learning herbalism and DIY healthcare and resisting the patriarchal medical establishment. I wouldn’t disagree per se with those sentiments but there’s a time and a place for them and undermining people’s struggles to defend their local hospital against closure in this way would not be a useful contribution to social struggle.

I think it is unlikely the Tories will overcome their tribal hatred of squatters and Barnet will suddenly sack all its library staff and hand over library services in the borough to the Occupy movement (although the tent library at St Paul’s was very impressive). That is not especially the danger – the danger is more of driving a wedge between local campaigns to defend services and the direct action wing of the movement and of giving inadvertent support to the Tory agenda of cuts justified with a rhetoric of voluntarism. Especially with all the media attention, there’s a danger of muddying the waters if campaigners are not speaking clearly with one voice saying ‘Stop the Cuts’. If half of them actually end up suggesting that it’s preferable to have libraries run by volunteers then you have rather shot yourself in the foot.

Two worlds collide

So why is it that we have this phenomenon of clashing ideologies within the anti-cuts movement? British activist culture is strongly wedded to an ethic of voluntarism – that everyone does everything for free because we are trying to create the world we want in the here and now as much as possible. We are trying to show that it is possible to organise without bosses and that people will do things without the lure of money – we are trying to answer people’s familiar objections and show that society doesn’t immediately collapse when you remove bureaucratic control and money incentives. This is an admirable ethos and way of working, but one that can generate problems in certain forms.

V for Vendetta mask among the books at the squatted library

This ideal of voluntarism means that politics is largely something you do outside of work in your ‘spare time’. And further it means that politics itself is something you have chosen to do. Much of people’s attitudes and prejudices are explained by this fact. By contrast, in a workplace struggle you do not so much choose to do politics – politics comes and intrudes upon you whether you like it or not. Activist politics tends often to not ‘get’ workplace struggles over wages (activists often think this is workers being greedy and consumerist).

Because politics is something that exists outside of work, the relationship of the political activist to capitalism is as a consumer (or a deliberate non-consumer). The production of capital through work is necessarily collective, but the consumption of commodities is as atomised individuals. And it is largely this world of individual consumer choice that is inhabited by the political activist. Even when people vociferously reject consumerism and consumption, often their politics remain steeped in individualism and lifestyle choice. Because the political activist has chosen to engage in politics, instead of the idea that we are almost without choice within and against the system (which flows quite naturally from workplace struggles), the thought tends to follow that you can choose whether or not to participate in the system.

In its worst incarnations (as evidenced by some of the productions of the Crimethinc stable, and the opinions of some of those influenced by them) this ethic tends to lead people to self-righteous preaching – loudly voicing the opinion that everyone should just drop out and quit their job, steal, shoplift, hitchhike and live off the food from the bins and that if you don’t, then you’re part of the problem – anyone who even has a job is a sellout.

We don’t want to be part of your big society

The love of volunteering, giving your time for free, community organising and co-operatives in the anarchistic activist movement does leave various openings for the movement be partially co-opted by the government’s Big Society agenda.

Unlike the Left who want to defend services run by the state because they believe having things run by the state is A Good Thing and half way to socialism, anarchists want to abolish the state and money and ultimately have a society where everything is done voluntarily and for the love. So it might seem on the face of it as if anarchists share quite a lot in common with the Tories and maybe even should be supporting this idea of the Big Society.

Luckily, almost no-one is this naïve. The Tories are not, of course, interested in getting rid of the state or even reducing its size or scope, they merely want to break the public sector, the stronghold of the unions, attacking everyone’s wages and conditions in the process, and end all welfare state, safety net, ameliorative functions the state has taken on over the last 100 years as a result of generations of class struggle. For example, we can see the ideal of the Big Society at work in Michael Gove’s call during last year’s teachers strike for parents to become volunteer strike-breakers.

Most anarchists correctly see that the best way to move towards the ultimate goal of an anarchistic society is to build the strength of working class self-organisation and resistance against capitalism now. The form this often takes is the defence of state-run services against neo-liberal attack. A small irony for anarchists involved in these struggles, but nevertheless an important step in the right direction.

oxford university volunteers 1926 general strike

The Big Society alive and well back in 1926 – volunteers from Oxford University ready to act as strike-breakers during the General Strike

Co-operatives have also become flavour of the month with the Tories as they search for some untainted political language in which to wrap their attacks on the working class. The ‘John Lewis economy’ is the new rhetorical touchstone of the right.

As with the talk about volunteering, all this lauding of co-operatives remains mainly in the realm of rhetoric. The Tories are still the friends of the banks and the corporations, but some new political language serves to muddle people’s thinking and mask what is really going on.

Those involved in any activist movements which utilise the language of volunteering, community organising and co-operation must resist all these potential avenues of co-optation. There may be little we can do to stop Tories spouting this language but at the very least we can make a clear stand against it and not inadvertently give any extra credence to what they are saying.

You’ve got to have your political head screwed on when the Tories start using the language of community, co-operation and voluntarism in order to launch a war on the poor. We could end up with our political movements lined up on the wrong side of this class war. Something similarly politically strange happened with the ‘riot clean up’ in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. Self-organised spontaneous community organising ended up on the same side as the government and the police, lending ideological support to moves to demonise and round up rioters and give ever more power and weaponry to the cops.

I have used the politics around the squatted library as a jumping off point for a wider discussion around activist culture and voluntarism. I don’t want to suggest that all of this is necessarily attributable to the occupiers of the library, who have been doing a fine job and have provided a good example of what can be achieved by direct action in practice. However they need to be very clear that the aim of the squatting and reopening of the library is ultimately to lead to it being properly reopened and restored to what it was. ‘Stop the Cuts’ should be the key slogan and demand. Anything else risks becoming a stooge for the Tories.

May a hundred squatted libraries bloom!

friernbarnetcommunitylibrary@gmail.com

Caretaker’s phone: 07592 231150

sites.google.com/site/savefriernbarnetlibrary