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.


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