Editorial - Opium of the people?

Originally published in January 2011.

The past few months have seen an ever increasing stream of protests and events, of political analysis and of new groups being formed. These moments seem to be increasing in both intensity and occurrence and have made it such that a lack of coherent understanding of the ‘the cuts’, the protests that they have sparked and the responses that they have been met with, is understandable both in this editorial and amongst all of us. As we take a step back to reflect both on the past year’s historic attacks on welfare provisions and jobs, and the rise of popular protest against the new Con/Dem government, we are left mostly with questions and a feeling of, ‘what happened/is happening’ and ‘where are we going next’?

Shift is a project that aims to provide a platform for, and intervene in, movement debates. When we met several months ago, before Millbank brought a different set of political issues into focus, to talk about the theme for this issue we felt that the rise of the EDL and the uncritical nature of many Left/Islamic partnerships indicated that religion is an important issue to be discussed.

Religion has been and still is an important component of many political movements, including our own. The Muslim Association of Britain’s membership of the Stop the War coalition and the partnership between Respect and various hardline Muslim and Hindu groups are only the most obvious examples. From solidarity campaigners involved in organising around the Israel-Palestine conflict to the Tamil protests that brought Parliament Square to a halt, the presence of Quakers and Buddhists in peace campaigns, or the Christian café and ‘Islamic perspectives’ workshop at Climate Camp, religion is a presence within our movements and the wider world we seek to engage with. Religion, and Islam in particular, is also becoming central to emerging forms of far right politics. As the anarchist writers, Phil Dickens and Paul Stott explore in this issue, we must reject both fanatical Islam and fanatical Islamophobia. As Alberto Toscano discusses in our interview with him, the political mobilisation of religious movements is rarely ever progressive. Even those religious movements which seek to resist capital and power, such as the European Millenarian peasant revolts of the 1500s, can be conservative in their aims.

So whilst crisis and instability can bring with it a stronger longing for transcendental authority, our criticism of religious influences within radical movements both right and left must be part and parcel of the critique of capital and authority, where we understand the function of religion in capitalist society as one of veiling material social relations and turning social domination into an issue of morality alone. We believe this understanding can also guide us in our response to the cuts, where we must situate our response to these ‘reforms’ an expression of anti-capitalist struggle, rather than a protectionist, nostalgic or moralistic clinging to a defunct welfare state and democratic process. Indeed, recent nostalgia for the energy and dissent of the poll tax riots is perhaps a dangerous and false comparison to fall back on, one that ultimately shows a lack of ambition in collectively imagining the possibilities that ruptures such as those felt under Thatcher, and now again under the coalition, can open up.

This is the message delivered in our final two articles. In their respective analyses of the emerging anti-cuts movement, Werner Bonefeld, Keir Milburn and Bertie Russell argue forcefully that a politics based on an ‘anti-cuts’ position can never do anything more than defend the present. And why would we be interested in defending that present, replete as it is with wage labour, environmental destruction and instrumental education systems? The alternative they present is to move towards a politics that seeks to not only dare to reimagine, but also to control, the future.

Indeed, the future hasn’t felt nearly as exciting, or nearly as daunting, in a long time. We hope the articles contained in this issue can help spark the vital discussions needed for moving into that future.