Book Review: Getting By – Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, by Lisa McKenzie

Getting By is the result of ethnographic research by sociologist, socialist, and social housing resident, Lisa McKenzie in her own council housing estate: St. Anne’s “Stanzville” in Nottingham in England. It is an important read for understanding how class works in Britain today. Class is not just a relation to the means of production – it is a social relation defined by being fucked around and having to get through difficult circumstances on a daily basis to get by. Through telling the stories of residents at St. Anne’s we get an idea of the difficulties people have to face on a daily basis and of the strategies used to manage and negotiate these circumstances. In doing so it provides an important counter-narrative to what you might hear from the mainstream media or stereotypes about the scum and worthless benefit scroungers. Instead McKenzie is motivated by trying to show the value of who and what is there on her estate. What she gives us is a picture of a community who are constantly considered worthless by the outside and in response create their own internal systems of valuation and respect (and a lot of this value system is something the outside word should learn from, for example being black or mixed race is envied in St. Anne’s). Highlighting these kinds of things is important in order to show the value of what is there in working class communities. Because without this you have ‘community development’ programmes, designed by outsiders which miss the whole point of council estate problems. The example is given of a mentoring programme claiming that “As a result [of our programme] a ‘mentor’ feels more valued in his own community” (p 162). As McKenzie points out, “This is a very simplistic approach to exclusion and disadvantage, […] and works within a limited framework. Being respected in your community is not the problem: it is being respected outside the neighbourhood that residents of council estates struggle with” (p. 162).

Image from the publishers, Policy Press

The most interesting part of the book is not by design of research. The book talks about how the estate is stigmatised by the outside and in response the residents are creating their own value system and systems of respect. Luckily for the researcher, just as she was finishing the research, the whole business of the 2011 riots happened, and the alternative value system that Stanz people had been creating in place of the one that rejected them began to accelerate. (alternative value systems are usually ignored, and when they are looked at, they are assumed to be statically existing rather than developing). And this gives a very interesting picture of what happens. The value system they are creating values belonging to the estate and an in-group identity. As this accelerates, this identity becomes counterposed to the identities of other council estates, and with that came intra-estate violence and riots. This is what McKenzie calls ‘estatism’:

“While boundaries were put up by those who lived on the estate in order to feel safe […], at the same time those boundaries acted as a wall, keeping in a closed and suspicious group of people, whose fear of stigma and ‘being looked down on’ often prevented them from engaging in pursuits that might make real and positive differences to their lives […] I have described a tight-knit community, which has been built on pride, a sense of belonging, humour, and sharing, but also fear, instability, and stigmatisation” (p. 149).

One of the chief directions of this wall was against other council estates, something that led to turf wars, even in the city centre of Nottingham, where some areas and shops were seen as Stanz territory, and others belonging to other estates like Meadows or Radford. And when the riots came, these inter-estate rivalries became battlelines. It would be fascinating to know how it changed in the aftermath of the riots. The main outcome seemed to be that the police and the courts, spurred on by the right-wing media and politicians, cracked down on any scapegoats they could find. We hear about the stories of people who had no involvement in activities but who were imprisoned by court systems that thought they needed to sate the appetite of a right-wing press and political class.

Like the example of Perry, who was walking home with his take-away dinner on the night of the riots, when he found himself being chased by police and was arrested and later trialled and convicted by jury and sentenced to three years in prison:

“The main argument of the prosecution was that Perry had been on the street in order to ‘get up to no good’, otherwise why else would he have been there? Another part of the prosecution’s argument was that Perry was wearing a red bandanna, which, they argued, was a signifier that Perry was part of a gang in St Ann’s. This line of defence seemed to go along way with the jurors, even though there was no evidence that Perry had done anything apart from being on the street that night, and he looked like a rioter. The police went through Perry’s phone records and contacts – he was not in contact with anyone else who had been arrested that night, and the police admitted that he didn’t seem to know anyone else who he had been arrested with. But among the furore about the riots, and the rising fear of ‘the underclass’ and inner-city ‘gangs’, 12 men and women from Nottingham believed that Perry was a ‘rioter’” (p.190).

This can only feed into the existing perspectives that everybody is against them. McKenzie describes how the talk among men in the boxing gym or or barbers was always about “conspiracy theories they had read on the internet, and swapped information about new sites with ‘new evidence’, which, for them, explained ‘their situation’” (p. 98). The most popular conspiracy theory was about the Illuminati,

“an organisation that is centred around Jewish bankers and Zionist politics, which holds politicians, the media, the legal system and the banks in their hands […] and their racism towards black people is purposeful and political, with the aim of keeping racial order and continuing inequality, thus keeping poor people in poverty, while its members and the Masonic order become more wealthy and more powerful” (p. 98).

What struck me reading this is how much of ‘their situation’ they are trying to explain: racism, poverty, inequality, the1% hoarding all the wealth, the political system, the media and the courts as tools keeping them down… However, as she continues, “while these theories are discussed in the greatest detail, argued about, and the men enjoy the debates that come from new evidence they find on the internet, there is little interest and even less knowledge of national and local politics, apart from the consensus that all politicians, like the police, cannot and should not be trusted” (p. 99). And this distrust leads to a process of looking inwards towards the safety of the estate, something which manifests itself as the inter-estate rivalry and violence. What I’m wondering is if the enemies can be more concretely pinpointed and if different working class communities might come together on the basis of this shared bad treatment after the riots.

An important thing about the book is that the author is working class. This is somebody telling the story of the community she is part of, rather then somebody looking in at them. It is important that knowledge is produced by the working classes rather than for the working class by outside middle class observers. One tendency of university-educated working class people is that the university values and encourages writing for academic or policy-making audiences and the use of language that reflects a grasp of social theory or the management/corporatist ethos of the neoliberal state. This has the effect of bribing/conditioning the brightest of the working class to ‘graduate’ and become culturally middle-class. McKenzie seems to resist this. She makes use of social theory to reveal aspects of estate life, but she doesn’t make theoretical points or convolute her language with references that prove to university audience how much she knows but just make reading it difficult for everybody else.

This poses a question though: who would read Getting By? Is it likely that people from the St Anne’s estate will read this? I don’t know, but it is probable that at least some from other working class estates or communities will read it. And it is here that the biggest potential is. If there is a way to autonomously develop awareness of common experiences of (gender, racial, class) oppression and common interests, surely it must be through recognising oneself in the stories of another. Indeed, this is exactly the kind of remedy to the chief problem that she identifies. Although she tells the story of St. Anne’s from the perspective of the people who live there, she is not shy to be critical when she notices the tendency towards estatism. What this book and other estate-produced knowledge have the potential to do is to counter this division that estatism seems to create by helping people to recognise that WE are all the same (because we are all fucked over by THEM – the true enemies e.g. punishing state, upper class demonisation and complicit media, racism, capitalism, etc…).

And here there is a bit of a contradiction that I don’t think is picked up on by the author. Elements of ‘naming the enemy’ are already there: “since the end of 2010, apathy has been replaced by fear that things are getting worse, and that no one cares, that it is state policy to purposefully run down council estates, and their residents, through death, prison, or both” (p 98). But this anger gets channelled into estatism. This estatism became most pronounced and most visible during the riots that pitted groups from one estate against the others. But the source of the riots was the police murder of Mark Duggan. Somehow, council estates and working class communities all across Britain knew that it was them whose time had come to rise up. It might not be the kind of mobilization that those on the activist or organised left would hope for, but it was undeniably a working class uprising, where people (ok, men more often than not) responded to circumstances on the basis of a shared identification as council estate people – even if this mobilization was channelled intuitively into inter-estate rivalry rather than unity.

So, contrary to the idea that the working class is hopeless, the riots showed that the working class is perfectly capable of self-mobilization, even if is not on the basis of a class identity that ‘we’ would hope for, and even the mobilization it is not of a form that ‘we’ consider strategic or even recognise, and even if it is targetted at groups who should be comrades rather than enemies. Still, this is how the working classes mobilize and if leftists want to have any relevance, the 1st step is in understanding and engaging with this type of mobilization. Getting By is not an analysis of the 2011 riots, but it is an important part of understanding the last part of that contradiction in particular – when people identify as part of but against the working class.

Diversity commentary: single-author monograph written by a working class woman, although she is white and heterosexual she has a mixed race family. University educated up to post-doc level but she was the first in her family’s history to go to higher level education. From and living in and about an English-speaking, European, advanced capitalist country.

The electoral politics delusion

Its that time of the season again where a prominent left-wing party or candidate looks like they might just get close to winning an election, and the question is asked, “what if ….”. This time it is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in the UK, but this comes only a few weeks after Jean-Luc Mélenchon was not so far away from the 2nd round (and some say probable eventual victory had he reached that far). And with the failure of the extra-parliamentary, non-institutionalist left-led wave of struggle from 2009-2013 or there abouts, and with the racist right riding a wave at the moment, can you really blame people for getting enthusiastic about something that looks a little bit hopeful for a change?

The thing is though, if elected, Corbyn won’t implement any radical policies, and he will have a hard time implementing even moderate reforms. But I’m not going to argue this like the usual anti-state anarchist cut-and-paste denouncement of any effort to effect change through the state or political parties. Actually, I would ask people in the UK to vote Labour and maybe even join and become active members in their local Party branches. But before all that, let’s take a look at some trends leading us here.

The financial crisis of 2008 and the general capitalist crisis that followed it was so deep that neoliberalism really faced a legitimacy crisis for a while. But instead of trying to save its image the dominant response from governments right or left of centre was to mount a class struggle assault and to undo gains won from below in previous bouts – something so galling that by 2011 the movements of the squares unleashed the most visible ever (at least in Europe and North America) extra-parliamentary extra-institutionalist movement (of which the M15 or Occupy were only the most well known instances of a more general trend of extra-parliamentary and extra-institutional struggles kicking off everywhere), that explicitly said Fuck You to the entire political Class, in the process bringing in thousands of people who had never been active in any political way before.

But in the end, we failed. Even to get minimum objectives. Although the left-led wave of anti-austerity struggle did articulate visions of a radically different type of economy, there were plenty of other non-revolutionary solutions that we would have been happy with. For instance, Keynesianism is far from anti-capitalist and the capitalist class would have been ok with this as a peace-treaty had we forced it on them. A plane ordinary stimulus solution is even less anti-capitalist. But while capitalism should have been entirely discredited, not only did it survive, but it actually led an assault and pushed beyond the previous peace-lines. The fact is that nowhere has anybody – autonomist left, institutional left, or reactionary right (who regardless of posturing obviously aren’t going to challenge neoliberalism, what with their business leaders support) – was able to win anything: not revolution, not return to Keynesianism, not an end to austerity.

In 2012 we saw Syriza jump from 4.6% to 12% of the vote. But with Golden Dawn making a frightening jump (from a lower starting level of support), and with the general movement still going strong, this was kind of forgotten about. But then, not so long later, as 2014 drew to a close, it looked like this party was likely to win in the election in January. This was certainly different from the movement of the squares, and it was one of the first times a Party that made significant anti-austerity noises had been in a position that they might have a chance of winning. So naturally people across Europe started asking the question: ‘What if…”

Well we soon found out what happened.

But I’m not the type to write-off any prospects for an institutionalist solution just because it didn’t work once. There are any number of reasons why what happened to Syriza would not necessarily happen elsewhere. For example, they were the first openly challenging austerity politics to get to a position where they could technically do something about it. So the Greek and European establishments rallied to prevent it. It is by no means certain such an alliance could hold out indefinitely and wait out the legitimacy crisis if faced with a series of similar situations in country after country (although obviously an unrealistic ‘if’). It was also Greece, the hardest hit of the austerity laboratories, and as a test case the neoliberal cadre has a lot invested in seeing how far they can push this one. It might have been easier to extract concessions if the Syriza phenomenon had taken place in, say, Portugal or Ireland (again, and unrealistic ‘if’).

But these hypotheticals aside, looking at what has happened since, I still say a Corbyn government will not be able to deliver, not revolution, not return to Keynesianism, not an end to austerity. It is generally accepted that Mélenchon would not have been able to do much with a presidency despite the unique circumstances, reflective of a general legitimacy crisis in politics in France, where all you need is 20% to win. But because the support of a similarly diverse parliament is required, only a candidate of the establishment could actually do anything. This of course served to support Fillon or Macron, but Mélenchon or Le Pen would only have survived in the presidency if they made the right compromises. That is leaving aside whether Mélenchon would have actually beaten Le Pen in a second round run-off. Because while the Mélenchon campaign were criticised (correctly in my opinion – but more on that further below) for not showing unambiguously enough a Republican Front stance and instructing their voters to vote against Le Pen, I actually have serious doubts whether Fillon or Macron would have directed their supporters to do the same, because it is quite possible that the Capitalist class would prefer a racist fascist to a communist.

Looking at Labour, the two-round system and the separation of the executive and legislature are not a factor in the Uk and so the challenge for Corbyn is not in institutional structure. But look at what he has faced since being proposed as a candidate for party leadership in 2015: an incredibly hostile media (even including the historically progressive Guardian), and a Party elite which has tried every dirty trick to undermine him and has shown contempt for the internal democratic party process. And they have done this without fear of of negative media coverage, indicating a widespread establishment alliance to get rid of him. This alliance will only get stronger and more determined in that event that Labour wins a majority. And if in the very unlikely event that some radical or even moderately reformist measure was put to vote, it is almost certain that the right-wing Labour MPs will side with the Tories and vote against it.

But earlier in this post I did say that I would ask Uk-based people to vote Labour. After all this criticism, that hardly seems logical. The reason is because an anti-austerity campaign needs a strong and organised movement. Labour in government will not do that. But Labour narrowly missing out on government, with a confident militant grassroots of activists (which I think is Corbyn’s biggest achievements) would be far more effective in defending communities and extracting concessions from the Tories than would a Labour government.

In France, the << ni ni >> campaign (neither Macron nor Le Pen) scored an important victory (although at the time I was against it: Fascism is too dark to gamble with). Although their ‘candidate’ did not get elected, the campaign, and the election results, made it very publicly known that Macron did not win the Presidency – people voted against Le Pen. This makes Macron a much weaker opponent for the French left to extract concessions from than a hypothetical Mélenchon presidency needing the support of a centrist parliament.

And similarly, looking ahead, the Corbyn-inspired grassroots activism in the Labour party is probably the most significant and engaging level of political activism in Europe since the 15M movement and the equivalents in Greece moved out of the city-centres and into the neighbourhoods. Whatever about short term policy changes that may or may not (probably not) be achieved by a government, this kind of mass and sustained activism is what is needed – both to achieve short-term anti-austerity victories here and ther, and also for building community-based militancy capable of pushing for more in the medium to longer term. Unfortunately this is currently being realised through a political party. And when I say unfortunately I’m not talking about because it generate false hopes in a parliamentary solution, but because despite the level and radicalism of involvement, all this energy is always under risk of being co-opted or extinguished by a party hierarchy (whether involving a compromised Corbyn or the Labour right-wing after another one of their coups). What is needed is further movement-building and democratisation of the movement to be able to to resist, or eventually become independent of, the party. And both things can only come from a narrow Corbyn defeat.

Best of October

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The “Jungle” camp in Calais, where refugees attempting to reach britain lived, was dismantled last week by the French state, with people being ‘redistributed’ to different centres around the country, in complete disregard for the choice of people forced to leave war conditions. Image shared from Liberation.

The biggest story is still the inspirational prison strike in the US. Most important to share is a compiled list of calls for support. Resources and contact details for offering

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Front page of the National following the uk conservative party conference where they announced plans to expel non-essential foreigners, have schools and workplaces report their foreign pupils and workers, exempt the army and police from following human rights legislation, revive a class-appartheid education system, among other atrocities. Source: The Canary

support to different local campaigns. As ever, things change quickly so follow the links for updates. And indeed, one of those links leads to an excellent article about an uprising as the strikes started in a prison in Michigan. Try also another piece from the same blog (great blog, by the way, itsgoingdown.org) on solidarity organising with prisoners, which also contains lots of avenues for you to show support with specific struggles and campaigns.

 

And on the theme of prisons, ROAR has a story about how the Greek government under Syriza are blocking access to educational leave to an activist imprisoned and tortured for involvement in the anti-austerity protests that brought them to power after having from opposition issued statements supporting his right to educational leave during a victorious hunger strike. Until they got into government a few months later and failed to implement what Demokratia-PASOK had conceded. From the same blog an interview with the authors of one of the three high profile English-language books to date on the Democratic Confederalist project in Rojava. Book is called Revolution in Rojava, originally published in German, written by three activists based in Germany and Turkey after spending a month in Rojava. And translated by Janet Biehl (who also interviews the authors in this article), collaborator and partner of Murray Bookchin, said to be a leading influence on the philosophy behind the revolution.

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Woman is Not Incubator – sign displayed at Czarny Protest, a womens’ strike in Poland against legislation banning abortion. Source unclear.

Four years ago an Indian woman, Salvita Halappanavar died in a hospital in Ireland because doctors refused her requests to terminate her fatal pregnancy, and threw in a good measure of racist slurs at her and her husband while she was dying. A blog post commemorating her death and calling out the patriarchical, racist and statist systemic violence that killed her and continues to deny bodily autonomy to women. Shocking but important that the story is shared. The Black Lives Matter UK group introduce themselves and their agenda to combat the same type of intersectional violence.

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britain-based Sisters Uncut let off green and purple (colours of the Suffragettes) smoke flares after disrupting the in-session local council in protest at the cuts to domestic violence response services. The council sits on 1,270 unoccupied social housing units while 47% of domestic violence survivors are turned away and told to go back to the abuse. Image shared gratefully and in solidarity from the Sisters Uncut fb page.
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Black Lives Matter UK action in July. Image from Red Pepper

But to finish on some positive notes, this post tells the story about how the solidarity network supporting VioMe (an occupied factory in Greece that the workers have been running as a cooperative for four years now) prevented another attempt by Capital to auction off the property. To be clear, the factory was economically viable, but the owner closed it down after going bankrupt because of a different venture. In London, students recount how a rent strike was won. And in Bristol, homeless people defeat an injunction by the local council trying to evict their encampment, a camp that actually brightened up the area and got the community involved.

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“With solidarity and self-organisation we defeat facsim” – Syrian activists in Greece at anti fascist demonstration in august. Image from the New Internationalist.