Dan Hodges, mob mentality and the white working class

Dan Hodges has written an article for the Telegraph, using the horrific murder of Bijan Ebrahimi as an excuse to attack “the dark side of working class Britain.” This is an attempt to address the points he has side-stepped for the benefit of his polemic.

Submitted by Phil on November 5, 2013

Ebrahimi died when a mob surrounded his house in Brislington one night in July. He was beaten unconscious, dragged from his house and burned alive in his front garden. Two men, Lee James and Stephen Norley, were sentenced very recently for the crime, though it is almost certain that a wider section of the local community was involved.

The reasons behind this turn of events are detailed in another piece in the Telegraph.

Joe Shute

Mr Ebrahimi, 44, who was originally from Iran, was a shy man. Few people in the block on Capgrave Crescent, Brislington, where he had lived for the past three years, had heard him utter a word before his desperate screams for help that warm summer night. Registered disabled and unable to work, his joys in life were his garden and his tabby cat. But his differences made him stand out. He was bullied by neighbours and tormented by teenagers who vandalised his garden.

When he attempted to take photographs of youngsters destroying the flowers in his pots and hanging baskets to show the police he was branded a paedophile. He turned to the police for help and phoned them on July 11. But instead Mr Ebrahimi was arrested on suspicion of a breach of the peace in front of a mob of around 20 children and adults who screamed “paedo, paedo” as he was led away. He was released without charge the next day. But rumours continued to circulate and two days later some of his neighbours came for him.

For Hodges, this chain of events is symptomatic of life among the working class. Ebrahimi “was killed because he was different. He was Iranian. He was disabled. He kept himself to himself. And on the housing estate where lived, these were crimes that carried the death penalty.”

Whilst technically true, in the sense that the victim was branded a paedophile only after he tried to protect himself against bullying and vandalism, the choice of language here is telling. Those proles, what nasty racists they all are. Not just on this one estate, either, but everywhere. This incident reveals “the other side of working-class Britain. The intolerance. The suspicion of distinctiveness. The naked hatred of anything, and anyone, that dares not conform.”

In describing the events leading up to Ebrahimi’s death, Hodges goes on to talk about “The Community.” The phrase is clearly used as a pejorative, and in the invective that follows we are clearly invited to view working class areas – all working class areas, everywhere – as the peasantry of a gothic horror novel, ready to take up flaming torches at a moment’s notice to drive out demons.

But this kind of crude caricature is okay, according to Hodges. After all, “When a bread roll is thrown in an Oxford restaurant, it is indicative of the arrogance of Britain’s upper classes. An affluent Guardian journalist joins a tax-avoidance protest, and it provides definitive proof of the latent hypocrisy of the British middle class. But a man gets burnt alive in the middle of a white working-class housing estate and no other conclusions should be drawn.” That’s the real problem of class society in Britain, as people queue for food banks, sanctions kill and public services are decimated, that class based stereotypes all flow uphill. Forget how quickly the word “chav” entered public discourse and the vicious slanders the press aims at benefit claimants on a near daily basis. Despite all of this, the noble working class is off limits for criticism – honest – and that makes Dan Hodges the real victim or something.

I don’t want to be too flippant here, as easy as it is to rip Hodges’ cheap narrative to shreds. After all, a man is still dead in genuinely appalling circumstances. There are points worthy of discussion around this, which Hodge quickly skirts past in the name of prole-bashing.

First and foremost is the question of the mob. Clearly, the police’s role in stoking tension is important here. They made a public spectacle of Ebrahimi’s arrest before quietly dropping him back in it once it was clear they had no reason to detain him. Despite protestations that they told people of the man’s innocence, they did more than anyone to make him look guilty and bear a level of responsibility as do those who mobbed up alongside the two men who ultimately committed the murder.

But the police’s actions here don’t explain what happened, even if they were a contributing factor. There are other examples of the innocent being hounded out of their homes; the two boys initially accused of the James Bulger murder were driven from their homes after Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were arrested, for instance, and the man falsely accused of being Jon Venables under a new identity. There is also the now infamous story of the paediatrician who was targeted by those who couldn’t tell her profession apart from a criminal offence.

The following blog, brings us closer to an actual explanation:

Dr John Drury

In actual fact, however, these locals ignored this police information not out of stupidity or mindlessness at all but because they simply didn't trust the police. They believed, on the basis of past experiences, that the police sided with paedophiles and others and against ‘the local community’. Where there was trust was within ‘the local community’. So when one local resident seen as prototypical, or standing for ‘the community’, said she had a list of ‘known paedophiles’ they trusted her account over that of the police.

But then, I was asked, why would people go to such extremes? Driving people out of their homes, even killing them – that isn't something perhaps that these individuals would not have done alone. What is it about crowds?

My answer is power. While the lone individual may have a set of beliefs according to which paedophiles are at large in ‘the community’, are dangerous and need to be banished or killed, it is often only in the crowd that they can put these beliefs into practice. When people are with those they trust – others who feel the same way as them and who they believe will back them up when they act – then they can instantiate their values. Shared identity empowers.

As an anarchist, I’m not about to argue against either distrust in the police or the power of the collective.

The problem here was that these two things backed up a particularly nasty and reactionary viewpoint, namely “ideas that paedophilia is widespread, is primarily located in the ‘other’, is particularly associated with those who are ‘odd’ or ‘different’ in some way, the denial of the family’s role in child abuse, and the use of summary justice without hearing the accused’s defence.” Such a position has nothing to do with Hodge’s idea of the working class as a mob-in-waiting, but is in fact promoted with enthusiasm by the media and in particular the tabloid press.

The other point which Hodges skims past is political and academic attitudes towards the “white working class.” He tries to frame the issue as one of the working class being overly pandered to despite the fact (as he sees it) that we’re all thuggish oafs ready to burn outsiders at the stake. The reality is quite different.

The white working class isn’t a homogeneous block, either economically or socially. Yet the term conjures up specific images of a certain group of people, with a certain culture and social status. This is partly because the term is tied in with the negative stereotypes of the working class which persist in our society, but also because the term has been used to manufacture a very specific identity for a section of our class which serves a variety of purposes.

Most obviously, the white working class offers a core constituency for many far right groups. Class and the problems created by capitalism and the class system have a role in the rhetoric and propaganda of many fascist groups, which they distort using the issue of race. So they can address real problems within the community while pinning the blame on other sections of the class because of where they come from or the colour of their skin.

But this kind of discourse isn’t limited to fascists. The media and politicians play the same game, allowing racist myths around immigration and the notion of the white working class as uniquely oppressed to drive the political agenda further to the right in the interests of capital and the boss class. So the public rhetoric is about the need to defend “British” jobs from immigrants with tougher border controls, whilst the effect will be restrictions and divisions which make it easier for employers to exploit migrant workers and weaken the bargaining power of existing, unionised workforces through the existence of desperate and disorganised replacements. Just as rhetoric around job creation is matched with casualisation and zero hour contracts.

On the flip side of this you have liberals, particularly those of a more privileged background, who turn to snobbery and scorn over the white working class when trying to challenge this rhetoric. So instead of an effective rebuttal of the dominant narrative, you have exactly the chattering middle classes who look down on the working class that fascists and media pundits alike will point to as proof of their arguments.

All of which feeds into the narrative which makes the white working class a reality. An embattled demographic, long abandoned by the left, whose alienation under capitalism can be blamed upon the social and ethnic “other” rather than on the ruling class. Which, when combined with both the instinctive distrust of authority and the reactionary ideas on paedophilia cited earlier, offer a climate under which the right spark led Bijan Ebrahimi to his death.

Is there a counter to this? There’s no easy, catch-all solution, but certainly there are ways in which organisation within communities could allow for more progressive forms of collective identity and action to take root. The Independent Working Class Association’s efforts, for example, managed to promote community self-organisation whilst opposing the kind of anti-social behaviour Ebrahimi was plagued by and could offer a model of real community accountability and solidarity as opposed to the collective murder of a vilified “other.”

I won’t venture any further on this point as it’s a topic all of its own to which I don’t think I could do justice. The point here is that to begin exploring these issues, we need to reject the poisonous idea promoted by Dan Hodges that this can all simply be written off as a dark horror that is somehow innate or instinctive amongst the working class.