7th June 2021
by Ali Wilkin (Harmony Party Media Officer)
“Man’s nature is not abstract; a characteristic of a certain individual… it is the totality of all the social relations.” — Karl Marx
A decade on from the start of austerity, and the creation of the hostile environment, socialism in the UK is in crisis – not because fewer people are attracted to its philosophy, but because socialists themselves do not yet have a cohesive response to the far Right fascist policies and culture that grows apace under Boris Johnson’s erratic but populist leadership.
The problem is not, however, a lack of leadership on the Left (although arguably the inability to let go of previous leaders is becoming problematic). Much of the problem is rooted in the Left’s inability to recognise its own racism, ableism, transphobia, ableism and misogyny, and its inability to recognise how it has internalised the hostile environment and reproduces it. My contention is simple: that a large segment of the political ‘Left’ has no willingness to hold itself accountable, therefore it is as yet unable to provide real opposition to the oppression and injustice of our current social and political climate, either at home, or abroad.
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In order to explore the dynamics of the hostile environment as it is demonstrated on the political Left, and what prevents its acknowledgement within the Left, it is necessary to understand what the hostile environment is, how it is implemented by the dominant (ruling) political and social class, and how this has permeated our cultural norms and rituals. It is vital to recognise that austerity is not just a series of political policies; it is a culture, a mindset, born of a world view that comes not just from privilege, or self-interest, but a deep-seated desire to resist and prevent inclusion (a greater and developing participation in society by people who are not white/members of a dominant social class/able-bodied/cis gendered etc), and cultural evolution (an intentional divestment of social privileges in order to increase political, cultural and social inclusion).
What is the ‘Hostile Environment’?
Implemented by degrees, the hostile environment was introduced first via austerity, a raft of economic and social governmental policies – supported by negative narratives and tropes – that made daily life increasingly difficult, dangerous and unmanageable for Black, Brown, GRT and other UKME (UK Minority Ethnic) people, disabled and chronically ill people, LGBTQ people, street homeless people, people who suffer from addiction and others.
It is administered via economic sanctions and abuse (the withdrawal or cutting of welfare or other income), via a deliberately punitive welfare system – in effect, eugenics delivered via fiscal ideology; forced deportations (as demonstrated by the Windrush scandal); the labelling of refugees as ‘illegal’ (in defiance of international human rights laws); policies which force GRT communities off public land and effectively criminalises their nomadic way of life; the policing of people suffering suicidal ideation via the SIM model, effectively criminalising their illness; the numerous threats to trans and non-binary people, including a distinct reluctance to end conversion therapy; cuts to social services that has seen social care gutted, along with severe cuts to local government funding; and many other policies designed to target those who do not ‘conform’ to the hard Right government’s increasingly open welcoming of a fascist world view.
Some of the groundwork for the current climate, however, was laid by the last Labour government: Yvette Cooper, for example, created the WCA (Work Capability Assessment) which has done so much to impoverish and kill hundreds of thousands of disabled people, and there was a growing anti-immigration advocacy which made toxic so the so-called ‘progressive’ ideals of the dominant Right wing/centrist Parliamentary Labour Party.
Indeed, until Jeremy Corbyn began campaigning for the Labour Party leadership, there was little desire (or perhaps courage) to challenge the austerity narrative, and the increasingly dominant influence of the hostile environment.
What has never been acknowledged, however, is how that narrative has become normalised to the extent that much of the popular ‘Left’ has adopted the language – and much more worryingly, the hostility – towards Black, Brown, UKME and disabled people even where those using such language are themselves disabled or UKME.
The reasons for that are not complex – internalising oppression and taking on the behaviour and language of the oppressor is a long-established mode of survival for many. Disabled people can be ablest, women can be misogynist, and so on. But what marks out the Left reproduction of the hostile environment in the modern era is the extent to which it is denied, resulting in the ‘condemnation’ of White Supremacy and colonialism (institutional and structural racism, ableism etc) on the one hand, whilst refusing to acknowledge and challenge how we all internalise that. As Ava Vidal pointed out succinctly on a recent episode of her Black Womans Hour show, a great many socialists believe that their adherence to Left leaning/socialist politics is somehow enough to assume that they are ‘not like the racists’ – as if their politics somehow inoculates them from the influence of that systemic racism.
But what prevents the Left from admitting this? Given the obvious imperative to hold the government accountable for its inhumane oppression, why are the Left apparently impervious to holding themselves accountable?
Equating Racism with Prejudice
White people do not understand what racism is. This is true generally, but it is also true of socialists who most often believe that they are anti-racist because of their political affiliation.
Racism, however, is not prejudice. Racism is systemic, the result of hundreds of years of domination, state-sponsored slavey, colonial rule and oppression. Britain might have been the first to end slavery, but the history of that (as with everything) is often whitewashed, written and portrayed as the act of a benevolent country and the result of the compassion of white men.
Nothing could be further from the truth, but it is a lie so profound that we have, as a country, patted ourselves on the back, congratulated ourselves on a job well done and acted as though nothing further need be said. Much the same is true about World War II – the story we tell ourselves is that we stood firm against Nazi tyranny and liberated Europe from the clutches of a tyrant.
Again, the whole truth is very different – America and the United Kingdom turned away hundreds of thousands of Jewish people, desperate to reach safety, and it was not the treatment of the Jewish people of Europe, nor the violence of Hitler’s rule, that led to a ‘just’ war.
Racism is built into the very fabric and structure of our lives and all white people in the UK are indoctrinated by it. All. Without exception.
Racism is a way of life. It is not a personal dislike of a person’s skin colour – it is about the domination and protection of white people over everyone else, and until we all, collectively and individually, unpeel those layers of history personally and collectively, racism will remain a fact of life irrespective of political allegiance.
The Corbyn Factor
Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in 2015, to the surprise and consternation of the dominant political Right wing “centrists” in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Despite concerted efforts by that group to undermine and terminate his leadership, in 2017 Corbyn had overseen an explosion of membership (Labour became the largest socialist party in Europe), and had come within inches of toppling Theresa May’s Conservative government.
It is true to say that for the four years that Corbyn was leader of the party, he was personally beset with false accusations of anti-Semitism which did considerable damage to the socialist cause.
It is also true to say that anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, ableism, transphobia and misogyny has always been a reality in the Labour Party, and in socialism as a movement generally. And it has become apparent that large numbers of Corbyn’s supporters have taken those false accusations levelled against Corbyn and positioned themselves within that context – in other words, they believe themselves to be (for example) “anti-racist” because they are socialists; and because they are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, any accusations made against them of (for example) racism must also, by extension, be false.
What identifies this as a reproduction of the hostile environment is two-fold – it mirrors the outright denial by Conservatives of their Islamophobia and institutional racism; and that whilst Corbyn himself strongly believed in “building bridges” (to the detriment of his ability to lead), few if any of his supporters who identify themselves as victims of false accusations share his desire to build bridges. In a contortion of Corbyn’s moral example, those deemed to be making false accusations are positioned as “bullies”, those who support them a “cult”, a threat to the “real” (for example) “anti-racists.”
The Power of Personal Allegiances
The pandemic has of course had considerable impact on every aspect of our lives over the last 15 months, and the impact that is had on political organisation in this country and elsewhere has yet to be analysed.
Connection via the internet, and particularly social media platforms, has – if only temporarily – forced Left wing activists to deal with the fallout from the 2019 General Election, and the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party online, without access to the usual rituals of grief and support.
Whilst a grieving period is normal and to be expected, the limited access to more hands on, practical ways to re-organise and move forward from that loss has created an atmosphere where the constant picking over of the past is normalised, and there is a reticence – even refusal – to accept that Jeremy Corbyn will not now lead a socialist government. His Peace and Justice project is not – and will not become – a political party, despite the hopes of many who have joined.
But it is not just allegiance to the former leader of the Labour Party that has resulted in a stagnation and absence of real opposition to the Conservative regime outside of the Labour Party, whose trajectory only takes them closer to that influence.
The refusal to move on from the 2019 loss is adhered to most closely by those who refuse to examine their internalising of the prevailing culture – again, in direct contradiction to the example Corbyn himself sets. The desire to build on Corbyn’s legacy is not wrong, but in order to do that, the Left as a whole must move on and more importantly, must intentionally evolve a practice of self-accountability.
It is not just the recent harassment and racist abuse of Black and Brown women on twitter that actively demonstrates that need – the Northern Independence Party, and its leader Philip Proudfoot, recently demonstrated a great deal of ableism in response to disabled activists including disabled and GRT NIP members, reaching out to Philip Proudfoot about his endorsement of Novara Media, in light of their platforming of eugenicist and vegan philosopher Peter Singer.
It resulted in disabled and members of NIP leaving, and some disabled activists being hounded off social media. This was a direct reproduction of the hostile environment, with some even claiming that it was a plot by the Harmony Party – which demonstrates the level of suspicion about minority communities which only hurts the socialist cause.
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Self-accountability, therefore, is of paramount importance within the Left if we are to effectively oppose, and remove, the Conservative regime. It should be considered unacceptable to put personal loyalty to a well-known activist or politician before solidarity with victims of racism, ableism, transphobia and so on. And it most certainly should be unacceptable for those on the Left to fail to recognise racism when they see it.
This isn’t about the need for ‘unconscious bias training’ – this is about the need for the Left to educate itself and recognise that simply being ‘Left wing’, or turning up at anti-fascist rallies, is not a panacea for what has been internalised from the system within which we are raised from birth.
Because until we do, and can – the Conservative regime will remain in place, and its lethal and fatal policies will increase the pressure on the very people the Left claim to represent.