Rich as honey dew – 2

Five (mostly) pessimistic points about the Left and antisemitism, part 2.

  1. Everyone knows this is ridiculous
  2. It’s taken on a life of its own
  3. Jews are different
  4. The question of Palestine
  5. The socialism of fools

“The buggers are legal now – what more are they after?”
– Tom Robinson, “Glad to be gay” (1978)

As we know, the Community Security Trust found last year that anti-semitism was no more common on the Left than in the centre or centre-Right. Good news on the face of it – at least, less-bad news than we might have feared – but Richard draws attention to a neglected, and troubling, corollary:

this also means the Left is not exempted from antisemitism. Indeed, the CST asserts – and this does not seem prima facie implausible – that if the Left is not more antisemitic than the political ‘centre-ground’, it is also not less antisemitic. We should think about what that means. Would we be dismayed to learn that people who identified with the Left were no less racist than the mean when it came to anti-black racism, or Islamophobia?

Are we – Labour and the Left – not precisely the people who stand for universal equality and against any form of discrimination? Do we not pride ourselves on taking the side of any despised, excluded or exploited minority – and beat ourselves up over failures to do so? Why are we not taking the lead in opposing antisemitism? What’s our blind spot about the Jews as a minority?

Let’s rewind to that word ‘exploited’. The core values of the socialist Left are to do with collective interests, not respect for individuals; it fights for class justice, not individual rights; it opposes exploitation, not inequality. The tradition that rests on equal rights for all and respect for individual flourishing is liberalism, not socialism. The two need each other, but they’re always in tension; a liberalism of individual rights is quite compatible with free competition between workers, including the freedom to undercut on wages and working conditions. (Employment rights? They’re your rights, so if you want to waive them in order to get that job it’s nobody’s business but yours.)

More to our current point, socialism – in and of itself – has more to say about some forms of systematic discrimination than others. Socialists are against exploitation per se (“More pay! Less work!”, the workerists used to say), and against super-exploitation in particular: opposition to misogyny (low pay and the “double burden”) and to the racism of “dirty jobs” (and low pay) are straightforwardly coherent socialist positions. Other forms of discrimination take a bit more working-out to fit within a socialist framework, but not much more: Islamophobia, homophobia, ableism can all be seen as strategies for dividing up the working class, carried out not by the bosses but by workers hoping to secure their position by rigging the competition between them. “Don’t want to wear the same uniform as the rest of us? Can’t get up the steps before the bell goes? Not got a girlfriend to introduce to the boss? Sorry, mate, not my problem!” What socialism says to those workers is to stop trying to scrape up a bit of individual advantage and recognise their class interest – a class which, of course, includes Muslim, gay and disabled workers.

Liberalism is very strong on discrimination as a thing in itself; socialism, less so. Liberalism says “she is your equal: if you classify her in any way that might make her less than equal to you, you are in the wrong”. Socialism says “she is a worker like you: if you try and gain individual advantage over her in any way, you’re scabbing on your class”. From this it follows that socialism doesn’t have a lot to say in situations where a discriminatory ideology exists but a pattern of discriminatory practice is not apparent. Forty years on from the 1970s – when so much consciousness first got raised – there is, still, a gender pay gap; disabled people still suffer widespread social exclusion; young Black and Asian men are, still, over-policed and under-achieving relative to their White peers: there’s obvious work to be done, on the front of opposition to exploitation.

The situation of Jews seems different, though (a Gentile writes, cautiously). This is certainly a country with a substantial past record of structural and cultural discrimination against Jews – remember David Salomons MP, remember the Aliens Acts, remember After Strange Gods, remember Cable Street… And the themes and tropes of anti-semitism are still lying around, as it were. The title for these posts is taken from the sentimental Lancashire folk song “A mon like thee”, which you’ll still hear occasionally in folk clubs, at least in a lightly bowdlerised version; in the original (which may date back to the 1910s or only to the ’60s) the narrator’s long-lost brother reveals himself to be “as rich as any Jew”.

All the same, a history of discrimination and the cultural relics of discrimination aren’t the same as a continuing reality of discrimination. Here and now, it’s not obvious to me in what way-

A READER: In what way Jews are discriminated against? It’s not obvious to you in what way Jews have anything to complain about? You can’t see any pattern of discriminatory practice in… oh, I don’t know… visibly Jewish people being attacked in the streets? cemeteries being vandalised? schools doubling their security patrols? (Does your kids’ school even have a security patrol, by the way?) I suppose all that’s OK because it’s not obvious to you that it’s going on. It’s pretty bloody obvious to us!

Good point, that reader. But I’m afraid I stand (cautiously) by my original point. You could say that racist attacks on Black and visibly Muslim individuals are warfare: our majority-white, nominally-Christian society is continually attacking those groups of people through exclusion and super-exploitation; outright violence is just the extreme end of the spectrum. (Radical feminists would say something similar about domestic violence and rape, and I wouldn’t say they were wrong.) Anti-semitic attacks are less like war and more like terrorism: they single out a group that isn’t being systematically excluded or exploited. Terrorism is fundamentally a communicative strategy, and the analogy holds good here. The message being communicated is we know what you are; they say you’re normal members of this society, but we know different – and now so do you.

In other words, the key message of antisemitic attacks – in a society where Jews have formal and practical equality – is a threat: the threat to change that situation, to revert to the old state of affairs in which Jews were systematically excluded and exploited. Rejecting this threat and upholding the equal citizenship Jews now have is a position we can, and should, get behind, but it’s not inherently a socialist position; it might even be seen as a distraction from the task of demanding equal citizenship for groups that are currently excluded and exploited. (Although, as Metatone points out in comments, this argument rests on somebody drawing a line between “excluded and exploited minority group” and “minority group but, meh”, and Socialism isn’t going to be able to do that in person. Rather, the line will be drawn by actual socialist groups, up to and including the Labour Party, or rather by the people controlling those groups and setting their agenda – which will tend to mean people who aren’t members of minority groups.) According to this argument, equal citizenship is a liberal achievement, and, valuable as they may be, preserving the gains of liberalism isn’t a socialist goal; which is to say, achieving it doesn’t take us further towards an end to exploitation.

At least, that’s a tenable argument, and one which might explain the asymmetry between Left positions on antisemitism and (say) Islamophobia. I don’t think it’s correct, though. This, unlike the previous two, is actually an optimistic point, because I think what we’ve got here is a blind spot that we can – and should – do some work on. If you’re familiar with the Hegelian dialectic, you’ll know that at each stage the opposition between two antithetical elements is resolved – not by splitting the difference or agreeing to differ, but – in a synthesis which represents the transcendence and supersession of both elements. Most importantly, the synthesis both preserves and negates the clashing elements. If we take this seriously as a model of historical progress, it would imply that the gains of liberal individualism will live on under socialism – will, in fact, be more fully and more adequately realised than they have been to date. But if this is to happen, those gains must first be made; liberal individualism, as well as materialist collectivism, must be realised as fully as possible if they are to be superseded by something better than either of them.

What I’m saying – if you’d rather have it without the teleology and the jargon – is that the Left cannot afford any complacency about the achievements of liberal individualism; still less can we afford to stop speaking the language of rights and respect altogether, on the basis that democratic socialism will float all boats. Equality of citizenship for Jews is an historic achievement of liberalism, to rank with free schooling or votes for women; we on the Left should understand that and appreciate it as such, and if there are any threats to it from any quarter we should be absolutely outraged.

As for recognising that and making it an emotional as well as an intellectual reality – well, there’s work to do. But at least we can see where the work needs to be done. An optimistic point, as I say.

Next up: Israel/Palestine (spoiler: not quite so optimistic).




One Comment

  1. metatone
    Posted 30 March 2018 at 16:11 | Permalink | Reply

    Very interesting posts. Lots of thoughts.

    1) As a PoC I’m not that thrilled about the idea that socialism arrogates to the majority the decision about whether or not a grouping is sufficiently oppressed for their concerns to be “sufficiently serious to be a concern of socialism” – possibly because we’re living through a moment where it’s very clear that the majority are perfectly capable of deciding they “are the real victims in all of this.”

    2) The ending point reminds me again that plenty of socialist people don’t believe in the gains of liberalism (you’ll recall I mentioned how there’s a growing sense in some circles around the leadership that ditching the ECHR is a good and necessary step) and again, as part of a minority, I’m not finding that comforting.

    3) I’m not Jewish, so I can’t comment on how things stand inside the Labour party for them, but I’ve heard a lot of stories recently that parallel my own experiences as a PoC. And I’m not inclined to blame Corbyn, b/c my stretch of unfortunate experiences runs for much longer than that. But:

    a) My experience lines up a lot with the idea that Labour (and the left) is a reflection of wider society on discrimination. It’s probably a bit better overall (if nothing else, most of the true hard racists are on the right, (EDL? BNP?) so the average on the left is improved by this) but structures will structure and a lot of subconscious stuff we get from society is there.

    b) Labour will for the foreseeable future have to battle in a hostile media environment. That means the leadership is always going to be piled on for any vulnerability. So that’s not going to change, but if the party is going to be a more hospitable place for minorities then someone’s going to need to sort out some standard reactions and procedures for incidents to be addressed and to be seen to be addressed (not that the press will give Labour credit) but it’s important that minorities feel some kind of justice is being done.

    (As an aside, Corbyn/his office reaction to the Sarah Champion Islamophobic Sun article was just as badly handled in the first couple of days, I and others like me were raging – they tidied up later on and b/c the right wing press are much more ambivalent about it, it didn’t bring a big pile on, but I think it’s useful to recognise that the leadership have been rather inept in this area.)

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