Tom Jennings’ essay on the theoretical and propaganda use and abuse of concepts of socio-economic class.
The Hidden Injuries of Theory by Tom Jennings
Despite readers' criticisms and editorial self-doubts, Here and Now is steering a fruitful path between academicism and the risks of self-marginalisation and ritualistic ultra-leftism. Assessing the power of middle class ideology (e.g. managerialism, professionalism, bureaucracy) is long overdue, given that middle class groups and agendas are instrumental in making quite fundamental decisions in the running of capitalism and the disposition of State resources; control of resources and personal ownership of capital no longer necessarily correspond; and when the course of so much of our day to day experience follows directions moulded by scientific and professional power.
A close attention to the complexities of new middle class discourses and practices, in terms of their effects in real life situations, could begin to answer some of the desperation and plaintive demands of older generations of radicals, such as ex-Solidarity member Andy Anderson,1 without mistakenly expecting answers from specific theoretical currents. The role of theory itself in radical politics (i.e. as employed by professional revolutionaries) should also be questioned, given that one of the libertarian left's most conspicuous failings must be its inability to talk about modern Western class structures without falling foul of vulgar marxist fantasies of class struggle.
The kind of pitifully inadequate formulation which has capitalism exploiting either: industrial workers; or, everyone who is waged; lingers on even in more dynamic recent movements such as Class War. Ironically, this may partly be a result of giving a privileged position to theory itself - felt as a necessity, having value prior to its use or any relation to practice. This parallels the structure and effectivity of middle class discourses in general, which also create realities (in the sense of shared frameworks for expression, communication and action) with considerable potential and actual force in the world, but which take little account of their effects - except those given high status within the discourse. Perhaps the traditions of classical anarchism and syndicalism, and of postwar left communism (e.g. councilism, situationism, autonomism) can now function only by reproducing the tensions always inherent in marxism - relating to the desire for a theory of total and conclusive causes and explanations. When undermined, the arrogance of this desire is unveiled for what it is, and so are its links with other imperialising middle class discourses. Remember, it is only 'theoretical' ground that is lost, and in terms of revolutionary politics this is a traumatic prospect mainly for those who stand primarily on theoretical ground.2
A humility of theory, on the other hand, may allow more critical practices to emerge that guard against individual moral idealism as well as ridiculing those with totalising ambitions - perhaps appropriate for a postmodern context where radical hope lies more in alliances of local practical struggles, campaigns for self-determination and expressions of class anger. Rather than fantasies of a unified world proletariat, such a politics may pay more regard to differences among the poor and oppressed, and the consequent diversity of our potential - and working towards even more effective meshings than could be achieved, for example, in the Poll Tax Rebellion or the LA Uprising. In the meantime, the following (fairly mundane) examples from the last issue of Here and Now show some of the consequences of prioritising the demands of theory when conducting political analysis.
Funny Business: the Interpreting of Class War
If the above analogy - between professional, managerial and other middle class discourses and revolutionary doctrines - is not completely spurious (or mischievous), an unexpected effect of analysing them properly might be that some hitherto radical perspectives may lose some of their allure, when, for example, a class-specific disgust and hatred lurking under the purity of revolutionary rhetoric is exposed. In mapping the development in Britain of the "autonomous wing of anarchism" ('Revolution as merchandise', Here & Now 13, p35-37), Nat Turner gives a timely reminder of the Left's shortcomings. More to the point here is that special kind of contempt reserved by some radicals for any sign of human weaknesses - such as pleasure gained in and through aspects of the present evil set-up, or maybe thinking that the implications of a given situation may be, perhaps, ambiguous (just a little?). Oh no - that's reformist, even downright reactionary! Sacred theory must be protected at all costs, even if that means losing any connection to the real world. If there's joy or anger - it should be a consequence of theoretical analysis and the righteousness, and self-righteousness, that goes with it, rather than arising from our sensual engagement with the world and its attendant frustrations.
The sheer puritanical zeal of this kind of revolutionary politics runs counter to all of the irreverence, conviviality and passion - seedbeds of solidarity and direct action - that characterise so much of the diversity of lower class cultures across the world and throughout history. Strange, then, to hear this evangelism called, in the British context, "proletarian fundamentalism" (Turner, p35) - meaning, presumably, proletarian in the sense of being on the 'side' of the theoretical proletariat conceptualised by Marx. Of course, awareness of these theories is utterly absent from working class communities, whereas some of the down to earth attitudes of Class War, for some reason, are familiar to many thousands of working class people.
So, Nat Turner's discussion of Class War's Unfinished Business pinpoints serious weaknesses in the book, especially its inability to deal with CW's own historical, geographical and social specificity. However, to write off their views on class as 'reactionary', refusal of middle class leftist political correctness (including the "proletarian fundamentalist" varieties) as "macho", and the robust populism as merely "marketing", completely misunderstands the wide, complex appeal of the Class War paper and the diversity of its supporters and members. CW do spend a lot of time sneering at the middle classes, but their explicit politics defines the bulk of the middle classes as part of the working class (waged work/subject to extraction of surplus value) whilst many members and supporters would not count as working class at all according to such criteria (e.g. underclass or new middle class). Worse, such fundamental questions are hardly addressed within the organisation. Many members are confused or have little consciousness of these issues, yet those who write CW's 'theory', draw up 'business plans' and develop 'rigorous approaches' react hysterically to comradely debate from CW supporters, presenting their artificially unified opinions as "the Politics of Class War".
Nevertheless, a fairly straightforward exposition of classic anarchism, from a modem working class perspective, ends up in a glossy paperback stocked by High Street bookshops, regularly selling out (good pun, eh?). It passes itself off as 'The Politics of Class War', but it's really the dogmas of a few bores and loudmouths in CW who shout over, wear down and tire out a more independent, realistic, down to earth and politically naive membership. The theoretical confusion and political redundancy of Unfinished Business described by Nat Turner lies in its resort to classic anarchist and left communist theory, whereas the potential of the CW phenomenon resulted from bypassing such straightjackets. The view of class in the book is only reactionary if its gender, race and cultural bias is generalised to apply universally, having already been tied to archaic marxist economics. I prefer to interpret this as the effort on the part of some in CW to establish themselves as leading cadres, via their grasp, use and control of these particular theories - illustrating the role and principles of operation of middle class discourses in general.
The whole episode says little about the CW rank and file except that they were unable to prevent such manoeuverings, now that the organisation is a revolutionary organisation along classic anarchist lines. It's a far cry from the mould-breaking tabloid swagger that spoke to many of our feelings, and went down a treat with working class people across the country - helped by the rudimentary politics and refreshing lack of refined theoretical sensitivities. The CW project began by mobilising working class identity and pride, drawing on richly varied traditions from working class cultures to describe patterns of resistance that are and will be equally diverse. But to suit the needs of CW's theorists, this is transformed into a call for working class cultural unity. Of course such unity couldn't happen without the obliteration of differences - unfortunately CW members seem wholly unaware of the implications of this shift in perspective - they' aren't even sure what they mean by 'working class' at all, let alone a (singular) 'international working class'. They don't really want to have to think about it either.
Middle class politics is forced to attack the directness and vulgarity of working class behaviour and attitudes, because these are the dimensions of collective action most resistant to guidance, control or harnessing - the functions middle class discourses best serve. CW's treatment of 'working class violence' reflects their debunking of the mainstream political discourses of criminality and social cohesion. When the category of violence is complicated by questions of direct bodily engagement as opposed to rationalised detachment, then it has little to do with working class "virility" being hampered by the "effete middle class" (Turner, p37).
Middle class individuals can, of course, be as violent as anyone else, though associated meanings will usually be gathered into discourses such as legalism, rights or nationalism. The point is that these ideological underpinnings have to play down effects of social class, in order to be coherent - middle class knowledge and action, whether via State institutions or, less concretely, in scientific, theoretical or 'common sense' understanding. The point is that although working class people can 'operate' middle class discourses - if less readily and seamlessly - the institutional practices and material inertia associated with them can still exert their power in the world, and still need to be exposed - as Here and Now is trying to do from one set of perspectives, and as Class War also helped to do from an entirely different starting point. Class identity, like any other aspects of identity, is fragmentary. It is the structure and effectivity of a discourse that concerns us in the first instance, not the 'essence' of those individuals momentarily mohilised by it. Yet, of course, ideas are not, in themselves, important - only their capacity to enlist, mobilise and animate strategic groups of people, in deploying specific material resources.
The failure to grasp any of the implications of this is evident in the idea that "action ... instead of talking" (e.g. about gender issues; Turner, p37) has any relevance to politics (revolutionary or not); or that identity politics should stick to "unravelling the mish-mash of conditioning" (ibid). That hoary old dichotomy of mind-language versus body, elaborated into identity via 'learning', may fit postwar far-left theory, but should otherwise be relinquished as the anachronism it has been since the sixties. "A willingness to use violence" may be "a poor guide to political soundness" (Turner p37, my emphasis), but we know that self defence is no offence - and to revolutionaries, 'offence' should be no offence either. Liberal pluralist identity politics, and its tactic of political soundness - sorry correctness - refer to the lifestyle choices of those whose institutional positions allow them to disavow the world's unpleasantnesses, while the structures they serve do the same old business. It's not a case of gratuitously hating middle class people, but the need to be clear about the dominance of certain types of discourse (which, more often than not, coincide with middle class positions).
Similarly, CW's honest sense of rootedness in specific British working class cultural environments doesn't have to lead to nationalism, or be denied with illusions of universality - even if CW's ideologists don't understand this (proved by their discussions of Ireland and Europe in Unfinished Business). In general the Class War newspaper had considerable propagandising potential, which it was able to fulfil for several years without needing to appeal to or engage with the agendas, priorities and sensitivities of its near neighbours in far-left politics.3 These and other political interests respond by resurrecting the kind of smears4 aimed in the past at Bakunin and Sorel, among others - expressing an intense fear of collective explosions of unrest - in particular that these may evade the grasp of the political cadres, and, more pertinently here, reveal the bankruptcy of theory. Many people would be relieved to see the end of Class War, not least because its success threatens to undermine all sorts of "proletarian" pretensions.5 However, a combination of the effects of CW's own 'theorists' (lending contingent support to equations of populism with demagogic orchestration of hate), plus the surprisingly intense levels of enmity and contempt from other revolutionaries for its rashness and vulgarity, have helped to stifle CW's progress.
This contempt is open in Blob's 'Hot Time on Desolation Row' (Here and Now 13, p7) - an otherwise valuable and incisive summary of recent patterns of British rioting, most successful when based on information from local contacts as opposed to playing guessing games with the inaccuracies of media coverage. But the arrogance referred to above about the theory and politics of class struggle lead to Blob's comments (p26) about Amber Films' production of Dream On, commissioned and shot on the Meadow Well estate in North Shields long before the riots there. The account given of the film's development, production and reception is in most respects falsified (bad guesswork?), apparently so as to preclude any analysis of events other than the predictable left communist rant. It seems most appropriate to interpret this as reflecting the submission to theory which has displaced commonality of experience and motivation as the grounds for political engagement among many revolutionaries.
Class War's review of the film (issue 53, p15) did not refer to any of the so-called theory of Unfinished Business. It was simply one CW member's immediate and emotional response to the film. Though rather naive about the film's producers, this was refreshingly free of the pretentious, alienating garbage dragged in by many 'radicals' when they wish to sneer at ordinary folks enjoying something so blatantly commodified (and admitting it is almost beyond the pale!). Unsurprisingly, the sneering is rationalised as ideological correctness. So we learn from Blob that Class War have no 'critique of art', causing the reviewer (and the editors and entire membership?) to misunderstand the film. Apparently, not only should a film review be scrutinised for its adherence to doctrine, but film viewers are supposed to interrogate the motives of its producers before deciding on whether to laugh at the jokes, empathise with characters or be engaged by the narrative. I'd like to see Blob trying to convince Dream On's large and enthusiastic audiences (huge in the NE) of this - because the film did not 'bomb' at all. Being a Channel 4 TV production, only modest debts were incurred in printing the film for the cinema - to be repaid when foreign TV rights etc come in.
This may be thought too trivial to mention - it's only a film, a media product made and sold, like any other, according to various institutional and market constraints. So, why does Blob go to such trouble to trash it? Class War's reviewer liked the film partly because it portrayed its chosen aspect of working class culture accurately, plus it hinted that positive responses to anti-social behaviour and suffering could be autonomously generated through community links. There was no sign of any middle class characters or discourses within the narrative (pretty unusual, eh?), although passion, fantasy and empathy among the characters were prominent. The screenplay was based on the experiences of women residents of the Meadow Well estate in a writing group in the mid-80s. Their book6 ends with a copy of a letter to Thatcher, including the words, "We're amazed you haven't been assassinated yet," plus the polite reply from a Downing Street minion, ending, "... your comments have been carefully noted'! These women had no illusions about the significance or likely effects of their activities, and were unlikely to be 'recuperated' in any sense. Maybe CW and I lack a 'critique of literature' too!
The writing group was self-originated, but only developed the way it did because of the recuperative efforts of various funders and professionals. For example, the interests of the group's co-ordinator - as writer, community worker and Amber Films partner - require a certain intensity of working class suffering and a supposed inability for this to be expressed positively (let alone in 'art' or worthy culture) without the ministrations of middle class culture entrepreneurs. However, the pivotal role in the film narrative - the 'wise woman' character - is clearly based on the co-ordinator. This identity is mystified in the narrative as a working class older woman tied organically to the community, rather than being parachuted in as a paid ‘expert’.
This crucial manoeuvre allows all of the social and economic relations of production of the film to be denied. The council can cite a community worker to justify their image as caring while they get on with the main cuts and yuppification business at hand. Amber build up their catalogue of documentary realism, reinforcing their claims of expertise in objectifying, patronising and rendering as tame the working class communities that they target. Yet all signs of the institutional networks and forces that plague the real life community have been purged from the film's narrative. But, this amazing evacuation of reality, in the passage to fairy tale, allows the fantasy elements of the narrative (including the wise woman character) their full effect. This level of paradoxical realism suggests how contradictory and how crucial creative fantasy may be in working class culture and politics, as a key factor in its resilience and relative imperviousness to the stultified managed passivity that the professionals work towards (whether they know it, or like it, or not).
This double irony reflects the ambivalence of many professional social and community workers from working class backgrounds. They rely on poverty, oppression and external imposition for their material security, yet wish-fulfillingly fantasise that they are really part of the communities they police. If we were assessing Dream On from a perspective of measuring the pretensions of its makers against some ideal revolutionary motives, then "savaging it as ... miserable recuperative junk" (Blob, p26) makes sense. But to identify so blatantly with the film's makers (even to slag them off) betrays the bias of revolutionary proletarian theoreticians, including the fascination with "drowning people" who "clutch at anything". Meadow Well residents may be depressed at times, but aren't "drowning". Condescending charitable attention - whether from radical theorists with critiques of art, or more conventional sources - is not constructive and will not be welcomed. Class War may be slated for its populism, but taking the perspective of the film's viewers allows these traps to be avoided. The reviewer need not assume a position of superior knowledge - most viewers couldn't care less about the careers, agonies and postures of film makers, or their friends and rivals on the left - all competing for the right to know and represent the truth of working class suffering, claiming a position of privileged access to its essence. Meanwhile, the CW reviewer accurately perceived that many working class viewers will have been affected, in some small way, by this film - either at the pictures or on the telly - but in ways that media professionals can't have access to - to use, spoil or manipulate. Most wouldn't even be aware of these effects. Thanks to self-imposed theoretical blinkers, neither is Blob.
Unfortunately Class War's editors may have taken on board the left communist-type of critique - perhaps so as to compete more credibly for status in the anarchist ghetto. A film reviewed recently was Reservoir Dogs - a Scorcese-style bloodbath movie about as far from [i]Dream On/i]'s kind of realism as you could get. The film strips down the usual "phony macho Hollywood crap" (CW 58, p15) - male bonding in extremes of pain, terror and death - by forcing several Hollywood styles to their logical extremes. The glamorous image of careers in serious crime and police investigation are comprehensively tarnished, whereas the film is saturated not only with fake blood, but also the dominant media representations (the clothes, the music, the poses) that associate such danger with sexiness. This is a clever and powerful film, although designed and marketed as a cult object for trendy youth and film buffs, rather than for a blockbuster's audience. However, Class War no longer seems able to pitch a review at a simple and effective level - raiding the film text for messages conducive to their own purposes and trampling all over other contrary meanings in the narratives - as with Batman as assassin, or with Terminator as nemesis of the ruling classes. Instead the review of Reservoir Dogs hints vaguely at its "vacuous arguments"; complains that sympathy is evoked for the "wrong" characters; and ends by calling it a "distasteful" film. Distasteful ... ?! Yes ... but is it recuperative?! Well, quite.
1. Andy & Mark Anderson, Why the Revolutionaries Have Failed. Splat Collective, c/o 5 Cadbury Rd, Birmingham 13.
2. For various perspectives on these questions, see: Cornelius Castoriadis, Marx Today: the Tragi-Comical Paradox (interview with Lutter journal), Solidarity, Issue 17,1988, p7-17; Dick Hebdige, Hiding In The Light: On Images and Things, Routledge 1988; Mark Poster, The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context, Polity 1990; Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: the Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, Routledge 1992.
3. For example: Stewart Home, The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War, AK Press 1992; as well as Class War's own Decade of Disorder, Verso, 1991, and Unfinished Business: the Politics of Class War, AK Press, 1992.
4. And the criticisms in Here and Now, which confuse Unfinished Business with CW as a whole, fit nicely into the agenda of those currently attacking a wide range of anti-fascist libertarians - an unfortunate irony, given Turner's account of 1970s autonomists and the Anti-Nazi League (Here and Now No. 13, p35).
5. Not just on the libertarian left, either, e.g.: 'The Passing of an Old Warrior, Analysis magazine's sympathetic but premature obituary (early 1993) circulated to CW groups - presumably hoping for conversions to Leninism?
6. Mixed Feelings: Writings from Cedarwood Centre Women 's Group, Cedarwood, North Shields, 1988.
Essay published in Here & Now, no. 14, pp.18-22, July 1993.
For more essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: