Report on the London Counter-EDL demonstration
Some thoughts on the counter-EDL demonstration in London yesterday, and about the EDL in general:
1. The disproportion between EDL and anti-fascist demonstrators was sharp and markedly depressing. It seemed patent to everyone to whom I spoke that there was very little for anti-fascists to do except to shuffle into position and to play the role of demonstrators. Actual resistance of any kind was out of the question.
2. Once they’d been released from the police pen (itself apparently a tactical decision by the cops, who were keen not to create too much tension on a Bank Holiday in the city centre), the EDL members were left to scatter into pubs or to march around Westminster in small groups. The police did very little to pursue them or even to keep them under close surveillance. Groups of 60 EDL, moving at a leisurely crawl, were usually accompanied by two or three police.
3. EDL members are conscious of the fact that they possess an exoteric and an esoteric discourse. In public they defer slavishly to what they assume to be “liberal” ideas. Like the liberal state with its checks and balances, they want to “protect” society against “fundamentalism”; like the National Trust, they want to “safeguard” English values; like the judiciary, they want to ensure that the “rule of law” isn’t bent out of shape by the decadent inattention of political elites and the fantastical moral scruples of “the left.”
4. In private, some attendees of EDL demos find it difficult to align their public commitments and their political activities. Asked how they can justify the slogan ‘Muslim violence off our streets’ in terms of a general commitment to the rule of law, they disclaim responsibility for the slogan.
5. The anxiety is connected to a more fundamental desire to shield their positions from the accusation of racism. EDL demonstrators have black friends, admire “the” Sikh community, or are themselves “mixed race”. The obvious tendency of the line of argument is to identify the concept “racist” with the person of the “white supremacist”.
6. The argument that says that this indicates a step change towards a “new” far right, the sophistication of obsolete racial “biologism” into cutting edge “culturalism”, is barren, for at least two reasons. Firstly, “racism” does not evolve like electronics commodities in a marketing schedule. The EDL is not Racism 4 and consumers will not be attracted by its new gyroscope. Secondly, the argument implies a certain measure of triumphalism, as if the recrudescence of racist street movements is a blessing in disguise, a great leap forwards only masquerading as a small step back. The background assumption is as follows. “Antiquated” racial supremacism that identifies racial superiority in the degree of cranial curvature, or which fishes it out of a “gene pool”, is superseded by a modern racism which at least has the decency to accept that the “people” who exist beneath their “identities” are capable of being retrieved for a well-integrated, stable, and “value”-rich polity. But the idea that beneath all of the clutter of “identities”, “beliefs”, “values” and “cultural dispositions” belonging to a person there lies a neutral and politically acceptable core is not automatically more humane than the “old” idea that a person is fixedly identifiable with his or her genetic inheritance, because it legitimates an endlessly more violent and imperiously intrusive stance on the part of those who take themselves to be competent to define what it is that we have at our “core” and who see in it the reflected image of their own preferences and interests. It makes no difference whether these people are on the “far right” or stranded at sea in the middle of the “centre left”.
7. Liberals are also accommodating to the EDL’s account of class. In television debates featuring EDL leader “Tommy Robison”, host and guest engage in a kind of barter of discursive favours, in which Robinson permits himself to be ridiculed and intellectually subordinated by his patrician host on account of his accent, solecisms, malapropisms, lapses of memory, and habit of self-contradiction in exchange for a tacit commitment on the part of the host not to question the claim that, precisely insofar as he fails to speak coherently, Robinson is able to “represent working class people”. By respectively constructing and tacitly affirming this account of “class”, derisively identified with speech habits, guest and host both get what they want, since while the host enjoys the reaffirmation of the innate superiority of his powers of expression and ratiocination, the guest is permitted to claim a spurious representative authority whose subordinate role is not painful but is in fact exactly what he wanted all along. The reassuring “triumph” of the liberal host in this situation is basically akin to the “triumph” of the consumer removing her comestible from the tray of the vending machine.
8. Just as the inadvertent triumphalism of the soft sociology of the “new far right” palliates the EDL’s racism, the slogan “racist scum” helps to confirm the organization's account of class. Not only does it bring unavoidably into mind the image of the bourgeois “street cleaners” who acted out their own purposelessness by pretending in August 2011 to clean up already clean streets; more generally it fixes a redundant adjective to what already ought to be a dirty word, raising into peripheral view the connotation that the EDL are something in addition to being racists. For the EDL this will sound like a resounding affirmation of their own delusional self-identification as representatives of “the” working class persecuted by ignorant middle class “do-gooders” or “liberals”.
9. In arguments concerning standards of sanitation, the ultimate arbiter will always be the liberal state. Its expertise in these matters is undisputed.
10. Unlike in previous EDL street demonstrations, the participants in central London on Monday were largely though by no means exclusively young. Youthful white English “patriots” whose own conception of national solidarity is conditioned by the propaganda and employment prospects offered by the British Armed Forces will in many cases have been participating in EDL street action for the first time. That the EDL presence was so unchecked either by anti-fascists or by the police means among other things that these new attendees will have enjoyed their day out. This will be a matter of jubilation for the racist ideologues at the head of the organization who can now anticipate future opportunities to influence these peripheral members and to organize them into cadres.
11. Now that the old anti-fascist front organizations are disintegrating (along with the parties for which they acted as a front), new responsibilities emerge for anyone interested in participating in anti-racist street actions. The sense of unpreparedness yesterday among the friends and comrades who turned up in central London was palpable and painfully dismaying; and yet it also presages an opportunity to assert publicly with a new and striking clarity a better account of capital and race than the account which resorts instantly to obfuscatory slogans about Nazism -- and an account that would rule out at the same time the blockheaded liberal argument that the “new” racism is an index of social progress. There is work to be done here, and gains to be made, against the intensifying brutality of the “national discourse” and the policy outcomes – the racist violence – in which that discourse inevitably terminates. Petrified silence would be the most clamorous act of submission.
News report on the demonstration: