A thought provoking read. Try not to be offended by it! I think it’s fair to say “you don’t have a right not to be offended”. Even if you don’t agree, I think it’s clear the electorate don’t respond well to wannabe politicians who seem to think it is a good election strategy to lecture us all about why they are better people than us. I for one want my politicians to know how to manage an economy, I don’t particularly care if they’re the sort of person I would go for a pint with.
Nikita Krushchev, who led the Soviet Union from 1953 until he was deposed by Leonid Brezhnev in 1964, is perhaps the least celebrated of the Soviet leaders. Certainly, many of his policies are viewed as erratic and were often ineffective. Regardless, he is generally looked upon favourably for his denouncing of Stalin and ushering in of a less repressive era in the USSR. Ironically, it was this “success” of his that would lead to his downfall, when hardliners in the Kremlin supported Breshnev and brought the Krushchev era to an end. Krushchev recognised as much when the day following his removal from the Kremlin he commented to a friend and colleague:
“I’m old and tired. Let them cope by themselves. I’ve done the main thing. Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us anymore and suggesting he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear is gone, and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight.”
What Krushchev knew was that his own reforms had sown the seeds of his own downfall. But rather than hastily try to undo his reforms he instead took pride in them. Breshnev had been able to overthrow him because Brezhnev had been able to talk to others about a change of leadership. No-one would have been brave enough or stupid enough to have spoke about a change of leadership during the Stalin era. Krushchev’s defeat was also his victory.
One would hope that in our supposed “enlightened” and more “progressive” Western democracies that Krushchev’s Lesson would be a rather unquestioned element of democracy, whereby those who seek to champion and further spread democracy into more and more areas of our lives would be comfortable with the fact that the same democratic expansions could lead to them being removed from their positions. How many leaders of left wing parties, for example, have claimed that theirs is the most democratic party in their country – only to go on and suspend their party’s constitution when they fear they won’t get their own way? Or in Scotland, where we see RISE claim that everything they do is democratic, yet they put people in key full time paid positions without even so much as a vote or an explanation of how they are to be held accountable.
Thankfully we’re now entering a post-RISE political landscape in Scotland, although no doubt they will refuse to disappear completely and will revert back to some sort of middle class student group much like the ISG was. They do warrant further mention here however as they are a fairly unambiguous example of those who have failed to learn a “Krushchev lesson”. As I mentioned, their leaders continually preach about democracy while refusing to implement anything that could lead to their leadership positions being challenged. Their failure to learn a “Krushchev lesson” is also apparent in their attitudes towards non mainstream media.
During the Scottish referendum campaign it was blindingly obvious to everyone that the Scottish mainstream media was massively biased in favour of the NO campaign. This resulted in a massive growth in popularity for “alternative media” in Scotland during this period as those who supported independence, and even just those who only wanted more reliable information, turned to alternative sources. One such source which rose to prominence (or notoriety) during this period was Wings Over Scotland. Wings popularity seems to be based on the fact that they hold the Unionist media and parties to account. They scrutinise them heavily, and the result is a website which is a treasure trove of evidence regarding the Unionist media’s lies and spin.
During the independence campaign, and pre-RISE, many of the current RISErs enthusiastically supported Wings, regularly sharing posts from the site across all social media platforms. Many gave up their spare time to deliver copies of the Wee Blue Book to potential YES voters. How things have changed now though! No longer are RISE fans of Wings, instead regularly throwing insults that way from their social media accounts. Any insult will suffice, although they seem to like the labels of homophobe and misogynist in particular.
The thing is: what attracted them to Wings and what led them to promote alternative media in the first place is the exact same thing that now leads them to denounce Wings and alternative media with such an intense hatred. They promoted alternative media because they were attracted to the platform it provided to write about and scrutinise the unionists, something which the mainstream media was completely failing to do. What they failed to grasp was that the same platforms could also be used to write about and scrutinise RISE. Once they realised this they turned against these platforms with a vengeance.
They have failed to see alternative media writing about and scrutinising their election campaign as a victory in the growth of alternative media, one which they played a part in. Remember RISE are an insignificance in Scottish politics. They only gained 0.47% of the popular vote. They polled below Tommy Sheridan’s party and even below the Scottish Christian Party – Proclaiming Christ’s Lordship (clicky for analysis of their performance). They are barely mentioned in the mainstream media at all, with almost the only exception to this being Cat Boyd’s column in the small circulation The National. But rather than view the fact that they are getting any coverage at all as a success, or their success in as much as they helped promote alternative media, they are now doing their damnedest to discredit this alternative. Even this site, which putting it generously is “modest” compared to Wings, hasn’t escaped their vitriol with numerous slanders being launched across the internet. In an ironic way the greatest success of the RISErs also ensured their total defeat in the recent election, a defeat that they won’t recover from. Rather than display the peace of mind that Krushchev demonstrated, RISE seem intent on doing as much harm as possible to any source that criticizes them. They’ve totally failed to learn a Krushchev Lesson.
My purpose in writing this piece is to try to offer a way to move beyond a current impasse in anti-racism dialogue. The problem arises when the question of whether or not white people can experience racism is asked. On one side are those who argue that white people can not experience racism because racism involves “power plus privilege”, and as we live in a “global white supremacist hegemony” then by definition it is impossible for white people to suffer racism. On the other side we have people pointing out fairly regular occurrences of white people being targeted for abuse simply for being white, which to them is ample evidence of white people actually suffering from racism. The two sides are locked in disagreement, which often descends into nonsensical arguments and accusations of the other side “being part of the problem” of racism. As a result, genuine action against racism is almost zero while student types control the discourse demanding that everyone else accept their definition of a word and verbally abusing anyone who disagrees with them.
I’ve experienced the arrogance of these (usually) white middle class anti-racists recently. The type who with no sense of irony demand that we adopt the definitions they learned on sociology degrees at white middle class first world universities, while simultaneously accusing anyone who rejects these definitions as being part of the “global white supremacist hegemony” problem. For full disclosure, I think white people can suffer from ‘racism’, but that is just because I recognise a rather mundane aspect of the English language – words can have more than one definition. So when we say a black person in America suffered from racism and then also say a white person in Scotland suffered racism, although we have used the same word (racism) we are not equating the two situations. Unfortunately this is not enough for some. I was previously told by members of the Executive Committee that I am no longer welcome in either the SSP or RISE because I identify as a Marxist. That has now been followed up with me being told by members of the Executive Committee that I am no longer welcome because I don’t share the stance that the “power plus privilege” definition of racism is the only acceptable definition. So as it stands I am currently in a state of limbo, I don’t actually know whether I’ve been expelled from SSP and/or RISE for not thinking in the way dictated that I should. I await an official communication from them to settle this one way or the other.
As I said above, I think white people can suffer racism. What usually happens when I say that is I’m then challenged to explain how this can be so, when white people have the privilege. This response misses the point, I tell them, I’m speaking from a different definition of racism. Call the “power plus privilege” definition racism-Φ, and call white people being abused for being white racism-Ψ. We can then see the mistake more clearly: I say “white people can suffer racism-Ψ”, to which it is argued “white people have privilege so can’t suffer racism-Φ”. It misses the point, they are talking passed what I said. When I point this out, that there is more than one definition in play here, they challenge me to explain why my definition should be used instead of theirs. Again, this misses the point. Words can have more than one meaning. These meanings don’t compete with each other, neither is independently more valid than the other. Competent users of a language can more often than not easily deduce what meaning of a word is being used based on the context. If we are talking about a black person in America we are using the racism-Φ meaning; the power plus privilege meaning. If we are talking about a white person in Scotland we are using the racism-Ψ meaning.
My hope here is that we can start to make progress, and get beyond this artificial barrier created by an inability of certain people to accept that others use language differently. Neither side is right or wrong in their usage of the language, they are just different. Certainly, if someone interrupts a discussion about police racism against the African-American population of the USA by saying something like, “yeah, but white people also suffer racism”, then that person is mistaken. Their mistake, however, was in the use of the word ‘also’ not in the use of the word ‘racism’. The word ‘also’ here conflates the different meanings of the word racism, it deliberately equivocates racism-Φ with racism-Ψ in order to shut down a discussion. These people need to be challenged, but it does not follow from this that every person who says that white people can suffer from racism also need to be challenged. To do so just leads to a situation where various injustices are competing with each other to demand our attention, with certain people claiming that only the genuinely ‘racist’ injustices should be tackled. We should reject this position, and to paraphrase Che, we should shake with indignation at EVERY injustice, not try to be clever about which ones deserve our attention and which ones don’t.
This problem finds it roots in the identity politics which currently infects most of the left. As with many modern feminists, the modern anti-racist movement has also lost any sense of class consciousness. This common problem between the two is most visible in the question of domestic labour, which is now largely understood in terms of “unpaid labour” and income for housework. Income is a matter of consumption; class is a question of production. Rarely do modern feminists or anti-racists struggle against the existing labour relations based on the hegemony of global capital. The few exceptions were the historical-materialist feminists and anti-racists of the 70’s and 80’s, who engaged the class consciousness of gender, race and sexuality. Unfortunately this work has largely been abandoned and cut off by the modern feminists and anti-racists due to the rise of identity politics amongst the left.
Racism, contrary to Foucauldian theory, is not simply a matter of asymmetrical power relations. Nor is gender, nor is sexuality. Racism (even understood as only racism-Φ) is not simply oppression, it is not simply the exercise of power by whites over blacks. There is a lot more going on here than simply white versus black. Power is the social and political manifestation of the ownership of the means of production. Clearly the means of production are overwhelmingly owned by whites, but it is a failure of logic to conclude from this that all white people are therefore part of the “global hegemony”. The vast majority of whites don’t own the means of production either. This gives the modern anti-racist a problem if they get this far: it appears that if they are intent on demanding the “power plus privilege” definition of racism be the only one permitted then they are going to have to accept that the vast majority of whites can not be racist, as they have neither the power nor the privilege that comes with ownership of the means of production.
At this stage they play what they believe to be their trump card. All dialogue, they claim, is created by the “global white hegemony” to protect itself, so by taking part in this dialogue all white people are in fact talking from a position of power and privilege as they are talking from the position of the white supremacists. Now I’m no stranger to the argument that the media and politicians use language in a certain way to protect the power of the ruling class, I made that very argument in a previous contribution to this site. However, in claiming that it’s not only the media and politicians but the population at large who take part in this sort of power preserving dialogue, the ‘white middle class-ness’ of these sorts is painfully apparent. Remember, the people I’m talking about here include EC members of the SSP and prominent members of RISE (Scotland’s Left Alliance). They are supposed to represent Scotland’s working class, but comments like these create the impression that they have never actually conversed with anyone from the lower classes. Our language in no way whatsoever resembles the language of the ruling class. If a Rupert Murdoch or Prince Charles were to find themselves in a housing estate in Glasgow or Inverclyde or Dundee they would find the locals totally incomprehensible. The language used by the working class has often evolved through conflict with the ruling class, not to protect it. The language of the working class is rooted in our working class communities, not in some hidden conspiracy to protect the capitalists. And this language which evolved independently and in conflict with the capital hegemony also includes the way many working class people use the term racism (i.e. racism-Ψ). Nothing could be more hegemony protecting than demanding we drop our working class usage of the language in favour of a usage supplied by first world white middle class university students.
It’s often said that the SNP lost the referendum because they failed to convince the people of Scotland that they had a plausible vision for independence. There is certainly a lot of truth in this. Their arguments were at times perplexing and self defeating. They wanted independence but not independence from the monarchy; independence but not independence from the Bank of England; independence but not independence from NATO. This was the SNP’s undoing and something I hope, but don’t expect, they will address for any future independence referendum.
It is, however, overly simplistic to say that the SNP alone lost the referendum. There were many groups campaigning as part of Yes Scotland, and SSP and RIC activists were easily the match of their SNP counterparts in terms of commitment and input to the cause. Importantly, these groups were anti-monarchy, anti-NATO and in favour of a new Scottish currency (although perhaps in the long term rather than immediately after indy). So while the SNP’s self defeating stance would certainly have cost the YES vote considerably it can’t be the whole story. On the left we must also look at what went wrong and what we need to address for any future vote.
The reasons are of course complex and many of them have been discussed at length elsewhere. There is one problem with the left’s campaigning during the indy ref that hasn’t been discussed much, and that problem was the over-reliance on young activists. On the left we don’t enjoy large donations from millionaires from which to finance our campaigns. This is just a fact of life, and during the indy campaign as with any other it meant that we had to work with what we had; and what we had was a lot of excellent motivated and intelligent young activists. Every party in the country would love to have our activists, it’s the one thing money can’t buy. Just look at the Scottish Labour Party, funded by millionaires but during the recent election had to rely on paid staff to deliver leaflets through the doors because of a total absence of activists.
An over-saturation of young activists becomes a problem, however, when they are required to talk to older generations. Many of them just haven’t developed those skills yet. It’s a combination of a lack of life experience and that irritating habit teenagers have of thinking they are right about everything. We’re often told that the current politicians need to be replaced because they are out of touch with real life. That argument isn’t very convincing if it’s being made by a 16 year old who has never had a proper job and doesn’t intend on getting one for about another 10 years (once he gets his gap year, uni and post grad out the way).
This isn’t just an exercise in hindsight; it has become a genuine problem for the left that a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge. Within a couple of weeks, the Scottish Socialist Party, with a handful of other individuals, will officially launch a new left wing alliance for Scottish elections. As of now, the SSP are the only credible group in this alliance but we hope to attract more to it as time goes by. Indeed, we’re already talking with some other groups. There are a number of things that need to happen for this alliance to be successful, but one of those things is that we must not inherit this “youth fetish” from RIC and the left of the YES movement.
During the indy ref the strong youth element that the left brought with it certainly won the argument among the younger generations. The statistics show that young people voted for independence. On the other hand, the older generations voted overwhelmingly against and we have to accept that the reason for that is our message failed to resonate with them. It failed to do so primarily because it was being delivered mostly by teenagers and young people, who were just unable to connect with the older generations.
The challenge for the left in the future, not just for any future indy referendum but in general, is to ditch this youth fetish. On the left we have a lot more to offer than just a lot of young faces, but a belief has crept in from somewhere that all we need to do is connect with the “youth” and we’ll be victorious. The result of the indy ref should have ended this belief but for some reason it still persists. Let’s just quickly examine the demographics here: the youngest generation eligible to vote is also the smallest in terms of numbers (and therefore potential votes). Further, it is the generation whose members are the least likely to vote. So while there are undoubtedly votes to be won in that demographic, it isn’t hard to see why pinning all your hopes on the youth vote isn’t exactly a strategy for success.
I should point out that I am not anti-youth. In my younger days I was the youth organiser for my branch of the SSP, so I can totally appreciate the hard work all our young activists put in. I’m certainly not calling for an end to their activism or criticizing their commitment. We can’t, however, expect everyone to be convinced by them. In a recent debate about the EU I was told by a teenager that I just don’t “get it” because I’m too old but that if I listen to him he’ll explain it to me. Now let me get this off my chest. I’m not too old! I’m 34. Older, but not old. Am I to seriously accept that someone who believes being in your mid-thirties is akin to having zero intellect is somehow “more in touch with real life” than New Labour or Lib Dem MP’s? I can’t believe many in the electorate will be convinced. That approach (the “thinking you know best about everything just because you’re a teenager” approach) might work when speaking to other teenagers (who of course share the belief that teenagers know best about everything and that no one else’s life experience is ever relevant to political debate), but it only annoys older people. Older people who, let’s not forget, make up a much bigger proportion of the electorate than the youth.