A child in Calais
Yesterday Jacqueline Walker, a Jewish anti-fascist and Vice Chair of Momentum’s National Steering Committee, was suspended from the Labour Party; her excommunication prompted by ostensibly anti-Semitic comments she made online. The discussion surrounding the Labour anti-Semitism ‘crisis’ has seen predictable arguments trotted out: anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism; this is a witch hunt motivated by cynical politicking, rather than a genuine concern for oppressed people; Ken Livingstone is a bit of an idiot. All this is true, of course, but there are two more fundamentally important issues which have received little critical commentary: the relevance of Jewishness* itself, and the focus on discourse as the main measure of prejudice and oppression.
The identity of a speaker usually mitigates the impact of their words. Gay comedians can make jokes that others can’t, people of colour can use terms that white people, rightly, would be castigated for uttering, women have an exclusive right talk about sexual violence in certain ways, and so on. At their best these rules of speech represent a recognition of a speaker’s social position – how they exist in relation to others – and the way this mediates their words’ effects. At their worst they become an inflexible standard built upon the principle of subjectivity, or ‘lived experience’. It’s important that we don’t fall into this trap in defending Jacqueline Walker.
The lived experience argument assumes that social position mechanistically determines consciousness. Marginalised identity is seen as the only valid source of education and insight; even to the point where a mental illness supposedly grants greater authority to speak about healthcare provision than a PhD in medicine, or a person’s Jewishness becomes a more valid defence against charges of anti-Semitism than the fact that their words were not anti-Semitic. This vulgar determinism is not dissimilar to Stalin’s base and superstructure model, in which slotting the right level of technology into a society necessarily and inevitably produces the appropriate culture and civil society, regardless of other factors.
This is the theoretical basis of ‘oppression olympics’ – the tendency to defend an argument by appealing to the progenitor’s marginalised identity categories, rather than the argument’s real world impact – and raises a troubling question: if a white person said what Jacqueline did, would it have been anti-Semitic? The fact that this question can be asked shows that this framework misunderstands what anti-Semitism is. Ideology, in the Marxist sense of the word, is a system of ideas that can affect everyone, regardless of their personhood or social position: a woman can be a misogynist, a prole can vote Tory, Gilad Atzmon exists. This understanding of false consciousness – the way that capital twists our thoughts against our own interests – allows us to consider arguments on the basis of what power structures and systems of oppression they actually serve to support or challenge, regardless of the identity categories of their progenitors. Strangely, the Zionist inquisitors seem to have got this more right, at least on principle, than much of the left.
This is not to say that Jacqueline’s words were anti-Semitic, despite her Jewishness, but the inverse: that they could not be anti-Semitic even in the absence of her Jewishness; they indicate no bigotry, and, more importantly, they do nothing to support or reinforce oppression in the real world. In the context of a witch hunt that could rapidly cascade into a coup against the, very white, Labour leadership this line is vitally important to hold.
The principal that anti-Semitism, and racism more generally, is less a linguistic phenomenon than it is a system of oppression with concrete, material, tragic real world consequences should be taken even further. Anti-oppression politics’ myopic focus on language and symbolism may be a Foucauldian hangover, an expression of ‘common sense’ liberal idealism, or some sickly hate-child of the two; but what’s clear is that it doesn’t work, at least not how it’s supposed to. Words are blunt, imprecise, polysemic. The path from signifier to signified is always murky, and it’s all too easy to practice eisegesis – to read racism out of an incautious statement – when politically convenient.
This tendency can be seen writ large on the left; a wound through which right wing cynicism can burrow, and start to fester. We’ve been destroying people for saying stupid things – things that hardly reflect their character, and have almost no tangible effect on anything – for so long that an alternative has almost become unthinkable. And now committed anti-fascists, such as Jacqueline, are put against the wall; their history of effectively, vitally, combatting racism in the real world, and their ability to do so in the future, shattered by the dubious theoretical impact of a few words. Opposition to racism in theory is fueling racism in practice.
The point here is that in this fog of questions about what people say we often forget to examine what people do. While the left breaks into internecine factional conflict over the meaning and historical accuracy of a bumbling old man’s statement, real racism – the type that condemns 3000 unaccompanied children to misery, abuse, and worse – goes unchecked. It’s vital to remember that what Ken Livingstone and Jacqueline Walker said was not anti-Semitic, and does not indicate bigotry. But even if it was and did, the cold, material racialised violence being enacted by the state, every single day, is immeasurably worse.
Why aren’t we talking about that?
*For the sake of batting off some inevitable criticism here: I’m ethnically Jewish. But it shouldn’t matter.