Month: May 2012

Summary of RSN1

On 25 April we had the first RSN event at Salford, hosted by the Working Class Movement Library. It proved to be an excellent venue; we were keen to have a broad mix of people forming the audience, and as a non-academic space it attracted people from outside universities. Numbers exceeded our expectations, and the NALGO room at the library was packed!

The first paper was given by Will Jackson of the University of Central Lancashire and Waqas Tufail of the University of Salford, on the subject of urban regeneration in Salford as the backdrop to the riots in the city last summer. The paper came out of their collaboration with Bob Jeffery, currently at Sheffield Hallam University. Together, they brought expertise in urban geography, political theory, and the politics of policing to bear on the event. The recent history of Salford was discussed; the deprivation of the ward of Langworthy was juxtaposed with the recent influx of capital to the city, as indeed it is in the geography of the city itself — deprived areas and pockets of affluence sit cheek by jowl. The dominant narrative of the riots as ‘shopping with violence’, as David Starkey had it on Newsnight, does not explain what happened in Salford. The Precinct is not populated with high-end brands such as Bang & Olufsen and yet it was the target of the rioters’ actions; if they had wanted to steal such items then Manchester city centre is extremely close, a fact not likely to be forgotten by Salfordians.

This relates to Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of ‘defective consumers’, which only partially fits the context of the Salford riots. Most Salfordians fail to consume property as well as other goods, and the polarisation of the city into vastly unequal areas is a result of choices made by the local elites and council, rather than, as Bauman has it, a free and politically uncontrolled play of market forces’ (2011). Working-class Salfordians are seen as ‘hindering the trajectory of regeneration’ and their presence must be managed. This stratification of the urban space has not been seen as inherently problematic by academics such as Tim Butler and Garry Robson, who propose that ‘tectonic social interactions’ serve to limit the potential for conflict. Different class communities exist and move along side one another and peace is maintained precisely because they do not mix. Will and Waqas argued that the opposite is the case, that the arrangement of populations tectonically produces such conflict as was evident in the riots, rather than being a ‘tension management strategy’.

The policing of communities in Salford is connected to this influx of capital and the construction of gentrified areas in the city, and is recognised as such by many of the city’s working-class inhabitants. The re-colonization of the city by the monied middle class results in social tensions, which are managed by police, producing resentment and more tension. This ‘fabrication of social order’, this creating of a milieu amenable to the needs of capital, is the historic role of the police. Will and Waqas concluded the paper by showing the audience clippings from local news archives, showing how these conflicts occur periodically, evidencing a pattern of social relations that is only continued by the summer riots, rather than them being a random and meaningless event.

Questions

The question and answer session showed how stimulating the paper had been, and the presenters were congratulated on such timely and necessary research. The first comment was about the need to situate this process historically; such gentrification is a contemporary example of ‘enclosures’, or ‘primary accumulation’ as Marx had it. The presenters agreed, saying that the process of gentrification considered historically contests the idea that neoliberalism is distinct from earlier forms of capitalism. There was a question on whether Will and Waqas had considered the opinions of participants in the riots, and what kinds of justification they offered for their actions. In response, they pointed to the archive material from 1981 which showed how police harassment was adduced in that context, too, as a reason for riots. This was linked back to their analysis of the police as having a particular role within capitalism, and the speakers were wary of working-class consciousness being viewed in terms of traditional formulations and hierarchical organisations. One comment drew a parallel between Salford and Derry in Northern Ireland; policing was thus seen to have a colonial dimension. The lack of jobs for local residents in the Quays development was suggested as important, in exposing the failure of the promise that the influx of capital would ‘trickle down’ to local residents. One questioner took issue with the speakers’ use of the term ‘working class’ as if working-class Salfordians were a homogenous group; not all of them had poor relations with the police. Will’s response was that they did not imagine the working class to be undifferentiated, but that it was crucial to retain the concept in order to understand the politics of the situation. Class is not dead, and it is indisputable that Salford has been polarised geographically along class lines. Police relations with local residents may be various, but the role of the police within capitalism is to maintain the social order that allows it to develop in a secure environment. Lastly, the idea that the riots were driven by gangs was dispensed with, as the police could not produce evidence of this at a recent discussion in Salford which had been organised by the Guardian and LSE.

Matt Worley’s paper, ‘Shot by Both Sides: Punk, Politics, and the End of Consensus’, addressed the relations between punk, youth culture, and political groups between the mid-70s and mid-80s. Youth cultures such as punk were a means of expressing fault-lines in the post-war consensus. Matt gave a definition of punk as music and cultural practices informed by the Sex Pistols: as opposing the status quo and rejecting status symbols, giving a voice for the disenfranchised, and committed to a DIY ethic and aesthetic. He went on to look at the ways in which various political groups on both the left and right saw potential in punk. In the summer of ’77, the Young Communist League published an open letter in Challenge, proposing that they and punks ‘get together […] to fight for their rights […] for the kids in Britain today, the situation STINKS’. It argued that music was only one channel in which dissent might be aired, punk had neglected the streets.

But the YCL was just one of many such organisations to court punk, or attempt to infiltrate its audiences. The SWP, the Young Socialists, the International Marxist Group as well as the National Front all saw potential in the anger and disaffection it expressed. Gigs were disrupted by competing political factions, and intimidation put an end to the career of at least one band. Matt argued that punk’s attraction for political groups lay in the breakdown of the post-war consensus, of which punk was a sign. The crumbling of consensus undermined the groups’ ideological suppositions, and they saw in punk a means of engaging with the disaffected youth.

The left was characterised by internecine struggles and tensions in the midst of a capitalist crisis; new sites of struggle were demarcated in which the ‘personal became political’. It was unclear to the Communist Party of Great Britainwhether punk was a potential site of class struggle, or gave expression of capitalist forces. The SWP saw punk as a cultural response to a capitalist crisis and sought to channel its energies into class struggle. Punk was an opportunity for women to challenge normative ideas of femininity, and masculine conventions in popular music. There were concerns that punk would drift into fascism, as its use of icons like the swastika suggested it might.

The right also saw potential in punk, and a constituency in its fans. While it had taken a conservative attitude towards culture, opposing non-modernist art forms with the ‘manifestations of the jungle’ and described punks as ‘freaks’, punks’ use of the swastika suggested that it might suit the purposes of the right. Even anti-fascist bands were recommended to the readers of far right’s magazines, and gigs were seen as recruiting grounds.

Matt argued that punk’s energy was generated from its contradictions, and refusal to commit to either left or right politics. It was fascinated by fascism as a lesson from history but it was also a source of tabooed material. To Johnny Rotten, the NF was ridiculous but the far left were condescending. Joe Strummer, likewise, refused to be recruited by the SWP, describing it as ‘dogma’. Howard Devoto was told by a friend he would be shot by both sides when the barricades went up. Punk, therefore, was formed by a dialectic that could only be threatened by a formal alignment with either left or right. It did provide an outlet for protest but in a reflexive fashion that was not consistent. Both left and right abandoned their strategies of trying to co-opt punk; the SWP abandoned music as a site of politics and the NF blamed its own degeneration on its focus on youth culture.

Questions

Matt’s paper was also well received, and resonated with the personal history of at least a couple of audience members! The first question was on the extent to which political groups’ contact with punk affected its lyrics. The answer was that some bands, like the Gang of Four, did use a Marxist lexicon in their lyrics, whereas other bands were wary of being used by ‘other forces’. One audience member noted that Chelsea had a song called ’Right to Work’, but Matt pointed out that it was in protest against a union stopping them from working rather than against unemployment! Another audience member was conducting research on post-punk and argued that it was part of a shift from the counter-culture to libertarianism, with youth culture eventually being co-opted by neoliberalism. He asked, was punk always negative in spirit? The record label Rough Trade showed how sometimes it tried to build an alternative. Matt quoted Jon Savage on the need to do something after the ‘No’, and that post-punk was perhaps doing that. One audience member was in the SWP and helped organise a carnival in 1978, after which, he argued, the NF never returned to Manchester. He claimed that the SWP were never confident that punk’s energy could be harnessed, saying that sometimes they wondered if punk was exploiting them, rather than the other way round, and that the politics could often get lost in events under the umbrella of Rock Against Racism. Matt’s research presented at this seminar will inform the forthcoming book, Anarchy in the UK: Politics, Punk and Society, 1976-84: we look forward to its publication.

We were pleased with how well the first RSN seminar went, and hope to maintain the energy and quality in subsequent events. Feel free to continue the debate in the comments box below, and submit abstracts to radicalstudiesnetwork[at]gmail.com if you wish to present your work at future RSN events.

Jen Morgan

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