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Time to act: an interview with Sonali Bhattacharyya

Tue, 01/10/2023 - 00:00
Photo by Helen Murray

I became involved in anti-racist campaigns in my teens but it took Blair’s aggressive imperialism to propel me into organising, especially with Stop the War and Palestine Solidarity campaigning at a local level. I was active in my local Momentum group for years before standing for the national coordinating group in 2020. On the NCG, I mainly focus on working with local groups in London and our work around racial justice.

I always wanted to write scripts for film and TV but quickly learned how hard it is to break into the industry without wealth and contacts. I took a punt on submitting a screenplay to the Birmingham Rep for a playwright’s residency scheme, and was paired up with an amazing writer, Carl Miller, who mentored and encouraged me. I fell in love with the combination of intimacy and expansiveness of ideas writing for the stage offers.

My writing has always been political, but the urgency of system collapse has made me bring my activism and writing closer together. I see the communal experience of theatre as the perfect setting to start a conversation about how we can save ourselves.

I get to collaborate with incredible actors and creatives. I feel so lucky to have worked with Nimmo Ismail and Milli Bhatia this year, and the teams we’ve put together have been overwhelmingly black and brown creatives and women and non-binary artists. I’m as proud of these teams as of our work – the process has been indivisible from the productions.

I am tired of narrow representation of South Asian stories. I want to write stories for us, about us, and that means engaging with the impact of both Indian and British politics within the diaspora. It’s with that specificity that you find the universality in stories.

My most recent play, Chasing Hares, is set between 2000s Kolkata – where many of my extended family are – and present-day Leicester. The play is about precarity, the corrosive impact of capitalism on our relationships and the role of storytelling in allowing us to imagine a better world. It’s about the legacy and sacrifice of migrant parents with radical politics, something I haven’t seen depicted onstage before.

The British left should pay more attention to Indian politics – we should have a better understanding of Modi and Britain’s relationship with his regime. We have so much to learn from the awesome organising strategy and resistance of Indian comrades. For example, there is a long tradition in Bengali culture of using storytelling to galvanise and engage people in struggle. The British left often don’t value this power of stories (unlike the right). Stories are about remembering – how have people stood up before, what has worked? – providing inspiration and a model for how we translate our ideals into action and build a better world. For instance, it was really important to me to dramatise a character broaching the question of pay with her co-workers in Chasing Hares.

Political theatre isn’t about grandstanding or speechifying. For me, it’s about recognising small, quiet, brave moments of collectivity – the crucial steps towards social justice.

Sonali Bhattacharyya was speaking to Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya

Sonali’s play, Two Billion Beats, returns to the Orange Tree Theatre from 20 January – 4 February 2023. You can find out more about her work on her website.

This article first appeared in Issue 237, Autumn 2022, ‘Power in Unions’, in our column The Spark, in which interviewees discuss their experiences of becoming involved with radical movements. Subscribe today to read more articles and support independent media.

Categories: F. Left News

Generation prep and the rise of the private bunker industry

Sun, 01/08/2023 - 00:00
Bunker B 207 at the X-Point bunker complex in South Dakota is one of 575 bunkers that once protected bombs they now shelter dozens of families bracing for future turmoil (Credit: Bradley Garrett)

In February 2009, Australia experienced one of its worst environmental disasters: ‘Black Saturday’. After an extended heat wave and a long, hot summer, more than 400 small bushfires outside Melbourne converged into a conflagration. Temperatures hit 46.4°C, the hottest ever recorded in the city. Inland, fires released energy equivalent to 1,500 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs. Dozens of people who tried to get out by road got stuck and were overtaken by the fast-moving flames. By the time the fire was brought under control, more than 450,000 hectares had been incinerated, 3,500 buildings had been destroyed, and 180 people were dead.

In the intervening decade, many Australians have buried ‘bushfire bunkers’ in their backyards: oxygen-filled cocoons where they can temporarily take shelter from flames. During the 2019-20 bushfire season, now known as the ‘Black Summer’, these bunkers saved hundreds of lives, including those of workers at a remote lodge on Kangaroo Island outside Adelaide.

No longer the preserve of anti-government right-wing fringe groups or nuclear-paranoid middle-class families, the global market for private bunkers is reaching levels not seen since the cold war. Sales include everything from steel bunkers assembled offsite and buried covertly in gardens to the kitting out of subterranean concrete citadels stretching 12 stories deep, where a 330 square metre penthouse can set the buyer back over £3.7 million. Having spent many years living with the ‘preppers’ and ‘survivalists’ buying into these facilities, I see value in them, even as I remain troubled by their renewed necessity.

Going Underground

Bunkers have existed for thousands of years. Human beings, from Cappadocia to Berlin to Beijing, have long sought underground space to protect people, stockpile supplies and to protect the material remains that are representative of our cultures and values. Mostly out of sight and mind, bunkers have long been sites of fascination to military historians, urban explorers and subterranean tour groups but of marginal interest to the wider public. Both monument and folly, they have been seen as sites of memory from the second world war or architectural novelties of a third world war that never arrived.

Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, however, is complicating that narrative. Images of stalwart Ukrainian citizens huddled deep underground, sleeping, cooking, giving birth and trying to entertain each other to keep spirits up have caused many of us to reassess the necessity of fortified space. This trend, which began with the bushfires, was accelerated by the pandemic.

A chain of disasters brought about by war, disease, resource shortages and the climate crisis are transforming attitudes towards prepping

Prepping – the practice of preparing for future calamity – is now a global phenomenon. In 2020 roughly 45 per cent of Americans – or about 115.6 million people – said they spent money on survival materials. This number includes not just media-worthy bunkers but also bulk food, emergency kits, ‘off-grid’ energy and water delivery systems, and a host of other self-sufficiency provisions. The global freeze-dried food market saw a spike in sales as supply lines broke down during the pandemic. Already valued at $7.5 billion annually, the sector is projected to grow another $15 billion by 2032. Recent research has found that approximately 46 per cent of Canadians are in some way prepared for a catastrophe, with an estimated 13.8 million Canadian adults prepped for events such as civil unrest, failure of the government, natural disasters, pandemics and other emergencies.

In the UK, there has been a flood of cold war-era countryside bunkers appearing on real estate websites, which almost always sell within weeks. In other parts of Europe, state-level provision of safe harbour reduces the need for individual prepping. Sweden maintains space in nuclear, biological and chemical-filtered bunkers for 95 per cent of its residents, though they have never been used in war. In 2018, the Swedish government triggered minor hysteria when they sent pamphlets to every one of the 4.8 million households in the country reminding them where shelters were and telling them how to prepare for an enemy attack by running through a checklist for food, water, warmth and communications. With the war in Ukraine still raging, the government is speedily renovating these public bunkers.

In Switzerland, a 1963 law still in place dictates that every citizen has access to a nuclear fallout shelter. As of 2016 there was bunker space for 8.6 million individuals in a country of fewer than 8.4 million. There are 5,000 public shelters and more than 300,000 private bunkers across the country. One of the public shelters in Lucerne, inside a road tunnel that can be sealed by four 320-tonne gates, can house 20,000 people over seven floors.

Just in case

Overall, investment in disaster preparedness has been projected to top $250 billion by 2028. The fastest growing group investing in future security, according to a 2021 US survey, is millennials, 77 per cent of whom have emergency supplies on hand or said they had bought them in the past 12 months. It’s important to see this market in holistic terms, since as one prepper starkly remarked, a bunker without food, water and power is a tomb.

Building private bunkers at scale would not be possible without past state investment: almost every private bunker I have visited was being built on the bones of government facilities. And although there are at least 20,000 underground redoubts worldwide, many bunkers initially built to protect people in times of conflict have now been colonised by cloud data servers, underground farms, secure file storage facilities and quirky nightclubs, putting even more pressure on private citizens to dig their own, or to buy into one of the dozens of bunker communities around the world being built by the companies spearheading this industry. For many people, building a bunker – whether for bushfires or war – is an anxiety antidote.

Though the bunkers built today bear little resemblance to those built in the past, they will undoubtedly endure as artifacts from yet another unique period of human history: an age of dread, perhaps. A chain of disasters brought about by war, disease, resource shortages and the climate crisis are transforming attitudes towards prepping. Whether undertaken by governments or individuals, ‘doomsday prepping’ has now been largely supplanted by ‘practical prepping’. We have created a more interconnected, complicated and fragile world, a world that is now being threatened by a plethora of threats at a range of scales. Taking time to give ourselves an advantage over future risks is, I have come to realise, time well-spent.

Bradley Garrett is a social geographer at University College Dublin and the author of Bunker: What It takes to Survive the Apocalypse (Penguin, 2020)

This article first appeared in issue #237, Autumn 2022, Power in Unions. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Categories: F. Left News

It’s not drought, it’s plunder: Drought and the commodification of water in Chile

Fri, 01/06/2023 - 00:00
Peñuelas Lake in Valparaíso, Chile. The lake, which is the main source of water for Valparaíso, was severely affected by the 2022 drought (Credit: Andrea Agostini)

A 13-year mega-drought is straining Chile’s freshwater resources to breaking point. 2022 has been the fourth-driest year on record and means more than half of Chile’s 19 million population lives in areas suffering from ‘severe water scarcity’. The situation is so critical that in the capital, Santiago, the city government has devised a rationing plan with rotating water cuts of up to 24 hours for 1.7 million inhabitants.

Today Chile is the only country in the world that says in its constitution water can be treated as private property. The commodification of water began during General Pinochet’s regime. The 1981 ‘water code’ legally categorised water as both an economic and public good, but was really geared toward accelerating privatisation.

Since then, water privatisation has intensified – even sanitation has followed suit. The impacts are huge.

Sold for profit

The country’s water supplies come mainly from rivers. Water for consumption by the country’s population is managed by private companies and sold for profit. Aguas Andinas, for example, a subsidiary of the transnational company Agbar and Suez, monopolises Santiago’s market, selling water to six million of the city’s 7.2 million residents at one of the highest tariffs in Latin America.

In addition, much of the country’s water supplies are used in industrial extraction, forestry, and the production of agriculture for export in the global market.

According to water rights NGO El Movimiento de Defensa del Agua, la Tierra y el Medioambiente (Modatima), water grabs by private actors are central to the ongoing drought. Rodrigo Mundaca, spokesperson for Modatima, says, ‘We formed Modatima to resist the dispossession of water. Initially the strategy was simple: make the problem visible and spread information. But it hasn’t been easy: members of our organisation have suffered criminalisation and censorship. From 2012-2014, I was taken to court 24 times.’

Today Mundaca is the elected governor of the water-scarce region Valparaíso, continuing his fight for water rights in the corridors of power. Yet the 2022 rejection of a proposed new constitution for Chile represented a huge blow to the cause. The new constitution would have brought water back into public ownership, declaring water rights ‘incomerciales’ (unsellable). Yet, in a crushing blow to Chilean progressives and the Boric government (which was elected after the new constitutional process had begun but is closely associated with the ‘yes’ vote), in September 2022 62 per cent voted to reject the new constitution.

Water intensive

Chile’s economy, South America’s largest by per-capita GDP, is built on water-intensive, extractivist industries: mining, forestry and agriculture. Supported by the state-sanctioned private rights system, about 59 per cent of the country’s water resources are currently dedicated to forestry, despite it making up just 3 per cent of Chile’s GDP. Another 37 per cent is designated for the agricultural sector, leaving only a tiny amount of Chile’s water for human consumption.

The rejection of a proposed new constitution for Chile represented a huge blow to the fight for water rights

Chile’s five ‘sacrifice zones’, as they have been dubbed by local and environmental groups, are areas across the country that were chosen in the 1950s for rapid industrialisation at the expense of wider public and environmental health. While Chileans are forced to rely on emergency tankers to deliver drinking water, extractivist companies siphon off water for their industrial needs.

Meanwhile, in Chile’s central basin lies the semi-arid Petorca, where avocado is grown for export and, as a result, has drained the area of drinking water. The avocado trade has grown exponentially thanks to free trade agreements signed in the late 1990s. It takes 389.5 litres to produce one kilo in Petorca and the monoculture of avocados means the Ligua river is now completely dry.

Rejecting reform

The effects of climate change are being felt across the globe and especially in the global south. In 2022, Chile has experienced below average rainfall. However, its water scarcity is equally, if not more, the result of government policy to commodify water and reroute freshwater supplies to the production of exports for the global market. Activists have coined the slogan ‘no es sequía, es saqueo’ (‘it’s not drought, it’s plunder’) to reflect this fact.

Again, the new constitution looked to rectify this trend. Yet even water-stressed areas such as Petorica voted by 56.1 per cent to reject the proposals. The reasons for the country’s rejection are complex. The ‘rechazo’ (reject) campaign was an effective misinformation machine, spreading outright lies about the proposals within the new constitution that fomented division. An early 2022 survey, for example, found that over half of voters had been subject to misinformation. The rechazo campaign was also well funded: 89 per cent of private donations flowed to their camp, reflecting the interests of big industry.

The central conundrum facing Chile’s progressives is that policies to alleviate the water crisis have now been rejected by those living in the very areas it affects most. Felipe Irarrázaval, a researcher at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies (COES) suggests that ‘the issue is that the constitutional process addressed many other issues beyond the environment, and this perhaps touched another nerve and other sensibilities that begin to explain the result’.

The issue of access to safe and affordable drinking water in Chile remains urgent. How will Chileans deal with this crisis? Despite the recent setback, activists across the country remain defiant in pursuit of water with the three c’s: cantidad, cualidad and continuidad (quantity, quality and continuity).

Either way, water rights campaigners fear that the outcome of the referendum will be used to mask the country’s water scarcity issues. The future remains uncertain. The Boric administration will look to renew the constitutional process but the decision lies with the Chilean congress.

Carole Concha Bell is a PhD student at King’s College, London and freelance writer

This article first appeared in issue #238, Winter 2022, Drought and Deluge. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Categories: F. Left News

Getting back on track: The case for railway nationalisation

Wed, 01/04/2023 - 00:00
Darlington railway station in July 2021 (Credit: Matt Buck)

In 2022 Britain’s rail infrastructure owner Network Rail, whose £56.1 billion debt mountain is underwritten by UK taxpayers, spent more on interest on loans than maintaining and improving Britain’s railways. Network Rail is a legacy of New Labour. Following the bankruptcy of Railtrack plc in 2002, then chancellor Gordon Brown wanted historic debt off public expenditure balance sheets. His solution, a privately-financed ‘company limited by guarantee’, reintegrated some engineering systems fragmented by Tory rail privatisation.

Unfortunately, the rail industry retained the privatised character bequeathed by the Tories. Major capital expenditure projects are outsourced to private contractors, and a plethora of contractual interfaces ensure each company maintains a bureaucracy dedicated to delay attribution and managing staff across multiple agencies and employers.

Cash cow

New Labour’s addiction to private finance models also created a cash cow for commercial lenders. In September 2014, the Office for National Statistics reclassified Network Rail as a central government body in UK national accounts and public sector finances. Private debt to commercial banks was no longer ‘off the books’.

The Tory/Lib Dem coalition then decided Network Rail should borrow directly from government, signing a £30.3 billion loan facility to cover its financing to March 2019. By 2017, Tory ministers, already panicking at the prospect of Network Rail’s future financing needs, anticipated £47.9 billion rail expenditure for 2019-24, comprising 72 per cent of government funding (£34.7 billion) with the rest from increased fees on train operators and income from Network Rail’s property portfolio.

As costs rose and heroic assumptions of increasing passenger revenue failed to materialise, train operators Stagecoach and Virgin handed contracts back to government, while in 2020 Northern Trains collapsed and was taken into public ownership. Even before the strain of Covid-19, private operators lobbied to replace rail franchises with a management-fee system to safeguard their profits. Emergency recovery management agreements introduced in 2020 have now been replaced by permanent management contracts, which RMT calculates will pay private train operators £955 million in dividends by 2027.

Unhappy passengers

After a decade of above inflation fare increases, with falling real wages, by January 2018 real terms rail fares were 20 per cent higher than in 1995. In January 2019, Transport Focus reported overall passenger satisfaction at a ten-year low.

Privatised rail’s structural fragmentation led to a timetable crisis in 2018 with mass cancellations of train services. The transport select committee ascribed the chaos to ‘the astonishing complexity of a disaggregated railway in which interrelated train companies operating on publicly owned and managed infrastructure have competing commercial interests’. An evidence paper presented to the Williams review, published in May 2021, setting out Tory intentions to reform rail, noted: ‘Distrust of the rail industry has worsened among passengers… only second-hand car dealers are more distrusted by consumers’.

Distrust of the rail industry has worsened among passengers… only second-hand car dealers are more distrusted by consumers

The position of the rolling stock companies is even more egregious. From 2016 to 2020 train leasing costs rose by more than 90 per cent. Three rolling stock leasing companies between them own 88 per cent of Britain’s trains and paid out £949 million in dividends in 2020 alone.

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh’s commitment at Labour’s 2022 conference – that a Labour government will take rail services into public ownership as existing contracts expire – is therefore a rather tepid recognition of the failure of 27 years of rail privatisation. Any proposal that allows rampant profiteering by cartels and foreign governments to continue to contract expiry, at passengers’ and taxpayers’ expense, is not serious about the need to reform ownership and control of our railways.

Renationalisation

Keir Starmer’s casual attitude to pledges recalls Labour’s 1995 conference, where the party committed itself to ‘A publicly owned, publicly accountable railway.’ No sooner did Labour enter government than it turned the meaning of public ownership on its head to promote a public-private partnership to privatise London Underground in Europe’s largest-ever private finance initiative (PFI) deal. Labour’s current commitment is unclear and lacks a worked-out plan to renationalise Britain’s rail industry within a realistic timeframe. But such a plan exists and was published as an opposition white paper in 2020. Then-shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald proposed a publicly owned railway company, GB Rail, to operate railway infrastructure and train services as part of a single unified company. This vertically integrated company would be the guiding mind for the whole railway and a sole employer for all rail workers.

There is a consistent long-term consensus among rail users and the general public alike for an integrated, publicly owned railway. Opinion polls and surveys show a substantial majority in favour of renationalisation for good reason.

Publicly owned rail enables transparent costing and sustainable funding. It would mean public investment in rail services and properly staffed trains and stations, rather than serving privately owned train operating companies extracting profit.

In 2015 the Rail Delivery Group reported 44 per cent of railway stations were entirely unstaffed and a further 45 per cent were unstaffed at some times of the day. In 2022 the same group was exposed for plans to close all railway ticket offices across the network. It is clear this is not the future that the public or passengers want.

Compared to privatised railways, a publicly owned railway, not driven to maximise profits by staff cuts, could reflect accessibility needs of a diversity of rail users, including disabled people. This is particularly pertinent following the resignation of an advisor from the government’s disabled persons transport advisory council (DPTAC) last year, in protest at plans to close ticket offices and bring in more driver-only trains, saying it would make an already unacceptable situation worse.

Critically, privatised rail’s primary need to generate profits is incompatible, with Britain’s climate change targets to remove diesel-only trains from the network by 2040 and achieve net zero by 2050. Privatisation has lumbered Britain’s rail industry with ageing rolling stock technology brought in with the intention of cutting staff and with competing interests that hold back innovation.

A single, integrated, publicly owned railway that sees rail workers as an asset, can rebuild our knowledge and skills base and engage in proper workforce planning and development with unions to ensure new green jobs, instead of leaving employment in the hands of companies hell-bent on destroying good jobs in shareholders’ interests.

This article has been amended from its print version to reflect the fact that The Labour Party committed itself to public ownership of the railways as part of its 1995 party conference. The original article claimed the quote came from its 1997 election manifesto.

Alex Gordon is the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union national president

This article first appeared in issue #238, Winter 2022, Drought and Deluge. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Categories: F. Left News

Rewilding the Political

Thu, 12/22/2022 - 00:00
Chamber of the House of Commons

In recent years, the ecological concept of ‘rewilding’ has blossomed into a key characteristic of contemporary environmentalism. It describes the process of reinstating the complex balance of ecological relationships that together constitute a healthy, biodiverse and regenerative habitat. Where given a foothold, nature can recreate the oases in which it thrives.

It’s no coincidence that what reduces abundant ecosystems to naked hillsides, bare riverbanks and mile after mile of monocrop fields is the very same dewilding force that has stripped our politics of democratic vibrancy and integrity. In its systematic drive to extract as much as possible at as little expense as possible, capitalism within liberal democracies subordinates all other concerns to the pursuit of maximum profits and indefinite growth. It prevents our collective flourishing while leading humanity to the precipice of runaway climate breakdown and ecological collapse.

The most effective method for maintaining this order of interests is to make sure it’s never questioned. In the same way our collective social imaginary is captive to the ‘common-sense’ acceptance that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism, our political horizons have become restricted by the pervasive notion that liberal society embodies the ultimate expression of democracy. Yet it’s one that keeps the ‘big’ questions off the table altogether, such as how we structure the economy and whose interests it serves. Meanwhile, potential dissenters are faced with the omnipresent threat of forceful repression by the capitalist state.

This insulates capitalism from scrutiny so that its elites can operate with relative impunity while workers struggle to exist. It facilitated a systematic redistribution of wealth during the Covid-19 pandemic that further enriched the wealthiest. It enabled and sustained the decade of austerity that hollowed out the NHS and other essential services before the virus hit, limiting their ability to respond.

We do not have a functioning democracy. Bankers are promised uncapped bonuses while nurses, teachers, postal workers and transport workers are refused meagre pay rises amidst soaring costs of living. Big Oil and Gas report record profits when many people can’t afford to heat their homes. Fossil industry lobbyists were again platformed at COP27 while climate activists are criminalised by governments and demonised by the establishment media. These inequalities are indicative of the undemocratic power that capitalism’s elites have in determining our collective future.

Their future is not one for the working class. It’s little more than a death sentence for millions of people in the Global South. It’s one of cascading extinctions and the disintegration of the planet’s life supporting systems.

What is to be done?

Here, we might look to the lessons of rewilded nature. This starts with acknowledging that successful rewilding does not mean the removal of humans. It means ending the capitalist mindset that values the natural world on the basis that it can and should be used to generate wealth. It comes from stopping the resulting extractivist practices that make deserts out of jungles, peatlands, loughs and forests. Ultimately, it comes from decolonising the nonhuman world of these destructive forces. We need to likewise liberate our politics and democracy.

Installing these forces in the first place required a particular view of the world that detached humans from the complex web of life on earth. Historically, it was this separation, or ‘exceptionalism’, that elevated capitalist human society over and apart from nonhuman nature and laid the ideological foundations for conceiving it as little more than resources to be exploited.

Our politics has been similarly dewilded by the exceptionalism of liberal representative democracy and capitalism’s colonisation of its institutions. It disempowers working people at the behest of vested interests, all the while selling the idea that implementing social change is simply a matter of voting for the ‘right’ person or party.

It’s a democracy for the few. It’s a system in which politics is done to the people, not by the people. This reality limits our ability to tackle the multiple crises we’re faced with.

A ‘rewilded’ politics provides a very different vision. Contrary to the passive consumerism and competitive individualism that pits workers against each other while leaving entrenched interests in place and unchallenged, it offers the ecological principles of participation, interdependency and adaptation.

Wild politics

A wilder politics is one that demands more active and at times disruptive participation. The nearest example we have of this is in the activism of groups like Just Stop Oil who, in literally putting their bodies on the line, are making direct interventions in the undemocratic politics of unsustainability and inequality. Like nature, we need to gain a foothold to re-establish human society as a site of creative and collective flourishing.

Beyond this, it’s a vision that seeks balance in diversity. That means harnessing different and at times opposing interests rather than attempting to homogenise them. Making the connections between different emancipatory struggles and forging relations of solidarity between them is crucial in this era of multiple crises. It’s also the recognition that resilience does not come from imposing impervious institutions over everyone and everything, but from the capacity to adapt to new conditions. These principles are inimical to the system we currently have, which is concerned to maintain capitalist social relations not transform them.

In response to these challenges, innovative models for democratic reform have been proposed to expand opportunities for citizens to actively participate in decision making processes. Most notable are citizens’ assemblies, which, following the success of the advisory role they played in progressing the decriminalisation of abortion in Ireland, have been popularised by Extinction Rebellion as a way for citizens to take the lead on developing climate policy.

However, even the addition of such institutions is inadequate in capitalist society, where true political agency is tied to the private ownership of its means of production, which the state will not willingly put up for debate. It is only through a fundamental restructuring of the economy that this power can be dismantled and redistributed.

Short of implementing full democratic common ownership of the means of production, we might look to alternative models for re-empowering communities in the meantime. Community Wealth Building (CWB) is one such model, which has facilitated transformative change in Preston, Lancashire.

Essentially a form of municipal socialism, CWB harnesses the powers of locally rooted ‘anchor’ institutions to create regenerative social and economic relations through reformed procurement strategies that prioritise local enterprises over capitalist monopolies.

These anchor institutions can be local authorities, universities, hospitals, housing associations and so on, all of which rely on the external provision of many goods and services, including food, hygiene services, maintenance, etc. Identifying and meeting these needs locally provides an invaluable opportunity to build worker-owned and cooperative enterprises that will in turn generate greater democratic control over the economy.

These and other structural reforms offer tangible progressive horizons for a more just and sustainable future. Ultimately, however, the deep transformations we so desperately need will only come from stepping outside the ‘legitimate’ liberal democratic institutions we currently have, to apply fierce pressure to the capitalist system they so effectively insulate.

This will require many more of us to join or proactively support the ranks of climate activists, trade union activists, anti-racist activists and all others who are fighting for a better world, to grow the movement from a trickle into a torrent of collective action and (un)civil disobedience. The reality is our existing politics compromises that future and, like carbon and capitalism, needs to be dismantled, transcended and replaced so that more radical forms of democracy can take root.

Calum McGeown is a PhD researcher based in Belfast. His interests include critical political economy and theories of social change

Categories: F. Left News

Review: This is Only the Beginning by Michael Chessum

Wed, 12/21/2022 - 00:00
Momentum members at the “Rally for Corbyn” demonstration in Canterbury, 16 July 2016 (Credit: Funk Dooby)

Michael Chessum’s This is Only the Beginning is the latest to appear in a raft of post-Corbyn retrospectives, drawing on the author’s experience as a student activist, Momentum representative and national organiser of Another Europe is Possible. 

Owen Jones’s This Land and Left Out by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire were largely dishy tales of palace intrigue in the Labour leadership’s inner circles. Former Corbyn advisors James Schneider and Andrew Murray have advocated for extra-parliamentary organisations to build stronger links with each other, until they have rebuilt the strength for another shot at parliamentary power. 

By contrast, Chessum looks back at the ‘explosive moments’ of the last decade to reflect on the kind of movement we need.

The 2010 generation

The 2010 student revolt against the tripling of tuition fees and slashing of Education Maintenance Allowance exploded at a time of historic weakness for the British left. This meant its participants were unconstrained by the disillusion of past defeats, but also disconnected from the political lessons of the past. 

In a demonstrative rejection of the hierarchies of the old left, large parts of the anti-austerity movement developed an obsession with a ‘makeshift anarchist’ horizontalism. As a result, the movement never consolidated a real political programme, developed an organisational infrastructure, or even forced its participants to define their concrete aims. 

While the story of the wider anti-austerity movement is also told, Chessum continually returns to its youth and students, arguing that they would form a ‘kind of activist core for Generation Left’, creating the ‘conditions for a political generation to emerge’. This narrative will no doubt ring true to many leftists who grew up in that era.

Yet while the student movement may have been the ‘spark which set that autumn alight,’ it was the wider labour movement which had the strength to force the government’s hand. Millions of workers took strike action and campaigned to save their local services, albeit often hampered by the conservatism of union leaders. 

Chessum diagnoses an ‘institutional failure’ of the labour movement to harness the militant energy of its base but does less to explain this inertia. When he compares the bureaucratic routinism of the Labour party to the radicalism of the anti-austerity movement, he sometimes forgets that the same top-down methods hamstrung large parts of the latter. 

This gives his narrative a certain one-sidedness and tendency to romanticise the student-oriented actions he participated in. Still, he is right to locate the dynamism and potential of this period in the ‘fundamentally bottom-up’ politics of the movements’ grassroots.

The contradictions of Corbynism

As the anti-austerity movement waned, Corbynism rose from its ashes. From the failures of the preceding years, many had drawn the conclusion that social movements achieve little, and only governments change things. 

Despite its constant promises of ‘a new kind of politics’, the Corbyn project quickly collapsed into the top-down traditions of labourism. One of the most revealing quotes in the book is from Jon Lansman, who says: ‘I do like democracy in organisations, but what matters just as much as democracy, if not more, is effectiveness.’ In pursuit of efficiency, Lansman shut down Momentum’s internal democracy, accepted the patronage of Unite, and channelled the movement’s energy exclusively into elections. For a time, this strategy seemed justified, but Brexit would brutally expose its contradictions. 

Although the Labour membership was overwhelmingly anti-Brexit, the leadership prioritised courting the pro-Brexit voters in its marginal seats. While organising Corbyn supporters to fight for an anti-Brexit line, Chessum became a hate figure among parts of the Labour left, for whom any left challenge to the leadership was an unforgivable sabotage of the project’s electoral prospects.

Chessum refrains from any concerted attempt to exonerate his own legacy on the issue, even suggesting that accepting a fudged Brexit compromise in 2018 was ‘perhaps his greatest political mistake’. A democratic case for either a pro- or anti-Brexit policy could have been made, but the constant fudging slowly eroded Corbyn’s claim to represent a more democratic kind of politics. 

The wider point is that Corbynism and Brexit were catalysed by the same stagnation and polarization of the post-2008 years. The struggle was over which radical vision of society would win out: one of democratic internationalism or nationalist protectionism. By absenting itself from leadership in that wider struggle, Labour had lost long before the 2019 election. 

Lessons

If there is one overall message running through the whole of Chessum’s book, it is a passionate defence of democracy – not the two-party electoral kind, but real activist agency, in all its messiness and contradiction. What Chessum understands is that, for the left, conventional electoral triangulation is not a shortcut to a parliamentary majority from whence we can legislate for socialism, but a side road to defeat. Exhausted from years of seemingly fruitless movementism, the Corbyn generation poured their ambitions into the electoral mould, hoping that if they could engineer a ‘left-wing version of Blairism,’ they would win.

But politics is not a game where everyone plays by the rules; it is a ruthless struggle over ideas that determine the organisation of society. As soon as the ruling class was threatened by an insurgent electoral project, it did not hesitate to resort to lies, slander, and sabotage to defeat it. The left’s only weapon against this opposition was its organised and engaged mass support base. As soon as it suppressed its members’ independent initiative, it lost its raison d’être, and therefore its electoral viability. 

Chessum argues that, to recover the lost promise of 2015, the left must reject the top-down methods of the Corbyn years and orient towards building autonomous, decentralised activist networks, whose centres must be rigorously democratic. He ultimately concludes that ‘the Labour Party needs to split’ and has been a vocal advocate for electoral reform and proportional representation. The goal is to merge the pluralistic, radical spirit of the anti-austerity movement with more coherent and national organisations. 

His analysis is weakest where it lacks a precise characterisation of organisational forms. He argues that the 2010 movement unexpectedly led to a ‘reassertion of class politics’ by the ‘generation without a history’. This doesn’t seem quite right, at least not about the horizontalist part of the movement which Chessum tends to universalise. This was defined more by post-structuralism, which explicitly rejects class as a revolutionary subject in favour of a new ‘transformative social agent’, in which meaning is created through ideology; an empty vessel which can be filled by all manner of inchoate conceptions. 

True, the students of 2010 found themselves at the heart of a class struggle. But many of them explicitly rejected the principles of class politics, and therefore never ventured to contemplate what it would mean to take power. Total submersion into a parliamentary strategy was, in many ways, just the other side of the same coin. 

What is missing from Chessum’s account is any reflection on the nature of the state and the basis on which agency for social change can be constituted. Proportional representation exists in many European countries. In the post-2008 era, it has led not to social transformation, but to the temporary growth and precipitous fall of left-populist parties – like Syriza and Podemos – that entered government only to betray the social movements that elected them. 

Evading specificity on a future strategy for seizing power, Chessum leaves all doors open. Despite this ambiguity, the strength of his vision is that it has a firm set of political principles behind it – democratic participation, internationalism – which is a step beyond a vague all-encompassing movement of movements, or the invective to simply give it ‘one more heave’ in Labour.

Urte Mačikene is a socialist activist and policy worker based in South London

This article first appeared in issue #238, Winter 2022, Drought and Deluge. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Categories: F. Left News

Iran’s feminist revolution

Tue, 12/20/2022 - 00:00
Protesters gather in solidarity in London, October 2022. Photo credit: Alisdare Hickson

On 16 September 2022, 22-year-old Mahsa Jina Amini died as a result of severe head injuries sustained when she was arrested by the so called ‘morality police’, gashte ershad, for allegedly not wearing her hijab ‘properly’. Her murder sparked protests across Iran. As well as demands for justice, her death has come to symbolise wider grievances against the Islamic Republic.

There have been nationwide protests before in 2009, 2017 and 2019’s Bloody November, but none have been as persistent and bold in their demands as today’s protests. In previous protest movements, at the behest of the government and its security apparatus, protests were brutally crushed. Protestors demanded accountability: in 1999 for student murders, for election fraud in 2009, and then in 2017 and 2019 for rising fuel prices, socio-political and economic grievances. Each time the security arm of the Islamic Republic came down with an iron fist. In 2019 when protestors also demanded an end to the Islamic Republic the result was the most brutal crackdown in the history of the Islamic Republic’s existence. Today, the demands for the Islamic Republic to end are even louder. Unsurprisingly an even more violent government response is in place. So what is the current movement about and how is it changing Iran?

Against the patriarchal state

The current movement is an amalgamation of recent historic grievances of ordinary Iranians against years of corruption, government mismanagement, isolation from the world as well as the grave infringement on basic human rights inflicted on them by the Islamic Republic. It is this latter point specifically that has moved the country into action today. These grievances have accumulated for years and are what makes these current protests more powerful and organised.

For women, infringements of human rights are painfully experienced through a persistent policing of their bodily autonomy. Mahsa Jina’s death and the circumstances leading to it affected women and girls on a personal, corporeal, and psychological level. For decades they have been harassed, day in and day out, by the ‘morality police’, arrested, and, in some instances, tortured for not adhering to the country’s strict Islamic dress code. Mahsa Jina’s murder sparked nationwide outrage as many felt, ‘it could have been any of us’. It is no surprise, then, that this movement is a feminist call for the right to choose and for bodily autonomy.

We are witnessing an ongoing feminist revolution, in which Mahsa Jina Amini’s tragic death will be forever remembered as its spark.

By bringing in the personal, this movement has successfully built unprecedented forms of collective attachment to the cause. Iranians from all walks of life, of different ethnicities, religious and other minorities are united under one common goal: an end to the Islamic Republic and an end to the violent oppression it inflicts on women.

Mahsa Jina Amini’s story is powerful because she was an ordinary person. A Kurdish woman from the north-western city of Saqqez in the Kurdistan province of Iran, she was about to start university in Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan region of Iran and had been working as a cashier to save up money to fund her studies. She was visiting her uncle in Tehran when the ‘morality police’ aggressively took her away as she was walking out of a metro station with her brother and cousin.  Following her arrest, she was hospitalised. Doctors placed her in an induced coma but the blows to her head by the police were so severe that she died three days later. The Iranian people’s angered response to her murder is being powerfully heard today.

Most of the world’s states are what feminist scholars and activists call ‘patriarchal states’. But since its inception in 1979, the control of women’s bodies has been fundamental to the Islamic Republic’s definition of itself in and outside of Iran and as a means of exerting control over its population. Hence, the 1983 forced veiling act imposed by Khomeini, which enshrined in law that women who do not adhere to covering their hair in public and to wearing long, loose manteaus to cover their bodies, will be criminalised.

While many women had fought for their right to choose to wear or not wear the hijab immediately after the Islamic Republic was formed, their calls for solidarity from the men they had supported in toppling the Shah fell on silent ears as they did not believe the hijab was their issue. This rift among revolutionaries of the late 1970s allowed the clerical establishment to enforce draconian laws on women’s bodies.

Social media

Over the past four decades, however, women have consistently sought ways to resist the policing of their bodies. Resistance has taken many forms, from the loosening of the headscarf to show strands of hair, to wearing colourful veils and shorter jackets as manteaus. Women have knowingly placed themselves in danger, risking imprisonment for challenging this draconian law; nonetheless they have persisted.

In the past eight years and with the rise of social media, Iranian women have taken their protest against this foundational tenet of the Islamic Republic — control over women’s bodies and clothing — online by posting photos and videos of themselves defying the compulsory hijab law completely, filming instances of themselves in public without a veil altogether. Many have risked imprisonment, including Vida Movahed, Sara Khodayari and others, whilst others have been forced to flee Iran for their safety.

The difference between these women’s fate with that of Mahsa Jina Amini’s is that, while none of them should face violent arrests in the first instance, Amini was not deliberately putting herself in the face of danger. With decades of resistance by Iranian women, there have been pushbacks against the very strict rules on women’s dress in public, which mean Iranian women’s coverings today are not what the Islamic Republic had in mind as a desired dress code initially. Nonetheless, Amini’s veil and manteau matched that of countless other young Iranian women today — she was, ultimately, veiled and was, quite simply, trying to go about her daily life. In addition, it is likely she was a victim of the ‘morality police’ arbitrarily harassing women and girls — local morality police officers have a terrible reputation and are known for making up their own guidelines on what form of hijab is deemed acceptable.

Now, in response to the death of Amini, young women are defying the rule altogether by removing their headscarves and burning them in bonfires as an act of protest against the Islamic Republic as a whole. We are witnessing an ongoing feminist revolution, in which Mahsa Jina Amini’s tragic death will be forever remembered as its spark.

Gen-Z feminism

The defiant acts of civil disobedience, led by ordinary people, have mobilised many predominantly young Iranians to join street protests and conduct school and university sit-ins. These acts have captivated a large audience and are led by Iranian Gen-Z, dahe hashtadiha, who are charting a new course for the Iran of their future. These historic scenes that are captured and shared on social media promise a women-led revolution for freedom, justice and democracy.

Once again protesters have been met with brutal force. The Islamic Republic’s security forces deny any wrongdoing in Mahsa Jina’s death and continue to kill peaceful protesters, all the while blaming their victims for their own deaths. The average age of those killed protesting is only fifteen. Despite this brutal crackdown, which on the day of writing has counted over 240 deaths and over 8,000 arrests with an unclear number of people missing, never in the history of the Islamic Republic’s 43-year existence have protesters been this fearless, united and organised. These protests have been primarily sustained by brave Gen-Zers who are the most connected to social media and who are at the forefront, demanding change and are fighting for their human rights. Iranians who witnessed previous protests express awe and pride at this younger generation’s courage and fearlessness.

Demands for an end to the fascist Islamic Republic and acts of civil disobedience by women and girls are continuing to grow. But crucially powerful cross-sectoral forms of solidarity are also taking shape. Now, they include strikes by schoolteachers, university staff, factory workers and even petrochemical industry workers across Iran.  Furthermore, an historic transnational movement of solidarity led by Iranians in the diaspora is in effect. Every Saturday since the protests sparked by Mahsa Jina Amini’s death started in Iran, large solidarity marches and protests have been organised by Iranians in the diaspora spanning the globe from Indonesia to Ecuador. On 22 October 2022, over 80,000 people heeded a call by volunteer organisers to gather from across Europe in Berlin for a solidarity march.

Unity has emerged from tragedy, fuelled by a feminist slogan: Jîn, Jîyan, Azadi in Kurdish, Zan, Zendegi, Azadi in Persian (woman, life, freedom). With its rich history rooted in anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist resistance, this slogan, originally created by Abdullah Öcalan, a founding member of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party PKK, has shaken the entire population of Iran, and its diaspora, to rise up and demand an end to decades of oppression under the guise of religion and for the establishment of a pluralistic, democratic state.

From Kurdistan to Baluchistan, from Tehran to Shiraz, in and outside of Iran, across genders and ages, we hear, we hope ‘Jîn, Jîyan, Azadi,’ ‘Zan, Zendegi, Azadi’.

Ahou Koutchesfahani is a doctoral student in the War Studies Department at King’s College London.

This article first appeared in issue #238, Winter 2022, Drought and Deluge. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Categories: F. Left News

Playing dirty

Fri, 12/16/2022 - 00:00
Politicians at the Lusail stadium, Qatar (CC BY 2.0)

The men’s Fifa World Cup finals in Qatar are well underway. This is the first time the biggest stage in world football has played out in the Middle East and it ushers in a new age in the geopolitics of both sport and energy.

The tournament has been controversial from its inception – so much so that it would be impossible to list every instance here. Amid horrendous human rights abuses, with as many as 7,000 migrant workers dying building the stadiums, warnings issued to travelling LGBTQ+ supporters to ensure their safety, draconian crackdowns on international media and laughable claims that the tournament will be ‘carbon-neutral’, it really is a World Cup like no other.

The Gulf state’s ascendency to World Cup hosts is a symptom of shifts underway within elite football and the global economy, as Qatar seeks to leverage the soft power of sport to improve its standing. This is nothing new: governments have long used international sporting events to launder their reputations and bolster nation-building ambitions. This act, known as sportswash, is prevalent in the top flight of football in England and across Europe.

Ascendancy

Qatar’s hosting of the biggest footballing event in the sports calendar marks its growing dominion over global fossil fuel markets. As nations – especially in Europe – attempt to rid themselves of reliance on Russian gas, Qatar is emerging as the favourite to fill this energy vacuum. It is already one of the largest exporters of liquified natural gas (LNG), with fossil fuel exports increasing by over 100 per cent in 2022. Since the war in Ukraine began, Qatar has penned a number of huge deals with energy importers desperate to end their dependence on Russian fossil fuel exports.

Germany, which at the onset of the invasion in Ukraine was importing nearly a third of its primary energy from Russia, is close to signing a massive 15-year gas deal with Qatar as part of the state’s North Field Expansion project. The North Field, a gas field which Qatar shares with Iran, is the world’s single biggest gas field, with as much recoverable reserves in it as all the other operational fields around the world combined. It is a carbon bomb of epic proportions that contains a potential 43.3 gigatonnes of carbon emissions – more than four times the 2020 annual emissions of the world’s largest emitter, China.

QatarEnergy, the state-owned oil and gas firm and main sponsor of this ‘carbon-neutral’ World Cup, is investing $56 billion on expanding gas production by 2030. Only one other fossil fuel firm is set to spend more: Gazprom. Russia, which hosted the 2018 World Cup, has apparently been instrumental in aiding the organisation of this World Cup, with the Emir of Qatar recently thanking Putin for Russian support and saying that he is ‘proud’ of the relationship between the two states.

Trouble brewing

The international backlash against Fifa, the World Cup and the state of Qatar has been palpable. A number of French cities, such as the capital Paris, will boycott the screening of matches in public spaces due to the human rights abuses and some of the more outspoken footballing legends, such as Eric Cantona, have confirmed that they will not be watching the tournament. Others, such as David Beckham, Tim Cahill and Samuel Eto’o, have been paid handsomely to act as ambassadors for the tournament.

To pre-empt any disruption during the tournament, the Qatari state has reinforced its policing capabilities. Moroccan police officers are being brought in to help manage crowds, while Turkish drones, Italian frigates and British Typhoon and Hawk Mk167s jets have all been dispatched. South Korea will be providing counter- terrorism officers for the duration of the tournament and additional surveillance technology has been purchased from the US. Pakistan is also providing troops for World Cup security, alongside Nato forces.

The embarrassment of cyberattacks is something Qatar wants to avoid too. The Gulf state splashed an estimated $1.1 billion to prevent cyber-attacks on fans, athletes, stadiums and other critical infrastructures. Much like the stadiums, these tools of surveillance, policing and geopolitical security will continue to be used after the tournament ends, leaving a legacy of their own.

Peak sportswash

The World Cup in Qatar may feel like sportswash reaching its peak. Yet on the evidence so far, it seems only to be ushering in a new age of extremes – in which the world of sport is not only hijacked to improve the reputations of the disreputable but is used as a vehicle to buttress a state’s geopolitical standing within an increasingly divided and fragile international community.

The symbolism of Qatar taking the baton from Russia is accentuated by the widespread allegations of corruption within Fifa. Both Russian and Qatari officials have been accused of bribing Fifa officials to sway the executive committee’s decision over who got to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Of course, each nation vehemently denies these allegations and had their names cleared by the 2014 Garcia Report, despite some describing the corruption investigation as ‘a joke’.

During the World Cup bid process, the destiny of both Russia and Qatar appeared conjoined. But as the former vacates global commodity markets, the latter is emerging as a fossil fuel superpower: abundantly endowed, absurdly wealthy, and all too willing to feed the global economy’s addiction to fossil fuels.

Freddie Daley is a researcher and campaigner

This article first appeared in issue #238, Winter 2022, Deluge and Drought. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Categories: F. Left News

Mourning radicalism

Thu, 12/15/2022 - 00:00
A young bell hooks. Photo credit: The Ethics Centre

The sudden death of bell hooks on 15 December 2021 created ripples that will be felt for a long time. As a young black working-class woman, bell hooks’s words were initiation into a political trajectory that emphasised the importance of analysing the complexities of human lives through the systems of race, gender and class not as additives but as co-constitutive. What many today seem to credit to scholars like Crenshaw were long the terrain of bell hooks, whose political, pedagogic and critical offerings had an ability to wrap itself around many of us and cradle us through the pain of living under what she articulated as an ‘imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy’. In her death, I have come to wonder how those of us committed to a revolutionary politic mourn the intellectuals who were central to our existence? How do we resist co-optation of their radicalism? How do we continue the projects they start?

As I reflect on my journey with bell hooks, and engage with the various discourses that have emerged since her passing, I learn that there are many versions of bell hooks. There is a diversity in the readings of her work, and there are many interpretations of what her project is and was. Through these reflections, I am also troubled by what has become a cynical celebrification of her work that is often found in the de-contextualised and simplistic quotations of her texts on online platforms. Here her work is repeated and recited like simplistic aphorisms of abstract ‘love’ and ‘self-help’ style quotes instead of the rigorous social and political critique I have come to know as her project.

In the online responses to hooks’s passing, I was reminded of the ways neoliberalism subsumes radicality through commodity fetishism. I think about how this reconstitution of radicality to performance without praxis remains a scourge of revolutionary movements. A practical example of this commodification can be found in many Beyoncé performances; where she adorns herself and her dancers in the uniform of black panthers, fists up in the air, to dance and sing about ‘formation’ on the Superbowl stage. All the while she amasses wealth through a brand that exploits the labour of women in the Global South. I am reminded of bell hooks’s intervention and critique of Beyonce as a cultural terrorist and I wonder how she would feel witnessing similar terrorism be enacted using her words.

Alongside the celebrification of the works of bell hooks is an emergent demonisation of her black feminist project. Many have spoken about the pitfalls in hooks’s social commentary on the Central Park five, comments made about black manhood and her articulations of the violent patriarchal desires of the Black Panther men. Whilst a lot of this critique has been reactionary and can be argued to be bad faith readings of her works, there have been critiques that require some necessary attention. Most notably, the work of Professor Thomas J Curry, who has articulated how these often-problematic caricatures of black men find themselves rearticulated in the black feminist thought of hooks and others. I find it necessary to not simply ignore these critiques but find space to understand and work through some of the contradictions present in the works of hooks and other radical scholars.

The expectation of perfection in any scholarship is a falsehood we come to believe due to the celebrification of radicals. Deifying hooks or engaging the black feminism she offers through a dogmatic lens that assumes infallibility, dehumanises hooks and stifles our ability to engage in what Huey P Newton describes as a revolutionary critique.

There are two types of criticism, revolutionary and reactionary. Revolutionary criticism is made on a principled basis, at the proper time … and it is given to reach a higher level of unity and to strengthen the revolutionary camp. Reactionary criticism generally takes the form of a personal attack … It is generally one-sided criticism based on a subjective analysis not having looked at a situation on all sides, and reactionary criticism only served the interest of the fascist and imperialist.’ 

Rigorous revolutionary critique offers us a necessary radical pedagogy that has become lost in the vampirism of capitalism and limits our ability to mourn radically. Too often, the political lives and works of radicals become abstracted in ‘Goodreads’ style quotes, in cheap sweatshop t-shirts and instagrammable captions. Now more than ever, it is necessary to reclaim our radicals through a commitment to working through and with contradictions, to continue to stretch political scholarship and to engage in an unceasing project of revolution building. I believe this is a radical way to honour bell hooks and so many others who have come before her by recognising their scholarship, humanity and mistakes but committing to working with them still.

Khadijah Diskin is a critical scholar, educator, researcher and abolitionist.

This article first appeared in issue #235, Spring 2022, Educate, agitate, organise. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Categories: F. Left News

Review: Refugee Cities: How Afghans Changed Urban Pakistan

Mon, 12/12/2022 - 00:00
Karachi, Pakistan from above. Credit (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In Refugee Cities, Sanaa Alimia reconstructs the microhistories of Afghans in Pakistan with a focus on two cities: Karachi and Peshawar. The book empathetically provides an inside-out understanding of how shifting geopolitics have impacted on the Afghan experience in Pakistan and their sense of belonging and identity in the country.

These glimpses of the life stories of people are contextualised across two massive global wars: the Soviet- Afghan war and the ‘war on terror’. The book highlights the fact that studies of large-scale migration on the subcontinent as a global phenomenon tend to focus more on outward migration between countries than internal migration. In the case of Pakistan, most studies have only examined the outward Pakistani migration, diaspora, remittances and transnational mobility to the UK, Europe and Middle East. Further providing factual information about Pakistan having the highest numbers of refugees, displaced persons and undocumented migrants in the world, Alimia rightfully asserts the importance of her work in examining the issues and conflicts of the hardly explored internal and regional migration in Pakistan.

Past and present shifts

Refugee Cities begins with the historical background of the contemporary Afghan story in Pakistan. Drawing on archives and interviews, Alimia points out conflicts and inconsistencies in contemporary discourses of Afghans’ struggle for identity and place in Pakistan. The major part of the book importantly reconstructs microhistories of low-income urban neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Karachi and Peshawar. It offers a highly evocative portrayal of the collective struggle of Afghan refugee communities, in accessing their basic rights such as access to services and resources – water, sanitation lines, housing, jobs in Pakistan. Interestingly, as Alimia explains, this very struggle through various actions of the people sets in motion the building up of a new urban identity that cuts across lines of ethnicity and nationality.

Alimia invites the reader to enter into the everyday struggle of the Afghans, their forgotten histories, the longing for home and the new identities they constitute. The final part of the book examines in detail how shifting geopolitics means the Pakistani state tries to push back against the Afghan presence across the country by making repatriation central to its policy of managing Afghans. The book concludes by critically reflecting on the meaning of citizenship, refugee status and geopolitics in an era of increased securitisation.

While the book’s tone is sympathetic to the struggles of Afghan refugee communities, Alimia also critically brings to the centre the role of the native people, the Pakistanis, as an important part of Afghans’ lives. This useful recognition of the mutual struggle of the two groups in low-income housing areas frames the importance and power of shared community and their lived experience in creating micro-agency and resilience against state power and relations. The book effectively unpacks the collective struggles in the city and shared relations that directly and indirectly create a sense of home. The contribution of Afghans toward Pakistan’s urban transformation, and how the city itself has created a new urban identity through this, demonstrates that there is a symbiotic relation in making this home.

Although it does not come out explicitly, Alimia also brings to the forefront the critical role of informality – ‘the production of legal goods and services that are not formally provided, protected, and regulated by the state’ – in providing agency and support for marginalised citizens in cities. Through various examples of life story narratives, the book provides an account of the muted struggles for citizenship and belonging of the Afghans in Pakistan that is useful for a diverse disciplinary audience, including sociology, urban and cultural studies and political theory. The book also articulates well the significance of tangible and intangible aspects of socio-spatiality in identity formations/negotiations that are largely overlooked by non-spatial disciplines.

A decolonial framework

There is also a suggestive yet refreshing decolonial approach, which the author adopts both in her theoretical and methodological framework. The author adopts a decolonial lens by deeply reflecting about her and her subjects’ positionality and how it informs the methodological, political and ethical considerations of documenting and analysing the subjects’ narratives. She aligns her approach towards Asef Bayat’s ‘social non-movements’, which are essentially made up of ordinary people described as ‘non-collective actors’, engaged in ‘collective action’ directed at advancing the interests of the marginalised and subordinated. This framework offers more appropriate socio-political imaginaries within which identity and belonging are negotiated.

Beyond the core subject of migration and citizenship studies, the book also provides valuable insights for researchers and scholars about the challenges of undertaking research and subsequent knowledge production in conflict-ridden contexts and the lived experiences of research subjects. Throughout the book, the strong need for people to belong comes out clearly. The author artfully articulates this in the preface and conclusion through the powerful assertion of one of her subjects that, as they built this city, this (Pakistan) is their home.

The author acknowledges that that book does not cover the impact of the 2021 Taliban recapture of political power in Afghanistan, which opens up new worlds of challenge and struggle for the Afghans and requires a closer examination to revisit the author’s discussion of urban identity and citizenship.

Dr Lakshmi Priya Rajendran is a lecturer at University College London

Categories: F. Left News

How the Knights of Labor fought nativism

Sun, 12/11/2022 - 00:00
Delegates to the 1886 convention of the Knights of Labor Nativist Moments

The year is 1880. The United States is just out of a long slump caused by a financial crisis, the Panic of ’73. Much of the rest of the world is still in it. Unemployment is high. Migration is easy, with few border controls and cheap, mass travel by steamship. In the decade to come, immigration to the United States will reach an average of 500,000 people per year.

We can guess what happens next. The 1880s are a golden age for the nativist. Chinese immigrants are excluded by law in 1882. Nativist organisations like the American Protective Association want to widen the ban to include Catholics, Jews, and other supposed undesirables. The American labour movement seems to agree. Terence Powderly, General Master Workman of the Knights of Labor, the great working-class organisation of the decade, invokes the ‘law of self-preservation.’ By this he means that American workers – native-born, naturalised or newly-arrived – must convince foreigners not to come to the United States, because they will lower wages, swamp existing unions, and be used by employers as strikebreakers.

But Powderly and the Knights had more than just self-preservation on their mind. They never called for strict limits on the number of immigrants, except for Chinese workers – like other labour movements of the time, they held  anti-Asian racist views. They wanted only a ban on contract labour, by which they meant workers brought in from abroad already under contract to an employer, often to break a strike or a closed shop or replace workers locked out. They successfully lobbied Congress to end contract labour in 1885. They also opened their doors to new immigrants. Knights even decided to organise them before they left for the United States.

Immigration and Solidarity

The logic was simple. Knights believed that American wages and conditions were generally higher than anywhere else. They believed they were under threat from two sources: immigrants lowering wages, and competition with lower-wage foreign manufacturers. (Points that would be highly disputed today.) ) Yet they saw large-scale restrictions on immigration as impossible, and in many cases as undesirable. The Knights strove to live up to an idea of solidarity they called Universal Brotherhood. It included, as their founder Uriah Stephens put it, ‘an organization that will cover the globe,’ including ‘men and women of every craft, creed and color.’ It would ‘make idleness a crime, render wars impossible, and obliterate national lines.’

Universal Brotherhood could not be built with walls. If wages were higher here, and lower there, mass immigration would continue anyway. The only way to protect gains at home was to extend them abroad. Charles Lichtman, General Secretary of the Knights, connected the dots in 1888. Once the Knights extended their operations abroad, he wrote, ‘the inequality of wages will disappear, not by levelling our wages down but by levelling their wages up.’

Behind this logic was a certain understanding of the forces that encouraged immigration. Unlike the nativists, Knights, many of them first- or second-generation Americans, did not blame immigrants forced by poverty and tyranny to seek a better life elsewhere. But they did imply that immigration usually rested on a profoundly unfree choice. Most immigrants moved because they had to, not because they wanted to. The global expansion of capitalism in the nineteenth century, driven by industrial growth and imperial conquest, wreaked havoc on countries inside and outside the industrial core. Millions of men and women fled or were forced from the land to the cities, and from the lower-wage countries to the higher.

If the Knights could somehow help those millions to improve conditions at home, they would not need to leave. Unlike the nativists, they worried less about immigration law than the exploitation that forced most people to move in the first place.

The Knights didn’t only think those thoughts. They put them into practice. Even as Powderly and Lichtman explained their logic, the Knights extended to four continents. Aside from Canada and the United States, their assemblies or branches appeared in Belgium, Luxemburg, France, Italy, Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. One of their branches, Local Assembly 300, Window-Glass Workers of America, even organised a Universal Federation of workers in their trade across North America and Europe. Their secretary explained their thinking: ‘the question of foreign competition must be solved either by lower wages at home, or advanced wages and better organization abroad.’ They chose the latter. 

Our Choice

There is much to dislike about the Knights, their racism towards Chinese workers at the top of the list. But their desire to respond to mass immigration with international solidarity, not walls, is something we can learn from now. They did not wait for a congenial government to do it for them. Working people in the nineteenth century had no illusions on that score. If we want to do something now, we should go ahead and do it, in the trade unions and the other social movements to which we already belong.

We must push our trade unions to support and work more closely with their counterparts elsewhere. In this globalised world, our success is tied to theirs. Nor should we leave cross-border ties to union bureaucrats and general secretaries, as they usually are at present, but reach out to ordinary members elsewhere in jobs like ours. Immigrant members in our unions can speed their growth, just as they did for the Knights of Labor. They grew so far so fast thanks to connections already made between immigrants in the United States and their home country, which the movement could then exploit. Zoom and social media can short-circuit bonds between countries in ways the Knights could only dream of.

Progress will be slow, but necessary if we do not want to drown in a nativist sea. Climate change will force many millions of people on the move. Soon we will all have to choose between international solidarity and some version of Children of Men. Across the distance of 150 years, the Knights of Labor still point one way towards building the first, and to avoiding the second.

Steven Parfitt is a UK-based teacher and historian of working-class movements

Categories: F. Left News

A demand for dialogue: The movement to save Virunga National Park

Sat, 12/10/2022 - 00:00
Mount Mikeno & Mount Karisimbi located within Virunga National Park (Credit: Johannes Zielcke)

Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya: What are the key dangers currently facing the Virunga National Park and the local communities?

Pascal Mirindi: The Democratic Republic of Congo is rich in natural wealth, including a multitude of minerals such as diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, cassiterite (tin ore), coltan and oil. Sadly, the only people who benefit from this wealth are a small number of leaders; not the Congolese people.

Virunga National Park is the oldest park in Africa and a UNESCO heritage site. It is home to several species of large fauna (such as the Mountain Gorillas, threatened with extinction) and flora, but also black gold (oil) which is coveted by many international companies such as the British company Soco, Total Energies, and others. In 2015, Soco managed to acquire a permit to explore Virunga National Park for oil. Pressure from international, national and local communities initially blocked this, but unfortunately, this was not a long term solution.

The Congolese government has just launched the sale of 23 oil blocks and three gas blocks including some located in Virunga. We have taken some local community action against this. As before in 2015, we aim to block the road to the multiple operators who want to exploit the black gold of Virunga. Unfortunately, this has been very difficult for us.

The Virunga Park is managed by the Virunga Foundation, which receives millions of dollars of funding for community development, primarily from the European Development Fund, as well as other funders. However, the foundation has not been transparent about how it allocates the funding, nor has it included the riparian community [those inhabiting transitional areas between land and rivers] in the management of these funds. For example, hydroelectric power plants were built, supposedly to serve the local communities, but the electricity is actually sold to neighbouring enterprises outside of the park, such as in the city of Goma. The prices are unaffordable for the local riparian communities. This is only one example of many where funding has not been well channelled, and without proper involvement of the local communities.

The problems facing the Virunga National Park and surrounding communities are both environmental and security-related, and could cause substantial damage in the Eastern region of the DRC

AWB: How does the current situation tie in with the history of colonial land grab, etc. in the area or in the DRC more widely?

PM: Virunga National Park was established in 1925 by Belgium, which had colonised our country. The population were not consulted in drawing out the demarcation of the park, which explains why even people’s fields were included within its boundaries. Today, the Virunga National Park is managed by a Belgian prince named Emmanuel De Merode.

Since 1934 [the Belgians] have been coming back to ask for land from the people, promising to build hospitals, schools, offer scholarships to young people, etc. But unfortunately, even up until now, nothing has been done.

Pascal Mirindi, an activist involved in the effort to rescue Virunga National Park

AWB: Can you explain the role of conservation efforts here? How have these organisations exacerbated the problems in Virunga?

PM: The majority of the international NGOs here in my country are only listening to the opinions of the Virunga Foundation, but unfortunately that information has been strongly manipulated and fails to explain the real problems facing our communities. When they do want to acknowledge the communities’ point of view, they seek it from people in civil society that, again, work with the Virunga Foundation.

The Virunga Foundation implemented a policy of giving grants to local organisations that share their values, which effectively means that the population do not have trusted people who can speak for them. This is why we work as activists.

AWB: What is the movement to save Virunga hoping to achieve? What are the key demands?

PM: Currently we are advocating for a tripartite dialogue between the communities bordering Virunga National Park, the park’s manager and the Congolese State to guarantee good management of the park, whereby riparian communities will be included in decision-making. The local Lela population have always loved and been protectors of the park. They protected its animals during the war. But they feel manipulated by the Virunga Foundation, who have made promises to them and then failed to realise these promises. Meanwhile, rebels from the FLDR and M23 – two rebel armies of Rwandan refugees, which originally formed as Tutsis fled from the Rwandan genocide – are demanding that these local people pay them money. Moreover, there is the added layer of a colonial management, exercised by Belgium. It is difficult for us activists to enlist the communities’ support to block the oil companies, because they feel betrayed and untrusting.

Emmanuel de Merode is also the director of the Congolese Institute of Nature Conservation, an organisation linked to the Virunga Foundation. Recently, the Congolese national Minister of Higher Education and Universities, who is also a native of the region, accused de Merode of buying the M23 rebels off with fuel, in return for not entering a 20-kilometre zone so that they could not touch the Virunga Foundation facilities.

AWB: How can the international community, and climate activists globally, show solidarity with the campaign most effectively?

PM: We ask the international community to understand that the Congolese population has suffered so much and that it is high time for us to fight together for peace and good management. The problems facing the Virunga National Park and surrounding communities are both environmental and security-related, and could cause substantial damage in the Eastern region of the DRC.

We open our arms to anyone who thinks they can help us in the process of dialogue that we are trying to establish – between the communities, the park managers and the Congolese state – to work together within a participatory management framework.

Pascal Mirindi is a Congolese student, member of the Extinction Rebellion group at the University of Goma, and an activist with the Lucha movement. He is currently in the finalists for Africans Rising’s Activist of the year award (voting open until 11 December). Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya is a Red Pepper editor

Translation by Karine Nohr

Categories: F. Left News

Review: Doreen Massey: Selected Political Writings

Thu, 12/08/2022 - 00:00
Selected Political Writing cover art

In 2013, Doreen Massey, Stuart Hall and Michael Rustin published the ‘Kilburn Manifesto’ in their journal, Soundings. It was a rallying call for a socially democratic alternative to neoliberalism. Hall died in the following year; Massey died in 2016. Rustin is still with us. From the vantage point of 2022, the hopes expressed in the manifesto that the left could achieve a wider popular base seem diminished.

Doreen Massey was the most influential radical feminist geographer of the late 20th century. Alongside her role as professor of geography at the Open University, she was a committed public activist of the New Left. This collection of her essays is edited by David Featherstone and Diarmaid Kelliher, human geographers at the University of Glasgow, who continue her intellectual legacy. It includes pieces from Soundings, Marxism Today and New Socialist, and articles for History Workshop Journal and other academic publications.

The Kilburn Manifesto is not included in this collection. But like it, on the surface, these essays can be read as historical products of their time. They are framed by the battles of anti-Thatcherite class politics. Some expressions about race and global development feel rather dated. The later essays are underpinned by deep disappointment with the rise of New Labour, not least its concessions to neoliberalism. The final essay in the collection from 2016, ‘Exhilarating times’, enthuses about the possibilities created by Jeremy Corbyn’s accession as Labour Party leader in 2015. Reading it now firmly situates this collection as an archive fixed in time.

Then and now

Despite this, Massey remains relevant. I read this collection in June 2022, during the week of strikes by the RMT railway workers’ union. The straight-talking manner of the RMT’s general secretary, Mick Lynch, seemed to take many by surprise, his directness standing out in contrast to the usual obfuscation of politicians and journalists. The commentary on Lynch’s performances revealed how distanced many people, especially in the media, now are from traditional shop stewards. Trade union activists have always talked like that. Apparently, Google searches for ‘join a union’ peaked immediately after Lynch’s media appearances. It felt nostalgic, almost. Not everything had changed irrevocably since Massey’s early activism.

Massey was interested in understanding the effects of the neoliberal state and economy. She examined them as an academic, and then proposed solutions as a New Left activist. As a Mancunian living in London, she acutely analysed the north-south divide. Tory austerity, the effects of globalisation and migration, and resistance through collective action – the key themes of her work – are never far from the reality of today.

A trio of articles written for Marxism Today in the 1980s unpick the regional inequalities wrought by neoliberal capitalism. Their analysis of Thatcherite economics speaks again to contemporary debates about the Johnsonite government’s rhetoric of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and ‘levelling up’. In her 2013 essay, ‘Vocabularies of the economy’, Massey was concerned with how neoliberal elites used language as a tool. She despaired at the branding of competition as ‘free choice’ in the NHS and education, whereby the Conservative government manipulated the electorate into accepting the erosion of the post- war welfare state.

Massey’s essays about the 1984- 85 miners’ strike were influential, particularly on how geographers and sociologists understand the formation of social movements. The miners were involved in a ‘traditional’ industrial dispute. They represented the white working-class heritage valorised by the labour movement and the old Labour Party. But Massey saw something broader. For her and her co-writer Hilary Wainwright, the strike became a modern socio-political movement. The support groups of women, black and Asian communities, and Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners, together formed a much broader base of marginalised people than simply class or occupation. Massey and Wainwright identified what later became more widely known as intersectionality.

Place-based struggle

Massey’s geographical thinking was also innovative in its rethinking of the relationship between space and time. She was deeply influenced by the conjunction of social change at particular periods in particular places. A turning point was her year’s stay in Nicaragua in 1985 to research at the Institute for Economic and Social Research. Massey supported the Sandinistas’ project to build a democratic socialist alternative around education, healthcare and gender equality. She reflected on the experience in an essay for radical geography journal Antipode in 1986. An editorial in Soundings, ‘Learning from Latin America’, in 2012, considered the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela.

Massey had to tread carefully about the less utopian activities of the Sandinista and Chavez regimes. As with her essays on the travails of the Labour Party, her aim was ‘to turn defence into positivity’. So she strove to learn how to apply the tactics of gaining mass support to encourage a populist socialist movement at home. She saw this possibility first in Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council of the 1980s and his later mayorship of London, and then in the campaign for Corbyn’s leadership of Labour in 2015. Corbyn’s ascension was in her view a point of rupture in left politics. Massey was less focused on his personality, as many of the analysts of the phenomenon of Corbynistas were, and more concerned with what his leadership offered for a renewed left political space.

Massey also rethought the connection between the local and the global. Her writing on ungentrified Kilburn in north London, where she spent most of her adult life, exudes pride in its panoply of cultural and ethnic heterogeneity. In History Workshop Journal in 1995, she took a theoretical stand against the American Marxist geographer David Harvey, who was sceptical that ‘place-bound’ struggles could ever be the basis for the construction of radical politics. Massey believed that ‘place-based’ was a better term. Being rooted in place did not hinder solidarity with global protest movements. Reflecting on the protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organisation in 1999, Massey argued that ‘the question of globalisation should not be posed as one of local versus global’. A globalised economy was detrimental to workers’ rights, but global interconnectedness could nevertheless forge new social movements.

Doreen Massey’s essays were full of hope. She proposed solutions, and ways in which a more populist form of left politics could defeat the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism. It is this positive sense, that something must and will change, that speaks to us today.

Katrina Navickas is a historian and author of Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789-1848

Categories: F. Left News

Review: Public Sociology: Between Utopia and Anti-Utopia

Tue, 12/06/2022 - 00:00
Michal Burawoy’s Public Sociology cover art

It is unusual to read a book written by someone who was your close neighbour when growing up. Michael Burawoy was our ‘next door but one’ neighbour in a lower middle-class street in south Manchester. Later, doing maths at Cambridge, he faced much of the alienation common to grammar-school boys entering the class-dominated bastion. One day in the library, he picked up Durkheim’s Suicide and read with mounting interest. His curiosity was galvanised by a discipline that was asking questions about the social world beyond both south Manchester and Cambridge.

Rediscovering labour

Burawoy’s autobiographically grounded book Public Sociology is a fine introduction to the subject’s development since the 1960s. The title suggests a text for his students, but it has a far wider relevance. As a sociologist who has become identified with radical thinking and a determination to use Marxism as a framework, he interleaves theoretical analyses of trends and thinking in sociology with a fascinating account of his experiences in factories in the USA, Hungary and the Soviet Union/ Russia.

After an MA in sociology in Zambia in the early 1970s, he gained his PhD in Chicago at a time when there was a rediscovery of the ‘labour process’ inspired by Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capitalism (1974). There he was thrown into teaching a course on Marxism and functionalism, which was his first fully-fledged Marxist critique of sociology. To pursue his understanding of labour, for a year he took a blue-collar job as a machine operator at the huge engineering firm Allis-Chalmers – ‘my incompetence,’ he recalls, ‘often endangering the lives of my fellow workers as well as my own’.

He went on to develop theories about how workers actively participate in their own exploitation. Although no horny-handed son of toil, he gradually gained the confidence of fellow workers through his honest curiosity and persistence, combined with a clear intellectual perspective and an engaging sense of humour. His brilliant and immensely stimulating writing on these experiences is typified in his book Manufacturing Consent (1979).

Steelworks and socialism

Burawoy admits that good fortune opened up ways into workplaces. His account of how he got into the Lenin iron and steel works in Hungary in 1984 is astonishing, as is his persistence in returning each summer for three or four years. Over time he reduced the workers’ suspicion about how an academic from the United States got into such a prestigious factory, it having been agreed by the central committee of the Communist Party.

His analysis centred on the features of work in a capitalist society and a socialist society. While workers in the USA, with no guarantee of employment, could at least get a minimum wage, they were not conscious that their labour was alienated. Under state socialism there was guaranteed employment but no minimum wage, while workers had a clear understanding that they were exploited.

In 1991, after Hungary’s change in political direction, Michael pushed on to the ‘last still standing state socialist Behemoth’, and with the help of contacts got a job in a Moscow factory just as the Soviet system was beginning to break up. He found that instead of working, the shop floor discussed the central questions that were shaking this decaying system to its foundations. Soon, under a new ‘shock’ policy of wholesale marketisation, the majority of the population was facing total disaster, as the cost of subsistence skyrocketed. It was then that Michael turned to Polanyi in search of an analysis that could answer the global descent into a neoliberal dystopia.

Throughout, he continued his work as a university teacher, much of it in a two-way collaboration with both his students and friends and colleagues, all of whom provided him with support and intellectual stimulation. Particularly important was his close friendship with Erik Olin Wright, whose developments in Marxist thinking were a huge influence. Their common project was the revitalisation of a scientific Marxism, and Wright’s death in 2019 was a huge blow. He stresses Wright’s ‘real utopias aim to consolidate a socialist vision of an alternative future’.

An engaged sociology

Sociology, seen as one of the ‘soft subjects’, has been under attack for many years, but in Michael’s work there is rigour and commitment. Acknowledging the classical sociologists Marx, Weber and Durkheim, he argues persuasively for the addition of W E B Du Bois: he was ‘historically rooted, [his] engaged sociology calls for a reconfiguration of the canon, foregrounding its public and critical dimensions, advancing the duality of utopian imagination and anti-utopian science’.

In 1997 Burawoy was asked to stand for chair of the publications committee of the American Sociological Association (ASA). He was – surprisingly – elected and began a ‘rapid and totally unexpected ascent up the professional hierarchy’. By 2002 he became president, and as an evangeliser for public sociology, he argues the discipline needs public engagement. Much of his past 20 years has been spent fighting for a sociology that stands up for ‘society against the overweening state and out of control market’.

This is no dry textbook. It deserves a much wider readership among all of us who know that we need to extend our utopian and anti-utopian commitments.

Jane Shallice is a trade unionist and member of the Socialist Teachers Alliance.

Categories: F. Left News

Sutton Community Farm and the politics of community agriculture

Sun, 12/04/2022 - 00:00
Photo provided by Sutton Community Farm

The UK farming sector is in the middle of an existential crisis. As a consequence of leaving the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the Conservative government has had to draft a new agricultural support scheme to either match or replace the direct payments received by UK farmers from the EU.

What will replace this scheme has been the subject of heated debate for years. Most probable is the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). ELMS would offer ‘public money for public good’, meaning that farmers would receive payments if they could prove their farm was engaging in beneficial environmental practice, such as rewilding a section of their land.

The scheme has its detractors across the political spectrum, yet to-ELMS-or-not-to-ELMS is a sideshow for much of the British public. Long-term planning is essential in agriculture, but countless people across the country are going hungry every day because of soaring food costs. This trend will continue as the winter proceeds and ELMS will not solve the issue. People need food now, food that is locally available, affordable, nutritional, and culturally appropriate. Where will the political drive come from to meet this need?

Sutton Community Farm: a model of the future?

On the periphery of south London, three miles from Croydon, lies the seven-acre site for Sutton Community Farm (SCF).

Founded in 2010, SCF is run as a community benefit society, a type of co-operative, whereby the farm business is owned by roughly 400 members of the public and counting. The plot is leased from the local council in 15-year blocks. Community farms are touted by some as part of the answer to growing national food insecurity, a model of farming that can simultaneously rebuild domestic food supply while regenerating the landscape.

Regenerative, communal agriculture of all kinds is integral to creating food sovereignty, a term popularised by La Via Campesina (the global organisation of peasants and indigenous food producers). Internationally, there has been an increased trend towards regenerative agriculture – global cropland dedicated to regenerative farming has doubled in the last ten years, although still only constitutes 14.7 percent of total cropland. 

There is no doubt that SCF is a unique project in its local area; there is nothing comparable in London south of the river. SCF follows agroecological principles, which means farming in tandem with nature and not battling against it. The farm only uses organic inputs, practises minimum tillage, makes prolific use of green manures that feed nutrients back into the soil, and intersperses edible produce with meadow flowers and trees. Several ponds across the farm provide a haven for aquatic life and watering holes for the many birds and mammals who visit. As an example of nature-friendly farming, SCF is a beautifully illustrated, textbook example.

Practising agroecology is beneficial for the planet, but how do farms like SCF fit into the UK’s agricultural system? Do producers like SCF even see themselves as a political project? 

‘Our existence challenges industrial farming and also access to land. There’s definitely a political focus [here],’ says Will, 27, the second-year trainee at SCF. ‘We’re not growing for profit’s sake, we’re trying to be good community land stewards, have a social impact, and educate people so they know where their food is coming from.’

Robyn, 38, the veg box packing coordinator, highlights the empowering nature of the project: ‘This is people taking the power back into their own hands. Whatever way you want to label it, surely that’s political?’.

On the other hand, several workers at SCF noted how their status as a community benefit society, which means they must respond to members, can partly restrict their activities. Sophie, 25, the first-year trainee at the farm, remarks: ‘It often feels like we can’t be overly political, which I have mixed-feelings about. Even though I’m on the left people should be able to come here regardless of how they vote. A diversity of people is good – agroecology is about encouraging species diversity in ecological systems and human systems.’

Nick, 29, a co-production lead at the farm, extends the point: ‘I think SCF has a strong voice, but lots of volunteers don’t come here for political reasons and it’d be weird to push that too much.’

Rachel, the other co-production lead, agrees but feels that the mood is shifting: ‘We’re trying to get better at our storytelling to demonstrate why we’re here. Being political wouldn’t necessarily put members off, it wouldn’t change the reasons they come... That’s to say, we can see now that we can be different things to different people.’

Evidently, the political nature of the farm is up for debate. Though everyone agrees that the farm is socially-uplifting for the local area, particularly in the face of climate-anxiety. ‘The farm really diverts our attention to what we can do here and now,’ suggests Sophie. ‘Agriculture’s one of the biggest contributors to global emissions, and there’s also so much exploitation in this sector. But this farm shows there’s another way.’

It is also worth noting that, considering the average farmer in Britain is a 59-year-old white male, SCF currently has a high number of young women in coordinating positions at the farm. In fact, the core team is mostly women.

Lessons from the Global South

SCF might not have the radical anti-capitalist politics of the Venezuelan communes or the Brazilian Movimento Sem Terra, but it feels like part of a system-change in British farming. Yet the hardest part may still be to come: survival. Economic pressures as a consequence of the UK recession are being felt acutely at SCF. Participants have been steadily dwindling and running costs have increased. 

The situation can seem bleak at times, although there is hope if we look to the Global South, where more advanced models of communal farming in socialist nations and indigenous communities have actively resisted imperialist agribusiness. Take Nicaragua as an example, a country that has now achieved 90 percent food sovereignty predominantly through small, agroecological farms.

If SCF can weather the current storm, it wants to become a local hub for all manner of social activities. As Robyn concludes, the organisers simply want the farm to be an inspiration: ‘If we can make this work, then it can be a model that is adapted and applied to wherever people are in the country. I think that’s always been a combined vision that people have shared here.’

Rohan Rice is a writer, photographer and translator based in London

Categories: F. Left News

Power in unions

Fri, 12/02/2022 - 00:00
Emergency Workplace Organising Committee graphic (Credit: EWOC)

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, tens of millions of US workers were confronted with more dangerous conditions at work. They were called essential but in many cases were treated as expendable. Unions had the ability to negotiate new protections for their members but non-union workers were largely on their own.

That’s why the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) formed the Emergency Workplace Organising Committee. EWOC started in April 2020 as a network of volunteers to help workers organise for workplace improvements during the pandemic, concerning Covid or any other issues.

The context is important. The US labour movement is too small and has been shrinking nearly every year for decades. In the 1950s, the union membership rate was higher than 30 per cent but now is down to 10 per cent of the total workforce, and only 6 per cent of private sector workers. Union recognition and strikes have also been declining steadily for decades. As the labour movement gets smaller, wages, benefits and working conditions worsen over time.

Union membership is also concentrated in too few states. Nearly half of the 14 million union members live in just six states and the union membership rate is less than 5 per cent in ten. Politically, we won’t accomplish many ambitious goals with such a low level of worker organisation.

This is despite surveys showing that a majority of US workers want to be in a union. But intense, often-illegal employer opposition to unions makes organising challenging and risky. Union supporters are often harassed and even fired. Weak labour laws and inadequate enforcement have allowed this ‘union busting’ to become all too common.

How does EWOC work?

Workers contact EWOC by filling out a form on the website. An intake organiser contacts them within a few days for basic information about their workplace and issues. If the worker wants to move forward, they are assigned an advanced organiser to develop an organising plan together. Contact with the workers has been primarily on the phone or over Zoom during the pandemic but is shifting to more in-person meetings as the pandemic subsides.

Over the past two years, EWOC has had more than 1,500 volunteers in the network, working in a number of roles, including organising, research, media, communications, training, data administration, political education and fundraising.

The basic EWOC organising framework is covered in training and in our conversations with workers. The main idea is that workers can start acting like a union right now and run their organisations themselves democratically. Its philosophy of unionism is similar to UE’s Them and Us Unionism.

Conversations among co-workers are the foundation to everything. The initial worker(s) should form an organising committee and talk with more co-workers. They should ‘map’ the workplace, identify all the workers and leaders, know who talks with whom and assess workers on their support for taking action. They should identify common and deeply- felt issues, and frame demands, for example in a petition, that can get majority support. They should do ‘inoculation’ against the boss’s likely response. They should take majority actions, for example a march on the boss, and make their demands. If they get improvements, that’s great – claim the win and organise for more with an escalating campaign. If they don’t win yet, regroup and try again.

When the workers are organised enough, they can pivot to a more formal union campaign if they want. This involves filing for a union election or demanding recognition from the employer, based on majority worker support. In this way they can get official union recognition and the employer is obliged to negotiate with them for a contract.

After more than two years of operation, some 3,700 workers have contacted EWOC, with more than 1,000 of them, located at more than 800 different employers, connected to an organiser for further discussions. Of these, about 450 campaigns have launched with some organising activity. There have been more than 60 successful campaigns that have defended or won improved conditions so far, involving thousands of affected workers.

Some of the successes include fast-food, grocery and retail workers winning better Covid protections, sick leave and pay rises, graduate workers getting rises and other improvements, and healthcare and social service workers securing safety improvements.

EWOC has also connected a dozen or so workplaces with a union, with many winning recognition. There have also been several successful strikes in EWOC-supported campaigns. In one case, workers at a cinema went on strike for two weeks and won a $2-per-hour rise.

On the EWOC training programme, more than 1,000 people have attended at least one training session and about 300 have attended the whole series. Thousands have viewed the EWOC organising guide.

Meeting the moment

EWOC coordinates a network of experienced volunteers to do the traditional work of union organisers and other staff on a lot of worker-led organising campaigns. It has been able to assist thousands of workers over the past two years that might not have received any help otherwise. It provides a basic level of solidarity for all workers, so that any worker in any workplace can contact the project, get a conversation fairly quickly and then have organising assistance and training available to them as needed.

This fills a great need as traditional US unions aren’t currently structured to provide assistance to any worker that contacts them. Unions typically focus on organising selected priority workplaces, with the work largely done by union staff. Workers elsewhere generally aren’t able to just join a union and get support.

Unions will never have enough staff to do all the organising that needs to be done. Tens of millions of unorganised workers in the US want to be in a union but they need help. They can’t wait around for unions to show up at their workplace. At the current rate of traditional union organising, it would take unions a thousand years to reach all these workers.

We’re in a time when corporations and billionaires have a stranglehold on our politics and the far right threatens much worse. A growing and militant labour movement is essential, and any group of workers can start organising today. We need to unleash the energy and militancy of millions of workers to run their own organising campaigns, and it’s encouraging to see a surge in organising activity this past year.

That’s why EWOC’s model of providing organising training and campaign assistance to any worker is a crucial part of the solution and needs to expand. The capacity of the working class to organise and challenge their bosses at work, and the political system at large, has proven transformational in past eras, and can be again. We need it now more than ever, and EWOC wants to help.

Eric Dirnbach is a labour movement organiser, researcher and activist based in New York

Categories: F. Left News

After Holden, how many more kids will Britain send to war?

Wed, 11/30/2022 - 00:00
For Irish unity march, London 1979. Photo credit: Gillfoto

David Holden didn’t intend to kill Aidan McAnespie, but he did fantasise about doing it. While fondling a general-purpose machine gun, aiming it at McAnespie and pulling the trigger, Holden fantasised about killing McAnespie. Holden didn’t, however, know the machine gun was cocked. When Holden squeezed the trigger, intent merely on playacting, three bullets left the chamber in the space of 0.25 seconds, one hitting McAnespie in the back.

The words ‘manslaughter’, ‘murder’, ‘mistake’, ‘accident’, ‘tragedy’ have all been deployed over the years to sum up David Holden’s actions, but the bare fact is that Aidan McAnespie was killed not far from his mother’s door by a soldier who wouldn’t have been able to tell Lizzie McAnespie the difference between Aughnacloy and Amritsar.

The reason that Aidan had a machine gun pointed at him that Sunday afternoon in February 1988 was that, according to Holden’s superiors in the British army, the Tyrone man was ‘a person of interest’. Potentially a terrorist, definitely a fellow traveller. From a border village under military occupation and engulfed by intense IRA activity, McAnespie was subject to daily harassment. Employed on a poultry farm on the southern side of the border, hours of his working day were often taken up under interrogation at the British army’s border crossing. Lizzie would often accompany him through the checkpoint because the abuse he was subject to would usually be less obscene in her presence. On the day he was shot, Aidan was going to a Gaelic football game.

Structures of injustice

Did the 18-year-old Holden ever imagine that, three decades after his deployment to Ireland, he’d be dragged back to a Belfast court house to answer for the killing of this Fenian chicken plucker, to make amends for the state-sanctioned vendetta that led him to squeeze down on his trigger?

We might ask why Britain needs a minister for military veterans in the first place and why there are such an avalanche of ‘vexatious’ claims and whether these two things are linked…

The basics of Holden’s trial have been gone over repeatedly by every media outlet with a court reporter or the subscription for one. The former grenadier guardsman is the first British military veteran to be convicted of a conflict-related offence since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Probably, thanks to the Tory government’s Northern Ireland Troubles bill, he will be the last.

The approach to date for dealing with the legacy of the conflict has been far from adequate. Non-jury Diplock courts were just as much a tool of the conflict as car bombs and machine guns, the fact that they still exist a quarter of a century into a peace process, including to convict Holden last Friday, is an indictment of our ability to grapple with the structures of injustice in the North of Ireland. However, in the absence of any appetite among both state and non-state actors for a meaningful truth and reconciliation process, families have been forced to pursue the criminal justice route for some measure of redress.

The Tory’s Troubles bill will not only end all conflict-related prosecutions, the only viable way to prevent more British soldiers being put in the dock, but close off myriad mechanisms for exposing wrongdoing. The families of the Falls Curfew dead, for example, will never get the chance to remove the word ‘misadventure’, the quaint Victorian legal term for your demise being your own fault, from against their loved ones’ names as no new inquest will be allowed. Inquests already underway will be halted. The bill, which not one political party in Ireland supports, has been labelled a ‘bonfire of human rights’ by the campaign group Relatives for Justice.

Whether the Tories succeed in getting their bill through the House of Lords or not, nothing can diminish the heroism of the families of the dead. They should be applauded by anyone who professes a concern for truth telling given the public service they have performed via their tenacious battles with the official keepers of silence. That even a modicum of honesty has been wrung from the state is a testament to their perseverance.

Accountability evaded

After the verdict against Holden, the British government’s ‘veterans minister’ Johnny Mercer, holed up somewhere far from the courtroom, tweeted ‘I remain committed to our manifesto promises made in 2019 [to oppose ‘vexatious’ claims against British soldiers]. David is being supported in all respects by MOD (Ministry of Defence) colleagues at this time.’

We might ask why Britain needs a minister for military veterans in the first place and why there are such an avalanche of ‘vexatious’ claims and whether these two things are linked and whether avoiding future wars of aggression might put an end to both the need for a costly government ministry and suspect claims from dodgy natives. But we shouldn’t vex ourselves unnecessarily.

Johnny Mercer doesn’t care about David Holden, and certainly not about the family of Aidan McAnespie, he cares about the children of the future and making sure they will have the capacity to use a machine gun wherever and whenever deemed necessary by people of his high station.

Occasionally, we ask ourselves what we have learnt from a wrong move, a mistake, a sin even, and that is proper. David Holden has perhaps asked that of himself in the recent past. But what do those in power ever learn about sin? Who forces reflection upon them? Why, for example, did the British state send the Queen’s Lancashire regiment to Basra to beat Baha Mousa to death? Why did it send the SAS to Afghanistan to roam the country as a vicious death squad?

These things matter because this is the nature of power we’re expected to put our faith in every morning when we open our eyes and prick our ears for the sound of life persisting. We want to believe in so many things – among them that the people with fingers on triggers, not of mere machine guns, but of nuclear bombs, are civilised, humane, cultured even, and not just well-mannered thugs who send kids off to kill in foreign backwaters.

David Holden’s conviction may have brought some vindication to the family of Aidan McAnespie, but it won’t wean the British government off its addiction to using violence to achieve political ends. Behind the veil, behind the David Holdens, waits the monstrous manicured fist.

Pádraig Ó Meiscill is a writer from Belfast.

Categories: F. Left News

Christmas gift subscriptions – on sale now!

Tue, 11/29/2022 - 07:50

Not sure what to get that special lefty in your life this festive season? Want to support independent media?

Look no further! The Red Pepper Christmas gift bundle includes…

  • our latest issue, ‘Deluge and Drought’
  • an annual subscription for 2023 (four more issues!)
  • the optional added extras of an ever-useful Verso Radical Diary 2023
  • and/or the vital and timely new title from Pluto Press, Abolition Revolution
Click here to buy a gift subscription

If you buy before 12 December, we will get your selection delivered in time for Christmas Day. We can get the gift sent directly to the recipient, including a personalised message from you to them – make sure to send us their address if this is your preference!

So what are you waiting for?! Sort out your radical Christmas shopping needs right here at Red Pepper today!

If you have purchased a gift subscription and/or need to get in touch with us for any reason, please email office@redpepper.org.uk. Note that staff will be on holiday 23 December – 3 January.

Categories: F. Left News

Can’t pay, don’t pay

Tue, 11/29/2022 - 00:00
Photo: EE Image Database (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

This article first appeared in Issue #237, ‘Power in Unions’, published September 2022. Subscribe today to read more articles and support independent media.

The energy price hikes we’re all facing aren’t inevitable. What is being presented to us as an energy and cost-of-living ‘crisis’ is one directly manufactured by those in power – not just the government but the energy companies, low wage employers and billionaire tax evaders.

By October, the typical household energy bill is expected to rise past £3,200 – a two-thirds increase on already record high prices. It means thousands won’t be able to afford to heat their homes this winter. Millions more will be plunged even further into financial hardship – with more than one in three households in fuel poverty. And energy companies, like BP and Shell, will continue to rake in billions in profits.

Make no mistake: these are all choices. The government could choose to tax energy company profits and make them pay their fair share. They could choose to insulate our homes. They could choose to invest seriously in renewable energy. They could choose to guarantee affordable energy for all, over fossil fuel companies’ profits. They have chosen instead to force us into poverty.

So, as we head towards winter and the catastrophe awaiting millions of us, what can we do about all these choices that have been made for us? This crisis, which is not of our making, but which we’re expected to pay for?

The answer is simple. We won’t pay.

Acting together

Don’t Pay is a movement to build the leverage of one million people pledging to stop paying their energy bills so we can collectively negotiate with the government and secure affordable energy for all.

We know that millions of people already cannot or won’t be able to pay their energy bills and many more will suffer as a result of these huge increases. Taking action as a collective will mean people are able to work together to support their communities through this crisis – and force the government to change direction.

If we don’t do it, we’ll leave those who can’t pay to freeze in their homes as they can’t afford to top up the meter, or be pursued by energy companies and their debt collectors.

The movement is growing rapidly. Already, at the time of writing, 5,500 people had signed up to organise in their local communities from more than 450 villages, towns and cities across the country (you can see the up-to-date numbers and spread on the Don’t Pay website). Local Don’t Pay groups, like the one in Birmingham where I live, are coordinating stalls, meet ups, Zoom calls, door knocking, while more than 500,000 leaflets have been sent out to people spreading the word in their communities.

There is historical precedence for this kind of mass civil disobedience. In 1989, Thatcher’s government attempted to introduce a flat-rate poll tax in Britain. A mass non-payment campaign of 17 million led by hundreds of local groups known as anti-poll tax unions, in conjunction with community resistance against bailiffs and widespread protests, was ultimately successful in making the tax functionally unenforceable. After sustained community resistance and the famous 200,000-strong protest in Trafalgar Square in 1990, the movement succeeded not only in getting the poll tax scrapped but in taking down Thatcher herself.

Three decades later, we’re not arguing for a complete replication of the anti-poll tax movement but mass civil disobedience as a strategy remains relevant, as shown by the non-payment campaign against Southern Water in Kent in 2021, after they were fined £90 million for dumping raw sewage into the sea. Outraged by those costs being passed onto consumers, a non-payment campaign took off and eventually residents won by getting 50 per cent taken off their bills.

A necessary risk

We know there may be risks involved in participating in a nonpayment campaign today. I know that if I stopped paying today it may well have an impact on my credit rating, for example. But we’re not planning to withhold payment because there are no risks: we’re doing it because the risks of us not doing anything are so much greater. Who can think of their credit rating when they can’t afford to keep their homes warm? The only way we can prevent thousands freezing to death this winter is by collectively saying no and forcing a fundamental change in this system. If we hit one million pledges, we take these risks with those lives in mind.

In 1989, up and down the country, people knew that they could not afford to pay the incoming tax, despite the risks involved in non-payment. Already struggling amid a cost-of-living crisis – being admirably resisted with renewed militancy from the trade union movement – we similarly know today that we cannot afford another hike in energy bills. That’s why ordinary people are again fighting back.

If you want to take action, you can sign up to help at dontpay.uk. We’ll link you up with people in your local area as we attempt to gather one million pledges not to pay energy bills from 1 October. If this target is reached you will be asked not to pay your bills from this date onwards.

We are stronger together – standing as a collective and building our power and the hope that we can make a difference.

Don’t Pay are now collecting pledges to strike on 1 December. More info on how to get involved can be found on their website.

Categories: F. Left News

Resistance in Leicester’s garment district

Mon, 11/28/2022 - 00:00
A mural outside of Highfields Community Centre. Photo credit: Bal Sokhi-Bulley

The South Indian thali we had for lunch that day was exceptional. It had been one of the first sunny, bright blue sky days of the year and as we drove through Evington and Highfields even the ‘dark factories’ glistened. Along East Park Road, Vaisakhi decorations wove through the streetlights, Holi celebrations had begun the day before in Spinney Hill park, and women in burqas pushed prams and chatted together as they walked up to the Nishan Sahibs at the mouth of the road in front of the iconic old Evington Cinema building.

This is Leicester. An exotic city, a diverse city, a city that is home to an array of racially minoritized (RM) populations. Just six months later, the city made national headlines for the ‘riots’ that took place; masked gangs marched through East Leicester targeting Muslims in what can only be described as ‘Hindutva-inspired Islamophobia’. So Leicester is also a ‘beseiged’ city, a segregated, racialised city; it is a city that has been made ‘dirty’ by the positioning of RM people as out of place in their own home. This story of Leicester, the neglect of its RM people and garment workers, became better known during the pandemic when Leicester became the first UK city to face a local lockdown in 2020. Now an ‘open secret’, Leicester’s ‘garment district’ was penned in as if plagued.

Racialised governance

This is what we call ‘re-colonisation’. On 18 March 2022 we met in a room in Highfields Community Centre that looked out over the rooftops of Highfields and Evington. The location was important. The Centre offers proximity to the factories and many RM communities, it is embedded in recolonisation – its effects and resistance. The day was important too, Holi  – the vibrant, colourful, theme of which made a stark contrast to the backdrop of a city made ‘dirty’. We sat around the table with our backgrounds in academia, activism, local politics and community action. We were there because we want to highlight the tactics of racialised governance that Leicester is experiencing, as visible in the state neglect of factory workers, and to reclaim the city from ‘the mire’  to a home for and made by immigrant communities. This can only happen through ‘community governance’, which Tarek Islam of FAB-L (Fashion-workers Advice Bureau Leicester) defines as simply ‘helping people’ through providing basic advice and support.

Such help is a powerful indictment for the role of rights in addressing Leicester’s recolonisation ‘crisis’. Rights cannot do the work of remedying the debilitation experienced by factory workers – who, according to Claudia Webbe MP, are kept in a cycle of fear and compliance. Jobs are given as a ‘favour’ and working conditions can be dire, with women working 12-hour shifts in unheated factories. The unions are unable to penetrate a system where ‘resilience’ has turned to ‘subservience’. These conditions have been extensively documented by Nik Hammer and his research team. But rights, explained Islam, take on a policing role – ‘we cannot go in as the factory police and just say “yeah – we’re here to solve your workers’ rights issues” because there’s a lack of trust from within the community’. Being paid £2 or £3 an hour and remaining silent for fear of being labeled an informant has become normalised.

Race and class

FAB-L seeks to adopt a different strategy; one that provides support and builds trust because this is the only path to empowerment for workers. Trust is about more than the conversations about rights – it’s about creating an environment where people feel safe to ask for basic help with, for example, the poor housing conditions that feed the exploitation in the first place.

These stories are not unique to Leicester: exploitation abounds in the UK’s gig economy. Leicester’s recolonisation is about race; about racialised people who have been ‘silenced’ as well as the racialised nature of capitalism and labour. ‘To what extent’ asked Jayanthi Lingham, a partner in the Co-POWeR Project ‘is this about workers and the capitalist moment rather than about [the] Asian men [running the factories]?’ How is it that Boohoo can get away with minimalist inspection practices while the problem is constructed as one of factories run by brown people?

Priya Thamotheram, head of Highfields Centre, expressed surprise that some people remain ‘hung up on the idea of skin colour… and colour consciousness’; what this is about, rather, he argued, is ‘the structural relationships that those individuals occupy in terms of their societal positions … Asian businessmen are no more generous or wicked than [others]’. But it is not just about class – for Thamotheram it is about how race is coopted into a class structure. And, as Webbe points out, the issue is also gendered. Not a single factory in Leicester is under female management. To rephrase Wendy Brown, ‘it is impossible to pull the race out of gender, or the gender out of sexuality, or the colonialism out of caste out of masculinity out of sexuality.’

Radical friendship

This poses huge challenges: How do we speak (literally and metaphorically) to those RM communities the state has abandoned? There are about 700 garment factories in Leicester (the true number is unknown and constantly changing) and around 10,000 garment workers. How do we reach them? What place do they have in a city gentrifying and recolonising around them? Webbe outlined three very clear ‘solutions’: a) a legislative change on garment trading in the form of a garment trading adjudicator b) consumer change on fast fashion; and c) a greater role for unions and community centres, such as Highfields.

It is at this latter site that we proposed something different: a response to recolonisation through radical friendship. The FAB-L project represents friendship as a set of practices that are concerned with fighting back through building relations, trust and care. ‘Through actions we want to solidify the trust’, says Islam. It is the trust and empowerment that is important, not the legal labels or limited remedies. Speaking with people, being silent so you hear them, talking to them as individuals and not statistics. Of course actual change is an objective too –speaking to one worker meant FAB-L were able to reach out t0 ‘the brand’, that reached out to the factories, and a real pay increase was achieved for all.

In contrast, calling the Leicester situation ‘modern slavery’ does not actually address working conditions; in fact, focusing on the exceptional draws attention away from systemic harm. Following our Salon, Webbe tabled an Early Day Motion about FAB-L in Parliament, praising its ‘holistic approach’, from tackling low wages, support with benefits services and domestic violence, to help with form filling. ‘Basic help’, as Islam called it, which he learned at a young age in his local community. FAB-L has since increased its own community-facing activities, working with Labour Behind the Label, to screen a documentary on the historic struggles Leicester’s fashion workers and holding a launch event. This is a making-visible, telling the story through friendships built between factory workers and their descendants. It breaks the inevitable cycle of exploitation and recolonisation through basic help, which Islam and his parents lacked. And it is more vital than ever in a deepening cost of living crisis.

There is a mural outside Highfields Centre where we all posed for a souvenir photograph of the day. Painted in a myriad of colours, showing fists raised in resistance, it says ‘Enhancing lives, Empowering Communities, Enterprise for all’. It was a fitting end to the day, to feel we had connected, that resistance to the recolonising of Leicester will continue. As the recent violence has shown, fighting harm will not come through more police powers or legal rights; it will come through trust, through community organising and friendship.

Bal Sokhi-Bulley is a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex.

Special thanks to my project partner, Ben Rogaly; thanks to the participants of the Salon event: Ben Rogaly, Tarek Islam, Jayanthi Lingham, Nik Hammer, Fatima Rajina, Priya Thamotheram, Claudia Webbe; and to Nadya Ali, Shirin Rai, Chris Slowe and Ben Whitham for their individual conversations with me.

The Project ‘Pandemic, Race and Rights: How Covid Re-Colonised Leicester’ is funded by the ESRC IAA scheme, University of Sussex.

 

Categories: F. Left News

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