Recently, the British working-class anarchist group, Class War, organised its third ‘Fuck Parade’, a roving protest against gentrification through the east London area of Shoreditch. This is a traditionally working-class area, but in recent years has become gentrified with many expensive boutique stores and cafes opening and skyrocketing rents that have squeezed out working-class people. Class War has been active in protesting against gentrification and the social cleansing that has been occurring in London. Working-class people are being forced out of London due to high rents and reductions in public housing. Local councils have been selling off public housing to private developers and evicting tenants. Councils have moved public housing tenants to areas far from their original homes, destroying community networks in the process. Grassroots activist groups have formed to fight these evictions and private for-profit redevelopments. The activist groups are made up of people who are directly affected (the tenants) and allies (some of whom are professionals, such as lawyers and academics).
Class War’s particular mode of protesting is carnivalesque and mocks the rich and powerful. They use props such as banners, flares, flaming torches, masks, and loud music, and their parades and protests are noisy and colourful. Their intention is to take back the streets, at least for a short time, and make working-class voices heard. According to one member, they are part of a long tradition of the London mob – groups of protestors who have challenged authority and targeted symbols of power (including private property) for centuries.
Unlike other Class War actions (such as their long-term presence outside a private development to protest the existence of ‘poor doors’), the recent event in London’s East End attracted quite a lot of media interest, mainly due to the paint bombing of a café called Cereal Killer. This café, situated in historic Brick Lane, has been dubbed a ‘hipster’ business and has become a symbol of gentrification in the area. The café sells sugary cereals at high prices and has been criticised for its lack of community relevance and its promotion of conspicuous consumption. At £3 for a small bowl, the cereal servings are far too expensive for most of the working-class locals. British right-wing newspaper the Daily Mail published a number of articles condemning the protestors and sympathising with the café owners. The café owners even claimed (via Twitter) that they had been the victims of a ‘hate crime’ (which is arguably very offensive to those who are the target of real hate crimes). A fair amount of debate ensued, with some arguing for Class War’s right to be out on the streets and praising the group for taking a stand, and others criticising their tactics and aligning themselves with the café (and other local businesses who felt threatened).
Regardless of whether it’s right or wrong to graffiti on windows and throw paint bombs, the café undoubtedly operates as a symbol for gentrification, and its presence in Brick Lane could be upsetting for working-class locals who are reminded of their poverty every time they walk past people queuing for over-priced cereal ‘cocktails’. What is particularly galling, I think, is the nature of the cereals being sold. The café ‘menu’ mainly consists of processed, sugary cereals — the kinds of unhealthy cereals that working-class people are often criticised and judged for eating. The café appears to be engaging in an ironic celebration of unhealthy foods that can sometimes be staples for working-class people. While they might not be able to afford the name-brand versions, high energy, cheap foods can replace more nutritious foods in some working-class households). The café owners seem to be oblivious of the politics and class-based nature of food consumption.
Amid the general condemnation of the protest and descriptions of the protestors as a ‘hate mob’, the Daily Mail has also attacked one of the members of Class War, Dr. Lisa Mckenzie. In an effort to undermine her credibility, the Daily Mail labelled McKenzie as ‘middle class’ and as someone who travels overseas, drinks champagne, and generally lives a ‘lavish’ lifestyle. The reporters have trawled Mckenzie’s Facebook page to find ‘evidence’ of her suggested middle-class status and posted photographs, including one of her at a celebration, holding a bottle of sparkling wine (presumably the ‘Champagne’ referred to in the article). The articles have sparked abusive and often sexist online comments, emails, and tweets. Despite Mckenzie’s efforts to explain that her position as a research fellow at the London School of Economics does not make her middle class and that she identifies as working class, it seems that the mainstream media cannot comprehend that it is possible to be a working-class academic.
The attempts by the mainstream media to belittle Mckenzie suggest that the idea of an educated working-class woman is very threatening, and the descriptions of her tattoos, working-class accent or (contradictorily) evidence of her ‘lavish’ lifestyle, are used in an attempt to diminish her arguments about gentrification, inequality, social cleansing, and so on. No attempt has been made to read her work, much less to understand her concerns and those of Class War more broadly.
Class War does not apologise for its actions or approaches. Its members are steadfastly anti-establishment, proudly working-class, and deliberately ‘in your face’. They are noisy, they swear, they are disruptive, and they have no problem with offending and upsetting the rich and powerful (and anyone who defends them). Not every social justice activist will approve of their actions, and they do not represent all of the diverse British working class, but they are helping to get issues affecting working-class people discussed in the public sphere, and for that, I (as a working-class academic) am grateful.
More so than Black Lives Matter, this group reminds me of Hedge Clippers, a burgeoning set of activists taking on hedge funds and exposing their deleterious influence on our economy, environment, democracy, and neighborhoods.
Hedge Clippers have a research component that puts out speedy, damning reports on the worst Hedge Funds and the politicians they buy off. Their most effective role, however, is executing boisterous protests that confront Hedge Fund types at their workplaces, restaurants, galas, and even homes. They carry hedge clippers with them as a symbolic assault on the hedges that line billionaire estates but also to demonstrate that they will take up bold, menacing tactics to achieve their objectives. The whole operation very much has a ‘class war’ feel to it. I wouldn’t paint them and the CW activists from the UK with the same brush, but there are interesting parallels that likely stem from the fact that both groups are addressing similar problems.
It is very commendable to support the working classes however they are defined. And using carnivalesque tactics, expressing naughty words that would have offended Mary Whitehouse some thirty years ago (when the leaders of Class War were students flogging their Rag Mags and The Little Red Schoolbook), is a means of drawing attention to whatever cause their leaders choose. But sadly, this is a highly centralised middle class dominated outfit that has about as much internal democracy any of the fascist movements to which they have been compared. It embodies the worst features of today’s negative left: during the 1960s and 70’s,when this lot were radicalising, the left had a place for constructive alternatives – work ins, teach ins, factory occupations, and were often engaged in building cooperatives, But this bunch merely seek to stamp out, ban, censor, and deny platforms to whoever their leader’s pronounce as class enemies. Sure it is wrong and stupid to ridicule working class people who have made achievements in higher education. But Class War activists, led by people with higher degrees, are firmly opposed to university education and its privileges, even declaring their intention to burn the Oxbridge Universities to the ground. The last thing working people need today is a highly centralised version of Pol Pot, denying them any voice in the political processes.
I note the author refers to ‘sugary cereals’ which is a way of establishing the moral superiority of the protestors. Fortunately, as the author indicates, they are far too expensive for the lower classes who will not be obliged to suffer from their negative health impact. Nevertheless, at £3 a go they compare with the battered Mars Bars our local chippie sells to working class children. Perhaps, we can expect a visit from the protective wing of Class War.
Here is a daring suggestion. Perhaps the leaders of CW might consider setting up a working class cooperative run cafe, selling and promotng healthy food, and do so in a way that undercuts the gentrified rivals.
Britain’s Class War, meet America’s Black Lives Matter.
I am sure both of you can trade stories of reactionary reception of your protests and of the critique that you both bring as they are articulated in your protests.
Just as CW is accused of a hate crime by the café owners due to the protests, BLM is being labeled in the right wing press (led by Fox News) as a “hate group” because it protests the unpunished murder of Blacks by police.
Lastly @ “Fred Anderson”: did you even read the post?! That gibberish you spout is not even relevant to the matter being raised, so forgive me if I feel moved to suspect your motives in submitting it.
Sorry. My post was addressed to just two paragraphs near the end of the article. These were about the Daily Mail’s attack on one of the members of Class War, Dr. Lisa Mckenzie. It is a little tangential since I wrote it after reading the Daily Mail link in the article.
Class War – An embarrassment to the real working class !
It seems to me that much of this hinges upon semantics: Is “working class” to be defined in terms of stylistics? Or in terms of one’s relations to the means of production?
If it’s stylistics, values, lifestyles and preferred friendships, then of course one can be a working class academic. But a wealthy coupon clipping dowager can be working class, too, if these are the friends and values she prefers. (One suspects that she would face social rejection by the group she aspires to, so this may be easier said than done. And the mirror-image / ‘Liza Doolittle case probably can’t work either; the poor cannot afford the afternoon teas at the club nor the polo ponies on the weekends. Still, a poor girl could aspire to be a fine lady / to have those friends and to share those values.)
But if “working class” is defined by one’s relation to the means of production, then I suspect that “working class academic” is internally contradictory. My model goes back hundreds of years to a time when there were only two substantial classes; the peasantry, who lived by the sweat of their brow = hard, physical labor; and the landed gentry, who did not labor, but rather lived off the rents from their (typically, inherited) property. Gradually, there grew up a middle class between these two. This middle class did not have inherited property, and so had to work for a living: But predominantly, they worked with their minds, not with their hands. Examples would be a blacksmith, a miller, a merchant, an early doctor; Today we would include accountants, designers, engineers, etc. But they need to know how to do what they do. This mexplains the obsession with education seen among those who want to be — or want their children to be — middle class. We even have a term for all this acquired knowledge; we call it human capital. Seen this way, “working class academic” is an oxymoron.
Finally, the Class War member who is opposed to private property is horribly mistaken. And in that error, he/she is self-destructive. If he/she cannot possess his/her labor and the fruits of that labor, then he/she is but a slave. If you plant the cotton, chop the cotton, pick the cotton, gin the cotton, bale the cotton, and load it onto the steamboat, then payment for the cotton is given to the plantation master, you are that man/woman’s slave. Smarter workers will be fierce advocates of the worker’s right to own what he/she has produced. They will be fierce defenders of the right to hold such private property.
Classroom academics are now classic proletarians