Ntokozo Qwabe and how not to fight racism

When Ntokozo Qwabe – law student and activist in Oxford’s Rhodes Must Fall movement – bragged on social media about reducing a white waitress to tears back in his home country of South Africa, refusing to tip her until she ‘returned the land’, he reflexively dismissed any and all criticism of his actions (later revealed as his friend’s) as an effort to attack and delegitimise the noble struggle of anti-racism.

No doubt there was some of that around. But in his most recent ‘final word’ on the matter, Qwabe delivers a covert justification of the rights of wealthy members of elite universities to intimidate and harass female workers – provided that they are white, and provided that it ‘disrupts whiteness’:

This incident was not about class, and the bullying of an innocent white worker. That it has been made about class has mostly been a result of an inability to comprehend that the political act was not about Ashleigh or the fact of her being a waitress. As a person who has worked first as a “trolley boy”, then as a till packer and lastly as a cashier at a supermarket for a substantial period of time, where I was reliant on tips from customers, tips, I should add, that were nowhere close to what Ashleigh gets in a restaurant – they were usually more like anything from 10c to R2, if anything at all. I know exactly what it means to be in a position of “an exploited worker”…

This whole class furore speaks to the insufficiency of class analysis in our particular context, and in other contexts more generally where the means of production have historically lied with the coloniser. The idea that Ashleigh is some vulnerable, exploited, working class person needs to be closely interrogated, and in fact speaks to the irrationality of whiteness’ image of who forms part of the exploited working class and who does not. In the context of South Afrikan society, Ashleigh is actually way more privileged than most black working class people.

Sure, many black people have it worse than Ashleigh.

But Qwabe, a law student studying at a global elite university on a highly-paid scholarship, is not one of those people. It is his private accumulation of labour power produced by members of the South African working class – black or white – that allows him to sit in fancy restaurants making the conscious decision not to tip a low paid waiter, whose living standards and job security are dependent on his willingness to leave satisfied with her service.

Saying that he can’t oppress restaurant workers because he used to be one is like Lord Sugar trumpeting that he’s a member of the working class just because he hasn’t lost his northern accent.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that Qwabe is indeed a black restaurant worker – and that he could only afford to eat in Ashleigh’s place because more rich white South Africans than normal happened to tip him that month. Can Ashleigh (who is still white and poor) ‘return the land’ then?

Yes ‘the means of production have historically lied with the coloniser’ but that’s precisely why ‘the coloniser’ could ever be so the first place: powerful European states, through force of arms, seized land and economic production, and so forced black workers to surrender the entire political arena to their white bosses and landowners.

But capitalism doesn’t care about race. Since the end of Apartheid, some white people (like Ashleigh) have fallen on hard times while a number of black people (like Qwabe) have, by exploiting the competitive spirit of neoliberal economics, risen to the top of the social order. Seizing land for himself and for other black people without any conception of what they might share with white workers does nothing to challenge the class dynamics that oppress the majority of his countrymen.

Sure, black people are still by far and away the greatest victims of South Africa’s deeply entrenched economic inequality. But the answer to that isn’t black people (rich or not) humiliating white people in their place of work, ‘disrupting whiteness’ while reinforcing systems of economic oppression – it’s in the entire working class organising in their collective and unique economic self-interest to take control over land and the means of production.

If they did so, would Qwabe be on their side?

Tory plans will hand universities to the market.

This was originally published on Left Foot Forward.

In Monday’s white paper, the Tories announced plans to hand the future of higher education over to the benevolent governance of the market.

From 2017, universities will be ranked not by the quality of teaching they provide but by the employability of its graduates and then, later, those which perform best will be allowed to raise their tuition fees in accordance.

Regulations on academically illiterate corporations dispensing ‘degrees’ for profit will also be relaxed.

If these reforms go through, ability to pay will once again become a key determinant in the quality of one’s education. With maintenance grants having also been abolished, it’s absurd optimism to think that the new ‘Office for Students’ would have any hope of broadening public access to universities under such a system.

Pondering in the jargon of a third-rate social scientist, Universities Minister Jo Johnson has rather tellingly named higher education a ‘knowledge economy’ whose purpose isn’t the dispersion of learning throughout society but to herd students into the labour market.

So we are at a crossroads. Either higher education is a social good, or it’s a commodity with which starry-eyed social climbers can try and outpace the realities of diminishing opportunities and chronic youth unemployment. It cannot be both.

A university system built on ‘consumer satisfaction’ atomises students, encouraging us to scrap among ourselves in a darkening labour market when we ought to be speaking collectively, and without apology, in defence of our rights – rights now as students and in the future as working people.

Teaching and learning are in serious decline. Seminars and lecture theatres are more crammed than ever, cuts have forced course closures and redundancies and academic staff are at breaking point –meanwhile, billions of resources across the sector are being wasted on fancy vanity projects intended to lure in endless hordes of prospective applicants. This is what ‘student choice’ looks like.

It’s not enough to pick bones with this reform or that – the left, the labour movement and students have to be bold all at once. We need free and universally accessible education which gives every single person the right to study what they please and which boasts well-resourced staff on secure contracts. Fund it by corporations, and by taxing the rich.

So far the Labour Party has been embarrassingly tepid on all of this, putting out sedate comments about the white paper’s ‘risks’ and ‘omissions’ and entirely oblivious to the destruction that a neoliberal higher education system yields the social movement at its base. Students need to take the lead, or it will be much too late.

At the annual conference of the National Union of Students last month, for the first time ever delegates voted to organise a mass boycott of the National Student Survey, a career-centred metric that will be key to the ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ by which the government intends to rank universities.

But since the introduction of the TEF will now be delayed for three years, that vote will lose a distressing amount of its potency.

The NUS has been bought off like this before: conjure up some diabolical policy, then temporarily make a ‘concession’ or two and watch with unspoiled glee as the careerist bureaucrats at the head of the student movement hail ‘victory’ to a student population barely aware of their existence. This white paper must not be one of those times.

As I write, student unions across the country are launching referenda on whether or not to disaffiliate from the NUS – all as a result of embittered centrists appalled that ‘their’ union has been handed over to a moderately left-wing leadership for the first time in a generation.

There couldn’t be a worse time to divide the student movement.

If the NUS is serious about seizing momentum, then it needs to prove that it can fight for students – not just in polite meetings with Tory ministers but on the street, and across every campus in this country.

The government’s ridiculous plans to turn all schools into academies were defeated. Even Jeremy Hunt and his war with the NHS might be in retreat. If we have the will, we can save our universities system too.

Antisemitism results from flawed thinking – which only the Left can challenge

This was originally published on Left Foot Forward.

Cowering innocently under the shelter of ‘anti-Zionism’ is not a serious response to the charge of antisemitism. The BNP have long done so; we should expect better from the Labour left.

Criticism of Israeli chauvinism and the occupation of Palestine is self-evidently not antisemitic. Incendiary and historically illiterate polemics denouncing ‘Zionism’ often do, however, draw cruel caricatures of the Jewish quest for self-determination which it embodies, and the fierce racial oppression it was intended to defy.

One has to understand Zionism before it is possible to critique it.

In the late nineteenth century, much of Europe’s educated Jewry emerged from Haskalah – the so-called ‘Jewish Enlightenment’ – secularised and aspiring to integrate into societies no longer governed by the ethics of clerical antisemitism.

But they were not permitted to do so. Everywhere nationalists, revitalised by the pseudo-intellectualism afforded by racial Darwinism, inveighed against Jewish assimilation and ‘the degradation’ to which they lowered European civilisation, as journalist Édouard Drumont had it.

Cast out at once as the impoverished anarchist and the voracious banker, ‘the Jew’ was the architect of all social malaise. Jews were not welcome – ‘loyal patriots in vain’, as Zionist father Theodor Herzl described them. Whether in Argentina or the Ottoman Empire, only a new state might enfranchise the Jewish people – with whatever utopian spirit – from the manacles imposed on it by political racists.

In the years that came, hundreds of thousands of Jews migrated to Palestine. Their kibbutzim became the social blocks of socialist Zionism around which the Israeli state would cluster, and from which Herzl’s hope to build not just a ‘new social system’ but a ‘more righteous one’ appeared to have promise.

None of this is intended to romanticise the project – only to understand it.

For the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who had long typified the many brilliant contributions that Jewish thinkers had made to secular thought, there was famously ‘no special corner in my heart for the ghetto’. Of all the struggles and oppressions in the world, she believed that Zionism distracted Jews from their true vocation in the labour movement with solipsistic and ill-fated nostalgia for a homeland.

Sadly, Luxemburg was prescient. Over the decades, the ruling tendencies of Zionism have mutated into an unpardonable chauvinism; bolstered by the paranoia of national security and the crushing of the labour movement, the tragedy is that Israeli society has come to bear the imprint of so many of the racist nationalisms from which its founding settlers had fled.

But that history is a warning against all nationalisms, and rightly; it says nothing about the specific legitimacy or otherwise of Zionism itself, whose various incarnations share only the distinct belief that Israel ought to exist. Even today, antisemitism pushes thousands of Jews to the Israeli state.

Anti-Zionism, from this perspective, operates as the unique denial of an historically oppressed minority’s right to self-determination. No such attitude would be taken of any other national group.

This is the logic from which antisemitism is bred; and its historical antecedents should have long warned us against it. From the 1950s and beyond, Stalinists of the Soviet Union vulgarised Zionism as ‘settler-colonialism’ as a way of legitimating their obsession with Russian Jews whom it routinely paraded as power-hungry mercenaries of the West.

To have any sense of the oppression that motored the early waves of Zionism means rooting out these absurd and deadly caricatures.

Reflexively dismissing the charge of antisemitism as a plot to unseat Jeremy Corbyn comes from precisely the same conspiratorial logic as antisemitism itself: it is a denial of agency over our own ideas and methods of political organisation.

So far, the centrist plan to ‘tackle antisemitism’ in the Labour Party has amounted to a heavier reliance on internal party bureaucracy – more investigations and more powers to a ‘Compliance Unit’ to root out activists far beyond the pale of any democratic accountability.

But antisemitism is a problem with faulty ideas, not individuals; it corrupts our solidarity with foreign peoples and estrange one of the world’s most historically oppressed minorities from the cause of labour. There are better ways to build internationalism – and better ways to ‘criticise Israel’.

Labour’s left flank has had some astounding victories over the past few months – now we need the intellectual integrity to be worthy of them. If we do not call out our own prejudices, then those who would return us to the footnotes of history will do so on our behalf.

They may very well succeed, and perhaps they would be right to try.

Education is a public good, not a product to be bought

This was originally published on Left Foot Forward.

One day, when we’re sunk in debts we’ll never pay off, we might look back as a country and wonder: why did we ever imagine that education was a product to be bought?

As rational inquiry usurped the gentlemanly havens from which university life had been crafted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the academy soon began to spearhead advances across the breadth of the natural and social sciences – and also became, through philosophy and the arts, the centre by which societies aspired to become self-aware.

The public university might never have fully escaped the pomposity and elitism with which this liberal idealism endowed it, but growing access to higher education was undoubtedly a steady but very real victory for Britain’s working majority, uncontestably transforming it from a preserve of the wealthy and into a public good.

Over the last two decades, this vision of an education system open to learning for all has been beaten and battered. With unprecedented numbers heading to university in the 1990s, the Major government had determined that around two billion pounds would be needed to make higher education fit for purpose.

Its triumphant successor, New Labour, could very well have used its vast mandate to invest these funds from the public purse, proud of the social good education provides.

But rather than defending the right of all to the free education enjoyed by the middle-class of his generation and those before, for Tony Blair it was to be education, education, education – all for the modest price of £1000 a year. Since trebled and trebled again, Britain now shames itself with the most expensive tuition feesin the industrialised world.

In hindsight, this was about far more than the money. Once higher education had a price, it needed a return: and so the entire university experience became just another effort to notch up a rung on the social ladder. Students became ‘customers’. We chose to fetishize our egos, seduced by idle chatter about investing in our future and threatening the institutions we bequeath to the future as we were.

Take UCL, my university: large departmental cuts are currently looming in a bid to fund a new £1 billion campus in East London, at a time when a full half of the teaching workforce are already employed through hourly or fixed-termed contracts.

Today, the absurdly-paid officials of university senior managements sport with one another like Victorian gentlemen, funding gross vanity projects by battering their staff and lobbying to burden students withunlimited debts. It is prestige they crave, not learning.

When the government first released its Higher Education Green Paper last November, Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson paternally dedicated himself to safeguarding ‘the time and money students invest in higher education’.

By these reforms, raising tuition fees in the future won’t require a Parliamentary Act, and steps to set up private universities will be simplified. Moreover, and with characteristic euphemism, a so-called ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ will determine the allocation of public funds based not on teaching, but ‘outcome-focused criteria’, meaning graduate careers and student satisfaction checklists.

‘Value for money’ obviously has no room for teaching standards – it’s a glib deflection intended to legitimate fees we shouldn’t be paying in the first place.

These latest reforms are, in other words, a further step in rationalising the steady dismantleing of the public university and the commodification of what remains. For the Conservatives, universities are about cultivating a solipsistic and myopic class of graduates obsessed with their own economic self-security, competing for scraps in a stagnating and soulless labour market.

It’s a psychology determined to stifle any learning or creativity that the market considers hostile or redundant, depoliticising and atomising students and thereby the next generation of the working class as it does so. Knowing what a university ought to be, it robs us of our dignity.

If we accept these reforms it will be a defeat not only for students, but for the labour movement as a whole.

Nothing about this is or ever was inevitable. Across most of the European Union, full-time higher education is either free or with costs close to the figure set by Blair in 1998. With the white paper on higher education due to be published later this year, the student movement needs to fight back – and fast.

We can start by sabotaging the National Student Survey, a metric central to the Teaching Excellence Framework by which university managers hope to increase their fees.

Then we can fight on for everyone’s ultimate right to a free education – because we are not ‘customers’. Education is a public good, and for what we make of it we should be indebted to no one but ourselves.

Let Macer Gifford Speak!

Update: Woop! UCLU have rescinded their ban at long bloody last.

In yet further grandstanding of the power unaccountable bureaucracy holds over freedom of speech, a former UCL student has been blocked from delivering a talk on the fight with Daesh in the Middle-East. Originally due to speak at the invitation of the university’s Kurdish Society, Macer Gifford was unilaterally barred by UCLU’s activities and events officer, Asad Khan, on grounds so vague as to be borderline absurd. Defending his actions with the lurid euphemism that ‘one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist’, Khan continued to write that ‘in every conflict there are two sides, and at UCLU we want to avoid taking sides in conflicts.’ For one, it is deeply disturbing to hear any moral equivalence be drawn between the predatory and barbaric political system under construction by Daesh and its Kurdish national opposition, the YPG; but a pre-emptive ban on an individual with first-hand expertise on a subject whose facts are forever blurred in the mainstream media runs counter to the very spirit of independent thought we should aspire to nurture at a university.

We must not allow undemocratic vetoes to be cloaked in this shady language of political neutrality. UCLU has made repeated political interventions in the past, and will continue to do so in the future with or without the consent of its sabbatical officers; several motions have been moved in recent years against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, for example, a theme which deserves to be revisited again. Moreover, despite Khan’s claims to the contrary, not all of his colleagues were informed of his decision to bar Gifford, and he certainly has no right to legitimate such any pronouncements with reference UCLU’s student body, essentially none of whom were consulted. Khan must be censured, and the ban on Gifford immediately rescinded.

Originally written for the UCL Free Education bulletin.

Five things the Queen’s salary could pay for

Balmoral Castle

It is virtually impossible to find an accurate breakdown of the Queen’s wealth. The Sunday Times Rich List puts her net fortune at £340 million; but while a significant portion of the income this produces is clearly wasted on antiques in whom only the most pretentious and over-privileged in our society would ever find value, much of it, like Balmoral Castle, takes the form of great historical treasures – and they would need to be paid for by the public whether or not it went through the monarchy first. This does not of course account for the fact that most of these sites are, at present, closed to the public, or for the lost revenue in tourism that has resulted – but we’ll generously glide over that.

Nevertheless, according to the Independent, the Queen’s burden on the taxpayer during the last financial year amounted to about £40 million direct from the Treasury, or:

  1. 1,713 new nurses per year. 

    It costs about £70,000 for a nurse’s three-year training course on the NHS. Today, following a variety of severe cuts and privatisation efforts, waiting times in hospitals are back a decade; and with finances comparable to the Queen’s budget, the number of new nurses trained per year could be restored to the level it was at before the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition began in 2010.

  2. 11,810 grants for students from low-income families per year. 

    In this year’s budget, Osborne announced he was cutting student grants from the budget – entirely. That means that students coming to university from low-income backgrounds will receive nothing to compensate for the lifestyles enjoyed by those with well-off parental sponsors. The Queen’s annual income could pay for thousands in need of the full £3,387 grant.

  3. A fund for 4,500 severely disabled people to live per year.

    The Independent Living Fund – before it was obscenely obliterated this year – provided 18,000 several disabled people with the money required to enjoy a very basic standard of living, perhaps in mobility or care at home: life for disabled people – on average, and not even in the worst case – costs an enormous £550 per month more than it does for non-handicapped people. Even if one callously sets aside the disproportionate number of deaths since 2010 from Ian Duncan-Smith’s decision, essentially, to force disabled people to work, a commitment on the size of the Queen’s salary could allow for about a quarter of the ILF to be restored.

  4. 1,600 new teachers per year. 

    At a time in which there is a 10 percent shortfall in the number of teachers needed in the education system, one is an awe at Osborne’s obsession with pay freezes in those sectors where applicants are most desperately needed. Classes are growing and standards are in decline. Not that this would at all discourage the royal family, whose private tutoring is now being adopted by the upper middle-class in their quest to avoid shortcomings in their children’s schooling. The annual salary for a new teacher is £25,000 – which is often returned to the exchequer through tax, even for trainees.

  5. Settling 1,500 Syrian refugees per year.

    Any number less than the tens of thousands who ought to be settled in Britain is an utter disgrace. Still, the immediate cost of settling someone in Britain would probably amount to roughly £25,000 – which is to say nothing of the number, as Germany have somewhat cynically appreciated, who would contribute to the economy in the long-run through bolstered production and tax revenue. I don’t find at all tasteful to think in this way about human refugees – refugees, in this case, from a war that our government has done appalling little to stop. But the size of the Queen’s budget does underlie how utterly ridiculous is the Conservatives’ logic on the matter.

Is any of this in itself enough to justify deposing the monarchy? Not really – it’s pennies, and all of the above changes could be made to the treasury for what would amount to a tiny cost on the national budget. Besides, the entire point of social democracy is so ordinary people will not be dependent on the generous handouts of philanthropists and well-meaning churchgoers. But ask yourself – why do the Tories slice away at the NHS, as though it staff were moldy outgrowths, but make an elderly lady – who has never been held accountable to anyone – untouchable?

There is a reason that Elizabeth of House Windsor is romanticised for the glamour she has never deserved. The reflexive defence of her wealth under some ‘patriotic’ delusion stands for everything vested in this country’s tolerance for extreme fortunes which could never legitimately be earned by anyone, the same country that allows cynical scapegoats to be made of the vulnerable, forever fantasising about welfare abuse while billions of income silently disappears from the tax books. And in the case of Her Majesty, it is one worse: it is the fortunate of an unaccountable, unelected, hereditary snob wrought from a past most nations have long since set aside with the toys of their childhood.

In my dreams, Britain’s longest reigning monarch will be its last.

It’s absurd to compare Jeremy Corbyn with Michael Foot

Source: Shropshire Star

Of all the parodies of the Jeremy Corbyn campaign, the most ridiculous is the attempt to scare it away with the corpse of Michael Foot. It begins with the infamous ‘suicide manifesto’ of 1983; moving left as the country moved right, Labour’s crushing defeat in that year is invariably cited as hard proof of the British electorate’s instinctive hatred of socialism. However moral and correct a Labour under Corbyn would be, so the argument from ‘pragmatism’ follows, its achievements would amount to nothing more than an indefinite party of protest. If you wish to understand the future, take a glance at the past.

To put it politely – this is not how history works. Even discounting the nationalist euphoria surrounding the Falklands – a miraculous war which Foot himself had supported – as well as the SDP’s brutal and essentially narcissistic hacking of the Labour Party into two, the anti-socialism that motored working class Toryism in the 1980s has long been spent; it only really exists now as a ghost to beat down those for whom the reality of accelerating inequality and deprivation has thoroughly discredited any economic orthodoxies that once promised the opposite.

Foot’s ‘suicide note’ landed in the midst of counter-revolution. Following a decade of economic stagnation, Margaret Thatcher’s answer to administrative incompetence was not to reconstruct and democratise the state’s services, but to slash and privatise. Trade unions were bullied into submission; industrial warfare was not to be pacified, but defeated. Only with collective bargaining rights under siege and the market freed from the shackles of the public interest, so Thatcher promised, could people seize upon profit and advance their lot in life.

The ultimate goal of Thatcherism was, however, to break apart the collective working class by exploiting momentary panic; betrayal was inevitable. The middle-class have monopolised access to housing and higher education, depressing the opportunities of the very individuals whose vulnerability Thatcher had pledged to secure. As a result, the hopes invested in her politics of aspiration have decayed into cynicism and despair; UKIP’s myopic campaign against immigration rides largely on the residual anger of an old working class Toryism, aged, demoralised and disenchanted. If the antidote is to have any chance of success, it will have to be socialist and class-based.

But it’s so much bigger than UKIP. The vast majority of people today either chose not to vote for Thatcher or were not alive to do so; and with a smaller turnout at the 2001 election than for the better part of a century, it’s not a coincidence that so much of the white working class stopped voting once Labour decided that ‘we are all middle class’, as John Prescott loftily had his party’s rapprochement with neoliberal Britain. While having few of the policies to show for it, Ed Miliband’s leadership was, it’s true, something of a reach to the left; but with his entire campaign still underwritten by the propriety of austerity, Miliband’s Labour amounted to nothing more than some slightly naïve paternalism. Aspiring to govern for everyone, he inspired no one.

Believing that the right is guaranteed to endure will only ensure that it does. For Liz Kendall – the Blairite extreme with whose politics Cooper and Burnham incoherently flirt – the electorate, ‘the British public’, is just that classless and mentally impenetrable mass with whom debate is futile; its politics immutable, the pinnacle of democratic decency is not to argue and discuss but to accept uncritically the political centre as a diluted and arbitrarily nuanced vision of economic orthodoxy as it stands. In practice, this sends Labour into a futile chase after the Tory vote, inexorably retreating rightwards and cocooned away from the millions of people, especially young, either in desperate search of an escape from austerity or, in its absence, embracing whatever hollow comforts are offered by the nationalists of the day.

The British working class isn’t ‘instinctively’ anything – the right has been successful because it has waged determined and efficient campaigns for decades while the left has sat lost in a state of dismay. The working class has continued to fragment, but the entrenchment of social inequality and poverty has, in other ways, made it more physically tangible than in decades. Whether or not a Labour under Corbyn can recollect the shards of the labour movement won’t be known until it’s tried; but to throw aside the batten before the race has even begun is as disabling as it is dangerous, for both Labour and the country at large.


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