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.

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.

Why no young person should ever vote for the Liberal Democrats

To vote for the Liberal Democrats is to throw away all of the sins that youth excuses: reckless ambition, its dreams that shame the real world and the imagination to realise them. They are phoneys, ideologically and politically. Not only have they never been an alternative to establishment politics but they represent its ideal, its bourgeois narcissism that reveres above all and allegiance to a quietly benevolent state. Anyone who would dare to cry ‘betrayal’ over Clegg’s alliance with the Conservative’s systematic assault on those who have already long suffered from inequality poor clearly never bothered to interrogate the principles that bind his party together.

Let me put it like this. The Liberal Democrats are the only political party about whom it is worth speaking in existential terms. Quite simply, what on earth is their purpose in the world?

They thrive, as we all know, upon the ‘alienated’ electorate – I am endlessly lectured about the special place they occupy in our politics. The Tories are (obviously) odious, and Labour treacherous. This step really doesn’t need much interrogation. What does is the next, which typically proceeds: ‘I am so disgusted by the complicity of the established politicians that I am going to vote for the most ideologically vacuous and administratively impotent party that this nation has ever produced.’

Is this at all accurate? The Windsor branch of the Liberal Democrats summarises their party’s constitution thusly:

  • We champion the freedom, dignity and wellbeing of individuals.
  • We aim to disperse power, foster diversity and nurture creativity.
  • We support each citizen contributing to their community and to decisions which affect them.
  • We respect the basic rights of all people, and hope to see all cultures develop freely in peace.
  • We accept that we are all responsible for the future of our planet and of all life.
  • We reject prejudice and discrimination, and oppose entrenched privilege and inequality.

There is nothing at all controversial about the above values. They all, differing only in degree, underlie the assumptions of Britain’s entire political establishment and its main parties: the state must value the rights of its citizens, all of whom must seek fulfilment as individuals, and it must wrestle with an inequality without which it cannot imagine ruling. These ideals crown an age governed by the neoliberal bogeyman, when 70% of Britain fancies itself middle-class despite being more labour-dependent than ever, when its society only looks up rather than around, when abstract ideals above cloud the fires of collective action from below. And who better to champion them than the only major political party whose electoral record has long left their stated values so utterly unblemished by office?

Political centrism is described in two principal ways. On the one hand, it sculpts the humanism of the left with the respect for stability of the right – but these are evocative terms. Claims of ‘pragmatism’ win out – realism. With their acute sense of pride, these proponents pour snobbery over those who try to work out courses to navigate over rough political terrains and stupidly state that great dilemmas can be resolved with delicate shifts. The result? Care and empathy without the strength of the convictions demanded by political ideology are precisely how the Lib Dems phrase their policies. So let’s consider a few of them.

What The Hell Have The Lib Dems Done?’ suggests, one suspects accidentally, that the answer is ‘not very much.’ Amongst Clegg’s achievements are listed:

 End the routine detention of children for immigration purposes

Clegg never promised to end child detention. By June 2012 – two years after child detention was supposed to have ended – there were still 222 children locked up.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a series of events hosted in protest against Campsfield House, the detention centre just outside Oxford. In these places, asylum seekers must wait deportation, often in isolation and never with a specified duration. So irrational and ridiculous is the xenophobia built into the system that even though the number of asylum detainees is rising – to about 29,000 by 2012 – the number of deportations are in fact going down. Not because they are being allowed back into their communities, understand. Instead of allowing asylum seekers – the ‘bad migrants’ – to work in their local communities, they are arrested and held to the cost of £500-£1600 per person per week. The Liberal Democrats will never dare to offer their support to these people.

Improved our libel laws, including making it harder for companies to silence their critics and improving freedom for academics to publish their research (England & Wales)

An odd matter to celebrate. Vince took on News International and lost a battle for which his party never really cared to fight. When faced with the power of a corrupt media class, which has long exploited the high cost of libel law suits to write questionable material about the vulnerable, the government chose, instead of opening legal aid for victims of defamation, to cut it. To grab a brief moment of the sensationalist triumph that newspaper barons do so love – to be able to shout ‘courage’ in the face of terrible foes – more than three centuries of press independence was cast to the winds for a new royal charter system under the hands of a small group of derelict and unelected Privy Councillors. A little ironic, to put it kindly, for a party so thrilled by the prospect of reforming the political system.

And then there’s the excellently-named Gagging Law, which it isn’t even worth the effort to disguise. By 2015 limits will be placed on the finances ‘for election purposes’ of such deeply sinister organisations as trade unions, charities, and any other voluntary groups whose moral reputation should threaten the current governing parties. Not even Lib Dem MPs like Andrew George – who claimed to have been opposed to bill – would move beyond an abstention. And herein lies the utopianism of a political party vocally committed to ‘the right to speak, write, worship, associate and vote freely’ but with nothing to say on the social issues that threaten it.

Announced tougher action on homophobic bullying in schools and given teachers stronger powers and guidance to tackle cyber-bullying (England)

Meanwhile the Gove regime builds child training grounds for religious proselytisers, praises Catholic schools, hikes up teachers’ workload and suppresses their wages. And gay marriage is allowed to be born in the triumph of the conservative project.

Increased funding for dementia research by 150%, reaching £66.3 million by 2014-15 (England & Wales)

I have no doubt that a truly admirable stand was required to overcome Cameron’s renowned hostility to dementia sufferers.

 Ensured the Government maintained the commitment to end child poverty by 2020

If the Lib Dems are happy to claim the ‘ensuring’ role then I should like to change it to ‘enabling’ and add the following trivial qualifier: that the number of children in poverty, despite having fallen dramatically in the decade to 2010, is set to rise by at least half a million by 2015/6. By 2020, the figure will be 4.7 million (or more than a quarter of all children).

Will this, however, be at all negated by their crowning achievement?

Delivered on the key Lib Dem pledge of a £2.5bn Pupil Premium to bring extra funding to disadvantaged students. Its rate has now been increased further and is £1,300 per eligible pupil in primary schools and £935 per eligible pupil in secondary schools in 2014-15 (England)

Of course not. This is merely another instance of the disguised contempt that the Westminster-educated hold for the poor whose excuses for underachievement, it seems, are running thin. Forget the poverty into which the worst schools are entrenched, that pupils who receive Free School Meals are five times more likely to be suspended or excluded than others; forget the ghettoization of universities according to class and ethnic group. Throwing money at under-performing schools in order to fabricate social mobility is like dropping a KFC bucket in a field and calling it free range. Such is how the Lib Dems appeal to the soft spot of the guilt on the heart of the middle-class moralist.

This is not about party politics. Everyone knows the old story of the Conservatives, who every generation have to parody their traditions in order to survive the electorate of the next, and Labour, who no longer have any real concept of either what the working class wants or needs.

All the same, politics is not some theatre designed to entertain narcissistic anarchists. I will campaign for the Labour Party at the next general election for the simple reason that millions of people’s welfares depend enough upon its outcome, however meagerly. The problem with Ed Miliband, as many Lib Dem voters don’t at all care to notice, is that he is developing precisely the same model of politics as Clegg. If the union link is ripped, they will become so immeasurably distinct that it would hardly matter. If the only prospect of a parliamentary voice for the movement of the working class is suffocated, then the goodwill of Labour’s MPs will have no choice but to retreat to the bland ideals of politicians untroubled by the power of grassroots discontent. Pre-empting this with a vote for the Liberal Democrats is senseless.

This is a deeply worrying matter. Any party which justifies its alliance with the Conservatives according to the ‘national interest’ admits the true focus of its eyes: the Britain of the banks, not the Britain of the working people. The nineteenth-century Benjamin Disraeli’s oft-quoted (albeit with invariable ineptitude) remark about ‘the divide of the Two Nations’, one working class and the other a propertied elite, was grafted to the dream of an all-British alliance; it would not trouble him to abandon the social question as the nationalistic matter of Empire promptly offered his days in office a far simpler manner of uniting his country. It had always been to rival this betrayal that the Liberal Party, under Gladstone and later the Welsh schoolmaster’s son Lloyd George, would anchor its moral authority. They never abandoned old Tory ideas of order and the inevitability of social inequality, but they were at the very least conditioned by an attempt to regulate the coming capitalist system to work on behalf of the nation’s broader welfare, considering nationalising the railway and intervening in the market as crises demanded it. It is as if the Liberal Democrats have at last heaved their heritage away from the one noble moment in their history and conceded it to Queen Victoria’s darling Tory jester.

It is not enough, in other words, to protect the Liberal Democrats by invoking the shadowy nightmare of the two alternatives. Their purpose is not to hold one, to masquerade mediocrity as modest constancy; to challenge its rivals with abstract principles which they themselves offer no plan for achieving. In 2010, it would have been preferable for us not to have a government for a few months than one rushing to hasten the exploitation of the poor. And perhaps one day those who enabled it will look back with a sense of guilt and embarrassment.

The Liberal Democrats are not the party of civil progress, nor even a party of the left. They are the party of bourgeois discontent, of the economically-secure crying for calm in a tempest. ‘Fairness’ before equality, ‘Europe’ before solidarity, ‘participation’ before power. And finally the storm has returned for them – and not for the first time. A century ago this year, their forebears launched a war in which the better part of a million of Britain’s most vulnerable were slaughtered in the defence of Empire, and within a few years it looked as if the Liberals had become one of the few casualties of the First World War whose fate was both deserved and a delight. Yet here we are, in 2014, as history revisits itself and casts the cockroaches back into government. Once more, they join forces with a Conservative cattle-raid against the poor man and the foreigner onto whom they beat sin upon sin like the rabbinical goat in the desert.

The government for which they are apparently so loathe has let them back in. But everyone should have known that when the Puritan gains power, ‘new presbyter is but old priest writ large’. If this nation wishes to stand strong against its corrupt and elitist politics, one hopes that it can do a little better than to mark a cross on a ballot paper next to the establishment-chasing sycophancy of a Liberal Democrat.

Buzzwords and “Intersectionality”

Today The Spectator has run a slightly hysterical piece by Julie Burchill on intersectional feminism, “Don’t you dare tell me to check my privilege“:

Intersectionality may well sound like some unfortunate bowel complaint resulting in copious use of a colostomy bag, and indeed it does contain a large amount of ordure… In reality, it seeks to make a manifesto out of the nastiest bits of Mean Girls, wherein non-white feminists especially are encouraged to bypass the obvious task of tackling the patriarchy’s power in favour of bitching about white women’s perceived privilege in terms of hair texture and body shape. Think of all those episodes of Jerry Springer where two women who look like Victoria’s Secret models — one black, one white — bitch-fight over a man who resembles a Jerusalem artichoke, sitting smugly in the middle, and you have the end result of intersectionality made all too foul flesh. It may have been intended as a way for disabled women of colour to address such allegedly white-ableist-feminist-specific issues as equal pay, but it’s ended up as a screaming, squawking, grievance-hawking shambles.

Burchill’s central message shoulder-barges in the right direction but she writes like a born-again reactionary – not the frustrated left-winger which she has cause to be. She makes no attempt, in what could be a fair and satirical critique of identity politics, to argue against her own awful (and poetically numb) degradation of “dicks in chick’s clothing” from last year. If too much of the left today is “a competition in shouting one another down”, then why do the same? The answer, in Burchill’s case, seems clear.

Intersectionality – advanced with the intention to show how various political struggles “intersect” – began as a postmodern parody of Marxism. Today, it is the blunt stake which feminists dream of piercing through the capitalist Dracula. Instead of breaking apart the deterministic social theories that would suffocate Marxism, intersectional feminists simply stitched together a bizarre patchwork alternative.

In the 1970s and 80s, the white masculinised working-class models that had long been the beacon of radical groups seemed to be flickering away. Not all historical causation appeared explicable in the Marxist framework, and campaigners in the cultural liberation struggles found that it was also to blame for the side-lining of some old – and noble – injustices. Black women found themselves alienated by the housekeeper “consciousness-raising” that had erupted out of Oxford; gay people turned to the free hedonist countercultures at Chelsea and Soho, not to diatribes on working-classes struggles. In the years after 1968, its engines rusty, Marxism thus fell gracefully from the mainstream left.

By a depressing twist, these would be the years in which postmodernism would come bursting out of the Seine. For Michel Foucault – but also for those who bought into his frauds – it was fruitless to analyse the world with pretensions to objectivity; the scientist, like the historian, like the political theorist, was saturated in the language in which certain anonymous “power structures” had determined that he would speak. The world, in effect, was a ballooned circus formed from all of his earlier work on psychiatry and madness. Slicing through all of the lies behind society came Foucault’s “truth”.

A civil society in which all institutions are predetermined by discourse is theoretical nonsense – but it can make for some powerfully vacuous polemical feminism. Unlike Marx, Foucault had nothing to say on historical causation. If social change is driven by discourse, then who articulates it? What are their motives? It’s almost foolish to ask. If a theory neglects the authority of material evidence then these questions cannot be answered; Foucault derided crude Marxist determinism only to put forward his own, and to do so without the slightest concern to match the underpinnings of the former that had, however often regretfully, driven war, revolution, and provided millions with a model for equality.

And yet, after the trauma of the 70s, the battered minority campaigns grabbed postmodernism and forced it to marry whatever Marxists would have it: the result was a hideously deformed baby lauded like a new Lion King. So-called “hegemonic power structures” could express virtually any form of oppression – white power, imperial and cultural hierarchies, straight chauvinism and their kingpin, capitalism. Suddenly the troubled complexities of Marxism disappeared. If only people could see that all grievances were the product of a single system then they can unite, and they can tear it down.

Only what are these “power structures”? Where can we find them? Beyond fragmented – if feisty – campaigns against Page 3, or lad culture, or unconditional support for reactionary Tunisians, what is the intersectional solution? It has adopted the postmodernist’s harrying of “objectivity” – it having long been accepted by skeptics that it is impossible to achieve in most instances – and argues that we should not even try to cast off our subjective experiences. If you criticise the intersectional theory or – worse – what might be a deranged argument from someone of an ethnic, religious, or sexual minority, then you cannot believe in social progress. You are parroting whatever hegemonic power structures recruited you at birth; you an impostor; you must “check your privilege”.

And herein lies the tragedy of intersectionality: its answer to very real, very felt material oppression is a retreat into elitist dogmatism in which criticism is the preserve of the apostate, and it strangles the throats of straggling leftists. At a higher level is it iconoclastic, and down below paranoid.

On first principles. I call myself a socialist because, however lazily, I think a) that any economic system that rewards inheritance over the work ethic is unforgivably flawed, and b) that humanity can do better. To say so is to cite an alternative economic model as an answer to material exploitation; it is not then to look to the world and attempt to explain every single one of its problems as an extension of capitalism which, though the turbine of wage slavery, is not a wintry bogeyman. Capitalism is a concrete system whose realities are felt and understood beyond vague notions of “offensiveness”. The answer, therefore, must be to match it in rational criticism.

Black people can murder like white people. Gay people can be misogynists. Islamists can blow up trade centres like the Lord’s Resistance Army can kill African villagers. Is that capitalism? Is it a lie? To the first question I know only that human nature plays a role; to the second, no.

I do not know, quite simply, the extent to which capitalism and the rights of women, gays, trans people, and various ethnic groups overlap. All I know is that it is not total; that’s stupid. It misses the point of socialism and it does nothing to help the circumstances of those for whom it claims to speak.

And this is where I and intersectionality depart.

“At least facetiousness is funny.”

So says Russell Brand:

Brand condemns some rather old problems, among them inequality and “political disillusion”: only then, just as swiftly, to dismiss the point of addressing them. He is much too content to place himself in an intellectual vacuum.

Socialism makes the modest suggestion that welfare should not depend upon the charitable donations of the rich and religious to the deserving poor, a view that holds petty paternalism and charity as insults to human dignity – what Marx called the soothing of the heart-burned aristocrat. It’s why charges of hypocrisy are so ludicrous: “champagne socialism” is an attempt to vomit egalitarians out of public discourse with a pithy remark, alluding, apparently, to the miso soups and lattes over which they denounce the bourgeoisie. (I can only afford cava myself but we’ll let that pass.)

Is this really “hypocrisy”? Compare socialism with the sickly utopianism of so-called “compassionate capitalism”: a view – usually of the wealthy and often of the masochists whom they exploit – in which the accumulation of money by private individuals will only and inevitably operate to the benefit of wider society. It’s why the liberals who befriend this fatuous verdict are usually such chillingly dull specimens.

Now: whatever legitimate questions might be raised about the viability of economic rationalisation under socialism (usually envisaged as being without a monetary system), or the popular tyranny that any “revolution” would risk stirring, there’s at least a sense of commitment to this ideology. On the practical level, you might say, there’s the nationalisation of production; and more romantically there are distant visions of equality and internationalism. Neither scientific nor humanistic impulses can be separated from socialism.

Brand, on the other hand, has nothing to say on this tradition: instead he aligns himself with anarchism of the most vacuous sort. It is the political activism of weed and hedonism, having been arrested for public nudity in 2001 as though ventral modesty and complicity in child labour were inextricable accomplices. As a rule, anarchism doesn’t impress me; it’s a commitment to distaste rather than principle, the populism of idiocy and intellectual dishonesty plagued by the frivolous hypocrisy of which socialists have the right to be dismissive. In 1968, thousands marched through London demanding Harold Wilson take a moral lead in his foreign policy; while the Occupy Movement, four decades later, would say nothing beyond vaguely austere denunciations of capitalism and those Wall Street suits somewhat overly-sharp for the primate species that we are.

Social crises have to be confronted both for what they are and what they may become. It is not enough to complain about flooding in winter and then to stay silent when people march against building the flood gates in spring.


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