Finding uncommon ground: working-class identity politics after Labourism

Finding uncommon ground: working-class identity politics after Labourism[1]

Don’t talk to me of fucking representing
the class yer were born into any more.
Yer going to get ’urt and start resenting
it’s not poetry we need in this class war.

Yer’ve given yerself toffee, cunt. Who needs
yer fucking poufy words. Ah write mi own.
Ah’ve got mi work on show all ovver Leeds
like this UNITED ’ere on some sod’s stone.

Tony Harrison, V

You don’t choose the family or the circumstances you are born into but you can choose your tribe

Katy Perry

Between tribe and multitude: the shape-shifters of class

For many on the British left, ‘identity politics’ emerged out of the radical student and youth cultures of the late 1960s, at a time when the onward march of Labour was beginning to grind to a halt in the face of the first wave of de-industrialisation. Identity politics was essentially about ‘non-class issues’ – about sexuality, gender, generation, ethnicity and race. For some traditional Marxists, the culture wars that developed around these issues were distractions from the class struggle; they were seen largely as the preoccupation of students, middle-class professionals and the liberal intelligentsia, and as indirectly serving to widen the ideological gulf that existed between the latter and ‘ordinary’ working-class people. This was at a time when long established working-class cultures and communities were under attack, as their material basis in Fordist production, long term investment in industry, and the post-war settlement between Capital and Labour was being rapidly eroded by the advent of a globalised economy based on new information technologies. In contrast, for the New Left, inspired by Gramsci and the growth of Cultural Studies, identity politics constituted an exciting new field of political and personal action, uncontaminated by the ideological baggage of either Labourism or economistic Marxism.
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The starting point for this article is, firstly, that identity politics has never not been about class – it has always involved the class articulation of non-class issues; and, secondly, that working-class identity politics have a long, complicated and conflictual history, rooted in the founding moments of the industrial revolution in Britain. We cannot grasp what is at stake in the political fallout from the current unravelling of working-class identities – whose effects Tony Harrison so painstakingly traced in his poetic dialogue with the skinhead who had defaced a family gravestone in his home town – unless we seek an understanding of the process in the long durée.

Class consciousness today is no longer dependent on the intervention of a class based ideology or party that seeks to unify and transform a class-in-itself (as defined by its objective place in the social division of labour) into a class-for-itself (i.e. a class that is actively organised and conscious of its own political interests). Instead, class identity has sought to base itself on relationality, and this has undermined the old classical Marxist model: class relations today are formed and re-formed through a trajectory of positive and negative proxy identifications. And, through these identifications, a ‘class-from-itself’ (a class that seeks to reconstitute itself through its external identifications) is continually reconfigured as a ‘class-to-itself’ (a group defined to itself by new forms of internal identification); what’s more, these new forms of ‘class-to-itself’ frequently morph into ‘class-from-itself’, and vice versa.

 In the first, centrifugal, moment of class-from-itself, collective identities associated with becoming working-class (via the various informal apprenticeships offered by the family, school, workplace or neighbourhood) are decentred and dispersed into more or less transient assemblies of individual citizens/workers/consumers/residents, pursuing particular interests, desires, grievances or demands. The narratives of aspiration which sustain these groups tend to refer to social origins as an obstacle to advancement, something that has to be overcome in order to transform bad beginnings into happy endings (the ‘triumph over adversity’ story); or, alternatively and more nostalgically, class origins are seen as a locus of lost solidarities that can be sentimentally retrieved  (the ‘there goes the labourhood’ story). This trajectory provides the material sensation of mobility, of making real life  transitions, but it is an evanescent momentum which mirrors an underlying socio-economic stasis.

In a second and centripetal moment, which often occurs as the pursuit of particular quests or claims hits up against the general limits and conditions imposed by existing power structures, these assemblages – if they do not become completely atomised and disappear altogether – may regroup to define themselves as the sovereign representatives of People and/or Nation; a sense of heritage, of enacting a social destiny, is an important feature in this narrative, along with a drive to re-centre  demands for social justice within the body politic as a programme for its democratic transformation. This trajectory generates the semblance of arriving at a point of stable anchorage for re-formatting working class identities but remains haunted by  a sense of their social dislocation.

Working-class identity politics thus takes a dual form. The class-from-itself moment is created through drawing on diverse elements external to the working class (e.g. via social movements, or virtual communities of interest); in so far as it holds on to principles of solidarity and mutual aid, these are expressed through the figure of the Multitude, as described by Hardt and Negri; the multitude can be seen as providing a bio-political platform for ‘bridging capital’ which connects people across differences and allow them to sustain relatively fluid identities and affiliations.[i] This in turn enables people to behave proactively, mainly by building opportunistic partnerships that can reduce the risk of common projects becoming destabilised by global market forces. Its populist meme, addressed more or less self-referentially, is ‘For the Many not the Few’.

In contrast, the centripetal class-to-itself moment reproduces itself from inside itself.[ii] It emphasises principles of self-reliance and self-sufficiency; politically, in the past   it was associated with ‘workerism’, the belief that the emancipation of the working class is a task which can only be accomplished by the organisations of the class itself, led by an ‘organic’ intelligentsia.. Today however it is embodied in the figure of the Tribe, which as Michel Maffesoli points out has increasingly substituted itself for ‘the masses’ as a rallying point for a whole array of subcultures pitching themselves against  a suffocating and homogenising  individualism. As a means of returning the working  class to itself it is a reactive strategy, and one which seeks to develop bonding capital (see note 1), binding people together around common filiations, fixed identities and more or less fictive kinships, as well as shared  memoryscapes linked to local prides of place. Street gangs, community heritage projects or NIMBY style urbanism all represent defences against the de-territorialisation of identity and the de-stabilisation of the life course resulting from the de-regulation of market and civic economies. At the same time, this response is a recipe for the elaboration of a narcissism of minor difference, whereby to live in the wrong street, support the wrong football team, wear the wrong clothes, or go to the wrong school, is to find yourself a pariah within what is notionally a community based on a  common class culture. The tribe’s populist meme, addressed exclusively to its own members, is ‘One for All and All for One’.

These two responses, and their respective social imaginaries of community, offer complementary ways of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. But neither Multitude nor Tribe can heal   the hidden injuries of class. The first deals with anxieties about class influence through the incorporation, and sometimes neutralisation, of social differences; but its effect is to displace status anxiety into ever new circuits of projective identification. The second operates through disavowal, foreclosing the opportunities opened up by the loosening of the class template by reiterating an aboriginal class identity in and for itself.

Backbone of the nation, race apart: a tale of labour’s two bodies

The liberal left intelligentsia has often been ambivalent about manual labourism as a site of working-class community; this culture has sometimes been idealised as site of heroic masculinity and fraternal combination, but – for that very reason – just as often disregarded or treated with suspicion as a reactionary sexist obstacle to social progress. This split perception has a long history, one that is rooted in material circumstances and in actual divisions within the class but also in the ways these have been represented. Many years ago, Edward Thompson argued that what was unique about the English working class was that it was present at its own making.[iii] England had the first industrial revolution, and hence the first industrial proletariat. There were no historical precedents, no narrative templates laid down for how this social force should be represented, politically, culturally or aesthetically. The historical prematurity of its birth meant that the class had to invent its own myths of origins to explain how it had come into being and what its destiny was to be.
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One way this was attempted was by appealing to imagery and language that gave the emergent class a heroic, Promethean and largely pre-industrial provenance. Elementary, or rather elemental, forms of labour – labour that worked with the elements of fire, water, earth and air in various combinations, and used both skill and physical strength to transform nature into a productive force – came to be regarded as occupying a privileged position in the ontology of labour power. Workers whose labour embodied these principles: miners, navvies, blacksmiths, farm workers, fishermen, foresters, mariners, dockers, foundry men, and more recently, ‘roughnecks’ or ‘roustabouts’ working on oil rigs, steel erectors, and tunnellers – all these became privileged icons of a heroic form of working-class masculinity, hailed as providing the backbone of the nation. At the same time, the physical degradation and abject poverty associated with many unskilled categories of manual labour, and with dirty or taboo jobs, led to their associated communities to being treated as belonging to a ‘race apart’.[iv]

Labour’s two bodies, promethean and abject, were not mutually exclusive. They could be two sides of the same story. The history of some social  groups can be traced as a progression from one subject position to the other – and then back again. Cockneys, for example, started out life as an alien underclass whose moral physiognomy was compared unfavourably and invidiously to that of ‘hottentots’, but then turned themselves into music hall performers singing popular patriotic songs and cracking cheerful-chappie jokes, until by the 1940s they emerged as national heroes of the Blitz – only to fall from grace once more in the multicultural 1990s when, thanks to Alf Garnett and the Pub Landlord, they become a byword for in-your-face chauvinistic attitudes, or, alternatively, the sentimental ‘knees up mother brown’ schlockney of Chas and Dave.

Miners have suffered a similar fate, and one significantly bound up with their historical association with a home-grown tradition of blackface. Blackface was part of two quite distinct strategies for representing The Other; the first linked black slavery to the unfreedoms of wage labour and the abjections of dark satanic mills. The second drew on popular traditions of masquerade and the practices of ‘blacking up’ associated with the English guiser, mumming, Morris, and the defence of ancient national liberties against foreign yokes. The miners, those ‘white negroes’ whose coal-blacked faces spoke eloquently of their dual existence as the backbone of an industrial nation and as a race apart from the rest of the working class, were also part of a wider struggle by  sections of the labour movement to tear off the black mask and ‘whiten’ skins, to erase the stigma of grime from public representations of the class, whether through the improvement of working conditions or the provision of more hygienic living environments. If, nevertheless, it was the miners who were singled out by Margaret Thatcher as the ‘enemy within’, it was precisely because they had come to represent the backbone of the industrial working class, and its claim to be the true creators of the wealth of the nation.

It was this same white skin/black mask dialectic that came into play in the original moment of emergence of East London skinheads in the context of the closure of the docks in the late 1960s. Their fathers may have marched in support of Enoch Powell, and signed up to his inverted vision of them as the backbone of an island race whose mission was to ensure that England remained a providential nation apart. But the sons and daughters, with their preference for Ska and two-tone music, not to mention cosmetic ‘darkening’, gave a more positive charge to the story – at least initially. And nearly half a century later, rappers like Dizzee Rascal and Kate Tempest emerged from the multi-ethnic council estates of East and South London to give a new twist to the meaning of Grime – one that invented its own vernacular shout about what it was like to grow up on the ‘wrong’ side of the class tracks.

The subject positions that I have briefly sketched here are internalised and transformed within working-class communities in a multiplicity of ways. Groups positioned as a race apart have tended to develop an ethnic nationalism of the neighbourhood, where prides of place are asserted through strong forms of territoriality, in ways that give a positive value to their cultural and physical distinctiveness and neutralise their marginalisation within the wider body politic. Such quasi-tribal attachments, whether via the street gang or matrilocal family, promote the closure of solidarities around real and fictive kith and kin, and hence emphasise ‘ethnic’ loyalties and cultural homogeneity as a self-defining characteristic. On the more positive side, they also support the growth of dense networks of mutual aid and shared resource, linked to stable if restricted models of the life course.

In general, these labourhoods have provided their inhabitants with a defence against and refuge from some of the more destructive and de-stabilising forces of capitalist modernity; they have offered precarious toeholds, or bolt holes in what was otherwise regarded as a hostile and uncertain world.  They have supported a strategy of community stake-holding based on bonding capital, and on enhancing the community’s capacity to claim privileged access and symbolic ownership over public resource by appealing to a sense of customary entitlement. But what happens when these principles of  entitlement are challenged, or simply become redundant – when networks of collective self-reliance become hollowed out by the process of de-industrialisation and can no longer withstand the implosive pressure of neoliberal individualism? The answer is to be found in social statistics – in mounting rates of addiction, mental illness, crime, obesity, domestic violence and chronic ill health, now honed into postcode indices of multiple deprivation. And , at a political level a visceral rejection of  New Labour and New Times.

In contrast, working-class communities that come to see themselves as the backbone of the nation, as the true creators of its wealth and prosperity, develop a strong narrative sense of place identity and belonging, based on civic, not ethnic, entitlement. These labourhoods offer those growing up within them a prospect of the world as a field of social opportunity and engagement, based on bridging capital, the capacity to build partnerships with other groups in pursuit of shared political and social goals. Historically these micro-communities have been in a stronger position to minimise the social costs of modernity and maximise its benefits, and to correlate their own incremental gains (viz in living standards) with a wider sense of entitlement linked to progressive causes and forces in society. Their prides of place are anchored to a network of civic institutions and norms of public propriety through which they have learned to embrace a more ethnically diverse and multitudinous vision of solidarity. But what happens when the pillars of this proletarian public realm begin to crumble, when these communities find themselves suddenly, within a generation, thrown onto the scrap heap, no longer promethean creators of the nation’s wealth but abject recipients of EU handouts, a new kind of race apart? The answer is a vote for  Brexit.

As a concrete example of how these positions can interlock   consider contemporary forms of gentrification. Rather than a simple material  displacement of one housing class by another  it involves a complex process of cultural appropriation and resistance  mediated through  a play of cross- class identifications that progressively  transform the character, meaning and perception  of a place. Hipsters may find a working class  area desirable precisely because  of its  aura of industrial  heritage, its  street markets adding ‘local colour’.  Young people growing up in the remaining social housing may resent this neo-tribal invasion and re-assert their own territorial protocols: we still rule round here. But they may also  be fascinated by the alternative life styles on offer, even if they cannot afford to actually buy into them. In such cases of d-i-y gentrification, bonders may become bridgers as the affluent and the poor learn to live chic by growl.

 Apprenticeships and inheritances: the hidden injuries of growing up working-class

Identity issues used to be an exclusive feature of middle-class adolescence, a staple ingredient of the bildungsroman, a conjunctural rite of passage, a bit of ‘storm and stress (or dress)’ to ease the transition into the bourgeois world with its stable career structures and secure livelihoods. The working classes had their own stable principles of the life course. Growing up working-class – until the second half of the twentieth century – usually took the form of an apprenticeship to an inheritance negotiated through the family and the labourhood.[v] The life cycle unfolds as a more or less congenital link between origins and destinies. You can only become what you always and already are, by virtue of the social identity which has been entailed in your life course, from the moment of conception onwards. Within this framework, every part of the child’s body or behaviour may be recognised as the signifier of some ancestral virtue, or vice. Baptismal naming fixes identity. You have coal in your bones. Hairdressing in your fingertips. You are a Scouser or a Cockney born and bred. This closed reproduction of positions may become racialised, or alternatively may serve to shore up the boundaries of ethnic identities under attack. But in order to accomplish this task, the code has to be effectively transmitted to an up-and-coming generation. It has to be articulated through particular cultural forms of apprenticeship in which life is unfolded as so many stages in the mastery of a  set of dispositions and  skills, linked to making ones way in the world.
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Today, old heads are no longer so easily placed on young shoulders, and even young fogeys tend to deny that they are chips off the old block. Growing up working-class no longer means being apprenticed at an early age to an inheritance of trade or domestic knowledge passed on from parents or elders in the workplace and community. What now counts is the disposition of intellectual, cultural and social capital entailed in practices of learning, both physical and mental, mediated through the apparatus of extended scholarisation.

For those who are having to grow up working-class without work, and without a language of class to articulate their experience, the code of inheritance can provide a sense of life’s historical continuity and identity. For the middle class, however, the material basis of inheritance in the transfer of wealth not only continues to over-determine life chances, but achieves ever higher salience with the financialisation of personal assets. For generation rent, waiting for long-living parents to die so that they can get hold of  their property, and hence be able at last to afford to buy a place of their own, has re-animated the whole psycho-drama of dis/inheritance which was once such a staple plot line for Victorian novelists, not to mention the classic who-dunnit. Ironically the Theresa  May social care reform plan at the heart of her 2017 Election manifesto attempted to rewrite the story line so that it became a win/win situation. Only to find that she had unwitting opened the proverbial can of worms.

As long as the psycho-social dynamics of apprenticeship/inheritance remained confined within structures of patriarchal authority, they routinely involved ritualised forms of quasi-oedipal conflict between ‘apprentices’ and masters or mistresses whom they would one day replace. Jobs and the social knowledge they entailed were regarded as held in trust by one generation of workers for the next. Once sons and daughters no longer followed fathers and mothers into the same occupational culture and community, other life journeys became imaginable. But while this opened up new horizons for the lucky few, it was not linked to any realistic opportunity structures for the majority.

Apprenticeship, although it nowadays scarcely exists in its traditional indentured form, except in a few highly-specialised crafts, has nevertheless led a vigorous afterlife as an existential metaphor and learning model. Modern apprenticeship, uncoupled from inheritance and the power of elders –who know -better, offers a viable model of peer-to-peer transmission within informal communities of practice both inside and outside the workplace. Just think how skateboarders learn how to do their moves from each other, graduating from an initial position on the edge of group observing what the ‘old hands’ do to a more central role as they gain in confidence until they in turn become expert. In the contemporary service economy we find a whole array of coaches, trainers and mentors who have mastered not only specialised work skills  but also the values and attitudes of mind and body that go with them. The apprenticeships they offer through their various mimetic disciplines involve forms of living labour which have been abstracted from specific workplace cultures and communities and rendered transferable, often being translated into middle-class idioms of vocation or career.

You can trace this happening in a new genre  of aspirational memoir, organised thematically around  triumph over adversity. Here a legacy of disadvantage, often associated with family dysfunction becomes a prompt for a personal struggle for survival and transcendence.  Despite being couched in  such an  individualistic idiom these narratives offer us a glimpse of one possible way to unlock the frozen transitions of a working-class generation whose coming-of-age story never comes. At the very least, reconnecting modern apprenticeship to an enlarged sense of a. birth right  , an inheritance still to come will help to focus  ambitions – and frustrations – on material demands around affordable housing and secure well-paid, meaningful work.

Against this background we need to argue for a new life-course politics – and this does not imply a return to a one-size-fits-all cradle-to-grave welfarism, but, rather, a re-assertion of the value of apprenticeship as a life-long biographical trajectory embedded in structures of collective aspiration and legacy open to all. Failing that generational inequalities within working class families will continue to be  focussed  around an endlessly deferred apprenticeship  disconnected from viable markers of maturity,  or alternatively, the passing on of  an embodied inheritance  uncoupled from any incremental process of gaining the know- how, cultural memory, or aspirational horizon required  to become a fully fledged citizen of a labourhood.[vi]

But this is only half of the story. We also need to re-align the code of inheritance within a moral and civic economy of worth that is no longer beholden to the espousal of a superior, interiorised authenticity associated with belonging to a race apart, or being the backbone of any nation. The legacy we need to pass on , is not only  a memoryscape of particular campaigns and struggles  but an oral tradition of militancy grounded in the textures of everyday life.

Finding un/common ground

To summarise the argument so far: contemporary forms of class consciousness are not based on the expression or frustration of some pre-existent rational class interest ; they emerge in and through an oscillation between two equally transient moments of incipient class identification, which, however, remain embryonic – prototypes of some yet-to-be-realised ideal, whether regressive or progressive. To extrapolate from this unstable matrix a solid social entity such as ‘the white working class’ or ‘the precariat’ and imbue it with a singular voice, a common culture and concerted agency, requires a strenuous effort of sociological imagination, if not wishful thinking, on the part of those dedicated to the preservation of the ancien regime of binary class politics.
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The volatility of the contemporary electorate derives in large part from this oscillation of  class subject positions. In both pre- and post-Brexit discourse we have seen unravelling working-class identities being re-composed – so that the class becomes once more a unitary being, native to these Disenchanted Isles – by placing the re-formed entity in juxtaposition to its Other Scene, inhabited not just by people of colour, but by all who come to these shores without a cultural passport to enter its promised heartland. Within this populist framing, the now aboriginal working class get to play Tribe (at last at home in and for itself), while Johnny Foreigner is cast as a to-and-fro-ing Multitude: an exact inversion/transposition of class subject positions into more or less racialised ethnic relations. This move is facilitated by the familiar device of setting up a zero-sum game, in which one side’s gain (in jobs, housing, education and social amenity) is always the other’s loss, and won at their expense. Conspiracy theories are ready to hand to prove that the rules of the game are rigged so that ‘Multitude’ always trumps ‘Tribe’, and the ‘indigenous’ always lose out and end up as proverbial ‘strangers in their own country’, in a paradoxically predictable switcheroo.

The rival memes of the Remain and Leave Campaigns dramatised the splitting of working-class identity politics I have been discussing. ‘Better Together’ evoked – unconsciously and in a suitably displaced but scaled-up form – the lost solidarities of the labourhood and its civic attachments, now better enunciated by urban multicultures; while ‘Take Back Control’ carried an echo of working-class syndicalism and its now hollowed-out forms of territoriality, but transposed into a cartography of exclusion drawn around the fault-lines of religion and race, and inscribed within the fictive physical geography of anglo-ilishness.

We will understand nothing about the dynamics of  the working class Brexit vote unless we recognise that it was not just a knee jerk reaction to globalisation by the so called ‘left behinds’  but a profound response to  the  de-regulation not only the market and civic economies ( the neo-liberal agenda ) but  of  the moral economy of the labourhood. Its replacement by the gig economy with its just –in time production of the self, its  permissive unfixing of gender and generational identities, has had a profoundly dislocating effect. The traumatic impact of de-industrialisation on working class communities  is not just about the loss of jobs, but of a whole way of life, a mode of social being – and becoming- in the world based on a sexual and generational division of labour which has been rendered obsolete.

Until recently the Left has largely watched these developments from the side-lines and with dismay. There have been strenuous bouts of finger wagging, shoulder shrugging, head scratching and fist shaking, interspersed by mea culpas from the progressive commentariat. In the meantime, the recriminatory post-Brexit debate polarised between Blairites and the Corbynistas, each in their own way committed to the view that in order to save the Labour Party it is necessary to destroy it.

The unpalatable fact is that Jeremy Corbyn  inherited a dead Labour Party, a party long dominated by a technocratic vision of social change, delivered through a bureaucratic command and control structure. Momentum set out  to breathe life back into this corpse, to turn what had become a cartel party under New Labour back into a mass party. Objectively  the conditions for such a project no longer exist, but in acting as if they did,  its activists have succeeded, against all the odds  in creating some of    its subjective conditions . Nevertheless there  remains a tendency for this initiative to be pulled in two different directions at once – as an extra-parliamentary social movement with limited demographic appeal beyond its student and progressive middle class progressive base, and as  a  political subculture lodged as a noisome antibody within the Westminster apparatus of government.

The challenge now  is to move beyond this to create a party of living labour, a party dedicated to releasing the creative power and imagination that is integral to the moral economy of the workplace (something that is not reducible to productivist norms), and which is also embedded in the everyday cultures of mutual aid that are evidenced today in all manner of peer-to-peer networks and communities of practice. A living labour party would support the development of a collective enterprise culture based on the recognition that innovation in any field of endeavour comes from sharing knowledge/power, not from seeking to monopolise or commodify its use. This is the true modernising impulse – and one that avoids both the techno-utopianism of advocates of so-called ‘smart cities’ and the retro-utopianism of so many small-is-beautiful grass roots initiatives..

A living Labour Party has to  enact a new language of the commons that could articulate resurgent nationalisms of the neighbourhood to civic prides of place, rather than to ethnic or racialised identity politics. This shift towards a translocal but still grounded class consciousness could build on and help disseminate the norms of civility and visceral multiculturalism that have emerged in many areas of hyper diversity in the inner city. But it could also pull upon more locally situated aesthetics of land, sea and townscape, celebrated in music, poetry and the visual arts, and embodied in a host of popular recreations and sports.

At the same time, the scaling-up of what might otherwise remain at the level of a localist ‘folk politics’ depends on a renewal of municipal socialism and its civic economy of worth, to re-organise the role of the local state as a facilitating environment, and not merely a regulator of conflicts in civil society.[vii] And while it is always worth looking back at historical traditions like Council Communism, Guild Socialism or Anarcho-Syndicalism for inspiration, the real challenge is to engage with the shifting ground of contemporary class identity politics. In practical terms this means developing organising strategies and projects that combine bonding and bridging capital into a single exercise in capacity-building, seeking to avoid the traps of both an introverted communitarianism and an extraverted but vacuous populism. Such a site-specific but translocal reconstitution of the ‘national-popular’ promises to yield a narrative offering a more inclusive heritage of democratic struggle than one that is confined to the labour movement and left alone: a birth right of the many not the few.[viii]

Labour’s election manifesto was a partially successful attempt to stitch  disaffected voters back into the Labour Party by offering a   alternative to austerity politics without   pandering to the more reactionary forms of identity politics. And it notably addressed the discontents of ‘generation rent’ who came out to vote in unprecedented numbers. Yet  despite its Grime  charm offensive the campaign  did not succeed in mobilising large numbers of working class  non-student youth.  To resume the onward march of Labour  requires more than traditional Keynesian  policies coupled with a strategic use of social media.   To rebuild the moral economy of the labourhood means challenging and transforming  the defensive , insularised, and  backward looking  formations that have emerged to fill the  ideological and social void created by the end of labourism through  a new kind of cultural politics.

As a simple but concrete example of the approach I am advocating, consider how a living Labour Party might have intervened in the celebrations of Magna Carta two years ago. In contrast to the official platform, which reiterated a safe message about law and property being the foundation of civil liberty, an alternative reading would focus on the struggles for enfranchisement and empowerment that have used Magna Carta as a rhetorical reference point over the centuries. Working in collaboration with local artists, schools, youth projects, civil liberties and campaign groups, as well as a wide range of community organisations, an aim might be for each constituency to produce its own pictorial/narrative Great Map of liberties and commons, past, present and future, incorporating local places and events associated with popular democratic struggles. Whether in the form of a physical or digital map, a tapestry or a banner, each constituency would add its own distinctive features to a deep cartography of popular democracy. Not only would the project bring together different elements of the class from- and to-itself in a common project: it could also provide a platform for a nationwide public deliberation about the relation of civil society and the state, helping to create the conditions for the formulation of a new constitutional settlement enshrined in a Bill of Rights.

The period of  political uncertainty  we are now entering offers a great opportunity  for the Cultural Left to  engage in this kind of activity,  exploring the uncommon ground opened up and shared between Tribe and Multitude, to transform Dead Labour into Living Labour – and without the need for any second coming of Blair Brown, or the invention of yet more party tails to wag a now non-existent dog.

Nothing can be taken for granted, neither victory or defeat. The danger is that the immediate euphoria generated by Labour’s unexpected, if still limited,  success, will lull us into thinking that one more big heave will do the trick and get rid of the Tories. As I argued in an earlier Soundings article (Summer 2015) we are living in a bi-polar political culture, which  continually flips between prophecies of Doom and New Dawn and where optimism of the intellect is often accompanied by pessimism,or paralysis, of the will. Instead  of  creating yet more social imaginaries of our New Jerusalem we need to get down to the hard graft of  building  coalitions of shared concern around translocal issues. Central to this project is to explore new ways to reach out to those who are still growing up  working class, together with their parents and grand parents  who for too long have been  abandoned to the vast condescension of sociological analysis, or burdened with  unrealistic political hopes or counsels of premature despair. There can be no rebirth of Labour without them.

[1] I would like to thank Sally Davison for her editorial comments   and the many friends and colleagues with whom I have discussed these ideas over the past two years.

[i] The idea of bridging and bonding  comes from Robert Putnam’s model of different forms of civic investment and stake-holding that link people to others in relations of trust; but the concept is here extended from social capital (as in Putnam) to include the accumulation of bio-political capital , as  hearts, minds and bodies are mobilised around the production and legitimation of social identities. See Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster 2000. For Multitude see Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Penguin/Random House 2005.and for Tribe see Michel  Maffesoli The Time of the Tribe :the decline of individualism in mass society London Sage 1996

[ii]  The  distinction between these   two different  bio-political orders is between   a process of  auto-poesis in which a system appears to  function autonomously and lack nothing  in order to perpetuate itself,  and allo-poesis in which a system necessarily produces something other than itself, and requires something other than itself in order to survive .  The disembedding of capitalist economies (and especially finance capital) from civil society is an example of the first. A  car assembly line  is an example of the second.

[iii] See E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class Penguin, Harmondsworth 1980.

[iv] See Phil Cohen ‘Labouring under whiteness’, in Ruth Frankenberg (ed), Dislocating Whiteness, 2004; and Chapter 5 of Material Dreams: maps and territories in the un/making of modernity (forthcoming Palgrave Macmillan).

[v] For further discussion of these points see Phil Cohen, ‘Apprenticeship à la Mode’, in Pat Ainley and Helen Rainbird (eds), Apprenticeship: towards a new paradigm of learning, Berg 2006; and ‘From Here to Modernity: Rethinking the Youth Question with C. Wright Mills’, in Shane Blackman and Michelle Kempson (eds), The Subcultural Imagination, Routledge 2016. For an American perspective see Jennifer M. Silva, Coming up Short: working-class adulthood in an age of uncertainty, Oxford University Press 2016.

[vi] As will have become apparent I am using this term to refer to a nexus of cultural practices and social institutions that weave a web of  association  between workplaces and  communities. Labourhoods do not depend on physical proximity of where people live and work, (as in industrial villages and towns) but  on the  often translocal networks through which filiations and affiliations are sustained.

[vii] For a discussion of folk politics and its limitations see  Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams  Inventing the Future:post capitalism and a world without work  Verso 2015

[viii]  For Gramsci   the  ‘national popular’ represented a common set of references  shared by large sections of the population ( for example  football,  the internet, video games  and social media), in a way that makes  the boundaries  between elite and vernacular  culture more permeable. However he did not anticipate how tribalised and fragmented  the  national  popular would become. Its re-constitution as a  platform which is neither populist or nationalistic depends on cultural initiatives   that develop new  forms of bridging capital.

m Robert Putnam’s model of different forms of civic investment and stake-holding that link people to others in relations of trust; but the concept is here extended from social capital (as in Putnam) to include the accumulation of bio-political capital , as  hearts, minds and bodies are mobilised around the production and legitimation of social identities. See Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster 2000. For Multitude see Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Penguin/Random House 2005.and for Tribe see Michel  Maffesoli The Time of the Tribe :the decline of individualism in mass society London Sage 1996

[ii]  The  distinction between these   two different  bio-political orders is between   a process of  auto-poesis in which a system appears to  function autonomously and lack nothing  in order to perpetuate itself,  and allo-poesis in which a system necessarily produces something other than itself, and requires something other than itself in order to survive .  The disembedding of capitalist economies (and especially finance capital) from civil society is an example of the first. A  car assembly line  is an example of the second.

[iii] See E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class Penguin, Harmondsworth 1980.

[iv] See Phil Cohen ‘Labouring under whiteness’, in Ruth Frankenberg (ed), Dislocating Whiteness, 2004; and Chapter 5 of Material Dreams: maps and territories in the un/making of modernity (forthcoming Palgrave Macmillan).

[v] For further discussion of these points see Phil Cohen, ‘Apprenticeship à la Mode’, in Pat Ainley and Helen Rainbird (eds), Apprenticeship: towards a new paradigm of learning, Berg 2006; and ‘From Here to Modernity: Rethinking the Youth Question with C. Wright Mills’, in Shane Blackman and Michelle Kempson (eds), The Subcultural Imagination, Routledge 2016. For an American perspective see Jennifer M. Silva, Coming up Short: working-class adulthood in an age of uncertainty, Oxford University Press 2016.

[vi] As will have become apparent I am using this term to refer to a nexus of cultural practices and social institutions that weave a web of  association  between workplaces and  communities. Labourhoods do not depend on physical proximity of where people live and work, (as in industrial villages and towns) but  on the  often translocal networks through which filiations and affiliations are sustained.

[vii] For a discussion of folk politics and its limitations see  Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams  Inventing the Future:post capitalism and a world without work  Verso 2015

[viii]  For Gramsci   the  ‘national popular’ represented a common set of references  shared by large sections of the population ( for example  football,  the internet, video games  and social media), in a way that makes  the boundaries  between elite and vernacular  culture more permeable. However he did not anticipate how tribalised and fragmented  the  national  popular would become. Its re-constitution as a  platform which is neither populist or nationalistic depends on cultural initiatives   that develop new  forms of bridging capital.

Finding Uncommon ground : re-thinking  working class identity politics in post Brexit Britain 


Part One : Subtle Dialectics,Crude Thoughts

 ‘In order to save the Party we had to destroy it’ (with  acknowledgement to Bert  Brecht)

After the so called uprising of June 23/When  business and political leaders /had leaflets distributed /stating that the people/had forfeited their confidence/and could win it back only/by redoubled efforts  in another referendum /Would it not be easier in this case /for the government/to dissolve the people/and elect another?/Such a subtle dialectic/Trading places with  such crude thoughts.

After the  attempted  coup of June 28/when members of the PLP/had leaflets distributed/stating that their leader/had forfeited their confidence /and could only win it back/by giving up the ghost/would it not be easier in this case also /to dissolve the membership/and elect a committee of psycho-pomps/to lead the now non-existent party/to a new underworld ?/Such a crude thought/In search of  subtle dialectic.

I wrote this poem  because I was  invited to contribute to an event organised by Momentum in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for re-election as leader of the Labour Party. I somewhat reluctantly agreed because like many I had become disenchanted by the lack of strategic  grasp and sheer incompetence displayed by Team Corbyn. But   the request came from the son of long standing friend, a young man  who had suffered  an unusually protracted and disturbed adolescence but had now found in Momentum a  sense of fellowship and  a public platform on which he could perform with some confidence.
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The event  was staged in a music pub frequented by students and hipster types  from Corbyn’s  Islington  constituency. When I pitched up, there were a small group of twenty somethings  huddled around the brightly lit stage, most of them, it turned out,   the performers  and their friends. In between the acts, which comprised some  awful doggerel protest poetry and some quite good, but apolitical  songs, the MC bellowed slogans   into an imaginary megaphone and encouraged the audience to respond as noisily as possible  to simulate a mass rally and attract punters in from the street. My friend`s son got up and made a  passionate yet considered speech, about how Corbyn`s agenda represented a principle of hope  and Momentum was the last chance to build a mass movement against the Tories austerity regime. The audience cheered and hooted their appreciation. At this point the thought of getting up and reading a poem  which referred back to  a political context and conjuncture beyond most of the audience’s ken  seemed suddenly too daunting. As a paid up member of the Groucho Marx tendency  ( motto: never join a club that would have you as a member) I was anyway hardly cheer leader material. I did’nt want to be a party pooper and    what, after all, did I, or my generation of 68ers have to offer these young people except a glimpse of a  political transformation that had seemed possible once upon a time, yet never happened?   ‘Les Evenements’  now seem little more than a fairy story for a ‘generation rent’ which  tends to regard post war baby boomers as the spoilt beneficiaries- if not the creators-  of hip  capitalism with our secure professional jobs and pensions, our over- valued houses  and our self  satisfied radicalism.

What I wrote was a deliberate plagiarism of a famous  poem  by Bertolt Brecht. The ironically titled ‘The Solution’ was written in 1953 in the immediate aftermath of a popular uprising  against the Stalinisation of the GDR regime, and in particular a decision by the central committee of the Socialist Unity Party to lower wages and increase work quotas. The uprising was started by construction workers and lead to mass meetings  and factory occupations. It was bloodily suppressed by Soviet tanks,  arrests and purges and extra -judicial murders. It led to the first large scale exodus of people from East to West Berlin, and thus contributed to the building of the Berlin Wall. Brecht’s poem satirises a so called socialist  government   that  erects walls around its own  people, ostensibly    to defend them against being corrupted by capitalism but in reality to  protect its own power. Unfortunately  there are still people today on the Left in Britain and elsewhere who think that socialism can be created in one caucus  by building walls to keep  the ideology pure and stop it being contaminated by democratic debate, whether inside or outside the party. Some of them are even in Momentum….

The refrain of ‘subtle dialectics, crude thoughts’  refers to a discussion during the 1930’s between Brecht and Walter Benjamin  who were close friends but also intellectual sparring partners. The argument between a playwright and polemicist who wrote  poetry  and a  philosopher who wrote poetic prose, was about the relation between two versions of  dialectical thinking within Marxism, Hegelian and materialist, and about  the (non)relation between revolutionary theory and practice in the arts. These conversations took place   against the background of the rise of right wing nationalism,populism and fascism in Europe as a response to the  Great Depression.  Brecht  admired  Benjamin’s ability to do elegant  headstands on the high wire of cultural theory, but argued that subtle dialectics was not enough, he  needed to get his feet more on the real ground of working class politics; Benjamin, for his part,   admired  Brecht’s didactic ability to cut through the ideological hype and  philosophical waffle and get to the nitty gritty of things, putting into plain words   ideas that were on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Crude thoughts- der plumpes denken- in this context  have nothing  to do  with  salacious gossip or blue jokes, nor are they  simply hand –me – down slogans. They are  ideas which crystallise through a process of  democratic  deliberation and are  then put into memorable words.

Today more than ever we need subtle dialectics and crude thoughts to be combined as Stuart Hall did so brilliant in his conjunctural analyses. We need political activists  to serve as  organic intellectuals who can think on their feet and join in the dance of the mind triggered  by collective policy making. (NB  I am not thinking of Ed Balls here). And from the other side, we also need to learn from poets how to  put into clear and memorable words, what is in the hearts and minds of ordinary people, their hopes for a better, more fulfilled   life and their  desperation  about the lack of real opportunity to realise their more generous ambitions. Yet instead  of strategic  analysis we are all too often offered a vacuous pseudo- radical rhetoric in which  dialectical reason   is trapped within an iron cage of academic specialism, written in coded gobbledegook. Just flip through the pages    of most peer reviewed journals if you want to see what I mean. At the same time we have the spin doctors and social media gurus  who churn out ever more mindless memes  in the  hope of capturing an ever more evanescent zeitgeist.

The referendum debate and the subsequent post mortem analysis of the Brexit decision   is a good case in point. The Left commentariat went in for a good deal of  breast beating, fist shaking, finger wagging  and straw clutching, a difficult manoeuvre to do all at once, but which some, like Paul Mason and Jeremy Gilbert,  managed with great adroitness.  There was a general consensus that globalisation was the villain of the piece, and that New Labour had ignored the predicament of those communities who were the losers, who suffered most from de-industrialisation,  and who also experienced rapid demographic change with  the arrival of large number of  economic migrants from the EU. No wonder this erstwhile heartland of Labour support had deserted to UKIP, or in Scotland the SNP! In some accounts the responsibility for  this outcome was pitched wider: the political class as a whole, the metropolitan elite, the  liberal intelligentsia were all fingered as having retreated into their own cosy cultural bubbles, and shown disdain, indifference or  patronising regard for large sections of the lower middle and working classes  who did not share their privileged,  better educated and decidedly multicultural perspectives on our  inter-connected  world. At the same time the unholy  alliance of Telegraph, Daily Mail and Sun readers who had voted for Brexit  were accused ( along with the papers themselves) of  suffering from a bad  case of xenophobic, if not overtly racist, false consciousness  in so far as they blamed immigration, rather than the recession, austerity politics,  and neo-liberalism for their deteriorating circumstances.

However In the best of this commentary there was also an awareness that the Brexit vote was symptomatic of a fundamental shift in the tectonic plates of British class society,  a shift which had destabilised  major institutions in  civil  society as well  the boundaries of the nation state  and that this had created a general crisis of political representation which threatened the future, not only of the Labour party, and our disunited Queendom, but Social Democracy itself.  So what do we need to rethink about the nature of contemporary class relations in Britain, in the light of that debate and its outcome?

A Different Class  

She had a thirst for knowledge/She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College/That’s where I/Caught her eye/She told me that her Dad was loaded/I said “In that case I’ll have a rum and coca-cola”/She said “Fine”/And in thirty seconds time she said :

I want to live like common people
I want to do whatever common people do
I want to sleep with common people
I want to sleep with common people
Like you  …….

I said : You will never understand/How it feels to live your life/With no meaning or control/And with nowhere left to go/

You’ll never live like common people
You’ll never do what common people do
You’ll never fail like common people
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view
And then dance and drink and screw
Because there’s nothing else to do  –
Pulp  A Different Class

There was one uninvited guest to the Brexit debate, who took centre stage.  The ‘white working class ‘is a very recent invention, albeit one which claims a long established pedigree of entitlement. It first emerged in its current revanchist form through   a process of convergence  between moral panics on both the Left and the Right, starting in   the 1980’s but especially since 2007/8, about the advent  of a new dangerously dysfunctional underclass, left behind by and, excluded from the benefits of a globalised, knowledge and service based economy,  made  redundant by  the decline of manufacturing  and manual labour and  squeezed into ever tighter pockets of ever more intense  urban and rural poverty by gentrification. Whether ‘WWC’ is demonised  as a predatory  client of the welfare state, and a reason to roll it back (the Rightist standpoint)  or regarded as  easy prey for racist and populist demagogues who exploit its resentment and despair  to detach them  from their historical allegiance to the labour movement (the Leftist standpoint), it is regarded  by both sides  as a ‘race apart’, having decisively failed the test of modernity.
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This characterisation has a long pre-history, of course; Victorian  commentators talked about the ‘dangerous and perishing classes’,  an ‘urban residuum’, or the’ lumpen proletariat’, and even though the prescriptions as what to do about them differed, there was general agreement across the ideological  spectrum, from  Marxists and municipal socialists,  to  liberal reformers and  Anglican Tory ‘civilising missionaries’ that  this population represented a threat  to whatever vision of progress they espoused. The backbone of the Imperial Nation or the Socialist State they would never be…..

This moral  topography, mapped out in London so vividly by Charles Booth,    made sense of a world in which there were clear cut demarcations in social status and life style within the working class city:  between the   labour aristocracy and  casual labourer or street trader, the skilled and the unskilled, the respectable and the rough; they lived in separate neighbourhoods or  streets, they did not socialise or inter- marry,  they  belonged to different clubs, churches and trade unions; and sometimes, in specific contexts and conjunctures,   these distinctions took on an ethnic or quasi racial dimension.

However the  landscape of contemporary British class society  is no longer like this.  Class relations are a site of fluid projections and introjections, still underpinned by structures of inequality, of course, but not only those  of wealth and power,  but of social, cultural, intellectual and bio-political capital. Class identities  have become radically  eccentric to themselves, in the sense of  being formed in relation to the Other within.  Inside every proletarian there is a bourgeois struggling to get out. Inside every meritocrat, an  aristocrat.  And vice versa. That is why those who live on the other side of the class tracks are such an ambivalent object of fear and fascination. Freud grasped this dynamic far better than Marx. In his essay on the family romance, he shows how poor or abandoned children create imaginary genealogies for themselves, inventing biographies in which they are   ‘in reality’ (i.e. in fantasy) offspring of the rich and famous, and have suffered  the misfortune of being   kidnapped by the poor utterly worthless  people who happen to be actually bringing them up. Equally those who actually occupy exalted positions in society often fantasise about the simpler and  more authentic lives  of  the ‘common people’ and engage in a variety of practices, from slumming to  social transvestism and trading places in order  to vicariously  experience  ‘how the other half lives’.

Of course you can dismiss all this as yet another example of false consciousness.  As in the Pulp song.  But I think it has less  to do with inverted  snobbery, or the politics of envy     than  a  form of  projective identification driven by a pervasive and restless sense that something essential is lacking in privileged standpoints, especially where these  have been  inherited.  However these games of trading places have been upset by  the fact that the places themselves have become destabilised  along with the communities of affiliation which hitherto gave them their anchorage in a moral anatomy of fixed distinction.

Under these conditions, class consciousness is   no longer dependent on the intervention of a class based ideology or party  to unify and  transform a class- in- itself (i.e. as defined by an objective place in the social division of labour ) into a class- for- itself. The very relationality of contemporary class identity undermines the classical Marxist model.  Today class  relations  are formed and re-formed  through  a trajectory  of positive and negative identifications  with their avatars.  Through  these proxies  a class- from- itself is reconfigured as a class –to – itself, and vice versa.

In the first, centrifugal moment   collective identities associated with becoming working class, via the various apprenticeships offered by  the family, school,  workplace or neighbourhood, are de-centred and dispersed into more or less transient assemblies of  individual citizens /workers /consumers /residents  pursuing  particular interests, desires, grievances or demands. The narratives of aspiration  which sustain these groups either tend to refer to social origins   as   an obstacle to  advancement, something that has to be overcome in order to transform bad beginnings into happy endings ( the triumph over adversity story)  or  more nostalgically, as a  locus of  lost solidarities  (  the ‘there goes the neighbourhood, story).

However, in a second and centripetal  moment, which often  occurs as the pursuit of particular quests or claims  hits up against the general  limits and conditions imposed by existing power  structures,  these groupings  either become atomised and disappear altogether or  regroup  as the sovereign representatives of  People and/or  Nation;  the sense of heritage, of enacting  a social destiny is  an important feature in this  narrative of aspiration, along with the drive to re-centre the demand for social justice within the body politic as a programme for its democratic transformation.

Working class identity politics thus takes a dual form. The class-from- itself moment  is created through  a process of allo-poesis,  drawing on diverse  ideological  elements external to it ( eg via   social movements  and virtual communities of interest)  ; in so far as it holds on  to  principles of solidarity and mutual aid, its avatar is  the  Multitude; in Robert Putnam’s  terms, the multitude provides a platform for  bridging capital  that enables it to behave pro-actively to minimise the costs and  maximise the benefits of globalisation, by building  opportunistic partnerships and diverse alliances which  reduce  the risk of permanent de-stabilisation by market forces.  In contrast,  the class-to-itself moment  reproduces  itself from itself through an  process of auto-poesis   that emphasises principles of self reliance and self sufficiency embodied in its own avatar- the Tribe.  This is a  reactive strategy  which develops  bonding capital, good for  building prides of place   and empowering collective memoryscapes for example  around street gangs, matrilocal kinship, community heritage projects or NIMBY urbanism as a defence against the  de-territorialisation of identity and  the disruption of  the life course  resulting from the chaotic synchronicity  of global capitalism.  At the same time it is a recipe for the  elaboration of a narcissism of minor difference, where to  live in the wrong street,  support the wrong football team, wear the wrong clothes, or  go to the wrong school is to find yourself  a pariah within what is notionally a working class community.

How does this  somewhat abstract  schema work concretely in forming class identifications? Here are a few examples from recent history. Let’s start with the petit bourgeoisie, specifically    family businesses and the shopocracy  – and remember Mrs Thatcher came from a line of grocers.  The family enterprise seeks to   reproduce itself from itself,  it perceives class relations as kinship relations, and vice versa. A line is drawn between black sheep ( the enemy within) and those groups to which there is a basic sense of kinship or family resemblance (our kind of people). Alliances  are developed on this ontological basis. The tribe becomes an agency of amoral familialism, blood is always thicker than elective affinities, and the multitude is made up of all the little people who are  excluded from the big Battalions of Capital and Labour.  Some other brief examples : The technocracy is constituted  from every class and thus considers itself ‘above class’;  its  project of social engineering seeks  to dissolve class relations into   administrative  ones, managed  through specific technologies of social control which it designs.   The traditional intelligentsia formed through the inheritance of intellectual and cultural capital, reads class relations through the prism of cultivated knowledge  and divides  the world into those who have good taste or intelligence  ( themselves and their patrons) and  the vulgar(  the bourgeois and the common people) who lack both. In contrast to this aristocracy of learning, the modern professional  is reproduced through extended scholarisation, and a meritocratic career structure, its perspective  maps class relations on pedagogic ones, making the central distinction between  the qualified expert/educator –the subject who knows-, and the untutored mass.     The landowning aristocracy uses its  patrimonial inheritance  as a paradigm of class relations, drawing the line  between those with breeding  and those who merely breed; the artisanate and labour aristocracy construct a magical consanguinity of labour  power, whose referential model is the patrimony of skills transmitted through closed apprenticeship   enabling  this class fraction to be both from and to itself.

These social  imaginaries  offer complimentary ways  of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again by creating a more or less stable  equilibrium between the centrifugal and centripetal drives of class  identification.   Neither  Multitude nor Tribe  heal the hidden injuries of class. The first deals with the anxiety of class influence through the incorporation and sometimes neutralisation of class  differences. The second  operates through their disavowal,  foreclosing  the opportunities opened up by  the loosening of the class template by re-iterating an aboriginal identity.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this process for understanding class in post Brexit  Britain is its relationship to modernity. Here we can distinguish between two trajectories,   the first  focused around a more or less techno-utopian future ( viz the Smart City agenda ), the other on  a more or less idealised past ( Building Jerusalem/Destroying Babylon). The first project involves  a kind of proto-modernism : modernity still imagined as a force of progress, in which the past gives way to the present as an open horizon of future possibility, without for all that enabling modernity to coincide with itself.  The second project  is retro-modernist, it treats  modernity as an unrealisable, if not undesirable dream, something which can only be grasped in retrospect, or is only available as a retro-fit. In this scenario the past is idealised and split off from  an abhorrent present and an unimaginable or dystopian  future.  Again neither version of modernity resolves the problematic which produced it.

To summarise the argument so far:  contemporary forms of class consciousness are not based on the expression or frustration of  some pre-existent ‘ rational class interest’ but emerge in and through  the oscillation between two  equally transient   moments of incipient class identification ,  which however remain embryonic, prototypes of some yet-to-be- realised ideal, whether regressive or progressive.  To extrapolate from this unstable matrix a solid social entity such as ‘the white working class’ or ‘the precariat’ and imbue it with a singular voice, a  common culture and concerted agency,  requires a strenuous effort of sociological imagination, if not wishful thinking,  on the part of  those dedicated  to the preservation of  the ancien regime of binary class politics .

However this figuration   of  WWC is not nearly as stable as it is made rhetorically to seem; it comprises  less a phalanx of angry citizens on  the march  than  an army of  zombies, trapped  between two  equally untenable embodiments as a class from and to itself; in fact  WWC   bears  an uncanny resemblance to Doctor  Frankenstein’s ‘monster’, stitched together from a body- politic- in – pieces ( all  that  remains of  a once mighty labour movement),  and attaining some semblance of indivisibility only through  the colour of its skin.

Under the imprimatur of  Brexit we have seen  what we might now call the DoubleYouDoubleYouSee re-composed into a unitary being, native to these Disenchanted Isles,   by being placed in  juxtaposition to its Other Scene, inhabited  not just by people of colour, but by all  who come to these shores  without  a cultural  passport to enter its   promised heartland.   Within this framing the now aboriginal  working class get to play  Tribe (at last at  home in and for itself), while Johnny Foreigner  is cast as a to- and- fro-ing Multitude. An exact inversion/ transposition of  class into more or less racialised ethnic relations. This  move is  facilitated   by the familiar  device of setting up a zero sum game, in which one side’s gain (in jobs, housing, education and social amenity), is always the other’s loss  and at their expense  The rules of the game are, of course,  rigged, thanks to conspiracy theory,  so that  Multitude always  trumps Tribe, the ‘indigenous’ always lose out and so  end up as proverbial ’strangers in their own country’, in a paradoxically predictable switcheroo.

The rival memes of the Remain and Leave Campaigns  dramatised  the splitting apart of working class identity politics I have   been discussing.  ‘Better Together’  evoked unconsciously and in a suitably displaced form the lost solidarities of the labourhood, now better enunciated by urban multicultures;  ‘Take Back Control’  carried  a residual echo of working class syndicalism and its now hollowed out forms of territoriality,  but transposed into a cartography of exclusion drawn around the fault lines of religion  and race and  inscribed onto the physical geography of anglo-ilishness.

Yet we still have to ask why and  how far did the groups interpellated by  this stratagem  actually recognise themselves in the phantasmagoric figuration of themselves offered by the  two campaigns? How come a ‘silent majority’ suddenly find their collective voice as a ventriloquist’s dummy operated by a counter elite?  Equally how much was  Remain  crippled by it fear and sometimes loathing of its  own formulation of  the WWC, whereas the Brexiteers could mobilise it as the authentic voice of People/ Nation  and use it to  haunt the corridors of afflicted  power with the threat of eviction from  privileged office?

To answer these questions we have to understand more about  back story of class relations in Britain. In the second of these articles I will try to show  how  living labour power  has been split at the root,  being variously constituted as the Promethean backbone of the nation and as an abject race apart. I will look at how  this duality  shaped the emergence of manual  labourism from a home grown culture  of blackface, featuring miners, mummers and sweeps  in Victorian times,  until finally, with de-industrialisation and  the decline of this culture in the second half of the  20th century, a space  of representation opened up  in which   populism and communitarianism   could compete and  find common ground  in a project to  rip   off the black mask and reveal  the white skin beneath.  Can we nevertheless detect in this trajectory   some uncommon ground  on  which what is left of the British Left could  remake its  relationship  to the working classes in a more positive way?

Indicative Reading

Anthony Barnett  Blimey! It Could be Brexit  Open Democracy 2016

Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello  The New Spirit of Capitalism   Verso 2015

Phil Cohen  ‘Labouring Under Whiteness’ in Displacing Whiteness (edited Ruth Frankenberg ) Duke University Press 1997

Klaus Eder The New Politics of Class :Social movements and cultural dynamics in Advanced Society  Sage 1993

Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley   The New Politics of Class : The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class Oxford University press 2017

Justin Gest  The New Minority :white working class politics in an age of immigration and uncertainty   Oxford University Press 2016

Bruno  Gulli The Labour of Fire : the Ontology of Labour between economy and culture Temple University Press  2005

Michael Hardt and Toni Negri  Multitude: War and democracy in the Age of Empire Penguin Books 2004

Martijn Konings The emotional logic of capitalism : what progressives forget  Stanford University Press 2015

Michel Maffesoli  The time of the tribe : the decline of individualism in mass society  Sage 1996

Robert Putnam Democracy in Flux:the evolution of social capital in contemporary society Simon and Schuster 2015

Ben Rogaly and Becky Taylor  Moving Histories of Class and Community  Palgrave 2009

Mike Savage   Social Class in the 21st century  Penguin Books 2015

Richard Sennett and Jonathon Cobb  The  Hidden injuries of Class  Faber 1972

Kjartan Sveinsson Who cares about the White Working Class? Runnymede Trust2009

Erik Olin Wright Understanding Class  Verso 2015

BOTH SIDES OF THE LINE Stuart Hall and ‘New Ethnicities, then and now

In June  1992 Stuart Hall came to the University of East London to give the inaugural lecture for the Centre for New Ethnicities Research  to which I had just been appointed director. I had been working for a number of years at the Institute of Education developing an approach to  anti -racist work with young people  based on  ethnographic research  in schools, playgrounds, housing estates and neighbourhoods  in East London. The focus, then  as now,  was on trying to understand the impact of   economic change  on the livelihoods, life styles,  and life stories of  the people most directly affected and their families over a long period of time.  East London, and especially the    Isle of Dogs where much of this  work took place  was  then a front line of racial tension  between a long established  working class community traumatised by the closure of the docks, and  more recently arrived Bangladeshi and Vietnamese/Chinese  communities[i].

Stuart had a long standing attachment to the University of East London, whose main campus was then in Barking, an area that  was undergoing rapid transformation from a predominantly white working class area, dominated by Fords Dagenham to a much more diverse  population,  a change  reflected in the composition of the UEL student body.  Barking  was itself to become a racial front line and  his  lecture, in which he developed his distinctive model of ethnicity,  had a very definite local resonance[ii]. On this memorial  occasion, when we are considering his intellectual and political legacy, it may be worth briefly  revisiting that time and place,  reflecting    what was achieved, where we failed,   and  what bearing  that whole initiative to re-think race and class  has on the political circumstances in which we currently find ourselves[iii].

 Race and the Other Scene        

From an educational standpoint the CNER initiative was   an attempt  to uncouple legitimate  grievances related to the process of   de-industrialisation ( viz the closure of the docks)  from the discourse of their racialization; in particular  we wanted to devise a method  to re-connect the existential predicaments of young people  arising from the implosion of  customary   transitions from school to a framework of understanding that could address  the more hidden wounds of class[iv].  This  intervention was both required and  hampered by the failure of  the multi-cultural curriculum to say much  positive about the heritage of working class struggle, unless it featured visible ethnic minorities,      and also by a moral, symbolic and doctrinaire pedagogy of anti-racism which tended to press the mute button on the expression of grievances voiced by  white  working class youth for fear that they  might be construed as giving support to racist beliefs [v].   The result was to  even further alienate   young people who already had little enough stake in the    educational  system or faith in its capacity to deliver on its meritocratic promises, and whose own collapsing narrative of aspiration in any case  bypassed it[vi].
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Against these tunnel visions, our work drew on concepts and methods from Cultural studies, using photography, art work, creative writing and visual ethnography to provide a space of representation in which  young people’s   anxieties  related to   rapid demographic and socio-economic change  could be freely   ventilated, examined, worked through and as far as possible de-racialised[vii].

I quickly came to the conclusion through this early work that to get to grips with  racialized sentiment and belief  it was necessary to take the notion of unconscious racism much more literally and seriously. It was not just about the unintended consequence of institutional processes of discrimination, or forms of prejudice of which  the perpetrators   were unaware or in denial, it was unconscious in the  Freudian sense- a discourse of the Other within the self that  involved  a perverse way of holding   bodies in  mind. From a Lacanian  perspective  racial phantasies are linked to  what Freud called the death drive. The racialised body is always an  ancestral body,  a  dead body  whose characteristics are supposedly inherited  identically from generation to generation  and  so remains  sealed up  in itself  and outside  history and language. This is the body held in mind evoked by   a  code  of inheritance that transmits   a carbon copy of an original (a race) which does not exist.   Racial  genealogies however dynamic  they look always imagine a  state of   social stasis  as their support. Sexual relations between  ‘ races’  are  so forbidden and so  thrilling  because they dare to  bring to  life  and give a libidinal charge  to what is  otherwise  a  dead relation between phantom bodies.    It is not only because of the unspeakable genocidal crimes  committed in its name, but  because it represents  unconsciously a remainder, and  a reminder,  of  this  death drive  that  racism  is such a terrifying force, at once so fascinating and  so hard  to combat, the ultimate point of  fixation and a floating signifier.

According to this view the  endless repetitions of   racist  discourse,  the reiterative slogans and stereotypes,  are an attempt to  master or contain the diffuse  anxiety aroused by this Other Scene ; yet the anxiety  continually leaks out as a principle of impending catastrophe represented by  the always unforeseen, (but already long anticipated) irruption of the uncanny, the foreign or the alien. Immigrants and  refugees, are rendered  visible within this frame  only to be   made to embody  concretely    this  otherwise unspeakable  threat. Once caught within this racialized gaze, target populations are treated as   representing  everything that has to be  got rid of from the body politic in order  to maintain its equilibrium. The diffuse sense of dread evoked by the death drive  is thereby transmuted into a named object  of fear and loathing, whose  exclusion – and at the limit extermination-  alone promises  deliverance[viii].

However interesting  conceptually, the real test  of this model is how  far it helps illuminate the role of  phantasy in everyday   racist practices, whether this take the form of  name calling, graffiti  or bullying in the playground, racial violence on the streets, or indirect forms of race discrimination in the  educational and employment system. My application of this model emphasised the  re-structuring of primary  processes of  narcissistic identification centred of the problematics of self –origination:  the nation, race, ethnicity, class, gender  aboriginally  giving birth to itself  and reproducing itself from itself identically from generation to generation as if were an endogamous  tribe [ix]. Within this symbolic order any form of  social, cultural or biological mixing becomes  taboo, and is considered a betrayal of filiation or  a dilution of heritage. To have the ‘wrong’ body, live on the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks, to support the ‘wrong’ football team, like the ‘wrong’ kind of music, wear the ‘wrong’ clothes  becomes a mark of pariah status, of belonging to a ‘race apart’.  To call this a ‘narcissism of minor difference’ as  Freud did in an attempt to cut anti-Semitism down to size through irony  should not be to underestimate its power to infiltrate popular culture and become common sense. One implication of this model  is that the primary  process  of the racist imaginary operates relatively independently of its forms of  institutionalisation, it persists beneath  threshold of public perception even, and especially when  these power structures are modified, for example through the introduction of  anti-discrimination legislation.

Tricks of the Trade

Stuart Hall was very supportive of this perspective, not least because of the influence of Fanon on his own thinking about race  and his close personal connection  with the world of psychoanalysis. In his  inaugural lecture he  argued that   ethnicity is not necessarily   ethnocentric, it does not have to be about autochthony, aboriginality, or auto-poesis,  it is not inevitably racially fixated, or essentialised. [x]He detected the emergence of a new and more hopeful form of ethnicity which was de-centred, fluid, situational, variable in its articulation, hybridised, allo-poetic,  and undergoing constant transformation. In other words post-modern. It became  our research task to put this construct  under empirical pressure, to investigate what the normative concept of ‘New Ethnicities’ corresponded to in the cultural practices, identity work, and coming of age stories, of young people growing up in a part of London which  for over two centuries has been home to immigrants and refugees  from all over the world as well as to a large English working class population drawn from different parts of the  UK and Ireland.
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One of our first projects was  called Tricks of the Trade, and involved  producing educational materials  for 10- 14 year old children for the British Film Institute[xi].   We chose the theme of the trickster,  inspired by  Henry Louis Gates ‘The Signifying Monkey’ – his account of the role of  trickster figures in Black diasporic culture, especially in  its  street vernaculars of sounding, signifying and talking the  dozens, the rhetorical foundations of rap. Our idea was to twin Ananse,  the black spiderman  whose exploits in using his wits to turn the tables on the powers-that-be was a staple ingredient of Caribbean folklore, with his White American counterpart, the hero of the All American Dream  as portrayed by Marvel Comics. Through this collision between hegemonic and subaltern cultures our aim was to explore issues of power, knowledge, and the  colonial legacy n an imaginative way by getting the children to create stories  about what happens when  Ananse meets Spiderwoman.  The story was adapted to local vernaculars, and for example, the Cockney was refigured as a  mixed heritage shape shifter, part con artist, part ducker and diver, outwitting the Law to make a living in the East End’s hidden economy.

So on the occasion of Stuart’s s visit I seized the opportunity to interview him about Ananse.   He reminisced about his  childhood growing up in Jamaica and the Ananse stories he heard told. What I like about Ananse, he told me,  is that he knew how to  live on both sides of the line.  In other words  he knew how to fool the powerful into thinking he was on their side, he could be trusted as ‘their man’ to do their bidding and then used that  privileged position  to undermine their  authority and get his own way. You can see why children love these stories!

Living on both sides of the line is what  Stuart Hall did most of his life. He was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, the founder of a new academic discipline, an internationally known  cultural commentator,  and, as such, a fully paid up member of the intellectual elite as currently castigated by the Daily Mail and the populist alt-right . But he was also an anti-establishment figure, a man of the New Left, a political activist, an organic black intellectual and part of  to a dissident academy populated by   artists and writers who held the world according to Mrs Thatcher in contempt. He turned up for the CNER lecture wearing a sober and  extremely well cut suit  as befitted the formality of the occasion  but he also  looked somewhat  uncomfortable in it, as if he longed to take off the jacket,  tear off the tie  and let the dance of his mind become a more directly embodied performance. Talking on his feet, combining  Benjaminesque  subtle dialectic with Brechtian  crude thought was, after all, his special forte.

Living on both sides of the line is also of course, what new ethnicities are supposed to be all about: the capacity to switch codes, negotiate multiple identities, feel at home in difference, and most definitely not feel    torn between two cultures  or conflicting value systems. Now one of the problems with this model  of identity work is that in some hands it tends to set up a binary  opposition in styles of identity work  between healthy happy hybridity at one normative pole and pathological purity at the other in a way which, it could be argued, fails to grasp  the lived complexities of race, class and gender in contemporary Britain.

Secondly it conjures up the exemplary figure of a nomadic subject  in a way which conflates the privileged cosmopolitan life style of   multi-cultural omnivores and globe trotters    with  the denizens of the gig economy, who from economic necessity have to engage in the just- in -time production of the self,  and also with the situation of  diasporic  peoples who have been forcibly  uprooted  from their homelands as a result of famine, war or persecution. The precarious circumstances of such groups simply do not  admit the luxury  of living  both sides of line, where the line in question is that drawn between survival or extinction.

Finding the Way Home

In the eight years of its existence CNER  carried out a wide range of  pedagogic /cultural action linked to its ethnographic research programme.[xii]  In our biggest project, Finding the Way Home,   we carried out a comparative study of young people’s sense of place, identity and belonging, related to issues of gender, ethnicity and class, in two ex- dockland areas of London (Deptford and the Isle of Dogs )  and two equally contrasting districts of Hamburg.   We used a gamut of methods, from picture preference tests of youth fashions, to guided fantasy exercises, photo-story making, video walkabouts, and narrative interviews, to create a multi-layered representation of  these young peoples’ coming of age stories and how these were influenced by  different local  histories and geographies of immigration and racism in each city [xiii].
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I cannot possibly detail the findings here, but suffice to say that we found  the crucial indicator for the style of identity work being pursued  was the amount and type of cultural and social capital at these young peoples’  disposal,  and  this  in turn was primarily a function of familial or communal  not educational resources.  The key distinction here was first defined by Robert Putnam in his theory of social capital, but can also be usefully  applied to cultural, linguistic and biopolitical capital[xiv]. Access to bridging capital provides young people with the confidence  to  experiment with  life style choices, to try out different gender roles, to reach out to  make friendships and other partnerships with young people from very different social  backgrounds based on shared cultural affinities, to   rehearse imaginatively  a new class and  ethnic identity, and to  generally embrace  the  stylistic mash ups  and  social conviviality offered by  urban multi-culture[xv]. In other words to live both sides of the line.  Bridging capital gave these  young people the opportunity and disposition to see the world, if not as their oyster, then as a safe space for their encounter with the Other, albeit with a few dangerous or exciting ‘hot spots’.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that those young people  with less going for them in terms of social and cultural assets needed  to create defensible spaces  of identity work in order to maintain some sense of ontological security; these spaces were often strongly  territorialised, and anchored to fixed positions of gender, ethnicity and class, relations of filiation  which is some cases were also racialised.  From the perspective of what Putnam calls bonding capital  the world is seen  a dangerous place, offering little prospect on the future, but with a few bolt holes, where the Other could be kept safely  at bay.   Bonders were more likely to draw the line under their own feet,  to over-react to any  kind of change and to feel most threatened by the arrival on the doorstep  of  new immigrants. We found that in both cities  it was the young people who self  identified as being working class and   who had the least social and cultural capital who were the most likely to  adopt  the position of  defended  subjects and  to bond only with those seen to be like them, in terms of  real or fictive kinship  rather than elective affinity.  However we also found that the balance between ethnic bonding and bridging varied according to local circumstances, and that  many  young people toggled between  positions according to the social context in which they found themselves. At one moment they would cheerfully be part of a diverse multitude, at another they reverted to their cultural tribe. There were also some who shifted decisively from one position to the other in the course of our research, as a result of contingent  experiences and interventions in their lives.  We concluded  that ‘old’ ethnicities had not withered away but in some contexts had been re-invigorated, partly as a defensive response to loss, while new ethnicities were largely confined to those who could take advantage of the creative opportunities they offered for self advancement, especially in the creative industries and knowledge economy.

Hani’s Story

These different  trajectories of identification, from building niches of roots radicalism based on race or religion,  to   exploring alternative  sub-cultural routes to a  mash  up of social identity,  could not be read off  or predicted simply from initial  class of ethnic categorisations.  Family and peer   cultures were  decisive intervening variables. Just how complex and over- determined these processes of  identity work  were can be illustrated by the story of one of the children we got to know very well  as he struggles to finding his way to somewhere he could call ‘ Home’. Hani was a 12 year old boy on the cusp of adolescence. He came to our attention  because his teachers were in a quandary  about how to deal with his often aggressive racial remarks. We began to work intensively with him, exploring his fears and phantasies in relation to his peers, but also encouraging him to make a portrait of his family life, bringing in photographs and objects from home to discuss and getting  him  to draw or paint figures or scenes, whether from his dreams, his day dreams, or his everyday life, that he found  disturbing.
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Hani’s  statements were  dominated by  lurid images of sexual and racial threat. He didn’t like girls  ‘because they had claws’ and he thought black girls ‘smelled bad  and would claw your eyes out if you looked at them’. He admired  and obsessively drew  musclemen, and wanted to be one when he grew up so he could ‘punch the girls claws off’. He  firmly believed in white superiority, and said he wanted ‘ to marry a sexy white girl  who would look after him’. Although at one level he was articulating a generalised peer culture of racism and sexism in this school, and was a correspondingly popular figure, especially  amongst the white boys,  the fluency and vehemence  of his statements  also   marked him out from the others.These ideas or phantasies seemed absolutely central to his self image; he had an ontological stake in racism and sexism in a way that some of the others who held similar if less extreme views, did not.

The first significant factor about Hani was that he was of dual nationality. His father was Egyptian, but had left the family to return to  Cairo when Hani  was quite little. On his not infrequent flying visits, there were often rows,with Hani taking his mother’s side. Many of his drawings depicted these fights through various avatars. But once his dad had left, Hani told us he longed for his return. He made up a series of tall stories  about his father’s adventures abroad which he illustrated for us. His favourite one   was that  his father was charged with an important diplomatic mission for the Egyptian government which meant that he travelled around a lot visiting various trouble spots in the Middle East.This fable both served as a cover story to explain his father’s absence, expressed a desire about the  mediating role which he  secretly  wished his father to play in the family conflict and functioned as an element within Hani’s family romance, allowing him to identify positively with his Egyptian origins, and indeed to construct a whole imaginary genealogy for himself  centred on a   highly romanticised  version of his paternal roots: he came from a family of rich merchants who lived in a palace which he would one day inherit. In this way, we surmised,  he was able to    defend himself against the hatred he must have felt for a father who in reality had abandoned him.

At the same time, in the context of  domestic disputes, Hani made it clear that he  identified strongly with his mother,and with being, like her,  both white and working class. But at another level, he also constructed for himself an imaginary father, a father whose Arabic name he proudly bore, and to whose linguistic and cultural inheritance he was actively apprenticing himself by attending a ‘supplementary’ school on Saturdays where he learnt Arabic. It appears that he kept these two ‘sides’ to his personality quite distinct. Yet such splitting, however necessary a defence, was not entirely successful in managing the tensions of his dual heritage.

According to the teacher who knew the family well, at home Hani was very much a mummy’s boys. Such a contrast from his school   persona, she said. Yet  perhaps his close identification with his mother’s place  was the reason why he needed to adopt such an exaggeratedly  macho stance and violently  reject anything associated with a  subordinate quasi-feminine position in his dealings with  male elders or peers. But this solution only seems to have led to a return of the repressed in the shape of the ‘phallic mother’ whose ‘claws’ he will have to punch off if he is ever marry ‘a sexy white girl who will look after him’.

But what function did his racism play in this ?  It  seems to have enabled  him to identify with his mother in racial terms, i.e. as white. Hani’s own skin colour was closer to his mother’s than his fathers in any case, but the identification was primarily symbolic. His favourite photograph of her showed her as a curiously asexual ‘English Rose’ posed against the artificial studio backdrop of a typically pastoral  landscape. In terms of the psychoanalytic model,  her white skin stood for a racial body immaculately conceived, ‘ its ‘inherent’ superiority came precisely from the fact that it did not depend on its sexuality, or gendered coupling   to reproduce its ‘perfect features’. In that sense it was no longer simply the maternal body from which he had been born, and against which he had to establish his difference and distance. It was an ancestral anglo- saxon body he could possess as an absolute principle of self identity.And through that mediation possess his mother while keeping  his father  at a safe but exotic distance. For Hani to lay claim to such a body was perhaps the surest way he knew to maintain an  omnipotent image of his own physicality in a way which did not put his masculinity in doubt. But what about his paternity ?

At one level Hani’s beliefs in white English superiority seem to have enabled him to gain a sense of revenge on a father who, in his mother’s eyes and perhaps even the son’s, was a monster who had abandoned them both in favour of  another country and, by association another family and culture. Hani drew a  picture of a Frankenstein like figure which bore a distinct resemblance to a photograph of his father, which he said he hated. In this way  he could ‘whitewash ‘ his mother and denigrate his dad. But at another level it was necessary for him  to hold on to a personal myth of origins which allowed him to feel proud of  his Egyptian as well as his English  roots, in other words to maintain an integral sense of dual heritage.  He could not allow his racist body imagery  to ‘blacken’ his father as well. In fact what he seems to have done is to have constructed a  double standard in which the light skinned Arab is colour coded white, and opposed to the ‘black’ Arab – the dirty street Arab, the denigrated Arab of popular stereotype. This split perception  may well have been influenced by the colour hierarchy within Egyptian society itself wherethe lighter your skin the higher your status. Thus his ideal father is whitened to  invest him with a general social superiority. But in making such distinctions Hani’s  personal  agenda  becomes overlaid with a  wider, more public, set  of references. For the way in which ‘Egypt’ has been constructed in the discourse of popular  Orientalism  and what it has come to represent within common sense ethnologies of prejudice mirrors  many of the ambiguities felt by this Anglo-Egyptian boy.

Hani’s family romance,  centred on a ‘white Arab’ father, allows him to  despise and dissociate himself from ‘black’ people. In the same way a  European intelligentsia  invented themselves as the standard bearers of a superior cultural heritage by excising Egyptian  ( and hence African) influences from  Classical  Greece. This operation  helped create the conditions for the kind of popular  Egyptology relayed by Indiana Jones movies  which were then featuring strongly as source material for playground games in his school. This cultural backdrop    presented Hani with an even more compelling motive for maintaining the split between an idealised image of his ‘fatherland’ and a derogatory view of blacks. This issue came to a head with the advent of the Gulf War, when the playground of this school echoed with jokes  about Saddam, and chasing games took the form of crusades against Islam. Now, for once, the boot was literally  on the other foot. His racist taunts about jungle bunnies were capped with jokes about Saddam Hussein’s toilet habits directed at him. The teachers did not know how to deal with the situation. Their anti-racist policy prescribed zero tolerance, but however effective that was in shutting up racism in the classroom, it was difficult to police the playground, let alone  the neighbourhood,. At the same their committed multi-culturalism meant that they wanted to encourage Hani to celebrate his multiple heritage, and especially his Egyptian roots,  yet  as a Catholic school, they were somewhat less enthusiastic about his embracing Islam.

Partly as a result of these difficulties, his mother decided to remove him from the school  and send him to an  Islamic faith school instead. Hani himself was enthusiastic about the proposed move. But there was much more to it than swapping one faith school for another. His  father, who in reality was a minor official in the Egyptian civil service, had returned  over the Easter holiday, having become involved with the Shazilya sect, a Sufi brotherhood which had embraced a version of Islamic fundamentalism. There had been a family reconciliation and his mother had decided to convert to Islam. Symbolically the path was now clear for Hani to adopt Arabic as his mother tongue,   as  the voice of an ideal self which  pointed him  towards an ego ideal embodied in the patriarchal structure of Islamic culture. Consequently his   body image  no longer had to bear the full weight of primary narcissism. It could be deracialised. He started to talk about ‘everyone being the same colour under the skin’, whilst his new sense of belonging to the imagined community of  Islamic faith   gave him an oceanic feeling of identification with this cause. As he put it ’ I feel that now we are all part of the same thing, Allah has  brought us all together again, its like coming home.’  However this new balance between ethnic bridging and bonding was fragile and came at a price. He started to develop a line in anti-Semitic rhetoric, no doubt partly influenced by his father  who held to the view that the Gulf War was the result of an international Zionist Conspiracy. In other words one kind of racist discourse had been replaced by  another. This  is symptomatic of the fact that the actual tensions between the two mythologies of ethnic origin he had constructed in order to have the best of both worlds as a   white Arab, had not actually been resolved by adopting a purified religious identity in place of a hybrid national one. Rather in the discourse  of the Other Within, the ‘dirty street Arab’ had given way to the ‘dirty Jew’. What had been cancelled by this move is the dual voice which characterises the diaspora experience, where  the language of origins always reverberates with  echoes of other times and places,  evoking  separation and loss even as it affirms the continuity of historical traditions. All this is denied in Hani’s enthusiastic embrace of Islam in which the father’s name and the mother tongue  are magically fused  in a single figure of quasi Oedipal authority. But that may not yet be the end of the story. For what is repressed has a habit of returning.

New Times but not those  ‘New Times’

Hani’s  story  evokes  a scenario where the Other scenes of race, gender and class  intersect to dramatic and even tragic effect at both a personal and political level.   Stuart Hall would have recognised this process, for sure, but he would also, I think, have admitted that  it  is now  time to revise some of the terms in which we understand what is at stake in such stories in the light of the present conjuncture. In 1992 we never thought that the anti-globalisation movement would come from the far Right, or that the radicalisation of youth   would come to mean young Muslims in Britain running away from home to join  ISIS. We are in a different conjuncture in which soft internal borders  are being over- written  by hard external ones, creating new topographies   of exclusion, cutting  across familiar lines of ideological division while at the same time re-territorialising old ones. Within the global city, we are seeing the social cleansing of many working class neighbourhoods and the forced migration/dispersal  of long established communities to the outer suburbs. Nimbyism used to be reserved for affluent middle class residents who did not want their privileged amenities  threated by public housing or infrastructure. Now it is a working class  complaint  against accelerated gentrification, including ethnic gentrification. While refugees and economic migrants  from around the world    sets their sights on Britain as a promised land of opportunity  for many of its current inhabitants it has become a not very green and singularly unpleasant land of broken promises and declining life chances.
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Contemporary right wing populism is a bonders charter;    it summons into being a virtuous, homogeneous,  aboriginal People  polarised against a cosmopolitan elite who have imported  alien  cultural goods into the country.   In the referendum  campaign, UKIP portrayed   the remain camp, who are de facto   bridgers  , with their mantra ‘stronger together’, as the  new ’ enemy within’.  The already fading internationalism of the labour movement was consigned to the dustbins of history.  The counter demand to ‘take back control’, with its echo of working class syndicalism and popular sovereignty, reverberated both with the widespread desire for protection   against   the precarities of the  labour and housing  market, and  the equally strong desire to  rebuild a moral economy of community around less permissive styles of identity work,  so that  growing up working class can once again become an apprenticeship to a viable inheritance of skill whose acquisition can function as stable markers of maturity[xvi].

In addressing, rather than dismissing  these  existential  concerns we have to ensure that  that those who  once upon a time were regarded by the Left, and who often regarded themselves, as the backbone of the nation, the true creators of its wealth and prosperity,  are not now demonised, by that same Left, as a race apart, mired in false consciousness, as unfit for the purposes of international  socialism as they are for global capitalism-  just because they voted for Brexit.

It is useful, at this point to revisit Stuart Hall’s theses on authoritarian populism, precisely in order to grasp  why we are NOT living through   a rebirth of Thatcherism with Brexit and  the emergence of the alt-right.[xvii]  To start with, we have to distinguish, perhaps more  clearly  than was possible  at the time,    between the libertarian and authoritarian instances of Thatcherite populism in order to grasp their dialectical tension.[xviii]  Thatcherism’s libertarian moment involved the de-regulation of the labour and housing markets and the mobilisation of the People, as consumers,  against  the ‘nanny ‘  socialist state, whose protective interventions  were characterised as a bureaucratic interference into  personal freedoms. In its authoritarian moment, Thatcherism intervened to re-regulate  the moral economy of community : individualistic norms of reciprocity operating  within a  competitive meritocratic order were to be re-embedded within  ‘Victorian family values’  associated with a ‘spirit of enterprise’  and hard work;  at the same time  the coercive and ideological apparatus of the State  was mobilised against the People, as represented now by the organised working class whose own moral economy, centred on a  culture of militancy and mutual aid  was first to be  hollowed out and then outlawed or dismantled.

The Left counter-punched against this double whammy :  the  key  demand   was to  re-regulate the market economy through  increased State intervention and control ( the authoritarian moment) whilst deregulating the moral economy through fluid   forms of identity politics in support of women’s, LGTB and minority ethnic rights ( libertarian moment).  In retrospect we can see that while each platform  was valid on its own terms, it was not joined up into a counter-hegemonic project and only served  deepen the divisions between   the labour movement and the  Left,  the socially conservative working classes   and radicalised sections of the new middle class.

The fall out from the splitting apart  of  long established configurations of State, market and civil society   has created our present  crisis of political representation; it  made possible  the emergence of   a grass roots authoritarianism based around a  national-popular  identity politics  counter-posed to  both the libertarian Right ( free market economy)  and the libertarian  Left (  free moral economy  )  now bracketed together   as  joint supporters of   the free movement of labour.  This formation  found its perfect  rallying point in the EU referendum which opened up a new narrative space for a  triumphalist, post-imperial version of the Island Story,  so brilliantly rehearsed by Danny Boyle in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, and which could now be claimed  by the Brexiteers as their own, proving that Britain could stand alone and still  put on a show that wowed the world.

It is the Labour Party which has been  left behind by these developments, not the working class. The  ‘post-modernisation’ of the party, its transition from a  machine for mass producing   one- size- fits- all- policies aimed at a large  working class  base  to the just -in -time marketing  of  an array of  policy ‘brands’ with  niche appeal   was never fully achieved[xix]. The project was fatally compromised by the  widely  perceived abandonment of its de-industrialised heartlands during the Blairite Ascendency. In the process the culture of municipal socialism which once upon a time promoted so  many agencies of bridging capital   and sustained an  inclusive,  civic nationalism of the labourhood    has been displaced by narrower,  ethnicised and territorialised,  prides of  place, disconnected from, if not outright hostile to,  mainstream politics.  As a result  the party is now faced   with the impossible choice of dissolving itself into an extra-parliamentary opposition  whose street cred is anchored to social movements and campaigns with limited demographic – and hence electoral- appeal or  becoming a small   subculture within a largely discredited  metropolitan  political class, a tail that wags a phantom dog.

The liberal  commentariat  have responded to the   Brexit vote with  a more or less adroit  mixture of   breast beating, finger pointing,  tub thumping , head scratching and shoulder shrugging. But for lefties of my generation no amount of mea culpas, oy veys or hail Gramsci’s is likely to do the trick. Clearly the great moving right show has taken us into terra incognita opened up by major shifts in the tectonic plates of class identity[xx] . We need to find new concepts and new strategies to  meet that challenge.  Otherwise, as the man  himself once put it,  we are in for a bumpy ride.

[i] See Geoff Dench and Kate Gavron The New East End:kinship,race and conflict Profile 2006  and Phil  Cohen On the Wrong Side of the Track pp 36 – 136 Lawrence and Wishart 2013

[ii]   See  Marc Isaacs film All White in Barking Icarus Films (2007)

[iii]  The present text is a revised version of a talk to a seminar organised at the University of East London on ‘Migration, Politics and Representation’ in honour of the establishment of a PhD studentship by the Stuart Hall Foundation.

[iv] See  Richard Sennett and Jonathon Cobb  The  Hidden injuries of Class  Faber 1972 ; On the racialization of working class identities in Britain see  Phil Cohen  ‘Labouring Under Whiteness’ in Displacing Whiteness (edited Ruth Frankenberg ) Duke University Press 1997

[v] See Roger Hewitt White Backlash and the politics of multiculturalism Cambridge University Press 2005  and . Also Phil Cohen   ‘Its Racism What Dunnit’- Hidden Narratives  in Theories of Racism’  in   Race, Culture and Difference  (ed James Donald & Ali  Rattansi)  Sage 1992

[vi] See Gillian Evans Educational failure and white working class children Palgrave 2007

[vii] For an account  of this work  see Monstrous Images, Perverse Reasons: Cultural Studies in AntiRacist Education  Centre for Multicultural Education ULIE Working Paper 11 1991


[ix] This approach  is discussed in  ‘Psychoanalysis and  Racism ‘  in John  Solomos and David Goldberg (eds) Blackwell Companion to Race Oxford  University Press 2002 and ‘Homing Devices – On racism and nationalism in everyday life ‘   in  Resituating Identity  (eds Valerie Amit-Talai and Caroline  Knowles)  Broadview Press  Toronto 1996

[x] See Stuart Hall ‘New Ethnicities’  in David Morley and Kuan Chen (eds) Critical Dial;ogues in Cultural Studies  Routledge 1996.Also John Solomos ‘Stuart Hall :articulations of race, class and ethnicity’ in  Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol 37 Issue 10 2014

[xi]  See Tricks of the Trade -Art Teaching and Multicultural Education  in Teaching Popular Culture  (edited   David  Buckingham) Taylor and  Francis 1997 ;  see also Phil  Cohen and Linda Haddock  Anansi meets Spiderwoman  BFI Publications 1992. Tricks of the Trade, the film in which the  interview with Stuart Hall is featured  can be downloaded from, as can a companion piece, Playgrounds of Prejudice.

[xii] This work is collected in Phil Cohen (ed)  New Ethnicities,Old Racisms Zed Books 1999. See also Bill Schwarz (ed) Front Lines, Back Yards New Formations Lawrence and Wishart 1998

[xiii] See Nora Rathzel (ed) Finding the Way Home-  Young  People’s Narratives of  gender, class, ethnicity and place in Hamburg and London   V&R Unipress Gottingen 2006

[xiv] Robert Putnam Bowling Alone . Putnam’s model of social capital   refers to different  principles  of social cohesion  operating through networks, whether embedded   strongly (bonders)  or weakly (bridgers)  ; this model refers back to Durkeim’s classic  distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity.  Basil Bernstein’s  work on the distribution of linguistic capital into  restricted and elaborated codes also draws on Durkheim’s  model . See Class,Codes and Control Vol 1 Routledge 1977. In The World, the Text and the Critic (Harvard 1983)  Edward Said reworked  these binaries  in his  model of cultural capital, making the distinction between  bio-political filiation based on real or fictive kinship and elective affiliations  based on ideological formation.  A similar model is applied  to a theory of community stake holding vis a vis the 2012 Olympics in On the Wrong Side of the Track pp 204-240.

[xv] See Les Back  New Ethnicities and urban culture :racism and multi-culture in young lives  UCL Press 1996 . Also  John Eade et al   New ethnicities among British Bangladeshi and mixed-heritage youth   Report to the Leverhulme Trust 2006.

[xvi] See Jennifer M Silva  Coming up Short :working class adulthood in an age of uncertainty Oxford University press 2016

[xvii] Stuart Hall ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ Marxism Today 1979

[xviii]  For a critique of Stuart Hall’s Gramscian reading see Bob Jessop et al ‘Farewell to Thatcherism? Neo-Liberalism vs New Times’, New Left Review, 179,  1990

[xix] See Anthony Barnett Blimey its Brexit!  Open Democracy 2016

[xx] See  Justin Gest  The New Minority :white working class politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality Oxford University Press 2016


FINDING COMMON GROUND: mappings of community and activism

Full text of a talk given to the Opening Plenary of the MeCCSA conference on Communities  at Canterbury,Christchurch University   

Looking Forward, looking back: the avatars of modernity

It is that time of year when the commentariat like to look back at the year that has just gone, to award prizes to those who have lived up to their expectations and brickbats  to those who have not, and  also look forward  to the year to come to find new principles of hope or despair. I guess we all do this to some extent. We look back in anger or regret,satisfaction or disappointment at what we have and have not achieved and try to glean from these memories some cause for optimism about ourselves and the world going forward. This can be an invitation to engage in counter factual  speculation : what if, if only, what might have been.  This is especially  the case if we still hold to a Whig interpretation of life history, in which our  lives  are meant to unfold as a story of progress, of incremental  steps forwards and  upwards on  some ladder  of personal attainment and fulfilment;, then  the failures, the impasses, the upsets,the mistakes come to  constitute a  repressed counterpoint, a hidden curriculum vitae which never features in  the official accounts we give of ourselves to prospective employers or lovers.
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For Generation Rent this disjuncture take on an especially acute form.[i]  What cause for optimism  can  there be for this post-student generation, given that they  have usually internalised  career as a  middle class life story  grammar at a time  when its structures of professional opportunity  have all but disappeared  except for  the largely privately educated offspring of a professional  and governing elite. Those  whose aspirations to join the salariat  are blocked, now find themselves having to explore the other sense of career, as a period of careering about, yet one which is no longer about a transient period of sowing wild adolescent oats before settling down to a secure job and home  but  continued dependence on family support and  employment  in forms of contingent  or  free lance labour  that, however redescribed in the idiom of vocation, (ie as an inner  quest   for an authentic  self),  can all too easily harden into the chronic  life long insecurities of the precariat. They are indeed trapped  in a frozen or deferred transition between dependence on a world of the past that is no longer effective – the chronic prematurity of a precocious childhood, and a world of the future  that is out of reach, a state of adult autonomy. In that sense this  generational predicament   dramatises the organic  crisis  of late modernity, caught between a  dying culture of  progressivism   and the advent of a  new world waiting to be born.

Under these circumstances  looking back and looking forward can be a painful business. The Left and the labour movement in Britain  has always been  better  at retrospect than prospect – it has largely advanced into the future looking back over its shoulder at the wreckage of its dreams like Benjamin’s Angel of History,  which  let us not forget was inspired by Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. This   was painted in 1920 at a moment when the political future of Germany was poised between two rival Utopias  of modernity : communism and fascism. Klee was part of what has been called the ‘lost’  Weimar generation, young people who felt trapped between looking back  to a pre-war world that had vanished for ever in the horror of mechanised warfare  and looking forward to a world in which the application of science and technology promised  emancipation  from poverty and drudgery yet  was seen as prefiguring new forms of alienation and subservience.  Klee had long been fascinated by the biblical figure of the Angel of Death, with its dual aspect  as a harbinger of doom and an instrument of  deliverance and hope. In this painting he depicts the angel as a fragile figure poised between two different kinds of flight – his  gaze   drawn in fascination to  something  we are not shown, but his eyes  also averted as if what is seen is too horrible to contemplate.

The British Left and labour movement’s attitude to modernity has  been similarly ambivalent, if for more mundane reasons.Modernisation has so often  undermined collective  bargaining power of workforces, has brought deskilling or redundancy,  while for the working class as  consumers it has meant  a more less magical liberation in terms of leisure and life style from the petty constraints and indignities  of wage labour.  This ambivalence is part of a wider attitude to the present, past and future, an oscillation between a proto-modernism that  identifies  modernity with progressive historical forces whether located in science, technology or  the working class movement itself,   and  a retro- modernity which  regards the condition of modernity not as something to be aimed at or achieved  but as something that has never quite happened, is possibly unachievable,  probably undesirable  and in any case can only be grasped as a kind of retro-fit…….

Today the art and science of looking forward  to the future, with its implicit optimism of the will- no one after all is likely to say that they are looking forward to  illness, unemployment, or poverty-   has increasingly  become the prerogative of global capitalism. Corporate visionaries, armed with their mission statements which promise to deliver the best of all possible worlds,  evangelical property developers  and  urban imagineers with their techno-utopias of the smart city, professional futurologists   with their big data sets showing that, global warming to the contrary, life is  getting better and better for most of humanity,   these are  the  poets and  prophets  of New Dawn. It is precisely because we are living in  such a globally unstable economy, because the routines and rhythms of everyday life, not mention life plans  are increasingly disturbed by unpredictable events, because  we find ourselves trapped in a  space time compressed system of chaotic synchronicity, that these road maps to the future have such a seductive appeal.

Pessimism, Optimism and the Inoperable Community

Until recently the Left has had to make do  with its well honed  pessimism of the intellect, party poopers amidst the spectacular successes  of Carnival Capitalism, with its  prophets and poets of Doom. And then Doom suddenly and unexpectedly arrived with the Crash and the advent of austerity politics.  The party it seemed was over at last.  And yet no-one really got the message. It might involve some  rearranging  of  deck chairs on the  Titanic, but the band played on, albeit to a slightly different tune.  The proverbial platitudes of common sense optimism– while there’s life there’s hope  –  came to the rescue, as did  the puritanical accompaniment  to capitalism’s pleasure principles : we all know  there’s no gain without pain!
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There is, of course, another sense in which the party really is  over. The crisis of Social Democratic parties across Europe  stems from the fact they have been unable to mount a coherent challenge to neo-liberal policies, have failed to find a mode of address  that connects with the concerns of the salariat and the precariat and have instead presided  over the dismantling or hollowing out of the institutions, agencies and narratives of collective aspiration  which hitherto enabled working class communities to   sustain struggles of long duration, and remain resilient in the face of set backs and defeats.   With Labour’s long forward march seemingly permanently halted  well this side of the New Jerusalem, the sense of belonging to a community that survives your own death, and whose continued existence  guarantees some kind of posthumous identity, some place in the collective remembrance of struggle has increasingly been lost. No amount of oral historicising and memoryscaping  by the Left heritage industry, however valuable as an antidote to the selective amnesia of mainstream popular culture, can create a living legacy of struggle once the material and cultural  links between growing up, working and class have been  broken. I will come back to the implications of this for current forms of working class politics  and community activism, but for the moment I want to consider its impact  on the Left intelligentsia and on  the way we currently understand and practice  our relation to class, culture and community.

In the early 1990’s in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, and  the collapse of  Communist parties both east and west, Jean-Luc Nancy,a philosopher  formed in the  intellectual hothouse  of Parisian  post structuralism, wrote an influential essay entitled ‘The Inoperative Community’ which  was recently the basis of an interesting exhibition at the Raven Row gallery in London[ii].

In an early passage of this text  he wrote:

‘The gravest and most painful testimony of the modern world, the one that possibly involves all other testimonies to which this epoch must answer (…) is the testimony of the dissolution, the dislocation, or the conflagration of community.  Communism, as Sartre said, is ‘the unsurpassable horizon of our time’… … if in fact it no longer is such a horizon, this is not because we have passed beyond any horizon. Rather, everything is inflected by resignation, as if the new unsurpassable horizon took form around the disappearance, the impossibility, or the condemnation of communism’. (Nancy 1991, 8)

Nancy is describing  communism, or more precisely the French Communist Party as both a community of political activists, of working class militants, and as an intellectual community, a community of scholar activists. The memoirs of this generation, and more especially of their children bear eloquent testimony  to just how much of a home from home these parties were  for   those  who  were formed within their orbit[iii]. Comradeship, before it became a corpse in the mouth, had the sweet taste of fellowship.  It was this existential sense of belonging  and the principle of collective hope afforded by membership of these parties, and  also, by mass social democratic parties,  that enabled  their members to turn a blind eye to their flagrant  lack of internal democracy, and their  legitimation of policies and actions which ignored, traduced,or simply suppressed  popular democratic  struggles of every kind. Nancy draws a radical conclusion from  the death of communism and the hope it represented in these terms:

‘Generations of citizens and militants, of workers and servants of the State have imagined their death reabsorbed in a community yet to come,. But  now we have nothing more than the bitter consciousness of the increasing remoteness of such a community, be it the people, the nation, or the society of producers. The communion to come does not grow distant, it is not deferred: it was never to come; it would be incapable of coming about or forming a future. What forms a future, and consequently what truly comes about, is always the singular death …’

Klee’s Angel of Death here trumps Benjamin’s Angel of History, pessimism of the intellect over rides and destroys optimism of the will. Now this is perhaps  a necessary response to the reverse effect of which we have seen so many terrible examples in the history of the 20th century; where optimism of the will  triumphs over pessimism of the intellect, it becomes  totalitarian, enshrined  in norms of  happiness and the common good imposed by the state  whether in the name of the nation as an imagined community  of citizens or the dictatorship of the proletariat,    this lethal subsumption of civic and market economies of worth under the iron heel of political economy  depends on marginalising or extinguishing  intellectual pessimism and  all forms of popular dissent whether by means of terror, incarceration and mass murder or simply through the administered spectacle of mass contentment  and consumerism.

Yet once these two halves of Gramsci’s formula are split apart, we may find ourselves in the worst of all possible  worlds. On one side an intellectual  culture of endless  solipsism,  reflexivity and immanent critique, which puts in doubt its own heuristic procedures and  knowledge claims  and disconnects  itself  from anything outside itself. Whether it opts for a form of dialectical idealism or transcendental materialism, this culture remains imprisoned within its own  academic devices,   its specialised jargons and scholastic protocols. What underlies this culture is a profound pessimism of the will, the belief that  now there are no teleologies, no laws of history or evolutionary logics to guarantee  a progressive outcome  there is nothing to be done except  to observe  struggles from the sidelines.  And by a curious twist, this recognition of political impotence, leads to a style of  armchair  or rather desk top theorising  which  transforms itself  into an omniscient optimism of the intellect, a  belief that  by keeping the pure flame of critical theory alive in the Academy,  by separating  a totalising analysis  from the messy, compromising, contradictory  particularisms of  actual  struggles,  a potential space   is created  which at some future point,  when somehow or other  the tide of history turns, may serve as map or guide to revolutionary social transformation.

When  this  culture of subtle dialectics  tries to come down from   performing headstands on the high wire of  theory and ground itself in the real world, it tends to produce a vacuous jargon of pseudo- radicalism which, at least in its post modernist idiom, fetishises subversive  affect and  ‘transgressive’ body politics,  often focussing on aesthetic strategies which as one such advocate of this new avant garde puts it,  aims ‘  to affect the contemporary political sensorium by refunctioning aural mediation, giving voice to contemporary performances of political intimacy,authenticity and resistence’ [iv].  Bookloads of  kind of gobbledegook have been produced over the last decade by a generation of would-be scholar activists, radicalised by the contingent labour they are forced to perform within the Academy but desperate to secure a foothold within its career structure and hence to defer to its protocols.

This pervasive theoreticism  has in turn provoked a reaction in the growth of a culture of hyper-activism, which   takes its lead from its own lived experience of struggle, its experiments in direct democracy, and its grounding in a moral economy of community and  everyday  cultures of mutual aid, what David Graeber has rather mischievously called ‘actually existing communism’[v]. However necessary a corrective, this move tends to replace  subtle dialectics with crude  thoughts. A premium is placed on  sloganised and  reductive analyses and the ritual invocation of ideological catechisms : it is always capitalism, racism or patriarchy what dunnit. There is always a risk that the militant concentration  of energies on a single issue or campaign, results in tunnel vision and what begins by trying to widen the range of political voices  ends  all on one note. As Kate Tempest puts it, if all you are is  a hammer everything looks like a nail, to which we might add  that even if you are hitting it on its head, the nail in question is often being banged into a  rather large coffin marked  ‘Democracy RIP’.

So the cold and warm currents  of the alternative political culture, the cool objective analysis of  structures  and  passionate  engagement in the struggle to transform them   are no longer dialectically linked at they are in Gramsci and Bloch[vi].  There are of course many  attempts to bridge that gap, which I will discuss shortly  but for the moment I just want to note that in my experience  these projects  often run up against  the phantasmagoric relation of the Left intelligentsia to the working classes. This is   a relationship  made up largely of idealisations and projective identifications  which have placed a heavy burden of representation on the shoulders of a putative proletariat,  as the bearer of middle class    hopes and dreams   of social transformation. Then when they fail to live up these   expectations, working class organisations find  themselves the    object of disenchantment, if not outright repudiation, condemned for their reformism  etc. From being seen as the major part of the solution  they are now regarded as  the problem.  And so we arrive at the current low estimation on much of the Left  of the de-industrialised working class as irredeemably  racist, sexist,  homophonic bigots and worse still- Ukippers.

Double Vision: Bipolar politics and Labour’s Two bodies

This shift in perspectives in my view  corresponds both to  the bipolar character of Leftist political culture and   to the dual  positioning of working class communities as both  the ‘backbone of the nation’ and a ‘race apart’. I am going to discuss each of these  features  briefly in turn.

The Leftist world view  tends to oscillate  between two subject positions : manic denial of political reality principles and  a depressive, politically immobilising recognition of them. This is sometimes, though not inevitably,  underpinned by a paranoid /schizoid view of a world divided neatly into good and bad objects, victims and oppressors. All this   produces what Lauren Berlant has called ‘cruel optimism’[vii]. This is  an optimism that attaches itself to  objects  that systematically frustrate or negate its emotional investment and yet continues to cling to them  through thick and thin in the hope that next time, next labour leader,  next election, next riot  things will be different. Cruel optimism is  essentially  a sado-masochistic construct, which  mandates a politics of conscience driven by a harsh, self punitive superego embodied in a Great Cause. It  is one way that personal commitment to struggles of long duration can be sustained  in the absence of external institutional or  cultural support, albeit at great psychic cost. But this is not the only strategy of self delusion.
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The persecutory nature of political reality  is  an objective  fact; and just because it is, it  also  gives rise to conspiracy theories,   and other phantasy constructs which provide a rationale for continual defeats without leading to defeatism or even the abandonment of belief in ultimate victory.  For example  there is  ‘The Great Boot in the sky’  ( a favourite narrative in  Trotskyite groupuscules).  Every time the workers raise their banners high, a great boot, belonging  to capitalists, and their trade union lackeys, comes down and crushes or betrays their hopes.

This brings me to the second part of my argument. The split perceptions of working class community, as a force for progressive change and as a reactionary obstacle to it, has a long   history  rooted both in  material circumstances, in actual social and cultural divisions within the class, but also in how these have been represented. I haven’t time to go into this in any detail or depth, but let us say just recall  that many years ago,   Edward Thompson argued that what was unique about the English working class was that it was present at its own making.[viii] England had the first industrial revolution, and hence the first industrial proletariat. There were no historical precedents, no narrative templates laid down for how this social force should be represented, either politically, culturally, or aesthetically. The historical prematurity of its birth meant that the class had to invent its own myths of origins to explain how it had come into being, and what its destiny was to be.

One way this was done was by appealing to imagery and language that gave the emergent class a heroic, Promethean, and largely pre-industrial provenance.[ix] Elementary–or rather elemental–forms of labour, labour that worked with the elements of fire, water, earth, and air in various combinations, to transform nature into a productive force came to be regarded as occupying a special position in the ontology of labour power. Workers whose labour embodied these principles: miners, navvies, blacksmiths, farm workers, fishermen, foresters, mariners, dockers, foundrymen, and more recently,  ‘roughnecks’ or ‘roustabouts’ working on oil rigs, steel erectors, and tunnellers–these all became privileged icons of a heroic form of working class masculinity,  hailed as the backbone of the nation. At the same time the physical degradation  and abject poverty associated with many categories of manual labour lead to  their associated communities  being treated as a race apart  including by other sections of the labour movement as something of a ‘race apart’. [x]

Labour’s two bodies, promethean and abject, were not mutually exclusive. They could be two sides of the same story.  The history of some social categories can  be traced as a progression from one position to the other–and then perhaps back again. Cockneys, for example, started out life as an alien underclass whose moral physiognomy was compared invidiously to that of ‘hottentots’, but then turned themselves into music hall performers singing popular patriotic songs and cracking cheerful-chappie jokes, until by the 1940s they emerge as national heroes of the Blitz, only to fall from grace once more in the multicultural 1990s when thanks to Alf Garnett and the Pub Landlord they become a byword for in-your-face chauvinistic attitudes, or, alternatively, the sentimental ‘knees up mother brown’ schlockney of Chas and Dave.

My argument is that these distinctions were internalised and transformed within working class communities in a multiplicity of ways. Groups  treated  as a race apart tended to develop an ethnic nationalism of the neighbourhood, where  prides of place  were asserted through strong forms of territoriality, based on factory, street or home in a way that gave a positive value to their  cultural and physical distinctiveness.  Such attachments reinforced social insularity, the closure of solidarities around kith and kin and ‘ethnic’ loyalties and they also  supported the growth of dense networks of mutual aid  and  shared resource. These labourhoods provided their inhabitants with a refuge from some of the more destructive  forces of  modernity, and  supported a strategy of community stakeholding based on what  Robert Putnam, in his theory of social capital,  has called  bonding,  the capacity to   claim privileged  access and symbolic ownership over public amenities and resource by exercising   customary entitlements. Community activism within this frame is primarily reactive and defensive, in a word NIMBYism.

In contrast working class communities  that come to see themselves as the backbone of the nation, develop a sense of place identity based on civic not ethnic entitlement. These labourhoods offer a prospect on the world as a field of social opportunity and  engagement, based on what Putnam calls bridging, the capacity to build  alliances  or partnerships with other groups in pursuit of political goals. These communities are in a stronger position to minimise  the social costs of modernity, and maximise its benefits, and  to correlate  their own incremental gains  ( viz in living standards) with wider  progressive causes and forces in society.  Their prides of place are much less dependent on rituals of territoriality, and rest on norms of public propriety, of what is  in or out of order belonging to a distinctively working class, rather than petty bourgeois moral economy. Within this frame community activism is pro-active, not reactive.

To summarise these ideal types of labour’s two body politics:
Abject                                         Promethean

Race apart                              Backbone of the nation

Ethnic nationalism                     Civic nationalism

Strong territoriality                    Weak territoriality

Refuge                                            Prospect

Bonders                                         Bridgers

Retro-modernity                          Proto-modernity

Reactive                                         Proactive

Some  of  these distinctions can, of course, subsume  more familiar ones  like rough/respectable  but others  cut across them; far from being fixed features they are continually being negotiated and redistributed.  They pivot on the relation of class  formation to its Other, i.e.  to non-class signifiers, in particular race. Cultural identities  are always eccentric to themselves, in the sense being formed in relation to the Other Within: other class, other sex, other race.  Inside every proletarian there is a bourgeois struggling to get out. Inside every meritocrat, an aristocrat. And vice versa. The Marxist formula according to which each class- in- itself has a mission to become a class- for- itself, radically misrecognises the relationality of class consciousness, its psychological dimensions of projective and introjective (dis) identification. That is why those who live on the other side of the tracks are such an ambivalent object of fear and fascination.

By the same token the Other Within becomes an uncanny figure, at once familiar and strange, and an object of both  political and personal envy or  desire.  Freud grasped this psycho-dynamic far better than Marx. In his essay on the family romance, he shows how children create imaginary genealogies for themselves, inventing biographies in which  they are   ‘in reality’ (i.e. in fantasy) offspring of the rich and famous, and have suffered  the misfortune of being   kidnapped by the utterly worthless  people who happen to be their actual parents and  impose regimes  which  restrict their freedom by insisting they brush their teeth and go to bed by 9pm[xi]. Equally those who actually occupy exalted positions in society often fantasise about the simpler and  more authentic lives  of  the ‘common people’ and engage in a variety of practice, from slumming to  transvestism  to vicariously  experience  ‘how the other half lives’.

What has upset these games of trading places is the fact that the places themselves have become destabilised  along with the communities of affiliation which hitherto gave them their anchorage in a moral anatomy of fixed class distinction. So for example the precariat is an agglomeration of  disparate  interest groups defined by a set of different  insecurities : ontological, economic and social. The majority long for the  security  associated with the salariat : a steady, reasonably paid job with some element of progression;  affordable housing with security of tenure; sufficient assets ,including pensions to withstand the vicissitudes of the life course. As for the salariat,  their individualistic ambitions are plagued by the fear of failure,  and  they sublimate their desire for a more challenging, creative  (and precarious)  existence in a variety of subcultural activities. These are class formations which are simultaneously to and from themselves  and are defined by their trajectories of relative im/mobility, not by membership of communities forged in struggle.

At the very  least looking at the relation between forms of community and patterns of activism in this way helps  to put the current disconnect between the political class  and the electorate, and more specifically between labour party   and  its  traditional  constituencies of support, in  some kind of broader perspective. But first there are other forms of community engagement, outside and sometimes against the culture of political activism, which we have to consider, whether originating from the Academy, public and private philanthropy and, not least, the Welfare State.

Community Studies :The cuckoo in the nest

Community has been a cuckoo in the nest of social science in Britain from its earliest beginnings, a constant empirical reference point yet one which has remained  largely implicit and weakly conceptualised. In recognition of this fact and the increasing political salience of the topic, the AHRC and the ESRC  recently got together to launch  a major initiative under the title of ‘Connected Communities’. With a budget of over 30 million  it was  the single most expensive  programme ever conducted under their auspices. The initiative involved partnerships with nearly a thousand community groups, funded nearly three hundred projects and involved over eighty research organisations. The first aim was to produce a comprehensive mapping of the field of community relations in  this country- although strangely social cartography was conspicuous by its methodological absence.  The second was to demonstrate that academic research did not have to be purely extractive, a means of making intellectual capital out of informants,  but could actively contribute to the empowerment  and well being of their communities. Nevertheless  there was no mechanism in the governance of this programme which allowed  community partners or informants to have any say in shaping its overall direction.  The final aim was  to connect the diverse  communities  of scholars  who were engaged in what might be loosely termed ‘community studies’  and thus promote ‘inter-disciplinarity’.
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Whatever intrinsic  value some of the projects funded under this initiative might have, there is a general consensus that the overall impact  was at best uneven, and the sum of  its parts  certainly did not add up  to a holistic approach to community studies, but simply provided a platform for a diversity of  viewpoints and narratives. In that sense it simply amplified  the  problematic status of community within British social science.

The first major  attempt to construct a coherent  framework for community studies was undertaken over half a century  ago by  Ronald Frankenberg  in his book Communities in Britain[xii]. The book  was an attempt  to  codify  the approach of British social anthropology as developed at Manchester, under the direction of Max Gluckman; it  drew on the work of classical sociology and anthropology to construct  a system of  binary oppositions  for characterising   forms of sociality associated with  the transition to modernity:



Status                     Contract  (Maine)

Ascribed status     Achieved status (Weber/Parsons)

Community            Association (Tonnies)

Mechanical             Organic solidarity  (Durkheim)

Concentrated          Distributed network  (Granovetter)

For Frankenberg these  are ideal types which exist empirically  in a variety of weak and strong combinations and have definite spatial correlations. As a Marxist, the transition to a modern capitalist society  was for him a case of uneven and combined development  of these forms,  full of tension and contradiction, reversals and displacements. Yet the schema is still inscribed in a teleology. And the terms of the binaries are mutually exclusive. The affirmation of community is the negation of modernity. And vice versa.

It was  in the work of the Institute of Community Studies  that this one way ticket to modernity  became established on the  sociological map. In a series of research publications, centred on the post war transformation of the East End of London, the replacement of  the slums with their close knit neighbourhoods  by high rise tower blocks, and the move out into the suburbs was represented as a loss of community  rather than a gain of amenity[xiii]. A rosy picture of  family and kinship in the old Bethnal Green  was contrasted unfavourably with the social alienation  produced by modernist  architecture  and  planning. It was not a feminist analysis, but still it counteracted  the overwhelmingly  masculinist perceptions of  working class community that still prevailed.

One important insight from this work  was the emphasis on women’s role in sustaining social networks outside the workplace. In particular the strong mother/daughter bond created a matri-local geography,  with married daughters living close by their parents, and children being brought up within an extended three generational family  network. However the  relations between workplace, street, neighbourhood and domestic  life were  treated as  separate self enclosed worlds,  the workplace  as  largely  the province of men, the street  corner  as the province of  male youth and  the great indoors as where women and girls rule OK. The fact is that however separately they are experienced in terms of gender and generation, these sites of community are structurally linked in the reproduction of labour power  and constitute what I have come to  call a labourhood, a habitus in which the dispositions that link growing up, working and class are transmitted and acquired..

The work of the Institute of Community Studies is  perhaps best understood as  belonging  within the tradition of settlement sociology,  and grounded in attempts by reformers of various persuasions to investigate the social conditions of the poor so as to provide evidence for policies and practices designed  to ameliorate them, whether at work, home, or leisure.  It is easy to parody the settlements as  civilising missions, staffed by wealthy upper class do-gooders whose aim was to intervene  and inculcate their values of muscular Christianity. There certainly were  some like that, but it is not the whole story.  Settlements in  the East End  pioneered community work and many of the early settlement workers were socialists as well as Christians;  some  like Beatrice Webb at Toynbee Hall  were engaged  in developing a form of participant observation within a framework of sociological enquiry. The reforms in work and housing conditions  for which they campaigned  were often espoused by the labour movement and the Left: they  were about social justice not moral reclamation[xiv].

If  the strong point of settlement sociology was its locally grounded theorisations of class and community, today its moral impulse finds expression within a globalised knowledge economy in the form of Public Sociology and the  Citizen Social Science. This can  typically involve  the use of  digital information technologies to  crowd source and validate  locally situated knowledge,  and/or create platforms for participatory  community mapping using a  variety of creative media. The aim is  both to generate   situated   accounts, whether  from big or small data sets, to investigate for example of the local effects of  environmental   pollution or  gentrification  and, secondly,  in and through the research process,  to  facilitate and empower communities of resistance to these effects. One thing CSS does is to blur the distinction between amateur and professional  social scientist,  the real challenge being not how to train up amateurs so they think and behave more like professionals, but how to get professional social scientists to  recognise that they are first and foremost amateurs of the social, fascinated by its relays between things not themselves social.  Whether CSS  is genuinely redistributive of intellectual  capital, or  just a more subtle and democratic way of extracting information  without paying for it  remains to be seen.

The recent emergence of public sociology, of which the Connected Communities initiative is a rather weak example,   seeks to validate the situated knowledge of marginalised communities, on the grounds that their very marginality, their lack of implication in power structures, gives them privileged access or insight into its workings[xv]. So we have seen community studies based on  standpoint epistemologies linked to identity politics of gender, race and class, and aiming to  provide  these groups with a space of representation  in which they can gain  confidence and trust in their own ability to articulate their viewpoint without  needing intermediaries. Yet if only the wearer knows where and how  the shoe pinches, the actual pain of ‘feeling the pinch’ and the struggle for day to day survival can inhibit the capacity to gain the critical knowledge required to know why the shoe is made  that way and  what alternatives to ‘one size fits all ‘ policies  might be possible. The well springs of the sociological imagination are not automatically nurtured by conditions of poverty  and oppression. Political education,  not propaganda for a particular cause, but shifting  the grounds of common sense so that an accessible  space for democratic politics and debate opens up, is  a vital aspect of public sociology.

Running like a red thread through all these  approaches  is a concern with establishing a moral economy of knowledge, undermining  its hierarchisation and fragmentation in the academic division of labour.   This  can take the form of developing  a strategic inter-disciplinarity. Not just an intellectual mash up but  the  collaborative production of concepts and methods which   accomplish a paradigm shift  in the way  a problem is addressed, both as a research topic and as focus of political intervention.

Alongside this  there is a trend  to  create  some kind of  intellectual commons   by building a more  inclusive  community of  research practice  and skilling informants so that they become more or less fully fledged members of it. These are almost always ethnographic projects because critical ethnographers have been at the forefront of  attempts to create more participatory  modes of research. The moral economy of knowledge   certainly has implications for how  community studies are done  For example the voices of community informants have to be presented  live, whether in audio or video, so that the full texture of their statements  is made  available  for discussion.  All too often ethnographers report  using indirect speech  to convey the gist of informant’s stories, merging or submerging their own interpretations  in the flow whilst also substituting their voice for the informants.  And then they talk about this kind of research as empowerment! The research stories we tell about the stories we collect, the interpretative meta-narrative   we weave around  the ethnographic data  to  give it a  wider contextual meaning ( for example in relation to a particular theory of community  in the human sciences )  has to be clearly distinguished  from the primary source material. The best way to do this is to create parallel texts, so that a   dialogue between the  informants interpretation of their world, and the community ethnographer’s  becomes possible.

If community work began as an adjunct to settlement sociology, it quickly developed its own professional momentum in the post war period as a branch of the welfare state. In fact throughout the 1960’s and 70s community development projects became a favoured platform for delivering key public  services in  deprived working class areas, especially those which were undergoing rapid  de-industrialisation. The most radical and embedded of these programmes brought  trade unionists, community activists  and urbanists together within a framework of popular planning  to devise strategies to address structural unemployment, especially amongst young people,  and create a form of economic  regeneration  that was at least partially appropriate  to the existing skills  base.

In the arts too, ‘community  outreach’  became increasingly  mandatory. In the long boom years from 1994 – 2006  there was an explosion of community arts festivals in towns and cities across Britain, linked, of course, to the growth of creative industries  and capitalism’s cultural turn. Much of this activity was carried out by professional artists, with a mixture or public and private funding  and despite all the talk about ‘capacity building’ it seems to have done little to enhance the social and cultural capital of the most deprived populations. It was, predictably enough the usual suspects, the  bridgers not bonders who  made the most of these opportunities.

As with community arts so with politics. Community action  became professionalised and developed its own theoretical practice.Saul Alinski’s Rules for Radicals, subtitled ‘A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals’  became the bible for many community organisers, including one Barack Obama, with its heady mix of  populism, real politik   and common sense  prescription.

As a result of all these developments ‘ community’ became an ever more inflated and confused concept. It was used interchangeably with ‘local ’, was applied indiscriminately to an ever  wider range of interest groups,  and even became a synonym for civil society as a whole. As a portmanteau word, which could mean all things to all people what it gained in currency it lost in strategic application. ‘Community’ became both sentimentalised,  reduced to any shared structure of feeling, and de-politicised as a moral, aesthetic or cultural good in its own right.  This inevitably produced a counter-movement which sought to re-politicise  community and make it into a platform for a new and different kind of  agenda.

 Communitarian Turns : Right and Left

The rise of communitarianism – that is of a political discourse about  social cohesion in which the loss or lack of community is a central reference point, and of forms of theory and practice that attempt to redefine or reinvent what is meant by  community in order to address and make good that lack or loss –  communitarianism  can be seen as a generic response  across the ideological spectrum to the impact of globalisation and neo-liberal governance on the pillars of civil society, in including those pillars like the trade union, the chapel,  and the multiform agencies of  independent working class education and culture, many of  which became mainstreamed, but which have now either become gentrified, like football clubs, or marginalised like trade unions.
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The Tories communitarian turn, which coalesced around the Big Society initiative,  was part of a wider strategy to dismantle the welfare state and put in its place  voluntary action  supported by private philanthropy[xvi]. It was also an attempt to strengthen the bonds of civil society which were seen to  be weakened by the new social and economic insecurities, and,just as importantly, to  dissolve the residual forms of resistance provoked by them.

The Big  Society programme  drew theoretically  on the work of Amitai Etzioni in the USA.  Etzioni was concerned that social bonds  under capitalism  were simply  impersonal relations between strangers  regulated by state or market[xvii].  He wanted to transform the social bond from a purely instrumental device into  an expression of common values, a new kind of social contract which balanced civic rights and responsibilities. But he ignored the double edged aspect  of the  ‘bond’  which is implicit in its etymology – it is a promissory note which is a  performative statement  of trust (my word is my bond) and it is about externally imposed  social  constraint. Within the framework of capitalist exchange what connects people and frees them from their narcissism is also  what imprisons them  in  relations of  subordination[xviii]. Etzioni only considers the bond from its good side.

The Big Society rhetoric borrowed the language of mutualism and moral economy in order to rationalise  the marketisation of both and accomplish the withering away of the State. The so called Red Tories tried to pass themselves off   as born again Guild Socialists, but this was at best an opportunistic  manoeuvre.   Firstly the move was  to split off  the Guild’s organic model of the body politic  from the class solidarities in which it was  embedded and then re-insert it in a  model of community  based on the principle of Concordia Discors, or Order in Variety, first enunciated as an aesthetic principle by Alexander Pope in the 18th Century:

Not chaos like together crushed and bruised

But as the world harmoniously confused,

Where order in variety we see

And where, tho all things differ, all agree.

Concordia Discors was transposed into a principle of governance in which  the political  class provide the   order, the over arching framework of representation  and the others – other classes and  ethnicities,  the variety[xix]. It provided a single principle  of   social  and political integration. There might be differences in cultural values  and  political ideology, but they were to be contained within a broader consensus ( an unwritten constitution) and parliamentary democracy.

However Left Communitarianism has its roots not only in the very  home grown  tradition of  Guild Socialism, but in  Council Communism and anarcho-syndicalism which emerged in opposition to  European Social Democracy in the early 20th century[xx]. Common to both was the aim was to develop the direct  democracies of  the labourhood,  and disseminate them as a generic principle of   self governance for  civil society as a whole. An altogether different approach to the withering away of the state. Now that the social architecture of the labourhood has all but disappeared, the move is to build new practices of direct democracy through the   forms of dispersed sociality  that have emerged in   and  against the deregulated city: communities of life style and leisure as well as  livelihood, virtual communities of interest and affiliation  as well as face to face  and place to place.[xxi]  Community becomes re-defined in and as a pop up moral economy centred  on the gift, celebrating the symbolic value of the relationship between people in the act of exchange rather than abstract commensurability of the commodity; it is   a figure of transience not stability, liminality rather than cohesion, a site of bonding but not bondage ( unless you happen to be a member of the gay S/M community in which case bondage is bonding).  This is a vision of community in which cultural order emerges in and through variety rather than being imposed upon it. In a word community as commons.

This version of community has a complex structure, and contains it own internal tensions. There is a pull toward communitas or communion, to construct liminal spaces of ecstatic conviviality, in which people experience  an oceanic feeling of oneness with one another and world. Think rave culture. Or mass street demonstrations. Or a football crowd. One for all and all for one. The workers united will never be defeated.  Then there is the pull towards the natural symbolisms of imagined community  and its neo-tribalisms, whether of  nation,  class, ethnicity,  gender  or   generation,  common humanity or the  wretched of the earth: rallying cries to either celebrate or  over ride internal difference. So here community is largely a site of projective and introjective identifications which may well promote a culture of inactivism. If community is simply a rhetorical construct or reference group  then to claim membership does not require you to do anything. It is enough to   performatively state your claim. Finally there is the pull to the more grounded realities of communities of practice, in which people are apprenticed  into shared zones of learning, interaction and experience by peers who happen to be  old hands at this game. Their function is to  enable the novitiate to master specific skills and techniques, whether of work or play[xxii].Think skateboarding.  This version of community has lead to a  whole new array of activisms: for example in the field of environmental activism we have bands of guerrilla gardeners, eco-warriors, place hackers,do-it -yourself urbanists, squatters, housing campaigners,  co-operative farmers and time bankers.

It is easy to see how these different forms of collectivity, real, imaginary and symbolic, might variously reinforce or undermine one another. The intense ‘high’ of communitas cannot be directly  reproduced in organisational forms and practices,  but nevertheless  faith communities, whether religious or political,  need to generate and contain ecstatic moments. Otherwise congregation dissolves into mere aggregation. Processionals and demonstrations both serve these purposes in suspending differences of internal status and power between leaders and followers,  and magically transforming them into relations of reciprocity and equality between peers, whether under the sign of spiritual fellowship or political comradeship.

Intentional communities, like the hippy communes that emerged in the 1960’s are built  from  affinity groups, but develop their own rituals of initiation and  myths of origin to articulate  the introjected identifications which compose their collective vision. There are also unintentional  communities, people thrown together by circumstances, often by a disaster or some other unexpected occurrence. Funerals, for example, often bring together a very disparate group  of family, friends and colleagues, many of whom have never met or even been aware of each other’s existence  but who come together in shared grief at their individual  loss.  The more attenuated and dispersed social networks become, the more  unintended community.

The tragedy of the contemporary commons is not about how the ruthless pursuit of self interest destroys shared amenity but the fact  that in order to be sustainable within a global rather than local economy the commons require abundance and even surplus, there has to be more than enough to go round; however in situations where scarcity obtains, and these are contexts  where the privatisation of public  assets is today taking place on  an immense scale, the struggle to  defend the commons as a democratic project of social  inclusion  founders on the need to protect exclusive  rights over shared resource. Under these circumstances one group’s commons becomes another’s no go area.

So we  need to think about the limits and conditions of the left libertarian vision of community. For example how far does it  work to de-construct the local as an immovable object pitted against the irresistible force of globalisation ? Does its emphasis on collective self expression  simply represent a shift   from inner directed to other directed narcissism, a culture  whose motto might  be ‘ I before me except after we’? The mobilisation of community is frequently associated with processes of polarisation, Us against Them, but it can also be an occasion for what Freud somewhat ironically called ‘the narcissism of minor difference’ ( he was referring to the rise of anti-Semitism spurred on  by the Nazi’s Volkish ideology), so that smallest  differences in ideology  produce splits  within the political movement.

Equally   the just- in -time production of community, with its flexible accumulation of social, cultural and intellectual capital would seems to belong firmly within the pop up moral economy   of the precariat, and by the same token  to have less to offer the salariat.  How far do the new forms of   apprenticeship  offers a viable  alternative to the self- possessed individualism of the political vocation  (   amd the charismatic quest for the Ideal Society) ) or  the competitive individualism of the political careerist  (and  mastery of  the machinery of spin) ?

The search for common ground

There are no easy  answers to these deeper questions of political organisation on the Left. But it may  be possible to look at some of the more immediate issues which arise when we try and put this vision of community into practice.  For this purpose I want  to present a little case study of a community mapping project called  Common Ground. The organisation itself was set up in 1983  by Sue Clifford and Angela King, with the support of Roger Deakin and other radical environmentalists. It was part of emergent movement to explore and rediscover a deep landscape of Englishness not compromised and indeed pre-dating the imperialism of Little Englandism, and which belong to a vision of England’s green and pleasant land that is embedded in a long history of  radicalism and popular democratic struggle.

The Millenium mapping project run by Common Ground  was premised on a highly original interpretation of the then popular  rallying call of the green movement :  ‘small is beautiful’[xxiii]. The maps which were produced by dozens of  community groups in the towns and villages of Sussex  were certainly  beautiful statements  about  the importance of  small scale attachments to place. The aim was to portray though an exercise in participatory mapping  the historical individuality of these place, to show   their particularity without falling back into particularism.

This is how Sue Clfford herself described the project:

‘Local distinctiveness is about the conspiracy of nature and culture to intensify variegation. it is about detail, patina, authenticity and meanings, the things that create identity. It is about accumulations  and assemblages., about accommodation and change, not compartmentalisation and preservation. It must include the invisible as well as the physical: symbol, festival legend custom, language, recipe, memory are as important as street and square’

Making a Parish map can help people to come together to chart the things that they value locally, to make their voice heard amongst professionals and developers, to inform and assert their need for nature and culture on their own terms, and to begin to take action and some control in shaping the future of their place. Democratic mapping, maps by and for  the people.  Indigenous and parish mapping. Taking the map back into the people’s hands.’
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The projects involved school children, residents, artists and researchers, and produced a rich diversity of maps, many addressing issues of redevelopment, environmental stress, pollution and traffic, and  social/demographic change. It is certainly the case that  a   NIMBY  strain  can be detected  in some of the  maps. After all  these are largely rural communities  who want to preserve  the countryside and  village life   against the destructive impact of   globalised modernity.   They  do not want to be part of London’s commuter belt and lose their local identity. But are they proto or retro modernists or simply anti- modernity as such ?

In terms of cartographic models the project went back to the  early 16th and 17th century  topographic maps  of the English countryside which featured little paintings  of buildings and physical features as well as heraldic figures from local folklore and myth. The early maps depicted customary usages of space and place, they show a world of  the commons prior to the enclosure movement, and offer an alternative to the cadastral maps which simply plotted  landownership and private property. As such they offered a source of inspiration that looks forward to popular democratic struggles over access to  the countryside in the 19th and 20th centuries. The edges of the Sussex Millennial maps often draw on this iconographic device  for  commentary or contextual interpretation.

In quite a few cases both proto and retro modernist  elements are mingled in the same map. Perhaps the most interesting map in this respect and certainly the one which has aroused most comment was  produced by the people of Copthorne. The village is  on the borders of Surrey and Sussex and even more importantly is  close to Gatwick airport. Copthorne’s oldest farmhouse has been converted into a luxury hotel to accommodate high flying business executives on their way  to and from  the airport. It is owned by the conglomerate corporate entertainment company Copthorne –Millenium which owns a global network of hotels and casinos. So in effect the village has become a dormitory for the international jet set. No trace of this impact is however allowed to intrude into the composition of the map which shows an oak tree, made up of roads and paths, and chosen not only because of its role as a natural symbol of Englishness, but because ‘colthorpe’ mean  a pollarded tree. The intertwined roots of the tree are composed of all the names of the villagers, and the acorns contain images of  the local community organisations. A map of  organic community then, of  roots, not routes,  although as Sue Clifford notes Copthorne has certainly travelled across the world – there is a Copthorne Orchard in Penang and a Copthorne Anzac Avenue  in Auckland, but again these links are not registered on the map.

Taken as a whole the Sussex atlas exhibits a strong preference for   iconography  that  air brushes  council houses, and   other ‘inorganic’  -i.e. modernist-  features  out  of the picture. This is a defence of the commons that is inevitably   A properly critical cartography   requires a different approach.  We need a map  that shows the relationships between the picturesque English countryside ( and country houses) and the  forms of wealth  creation linked to the colonies and the exploitation of native populations. Franco Moretii’s world map of the novel shows the location of colonial sources of wealth  featured in English sentimental novels ( viz Africa India and the South China seas) [xxiv]. We need to trace the intricate networks of trade and exploitation that  connect consumers in the affluent West to producers in the impoverished East. This is what Rebecca Solnit does in some of the  maps  in her San Francisco Atlas[xxv]. And which Caroline Knowles does in her ethnographic account of globalisation from below.[xxvi]  Frederick Jamieson was wrong to think  that these links are unmappable from the vantage point of everyday perceptions [xxvii]. They are not only grist to the mill of radical cartographers, they have become common knowledge in  many diasporic communities[xxviii].

Certainly it was Sue Clifford’s intention to make these kind of translocal links, but choosing the Parish as the unit of reference, as she did, while it was meant to simply signify the scale, inevitably over determined the scope, and encouraged a mono-cultural perspective. Her project was also rather defeated by the demographic of the areas she chose –  the villages and market towns of Sussex are not  exactly hot spots of multiculturalism!  If the project had been located in  hyper diverse inner city neighbourhoods, or in the new multi- ethnic suburbs  it would have told s a very different story. There is nothing in the methodology  itself which pre-empts this – quite the contrary and we are currently building on this approach in a  participatory mapping project   which will be working  with groups in areas of London on the front lines of re generation and gentrification in the next ten years  but which have no tradition of community activism.[xxix]

From Dead Labour to Living Labour

The broader issue raised by this  project is how common ground can be build and sustained  between different groups in  areas undergoing rapid socio-demographic change and increased population churn. In these situations people need routines and ritual, fixtures and fixity of purpose if they are to get their bearings; we need to defend and extend  places of congregation and commemoration within the  space of  accelerated flows, and we need to build diachronic structures that give meaning, purpose and direction to the unfolding of lives in the midst of chaotic synchronicity. We need to build platforms for the sociological imagination of an alternative future to that offered by the corporate visionaries. And for this  to succeed  we need  a different kind of politics, and that must mean  different kind of Labour Party.

The Labour Party we all grew up to love to hate was a party of dead labour, a party designed and largely run by technocrats and bureaucrats, whose phantasy was to create and administer a quasi Fordist machinery for the mass production of votes and who held to a narrow productivist model of labour power. Political capital was largely made by bonders establishing ideological power bases within and by means of the party machine. The transition from old to new Labour brought a shift to a post-Fordist model, the just- in- time production of policies for niche marketing to specific sub-electorates and this meant that political capital was most easily accumulated by bridgers, who were good at  creating opportunistic partnerships. There was a new emphasis on growing the knowledge economy and creative industries  although a purely productivist  approach to innovation  remained in place.
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In contrast a Living Labour party would  locate technical and social innovation within  the moral economies of workplace  and community, in the forms of co-operation and mutual aid through which the collective aspiration and creativity of working people have always been expressed. This would mean that political capital would be accumulated by those who could combine bonding and bridging, the former through involvement in local community campaigns,  the latter through building coalitions  around specific policy agendas, within and across  social movements. As for the culture of internal democracy   and policy making, debates  should indeed be ‘harmoniously confused’, and governed according to the principle that ’ tho  all differ, all agree’  so that minority opinions do not find themselves ‘crushed and   bruised’ in the name of party unity and members do not find themselves in the invidious position of being  mere cogs in the machine if they toe the party line, or else throwing spanners in the works, if they do not. The importance of social media in this context is that their use as discussion forums and mobilising devices weakens the tendency of political affinity groups to harden into sectarian groupuscules. While there is always the risk of ‘pop up’ activism, i.e short term enthusiasms that melts away as soon as more sustained commitment is required, it is less dangerous in my view than the sclerotic self justifying  cultures of the far left sects.

As a simple but concrete example of the approach I am suggesting consider how a Living Labour Party might have intervened in last year’s  celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. In contrast to the official approach, which simply iterated  a safe message about law and property being  the foundation of civil liberty, an alternative reading  would  focus on the struggles for enfranchisement and empowerment that have used Magna Carta  as  a rhetorical reference point.[xxx]  Working in collaboration with local artists, the WEA, schools, youth projects, senior citizens, civil liberties and campaign groups  plus a wide range of community organisations the aim would be for each constituency area to produce its own  pictorial/narrative  map of liberties and commons, past, present and future, incorporating local  places and events  associated with  popular democratic  struggles. Carta is after all Latin for  map! Whether in the form of a physical or digital map, a tapestry or banner, each constituency  would add its own distinctive features  to a deep cartography of the limits and conditions of Popular Democracy.  Not only would this activity bring together different elements of  the precariat in a common project with members of the salariat, but it c ould provide a platform for a nationwide public debate about the relation of civil society and the state,  creating   the grass roots conditions for the formulation of a new constitutional  settlement enshrined in  a bill of rights. Evidently  the Labour party which Corbyn has inherited is currently in no state  to launch a  Great Chartist movement, but there will be enough opportunities in the coming  years to engage in this kind of  venture, and to transform Dead Labour into Living Labour, without the need  for any second coming of Blair Brown. That, I think, is a cause for hope. So Happy  2016.

[i] Isabel Lorey (2014)The State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious; Guy Standing (2014)The precariat: the new dangerous class

[ii] Jean-Luc Nancy (1989)  The Inoperable Community

[iii] Phil Cohen (1995 ) Children of the Revolution

[iv]   Cited in Lauren Berlant (2009) Cruel Optimism

[v] David Graeber  (2001)  Towards an anthropology of value:the false coin of our dreams

[vi] Antonio Gramsci  (1974) Prison Notebooks;  Ernst Bloch ( 1989) Principles of Hope. For a general discussion of contemporary principles of hope see Phil Cohen ‘The Centre will not hold :changing principles of political hope’ Soundings 60 2014

[vii] Lauren Berlant op cit

[viii]  See E. P. Thompson (1980) The Making of the English Working Class.

[ix]  In much of what follows I am indebted to the work of B. Gulli (2010) Earthly Plenitudes: A Study in sovereignty and Labour; A. Rabinbach(1992) The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue and the Rise of Modernity; A. S. Rethel (1978) Intellectual and Manual Labour; and  S. J.  Charlesworth (2000) A Phenomenology of Working Class Experience.

[x] See Phil Cohen ‘ Labouring under whiteness’ in Ruth  Frankenberg(ed) 2004 Dislocating Whiteness  and Chapter 5 of Material Dreams: maps and territories in the un/making of modernity (forthcoming 2016)

[xi] Sigmund Freud (1985) The Family Romance in Art and Literature

[xii] Ronald Frankenberg (1976) Communities in Britain

[xiii] See  Michael Young and Peter Willmott (1957) Family and Kinship in east London; Family and Class in a London Suburb (1971)  The Symmetrical Family (1973);Peter Willmott (1974) The Evolution of a community :Dagenham 40 years on; Adolescent Boys in East London (1966)

[xiv] See Joyce E Williams et al (2015)Settlement Sociology in the Progressive Years

[xv]  See Philip Nyden et al (2011) Public Sociology :research,action,change

[xvi] See Marianne Scott (ed)  2011) The Big Society Challenge; Jesse Norman (2010) The Big Society : the anatomy of new politics; Jason Edward (2012) Retrieving the Big Society

[xvii] See Amitain Etzioni (ed) 1998  The Essential Communitarian reader; The Spirit of Community: rights,responsibilities and the communitarian agenda (1995)

[xviii] Martijn Konings (2015)The emotional logic of capitalism : what progressives have missed

[xix] See the discussion in Chapter 8 of  Phil Cohen On the Wrong Side of the Track?(2013)

[xx] See Antonin Boekelman(1980) The Development of the social and political thinking of Anton Pannekoek: from social democracy to Council Communism; Karl Korsch (1970)Marxism and the Philosophy. On Guild Socialism see G.D.H.Cole (1922/2010) Guild Socialism Restated  and Jack Vowles  (1980) From Corporatism to Workers Control : the formation of British Guild Socialism

[xxi] For recent debates on the Left see Jeremy Gilbert (2013)  Common Ground :Democracy and Collectivity in an age of Individualism; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2009) Commonwealth; Girgio Katsarbekis (2014) Radical Democracy and Social Movements Today

[xxii]Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991)  Situated Learning ; Phil Cohen  ‘Apprenticeship a la mode’ in  Pat Ainley  and Helen Rainbird (ed) (2004)  Apprenticeship towards a new paradigm of learning

[xxiii] See

[xxiv] Franco Moretti (1999)  Atlas of the European Novel

[xxv] See Rebecca Solnit (2010) Infinite City : a San Francisco Atlas

[xxvi] See Caroline Knowles (2014) Flip Flop : a journey through globalisation’s back roads

[xxvii] Frederick Jamieson ‘Cognitive Mapping ‘ in Nelson and Grossberg (1999) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture

[xxviii]   This is discussed in  Nora Rathzel and Phil Cohen (2007)Finding the Way  Home

[xxix]  For further information about this project  see

[xxx] See Peter Linebaugh ( 2014) The Magna Carta Manifesto

Young East Ender’s Views of Regeneration: The North Woolwich Story

North Woolwich is part of the Royal Docks  but is physically isolated by virtue of its physical  geography and for many years was  subject to neglect by planners and politicians alike . It has a large  concentration of social housing and has been home to a large , and increasingly ethnically diverse  working class community. East Europeans are the latest immigrants to an area which . Until very recently the area was relatively untouched by  the gentrification of the Docklands.  A proposed Thames Gateway bridge, designed  to replace the ferry, linking the North Woolwich with the south bank was vigorously opposed by local people on the grounds that it would increase road traffic  while doing nothing to improve the area’s economic prospects. The original plan for the Bridge was scrapped  after numerous objections to a public enquiry in 2007, but now (2013) there is a move  to reinstate  it.  In this video , made in 2007, young people for then area voices their hopes and fears for the future  of the area , and consider the likely impact of  regeneration.

For further  information about the Royal Docks  download the oral history trails  at:

Race, Ethnicity and the Unconscious

This is an excerpt from a seminar I gave in Vienna in which I explore some of the problems and possibilities of applying  psychoanalytic concepts and insghts to understanding and tackling  the culture of popular racism.

Empires of the Mind

This film was originally made to accompany the Open University Course on ‘Race, Culture and Society’ and explores the popular imagery of  race, nation and empire that was in circulation in the Victorian school.

Labouring Under Whiteness

This text explores the history and forms of working class racism in Britain  since the beginning of the Industrial revolution  up to the present. It examines the way the English working class was positioned as a both a ‘backbone of the nation’ and a ‘race apart’ in the dominant discourse and how this shaped  the internal development of its culture and politics, especially within the labour movement.

It was written for a  collection edited by Ruth Frankenberg Dislocating Whiteness  published in 2002 and can be viewed here:  White Labour

Tricks of the Trade – Issues in MultiCultural Education

Tricks of the trade  (text)

In the 1990’s I ran a series of projects designed to develop a cultural studies based approach  to anti-racist education, to get away from the moral, doctrinaire and frankly authoritarian methods and rationalist pedagogies that were then in vogue. In this text I outline the theory and method of an alternative approach, illustrated with examples of the classroom practice.

Read the full text here:  Tricks of the Trade

This  video was made to accompany the teaching materials , and explore some of the thinking behind the project.

Tricks of the Trade  Matrix Image:  This is a photo-montage ‘Anansi Rap attack’ designed by Peter  Dunn, which was used as a trigger for classroom artwork as part of the Tricks of the Trade Project.  Click on the image to view it full size.

Its Racism Wot Dunnit – Some Notes on Theory’s Other Scene

This text was written for a course  developed for the Open University by Ali Rattansi and James Donald on ‘Race, Culture and Society’ in the 1990’s. The course  sought to bring to bear  some of the new ‘post structuralist thinking  about  discourse, power and culture  on issues of ethnicity  and identity politics  that were then dominated by essentialist and reductive  concepts of who and what was ‘racist’ and this text develops  this critique especially in relation to anti racist education.

Read the full text here:  Racism Wot Dunnit