Reflections on A Sivanandan’s ‘All that Melts into the Air is Solid’
I have recently started up Hotchpotch again, as part of the Extra Pages project. It’s ‘an intellectual night for non-academics’ – a participatory evening of discussion, debate, bring-and-share readings, presentation from an activist/community group and also a lecture by a layperson on a text that they have found interesting. Last Monday I did the first one, on A. Sivanandan’s 1990 essay. I had picked up ‘Communities of Resistance: Writings on Black Struggles’ in an English language bookshop in Budapest. I have found it fascinating. Siv, born into a Tamil family in Northern Sri Lanka (Ceylon as it then was), left for Britain after the inter-ethnic riots between Sinhalese and Tamil and “walked straight into the ‘riots’ in Notting Hill”. In England “I knew then I was black. I could no longer stand on the sidelines; race was a problem that affected me directly. … I had to find a way of making some sort of contribution to the improvement of scoiety, to bring about a society where human beings could be human.” (The Heart is Where the Battle is; Verso, 1990) Starting as a tea boy in a public library, he qualified as a librarian, going on to work in the library of the Institute of Race Relations, which he and other members took over, with Siv becoming director. From an Establishment body, “controlled and in part financed by big business [which] spoke to government concerns”, Siv and the others made it “a think-in-order-to-do tank, for black and Third World Peoples.”
A. Sivanandan writes “Any struggles of the oppressed, be it blacks or women, which are only for themselves and then not for the least of them, the most deprived, the most exploited of them, are inevitably self-serving and narrow and unable to enlarge the human condition. … The question for me is: what is it in the black and Third World experience, in the experience of the oppressed and the exploited, that gives one the imagination to see other oppressions and the will to fight for a better society for all, a more equal, just free society, a socialist society?”
This is his position. Exploitation and oppression go hand-in-hand. “You cannot fight oppression without at the same time fighting exploitation – or you end up exchanging one oppression for another.” So exploitation is the Marxist explanation of Capital using Labour to enrich itself and oppression is a racist hierarchy which gives differential weightage to the differences of race. Basically, in his terms, exploitation is about class and oppression is about race/gender/sexuality etc. and the two are necessarily connected. Elsewhere he affectionately quotes Stuart Hall (with whom we will soon discover he also had some differences of opinion): “Race is the modality in which class is lived.” In fact, he wants us to distinguish between ‘racialism’ which is a matter of personal attitudes and ‘racism’ which is matter of systemic structure, the “material conditions that breed” that racialism in individuals.
‘All that Melts into Air is Solid’ was published in the IRR’s journal ‘Race and Class’ in 1990. Its subtitle “The Hokum of ‘New Times’” probably gives you no idea about its target. But he was taking on a new British movement on the Left. As socialists were thrashing around for a new direction in the face of the failure of the Soviet experiment on the one hand and the rise and success of neo-liberalism on the other, there was the thing called ‘Euro-communism’, based on Gramschi, which was looking for a ‘democratic’ route to socialism through elections and parliament rather than revolution. The ‘New Times’ that Sivanandan calls ‘hokum’ was a term coined in a special edition of Marxism Today in 1988. Its editor for the issue, Martin Jacques wrote in the editorial: “Mass production, the mass consumer, the big city, big-brother state, the sprawling housing estate, and the nation-state are in decline: flexibility, diversity, differentiation, mobility, communication, decentralisation and internationalisation are in the ascendant. In the process our own identities, our sense of self, our own subjectivities are being transformed. We are in transition to a new era.”
At Hotchpotch we had a long discussion about which of those predictions proved right and which wrong. For Sivanandan this is “humbug” and “hokum” because it: “palms off Thatcherite values as socialist, shores up the Thatcherite market with the pretended politics of choice, fits out the Thatcherite individual with progressive consumerism, makes consumption itself the stuff of politics. New Times is a mirror image of Thatcherism passing for socialism. New Times is Thatcherism in drag.” Forget the petty bitching of late 80s British communists (this need not trouble us anymore), there are some important issues at hand here. It’s hard to take issue with a thinker as brilliant and important as Stuart Hall, but I think Sivanandan’s argument is worthy of consideration.
Both sides agree that the organisation of Labour has changed. “Electronics had replaced the brain as once steam had replaced muscle.” But says Siv., what the Left didn’t get was that “Capital had been freed from Labour. They had for so long been fighting for the emancipation of Labour from Capital that they could not bear to think that it was Capital that was now being emancipated from Labour.” and that emancipation was rooted in the unfashionably Marxist sounding “economic basis of production.” He agrees that old-fashioned organisations are outdated – “the more Labour tries to hold Capital in thrall by withholding its labour [strikes etc], the more Capital moves towards its emancipation through yet more information technology, yet more labourless productive regimes, yet more recourse to the captive labour force in the periphery [i.e. Third Word]”. However, he does not see cultural revolutions and identity-based politics as the answer. Siv argues that the transformation of our “identities, sense of self and subjectivities” that Jacques wrote so positively about in our journey towards “New Times”, in fact “derive from the economic”, which I’m afraid to say, is not good news. Our very obsession with identity stems from the individualisation of economics. “The battle is neither about culture nor about the subject, but – still – about the ownership and control of the means of production and the exploitation of workers. Only now, the centre of gravity of that exploitation has shifted from the centre to the periphery and, within the centre, to peripheral workers, home workers, ad hoc workers, casual, temporary, part-time [he could have added precarious] – all the bits and pieces of the working class that the new productive forces have dispersed and dissipated of their strength.” (29) Stuart Hall in the same Marxism Today issue, listed 1. Changes in the economy (move to IT, service industry, marketing, globalised financial markets, rise of multinationals and international division of labour, away from skilled manual labour etc). and 2. Social and cultural changes (new, fragmented, pluralist identities, “the maximisation of individual choices through personal consumption”). Siv says that list 2 follows list 1, social and cultural changes are “predicated on economic changes”. Siv says he doesn’t care that he will be accused of economic determinism, “our preoccupation with identities stem from the … economic revolution of our times.” I kind of suspect that Hall sees the connection between the two, but for Siv, the fact that that battle has moved “over to the cultural side” (Hall, Brave New World) is because Capital has freed itself of Labour and moved the struggle on to the talk of the subjective. “However,” says Siv, if you think about where Capital has outsourced Labour and how it has fragmented blocs of resistance with new modes of employment, “the battle itself is neither about culture nor about the subject, but – still – about the ownership and control of the means of production and the exploitation of workers.”
So basically, he is not down with identity politics. He is an old fashioned Marxist but one prepared to use old fashioned Marxism to re-analyse new times. He never for a moment forgets the periphery and the oppression of racism within the structures of the centre. Social movements for race, gender or sexuality are “profoundly socialist” because they “raise issues about the quality of life (“human worth, dignity, genuine equality, the enlargement of the self”) but they “lose their claim to universality” when they fight “particularistic oppressions of women qua women, blacks qua blacks and so on.” And, worse than that, they bring about “new sectarianism”, separating black women’s struggles from the greater black struggle, separating the black struggle from the greater social struggle, separating Asian and black struggles etc. and in the process creating hierarchies of suffering, whereby one group can pull rank on the other by being the “most oppressed.”
“There are,” he argues, “simple, basic connections to be made within and between the various movements.” In the same year that Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality theory”, Siv. says that we have to keep our eye on the bigger picture while dealing with the particular, giving the admonitory example of “a peace movement, which does not, for instance, see that to preserve the world from a holocaustal nuclear war also involves preserving the Third World from a thousand internecine wars sponsored and financed by the arms industry of the West.” We can enrich the personal by understanding the political. We can enrich the whole by the struggles of the particulars. But the interpretation of the “personal is the political” and the “romanticising” of identity politics in general and feminism in particular (which he admits might have been necessary as a tactic to open up the “male, heterosexual citadels of socialism”) has “led to disastrous consequences”. “By personalising power you personalise the enemy: the enemy of the black is the white as the enemy of the woman is the man.” This reduces in his eyes “the fight against institutions and practices to a fight against individuals and attitudes.” Presumably the enemy is Capital and systemic. Black intellectuals found “commitment, if not profit, in ethnicity and culture” and white intellectuals found “struggle in discourse” with the justification that in “post-Fordist” culture, the working class had disintegrated. They then elected themselves the agents of change in a world of ideas, ideology and information.
Instead, it is in “the joint struggles” such as those “of refugee, migrant and black groups” which sustain the links between racism and imperialism and between racial oppression and class exploitation.” These are different because:
2. They know that “behind civil society lurks the state … local or central.”
3. They are not diverse cultural politics but “a multi-faceted political culture” that maintains the aim of overthrowing capitalism, not just leading it gently astray into socialism.
4. They operate along “the political is personal” rather than “the personal is political.” meaning they are not just trying to achieve for themselves or for their group, not just trying to create the “radical individual” but the “radical society” which will allow radical individuals to flourish. A society that “finds value in the communal lifestyle of the poor.”
5. “only in the collective good our selves can put forth and grow.”
We must, he concludes, make individual or local cases into an issue, an issue into a cause and a cause into a movement and build “new communities of resistance that will take on power and Capital and class.” I guess the transformation from a few women’s individual struggles to be housed within their home borough to a cause for decent housing and, by uniting and organising a number of rebel groups, setting up a march on City Hall which thousands took part in yesterday, may fit this model. Worrying about white privilege or demanding more black journalists on the BBC would not.
Next Hotchpotch will be on 16th February 2015 at Pages of Hackney, 70 Lower Clapton Road, London. E5 0RN. Every Monday a member of the Extra Pages collective will be running the bookshop as a volunteer in the day and hosting an event downstairs in the evening.