CW: mentions misogyny, anti-feminism, neo-nazism
Earlier this month, a writer and an editor from the Radical took part in the Amiel & Melburn Trust’s annual residential seminar. The Trust’s aims are “to advance public education, learning and knowledge in all aspects of the philosophy of Marxism, the history of socialism, and the working-class movement’. This year, the topic of the seminar was ‘Politics & Culture’, and the various intertwinings and intersections thereof. What follows are thoughts and reactions about the seminar from our contributors.
The seminar saw and heard people from the present as well as experience and knowledge from the past. It gave an opportunity for debate not just on the topics given in talks but also those surrounding and spinning off from these talks, resulting in a day and a half of intellectual stimulation and meeting people from around the country.
For me, two talks stood out as particularly significant with regard to our present day culture. The first was delivered by Annie Kelly on the rise of the alt-right and anti-feminism. It is important to understand the growing threat of the alt-right. We hear the extreme views of proud-to-be-white, ‘alpha’ males throughout social media. Often, we dismiss these views as immature, far-right nonsense, as they deserve to be, but the problem runs deep and mere dismissal is not a solution. These kind of views creep up on people – presented in a way that may just seem like a harmless bit of fun, they latch onto the male psyche. For some there is also ‘heroism’ in adopting an anti-feminist stance. Many in the alt-right believe that they are standing up for their rights in the face of attacks on their culture. There is extreme peer-pressure at play in these movements. The potential (and sometimes literal) threat of social exclusion and humiliation that can come from not being one of the lads is a severe motivator. This is important because it is on social media that much of this battle to gain the attentions of upcoming generations will be fought.
Which leads us to the second discussion I want to mention. Zahra Dalilah’s talk on building a progressive media struck a chord with many of us, exhorting us to create media that not only informs people but will readily take on those that seek to undermine society with a fake, paranoid and aggressive culture. One question arose that stayed with me: what do you trust the media to provide? So much of the mainstream is controlled by a few individuals, who direct it according to their own agenda. Alternative media sources are smaller and often focus on niche areas that it would otherwise be difficult to receive good and real information on. Attempting to hold power to account can often result in less access to those who run our societies, so there is an inherent risk of ineffectivity involved in challenging media orthodoxy.
But what I took away from this talk is the idea of remaining involved and devoted. The need to render the old model obsolete, in order to progress to more sustainable and properly representative alternatives, is great. Taking a risk to say what you believe and facing up to those who would undermine you takes courage and often feels like a losing battle. At the seminar we found hints of the way ahead: taking the risks, remaining involved to remain informed. The rest we must discover for ourselves.
For me, the seminar was 24 hours of meeting fascinating new people and encountering cutting edge new ideas about art, society, economics and the strange new political situation we find ourselves in. Many of the people there said it marked a transition from what one attendee called the “euphoric schadenfreude” many on the left have been giddy with post-election, to an understanding of the importance of the work there is still to do. And we came away equipped with a utility belt of inspiring new knowledge to get on with doing it.
left and musical circles are some of the most difficult spaces to express the politics of difference
We learned about Digital Culture and the ‘Alt-Right’ with Athina Karatzogianni and Annie Kelly: how the young anti-feminists identified by that label don’t aim to build a movement but to disperse their ideology, through a culture war that distracts people from their shared material concerns; how as feminists and allies we must avoid “the custody battle for neoliberalism” and accept that our values cannot be reconciled with the prevailing socio-economic model; how using the term ‘Neo-Nazis’ can work to the advantage of alt-right operators like Milo Yiannopolous who are less openly connected to traditional grassroots fascism.
We learned about The Myth of Meritocracy with Jo Littler and Michael Rustin: how the tagline of a meritocratic society ‘Everyone’s rewarded according to their talent’ is inevitably tautological because we pass our rewards onto our children; how the steepness of the inequality gradient is the problem, not the way people have fluid or obstructed access to the different parts of it; how the term ‘meritocracy’ originated in socialist critiques trying to highlight the complete lack of social mobility under a meritocratic system.
We learned about The Politics of Music and Subcultures with Roshi Naidoo, Rhian E Jones and Chardine Taylor-Stone: how left and musical circles are some of the most difficult spaces to express the politics of difference; how the oft-forgotten women of subcultures like Mod, Punk and Skinhead were dressing and expressing themselves; how a lot of 70s punk was more regressive than we remember it, highly individualist, often non-feminist and anti-gay, maybe even proto-Thatcherite.
We learned about Building a Progressive Media with Zahra Dalilah and Rosalind Delmar: how alternative media that stay rooted in their topical or geographical niche are usually the most successful; how we have to find original ways to hold power to account as the powerful won’t let us get anywhere near them; how radicals in the 70s had concerns that the inclusion of radical ideas in university curricula would dilute their impact, and how in some cases they were right.
And between sessions we learned a hundred other exciting things, plans and projects and factoids, in the way that only a dedicated shared thought-space like this seminar can cultivate. I came away filled with thoughts of the insufficiency and brilliance of language, of tenant strikes and a new age of direct action, of the value or lack thereof of progress narratives and the label ‘progressive’. I’ve felt a bit disillusioned with academia on occasion since I graduated a year ago; the seminar reminded me of the real value of rooted, activist academic practice. I am reignited, and grateful for it.
Featured image courtesy of Amiel & Melburn Trust
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