Posts Tagged ‘Chavs’

A Memoir of a Brutal Life in British Fascism

May 29, 2014

Matthew Collins book

Matthew Collins, Hate: My Life in the British Far Right (London: Biteback Publishing 2011). With a foreword by Billy Bragg.

This is a grim book about grim people. Extremely grim and unpleasant people. The kind of people Norman Stanley Fletcher, the balladeer of H.M. Prison Slade, used to describe as ‘charmless nerks’. Collins is a writer and researcher for the anti-Fascist magazine, Searchlight. The blurb on the back describes him as the organisation’s Northern Ireland correspondent, and states that he is noted for his work exposing the English Defence League. Before he joined Searchlight, he was a committed member of the Far Right. This is his account of his passage through the various British Fascist parties and their allies – the NF, the BNP, Combat 18 and the UDA, before disgust at their leadership and extreme brutality led him to contact Searchlight. His part in exposing a still unnamed Sun journalist as an NF member and a World In Action documentary into Combat 18, supplying arms to the UDA, eventually forced him to flee England for Australia. He spent 10 years in Oz, enjoying a life of carefree pleasure, meaningless sex, and marriage, before finally returning to Blighty to continue the struggle.

Unlike other, more academic books, which analyse the NF, BNP and related Fascist organisations from the perspective of their ideologies, electoral performance and demographic composition of their membership, Collins autobiographical account describes what life in the Far Right is actually like for the rank-and-file members. These are the storm troopers, who spend their weekends travelling across Britain to parade on marches, attend speeches and rallies, and get extremely drunk, threaten and beat up ‘Reds’, Blacks, Asians, gays, and just about anyone and everyone they don’t like. Which really could be anyone and everyone. There’s a description in the book of how the NF’s storm troopers trashed a pub during a weekend away in Brighton, simply because one of the barmaids objected to one of the skinhead thugs attempting to grab the phone from her hand and demanding that she call him a taxi. Collins makes it extremely clear that these are extremely violent, brutal men.

The ‘Political Soldier’ NF

Collins joined after the NF had split into two factions. One of these, led by Griffin, was the ‘Political Soldier’ movement, This took its inspiration from Roberto Fiore and other terrorists from the Italian Forza Nuova. They were attempting to stem the drift away from Fascism under Thatcher by developing new ideological strands, some of which were more left-wing. They took over elements from Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya and revolutionary Iran. Some aspects of these new ideologies were more left-wing than the NF’s usual stance. For example, during the Miners’ Strike one faction within the NF offered help to the strikers, which Scargill obviously declined. The rank-and-file members weren’t interested in this. Collins says they had no interest in going to a remote farmhouse to answer detailed questions on their personal political and religious convictions. They are really interested in getting drunk and beating someone to a pulp.

Fascism and Political Violence

And the violence is very, very brutal. Far more brutal than the gang fights kids get into a school. It takes no account of age or gender, and continues even when the victim is on the floor. These are people, who by and large think nothing of maiming and ultimately killing their victims. Collins describes how deeply ashamed he was at taking part in a BNP attack on an anti-Fascist meeting at Welling Library, during which 17 people were hospitalised. Nearly all of these were women. Most of them were Asians, worried about the safety of their children in an area with so much racist violence against them. One of the intended victims was pregnant, and locked herself in the ladies’ loos for safety, while the men outside tried to get in to attack her and her unborn child. On their way in, they punched Geoffrey Dixon, the Labour councillor for Greenwich and the caretaker to the floor, and then stamped on them. Collins states that the caretaker never worked again. Some of the victims were so terrified that they jumped from the windows – the meeting was held on the first floor – to escape. Collins states that he and one of the other storm troopers were the only ones to hit men during the assault, which even sickened the other Fascist. Collins himself was so shocked and disgusted that he left and rejoined the NF for a while. Later on Collins tells how the BNP and its supporting football hooligans attacked the Liberal candidate for Bermondsey, Simon Hughes, in his battle bus.

Fascist Violence and Intimidation at University Meeting

And Fascists behave no better when in an academic environment. Collins describes the atmosphere of threat, intimidation and abuse produced by the BNP when they organised an event at which David Irving, the notorious holocaust denier, spoke. Collins does not give the name of the institution, which hosted the meeting, but states that it was held – incredibly – in the International Students’ House. The BNP stewarding the event effectively take over the library, at one point stopping the terrified students from leaving, then allowing them to come and go as they wish, but under their supervision. Seeing a group from anti-Fascist Action outside the window, the Nazis immediately begin to make ape noises and shout challenges and anti-Semitic abuse. They also generally behave as drunken louts, indecently exposing themselves, tearing books off shelves, and intruding into small, private discussion groups. A few tried to pick up two African girls, while another tried to press his unwelcome attentions on a blonde woman, who shut herself in her office, leaving the offended Nazi banging on the door and loudly declaring his love and sexual intentions outside. Collins describes it as like a prison riot.

This description of the loutish antics of the BNP, even in an academic environment, is important. In the 1980s a number of branches of the Students’ Union passed rules stating that the Union was a ‘no platform for racists and Fascists’. It’s a controversial decision, as some, who are definitely not Fascists or Fascist sympathisers, feel that it’s anti-democratic. There was also obviously enormous controversy when the Oxford Union back in the 1990s invited Irving to speak. Collins description of this episode and the aggressive, threatening and generally disgusting behaviour by the BNP actually shows you how wise the Anti-Fascist groups are to try and keep them off campus, if only to protect the students themselves, regardless of any wider political issues.

Fascists Personally Sad Inadequates

There’s a danger in that describing violence, whether by Fascists or any other group of thugs, can also glamorise it, making it appear attractive, even admirable. Collins avoids this. He makes it very clear how brutal and unpleasant it actually is, how ashamed he is of his part in it, and how sad and pathetic the men involved actually are. Pathetic? Yes, really. He states that by and large, the members of the Far Right are so unattractive to the opposite gender that they have actually little chance of getting girlfriends or having any kind of sex life. Collins does seem to have had a string of extremely short-term relationships, but they mostly never called him back. He mostly solved his own problems in finding female company through amassing a collection of porn and self-abuse. When he did finally succeed in getting what looked like a long-term relationship, the girl left him because she couldn’t take his involvement in Fascism and its dangers any longer. He is particularly scathing about the sexual inadequacies of his fellow Fascists, and their lack of physical endowment. It’s low stuff, but it makes them unattractive at the level such groups aim at. You consider the way violent criminals, like East End White gangsters, and gangsta rappers, are often portrayed surrounded by attractive young women. The message of those images is that if you were similarly a vicious hard man, you too will have girls flinging themselves at you. Collins here shows that in the case of Fascism, this very definitely will not happen. The only people within the Fascist milieu that have any kind of sex life are the skinheads, and he’s not impressed with them. He sees them as quite squalid individuals, fathering children with three or four different women, who in turn have other kids by three or four different fathers. The men just seem to use them purely for sex, and he describes the skinhead girls as going from one meaningless, squalid relationship to another with a mattress tied to their backs.

NF’s Ian Anderson More Basil Fawlty than Hitler

Some of the Fascist leaders are also less than impressive up close. Collins describes Ian Anderson, the leader of the NF faction he joined, as a rather Fawlty-esque figure. Anderson had a vicious temper, flying into abusive rages whenever anything went wrong, to the point where Collins calls him ‘Angry Anderson’. An Oxford drop out, Anderson was physically scruffy and his house a mess. Collins describes him wearing worn, threadbare suits. His living room floor was covered with newspapers and other rubbish. His furniture was similarly worn and threadbare. His settee had no seat, so that if you sat on it, you were effectively sitting on the floor. At one point the house is such a mess that the other leading storm troopers don’t want to go there for meetings.

Anderson was trying to lead his faction of the NF away from anti-Semitism in an attempt to make it more electorally respectable. Collins states that some of his fellow storm troopers shared his views. One of his friends told him that while they hated non-Whites, they really didn’t understand the hatred of the Jews. This policy was not having much success, however, and Anderson’s NF were losing members fast due to competition from the much more aggressive and overtly Nazi BNP, led by Richard Edmonds and Tyndall. Collins and many of the other members were left dispirited and disillusioned by Anderson’s leadership. Turnout at parades and marches were tiny often as low as thirty. Towards the end of that section of the NF, they were reaching as low as perhaps ten or twelve. Anderson himself also seemed to regard the NF as a business, to provide him with a personal income, at one point asking the party’s governing body to give him £8,000. Even here, his management was not very business-like. Orders and correspondence went unread, and cheques weren’t cashed or paid in. Faced with this venality and incompetence, Collins and many others left to join the BNP.

BNP Nazi, Viciously Anti-Semitic

These were overtly, aggressively Nazi. Not only did their literature deny the reality of the Holocaust, but its members also looked forward to a similar policy of racial extermination. Collins states that when he was in there, although in his calmer moments he wanted a bloodless, painful removal of Jews and non-Whites from Britain, he also dreamed of sending them ‘to the East’, as the Nazis deported the Jews and their other victims to the concentration camps. The BNP also had links to surviving Nazis and members of Mosley’s BUF. He describes the chaos and violence at the Kensington Library meeting, which ultimately led to the formation of the extremely violent Combat 18. This was a meeting of the League of St. George, whose doorman was dressed in full Nazi regalia. This was gatecrashed by Searchlight’s Gerry Gable and a squad of about fifty anti-Fascists. Despite Gable’s appeal for calm, the meeting degenerated into violence and the Nazis were given a vicious beating.

Origins of Combat 18

Combat 18’s origins are murky, and there is considerable evidence of state involvement. Charlie Sargent, its founder, whom Collins describes as ‘an overweight, knife-carrying, drug-peddling lout’, was later revealed to be a police informer. Harold Covington, who was also involved in its foundation, may also have been connected to the American intelligence services. I have seen the accusation that Combat 18 was set up the FBI to act as a honey trap for the Far Right. Collins mentions him, but only to say that he was small fry compared to William Pierce, the writer of the notorious Turner Diaries, and the US National Alliance. Covington was also unpalatable to many British Nazis because of his support for the IRA and connections to American Nazi IRA supporters, like Sean Maguire.

BNP Connections to Ulster Protestant Terror Groups

Far more acceptable to British Nazis was the UDA, and Collins describes how he and another BNP member, Eddie Whicker, answered the UDA’s request for British members to provide them with support. The BNP and its members were later revealed by World In Action attempting to supply them with guns. Collins himself appears to have been less than impressed with them. He states that their magazine, Ulster, was full of tradition and history, but had very little in the way of ideology. The UDA seemed actually not to know what it is they stood for, except that they didn’t want to be governed by Ireland or indeed anybody else. They were also poorly armed and equipped compared to the IRA. And while they were desperate for British Fascist support, they were less keen on their racism. One issue of Ulster contained an order for attacks on Chinese restaurateurs in the Six Counties to stop. This, however, seems to have been rejected in recent years, as there has apparently been a rise in racist attacks by Ulster Loyalists, disenchanted with the Good Friday agreement. In addition to attacking Leftists, Blacks, Asians and gays, the NF and BNP also laid into Irish Republicans and the ‘Troops Out’ movement when they organised their marches.

Hooligans and Political Use of violence

Taking part and supporting the Fascists in their violence were an assortment of football hooligans. These include various casuals, as well as hardened hooligan ‘firms’ like the Nutty Turn Out, and, of course, Millwall. The NF and BNP journey up and down the country in their campaigns, including the northern industrial towns where they attempt to intimidate the local Black and Asian populations. Much of the campaigning and violence takes place in the East End of London and Brick Lane, which has a long tradition of racist violence and resistance to racists since Mosley and his squadristi in the 1930s. Zadie Smith describes the racist violence in the area, and a fictional Asian group, the Bengal Tigers, set up to fight back against the Nazis, in her novel, Brick Lane. Collins also goes into the various motives the NF and BNP have for campaigning. He and many other Fascists had absolute contempt for parliament and democracy, and due to their repeated electoral failures many of them saw standing in elections as a waste of time. Their real focus was on expanding Nazi power through control of the streets. Nevertheless, standing in elections acted as a recruiting tool. They also regarded it as an instrument through which they could make race relations worse, and drum up even more hatred. This should be borne in mind the next time the BNP or any other Far Right group puts forward candidates at an election. They have no intention of making things better for society, only in creating further discord and violence. As for the Derek Beackon and the other NF members, who became the first elected BNP local councillors in Tower Hamlets, Collins states that when he met him was always drunk. He is also immensely proud of the way he and Searchlight managed to have all but two of the seven storm troopers lose their seats at the next elections.

Recruitment through Racial Tensions Created by ‘Satanic Verses’ Controversy

Collins also provides insight into the way the BNP and NF exploited racial tension created by Muslim outrage at Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. He states that for the Far Right, it was simply a case of attacking Asians as usual. However, it allowed them to gain support from Whites frightened by the rise in Muslim assertiveness and aggression.

Conservatives and the Fascist Right

Also linked to the NF and the BNP were extreme Right-wing Tories, such as Western Gaols. Collins describes attending the meeting at the Sudeley Room at House of Lords, where the meeting was addressed by the South African Conservative MP, Clive Derby-Lewis. Later on, as his disenchantment with Fascism increases, another Tory, Adrian Davies, invites him to join the Conservatives and acts as his alibi when he is forced to hide out in Spain for a week, following his exposure of the Sun journalist as a Nazi.

Background of Fascist Members and Supporters

Collins book is also important in that it provides an insight into the background and type of men drawn to the NF. Collins’ father was Irish, though Collins himself didn’t realise this for much of his childhood, and it didn’t matter much to him after he found out. Unsuited to married life, his father gradually became more and more distant from his family until the marriage broke down completely and he left. His family were poor working class, and Collins was a poor, underperforming pupil at school. A remark from his father that if he was Roman Catholic, there’d be no Blacks at his school, and thinking about his family poverty and deprivation led him to conclude, as undoubtedly so many angry poor Whites did, that it was caused by Black and Asians.

His family were also Tories, who read the Daily Mail, watched Jim Davidson, and he fully supported Thatcher’s attack on the miners and Norman Tebbit’s demand that the unemployed should get on their bikes. This anger and alienation led him first to argue with the Leftist teachers at his school, and to borrow books on modern Fascism from the school library. He then moved on to actively looking for literature and trying to join the NF. A copy of British Nationalist pushed through the front door allowed him to make contact with the Richard Edmonds, the BNP’s leader. A meeting with five members of the NF in the local pub impressed him with how normal they were, and their stories about Richard Edmonds led him to join the NF. In the event, he and a number of others ended up in both organisations, with Edmonds and Anderson each asking him to spy on the other’s party. Collins joined when he was very young – only 15 – in 1987, and spent six years in the organisation before being forced to flee the country to escape them when he was 21.

Growth of Fascism and New Labour’s Abandonment of Working Class

He states in the book that part of the rise in the Far Right was due to New Labour’s turn away from the working class. There is also jealousy and resentment at the way Black and Asian culture was celebrated and encouraged, while White working class culture was given no such assistance and enjoyed no similar amenities. These are important points. Owen Jones in the chapter ‘Backlash’ in Chavs argues that New Labour’s abandonment of the White working class for the middle class, and its celebration of Black and Asian culture, although entirely right, has also led many working class Whites to feel abandoned and resentful of the supposed privileges of non-Whites.

This is now extremely important, with the victory in the European elections of extreme Right-wing, populist parties like UKIP and the French Front National. UKIP is anti-immigrant, but has a policy of weeding out Fascists, although it does seem to have an incredible amount of them. Its members are, however, mainly older, working class people, who feel that the established parties, particularly New Labour, have abandoned them.

The book does provide a fascinating insight into what life in the Far Right is actually like for the average storm trooper, as well as giving Collins account of how he became so disgusted with them that he ended up not only working for Searchlight and then Special Branch, the latter not entirely willingly. There are problems, however. As a member of Searchlight, Collins is of course biased in their favour. While they have done a great deal of good in exposing the Far Right and its activities, other anti-Fascists have complained that Gable and Searchlight have smeared them and accused of being Fascists when they have pursued their own investigations independently. They have also accused it of appropriating their work, when this has subsequently been proven to be the more correct. See, for example, Matthew Kalman and John Murray’s article about the smears directed at them and Larry O’Hara, ‘Another Searchlight Smear Job’, in Lobster 30: 26-7. O’Hara has similarly attacked the World In Action documentary on the Far Right for its inaccuracies. Nevertheless, it’s still an important, gripping book for its personal account of the British Far Right during the late ’80s and early ’90s, its connections and the personal lives and motivations of its members.

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Italian Chambers of Labour – Needed in 21st Century Britain

May 11, 2014

One of the peculiar institutions of the Italian working class movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the Camera Del Lavoro, or ‘Chamber of Labour’. They were based on the French Borse du Travaille (Labour Exchange) set up in France in the late 1880s. They were introduced into Italy by Osvaldo Gnocchi-Viani, a Socialist Milanese lawyer, in his 1889 book, Le Borse del lavoro. This led the leaders of the Milanese printers’ union and the Partito Operaio Italiano – the Italian Worker’s Party to establish the first Chamber of Labour in the city two years later in 1891. By 1904 ninety Chambers of labour, representing the nearly 300,000 workers had been set up throughout Italy.

The Chambers varied in structure, but most consisted of an assembly of representatives from the labour organisations participating in it. These in turn elected a governing body, such as an executive committee or commission, which organised its practical management. The Chambers were theoretically bureaux for employment and labour information. In practice they often had a wide variety of functions. They provided a meeting place for workers, conference and reading rooms, recreational facilities and also education. They organised strikes, boycotts and demonstrations, as well as mediating in industrial disputes. As well as representing the workers in dispute with private industry, they also did so with the local authorities, although many were in fact funded by these. While the trade unions were federated at the national level, the Chambers were autonomous organisations that included and brought together the various workers’ organisations in their local areas, and defended the interests of the unskilled and semi-skilled workers not represented in the skilled labour unions.

The Chambers were intended as purely economic in purpose, but in practice most followed the various working class political parties and organisations – the Socialists, Republicans, Syndicalists and Anarchists. The majority were Socialist. They frequently took the lead in organising demonstrations, strikes and protests against the government at the local level. The Chambers of Labour joined the federated trade unions to form the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro – General Confederation of Labour in 1906. They received their greatest increase in membership after the First World War, but went into rapid decline afterwards due to attacks from the Fascists. They were finally suppressed by Mussolini’s dictatorship in 1926 along with other, autonomous labour organisations.

The Chambers of Labour attracted Fascist hatred and violence because of their role in creating a powerful, autonomous working class. Changes in society since then has made many of their functions obsolete. The massive expansion of state education, for example, has removed some of the necessity for providing specific education courses aimed at workers, and entertainment is far more freely available today than it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the development of cinema, radio and television and the gramophone. Furthermore, many towns in Britain do have employment agencies, thus lessening the need for another of the Chambers’ functions.

However, I think something like the French and Italian Chambers of Labour/ Borses du Travaille/ Camere del Lavoro are still needed. Owen Jones in Chavs describes the destruction of working class culture and its colonisation by the middle classes. Football, which was for a long time the sport of the working classes, has become increasingly middle class. A proportion of the tickets for matches are reserved for parties from corporations as part of corporate hospitality. Ticket prices have become so expensive that many fans feel – and are – priced out of attendance at matches. Despite the government’s urging after the Olympics that more people should become involved in sport, actual sports facilities have been cut, so that the few which survive are oversubscribed.

Similarly, that hub of traditional working class culture, the pub is also under attack. Many are being closed down and redeveloped as flats. This has an effect far beyond simply where people go to drink their beer or alcoholic poison of choice. As well as the place where people traditionally met and relaxed, pubs were also the venues where local bands got their first gigs. Furthermore, a variety of local clubs and groups also meet in pubs and bars. Pub closures also effect the continued existence of these groups by denying them a venue.

As for general cultural activities, Quentin Letts in his book, Fifty People Who Buggered Up Britain, contrasts the loutishness and slovenly ignorance of much of today’s popular culture with the attitude of the miners portrayed in the film, The Pitman Painters. These were a real group of mineworkers, who taught themselves to paint over a century ago. They were not unique. One of the functions of the Mechanics’ Institutes, founded in the 19th century across Britain was to spread education and culture amongst the working class as part of the general Victorian attitude of improvement. The intentions behind them were paternalistic. The complaint was made at the time that they were founded by the middle classes, and patronised predominantly by the more skilled, affluent and presumably aspirational workers, while those less fortunate stayed away. They were also intended partly to bring employer and employees together and so create class peace. Nevertheless, they did contribute to improving the conditions and the educational and cultural opportunities available to the workers.

Owen Jones also points out in Chavs that some of the rise in racism and anti-immigrant feeling is a reaction to the way White working class culture has been attacked and discarded as worthless by the middle classes and the major political parties. Their celebration – rightly – of the cultures of Britain’s ethnic minorities and immigrant communities, in the absence of a corresponding celebration of traditional British working class culture has resulted in working class Whites feeling marginalised and resentful in their own country. The result is a rise in support for the BNP – now peaked – and UKIP. He suggests that one way of combatting this racism and xenophobia is simply to stress a common, working class identity stretching across ethnic groups.

Finally, trade unions were attacked and devastated by Thatcher’s onslaught, and the continued attacks by her successors, including those in the Labour party. Tony Blair remembers in the 1990s threatened to cut union ties, and Ed Milliband has also demanded further cuts to union power and states he wishes to reach out to the middle classes. We need new forms of industrial organisation to represent and protect the poorly paid workers in unskilled or semi-skilled work, like the hundreds of thousands now staffing call centres, a point Guy Standing makes in A Precariat Charter. And I believe that an employment bureau, controlled by the workers themselves, might just help to empower the workers and employees themselves against the employers in the jobs market.

The Chambers of Labour were peculiar features of the French and Italian working class movements, but something like them is still desperately needed in 21st century Britain as the Tories try to drag us back to the 19th century.

Owen Jones on the Middle Class Domination of the Houses of Parliament

May 5, 2014

I posted a piece this morning on early trade unionist campaigns to get the vote for the working class and working men into parliament and the local authorities. This was in response to the way working people have become increasingly ignored and excluded by the political class, to the point where many feel disenfranchised.

Owen Jones in Chavs describes the way parliament has become overwhelmingly upper and middle class in its composition:

We’ve seen that prominent politicians manipulated the media-driven frenzy to make political points. Like those who write and broadcast our news, the corridors of political power are deominated by people from one particular background. ‘The House of Commons isn’t representative, it doesn’t reflect the country as a whole,’ says Kevin Maguire. ‘It’s over-representative of lawyers, journalists-as-politicians, various professions, lecturers in particular … There are few people who worked in call centres, or been in factories, or been council officials lower down.’

It’s true to say MP’s aren’t exactly representative of the sort of people who live on most of our streets. Those sitting on Parliament’s green benches are over four times more likely to have gone to private school than the rest of us. Among Conservative MPs, a startling three out of every five have attended a private school. A good chunk of the political elite were schooled at the prestigious Eton College alone, including Tory leader David Cameron and nineteen other Conservative MPs.

There was once a tradition, particularly on the Labour benches, of MPs who had started off working in factories and mines. Those days are long gone. The number of politicians from those backgrounds is small, and shrinks with every election. Few than one in twenty MPs started out as manual workers, a number that has halved since 1987, despite the fact that that was a Conservative-dominated parliament. One the other hand, a startling two-thirds had a professional job or worked in business before arriving in parliament. Back in 1996, Labour’s then deputy leader John Prescott echoed the Blairite mantra to claim that ‘we’re all middle-class now’, a remark that would perhaps be more fitting if he had been talking about his fellow politicians. (p. 29)

It would be easy, but lazy, to portray parliament as a microcosm of the British class system. It isn’t, but it certainly showcases the gaping divides of modern society. When I interviewed James Purnell just before the May 2010 election that brought the Tories and their Lib Dem allies to 10 Downing Street, I put to him how unrepresentative Parliament was: two-thirds of MPs came from a professional background and were four times more likely to have attended a private school than the rest of the population. When I referred to the fact that only one in twenty MPs came from a blue-collar background, he was genuinely shocked. ‘One in twenty?’

When I asked him if this had made it more difficult for politicians to understand the problems of working-class people, he could hardly disagree. ‘Yes, indeed. I think it’s become very much a closed shop …’ For Purnell, this middle-class power grab was the result of a political system that has become closed to ordinary people.

In the build-up to the 2010 general election, a number of excited headlines claimed that trade unions were parachuting candidates into safe seats. ‘Unions put their candidates in place to push Labour to the left,’ bellowed the Times. And yet, in the end, only 3 per cent of new MPs were former trade union officials. There was no similar outrage about the number of prospective candidates with careers in the City – the sector that, after all, was responsible for the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. One in ten new MPs had a background in financial services, twice as many as in the 1997 landslide that brought Labour to power. Politics has also increasingly been turned into a career rather than a service: a stunning one in five new MPs already worked in politics before taking the parliamentary oath. pp. 104-5).

He then contrasts with the great political figures from Atlee’s cabinet of 1945 from the working class: Nye Bevan, Ernest Bevin, and Herbert Morrison. They were a miner, farm boy and grocer’s assistant, respectively. He contrasts this with the Tory jeers about John Prescott’s working class origins.

When he entered the House of Lords, that retirement home for the ruling elite, the Telegraph’s chief leader writer scoffed: I’m not sure ermine suits John Prescott.’ the comments left by Telegraph readers on the newspaper’s website were a class war free-for-all. One passed on a friend’s hilarious description of him as ‘the builder’s bum-crack of the Labour Party’. ‘Baron Pie & Chips’ and ‘Prescott is a fat peasant’ were other witticisms, as was ‘John “here’s a little tip” Prescott’. Someone has to serve the drinks between debates!’ guffawed another. Prescott was ridiculed because some felt that by being from lowly working-class stock, he sullied the office of deputy prime minister and then the House of Lords. (p. 106).

We desperately need more working class people in parliament. And as for the Telegraph, Buddyhell over Guy Debord’s Cat has posted a long series of pieces on just how frighteningly far-right the commenters on their website are. Very many of them post horrendously racist and overtly Fascist messages. One even suggested that the Nazis were being demonised out of ignorance (!) and that this would not happen if people knew more about them. (!)
No, the Nazis are demonised because people know exactly what they are like. Hence the attempts by Nazi apologists to deny the Holocaust ever happened, or played down the number of people who were murdered. The Cat has noted that the Telegraph uses the excuse that it can’t be held responsible for what it’s commenters post, and it is therefore not responsible for the ravings of the assorted stormtroopers that post there. This won’t wash. Other website are modded, and stopping genocidal racists from advocating mass murder is one of the few infringements to the right to free speech that most people would applaud. But not, it seems, the Torygraph. Either – God help us! – the editors secretly agree with these rants, or else they are following the old tactic Enoch Powell adopted with his supporters from the Far Right. Powell actually personally wasn’t racist. He spoke Urdu, and had served on various official bodies promoting civil rights for Blacks and Asians before the infamous ‘River of Blood’ speech. See the section on him in Bloody Foreigners: Immigration and the English. He actually hated the NF, but cynically used their support.

As for the Times, this is the quintessential paper of the establishment. I’ve got a feeling it was edited for a time by the very blue-blooded Peregrine Worsthorne. Under David Leppard, it saw fit to publish the lie that Michael Foot was a KGB agent. No wonder it printed scare stories about a coming union left-wing takeover.

Orwell on the Discrete Class Prejudice of the Bourgeoisie

May 5, 2014

Orwell Pic

I found this quotation from Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier in Owen Jone’s Chavs, and it exactly describes an awful lot of the Middle Class attitude to the workers:

Every middle-class person has a dormant class prejudice which needs only a small thing to arouse it … the notion that the working class have been absurdly pampered, hopelessly demoralised by doles, old-age pensions, free education, etc … is still widely held; it has merely been a little shaken, perhaps, by the recent recognition that unemployment does exist.

And you can find the same prejudices every day in the Mail, Express, Telegraph

The BNP: Very Definitely Not ‘The Labour Party Your Grandfather Voted For’

May 4, 2014

Nick_Griffin_Demotvational_by_DigiFox0

Nick Griffin, current Fuehrer of the BNP. His father was a Tory accountant. Definitely not the face of Old Labour.

I’ve posted a number of pieces against the attempts by the Tories and Libertarians to claim that the BNP is somehow a ‘left-wing’, ‘Socialist’ organisation by looking at the origin of the claim with the Freedom Association, formerly the National Association For Freedom (NAFF – make up your own jokes here, folks) in the 1980s, and the history and origins of the Fascist movements themselves. These very definitely show that while Fascism had left-wing elements, it was very definitely an extreme Right-wing movement.

Unfortunately, the Tories and Libertarians have been able to claim some verisimilitude for their claim from some of the recent rhetoric by the BNP. Owen Jones in Chavs discusses the way the BNP deliberately tried to appeal to alienated working class Labour voters by presenting themselves as protecting them from competition over jobs and particularly council housing from immigrants. Discussing the Resistible Rise of the BNP (deliberate Brecht reference there) in Barking and Dagenham, Jones states:

In Barking and Dagenham, the BNP has cleverly managed to latch on to the consequences of unfettered neoliberalism. New Labour was ideologically opposed to building council housing, because of its commitment to building a ‘property-owning democracy’ and its distrust of local authorities. Affordable housing and secure, well-paid jobs became increasingly scarce resources. The response of the BNP was to delegitimise non-native competition, goading people to think: ‘We don’t have enough homes to go round, so why are we giving them to foreigners?’

Cruddas [local Labour MP, Jon Cruddas] describes the BNP as hinging their strategy on ‘change versus enduring inequalities, and they racialize it’. All issues, whether housing or jobs, are approached in terms of race. ‘It allows people to render intelligible the changes around them, in terms of their own insecurities, material insecurities as well as cultural ones.’ Yes, it is a narrative based on myths. After all, only one in twenty social houses goes to a foreign national. But, with the government refusing to build homes and large numbers of foreign-looking people arriving in certain communities, the BNP’s narrative just seems to make sense to a lot of people. ppo.230-1.

… Coupled with this strategy is an audacious attempt by the BNP to encroach on Labour’s terrain. With New Labour apparently having abdicated the party’s traditional role of shielding working-class communities from the worst excesses of market forces, the BNP has wrapped itself in Labour clothes. ‘I would say that we’re more Labour than Labour are, ‘ says former local BNP councillor Richard Barnbrook. BNP literature describes the organisation as ‘the Labour party your grandfather voted for’.

Sifting through the BNP’s policies exposes this as a nonsense. Their tax policy, for example, includes abolishing income tax and increasing VAT ins5tead – a policy beloved of extreme right-wing libertarian economists that would benefit the rich at the expense of ordinary working people. The party freely adopts Thatcherite rhetoric, committing itself to the ‘private-enterprise economy’ and arguing ‘that private property should be encouraged and spread to as many individual members of our nation as possible’. (p. 231.)

It’s a posture, and one that goes right the way back to Hitler in Weimar Germany. When goose-stepping about the Reich on his election campaigns, Hitler altered the content of his speeches according to the particular areas in which he was speaking. In working-class districts with very strong Socialist and trade union traditions, he’d play up the anti-capitalist side of the Nazi programme. In which speech he declared that when the Nazis took power, power and property of the capitalists would be smashed and their coffers thrown out onto the street. He then added that this would not, of course, be done to proper, patriotic German capitalists, but only to Jews.

Which is precisely what the BNP is trying to do here: present themselves as somehow pro-working class, anti-capitalist, while being absolutely nothing of the sort. And the only capitalism they object to, is when it’s pursued by Jews and Non-Whites.

The BNP aren’t and have never been ‘left-wing’, ‘Socialist’ let alone ‘Old Labour’. It’s a cynical ruse to gain votes. And in doing so, it appears – but only appears – to legitimise the old Libertarian attitude that Fascism is a form of Socialism. Both are lies, and should be treated as such.

1898 Call from Russian Workers to Form Union against Employers’ Abuses

April 24, 2014

I found this leaflet from the Ekaterinoslav Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class in Lionel Kochan’s Russia in Revolution (London: Paladin 1970) in 1898. It’s a protest against the appalling conditions and high accident rate at the Bryansk factory. If the direct causes of the strike were particular to late 19th century Russia, I was struck by how many of the issues are recurring in Britain in the early 21st century: starvation, low wages, refusal by the company to permit ‘necessary breaks’ – according to Owen Jones in Chavs, in one call centre workers have to put up their hands, as in school, every time they wish to take a comfort break. Unions and strikers were illegal in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and this government would very much like to go the same way. Boris Johnson has said that he would like to make strikes made illegal, if they were passed without fifty per cent of the workers attending the meeting, even if all the workers present voted overwhelmingly for the strike. The leaflet reads:

Every day we must hear, no here, now there, that a man has died and our blood-suckers continue to stuff their pockets, giving
no consideration to the men who have died, whose families have lost their bread-winner and are perhaps dying of starvation. The whole day we work, pouring out our blood and sweat. Every minute we expose our life to danger, we have no chance to use an essential break, and when there are accidents they accuse us of carelessness! The greed of the capitalists, the long working day, the meagre wage – there is the cause of all accidents. Even the holidays which we have had until now, have seemed too much to these beasts of prey and they have persuaded the government, which is always on the side of the capitalists, to reduce the number of holidays in the year … Comrades, they have fooled us, they have fed long enough on our blood and sweat. Our only salvation can be Friendly Workers’ Unions, against which nothing can stand. Let us join together, comrades, in one general union and demand from the office new changes in the regulations. (p. 45).

People are starving in Britain due to the government’s reforms of the benefits’ systems. Mike over at Vox Political has launched an FOI request and went to court to get the government to release the precise numbers of figures for those who are dying. It’s about 73 people a month, although it may well be much higher. And the Work Programme and various workfare policies, traineeships and unpaid internships are all about supplying industry with unpaid labour. It’s about time all this was stopped, and working people stood together to unite to force the Tories out and overturn their vile policies.

Cameron’s Distortion of the Figures for Welfare Fraud

March 11, 2014

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Mike over at Vox Political has several times blogged on the way the government has distorted or even falsified statistics to justify their harsh policies towards the unemployed and disabled. Owen Jones’ book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, provides one example of this in the way Cameron tried to justify a crackdown on benefit payments, citing the statistics for welfare fraud as the reason:

Soon after David Cameron came to power in 2010, he started selling the idea that people are out of work due to their personal inadequacies: a sentiment which is, of course, one of the pillars of the chav caricature. The prime minister pledged a crackdown on welfare ‘fraud and error’, declaring that it cost the taxpayer £5.2 billion. But he had cunningly combined the cost of fraud committed by welfare recipients (just £1 billion a year) with that of errors on the part of officials (amounting to the far more considerable sum of £4.2 billion a year). In doing so, he ensured that a much bigger headline figure associated with benefit fraud was lodged in the popular imagination. (p. 196).

To use Hunter S. Thompson’s description of one Richard Milhouse Nixon, this is a man so crooked he has to screw his pants on in the morning.

Cameron’s Class Background, Prejudices and Osborne’s ‘Workers’ Budget’

March 10, 2014

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This morning the lead story in the i was that Cameron had been told by the Tories that he had to stop the gap between North and South widening any further. Further to this story, Osborne had been preparing a ‘Worker’s Budget’ for next week. Quite how far Cameron is from anyone, who could remotely be described as working class is explained in detail in Owen Jones’ Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (London: Verso 2012).

Cameron’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all stockbrokers. His primary school was Heatherdown Preparatory School in Berkshire, whose old schoolboys include Princes Andrew and Edward. When he was eleven he flew across the Atlantic with a group of his school chums to go to the birthday party of Peter Getty, the grandson of the oil billionaire, John Paul Getty. He was, of course, like all good snobs, educated at Eton. Before he went to university, he worked as a researcher for the Tory MP Tim Rathbone, who was his godfather. A few months after this, his father arranged for him to work in Hong Kong for a multinational. Apart from his Oxford and the Bullingdon Club, he managed to get a job at Conservative Central Office following a telephone call from Buck House. When that came to an end a few years later, his girlfriend’s mother, Annabel Astor, suggested to the chairman of Carlton Television, Michael Green, that he should hire him. Which he duly did. So elevated and far from the world of us plebs is Cameron, that he described his wife’s education as ‘highly unconventional’ because she went to a day school.

Other Tory colleagues have stated that he’s an unrepentant social elitist. One of his old schoolmates is supposed to have said ‘I think there’s something very unconservative about believing that because of who you are, you are the right person to run the country. It’s the natural establishment which believes in power for power’s sake, the return of people who think they have a right to rule.’

Another Old Etonian described Cameron as ‘a strange product of my generation … He seems to represent a continuation of, or perhaps regression to, noblesse oblige Toryism. Do we really want to be ruled by Arthurian knights again?’

And naturally, Cameron has surrounded himself with ministers from the same elevated social class. 23 out of 29 of his first cabinet ministers were millionaires. 59 per cent of them went to a private school, and only 3 per cent actually went to a comprehensive.

Even Boris Johnson’s sister, who edited the Lady, is fed up of the very narrow class basis of his cabinet. She told Jones before the 2010 General Election about probably composition of his administration: ‘the prospect is Old Etonians bankrolled by stockbrokers … It’s back to the days of Macmillan and Eden.’

So this a government of toffs, led by an extremely rich toff, even by toff standards, who believes he has an automatic right to rule, simply because he is a toff. And his fellow toff, Gideon, sorry, George Osborne, will next week, according to the I, launch a ‘worker’s budget’. The whole idea is a joke. Unfortunately, as the 38,000 people or so, who may have died under Cameron’s welfare reforms, it’s a killer. And that ain’t no laughing matter.

An Anthropological View of Homelessness in America – With Lessons for Britain

February 3, 2014

Anthony Marcus, Where Have All The Homeless Gone? The Making and unmaking of a Crisis (New York: Berghahn 2006)

America Homeless

We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man.
We got a kinder, gentler kind of napalm

– Neil Young, ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’.

I’ve posted a couple of piece before on some of the points this book makes about homelessness in America, and its relevance to Britain. One of the most important was the way the massive debt crisis of New York City’s municipal government in 1975 formed the template for Mrs Thatcher’s destruction of the welfare state in Britain, and the Coalition’s further attempts to end it altogether in the second decade of the 21st century.

The End of the Welfare State in New York and the Beginning of the Homeless Crisis

New York did have something like Britain’s welfare state, even a form of the dole and affordable, rent controlled housing. In 1975 it overspent to the point where it was unable to pay off its debt. In return for giving the City the right to issue bonds allowing it to finance its debt, the City was placed under the fiscal management of a consortium of businessmen and bankers to ensure its fiscal good government. These made swingeing cuts in the City’s welfare provision, to the point where millions were thrown out of their jobs. Unable to pay their rent, many were forced to move away from New York, while others were forced onto the streets. The rent controls remained, but instead of keeping housing affordable, they resulted in many landlords being unable to afford to maintain their properties. As a result, many were left without basic services like electricity or water, others were abandoned completely as landlords went bankrupt. Some landlords even firebombed their tenements to collect on the insurance. The result was a massive increase in homelessness. At the same time, the location and visibility of New York’s rough sleepers changed. Instead of being confined to certain run down districts – the traditional Skid Row of urban American geography, the homeless moved out into the more upmarket residential districts and even into the city centre.

Racial Stereotypes of Homelessness

The Black community was particularly hard hit. Many of the homeless men interviewed by Marcus were well-educated, from reasonably affluent, middle class backgrounds. However, the Black community particularly relied upon the municipal government, either directly or indirectly for their jobs, and so were disproportionately hit when those jobs were shed. The result was that the stereotypical image of a homeless person in the period in which Marcus worked – the late 1980s and first years of the 1990s – was a poorly dressed, mentally ill Black person. Marcus takes particular care to counter this stereotype, as it formed the basis for the campaigns of several of City’s leaders, like Mayor Dinkins, to tackle homelessness. It ignored the vast numbers of homeless Whites and the homeless Blacks, who were articulate and dressed neatly. While much effort was directed at those groups that corresponded to the stereotype, these people were ignored as they simply didn’t match contemporary ideas of who the homeless were.

The book is based on the doctoral research Marcus did amongst a group of fifty homeless Black men working for one of the City’s homelessness projects from 1989 to 1993. It is his attempt to answer the question of what happened to public awareness of the issue of homelessness. He points out that from 1983 to 1993 homelessness was one of the biggest American political issues. There were rock songs about homeless people, and universities, charities, politicians, and activist groups attempted to study and tackle the issue.

This concern evaporated from 1993 onwards. The crisis continued and the availability of proper, affordable housing continued to fall, but increasingly less attention was paid to the issue. Funds for its study dried up, and the academics researching it moved away to fresher, and more lucrative areas of study. Marcus quotes one of his former research colleagues as laughing when Marcus told him he was writing up his Ph.D. research, declaring that homelessness was so last century.

Critiques of the ‘Cultures of Poverty’

Much of Marcus’ book is a critique of the narrow historiographical focus that determined that rather than tackle the root causes of the homeless crisis in lack of suitably paid jobs, affordable housing and welfare policies that would allow the unemployed to get and retain accommodation, saw the problem exclusively in terms of the supposed moral defects of the homeless themselves in a mirror-image of the ‘cultures of poverty’ view. This grew out of the previous studies of American homelessness centred around Skid Row, the decrepit section of American towns occupied by single-occupancy hotels for the homeless, and a population of homosexuals, transvestites, prostitutes and other marginal, transgressive or bohemian groups. The other major influence was Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America, which examined the squalor and poverty in urban Black ghettoes. As a result, when the American welfare state, under Richard Nixon, began to tackle unemployment and homelessness, it did so with the assumption that the homeless themselves were somehow responsible for their condition. They were supported, but that support was made as unpleasant as possible in order to force them to come off welfare whenever possible. Hence the penalisation of the unemployed through demeaning forms of state support such as food stamps, rather than a welfare cheque. Seen the similarity to the attitudes of Cameron, Clegg, IDS and McVie yet?

Cultures of Deviancy and Violence in Homeless Shelters

This attitude by the authorities that there is a ‘culture of poverty’, created by and defined by the idleness, drunkenness, profligacy and other inappropriate behaviour of the poor themselves is particularly attacked by Marcus. He found that there was no difference in morals and behaviour between the homeless people he studied, and those of the wider population. This included the ‘shelterisation’ debate surrounding the perceived culture of violence in the homeless shelters. These had been set up in New York in response to the finding of a judge that the City had failed in its legal duty to provide shelter and wholesome food for a homeless man that had been turned away from one. Marcus states that for most of the residents of these shelters, their greatest problem was finding a lead long enough to reach the wall socket so that they could do their ironing. Nevertheless, the violent criminals included in the shelters’ population meant that the developed a reputation for being dominated by ex-convict bodybuilders and their transvestite shelter ‘wives’. Marcus found that rather than being a gay space, homeless gay men were subjected to the same levels of abuse and intimidation they experienced in the outside world. Their attitude to the ex-cons was that they weren’t really gay. At the same time they had their transvestite lovers in the shelter, they also had heterosexual relationship with wives and girlfriends outside. One of Marcus’ gay informants told him that if you watched the ex-cons outside, they never held hands or socialised with their transvestite shelter partners. He concluded that they were really heterosexual men, who just wanted to have sex and weren’t concerned with whom they had it in the single sex environment of the homeless shelters.

Marcus concluded that the shelters developed their reputation for violence and bizarre behaviour, as few researchers actually interacted or examined the way their residents behaved outside of its environment. The methodological problems were too difficult, making it almost impossible. So instead the academics concentrated on their behaviour inside the shelter, and unconsciously assumed that their behaviour was formed by it. Marcus gradually came to the opposite conclusion – that the men in the homeless shelters acted as they did, not because of the environment of the homeless shelter, but because that was what they did anyway. So the various types of bizarre and slovenly behaviour, which normally remained hidden in the confines of a private home, such as one resident, who never got up on a Sunday morning but simply urinated into a glass by the side of his bed, was suddenly on public display.

Homeless Not Radically Different or Separate from Rest of Population

Linked to this was a wider problem in identifying just who exactly the homeless were. Many of the individuals studied only spent part of their time sleeping in public. Other nights they slept round a friends or girlfriends, or were given room in an airing cupboard or basement by a kindly janitor in return for doing cleaning work. There was also a wider population of young people sleeping on the floors of friends while they looked for an apartment after graduating from university. These middle class, educated Americans weren’t seen as homeless.

And many of the Black homeless men Marcus interviewed didn’t see themselves as homeless either. They compared their state to that of young Whites, who had just graduated. It was a similar stage of carefree abandon until they finally hit maturity and sorted themselves out, got a proper job and apartment. Marcus also notes that for many Black homeless men, their condition meant acting out a variety of roles. He called them The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The Good was the White man’s negro, who accepted mainstream, White American culture and values when it meant impressing White academics or employers in order to get a job or a place on an educational programme. The Bad was that of the angry, violent Black man. His informants told him they had to adopt this pose, as otherwise Whites would just see them as ‘niggers’ and disparage or exploit them. They had stories of an effeminate ‘White man’s Negro’, who tried to fit in with the culture of his White colleagues and bosses, only for him to be exploited and sacked. Interestingly, the models taken for this role of violent, rebellious Black masculinity were all race-natural. They included ‘Leatherface’, from Tobe Hooper’s class bit of grue, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Sean Connery’s James Bond. Indeed, many of Marcus’ Black informants identified by Connery so much that they felt sure that Scotland’s cinematic hard man was Black, at least partly. The Ugly was a term coined by Marcus himself, and referred to those homeless, who dressed badly and had lost both their sanity and dignity. It was a role the men studied by Marcus most disliked, because of its passivity, and lack of masculinity. Nevertheless, many homeless Black men adopted it in order to get some of the benefits that were only available through this role.

Disillusionment with Regime in ‘Not-for-Profit’ Housing

Eventually the scandal surrounding the violence and criminality within the municipal shelters became so great that the City authorities were forced to act. The system was privatised, so that instead or supplementing the vast municipal shelters were a system of ‘transient’ accommodation run by not-for-profit corporations. These were supposed to be smaller, and more responsive to their residents’ needs than the City homeless provision. Marcus examines these too, and demonstrates how many of the shelter residents became increasingly disillusioned with them, even to the point where they preferred moving back to the shelters or onto the streets.

What Marcus’ informants most objected to was the intense regimentation and supervision of almost every aspect of their lives. This was supposedly to help the homeless develop the right attitudes and habits that would allow them to move out of the transient housing and into a proper apartment with a proper job. In practice, this control was absolute and degrading. Security was tight, and the inmates were rigorously searched as they entered the building. The not-for-profits, like the shelters, also broke up heterosexual couples. Many of the homeless studied by Marcus had mental health problems of varying severity. Some were particularly ill, while others were less affected. Marcus says that in some the level of mental illness was so slight, he suspected that it may have been a pretence by the sufferer to get off the streets by feigning illness. Well, you can’t blame them for that. As part of the conditions of residence, these men were forced to take medication to combat their mental problems. They complained that it left them feeling like zombies, and deprived them of their sexual functions, a sense of emasculation, which, naturally, they particularly resented.

Lack of Economic Opportunities for Moving into Paid Work in Homeless Shelters

Coupled with this was the way the system knocked back any homeless person, who tried to get a proper job and move out of the hostel. I’ve already blogged on the experience of one homeless man, who hopefully moved to a Salvation Army home in the expectation that he would be given worthwhile work. He wasn’t, and spent his time there sweeping up, for which he was paid 17c an hour. Other homeless men in not-for-profits elsewhere found themselves unable to get work, that would pay sufficiently well for them to get a proper apartment, or a place on one of the few rent-controlled tenements held by the City. The amount of welfare paid to the homeless, which came down to a take home pay of $100 a month for those in the shelter, and $540 for those on the streets, simply wasn’t enough for them to get an apartment and support themselves. As a result, many of the most ambitious and enterprising homeless men got jobs, which they soon lost and so had to move back into the shelter. The social workers and shelter staff were aware of the problem and did their level best to try to dissuade them from trying to get proper jobs so that they would retain their SSI welfare payments. In the shelter, however, the only jobs these homeless men could do were ‘make work’ jobs, sweeping, cleaning and so on. Some of the homeless thus preferred to get jobs outside, as book keepers or security guards, or working off the books as labourers unpacking trucks for local grocery stores. These were better paid, and in the case of one homeless man, gave him status and power over the ex-con hard men working underneath him. They did not, however, pay well enough for them to get a home of their own. Marcus observes that the system seemed to have been set up in the expectation they would fail.

The Crisis in the Black Family: No Different from White Family

The book goes on to tackle the issue of the Black family, and its role in the lack of Black achievement compared to that of immigrant groups such as Asians and Latin Americans. Marcus notes that the Black family is seen as weaker, and more prone to breakdown, than the family structures of other ethnic groups. This lack of family support is seen as being the cause of the lack of social and economic advance in the Black community. Politicians, religious leaders and activists have compared the fragile Black family with the supposedly more robust structures of that of their immigrant counterparts. Instead of conflict and breakdown, these families have a high degree of mutual support and integration, so that immigrants groups like Koreans and Latinos are able to use the unpaid labour of other family members to set up prosperous businesses. Marcus shows how, as a result, Black American churches, community groups and the Nation of Islam exhort their members to take Maya Angelou’s ‘Black Family Pledge’ and emulate the family structure, solidarity and work ethic of their more prosperous immigrant counterparts.

This view of the dysfunctional character of the Black family is similarly permeated by the ‘cultures of poverty’ debate. The Black family is seen as having a uniquely dysfunctional structure and lack of values, that hinders Black Americans from achieving the same success as their White and immigrant compatriots. Marcus again takes issue with this, and demonstrates that the comparison between Black and immigrant families is false. Like is not being compared with like. Marcus states that the structure of the Black family, while different from that of recent immigrant groups, is actually no different from that of White America. He states

‘It will be my argument that, indeed, African-American families living in poverty are generally less suited to certain types of mutual aid in poverty than are their immigrant counterparts. however, this is not because of a defect in the black family or some failure to live up to American kinship norms. Rather, it is because the cultural templates of the black family, even among the poorest and least integrated into “the mainstream,” are fundamentally similar to those of other American families. Nuclear and neo-local in its norms, the African-American family, like its white counterpart, is built around voluntary companionate marriage; the shared values, identity markers, and consumption patterns of its members, and the right to seek individual accomplishment and emotional self-realization. Typically supported on a foundation of legally regulated wage labor, subsidized mortgages, individual savings, public education, state entitlement programs, and socio-legal protections by police and courts, this family type, which I will refer to as the “consumption family,” appears dysfuncational in the absence of such state provisioning and when compared to certain immigrant kinship structures, which I will refer to as the “accumulation family”.’

The “Accumulation Family” of Immigrants to America

Marcus then goes on to describe the “accumulation family” as ‘built around extended kin networks, intense group sacrifice, delayed or permanently postponed gratification, and large amounts of captive low-wage or unpaid family-based labor, particularly from women, children, new arrivals, and other dependents with less recourse to external labor options and social rights’. Marcus points out that while Black families are more likely to break down or experience real difficulties, this is not because Blacks somehow have a different set of family values from their White compatriots. They don’t. It’s simply because the Black family is generally under more acute social pressure than White families, due to the poor social and economic position of Black Americans.

As for the “accumulation family” of southern European, Latin American and Asian immigrants, this depends very much on the unpaid labour of its weaker members – women, children and new arrivals. As such, members of these ethnic groups may increasingly see it as exploitative and backward as they assimilate the values and social structures of their new home, and go from being people with one feet in America and the other in their country of origin, to more or less acculturated Americans.

Housing Panic and Social Solidarity with Squatters, Homeless and Anarchist Activists

Marcus also investigates the way the housing panic over increasingly rents and the threat of eviction created a strong sense of solidarity between ordinary citizens in New York’s slum districts, and the squatters, homeless and Anarchist activists sharing the neighbourhood. The world-wide economic depression of 1982-3 resulted in New York receiving hundreds of thousands of immigrants from eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia, as well as the yuppies graduating from the University. At the same time as the blue collar workers moved out, the white collar financial and IT workers moved in. Rents shot up, to the point where some of the buildings that were worth less than $2,000 in 1977 were worth half a million or more by 1990. Many landlords were, however, prevented from increasing their rents for long-standing tenants through the City’s stringent rent stabilisation laws. Some landlords attempted to circumvent these by putting in unnecessary renovations, as recently renovated premises were immune from the controls under the legislation. Other long-standing tenants, particularly the elderly, found themselves subjected to violence and intimidation, including being thrown down stairs, in order to force them to move out. The result was that slum and low-rent districts, like Hells Kitchen, Loisaida (the Lower East Side), the printing district, West Harlem, and the Bowery became gentrified, and relaunched under the names Clinton, the East Village, Tribeca, Morningside Heights and Noho.

The result of this was that ordinary working and lower middle class New Yorkers suffered increasing alarm at the prospect of being forced out onto the streets. This resulted in popular sympathy for the murderer and cannibal Daniel Rakowitz, who killed his girlfriend, a foreign dancer, after she tried to throw him out after their affair had ended. He was caught serving up her remains as soup to the local homeless. In the East Village, tensions between the municipal authorities and ordinary residents exploded into violence when the police tried to clear the homeless, who had occupied Tompkins Square Park to form a ‘tent city’. Local residents insisted that the violence was cause, not by the homeless, but by anarchists, squatters and youths looking for trouble from outside the area, as well as some local residents. Marcus was told by one waiter at a plush restaurant that ‘this is total war and we need to make the neighbourhood unlivable for yuppies’. In fact, Marcus does point that some of the homeless did fight back, but the fiercest fighting was done by the other groups identified in the riot. He also notes that when some of the yuppies renting properties in the area were questioned, many of them were in fact in the same boat as the rest of the residents, and spending more than half their income on rent.

Marcus believed that the solidarity between the anarchists, squatters, homeless and the area’s ordinary residents occurred because for nearly a decade these groups had created a local counterculture centred on homelessness. In 1990 a group of anarchists, squatters and homeless from Tent City took over the remains of Public School 105, located on Fourth Street between Avenues B and C, and turned it into an alternative community centre. They intended to turn it into permanent, semi-permanent and temporary housing for the homeless, as well as setting up remedial reading, GED-high school equivalency test preparation and plumbing, carpentry and electrical repair classes. It also became the focus for various other anti-gentrification and radical, anti-state groups. A local Communist group, the ‘Class War Tendency’, set up classes in political economy, while a radical priest, who was a housing activist, helped the homeless to set up a soup kitchen in the Community Centre. As a result, the cops moved in in force to retake the Community Centre and clear out its homeless and radical occupants. Marcus notes that the anarchists, squatters and Tent City homeless believed that they were defending everyone’s right to a home, and many people in the neighbourhood concurred.

The radicals lost the battle for Public School 105. In 1991 Mayor David Dinkins cleared them from Tent City in Tompkins Square Park. Four years later, in August 1995, his success, Giuliani, moved in to clear the squatters out from three large tenements on 13th Street between Avenues A and Avenue B. They were successful, and although some residents attacked Giuliani as ‘Mussolini on the Hudson’, this time there was a lot less sympathy for the radicals. There still was a housing problem, and many of the anarchists, squatters and homeless people from the Park remained in the area. However, the housing panic was over, and there was a sense of defeat about being able to beat the forces of authority and create an alternative community.

American Thatcherism, Clinton and the Rise and Fall of Homelessness as an Issue

The final chapter examines the political forces that shaped the housing crisis and ultimately led to it becoming a forgotten issue. Marcus states that while most writers consider that the problems were the result of the ‘Reagan Revolution’, the cuts in state expenditure and particularly welfare that eventually led to the crisis began with the Democrat, Jimmy Carter. It was Carter, who tried to overturn Nixon’s Keynsianism and Great Society/New Deal ideology. He did not, however, have any coherent ideology, and so his attempts to cut expenditure were modest. This was to change with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s PM in 1979. It was Thatcher, who took over and turned into a coherent ideology the Chicago School economic theories, tried to break the unions, privatise public services, cut welfare spending, transfer public sector housing to the private sector, and made ‘liberal use of the military at home and abroad’. He states that in her war against the Labour party, she attacked notions of social democracy, and corporatist or civic belonging. Although she was forced out by the poll tax riots, Thatcherism remained the dominant ideology.

Thatcher’s ideology was taken over and shared over the other side of the Atlantic by Ronald Reagan. Although, unlike Thatcher, Reagan could not produce a coherent ideology, nevertheless the values he espoused were so deeply embedded in American culture that ultimate his reach was deeper, and Reagan’s attack on the unions, the New Deal and the welfare state, such as it was, was far more thorough than Thatcher could achieve.

Nevertheless, Reagan’s reforms were still hotly contested in the decade from 1982 to 1992. This changed with Bill Clinton’s election. Suddenly there was much less coverage of homeless issues in the media, and public concern about homelessness vanished. Homelessness remains, and there is still a homeless crisis with rising rents and a lack of affordable housing. However, although Hilary Clinton briefly touched on the issue during her senatorial campaign against Giuliani, few Democrats or Republicans seemed to wish to return to the issue. Marcus considers that public interest in homelessness disappeared due to the economic boom of the last years of Clinton’s presidency. This revitalised formerly moribund sectors of the American economy, unemployment was at its lowest for several decades and there was a general feeling of optimism. Amidst the boom and growth, there was little appreciation that poverty was still present and needed tackling. Marcus states that despite this optimism and the boost to the financial sector of the collapse of the Soviet Union, globalisation and information technology, the economy will inevitably contract to plunge millions into poverty and misery once more. The book was published in 2006. We only had to wait four more years before this happened.

Homelessness and Poverty Caused by Structure of Society, not Individual Failings

He believed that now, when the good times were still rolling, was the time to tackle poverty, rather than wait till after the next set of riots. He makes the point that although there was much discussion at the time about Reagan’s removal of the safety net and those who were ‘disappearing through its cracks’, no one ever raised the question about why the safety net should be necessary in the first place. The homeless crisis was just part of deteriorating social conditions across America, which saw ordinary citizens having to work harder for much less rewards. He writes

‘A safety net is only as important as the height of a jump and the distance that can be fallen. In a wildly productive society that has achieved exponential increases in productive capacity through technological and work process innovations, the last twenty years have seen housing costs increase dramatically, the average workweek grow by 20 to 30 percent, job security disappear, real wages drop, and the employment market tighten. In addition to all these problems facing all working Americans, the eight years under Clinton saw the United States imprison more people than during any period in the nation’s history. Only contemporary postcommunist Russia, with its dying industrial economy, imprisons as many people per capita.

Despite eight years of America’s greatest economic boom, none of these are signs of social health for the nearly two hundred and fifty million ordinary citizens who comprise the non-Other America. But these developments have been particularly severe for the fifty-plus million Americans at the lower ranges of the wage and skill hierarchy, who remain as poor and miserable as when Michael Harrington wrote his book about them. Though the declining safety net was a problem for most of my informants, it was only one of the aspect of the bigger problem: the rising bar that they were unable to successfully jump.’

Marcus states that the various solutions to America’s homeless problem failed because of the ‘cultures of poverty’ view of the problem: that poverty was created by particular individuals, who lacked the moral values and industrious attitudes of the rest of the population, and who therefore were profoundly Other, and the creators of their own misery. He sees this view of the origins of poverty as similar to Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no society, only people’. He states of this view, that began with Michael Harrington’s The Other America that

‘Harrington and those who came after allowed that social policy was ultimately the institution for fine-tuning problems in the distribution of resources. However, their unrelenting focus on problematic groups rather than the overall social concerns facing a modern citizenry represented, at best, a progressive era model of “the poor” as loss leaders for proactive social policy. In its more common pedestrian form, it represented a positivist particularism that completely failed to view the parts as a product of the whole, blaming the pinky finger for being small, rather than identifying the hand as determining the morphology and function of the pinky or blaming the Black family for being dysfunctional rather than American kinship for producing the Black family. Such functionalist and particularist logic has proven a distraction from discussions of how America is coping with the challenges of overall social life.

When social policy is based on this particularist individuated model for the obligations and entitlements of citizenship it inevitably fails. This is because it assumes exactly what needs to be demonstrated: that the challenges being faced by the individual or group of individuals are the result of individual differences of culture, history, temperament, and the like, and not the result of being an identifiable part of a social organism. Solutions, even generous ones like the McKinney Homeless Act [this was the act that voted a billion dollars to providing shelter for the homeless] that do not consider the nature of the organism that produced a sick part, but only focus on the section deemed pathological, inevitably involve a form of social excision that is at best provisional.’

As a result, rather than identifying the economic and social factors behind the housing crisis, asking what went wrong so that a prosperous city with a surplus of affordable housing suddenly experienced a massive increase in visible homelessness, scholars instead studied the homeless themselves as an ethnic group that somehow created the problem through its cultural difference. The homeless are homeless because society has become increasingly competitive. People are being forced to jump higher and higher simply to survive. And those at the bottom simply do not have the economic, social or psychological resources. He also states that in addition to the growth and optimism experienced during the Clinton boom years, when the party of the New Deal/ Great Society anti-poverty bureaucracy once again occupied the White House, another factor contributing to the massive lack of interest in homelessness is the War on Terror.

‘The optimism and complacency of the Clinton years that hid vast seas of unvocalized misery among overworked, underpaid working-class people in post-Reganite America has given way to the ultimate silencing: the endless war on terror. However, the bar remains high, the speciation of America is firmly embedded, and the extent of planning for a rainy day is massive growth in police forces and prisons throughout the United States. The crisis remains well managed, but the future is not bright.’

Marcus suggests that the poor and homeless are social barometers measuring the problems experienced in society by Americans generally

‘They measure the amount of competition, the level of functioning that is necessary to survive, the displacement of those who must labor to live, and the degree of comfort and security that we can claim for our own lives. If they are drowning from the high price of housing, declining real wages, rising costs for education, declining public health, and the revival of nineteenth century diseases, then the rest of us are probably “up to our necks in it”‘.

American Model Producing Global ‘Race to the Bottom’ for Workers and the Poor

He suggests that instead of using Durkheimian functionalism, scholars should instead adopt a Marxian approach to examine the growth of policies by nations around the world intended to make their economies more competitive by modelling them on that of America. The result is a race to the bottom for wages, standards of living, and the overall quality of life. With its advanced, massively productive economy, America could, however, become a global leader in the opposite direction and reverse this three-decade trend for worse wages and working conditions.

Conclusion: the Lessons for Britain

Although some of the issues Marcus tackles are unique to America, much of the book is immediately relevant over this side of the Atlantic as well. Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives took over Harrington’s ‘cultures of poverty’, and as The Void, Another Angry Voice, Mike over at Vox Political, and many, many other left-wing bloggers have shown, the Coalition’s unemployment policies are based on blaming the poor and jobless for their problems. Hence the pretext for workfare, the various courses the unemployed are placed on, and the sanctions system: they’re simply devices for inculcating the correct values of industriousness in the workforce, just as Victorian paternalists worried about raising the poor out of poverty through getting them to accept the same values. The same attitudes are screamed every day from right-wing rags like the Daily Mail and the Sunday Express, and TV documentaries on the unemployed like Benefits Street.

The British Black Family and Chavs

The chapter on the misinterpretation of the dysfunctional structure of the Black family in America in also relevant here. Black activists in Britain are also worried about the greater incidence of breakdowns amongst Black families on this side of the Atlantic. One explanation for the general poor performance of Black boys at school and their greater involvement in crime and gang culture is that, due to the breakdown of their families, many boys simply don’t see their fathers, and so don’t have positive role models in a caring dad.

This patterns also extends outside the Black community to the White lumpenproletariat, now demonised as ‘chavs’. There’s similarly a pattern of broken homes, poor educational attainment, violence and criminality amongst the boys here. And this is similarly ethnicised as the result of a distinct, ‘chav’ culture, rather than the result of a variety of social and economic pressures permeating society generally. And if we’re talking about cultures of recreational violence, then historically the upper classes have also enthusiastically taken their part. In 18th century France there was a group of aristocratic youths, who described themselves as ‘les Rosbifs’. They consciously modelled themselves on the boorish behaviour of the English country squires, and so swaggered around swearing a lot and sported cudgels, which they used to beat up members of the lower orders. Oh what fun! As sociologists and historians studying the history of such youth cultures have said, there really is no difference between these and the mods and rockers, who used regularly used to beat each other senseless down in Weston during Bank Holidays when I was a teenager. These days it’s all rather more genteel. They simply join the Assassin’s Club at Oxford, and wreck restaurants.

The Benefits Cap Blocking an Escape from Poverty and Homelessness

The description of the problems of the homeless in trying to get out of poverty and into accommodation, and failing due to the cap on their benefits, is also immediately recognisable over this side of the Atlantic. The Tories are capping Housing Benefit here as part of their scheme that people on benefits shouldn’t be wealthier than those in work. The result of this is similarly going to be increased homelessness and further geographical isolation, as people are forced to move away from high-rent areas, especially in London. Not that this’ll bother Cameron, Osborne and the rest of the Bullingdon thugs. As the architecture of the new apartment blocks shows, they really don’t want to have to look at the poor. These have a separate entrances for the rich Chinese at whom they’re aimed, and the rest of us plebs, who may well include working and lower middle class Chinese Brits, who’ve been here for generations but lack the massive spondoolicks of the new, global elite.

Solidarity between Squatters, the Radical Left and Ordinary Citizens in NYC and Bristol

As for the politics of squatting, and the need for anarchists and radical activists tackling this issue, there are also lessons for Britain here as well from the experience of New York in the 1980s and 1990s. Johnny Void over at his blog strongly supports squatting amongst other forms of anarchist activism. He has pointed out on his blog that despite the scare stories run by the press about ordinary people coming back from holiday to find their house or garden shed has been taken over by squatters, this in fact has been relatively rare. Most of the squatting has been the occupation of abandoned buildings. I’ve put up on this blog a video from Youtube of homeless activists in Bristol, including a group of homeless squatters, who’ve taken over a disused building in Stokes Croft. They too were facing eviction, despite the fact that the place has been abandoned for forty years.

The issue of gentrification and the eviction of poorer, particularly Black residents, in favour of far more affluent tenants is a very hot issue here as well. A few years ago there were riots in Stokes Croft against Tescos, which had just opened another branch in that ward. The people there feared that it would force out of business local shops, and so reacted to defend their community businesses from the commercial giant. The New York experience shows that it is possible to get ordinary residents to support squatters, anarchists and other left-wing radical groups simply through a common concern for the same issues – in this case homelessness – and by being good neighbours.

Poverty and Homelessness a Problem for Society Generally Across the Globe Thanks to the ‘American Model’

Like America also, many of the poor in Britain are actually those in work, who have also seen their wages decline in real terms, despite recent lies by the Coalition, and are finding themselves having to work longer hours. The European Round Table of Industrialists, at the heart of EU’s campaign for integration, is behind much of this on this side of the Atlantic. Regardless of our different political cultures, we Europeans, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, from the North Sea to the shores of the Baltic, have to work ourselves to death to compete with the Developing World. And as Greg Palast has shown in his book, Armed Madhouse, the result of this in the Developing World is that they have lowered their wages and raised working hours to truly horrific levels in response. Well, if nothing else, it shows that Marx was right in his view that working people across the globe have to unite to combat the problems of capitalism. ‘It was the bourgeoisie who shot down the Great Wall of China’, he says in the Communist Manifesto. Hence the slogan, ‘Workingmen of all countries, Unite!’ Globalisation had meant the increased exploitation of ordinary people across the world. It’s a global problem that needs to be stopped now. We can start by throwing out three decades of Thatcherism and the culture of Neo-Liberalism.