In looking at the pandemic from an economic and political perspective I will proceed from what might be seen as the ABC of a critical analysis.
It is necessary to ground what we are looking at in the specific circumstances of the time.
In doing so we should be mindful also of the historical context if this seems pertinent and we might allow ourselves a speculation about the future if appropriate.
Additionally we must situate the phenomenon being scrutinised in the power relations of society. Cui bono? Whose interests are served by the way in which the object of our concern is characterized; by the way in which governments respond; by the way in which the people respond and so on?
My starting point is both simple and profound. The COVID-19 pandemic expresses first and foremost a crisis of capitalism’s health, much less so a crisis of our individual and collective physical health. I shall seek to give substance to this assertion which if true has enormous consequences both for our day-to-day existence and the ongoing struggle to create an autonomous and democratic society.
As for weighing up what’s going on in 2021, I’ll go back no further historically than the Second World War. I acknowledge the following sketch is rough and ready but it’s no more than a starter for a critical exchange of views.I wonder if such a proposal to be argumentative makes any sense in these dualist and censorious times.
The Social-Democratic Consensus
As the war came to an end the capitalist class was afeard. Talk of radical and revolutionary change hung in the acrid air. To retain their overall control they conceded the following:
An acceptance of the mixed economy, public and private cooperation, the nationalisation of basic utilities – water, electricity and so on.
An agreement that the leaders of the working class should have a seat at the table,
A recognition of the value of universal free education, social and health care.
However grudging, an allowance that the individual, the social and the political are inextricably intertwined.
The Neoliberal Fightback
Thirty years later influential sections of the ruling class were increasingly unhappy about the post-war social contract. Certainly, they were concerned to restore their share of the profits but were also deeply troubled by the growing pressure exerted by working-class militancy and the rise of the social movements demanding equality and justice. To retain their control they set in motion a counter-offensive. Its cornerstones were:
A rejection of the mixed economy and an explicit commitment to the primacy of the ‘free’ market as being the ultimate expression of what is good for everyone, rich or poor.
The utter necessity to undermine the autonomous organisation of the working class and the social movements, exemplified by the 1984/85 violent assault on the National Union of Mineworkers and the softer seduction of leaders and activists from the women’s, black and gay movements into managerial roles serving the neoliberal project.
The launch of an extraordinarily ambitious social engineering project designed to alter our very personalities; to privatise our existence, turning us in on ourselves as individuals and away from collective understandings of our situations; to see ourselves as passive consumers rather than active citizens.
Neoliberalism in crisis
The 2008 banking collapse served notice that the neoliberal economic model was broken. An opportunity of resistance beckoned. In the marginal world of youth work, I argued that we should reassert youth work as open, volatile and voluntary in opposition to the increasingly taken-for-granted closed, imposed, scripted version – youth work as intuition rather than youth work by numbers.
On the broader front, significant protest raged across the world but it was fragmented and largely contained. Nevertheless, the ruling class was shaken and stirred. Across the next decade, it was forced to act pragmatically, bailing out the banks with a massive infusion of ‘public’ money, whilst trying to work out a longer-term strategy that served its interests and maintained its power. The sticking plaster of quantitative easing hid the reality of unsustainable debt, the austerity-imposed immiseration of millions and the obscenity of the rich getting ever richer.
The United Nations poverty adviser, Philp Alston compared contemporary Tory policy to that which had created the workhouses of the nineteenth century. Research undertaken at the University of Bristol led by David Gordon illustrated that in the UK [population 69 million] 18 million people could not afford adequate housing; 12 million were too poor to engage in many forms of social activity; whilst 4 million children and adults were not fed properly. However, austerity was not too austere for the richest 1,000 in the UK, who increased their wealth by 60 billion pounds in a single year, 2017/18.
My guess is that from a ruling class perspective these themes have dominated their many extravagant meetings in snowy Swiss or sunny Mediterranean resorts.
A compelling shift to believing that some form of global governance had to be achieved. The vision would require ‘scientific’ regulation, a central role for experts and the obedience of the senior management representing compliant states.
Hindering such a sweeping move would be nation-states with notions of autonomy and democracy itself, even in its limited representative guise, along with dissident collectives and dangerous maverick individuals.
How might an alienated population, exhausted from work, deprived of work, retired from work be persuaded to go along with a major restructuring of social relations in favour of the powerful at the expense of the powerless?
Towards a global-led technocratic and surveillance capitalism
The reference group for grasping the strategic thinking of the powerful in a period of profound social, political and economic crisis is the World Economic Forum [WEF], which in its own words is “the global platform for public-private cooperation, of partnerships between businessmen, politicians, intellectuals and other leaders of society to define, discuss and advance key issues on the global agenda.” On board amongst many are Amazon, Google, Facebook, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Chase, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations – all powerhouses on the international scene – not to mention the World Health Organisation and International Monetary Fund.
Somewhat in passing I find it intriguing that to comment on the intimate social connections between these corporations is often now dismissed as a sign of that neurotic condition, ‘conspiritatis’. Similarly it is seen almost as a cheap trick to pursue the money, to scrutinise the financial chicanery of these shakers and movers. When, to my mind, these avenues of inquiry are the basis of investigative journalism and social research, of speaking truth to power, if you will forgive such a hackneyed phrase.
To return to the question of the elite’s thinking, sections within its ranks have long felt that some sort of global overview of the social, political and economic order was necessary. To take but one example, Zbigniew Brzezinski, later Jimmy Carter’s Security Advisor, in his 1970 book ‘Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Era’. wrote:
“The technetronic era involves the gradual appearance of a more controlled society. Such a society would be dominated by an elite, unrestrained by traditional values. Soon it will be possible to assert almost continuous surveillance over every citizen and maintain up-to-date complete files containing even the most personal information about the citizen. These files will be subject to instantaneous retrieval by the authorities.”
“The nation-state as a fundamental unit of man’s organized life has ceased to be the principal creative force: International banks and multinational corporations are acting and planning in terms that are far in advance of the political concepts of the nation-state”
This globalising technology-led tendency has gathered pace in the last decade with the WEF at the forefront of proceedings. The following are but a few quotes from Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum contained in his 2016 book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution.
“Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies are truly disruptive—they upend existing ways of sensing, calculating, organizing, acting and delivering. They represent entirely new ways of creating value for organizations and citizens”.
“Sooner than most anticipate, the work of professions as different as lawyers, financial analysts, doctors, journalists, accountants, insurance underwriters or librarians may be partly or completely automated…”
“Drones represent a new type of cost-cutting employee working among us and performing jobs that once involved real people”
“Already, advances in neurotechnologies and biotechnologies are forcing us to question what it means to be human”
We are at the threshold of a radical systemic change that requires human beings to adapt continuously. As a result, we may witness an increasing degree of polarization in the world, marked by those who embrace change versus those who resist it.
Enter the Pandemic
Whether the consequence of zoonotic transfer or laboratory leak, the COVID-19 virus has failed to live up to the catastrophic expectations of half a million deaths in the UK based on Neil Ferguson’s discredited computer modelling. It was never the 21st century version of the Black Death. Indeed WEF’s Kurt Schwab and Thierry Malleret in a book, The Great Reset, published in July 2020, allow that COVID-19 is “one of the least deadly pandemics the world has experienced over the last 2000 years”, adding that “the consequences of COVID-19 in terms of health and mortality will be mild compared to previous pandemics”.
Nevertheless they cannot contain their delight at the opportunities opened up by its emergence.
“It is our defining moment”, “Many things will change forever”. “A new world will emerge”. “The societal upheaval unleashed by COVID-19 will last for years, and possibly generations”. “Many of us are pondering when things will return to normal. The short response is: never”.
“The pandemic is clearly exacerbating and accelerating geopolitical trends that were already apparent before the crisis erupted”.
Amongst the themes running dizzily through their excitement are:
The crucial need for the financial sector, together with the corporate, technological and pharmaceutical giants, to be the enlightened leadership of the way forward in tackling the world’s problems. “The combined market value of the leading tech companies hit record after record during the lockdowns, even rising back above levels before the outbreak started… this phenomenon is unlikely to abate any time soon, quite the opposite”.
The necessity of digitally transforming our private and public existence, whether through shopping, via a shift to on-line banking; on-line education, tele-medicine or even e-sport “Online banking interactions have risen to 90 percent during the crisis, from 10 percent, with no drop-off in quality and an increase in compliance.”;“In the summer of 2020, the direction of the trend seems clear: the world of education, like for so many other industries, will become partly virtual”; “The necessity to address the pandemic with any means available (plus, during the outbreak, the need to protect health workers by allowing them to work remotely) removed some of the regulatory and legislative impediments related to the adoption of telemedicine”;“For a while, social distancing may constrain the practice of certain sports, which will in turn benefit the ever-more powerful expansion of e-sports. Tech and digital are never far away!”
The requirement that our physical and psychological presence on earth is subject to the policing and surveillance of what we do and what we think – see also Shoshanna Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’. In the wake of the lockdowns, vaccine passports, physical muzzling and ideological censorship, I’ll visit the biosecurity state and freedom of thought and movement in Part Three.
The demand that we speed up becoming identifiable, immunised, traceable, card-carrying, cash-less consumers.“The current imperative to propel, no matter what, the ‘contactless economy’ and the subsequent willingness of regulators to speed it up means that there are no holds barred
These developments are revealing but leave unanswered a nagging question, why would the ruling class, hardly noted for its humanity, close down society in the name of our common good? Back in the twentieth century Castoriadis warned against the illusion of ‘perpetual production and ceaseless consumption’, which as it is shattered will invite the rise of authoritarianism. More immediately, in the midst of the pandemic itself, Fabio Vighi ponders “why the usually unscrupulous ruling elites decide to freeze the global profit-making machine in the face of a pathogen that targets almost exclusively the unproductive, the over 80s?”
Given there is precious little evidence that lockdowns have been the compelling riposte to the virus, it is intriguing to follow Vighi’s line of thought.
Above all lockdowns were imposed because the financial markets were yet again collapsing. In order to rescue the markets with another massive injection of cash the real economy had to be halted, everyday business transactions and the need for credit postponed. In this way capitalism buys time as it seeks to revive itself. Such a holding tactic is likely to be played again – see the constant references to new variants, unexpected emergencies. In this stuttering scenario one winner is without doubt Big Pharma. The sickly pharmaceutical giants, whose profits were waning, have been given a new lease of life via the oxygen of public funds provided to develop and then purchase the vaccines.
Reinventing itself is an utter necessity for capitalism as the old certainties disappear. Workers are thrown out of the workforce as automation takes over and increasingly they cannot find a way back into the fold of employment. In general the mass of the population will slide into relative debt and poverty. A chilling question surfaces, to what extent is a significant part of the working and middle classes surplus to requirements?
When push comes to shove the measures taken to counter the pandemic are part of necessary paradigm shift if capitalism is to survive. The taken-for-granted model of endless production and consumption, of inexorable economic progress is heading for compulsory redundancy. Vighi comments that as of now, “ capitalism is increasingly dependent on public debt, low wages, centralisation of wealth and power, a permanent state of emergency and financial acrobatics.”
As for the future it smells dystopian. The WEF’s economic and political programme, the nightmare of stakeholder capitalism or more aptly technocratic neo-feudal capitalism, is a regime of rule by experts. It disdains democracy. It spurns the active, critical citizen. It prefers we settle for being contemporary serfs, obedient and grateful. If you think I exaggerate, look around at the compliance of so many, not least amongst the professional classes, during a manufactured pandemic.
In part Three I will visit the State of Fear created by a toxic mix of company-bound scientists and stenographers disguised as journalists – ‘the’ Science and the supine mass media.
Across the period of the pandemic, I have scribbled a host of responses in an effort to shed light on what has been going on. They have slid surreptitiously into my computer’s bottom drawer or spiralled away embarrassed into the hidden mists of the Cloud. However, I’m provoked to retrieve them. I do think we are living through a pivotal historical moment. It feels better to be wrong than be silent. The title of this post, ‘Searching for Understanding in the face of Power and Propaganda’, makes obvious my conflict with the endlessly circulated mainstream narrative. I will try to give substance to this discord in the hope that it’s possible to debate rather than declaim.
This first post is personal and biographical. It seeks to illustrate, amongst other things, why from the very beginning of the pandemic the leading role played by behavioural science set my dentures on edge. It will become plain why I was thus rattled.
It was a meeting out of the blue that woke me with a start and saw me climbing into the Cloud to rescue my thoughts. A few weeks ago, in the heaving embrace of a maskless Cretan taverna, I hugged and kissed a very dear friend, who I hadn’t seen since the authoritarian lockdown on association and expression was imposed, almost 18 months ago. The hubbub hardly lent itself to thoughtful conversation. Yet as we shook our heads in unison about the manufactured melodrama, within which we were playing our part, the question hung in the nocturnal, perfumed air, ‘Why?’
The morning after, my head clearing, I felt obliged to answer the question for myself, if nobody else. In trying to unravel ‘why?’ I won’t focus immediately on the nature of the virus itself, the deaths, the cost of lockdowns and so on. Such a necessary encounter will come later. For now I’m just trying to get my head around why I was suspicious about the pandemic from the very outset.
I will begin with a couple of truisms.
Firstly, across history, the first commandment of the ruling class in any epoch has been the retention of its power, the maintenance of its control over the majority, almost at whatever cost. Yet I would venture that even at the height of its hubris the elite has displayed a certain psychological insecurity, afraid of its own shadow, the people it dominates. In response, the powerless, the exploited and the oppressed have been forced to accommodate or resist or indeed to do both, most times unaware of their rulers’ fragility. From time to time, thank goodness, the ruling class has been ousted or where would we be now?
Secondly, societies, simple or sophisticated, have sought to socialise their members into an acceptance of and adherence to a set of dominant values and norms. Overwhelmingly these rules were imposed from above, for example, the Monarchy, the Church or the State. Cornelius Castoriadis defined such societies as heteronomous, closed societies of obedience. Insofar as there has been a period of exception in the West, this began in the 17th century with the Enlightenment, the ceaseless questioning of the status quo and was inspired by the struggle for democracy, the clash between the working classes and their masters in the 19th and 20th centuries. Castoriadis dubbed this self-conscious, critical and collective activity, ‘the project of autonomy’. Thirty years ago he worried that the project had stalled. He suggested that there were increasing signs of a retreat into heteronomy, the abandonment of a radical, improvisatory vision of another world being possible, a flight from the struggle for an authentic democracy.
In retrospect, I wonder tentatively if I was born into what might be viewed as a promising but ultimately frustrating, even worryingly final period in the project’s progress, the post-1945 settlement between Capital and Labour. On my way in 1958 to being an upwardly mobile working-class young man, the culture of my grammar school was more open than closed, rich rather than poor in its choices. An English teacher, I loved, ran an after-school Music Appreciation Society, procured for us free tickets to the Halle Symphony Orchestra’s concerts and directed us in a performance of the ‘Seven Ages of Man’, a tableau of extracts from Shakespeare’s works with musical interludes. Meanwhile, a physics teacher, who was a famous international rugby player, found time to encourage me in my eccentric desire to be a successful race walker. Even my disastrous GCE results proved not to be the end of the world. I managed to get a place at a Teacher Training College and flourished in its welcoming, student-centred, liberal climate, strutting the stage as president of the Dramatic Society and representing the college in all manner of sports. I began to find my voice intellectually, even if it sounded through literary rather than political criticism. Whatever my political naivete in those days I always felt stimulated as well as manipulated. Does this marry today with the experience of a working-class lass or lad entering Higher Education?
Of course, my picture of the past is too pretty by far, brush-stroking away contradictions and inconsistencies at a personal and societal level. My first teaching post in a Church of England primary school witnessed a tense relationship with other members of staff, who thought I was far too friendly with the children, threatening the disciplinary ethos of the institution. Yet the gentle headmaster, who did still contrarily and occasionally use a ruler on ‘naughty’ children’s legs, allowed me full rein to teach as I thought fit. As indeed did the Council’s Education Department with a charismatic Director at the helm. He was determined that every child should have a rounded educational experience so schools vibrated in time with the arts, music and outdoor education, encouraged by an abundance of specialist advisers and teachers. When I moved into youth work my centre housed the Department’s very own challenging and controversiall theatre group. You must beware my rose-tinted spectacles. What I am sure of is that this was a period within which there was trust and faith in an open and improvisatory educational process. As best as I remember the words outcome and impact never passed our pursed lips.
Certainly, the 1970s, a decade of discontent and dissension, were the years of my political awakening and my conscious commitment to the project of autonomy, which at the time I would have called the struggle for socialism. Through youth work, I discovered humanistic psychology in its Rogerian variant. Through my growing political activity, I discovered Marxism, Anarchism and Feminism. All these influences in differing and imperfect ways were expressions of the struggle for an autonomous society, within which in concert with one another the people, and no one else, make the laws by which they [we] live. This was no academic experience. It was to be part of the passionate social movements of the time, sometimes at one, sometimes at odds with each other, which looked to develop in theory and practice the inextricably intertwined politics of class, gender, race, sexuality and disability. However, as I moved in and out of the worlds of youth work and political activism I was often dismayed by the crude judgements made about other human beings, whether as individuals or in groups. The person-centred psychology I advanced was devoid of politics. The politics I pursued was psychologically bereft. The task seemed plain – to bring politics into psychology and vice-versa.
In this context, Marilyn Taylor and I began to explore what might be a radical psychology that situated the unique individual and her actions within the matrix of social relations not of her choosing. From the beginning, our effort was plagued by behaviourism in its day-to-day ‘common-sense’ form and by behaviourism’s scientific pretension, its desire to create a theory of personality and human activity, good for all times, all places and all people. In both its amateur and professional manifestations on its best behaviour, it tends simplistically to know what is right or wrong, always confident it knows what is best for others. It nudges us to do its bidding. It is judgemental and disinterested in context or history. It generalises and categorises. At a theoretical level behavioural psychology posits the preposterous notion of a general individual, who floats above the messy complex reality of social relations. Hence the targets for its manipulation are always groups of undifferentiated human beings, for example, youth defined as a homogeneous category or, for that matter, the population of the United KIngdom in March 2020.
As neoliberalism in the late 1970s became economically paramount, behavourism became its favoured ideological tool. In 1981 whilst defending the notion of an holistic social education approach within youth work I criticised the Manpower Service Commission’s promotion of instrumental Social and Life Skills Training for young people, the arena of so-called Youth Opportunities. In an arcane turn of phrase I charged the MSC with desiring nothing less than ‘the behavioural modification of the young proletariat’. Getting on for three decades later I felt able to resurrect the charge.
Possessing no vision of a world beyond the present New Labour has been obsessed with the micro-management of problematic, often demonised youth. Yearning for a generation stamped with the State’s seal of approval the government has transformed Youth Work into an agency of behavioural modification. It wishes to confine to the scrapbook of history the idea that Youth Work is volatile and voluntary, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees.
Neoliberalism seems a broken economic model. However its ideology, the values and ideas it has promoted across three decades, remains hegemonic, ‘the common-sense of our age’ (Hall, 2011). Few remain untouched by a behavioural modification project conducted on the grandest scale, the manufacturing of a possessive and self-centred, satisfied yet never satiated, consumer for whom a notion of the common good is almost blasphemous. Individuals are forced to deal with the social problems outsourced by the state – of poverty, health, housing and indeed education. As for the last of these, neoliberal ideology is instrumental and reductive, deeply suspicious of critical thinking. Teachers teach to test, lecturers cram consumers and, as we shall see, youth workers are led by outcomes.
In July 2012 the Young Foundation produced a Framework of Outcomes for Young People, which sought to bring under manners the volatile world of informal youth work via the introduction of ‘measurable’ outcomes and impact. Marilyn and I wrote a rejoinder, within which we noted:
The die is cast immediately. The product of the framework is to be the ’emotionally resilient’ young individual, who through the planned interventions of youth workers, will shrug their shoulders at adversity. Utterly in tune with government policy this manufactured individual will have less need for public services such as health and social welfare and will be willing to work for whatever wages, zero-hour contracts or indeed benefits are on offer. This is the self-centred, compliant young person of neo-liberalism’s dreams. The last thing such an obedient cipher would do is to ask, “how come this is happening to me, my mates, to thousands of others?” Nowhere in the Framework is there an acknowledgement that to talk of personal change demands an engagement with the social and political circumstances underpinning young people’s lives.
Remarkably the Framework’s fix on young people takes us back half a century. Throughout its pages young people are viewed as a homogeneous category – young people are young people are young people. The young person is denied his or her class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith. Despite all the talk about the individual in the Framework the individual described is that theoretical monstrosity, the general individual, who in reality does not exist. It is as if the gains of the late twentieth century in understanding the social individual never occurred. For example a working-class black young woman does not experience the world in exactly the same way as a white middle-class young woman and so on. And indeed the individual working-class black young woman herself can never be reduced to a general expression of her own social grouping. Comprehending the individual is no simple matter.
Indeed I spoke to this critique at several youth work seminars and conferences within the UK , Europe and, even to my delight, Brisbane in Australia, the last of these at Plymouth in 2017. The analysis struck a chord with many who were led to apologise for not singing along. With sadness they advised that there was no option but to chant from the behaviourist hymn sheet or risk losing their place in the choir. As for the behavioural choir leaders they thanked me for composing an alternative tune, pinched a well-pitched note or two and continued to coach the enforced collective rendition of their mechanistic melody. Like it or not, and I didn’t, I returned from such gatherings, heavy of heart. Words were not wounding the confidence of the behaviourists. And on the ground, willing or unwilling, practitioners complied, appealing to each other for the latest in prescribed scripts and recommended tools.
Today, the voices in English youth work emanating from such as the National Youth Agency and the Centre for Youth Impact reflect the watchwords of the so-called ‘third culture’ -‘no politics, no conflict, no ideology, simply science, delivery and problem-solving’. The apolitical hypocrisy on display is par for the course, hardly troubling anyone anymore.
In this context, the dominance of the behavourists and fading resistance to their stranglehold, I had all but withdrawn, to my shame, from the fray. I had been involved in a running battle with a dehumanising opponent, who was well ahead on points. In the last year I’ve written just one piece, Resistance in a Climate of Anxiety and Precarity, which, a single reply apart, did not take seed in parched pastures. Rightly or wrongly I felt isolated, even indulgently sorry for myself. Castoriadis’ concern seemed increasingly pertinent. An arrogant technocratic and managerial outlook prevailed. Intuition, compassion and love exiled.
In the early months of 2020 the dramatic arrival upon the scene of a virus said to be an existential threat to humanity jolted me from my malaise. From the begining I was deeply sceptical about the remarkable overnight unity of 198 countries in following the unelected World Health Organisation’s declaration of a pandemic and the blanket adoption of the same narrative by politicians and the mainstream media across the world. Perhaps it was merely a matter of coincidence.
In particular, given the above diatribe on the dangers of behaviourism, I was alarmed by the central role being played in the UK by the initially anonymous Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours [SPI-B]. The group was charged with providing ‘behavioural science advice aimed at anticipating and helping people adhere to interventions that are recommended by medical and epiemiological experts’. I bridled at the messages contained in the paper, ‘Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures’, March 22, 2020. Within its pages the group asserted that ‘a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently threatened’. Hence ‘the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased amongst those who are complacent using hard=hitting emotional messages’. Thus did a political, unethical and undemocratic campaign of fear begin. I was fearful – not of the virus but of the authoritarianism at the heart of of the SPI-B’s propaganda.
As it was my critical stance did not lead immediately to the renaissance of a sense of solidarity with others, even good friends and comrades – far from it. Slowly, as I delved further into the dilemmas posed, I did discover new collective reference points, some unimaginable a few years ago. These will become apparent. In parts Two, Three and Four I will tangle with some of the tensions underpinning the divisions created by the pandemic. In part Two I will offer my best understanding of the political and economic aspects of the pandemic; in part Three I will look more closely at the propaganda of fear, which still continues; in part Four I’ll explore the suppressed conflicts of medical and epidemiological opinion; and, if I get this far, in part Five I will ponder what resistance and solidarity might now mean.
Crucially, John Pilger places the present tragic Afghan situation in its historical context. The photo of young Afghan women in the 1970s is heartbreaking.
As a tsunami of crocodile tears engulfs Western politicians, history is suppressed. More than a generation ago, Afghanistan won its freedom, which the United States, Britain and their “allies” destroyed.
In 1978, a liberation movement led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew the dictatorship of Mohammad Dawd, the cousin of King Zahir Shah. It was an immensely popular revolution that took the British and Americans by surprise.
Foreign journalists in Kabul, reported The New York Times, were surprised to find that “nearly every Afghan they interviewed said [they were] delighted with the coup.” The Wall Street Journal reported that “150,000 persons … marched to honor the new flag … the participants appeared genuinely enthusiastic.”
The Washington Post reported that “Afghan loyalty to the government can scarcely be questioned.” Secular, modernist and, to a considerable degree, socialist, the government declared a program of visionary reforms that included equal rights for women and minorities. Political prisoners were freed and police files publicly burned.
Under the monarchy, life expectancy was 35; 1-in-3 children died in infancy. Ninety percent of the population was illiterate. The new government introduced free medical care. A mass literacy campaign was launched.
For women, the gains had no precedent; by the late 1980s, half the university students were women, and women made up 40 percent of Afghanistan’s doctors, 70 percent of its teachers and 30 percent of its civil servants.
Read John Pilger’s revealing expose of imperialist ambition and hypocrisy. in full
I’m sure few people are bothered by my silence on this blog but merely to say it’s not just down to laziness, to dull sloth. Ever since Malcolm Ball’s premature death I’ve been trying to write something worth saying about the ‘pandemic’ and its consequences. I’ve countless pages of scribble, Each time I walk, run or cycle I concoct in my head persuasive arguments that might perchance sweep you away with their eloquence. All of this thinking remains hot air floating hither and thither yet forever stalling.
However it’s Steve Waterhouse’s birthday and perhaps remembering him will prompt me to finish my Covid meanderings.
In the meantime I posted this on Facebook.
Today is the birthday of my much missed and loved friend and comrade, Steve Waterhouse. I don’t think he ever knew the extent to which his anarchism influenced my continuing, contradictory, often puny political effort to resist the capitalist class, the oligarchs, the technocrats, their servants et al.
I think we’d agree there’s something deeply worrying about a Left, which suggests that a concern for civil liberty and freedom is a form of selfish individualism. These individual rights have been collectively won over the centuries by, amongst others, dissident religious groups and working class organisations. They are our collective heritage won from below. To defend them is our duty.
We decide what constitutes the common good in concert with one another, not a deceitful and corrupt government, not a cabal of misanthropic behavioural psychologists, not an exploitative and oppressive State. You might well think I exaggerate but we seem to be sleepwalking into a society of unrelenting surveillance.
‘People have only as much liberty as they have the consciousness to want and the courage to take’ – Emma Goldman
Bereaved Hillsborough disaster families have condemned the “ludicrous” decision to acquit two former South Yorkshire police officers and the force’s former solicitor on charges of perverting the course of justice, bringing to a close their 32-year fight for justice.
Peter Metcalf, 72, a former solicitor for the force, and the then Ch Supt Donald Denton, 83, and DCI Alan Foster, 74, had been accused of changing 68 officers’ statements to withhold important evidence and criticisms of the police operation, and “mask the failings” of the force.
However, the judge at the trial at Salford’s Lowry theatre, Mr Justice William Davis, ruled there was no legal case to answer because the altered police statements were prepared for Lord Justice Taylor’s public inquiry into the disaster.
That was not a statutory public inquiry, at which evidence is given on oath, but an “administrative exercise”, Davis told the jury, so it was not a “course of public justice” that could be perverted.
Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son, James, was killed in the disaster and who was the last chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, called the outcome a “cover-up of the cover-up of the cover-up”, adding: “We’ve been put through a 32-year legal nightmare looking for the truth and accountability. Now they’re saying the police were allowed to change statements and cover up at Taylor. The legal system in this country really has to change.”
I am grateful to my dear friend and comrade, Phil Scraton for this extract from his chapter 10, Sanitising Hillsborough from his book, ‘Hillsborough: The Truth’.
‘Towards the end of an intense programme on how rescuers suffer post-traumatic stress a former South Yorkshire Police officer talked with depth and integrity about his realisation of the damage done to him at Hillsborough … Living with what he felt was the personal guilt of failing to breathe life back into those he attempted to save, the experiences had overwhelmed him. But his suffering was not solely related to his efforts on the terraces.
Speaking quietly, and with carefully chosen words, he said, ‘The police lost a lot of dignity and pride that day. People tried to alter the truth and embellish certain bits and just not admit to certain bits, so that it could be more of a hygienic day for all concerned. It was devastating, completely, and you almost feel after that day you were never clean again and can never be clean again’…
Months later on a cold early winter’s day high in the hills above Hathersage the former officer recalled the dreadful moments in the pens as he fought to save lives. He remembered the pain and sorrow, the anger and insults, the sense of failure. But he also detailed the aftermath. The moment when a young officer with eight years service was asked to change his statement……
Their brief: to provide full and detailed account including feelings, emotions and impressions. These were not usual police statements; bland, factual and written on Criminal Justice Act forms. They were handwritten on blank A4 sheets. Officers thought it had something to do with counselling, like ‘getting it out of your system’.
Not so … he received back a word-processed version of his recollections. It was annotated, sentences scored out, words altered. His most personal comments, his experiences, deleted. Someone had systematically gone through his recollections and reshaped them. He was devastated; the implication being that ‘recollections’ had been taken and turned into ‘statements’ …
He took out the 6 pages of word-processed recollections, altered exactly as he had described. The 154 sentences or phrases from his original hand-written recollections were all there. But 57 had a line through them. A further 28 were substantially edited. The statement was fronted by a solicitor’s letter from one of the North’s leading firms, Hammond Suddards, the South Yorkshire Police solicitors. Referenced in the initials of a senior partner, Peter Metcalf, it was addressed to Chief Superintendent Denton of South Yorkshire Police Management Services.
‘We have the following further comments on statements requested by the West Midlands inquiry. As before, the mention of a name without comment indicates that the statement has been read and we have no suggestions for review or alteration’. The words ‘review’ and ‘alteration’ were stunning. They implied that officers’ recollections, self-written and unwitnessed, had been sent to the solicitors where they were scrutinised as part of a process of transformation into formal statements.
From that moment on, he felt ‘betrayed’ by the Force, the uniform. Other officers had discussed the procedure – and were unhappy about having to alter their recollections. Usual practice had been abandoned. Told not to write a record of the day in their pocket-books, then given sheets of paper to write personal emotional accounts, none of the Criminal Justice Act procedures had been followed. Hillsborough, he said, was being ‘sanitised’.
My much missed friend, Steve Waterhouse, a life-long Liverpool supporter, to whom this blog is partly dedicated, would be incensed. A “cover-up of the cover-up of the cover-up” indeed.
At a historical moment when an orchestrated unethical campaign of fear and authoritarian repression threatens hard-fought for civil liberties and undermines, however flawed its practices, representative democracy, it is sobering and necessary to remember and honour the struggles of the past.
LEVELLERS DAY – Burford, Oxfordshire.
Radical history inspires today. Learning the lessons of history from the pioneers of 1649 to the challenges of today
On 17 May 1649, three soldiers were executed on Oliver Cromwell’s orders in Burford churchyard, Oxfordshire. They belonged to a movement popularly known as the Levellers, with beliefs in civil rights and religious tolerance.
During the Civil War, the Levellers fought on Parliament’s side, they had at first seen Cromwell as a liberator, but now saw him as a dictator. They were prepared to fight against him for their ideals and he was determined to crush them. Over 300 of them were captured by Cromwell’s troops and locked up in Burford church. Three were led out into the churchyard to be shot as ringleaders.
In 1975, members of the WEA Oxford Industrial Branch went to Burford to reclaim a piece of history that seemed to be missing from the school books. They held a meeting in remembrance of the Leveller soldiers. The following year, Tony Benn came and read in the church and in each succeeding year, people have come to Burford on the Saturday nearest to 17 May, debated, held a procession, listened to music and remembered the Levellers and the importance of holding on to ideals of justice and democracy.
Want to read more…
SERTUC has published The Levellers Movement, an account of perhaps the first political movement to represent the ordinary people. You can download it free here The Levellers Movement. Hard copies have sold out!
Thanks to the Levellers Association, the Oxford WEA and the Oxford Trades Council for the material and images.
A message with determination from Suhad Babaa of Just Vision
Increasing the power and reach of Palestinians and Israelis working to end the occupation and build a future of equality for all.
I’m coming up for air after a long week to provide an update on the campaign to save Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
Last fall, Israeli courts ruled to evict several Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, a continuation of a devastating and violent takeover by Israeli settlers — backed by the Israeli police and judicial system — that we documented in our 2012 short, My Neighbourhood. Early this week, the Israeli Supreme Court postponed their ruling on the evictions until May 6, asking the residents to “come to an agreement” with the settlers who are trying to take over their homes. The suggested “agreement” – based on Palestinians forfeiting ownership of their homes to the settlers – was, of course, refused by the families who have lived in Sheikh Jarrah for decades. Yesterday, the courts postponed the hearing once again until May 10.
As Mohammed El Kurd, a resident of Sheikh Jarrah, youth organizer and protagonist of My Neighbourhood often reflects, while there are lengthy “legal processes” playing out, what’s happening in Sheikh Jarrah is political and systemic. Moreover, the “pattern of elongating the legal process is a common practice to dull popular resistance” to Israel’s expansionist policies.
But the resistance of the community has not been dulled. Sheikh Jarrah’s youth have been holding nightly vigils to demonstrate against the evictions, raise awareness of their struggle and save the neighborhood. The community’s nonviolent protests have been met by brute force, with Israeli police violently storming Palestinian homes, spraying skunk (putrid liquid) at demonstrators, attacking residents and protestors with batons and mounted horses and arresting youth. Meanwhile, Israeli settlers continue to be backed by police and government officials, including a lawmaker from the far-right Kahanist party who temporarily set up a makeshift office in the neighborhood and the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem who goaded violence against Palestinians.
Roy Ratcliffe and I first crossed paths when I joined the tiny Marxist Workers Group in around 1976. Later we worked together in the Wigan Youth Service seeking to politicise its practice. In the 1980s we were leading lights in the creation of the Community and Youth Workers Union, the authors of its radical ‘horizontal’ constitution. We were to go our separate ways and lost contact for many years. Significantly though we both became increasingly critical of the vanguard Marxist-Leninist tradition via different routes. Mine saw me influenced by anarchism and such as Castoriadis, who broke from Marxism. However Roy has devoted his life to rescuing Marx from the Marxists. Indeed in 2003 he published ‘Revolutionary Humanism and the Anti-Capitalist Struggle’, a rigorous reworking of Marx for the 21st century. He has continued to refine his argument across the decades, always striving to integrate theory and practice as praxis, always seeking to influence activism. I look forward to being challenged as ever by this latest effort to introduce revolutionary humanism to a wider audience.
By clicking on the long Web link below, (or by copying and pasting it into a search engine) a copy of a new document ‘An Introduction to Revolutionary-Humanism’ can be obtained at no cost. In 35 short chapters of explanation and criticism, it covers the many forms of exploitation, oppression and patriarchal prejudice which characterise the capitalist mode of production. The document builds on the original anti-capitalist perspective of Karl Marx – as it was before his firm revolutionary-humanist principles were ignored or suppressed by subsequent generations of sectarian dogmatists. Presented in what I hope will be easy to understand language, the chapters in the document are aimed in particular at anti-capitalists, humanists and eco-activists, but has also been written with an even wider and more general audience in mind. If the web link fails to deliver then a copy of the document can be requested by email to email@example.com
In the 21st century, a new generation of young people were born into global society and by 2019, many began questioning the effects of its method of production, distribution and consumption as the basis for the future of humanity. School students leaving their classrooms and demonstrating against climate change and many other negative aspects have become a phenomenon of ‘ecologicalenlightenment’. These new activists have replaced the previous generations of people who once protested against aspects of the capitalist system or even against its whole ethos. Previous ideological expressions of this generalised opposition to capitalism took the form of Socialism in the 19th century and Communism or Anti – capitalism, in the 20th century.
Those earlier political expressions of dissatisfaction with the capitalist mode of production often gave rise to groups and political parties with the aim, in one form or another, of positively improving or transforming it. Such groups competed with each other for leadership of what they hoped would be a movement of ordinary working people which would by political means elect them, or by ‘revolution’ project them, to political power with a mandate to change things for the better. Some of these groups succeeded in part of that elitist hope and took power in various countries during the 20th century period of crisis; the ‘right-wing’ ‘National’ Socialists in Germany and Italy, the ‘left-wing’ Socialist/Communist Parties in Russia and China, and the ‘social-democratic’ socialists in the UK, Europe and elsewhere.
However, none of these groups and parties, once in power, even tried to end the exploitation of people and the planet. Indeed, most of these so-called reformist and revolutionary (sic) governments even intensified the exploitation of working people and frequently made matters worse with regard to pollution, ecological destruction, climate change, general poverty and hardship for the majority. Clearly, the ideas and practices which these groups and parties adopted did not benefit the mass of humanity or the planetary biosphere and so in the 21st century humanity is faced with even more problems than it was in the 20th.
This introduction to Revolutionary-Humanism seeks to explain why previous attempts to counteract capitalist exploitation were such dismal failures. In brief chapters, the ideas and methods previously employed by these groups and parties which led to dead ends are outlined. There are of course, hundreds of volumes of long – winded arguments detailing a multitude of disagreements within and between these groups and political parties, which for those with lots of time and patience, can be delved into. However, this introduction is an attempt to familiarise new generations of concerned students, workers and climate activists with the past struggles in a more easily digestible form. Longer documents and larger volumes can always be visited and considered if and when time and/or inclination permits.
I suggest there is a pressing need for a younger generation to grasp the complexity of the struggle which faces humanity and to avoid both the sectarian dogma of those previous anti-capitalist political distortions and the economic and social ‘deadends’ they led their ‘followers’ into. Hopefully the chapters in this book will facilitate the re-discovery of the early Revolutionary-Humanist aspirations held by ordinary working people and those who supported them. For it was these aspirations which became abandoned and sidelined by the egotistical and toxic dogma of elitist ‘vanguard’ leaders wishing to become the new leaders and top-down guardians of collective humanity.
The chapters are introductions to the topics indicated by the chapter headings and can be used for individual study and reflection or for group discussion purposes. The subjects they deal with have been condensed to make them manageable for group discussions and for those new to the Revolutionary-Humanist perspective on the capitalist mode of production. To the best of my knowledge the facts and conclusions stated are as accurate as I can make them given the resources currently at my disposal.
Roy Ratcliffe. (2021)
Chapter – 1 On Revolutionary-Humanism.
Chapter – 2 On Modes of Production.
Chapter – 3 On Capitalism.
Chapter – 4 On Finance – capital.
Chapter – 5 On the three forms of slavery.
Chapter – 6 On Slavery and Racism.
Chapter – 7 On Colonialism and Imperialism.
Chapter – 8 On Past and Present Labour.
Chapter – 9 On Productive and Unproductive Labour.
Chapter – 10 On the Origin of Class Struggles.
Chapter – 11 On recent and future Class Struggles.
Chapter – 12 On Alienation and Addiction.
Chapter – 13 On Beneficial Association and Symbiosis.
Chapter – 14 On the Nation – State.
Chapter – 15 On Reformism.
Chapter – 16 On Anti-Capitalism.
Chapter – 17 On Individualism and Entitlement.
Chapter – 18 On Neo-liberalism.
Chapter – 19 On Capitalist Crisis and Crises.
Chapter – 20 On Public versus Private Production.
Chapter – 21 On Extinction by Extraction.
Chapter – 22 On Co-operation.
Chapter – 23 On Revolution.
Chapter – 24 On Karl Marx.
Chapter – 25 On Capitalism’s War against Nature.
Chapter – 26 On Sectarianism.
Chapter – 27 On Ways of Thinking – 1.
Chapter – 28 On Ways of Thinking – 2.
Chapter – 29 On Historical Materialism.
Chapter – 30 2020 A Paradigm Shift?
Chapter – 31 On Politics and Power.
Chapter – 32 On Bourgeois Democracy versus Fascism (1)
Chapter – 33 On Bourgeois Democracy versus Fascism (2)
Chapter – 34 On Bourgeois Democracy versus Fascism (3)
Across my working life I spent a significant amount of time being responsible for youth, adult and community work, even if the latter was more often honoured in the breach than the observance. Whilst Wigan’s Youth and Community Officer in the 1990s I struggled vainly to resist the undermining of Adult Education by the Further Education Funding Council, whose instrumental ideology demanded that classes and courses should be vocational or else. In this context it is sobering and revealing to read Doug Nicholl’s overview of the neoliberal assault on the rich and radical tradition of life-long learning as a whole.
Lifelong learning – dead.
Only publicly funded places of learning, communities of exploration, can instil the excitement to think critically and assimilate knowledge and provide the personal support needed to develop.
Virtual search engines are no substitute for the real investment in real people in real institutions engaging together in a community of learning from birth to old age. Useful knowledge may be gained from a random google or Wikipedia search, but the discovery of truth and real understanding are skills accrued and nurtured with others.
It is an organised presence of educators at every stage of life from pre-school to retirement years that can make lifelong learning a lived reality.
The building of lifelong learning resources and methods has a wonderful history in Britain. Practitioners and academics, local councils and voluntary organisations, trade unions and community groups, sometimes separately, sometimes together, always on very meagre budgets, created in most areas, the architecture of cradle to the grave learning provision.
Sure start and other early years provision sowed seeds. Play work nurtured the growing mind in beautiful ways. Youth work, also a British pioneering methodology, engaged and promoted young people in an empowering and much underestimated way. Community development work involved and educated often the most beleaguered and brought social coherence and social justice, hope and joy.
Adult education, arising originally from a long tradition of democratic practice in dissenting churches, brought us the opportunity not just to have second chances to learn, but to transform our lives and thereby our world. In the workplace, intense exploitation and discrimination and brutal working conditions would be more prevalent today were it not for generations of trade unionists learning negotiating moves, but importantly too, history, politics, economics and philosophy.
In terms of funding these strands of lifelong learning were always seen as Cinderella services. In reality their widespread popularity and effectiveness in developing confidence and capability put them at the forefront of advanced pedagogies.
I am using the past tense. The lifelong learning house has been pulled down. Only isolated pockets of excellent practice, largely unsupported by the state, and funded on something far more precarious than a shoe string, now seek to keep alive what were once internationally pioneering services and educational interventions throughout life.
A requiem for Coleg Harlech was produced as a documentary last year. This was a dynamic place that brought so much education to those who had had too little, the premises were sold off. Unfortunately there will be more property developers looking at the remaining English adult residential colleges. A new unfair government funding regime has already seen the iconic Ruskin College end its residential offer to students. This is representative of a new, deep assault on the best of adult learning opportunities and the Labour and community movement links behind them.
Most people do not go to university and relative to our life span and the number of hours in the day, we spend little time at school. Lifelong learning services have been the main provider of education for our people for generations. It’s where most of the learning linked to enlightenment, collective action and social purpose has taken place, and where some of our greatest educators have worked and the environment where some of our keenest intellects have been created. Not to mention some very important community and political leaders.
Lifelong learning opportunities have disappeared and now two relatively small yet extremely impactful and important components of the national offer are up for the chop. The government has proposed to end its funding of trade union learning despite its demonstrable success in delivering the upskilling agenda.
But I want to draw attention here to the imminent, potential complete demise, of adult residential education.
University is not for everyone so for over a hundred years trade unions, co-operative organisations, the Labour Party, faith groups, community organisations and educational associations have found ways of creating residential learning opportunities for adults. This has provided a range of options from essential skills development, preparation for university, specialist higher education courses, short residential programmes, community leadership training and so on.
Just as some have their public schools and elite universities, so we, the majority, have had our special places of useful and inspiring learning. The founders of Ruskin deliberately built this in Oxford, not just to give students access to the Bodleian library, but to ensure women and men from the UK and all around the world exercised their rights to access the best learning environment.
Unions, community networks and churches would pay for members to go to colleges like Ruskin, Hillcroft, Northern, and Fircroft. Miners, steel workers, shop workers, railway workers, you name it, they would get an education because of their union giving them grants to spend two or three years growing through learning.
My own organisation funded particularly women to go to Ruskin as long ago as the 1940s. And many went from there to University, including the dreaming spires, and most came back to serve trade unions, community organisations, governments, political parties or caring professions like social work. I can think easily of many leading academics today who came through this route too.
As the quality of education was so good tens of thousands of students from overseas came to Ruskin and returned home in some cases to lead their countries. At least one British Prime Minister, Clem Attlee, was a Ruskin tutor.
Residential provision not only gave time and space to learn how to learn for those who had left school at the youngest age and been rejected by formal learning, it gave a welcoming environment with colleagues from all over the world to broaden horizons and enjoy cultural and academic variety to stimulate the imagination.
Special debates and initiatives could be held in the safe exploratory spaces of these colleges and many examples can be given, but at Ruskin we celebrated recently the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Womens’ Liberation Movement there. We also celebrated last year our 120th anniversary and many moving stories of personal transformation from over the years were shared.
Pedagogically the adult residential experience was exceptional as many detailed studies have revealed, most recently by Professors Sharon Clancy and John Holford in their report. Economically, like all its relatives in the other strands of lifelong learning, adult residential education represented champagne at lemonade prices as all cost benefit research reports have shown as John Schifferes showed.
The adult residential financial settlements, previously agreed by Ministers of all stripes, who appreciated the vital role the Specialist Designated Institutions, as they are referred to in the Further and Higher Education Act, were never generous, but adequate. The formulae that underpinned them, agreed at the time by Ministers, seems to have been forgotten by the notoriously forgetful Department for Education, and new rules have been introduced which, for the main provider at least, have led to the closure of residential provision altogether.
Not only that, the current government is seeking to claw back spending from previous years in such a way as to prevent any future growth or sustainability. They are trying it feels to force complete closure and the remodelling of specialist designated institutions into merged FE providers. Punishment is being meted out for providing education (the quality of which Ofsted have consistently applauded) to students who would have had no other chance.
Such manoeuvres fly in the face of the most significant report on adult education for a hundred years published last year under the stewardship of Dame Helen Ghosh, The Centenary Report into Adult Education. They ignore too the report by Dame Mary Ney reviewing college financial oversight where she says the ESFA and FEC should take a more nurturing and developmental, supportive approach.
Adult education, as even the 1919 national Adult Education Committee report said, is a permanent national necessity. Moves afoot now are closing its vital residential component just at the time when all those residential providers are at the front line of supporting some of the most significant initiatives to retrain redundant workers, and reskill others keen to be at the heart of building back better.
The pattern is clear: destroy education and institutions designed to create new generations of Labour Movement leaders.
In my effort to articulate my feelings about my dear friend and comrade Malcolm Ball’s death, I referred to our initial meeting at the old Leicester Polytechnic. I’d been invited to talk about a piece I’d written, ‘Anti-Sexist Work with Young Males’. Originally scribed in 1981 a shortened version had featured in the National Youth Bureau’s ‘Youth In Society’ but the full paper had to wait until the summer of 1984 for its emergence in Youth & Policy, number 9. Stimulated by this memory, my many conversations with Malcolm and the fact that once more in the wake of the tragic death of Sarah Everard the nature of masculinity was on the front pages [for a day or two, at least], I revisited the article. I’ve decided that with all its flaws and weaknesses, my own discomfort with some of the analysis and its dated emphasis on youth sub-cultures, it’s worth sharing afresh to see if it’s of any relevance today. I’ve resisted for the moment prefacing its appearance forty years on with an interrogation of its failings. As it is it’s a long haul, 9,492 words! I see that nowadays it’s the norm to suggest an approximation of the time needed to read the writing on offer. However I know that I read quickly, even shallowly, requiring often a second assay. I’m no judge. Thus I can but say, I hope it’s interesting enough to hold your attention over a glass or few of what you fancy.
ANTI-SEXIST WORK WITH YOUNG MALES
The last fifteen years have witnessed the continuing revival and developing political influence of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The question of Women’s subordination introduced once again onto the political agenda has been prioritised in the minutes by the renaissance of feminism, despite the efforts of men to have this embarrassing item demoted to any other business. Struggles against the State have secured some legislative concessions. Feminism’s crucial insistence that ‘the personal is political ‘ has established sexual politics as a primary area of debate and concern. Within the educational site of social relations, the pronounced upsurge in feminist theory has influenced the form and content of at least some social studies and social science courses. ‘The problem without a name’ (1), women’s oppression, has forced its way out of anonymity to become part of the curriculum of Higher Education. However even here the problematic of incorporation and adoption has haunted the feminist incursion into the traditional male academic world. And at primary and secondary levels within schooling the extent to which an understanding of male/female power relations has begun to shift the practices of the classroom is open to both debate and exaggeration. Interestingly one marginal section of educational provision, pejoratively referred to as ‘a Cinderella Service’, namely Youth Work, has seen the reactionary ramparts of its conservative practice subjected to stress with the breakthrough of feminist ideas and practices organised through ‘Boys Rule Not OK’ initiatives and Girls’ Projects (2). Despite its apparent multiplicity of motivations (philanthropic, paternalist, religious, militarist, liberal et al) the dominant theme of youth work’s perspective remains the policing and control of working class young men with a subsidiary concern regarding the societal induction of middle class young people. Given this suffocating scenario, women youth workers have caucused to consider this overall mismatch between a male-oriented provision and the needs of young women themselves; to reflect on the gulf between liberal rhetoric’s concern for the individual and the reality of an authoritarian, misogynist practice; and to explore the development of a feminist praxis based on the insights of their theory and interlinked explorations in the field.
To the male retina, one of the most disturbing aspects of this range of interventions into the masculine world of youth work has been its declaration of the need for autonomous work by women with the girls – its separatism. Mixed provision, particularly a product of social democracy’s strategy of comprehensive equality, has been finally defined as good and natural common-sense. Thus on this level of policy, the advance of Girls Work is viewed suspiciously as a regressive aberration from an established harmony of mixed normality. Val Marshall’s (3) eloquent argument for the rebirth of the girls club movement, as a means of creating space free from male influence to foster the flowering of a feminist youth work strategy, has been interprted as proof of the wild-eyed extremism of these dangerous women. The crude argument goes as follows: ‘We have fought so long for a coming together of the sexes within an educational setting and now these man-hating lesbians are trying to divide us from one another, perverting our daughters in the process.’ In Wigan, where I formerly worked, officers claimed that their youth work approach was in no way sexist, whilst in the very same breath produced reports and programmes riddled with both male pronouns and male assumptions. The Director of Education argued that to include in a job advert a reference to the building of a non-sexist youth work practice was in itself sexist. Advocates of a non-sexist educational perspective were ridiculed at each and every opportunity.
The threat to men from the feminists in youth work reveals itself at the gut-level of our personal politics. The day-to-day sexist chauvinism of our ‘public’ and ‘private’ dealings with our male and female colleagues starts to be increasingly exposed. Our male professionalism is illustrated to be a facade, behind which the spectre of our patriarchal privilege begins to be revealed in all its oppressive detail – the sexual harassment of female clerical staff and the solidarity of the shared sexual innuendo, which bonds the most elevated of male principals with the hierarchy. This paper is an attempt to contribute to the debate about the role of progressive men in this limiting masculinist script. Is our contribution to the redrafting of the play to be taking the ‘walk-on’ parts of token males making the right noises off-stage in the creche? Or should we rewrite our lines and act differently? Or does such a seizing of the authorship mean hogging the whole show yet again? Part of what I shall be trying to articulate in this essay is a criticism of this rather tired Goffmanesque metaphor about playing ascribed parts in a pre-ordained script. It will be my contention that male youth workers do need to examine precisely what they are doing with each other, with their young male ‘clients’ and with the women with whom they work and live. I will argue that these interactions are not the products of mindless programmed behaviour patterns (some form, for instance, of brain-washed sexist conditioning) rather they are sets of social practices rationally undertaken for one sense-making reason or another. In this important sense our male actions are thus accessible to influence and change. Our principal task at this specific moment is to begin constructing alternative ways of working with our fellow male workers, and with the young men in our youth centres or on the streets; ways of relating which do not ceaselessly contribute to the strength and longevity of the male imperative, but which actually oppose the exploitation of more than half the world by the lesser half.
A Local Melodrama
“This sort of thing is an insult to femininity” (4)
To move from the merely rhetorical to the practically personal marks a necessary stage in the unfolding of my argument. How come I think I have something to say about the creation of a serious masculine response to the questions posed by feminism, in this instance, for the supposedly person-centred welfare world of youth work? An unrelenting test of my posture is the history of the modification of my own practices. At this point I want to describe some of the problems posed for myself as the Training Officer of a Local Authority Youth Service (5) by the awakening of Girls Work in the area. Spurred on by the news of the NAYC’s pioneering work (6) and the unremitting struggle of scattered women’s groups, the Training & Development Unit, for which I was hierarchically responsible, decided to go ahead with promoting its own ‘Boys Rule Not OK’ week in January 1980. The two full-time and six of the part-time female workers , supported seriously by a few of the male staff, and more importantly by the local women’s group, organised workshops on sexuality and sex-role stereotyping, commissioned a play from another native feminist grouping, invited an acrobatic and musical theatre troupe; and arranged a number of all-female discos. Tension pervaded the week’s activities and some of its sources could be found in the following areas:
(i) The uneasy relationship between the organisers and the male hierarchy, whose attitudes ranged from a lukewarm token support, through sulky non-co-operation to downright hostility, summed up in a senior officer’s refusal to comply with a request from the women that no male should attend the weekend’s sessions, except if offering assistance in the creche or kitchen.
(ii) The contradictory attitude to both male and female full and part-time workers to the initiative – many men, but also a substantial number of women were obstructive, constantly jibing, “But what about the boys? What are you doing for them?” At the time our angry response was that the young males had far more than their fair share of the Youth Service’s facilities, so why all this fuss about one week’s activities for young women?
(iii) The young men themselves, when excluded from their club, were at best irritated, at worst heavily aggressive. One of the all-girls’ discos was run in an atmosphere of siege warfare.
(iv) The ‘supportive’ male workers lacked any coherent strategy towards the frustrated lads or the sceptical youth service staff that spoke positively from an appreciation of the contradictions of the situation. Whilst being ready to act as facilitators when needed i.e. providing transport, preparing food, looking after children, we had given little thought to the task of coping with the lads. Indeed ironically we finished up asking ourselves the same question as the one we had been taunted with earlier: “Yes, but what about the boys? What do we do with them?” Our position in practice had been to support the struggle against sexism as being the women’s task. We were in sympathy, but it was not actually our problem!
In one particularly harrowing episode for me personally, I finished up in a tense and bitter confrontation with lads I didn’t know, which verged on the physically violent. As the argument raged over their exclusion from the centre on their Weight-Training Night, my voice and my hand were among the first to be raised. Quite clearly I remember thinking in the midst of the fray, that the simplest way out of the mess would be to side conspiratorially with the lads’ sense of indignation on the basis that after all what was the use of getting so worked up about silly women anyway.
The offer of such a brotherly hand of misogynist solidarity could (would) have been the signal for a relaxing of the ‘aggro’ and the sign for the beginning of a dialogue premised on our superiority to the women and the girls inside. In the event the tension dissipated only through the favours of a fast freezing evening, which led the lads to seek warmer pastures in the pub. They left the scene in cold hostility towards my bluffing macho stance. I had even ‘blown’ the possibility of going for a pint with them. Hardly the stuff of a developing anti-sexist youth work practice.
Immediately after the events of the week, the difficulties unearthed prompted an initial response that future anti-sexist ventures should be ‘mixed’. Such a co-optive compromise suited many of the workers, releasing us from the need to analyse what had been going on. Only later was this capitulation reversed in the light of one female detached worker’s continuing relationship with a girls’ group, a council-estate based women’s group (7) and the embryo beginnings of a part-time women workers’ organisation. All of these endeavours pointed to the enormous value of autonomous work by women within the Service. And the few men still struggling, at least on the level of ideas, were acknowledging the inadequacy of their position and their need to foster an understanding of the implications of a ‘separatist’ approach with the lads. It became gradually apparent that without the parallel developments of anti-sexist girls’ work and anti-sexist boys’ work we possessed no material base for building cross-gender enterprises. Thus despite continued widespread and distorted misgivings, Girls’ Work within the Borough is being slowly consolidated. The matter of investigating and devising alternative strategies for work with the boys has been posed, but only tentatively confronted.
Searching for an Understanding
“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” (8)
Faced with this problematic, to where might the concerned and confused male youth worker turn for insight and guidance? Within youth work’s own gender-blind and/or gender-biased tradition there is little succour. Male youth workers have failed to formulate any opposition to the persistence of their own sexist practice. In fact the opposite is rather the case – there is a rich tradition of training for manhood; of turning boys into men, running from the Scouts through the Boys’ Clubs to the Outward Bound movement. We cannot be surprised at the presence of this deafening silence. The very notion of examining one’s own political privilege is personally threatening. An analysis of patriarchal relations id conspicuously absent from the curricula of full or part-time youth work training courses. Even within the avowedly radical outpourings of the male writers on youth cultures and youth subcultures, the question of sexual division has been rendered marginal. So whilst Mungham and Pearson (9) do emphasise the carelessness of much unitary oriented writing about ‘youth’, allowing that young people are differentiated by class, occupation, education, ethnic origin and finally gender, they, together with Hall and Jefferson (10) are most notable for their lack of attention to the centrality of male/female power relations. However the genre’s empirical observation does provide us with a vein of valuable material which needs to be resifted in the light of our recognition of its gender blindness. All the descriptions reveal much about the ‘maleness’ of both researcher and researched: Mungham on the cattle-market atmosphere of Saturday night at the local ‘Palais’; Pearson on the defensive chauvinism and aggressive scaredness of ‘Paki-bashing’; Clarke on the collective ‘mob’ community of skinheads; Corrigan on the spheres of resistance to schooling of the ‘Smash Street Kids’; and Hebdige on the dispossessed style and unity of black ‘rough and tough rudies’. (11) Within Willis (12), rich sources of details are to be found in his transcripts of interviews with those ‘learning to labour’. One section, briefly but graphically articulates the objectification of young women, the fear of the female body, the lascivious tales of conquest, the lads’ sense of superiority, their “knowing masculinity” caught crudely in Joey’s classically chauvinist “I don’t know, the only thing I’m interested in is fuckin’ as many women as I can if you really wanna know.”(13) Only Brake (14) among the male sub-culturalists begins to respond stutteringly to Angela McRobbie’s challenge to the sub-cultural ‘celebration of masculinism’ and its ignorance of ‘the culture of traditional femininity’ or of the alternatives created by young women themselves. In a recent article aimed at ‘settling accounts with sub-cultures’ McRobbie (15) underlines bitingly the ‘silences’ within Willis and Hebdige on the resilience of the divisions within the sexes; their failure to address the savage hypocrisy of male attitudes to women ; and the absence of ‘a full sexed notion of working class culture’, which could begin to comprehend the complexity of the ensemble of social relations. She argues persuasively for a feminist re-reading of sub-cultural texts, which places on the table central issues sidestepped by their male authors. Following this important lead, it is also necessary and useful to suggest a re-reading of these ‘classics’ from a self-consciously male perspective; from a masculine viewpoint, which places men themselves clearly into the reality of the gender struggle and which seeks to explore ways of opposing the spectre of male domination and female subordination.
In a crucial sense such a lifting of the mists from around the myth of masculinity, such an enterprise of radicalised comprehension will have to be grounded in that site of social relations so palpably ignored by male sociologists, the family and the sphere of domestic life. Few men have spoken to the conflicting themes surrounding the social construction of the heterosexuality of both adolescent females and males – being ‘straight’ has been taken as given – or have begun to situate the transition of young women and young men as ‘employee/employer’ into the domestic economy of reproduction – the division of labour within the home being taken for granted as social fact.
There have been psychoanalytic-based efforts to extend our understanding of maleness as in Paul Hoch (16), whose attempted synthesis of Freud and Marx strives to uncover ‘the mask of masculinity’, locating working class machismo as repressed homosexuality. And at least the Men against Sexism movement has begun to open up the area of males talking about their sexuality in a language not consumed by sexual aggression and sexual domination. Within this literature we can appropriate fertile descriptions of the male bonding process; rape within marriage; accounts of male childhood; the heterosexual hunt and homosexual ‘cruising’. (17) Grappling with this range of material on an intimate level is required if we are to confront being male. Yet the guilt-ridden idealism, which so often permeates its pages, needs to be transcended if we are to construct ways of being with young men that do not in themselves lapse into a pseudo-religious strategy of confession and conversion. The young men of my acquaintance are unlikely to suffer long a pious preaching perspective that exhorts them to mend their evil ways. For the problem with much of this literary output (even Stoltenberg (18), who influentially proposes the notion of a ‘heterosexual model’ in which men are the arbiters of sexual identity for both themselves and for women) is that it slides on the one hand to biological determinism. Man is reduced to being innately evil and exploitative. Or on the other to a kind of masochistic moralism – guilt grows in the genitals. In the former all hope is lost in a sea of biological pessimism, in the latter a retreat from the world would seem to be in order. Neither constitutes a viable optimistic alternative faced on an evening-to-evening basis with a group of young macho males. How are we to move forward in a purposeful way with our feet, both metaphorically and materially, on the ground?
Before more directly facing this daunting dilemma, it is worth noting that the theoretical tension around male myopia has filtered into the world of youth work itself. This has happened both as a result of the critical emphasis of female sociologists such as Tricia McCabe and Mica Nava, who have talked about youth work itself as a site of struggle and as a consequence of the actual shifts in practice prompted by the Girls Work movement. Thus Phil Cohen, reflecting on his analysis of the dynamic contained in working with young people, allows that his original work should have been subtitled ‘Growing Up Masculine in a Working Class City’ (19). He tries to explain the lacuna in his paradigm by reference to the impossibility of his developing analytically useful relationships with young women and to his implication in and manipulation of the dominant macho norms within the young male groups. This collusion distorted his appreciation of the ways in which young men and women were constrained by gender stereotypes and blinded him to the contradictory function of masculine ideals. However despite this admission, as McCabe (20) points out, he goes on to subsume yet again women’s subordination under the general heading of capitalist oppression. To add insult to radical feminist injury, he dismisses youth and women as “by definition ‘non-class’ agents” and collapses young women into a homogeneous category of ‘youth’. On a political and organisational front, Nava charges him with “conflating ignorantly feminist attempts to win some separate youth provision for girls with political separatism” (21). To his credit though Cohen does acknowledge that male radicals must take on board the issue of male power within the adolescent milieu, but in despair asks,
“How do we tackle the chauvinism of working class boys in a way that does not simultaneously undermine the cultural sources of their resistance to Capital and the State and intensify their sexual anxieties?” (22)
McCabe’s rejoinder is that chauvinism is precisely the source of their resistance. Now it is not necessary for McCabe to be absolutely correct in her conclusion for the barb to strike home accurately and painfully into the male ego. The whole width of the male front resisting capitalist exploitation is not entirely predicated upon a parallel and compensatory subordination of women, but this does not detract one jot from the feminist insistence that men oppose the pervasiveness of patriarchy’s perversity. We need also to examine more carefully why Cohen sees challenging the sexism of working class young males as leading almost inexorably to their demise at the hands of the capitalist imperative and to the deepening of their sexual trauma. The reality of the complexity of the lads’ mode of resistance and their intertwined relationships with young women is more contradictory than this fatalistic picture supposes. I have worked with young men and women involved together in a struggle against their bosses at work in which, gradually and painfully, efforts by management to set them at each other’s throats were resisted, and through which real gains were made in terms of how they acted to one another, both in the workplace and on the streets. So too the implication of Cohen’s question is that there exists some unsullied male sexuality which may be besmirched by the creation of sexual neuroses through a process of confrontation with the interfering youth worker. Does this mean that in the presence of lads who verbally and physically abuse young women I must stand mute for fear of upsetting some delicate sexual balance? Clearly in the context of male heterosexual aggression it is difficult to empathise with an idea of male sexual apprehension, but there are many other instances of male sexual insecurity which do not have their roots purely in the male control of women. It is to these moments of contradiction that we must attend, whilst also confronting openly sexual violence and to hell with the risk of subsidence in the sexual minefield.
In terms of the continuing debate about the relation between patriarchy and capitalism, it is not possible here to strike up an engagement with the argument. However it is important to reiterate that the focus of this paper is on the problematic of women’s oppression and the gender struggle. Hopefully by moving forward from a masculine standpoint a theory-in-practice (about working with young men) which is conscious of the sexual division of production and reproduction, it will be possible to contribute in a small way to the unravelling of the dialectic of gender, race, class and age. Within youth work it is time for the men to take responsibility for the present sexist state of affairs and to act to do something about the situation.
The Reality of Youth Work
“Men’s houses ……….. Are the arsenals of male weaponry.” (23)
So what is the actual nature of day-to-day youth work practice? The Youth Service itself is heterogeneous in terms of its organisational forms, its differing statements about aims and objectives and its varying styles of interaction with young people. To add to the confusion myths abound about what really goes on – the Youth Service is infamous for its juggling with attendance figures and its rewriting of history and herstory within its reports to all manner of committees. Yet it is possible by scratching beneath the surface of the widespread rhetoric about preparations for membership of a participative democracy to identify the majority of youth work as being contained within a conservative character-building integrationist model, whilst scattered pockets of client-centred practice strain towards a liberal pluralist paradigm. (24) And this practice, conservative, social democratic, or even radical, together with whatever resources, is focussed dominantly on young males. As Nava observes, youth work aims largely to exercise some form of supervision over the leisure time of working class youth and aims to ‘cope with’ oppositional cultures and potential delinquency, being concerned principally with the ‘failed’, ‘inadequate’ and ‘disadvantaged’. Indeed as I have tried to show elsewhere, liberal youth work’s renaissance in the 1960’s was grounded precisely in the belief that social democracy had triumphed over the vicissitudes of capitalist development and that the task for youth workers was to sweep up those individuals unable to respond to the endless spiral of available opportunities. And these individual threats to social harmony would almost certainly be male in gender. Nava illustrates how because historically girls present less of a ‘street’ problem than boys, the forces of the Youth Service are directed to a form of control of young males, which in its very manner plays upon, utilises and buttresses male chauvinism. (25)
Such an analysis corresponds accurately to the phenomenon of ‘mixed’ youth clubs, which are usually ‘boys’ clubs with a fringe female presence. The facilities of the youth centre are in male hands – the girls left to organise the coffee bar or rendered ‘invisible’ in the toilets. (26) Members of staff often do little to disturb this status quo, accepting it as being the way of the world and being themselves motivators in encouraging male-oriented competition and activity as the raison d’etre for the club’s existence. Even the weekly disco, partially an opening for the girls to enjoy their own physical expertise, is shadowed by the sense of the surrounding male presence and the inevitable sexual overtures of the heterosexual hunt. Male leaders, fancying themselves as real hard men, stand on touchlines around the country’s sports fields, indulging their machismo by encouraging young males to ever-rising standards of manliness, naked aggression and violent skullduggery, all in the cause of winning: “don’t be a puff, you chickened out”,; “get stuckin, you cissie”; “kick his balls in, you soft cunt”.
A substantial portion of my own face-to-face experience hinged around the almost desperate need to win acceptance from and gain acceptance from and gain access to the young men’s groups. And the passport for entry was to prove that I was even more of a man than the next man! To this end I told even dirtier, misogynist jokes than they could remember; I colluded as I drove the minibus in our orchestrated leering at female pedestrians; I conspired to seek their approval of my supposed sexual successes, being termed ‘a rum bugger’ by them, a considerable boost to my parochial prestige; I played sports with them and was seen to be a hard competitor. In short I was an eminently successful youth worker, praised for developing relationships with ‘difficult young customers’ and admired for my persuasive social education techniques. I would be asked how I got these lads to discuss social and political issues – what was the basis of my good practice? My answer would be couched in terms of trust, sensitivity, an anti-authoritarianism of a contradictory hue and, above all, to do with “being one of the lads, being on their side”. In retrospect, the cruel irony is that the opening up of the dialogue with the lads about politics was rooted in a wilful ignorance of that most profound feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political’. My youth work practice slid ineluctably towards a fetish of the masculine, an incorporation with the lads in a set of mutual attitudes and practices that were the curriculum of an education for manhood. That there were gulps and hiccups in this process is also clear. We found being hard all the time, impossible and much more besides, but I shall return to this hopeful contradiction later. For the moment I do not want to duck the conclusion, that the mass of male-inspired youth work practice remains masculinist and misogynist in its intent and its consequences.
Grounding an Alternative Praxis
Before attempting to sketch some possible ways of struggling against the prevailing sexist tide in youth work, we need to ground our understanding of male/female power relations, particularly with regard to the specific period of young women and men ‘growing up’. It is fundamental to recognise that patriarchal power is based in the material circumstances of men’s control over women’s labour and women’s sexuality. This male domination is organised through a grid of social relations and a network of socially constructed practices – exemplified by the male grouping of solidarity, be it at work, in the pub or in the Masonic lodge – that support men in the exploitation of their women. The adolescent male stands at a specific stage in the growth of this system of male collectivism, that is itseld dynamic and incomplete. Thus youth work is concerned during a transitional period (‘adolescence’), a process of enfranchisement during which two essential themes unfold. Firstly, the social construction of the young men’s sexuality into the compulsory mode of heterosexuality is accelerated (27) and secondly they are prepared for their forthcoming position as husband/father (patriarch) in the familial home. In young men’s relationships with young women these two unwinding threads are inextricably interwoven. For the male this period may be seen as an education for patriarchy – an endless effort to get his end away, whilst searching for his ideal partner of dependable and dutiful domesticity.
Thus for the young man, the heterosexual model is the God-given goal. Through a social process, which includes increasingly the political content of male bonding, patriarchy (in the form of living men’s real practices rather than as some reified abstraction) confers power and privilege upon those born with male genitalia. The young male is initiated into the knowledge of a sexual programme which lays down guidelines about how penises should work. The agenda of this ‘pogrom’ acknowledges three stages: Objectification; Fixation; and Conquest (28), culminating in the ultimate victory, ‘the fuck’: “the hard cock, the vaginal penetration, the tense pelvic thrusting and the three second ejaculation”. (29) In this learning of the tactics of sexual terrorism, the woman is reduced to a faceless passivity. Compellingly, the sexual act is overlaid with the requirement to have power over and possession of the female partner.
Within the young men’s groups in which I have worked, the male bonding curriculum and its supremacist vocabulary of ‘cunts and tits’ held an uneasy but dominant control over our male-male social intercourse. Whatever we were actually doing at any one moment – listening to records, climbing mountains, going to the match, having a pint – the sense of our collaborative mission to learn more about ‘how we did it’ and ‘how we could get it’ was always bubbling near the surface of our relationships. After all in the last analysis ‘we’ were after ‘them’. The insidious grip of this ‘battle of the sexes’ perspective revealed itself repeatedly in the violence of our sexual anecdotes and fantasies. And the importance of competition in this male world became inseparable from the ways in which we perceived women and their possible usage. As one young bloke often remarked to me upon the feeling inspired by scoring a goal, “it’s nearly as good as a fuck”, whereupon he would clench his fist and tense his forearm in the male motif for an all-consuming enormous erection. Male phallic-centred sexuality, aggression and power become congruent. Rape is the logical and inexorable outcome of the celebration of might and right.
The institution within which rape is legally impossible, the sanctuary of male prerogative, is marriage. My own experience in working with largely working class young women is that matrimony is viewed as a necessary and inevitable destination which at least holds out the promise of increased autonomy compared to the parental home. Given its imminence, this preordained nuptial resting place inhibits the girls’ choices prior to the wedding and often suffocates the young women’s potential on passage through its portals. For the lads too, it is an uncertain prospect, but in general they do foresee being ‘the master’ and argue that it will not cramp their style. The male clique in the pub will rank males according to the amount of control held over the wife, just as the lads reflect this in their scorn for those mates who are ‘under the thumb’ (30). Christine Delphy’s analysis locates the family, formerly ‘a haven from a heartless world’, as the site of women’s oppression with the husband appropriating the unpaid domestic services of the wife/mother (31). Indeed this sexual division of labour asserts its stranglehold prior to matrimony. Several of the courting couples at the youth club were practising a routine in which the girls’ genuineness (love? sense of duty?) was examined through her willingness to accept laundry and cooking duties, especially over the weekend. The lads’ part of the experimental bargain was to have enough money to take the girl out to the pub, the disco or the pictures. In Willis one young male defines his expectations and his success in finding the appropriate mate within the grudging admiration of:
“I’ve got the right bird. I’ve been going with her for 18 months now. She wouldn’t look at another one. She’s fuckin’ done well, she’s clean. She loves doing fuckin’ housework. Trousers I bought yesterday, I took ‘em up last night and her turned ‘em up for me. She’s as good as gold and I wanna get married as soon as I can.” (32)
It is the compelling force of this master/faithful domestic servant scenario that continues to invade the young male’s focus on the marital condition. Sex aside (and that could be had ‘on the side’) such a catch as the domesticated young woman described above is not to be missed from the male point of view. This girl is everything a man could want from a replacement for his mother. In spite of the effects of feminism on social relations over the last decade and some weakening of the servicing function accorded to women, working class young men and women (in particular?) continue to operate within a set of options predicated on a male wage earner and a female baby-producing family house-worker (whether or not she works outside the home too). Even where some shifts in the allocation of domestic tasks has taken place the embracing arch is still one of male privilege. Indeed the gnawing problem is that the expectations heaped upon the young woman are even greater than before. And a fall from grace, a failure to accommodate all the varying pressures upon her can lead quickly to violent male expressions of frustration with a situation gone sour.
Much more work needs to be done on extending our understanding of heterosexuality’s social construction and the ‘forces’ and relations of production within the domestic economy as we seek to fill out our comprehension of the male/female power relationship and seek to construct strategies of change. However, it is this paper’s proposal that even this rough grasp of adolescence as a period of preparation for heterosexuality and marriage is central to sorting out a ‘fix’ on the possible parameters for a radical practice with young males. How can male youth workers intervene in a cycle of oppression that often has as its finale domestic violence?
In and Against Patriarchy
The basis for an anti-sexist masculine strategy needs to be grounded both in the theoretical and practical appreciation of the fact that male power is, in no sense, absolutely monolithic. In trying to take on board the general reality of male supremacy, it is easy to slide into a universalist and ahistorical view of patriarchy which renders its oppressive relations eternal and inviolate. Clearly it is necessary to historicise our analysis. In 1981 this must lead to rooting our understanding in the development of feminism in the 80’s and its consequences for patriarchal structures inside and outside the home. The female initiatives of the last decade have set in motion specific tensions within the dominant system of gender relations and its important to mark this turbulence as the direct product of historical human activity. Structures are not functionally all powerful. Women are acting to change the circumstances in which they are born and in which they are forced to live. Their oppositional practices have sent tremors through the patriarchal facade. Radical men must learn from the endeavours of the Women’s Liberation Movement and begin their own struggle against sexism from within the enemy camp. As we go about our daily contact with young men and with each other, we need to start exploring our common experience of the contradictions in masculinity – the rubs, the advantages, the disadvantages of the male identities on offer. It is essential to identify the ways in which we experience the constraints and limitations of traditional maleness; to articulate our disenchantment with the ideal of the male supremacist ‘Action Man’; to note the suffocation of our sensitivity towards one another; to admit to being frightened; to acknowledge our ignorance and our insecurity as a prelude to and as a part of sharing our worries and doubts with the young men with whom we relate. I am not plucking these generalisations about being male from some liberal, rhetorical mid-air, for these doubts about the sacredness of manhood are contained in the following quotes from recordings of my ongoing work with both ‘adult’ and ‘adolescent’ men:
“I’m only 17 and a bloody failure already ……..laughed at because I’m not strong enough, not hard enough to be a man”. (Youth club member)
“I was cock of the school, a real tough nut. Always in scraps of one kind or another. But you know I had nobody I was close to, a proper friend. There were just kids who wanted to be like me and they hated me really.” (35 year old volunteer community worker)
“Why is it the only time men dare touch one another is on the soccer field? I’d really like to get near to some blokes, but they keep you at a safe distance……it’s sad……and as I’m crap at football I never get hold of anyone!” (18 year old on a Social Awareness Weekend)
“When we go away to matches, I piss myself sometimes I’m so scared. And then on the way home we make up all these stories about who we’ve done over and how many of them there were. Really I’ve never fuckin’ hit anyone……I just watch for the time to run like fuck!” (15 year old member of Bollton Wanderers Supporters group)
“I know so little about women, it’s not fuckin’ true. But you have to pretend you’ve done this and done that or they call you a wanker…….when I’m with a girl I’ve not a bloody clue and I’m supposed to fuckin’ know it all.” (16 year old youth club member)
But in terms of our youth work practice how do we concretise the process of prising open the multitude of cracks and strains in the seemingly cohesive cement of the ruling masculinist ideology? How do we get in touch with and pick up upon the emotions contained in the statements made by men in the preceding paragraph? An immediate concern for us is the foundation of our coming together as men, our joining of hands as oppressors. In direct contrast, women’s groups have been formed precisely on the basis of bringing together into collective situations the oppressed individual female. Crucially an opposition to the isolation of individual women has been built through the formation of women’s groups. Similarly in youth work, feminist workers have striven to create spaces within which girls’ groups could be nurtured. This is not to argue that there are no young women’s groupings outside of the feminist intervention, but is to remark that the paucity of separate spaces for young women and the closing down of their collective choices has made working towards building autonomous girls’ groups is a powerful political strategy for female youth workers. Men do not face the same scenario of deprivation. Indeed there is rarely a shortage of young men’s groups within which to operate. On the whole these collectives are preformed and the persistent problem, mentioned earlier, is one of gaining access to these gatherings. For the male youth worker the dilemma is not one of creation, but is primarily one of subversion. The young men are already organised and are united on the basis of their maleness and their presupposed biological superiority to women.
I want to propose therefore that we need to situate two general strategies to be pursued by male youth workers attempting to resist and change the male imperative.
(i) The defensive mode operates on their territory in their groups. As has been illustrated, joining in brotherhood with the young men is fraught with implication and collusion. In engaging with other men around this question, my own dilemma is that I begin to shift slowly my ways of being with the young men in an anti-sexist direction only from within. That is I had been accepted initially on traditional grounds, especially on the basis of my sporting prowess ( I had been in the early 70’s an international athlete and wearing my Great Britain track top was a jingoist-sent passport to conversation). Given this legitimising backstop, I was now allowed to create a personal ‘style’ which they suffered, laughed at and half-admired because of its slightly non-conformist, ‘gay’ eccentricity. It would be valuable to unearth the approaches of men not so able to wheel on stage the macho credentials of the 500cc motorcycle or to run on court profuse with masculine sweat. How have they succeeded in fostering relationships without being so credibly and obviously a ‘real man’?
Whatever though the terms of acceptance, it is difficult to carve out a non-sexist headway in the climate of Friday night ‘boozing’ at the pub, Saturday afternoon chanting on the terraces, or Sunday morning actually kicking one another on the football field. In this environment of restricted possibilities, it would be idealist to propose anything but a range of responses and techniques that coax, cajole and confront the sexism of young males (and of ourselves!), but which have to be utilised with reference to the fluctuations of the specific situations in which we find ourselves. Thus there will be moments of confrontation, but on their ground more often instances of a principled compromise. Yet there is oppositional space around the chinks in the masculine armoury and the male worker should be ready to seize any chance to move into the openings created by the lads discussing the size of penises, homosexuality, masturbation and the Yorkshire Ripper on those occasions when a male’s frailty and sensitivity is ridiculed by the group. But the task in this arena is principally one of keeping an alternative perspective on the agenda and watching for opportunities which can be taken up outside the group itself, perhaps even in a corner of that very pub the same night, or more probably on a separate occasion. In the groups within which I worked, once accepted, I was allowed to disagree with the collective norm whilst retaining my honorary membership. There is no ‘pure’ line of attack available, but by moving in and about the contradictions within the group dynamic, ‘floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee’, it is possible to be a challenging irritant to the group’s dominant practices, and more specifically to be on hand to support individual males stepping outside the status quo. Fundamental to the authenticity of this enterprise is the necessity for the male worker’s history to be available to the group, the need to have oneself and one’s own contradictory practices written clearly into the dialogue. I do not propose this as some soul-searching exercise in guilt-tripping, but as the vital link between our practices and those of the lads. The anti-sexist initiative is our joint struggle.
But in advancing this proposal we must beware reality. Too rosy a picture of the possibilities will lead quickly to a frustrated pessimism with the whole enterprise. Workers need to keep a realistic hold on what will be an uphill task. A typical Friday night at the pub is intensely contradictory. It is likely to include pissing people off and being abused for being a social bore – ‘you’re always harping on about the same things. Men are men and you’ll never change that’; will involve being accused of being homosexual, prompting an agitated discussion between virulent anti-gays and those adopting a more tolerant stance; will find the worker having a snatched five minutes with the panic-stricken lad whose girlfriend is pregnant, leading to fixing up another meeting; will see the worker playing a game of darts through which he can offer an alternative to the win-at -all-costs/to lose-is-a-tragedy brigade; will find him immersed in a row about why the group’s got to have some ‘aggro’ with the Chelsea fans the following afternoon; will lead to him questioning the lads about why they play the Space Invader all night and only acknowldege roughly the presence of their girlfriends after closing time. The situation is problematic for the male worker, but it is also unbearably rich in its contradictions and its educational potential.
(ii) The offensive, active mode of working with the young men shifts somewhat the terms of our relationship and seeks mainly to operate in the spaces outside of their own specific groupings. Often this freer, more flexible site of interaction, one less overpowered by the group norm, is available only with individual lads, but it can be created by taking the young men to a change of habitat at weekends or during the holidays. In proposing individual work and the use of residential experience, we appear to be underpinning two cherished cornerstones of Youth Work’s person-centred approach. Yet, whilst not wishing to throw away the insights and sensitivities of the person-oriented perspective, it is necessary to transcend the individualism, the apoliticism and underlying moralism of this much proselytised but little practiced Youth Work stance. We need to remind ourselves that the liberal Youth Work rhetoric of the past twenty years wished away gender, racial and class divisions and in its elevation of the classless, raceless and genderless individual as the object of its intervention failed conspicuously ro address reality.
In seeking to explore with individual young men how we might move our sexist stance, we need to begin the task of comprehending human action in a way which locates its social origin and which situates the possibility of changing human action in the phenomenon of collective resistance and struggle. It is not, as in the Rogerian counselling (beloved of youth work trainers) about finding individual responses to the spectre of ‘bad’ ideas in our heads. This is to suggest, following Seve and Ashcroft (33), that rather than acquiesce to a scenario of men as ‘socialised or cultural dopes’, drowning in a sea of macho values, we need to examine the ways in which men develop sets of social practices, generally consistent with their levels of power and prerogative. In the domestic situation this means that men, despite differences in power levels at work and in other social spheres, construct ways of being in this specific situation, which match the dominant ideas and practices around being a husband, a father, the breadwinner. But they do not develop this position mindlessly, it is chosen rationally as making the most acceptable sense of this setting, despite the felt contradictions and weaknesses in the role adopted. Given the absence of alternative and oppositional ‘sets of practices’ about being male, being a father, men settle in the main for a traditionalist position. Yet this decision to act in certain ways as a man is not a product of behavioural brainwashing, but is a rational, albeit an oppressive choice which represents the key to change. A view of men as actors, whose practices can be altered in the light of alternatives, prevents us lapsing into a pessimistic view of men as either biologically evil or as ‘socialised’ beyond the pale. It allows us to understand why some men, drawing on their access to oppositional lifestyles or acting out of contrary collectives, have developed relatively sensitive and egalitarian relationships, whilst a majority of males remain more overtly oppressive.
In my individual work with young men these dilemmas have surfaced in a variety of ways. The most consistent contact I have had with young males was during a period when two previously homeless lads lived with me. Late at night, having shed the macho conscience from our shoulders, the lads and I shared experiences about their burgeoning sexuality, our fears of relating to each other and to women, our sense of having to prove ourselves as men. In this climate, we floated many thoughts about how we would like things to be and this was am important stepping stone, but it remained inherently idealist. It continued to wish the world to be different. Gradually I learnt the importance of rooting our discussion about being different in the reality of our material circumstances. If we were serious about change, we had to investigate the constraints on our present practices. We needed to find ways of shifting the limitations on our actions, so that we could change in a real and positive sense. What became obvious was the necessity to root this desire for transformation in the strength and the solidarity of being together, and to situate this movement of change precisely in the expression of being different together as men – being frail, being emotional, being more honest, being less competitive, being more co-operative and supportive. I would not want to exaggerate the quality of this experience of ‘being different’, but I do not want to lose a hold on the positive and purposive aspects of our relations. In this particular case, prompted by my politics, separate individual work moved towards a collective of five men, connecting male with male; towards recognising that individual prejudices and fears were social and collective at birth and that struggling with the contradictions of masculinity needed social and collective resistance and action.
This example illustrates the gap between how young men act within and without the gang. The ideas and practices of the group do not represent the totality of the ideas and practices of each individual young male. Inconsistencies abound and given an area of neutrality, it is vital to start investigating anti-sexist strategies in the sphere of groupwork. Away on a weekend, a programme of single-sex activity and discussion can be more openly threatening to the dominant values of chauvinism. In suggesting such an enterprise, it is necessary to break with a mainstream groupwork approach predicated on catalysing harmonic relations between individuals abstracted from social relations. To this end we need to begin from an analysis that recognises people as divided from one another by the power relations of gender, class, race and age, and by a host of linked further sub-divisions. In working with one group of young men, rather than hiding the variations between them (in terms of education, type of home, method of transport, football team supported, type of music enjoyed, style of dress, etc.), I pursued an exercise through which we placed on the table the gamut of our motley differences and through which we explained and examined our division from one another. In then putting onto the agenda the gender division, it became more possible to recognise its social origin and its debilitating effect on relations between men and women. Certainly a groupwork perspective serious about opposing sexism must be grounded in the reality of a gender-divided social structure.
But these are but tentative proposals. In actuality there will be a complicated interplay between the offensive and the defensive, the group and the individual, the public and the private, their territory and ours. But we will only unravel the strands of this complexity in practice. The urgent need at this moment is for radical males to propel the enterprise and the launching pad has to be the establishment of an anti-sexist male network of oppositional solidarity, than can motivate and strengthen local and national initiatives.
This recommendation in itself begs many questions. Radical men have often failed to respond seriously to the demands of the Women’s Movement, seeking succour in a politics of adoption and token support; taking refuge in patronage and co option. But wanting to transcend this strategy of subordination by moving to a recognition that the gender struggle is our struggle, men are forced to deal with a welter of contradictions. For instance, are we merely bent on building a Men’s Movement, which will manoeuvre to take control of proceedings? Is our strategy destined to be a sophisticated device in the maintenance of male privilege? Given that the majority of resources within Youth Work are focussed on young males, on what basis do we argue for further, alternative, experimental initiatives directed at young men? In response to the latter query, it has been suggested that Work with Boys should not be started in any area unless Girls’ Work in that district is already off the ground and in a process of consolidation. Similarly, it is advanced that Boys’ Work advocates should not seek funds from limited experimental work sources, thus draining away possible finance for Girls’ Work, but should be arguing for the diversion of monies from traditionalist practice. Clearly these are amongst the many thorny problems to be faced by a pioneering group of would-be sexist men. However the crying need at this juncture is not to be bogged down in producing a perfect political position prior to actual activity, rather it is to initiate, albeit imperfectly, a strategy of opposition to gender oppression and exploitation. It is to act ina manner which is not parasitic upon the Women’s Movement.
If we do not make a start upon this project, the future looks gloomy. Many feminists view suspiciously any moves towards joint endeavour. The only way through this impasse is for male youth workers to begin transforming the notion of a non-sexist male praxis into an actual ‘set of practices’ open to observation and criticism, which lay the foundation for any future negotiations with female workers. Amongst some of the steps we could be taking are the setting up of area and national forums to open up the issue amongst male workers; the development of male worker groups on local patches with a clear brief to examine and share the experience of trying to shift their face-to-face practice; the running of complementary and parallel weekends/weeks with the lads on sexism alongside the Boys Rule Not OK programmes organised by women; and the introduction into full and part-time training courses of the issue of male domination/female subordination and its implications for work with Boys (as opposed to simply its consequences for work with Girls!) Obviously the theory and practice of a genuine anti-sexist male youth work approach is at its embryo stage. At this moment it is premature to try to forge links between anti-sexist males and feminists except on the simple basis of keeping some lines of communication open. To propose discussion about anti-sexist mixed work without any evidence of a real stand by men against their own sexist practices is likely to be a divisive disservice to the growth of a radical youth work praxis, which opposes the oppression and exploitation of women by men and which looks to change the material basis of inequality and injustice. It is time to take our responsibility for the present sorry state of affairs into our own hands. Herstory will judge us.
Since writing this piece, I have shared its argument with men and women in Youth and Community Work. It has been sharply pointed out that the paper is ridden with white assumptions. Ironically, given my critique of male sociologiists for their marginalisation of gender, my own effort to understand sexism ignores the social relations of race. The stuttering analysis presented above is grounded in my work with white working class young people and in my own whiteness. Its shortcomings are obvious. In focussing on the relations of gender I have been accused of ‘forgetting’ class. I would defend my attempt to analytically prioritise the possibility of an anti-sexist male strategy. However, I do accept that ‘the theoretical moment’ of suspending the interconnectedness of reality is immediately suspending the interconnectedness of reality is immediately challenged by the inevitable contradictions of practice. This is how it must be. Certainly in my own dealings with men I have worried that the absence of an interrelated comprehension leads some males to a position of self-centred, indulgent liberalism. For men, the tension is between a genuine striving towards a revolutionary critique of masculine practices and the tempting possibility of arguing that feminism has gone ‘over the top’. The former requires consistent and serious self-criticism. The latter heralds the end of personal scrutiny, disguised as the need to produce a more sophisticated analysis.
Some tentative progress has been made around developing contacts between would-be anti-sexist men. A conference was held in early 1983, out of which two regional groupings of men (London and Midlands) were formed. A newsletter is on the edge of existence. In Leicester, where I now work, a fragile bunch of male workers is meeting on a regular basis to examine practice. It would be heartening and helpful to hear from individuals or groups struggling against sexism, especially as it might be possible to connect them up with fellow strugglers.
I am indebted to many people for being prepared to debate the paper, but in particular my thanks go to Steve Bolger, Julie Hart, Janet Hunt, Marilyn Lawson, Angela McRobbie, Mica Nava, Roy Ratcliffe and Andy Smart for their criticism. A special note of gratitude must be expressed to Jalna Hanmer for both the warmth and sharpness of her encouragement.
Apologies for the poor quality of the references neither Marilyn nor I could bear to type them out!!
If, by chance, anyone refers to the piece, the acknowledgement should read:
Taylor, T. , ‘Anti-Sexist Work with Young Males’ in Youth & Policy, Summer 9