Public and Private, Man and Woman: The anti-cuts movement must challenge the hierarchies

Of all the public services being hit by the cuts, those dealing with issues considered to be private are suffering the most. But what does “public” and “private” mean, in this context?

Public goods are things that benefit society as a whole – education, healthcare, wellbeing.  Public services are the things that facilitate these goods – schools, universities, the NHS, libraries, parks and green spaces etc.

However, there are other less well-known public services that facilitate public goods, such as publicly funded domestic violence and rape crisis centres, drug and alcohol addiction clinics, Sure Start centres etc.  These less visible services have all been the first to go in the government’s slashing of public services and to muted outcry.  Why?

These services deal with issues that are considered to be “private”.

Two strangers fighting in the street is “violence”, but violence in the home is “domestic” violence.  It is, therefore, not a “public” issue.

Why?  Domestic violence is “domestic” because it happens in the home – the “private sphere”.  Similarly, drug and alcohol addiction afflicts individuals who have hit hard times; so many people think there doesn’t need to be a public service to deal with this.  Pregnancy, maternity, and raising infants are considered to be private, family issues, not something that promotes a public good.

However, what this fails to see is that all of these issues are social issues.  “Domestic” violence leads to the death of two women a week in the UK and will be experienced by 1 in 4 women in their lifetime.  This violence against women (VAW) is hidden because it is “private”, when in fact it should be a cause for common concern.  Drug and alcohol addiction predominantly affects the poor and dispossessed; it is caused by wider issues in society – poverty and status inequality.  Pregnancy, maternity and raising infants form the fundamental basis of the reproduction of any society.

By reducing these issues to the “private” sphere, the voices of the marginalized are further oppressed, and because these norms are so ingrained in our thoughts and practices, we fail to see their significance.

The feminist critique of public and private

Feminists have theorised the hierarchical binary oppositions that form the basis of Western philosophy and culture.  This theoretical technique is called ‘deconstruction.’  To put deconstruction simply, every concept has an opposite; for example, high and low, public and private, men and women.  The first part of the binary is considered superior to the second – high is better than low, the public is superior to the private, men are considered superior to women.  And so on…

The hierarchical ordering of concepts creates structures of advantage and disadvantage, i.e. power.

So we have:

Men – Rationality – Intellect – Independence – Politics in the PUBLIC sphere
Women – Irrationality – Emotion – Dependence – Family in the PRIVATE sphere

Feminism has exposed the public/private binary (at least in Western cultures) as the core of women’s oppression.  Women are embodied/emotional/nurturing creatures in the private sphere, as opposed to intellectual/rational/dispassionate men in the public sphere.  Hence, “women’s issues” are not public issues.

The feminist answer is to dismantle the binary and transcend the public/private dichotomy altogether.  In the meantime, however, we must fight to maintain the provision of domestic violence services, drug and alcohol clinics, and SureStart centres as public services; they are not luxuries or helping-hands for the private sphere.  And while we’re fighting for public services, it’s time for a radical rethink as to what they actually are.

Really?  Aren’t women liberated?

Sometimes it can be hard to see this happening in our society.  Women can break through.  More women go to university now than men.  Women can become political philosophers, or engineers, or scientists, or whatever we want.  But this doesn’t stop the trend of issues associated with women – rape, domestic violence, pregnancy and maternity – being relegated to the private sphere.  Just because a few women have been successful does not mean that the status hierarchy that has defined Western cultures for millennia has been overthrown.  It’s also important to remember that without feminism, we would not be in this position at all.

In some countries, women still can’t be seen in the public sphere.  But the work of grassroots feminists is paving the way for women’s liberation.  Just look at what’s happening across the Arab World; the role of women in the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen is inspirational.  Tunisia was the regional leader on women’s rights; but in other countries in the region, through the revolutionary movements women are finally breaking the barriers of the public sphere, demanding their voices be heard and listened to.

Why bring this up?

I want to highlight that using the terms “public” and “private” is not neutral.  These words are infused with connotations and assumptions beyond their direct meanings.  It’s important when we’re talking about public services that we include those that are less obvious, or even ones that have previously been ignored (universal child-care?).

The cuts are regressive in terms of gender equality.  Women earn 15.5% less than men in the same jobs in the UK, so will pay back university fees for longer (you could see this as a good thing – David Willetts recently told some women students that because women earn less they won’t have to pay fees back, making the policy “progressive”!).  Women make up two thirds of public sector workers so will disproportionately suffer from job losses.  Women claim almost 100% of child benefit, and 53% of housing benefit.  Lone parents and pensioners, most of whom are women, will suffer the greatest loss in public services: lone parents will lose services worth 18.5% and female singles pensioners 12% of their incomes.

It’s essential that the left-wing and anti-cuts discourses don’t perpetuate gender inequality too.  We have to recognise it in the language we use, the claims we make, and the actions we take, always critiquing and always seeking to improve.



Filed under Education, Gender Based Violence, Human Rights, Public Service Cuts

Gender based (state) violence: why the sexual infiltration of social movements is a violation of human rights

The police tactics right from the beginning of the student movement have been abominable.  They’ve kettled us, charged us with horses and beaten protesters with batons.   Police have patrolled university campuses.  They’ve infringed our civil liberties through only allowing protestors to leave a kettle by taking their photo.  They’ve infiltrated our lines of communication.  And they’ve consistently made out like we’re the out-of-control, violent ones.

But the revelations about police infiltrations of Climate Camp are taking the infringement of rights to new and profoundly disturbing levels.  According to a Guardian interview with a former undercover agent, police officers were ‘cleared’ to have sex with activists.  This is wrong.  This is very, very wrong.  Why?

1. Consent and rape law

Sex without consent is rape.  The definition of consent in UK law is “if she agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice”.  The victim must have had the freedom and capacity to make the choice of whether she wanted to have sex with the man in question.  If the perpetrator is knowingly concealing their identity they are withholding relevant information from the woman, thereby reducing her capacity to make an informed and free choice.

The women and men who had sex with undercover officers may well have consented at the time.  But they consented on the basis that the person they were having sex with was a fellow activist – someone they thought they knew and could trust.  The police officers were lying about their identity; the activists didn’t know they were having sex with police officers.

‘Rape by deception’ or ‘rape by fraud’ is outlawed in several states in the USA.  “The rationale is that the identity of the victim’s sexual partner is part of the act to which the victim consents” (Christopher and Christopher, 2007).

The traditional paradigm for deciding whether fraud vitiates consent, constituting rape, is the distinction between “fraud in the factum” and “fraud in the inducement”.  Fraud in the factum means that the victim consents to the act X, but the perpetrator in claiming to do X, does Y instead.  For example, if a doctor penetrates a woman’s vagina with his penis, claiming it is a medical instrument, it is fraud in the factum.

Fraud in the inducement means where the victim is fraudulently induced into the act X, and the perpetrator does X.  For example, if a doctor claims that having sex with the victim is of medical benefit.

Fraud in the factum legally constitutes rape in many US states.  Fraud in the inducement does not.  However, modern rape law is changing because there is an emerging consensus within US legal theory that this distinction is arbitrary.  Its influence is dissipating and some legal jurisdictions refuse to acknowledge it, arguing that all types of fraud used to obtain sex are illegal.  The feminist lawyer, Susan Estrich, has influentially argued that the same restrictions that apply to fraud to obtain money should also apply in rape law.  Also, the recognition that rape constitutes an infringement of sexual autonomy, rather than constituting a crime of violence, supports this shift in the definition of consent.

As far as I am aware, rape by fraud is not an offence in UK law.  Although deception of a person with a mental disorder to procure sex is a criminal offence and can result in life imprisonment.

There are strong reasons in favour of criminalizing rape by fraud.  Even if you don’t agree with the criminalization of this act, it’s hard to argue that it is not immoral.  And even if you don’t agree that it was immoral, there are other factors at play in this specific case.

2. Human Rights

The primary role of the state is to protect its citizens.  However, states can and have used the power entrusted in them against their own citizens.  Human rights are restrictions on the state to protect individuals against unjustified interference by the state, or to enable citizens to make claims on the state to fulfil their basic needs.  They are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is binding in international law.

The police force is an instrument of state power used to coerce citizens to protect other citizens.  Police officers are agents of the state.  As such, they have violated the following human rights:

Article 3.Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

‘Security of person’ meaning not to be physically violated by state agents.

Article 5.No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Using people for sex to gather information is cruel, inhuman and degrading.

Article 18.Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Members of left-wing and environmental movements have been denied their freedom of thought and conscience, to the extent that police think they can physically exploit them to garner information.

Article 19.Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

We all have the right ‘to hold opinions without interference.’  The police infringed this right by interfering sexually and emotionally with activists.

Article 20.(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

People at Climate Camp had the right to assemble peacefully.  The police violated this right by covertly infiltrating the movement.

Article 28.Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

The UK government is not providing a social order where our human rights can be fully realized if state agents are secretly infiltrating protest groups and having sex with people to get information.

Article 29.(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

The only limitations to our human rights must be determined by law and must be grounded in protecting the rights and freedoms of others – having sex with activists under false pretences is not legal and protects the rights of nobody.

So, the state has violated SEVEN fundamental human rights.  This is illegal.  It is a violation of international law.

3. Motivation

Why would the police violate individuals’ human rights in this way?  What motivated them?  A possible explanation is that they are trying to undermine these movements in the eyes of the general public.  Consider this quote from the article:

“As regards being with women in very, very, very promiscuous groups such as the eco-wing, environmental movement, leftwing, or the Animal Liberation Front – it’s an extremely promiscuous lifestyle and you cannot not be promiscuous in there.”

In any group of people you will get promiscuous, averagely sexually active, non-promiscuous, and abstentious (by choice or by chance) individuals.  To claim that certain social movements (all dissident movements) are extremely promiscuous is absurd.  This is a political move to make us look ‘bad’ in the eyes of the moral majority.

This ridiculous claim also provides the police officers with a ready excuse to have sex with as many activists as possible.  Both for their own pleasure and to get as much information as possible.

4. Sexual exploitation by the state

Sex was seen as entirely instrumental to uncovering information about the movement – “Sex was a tool to help officers blend in, the officer claimed, and was widely used as a technique to glean intelligence.” It was a “tool” for the exploitation of activists to further police ends.  The instrumental use of women’s bodies (sexual exploitation) to gather evidence against them.

Imagine how you would feel if you were used in this way.  Humiliated?  Degraded?  Like you’d let your friends down?  Ashamed?  Sullied?  Used?  Exploited?  Traumatised?  Violated?  Even if you don’t believe this was rape by fraud, this doesn’t sound like a consensual sexual experience to me.  This sounds like exploitation by the entity that is supposed to protect you.

It is up to each of the affected parties to determine how they feel about and define what has happened to them.  From a moral perspective they were induced to have sex by fraud, and from a human rights perspective their rights have been violated by the state.  If they wanted to argue that they have been raped and their human rights violated, I believe they would be perfectly justified in doing so, and they can certainly argue they have been sexually exploited by the state.

5. The Feminist Perspective

Feminists have argued for decades that the state is gendered, and its gender is male.  The state is male because it was created by men, for men, to further men’s interests.  This seems obvious when you consider that women only recently, historically speaking, have been granted the same rights as men – such as the right to vote or own property – or were protected by differentiated legislation that took into account their specific needs – legislation against marital rape, discrimination in the workplace and the equal pay act.  For women’s voices to be heard and our interests taken into account we have had to fight and fight and fight… and the battle continues.

The Guardian article claims that both male and female officers were sanctioned to have sex with activists.  But so far, the only police that have been revealed as being involved have been men and I would hazard a guess that the majority of police officers engaged in this particular activity were men.  I don’t have evidence for this.  I cannot verify it.  But I would be extremely surprised if the majority of these cases didn’t involve male officers (maybe I’ll be proved wrong, we’ll see…)

If it turns out to be the case that this was a majority male activity, from a feminist perspective, it represents the move from the metaphorical violence of the male state against female citizens to the actual physical, sexual violation of women’s bodies to maintain state control and dominance.  Of course, the male state regularly turns a blind eye to gender-based violence – the conviction rate for rapists in the UK is 6%, and police rarely prosecute for ‘domestic’ violence despite the fact 1 in 4 women will experience it in their lifetime.  But state agents violating women’s bodies to glean information in order to better control dissent is an utterly shocking violation of women’s rights. It is the ultimate means of the dominance, pacification, and coercion of women citizens.

For all these reasons, the undercover infiltration of social movements and the sexual abuse of their members is wrong – morally and legally.  The police have raped citizens, violating fundamental human rights.

Some of the women involved are considering legal action.  They hope to prosecute the police officers and their superiors for the criminal offence of misconduct in public office.  The courts will not recognise this as rape.  They will probably not recognise the violations of human rights involved.  They will definitely not link it to wider structures of male domination in society, or recognise the attempt to undermine leftwing movements’ reputations.  But that does not mean all these dimensions of this crime do not exist.  They do.  This should not be going on in a liberal democracy, not in any country.


Protest Mon 24 Jan –


Filed under Gender Based Violence, Human Rights, Student Protests

The leaders on EMA

The Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) is a small weekly means-tested grant for college students of £10, £20 or £30.  It was brought in by the Labour government to provide an incentive for the most disadvantaged school students to stay on in education.  It costs £560million per year.  Money well spent?  This is what the leaders of the three main parties had to say about it…

The Tories – Prime Minister David Cameron

Supports EMA? Yes

Labour – Ed Miliband

Supports EMA? Yes

Lib Dems – Deputy PM Nick Clegg

This party election broadcast doesn’t specifically mention EMA.  But I found on the website The Student Room a comment on EMA written by Nick Clegg in September 2010.  In it he says he would scrap EMA bonuses (a £100 bonus giving to EMA recipients if they go to all their classes and perform academically) but that it’s important for ‘fairness’ that weekly EMA payments are maintained –

“EMA bonuses have been stopped, allowing us to pay the weekly EMA to more young people. We think that is the right way to distribute the money at a time when big reductions are needed in public spending. In terms of financial support beyond 2010/11, we’ll be considering longer term arrangements as part of the wholesale review of public spending that is being conducted this autumn. With the nation’s books in such a bad state we now have to look at every single pound Government is spending to make sure that absolutely none of it is wasted, making sure we use it in a way that reflects the things that we, as a society, believe in. That includes greater fairness in our education system.”

Supports EMA? Yes


So, they certainly used to think EMA is worth the money.  And the stats back them up.  In a poll commissioned by UCU in which 713 EMA recipients were questioned, 70% said they would drop out of their course if the grant was withdrawn.

Here we have seen the leaders of the three main political parties – three privileged white men – standing up for the most disadvantaged school students in the country.  We’ll see what they really think and who they really stand up for in the Commons tomorrow…


Please surprise us MPs!

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Filed under Education, NetrootsUK, Student Protests

Debunking the Daily Mail Myths

There is a ‘common sense’ view that currently prevails in the UK about university education.  I’m calling it the ‘Daily Mail’ view.  It consists of three myths:

1. Too many students go to university.

2. Too many people have degrees making it harder to find skilled jobs for everyone.  A degree is paradoxically essential and useless.

3. Most students waste their time at uni drinking, partying, getting STDs and not really doing much work – all at the taxpayers’ expense.

In conversations about the protests, I have encountered all of these arguments.  They are all myths.  Here, I want to provide you with the counter-arguments so that next time you come across one of these myths, you will know how to destroy it.

Myth 1 – Too many students go to university

Thinking that too many students go to university represents a particular view of education.  For proponents of this view, education has purely instrumental value.  The value of education is its ability to lead to a job and generate economic growth.  This logic is repeatedly asserted in the Browne Report.

The ability of a university degree to get a person a job and improve economic growth is only one of its values.  Education has further instrumental values.  People with higher levels of education are more likely to be healthy and to be satisfied with their work and leisure time.  Education creates citizens who are publicly engaged – the higher the level of education, the more likely a person is to vote and to volunteer (i.e. take part in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’).

Education makes society safer.  More than 50% of male offenders and 71% of female offenders in the UK have no qualifications.  Nearly half of prisoners have literacy skills below level 1 and 65% have numeracy skills below level 1.  Education improves a person’s chances in life and sense of self-worth, making it less likely they will turn to crime.  Also, education can generate a new start for those in prison: skills, training and knowledge can turn lives around.  As Victor Hugo put it, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”

However, education has more than mere instrumental value – it has intrinsic value.  It is a good in itself.  The value of education cannot be quantified.  Education does more than prepare a young person for a particular job, or provide a means to a safer society or a more engaged citizenry.  Lest we forget…

Universities are for education not job preparation.

Many people study for a degree out of interest or curiosity.  A degree in Art History or American Literature, for example, could be a way of exploring a life-long interest in the subject.  This is particularly true of mature student, who aren’t necessarily doing a degree for career advancement but out of interest.  With tuition fees rising to £9000 a year for undergraduate study, what mature students will burden themselves with that debt if they have a family to look after or a mortgage to pay?  A degree will become a luxury that only rich curious people can afford.

I want to point out that this is not an elitist argument; I am not saying that people with higher education are somehow better.  The point is, everyone should have the choice to partake in higher education.  People learn in different ways and university isn’t for everyone.  But universities are sites of learning from which nobody should be excluded, and they certainly shouldn’t be excluded because they can’t afford it.  Education benefits the individual and society: it should be encouraged and it should be accessible for everyone.

Myth 2 – Too many degrees distorts the jobs market

It does seem to be true that employers increasingly require candidates to have a degree, and yet lots of people with degrees can’t get jobs.  Any graduate scrambling around for whatever temp or bar work they can get will attest to this.  But there are two points here.

Firstly, we’re in a recession! Getting a job is hard for everybody.  Degree or no degree, it’s tough out there.  And unfortunately, this is only going to get worse.  With the government slashing public sector jobs, redundancies are going to be a big feature of 2011 – mainly redundancies for women as they make up the majority of public sector, part-time and temporary workers.  Not only that, but the drastic cuts are going to slow economic growth because there will be higher unemployment, therefore less people paying tax and spending money, making overall recovery slower.  If the government invested in job creation (Keynesian economics 101) we would get out of recession quicker.

Also, recent graduates are finding it hard to get work not because they have a degree, but because they don’t have enough work experience.  This is due to age, not educational attainment.  This is why the young get hit hard in a recession.  You could reply that young people should therefore spend less time in education and get into the job market quicker, but this leads to my second point…

My argument in the previous section was that education is about learning not job preparation.  Students get value from their degree that doesn’t necessarily translate into getting a job…

There is no such thing as too many degrees!

And anyway, if people stopped going to university and went into the job market quicker, the job market would still be saturated, just with less qualified people.

Myth 3 – University students are just out for a piss-up

Dismissing students as sponging layabouts in contrast to hard-working “tax-payers” is typical of late-capitalist society.  This devaluation of the role of ‘student’ finds parallels in the devaluation of other social groups.  For example, single mothers that live on state benefits are viewed as spongers depending on the welfare state, having increasing numbers of children just to exploit well-meaning tax-payer.  Not only that, but they’re probably committing benefit fraud, just to screw the middle-classes even further.

In late capitalist societies, where the market economy is valued above all else, any activity that is founded in a different value-system from “the bottom-line” is considered deviant, unwanted and unsuccessful.  Hence child-rearing (an obviously essential part of any society if it is to reproduce itself) is assigned a second-class status.  Similarly, studying (an activity based on intellectual or personal development) is deemed a parasite on society.  Learning?  Thinking critically?  Creativity?  Why would we want that?

This is unless, of course, education is re-conceptualised as a necessary evil that citizens endure before becoming profit-producing members of the formal economy.  If we re-conceive education in these terms it becomes useful to market capitalism.  And if going to university is extortionately expensive, only those members of society who are economically profitable can afford it; hence eliminating the unwanted elements from social advancement (economically unproductive reproducers, artists and thinkers).  This is exactly how the Browne Report perceives education.

The status war against certain groups is, therefore, unsurprising.  Undermining students supports the government’s argument for restructuring economic distribution – why would such a non-valuable group as students require state support?  If they are “successful” enough (i.e. earn enough money) they’ll be able to pay for their own education.

To fight this insidious tactic…

Students must reassert their value.

We have to find confidence in the work that we do and maintain both its intrinsic value and the value it has socially.  It is true that there are students who are just out for a good time.  But they get kicked out, or get terrible grades which bites-them-in-the-ass in the job market or if they want to study further.  I have worked extremely hard for my education.  And I defy anyone to study fulltime and work two jobs, and tell me that’s an easy life.

So, there you have it.  The Daily Mail myths are founded in an instrumental, economistic view of education (surprise, surprise!).  This short-sightedness is a product of our era.  But we must resist it.  Next time you have these myths beaten down your throat, you will know how to fight back!


Filed under Education, Student Protests

Reply to Sunder Katwala

I drafted my post on NetrootsUK yesterday before I had read Sunder Katwala’s article for Liberal Conpiracy.   In this post, Sunder refers to my intervention in the opening plenary as follows:

The argument “we must have complete unity – and we will get there on the basis of everybody agreeing with me” will be futile, whether it is made by Alan Johnson, Brendan Barber, Caroline Lucas, Sunder Katwala, Laurie Penny or indeed SWP-style perspectives, perhaps captured by the passionately anti-Labour speaker from the floor, who lambasted Labour as a complete sell-out over Iraq and everything else, before saying “Of course, we want Left Unity but it will have to be about Labour coming to us”.

Now, a few clarifications:

1. I am not a member of the SWP.  I am not affiliated with any political party.  Nor do I think being a member of the SWP should be a put-down.

2. I have advocated the need to respect our differences in my post today, in my previous blog post, to anyone who has spoken to me throughout the duration of the movement, and I will continue to do so until the end.  This is because I believe in pluralism.

3. In the plenary, it seemed to me like everyone was singing from the same hymn-sheet, ‘join Labour.’  As Sunder has pointed out in his reply to Guy Aitchson, his approach was more nuanced than this (you can read his response here).

However, I wasn’t directly replying to Sunder’s comments.  I was replying to someone in the audience who stood up and said ‘we should all join the Labour party,’ after someone else in the audience had said we should join Labour.  I challenged this statement because I don’t agree that is the way forward.  I don’t want to go into the ins-and-outs of what I think about Labour here, as I will reflect more thoughtfully on that in another post.  The point I want to make here is that we should be given the space and support to hold different views.  I was perfectly entitled to stand up and question the assertion that we should join Labour.  The round of applause I got (the loudest in the plenary) suggested many others agreed with me.

Sunder’s argument is that he accepts difference and he writes, “disagreement with respect is going to work better where we can disagree on the basis of what people are actually arguing, rather than to caricature or misrepresent arguments.”  So why try to dismiss my views as incoherent, SWP-type rhetoric?  However, Sunder has admitted that characterising me as an SWP member was a mistake.  I’m glad he has recognised that it’s inconsistent to advocate pluralism whilst trying to dismiss my comments in this way.   He has argued instead that his issue is with the content of my comment.  So…

4. This is what I actually said (although I’m basing this on my poor memory so if there is video footage and someone can send me the link that would be great): “Why should we vote Labour?  All of us here marched against the war on Iraq and they completely ignored us.  And it’s not just Iraq and Afghanistan, but child detention and the 10p tax…  And where is Ed Miliband?  He’s shown no support for the student movement and he hasn’t provided any kind of opposition in Parliament.  Left unity is important.  But Labour doesn’t represent us.  We are representing ourselves.  We have our own campaign and if Labour want a piece of it, they can come to us.”

5. This is what I meant – On Iraq, I meant that Labour ignored popular opinion, so why should we trust them to listen to and represent protest movements now?  I brought in child detention and the 10p tax to highlight Labour’s anti-left-wing policies (I should have also mentioned tuition fees).  I questioned what Ed Miliband is doing because he hasn’t shown any support to the movement and hasn’t represented our views in Parliament at all.  I said that left unity is important because I believe that factionalisation could be the death of the movement, as I have stated elsewhere.  But unity doesn’t mean joining the Labour party.  If Labour wants that to be what unity means they have to show some interest in the protests, show that they care about what we’re saying and doing, recognise us, support us, and prove to us we can trust them to actually take our anti-cuts stance onboard rather than to co-opt and dilute it.  And I stand by all of this.

Sunder has pointed out that he wants to reject two types of view: ‘everyone must get behind Labour and Labour’s plan’ or ‘anybody who joins Labour is part of the problem, not the solution.’  I agree.  I’m not saying that anyone who joins Labour is part of the problem.  But in that meeting no-one was saying anything about Labour’s mistakes and short-comings.  It was part of the debate that needed to be brought to the group’s attention.  I’m not going to dismiss anyone out-of-hand that joins Labour, but equally they shouldn’t dismiss me for not wanting to join Labour.

One final point… Many people came up to me during the conference and thanked me for what I said because it was exactly what they were thinking, and they were glad I had the confidence to say it.  We talked in the session on gender equality about the intimidation women activists receive online just for daring to speak out.  I am not suggesting any of Sunder’s comments were intimidating, but I want to point out to everyone that if we are going to encourage more women, people from disadvantaged groups and people who are under-confident for whatever reason to get involved, singling individuals out for critique is not the way to do it.  I think we should all bear this in mind.


Filed under NetrootsUK

Lessons from NetrootsUK

Inspired by the success of the American movement Netroots Nation, UK blogs and organisations False Economy, Liberal Conspiracy, and the TUC, amongst others, decided to organise the first NetrootsUK conference.  The aim was to harness the power of the progressive left blogosphere and online anti-cuts activism.

The conference was a great opportunity for activists to share ideas and tips, and to network in person.  After discussing the day with other attendees, I would like to share some suggestions:

1. Scrap plenaries – the first session of the day was a plenary (the whole conference sits in the main hall and listens to speeches).  The speakers were Brendan Barber (TUC), Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (Daily Kos), Sunny Hundal (Liberal Conspiracy), Sunder Katwala (Fabian Society), Polly Toynbee (The Guardian), Nigel Stanley (TUC), and Clifford Singer (False Economy).  These sessions are designed to clarify the aims of the conference and inspire the participants for the day ahead.  However, it had exactly the opposite effect.

The anti-cuts and student movements have been exciting because they are the voice of the people.  For too long young people, pensioners, people with disabilities, those on benefits, have felt ignored and shut out from mainstream politics and from the public conversation.  Starting the day with a panel of big-name ‘experts’ rather than the people who are getting out there and making change happen was not inspiring, but disempowering.

2. Representativeness – There was a session in the afternoon called ‘Digital equality: how can women get engaged online.’  What was supposed to be a talk about getting women engaged in online activistism (which as Laurie Penny pointed out was pointless because women constitute the majority of bloggers and tweeters) turned into an extremely interesting discussion about tokenism.  One of the speakers pointed out that all of the sessions at the event included ‘one token woman’ on the panel and the only all-female panel was in this designated “women’s issues” forum.  Then two black women in the audience said they felt ignored because they hadn’t even had a token session or panel member.

Lisa Ansell, made the point that the cuts will disproportionately affect women, the disabled, black people and ethnic minorities, and people in the North, so rather than making these niche issues, they should be at the core of what the movement is doing.  There should be activists on gender, disability, race and from marginalized communities embedded throughout the panels in the next conference.  I realise this is hard to organise, but that doesn’t mean it should be avoided, it’s important.

3. Participation – The plenary sessions: a panel on the stage with audience members looking up to them with minimum participation, as I have said, is disempowering.  The workshop sessions varied on this.  Some were largely panel-led, others were more discussion-led.

Of course, there is a place for getting expert advice.  For example, there was a lunchtime event led by Chris Coltrane on internet security.  Having a discussion-based session on this would probably not be helpful, as the aim is to learn a skill from someone who knows it.

However, other workshops could have been more discussion-based.  Where this is possible I think it should be encouraged – it breeds inclusivity, empowerment and ownership by everyone of the event.  In discussion sessions the layout of the room could be addressed.  In UCL Occupation meetings we did this by setting the chairs out in a circle, so it wasn’t some people at the head of the room telling the rest what to do, but a group working together.  Also, other procedures could be considered, such as the consensus model, where the aim is to get as many people to participate as possible and all ideas are discussed openly.

4. Don’t become London-centric – It made sense to have the first conference in London, because that is where the organisers are based.  However, in order for this movement not to become London-centric and alienating, the next conference should be held elsewhere.

5. Accepting our differences, learning lessons, not creating divisions – In the opening plenary after hearing several audience comments that we should join the Labour Party, I got up and asked ‘why should we join the Labour Party?’  The aim was not to alienate myself from those who think getting Labour onside is the way to move forward, but to show that there are other views out there.  We all have different opinions and we should have the space and support to discuss them, especially at events like this.  As I have argued before, there will always be differences of opinion within a social movement.  It is better to discuss them and get them out in the open, than to let them fester and rot the movement from the inside.

And it is in this spirit that I am writing this blog post.  NetrootsUK was a great event.  I met some brilliant people, heard some inspiring talks, learnt a lot and we built in-person rather than online solidarity networks.  This is all really positive stuff.  But in every event there are lessons to be learned.  That is what I want to highlight here in making these suggestions.  We shouldn’t get too bogged down in criticising each other, but rather focus our anger and energy against our common enemy – the Coalition government’s neo-liberal agenda.  However, constructive criticism can help make the movement stronger and more effective.


Filed under Education, NetrootsUK, Student Protests

Is the students’ conflict intergenerational?

In December, I took part in a Guardian podcast where I said that the students are furious at our parents. They’ve taken our jobs, our homes, our environment and now they’re trying to take away our right to an education. However, many members of the movement in occupations and in blogs have made forceful arguments against the idea of an intergenerational conflict. Here I want to think through the arguments for and against, and consider which approach I think we should adopt.

The Theory

UCLOccupation image

At the UCL Occupation the Daily Mail and Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore, gave a talk on how to present ourselves in the media. She said the best strategy is too push the idea of an intergenerational conflict. People of her generation feel extremely guilty, she said, and exploiting this guilt is the best way to get them on our side.

I believe the reason for the guilt complex currently engulfing the middle-aged middle-classes is due to the fact we live in a liberal society. The idea of intergenerational justice is built in to liberalism.

One of the earliest liberals, John Locke, argued that if people want to acquire property, they must leave “enough and as good for others”. The twentieth century liberal, John Rawls, includes an inter-generational proviso in A Theory of Justice called the “just savings principle”; whereby the current generation must save enough to maintain the fundamental institutions of society into the future. Since the environmental crisis has emerged, the liberal literature on intergenerational justice has gone ballistic. It is a matter of growing concern and enquiry within liberal political philosophy, and so it seems, in the practice of liberal democracies.

Many occupiers and bloggers have rejected this line of argument, however, because they are situated somewhere on the Left.  In far Left, Marxist, philosophy the idea of intergenerational justice doesn’t hold much currency.  The struggle belongs to the proletariat; it is based on class. The proletariat takes no account of age or generational membership; it consists of anyone who is exploited by the capitalist class.  The detractors from the idea of intergenerational conflict are concerned with unity.  What we want, according to this line of argument, is to foster ties with the working class, the unions and public sector workers.  Talking about intergenerational conflict obstructs unity and creates divisions where there should be none.

I want to propose an intermediary position, based on the insights of Critical Theory.  Critical theorists are influenced by Marxism, but instead of accepting the Marxist thesis of historical materialism, they assess actual social movements and theorise their claims in order to advance their normative, emancipatory arguments.

One of the insights of Critical Theory and other continental philosophical traditions, such as postmodernism and poststructuralism, has been to highlight that class constitutes only one kind of social division.  Society is also stratified along the lines of sex, race, ethnicity and status.  Our movement seems to be highlighting another division – the division between generations.

The calls for Left unity are obviously extremely important.  The Left historically has had a tendency to factionalise and fracture, destroying itself from within.  This is a trend the student movement rightly wants to avoid.  However, there is some truth in the intergenerational argument.  On the early demonstrations the vast majority of protesters were young, under the age of about 26; the presence of lecturers and workers was minimal.  The student movement is a youth movement.  Moreover, the cuts we are facing now are a direct result of economic policies and ideologies that have been handed down from the previous generation.

Some of baby boomers have had an amazing time. They’ve presided over an unprecedented era of economic, intellectual and technological growth. But with this has come unprecedented environmental damage, a growing inequality gap between the world’s rich and poor, neo-colonial war and the current economic recession, caused by the voracious appetite for property.  The inequality gap has meant that many people of that generation actually lost-out on a phenomenal scale – witness the decline of England’s industrial North.

The baby boomers that did hugely benefit (or the governments’ they have elected) acted with an astonishing degree of irresponsibility.  They ignored intergenerational responsibilities and responsibilities to the poor (hence the corresponding sense of guilt).  This irresponsibility derives from the wholesale adoption of neoliberal economics.

The Practice

We as a movement can and should (I think) be stressing this point. As the youth wing of a larger struggle, we can come together with other groups, like the unions, whilst highlighting our frustration with decisions taken in the past. We can say that the generation before us acted irresponsibly and failed to take our interests into account by adopting neoliberal policies.

UCLOccupation image

The advantage of this approach is that by highlighting the need for intergenerational justice, we are not just fighting for ourselves, but also for future generations.  By focusing on the irresponsibility of the previous generation and how this is now undermining our life chances, we are saying that this mustn’t happen again; future generations must be taken into account.

Another advantage is that by rejecting the politics of the past twenty years, we are asserting that we want something new.  We want things to change, we want to live in a different world, and if the politicians aren’t going to do this we will do it for ourselves.  Our youth and our desire for a break with the past is a strength: it is exciting, challenging and invigorating.

This standpoint can also foster unity.  Everyone on the Left is anti-neoliberalism. We can unite around this common enemy while also maintaining our particular position. Rather than causing division, it highlights the fact that those of the older generations who campaigned and fought against the policies were right all along. We can come together in renewed struggle to stop another generation making the same mistakes.  We can unite cross-generationally in a rejection of the Right and a desire to reinvigorate the Left.

This unification, however, does not require us to give up our rightful place of finger-pointing at the generation that preceded us, critiquing their unabashed irresponsibility, telling them to pay for it rather than lumping it all on us and future generations, and insisting that we want change.  Now.  We don’t want unmitigated economic growth; we want a new left politics based on equality and responsibility, environmental protection and solidarity.  We want a different world to the one we have inherited.

One final point… Unity is vital to any social movement.  However, within any movement there are different groups, differences of opinion and different reasons for being involved.  We have to acknowledge and respect this.  A blind adoption of “unity” does the Left no favours.  Repressing dissent and subsuming all groups under one common front is what leads to rupture.  We have to accept difference while focusing on our common goals.

In sum, we can call this an intergenerational struggle by drawing out the reason behind it. By making neoliberalism the target, we can assert our unique position, as those bearing the brunt of its mistakes, while uniting with other groups who also oppose it.


Filed under Education, Student Protests