A witch-hunt aimed at LGBT activist Julie Bindel and the Working Class Movement Library in Salford is symptomatic of growing intolerance and a right-wing shift within the community, argues JULIAN VIGO
For the past week some transgender advocates and their allies have attacked the Working Class Movement Library in Salford on its Facebook page and Twitter, some approaching the library’s donors in an attempt to have its funding cut while employing vast misrepresentations about the speaker at the heart of their ire, Julie Bindel.
While Bindel is no stranger to being targeted by trans activists and their allies due to her 2004 piece Gender Benders Beware, one would have thought that the protest for this article had worn out its welcome 13 years later given Bindel’s having stated her sarcasm was “misplaced and insensitive.”
Bindel has never wavered, however, from her stance that gender is harmful to women. On the library’s Facebook thread for Bindel’s talk during LGBT History Month in February, hundreds of posts abound with age-old misogyny and homophobia in reference to Bindel, to lesbians and to any woman who is critical of gender.
The Working Class Movement Library houses the Spanish civil war collection, which contains documents specific to the approximately 2,000 British volunteers who fought in the International Brigade between 1936 and 1939. Additionally it holds over 200 years of the documentation of labour movements and political campaigns undertaken by ordinary men and women throughout Britain including documents from the 1760s and some of the earliest trade union documents from the 1820s.
The library was started in the 1950s as part of the personal collection of Edmund and Ruth Frow and was registered as a charitable trust in 1971. It depends on grants and private donations to function, thus the attempt of certain trans and trans-allied activists to get donors to stop funding the library has grave consequences for everyone, from those who benefit from the knowledge of working-class organisation and history to those who research and write about this subject.
It is a bitter irony that this protest was initiated in the days following the death of art critic, novelist and artist John Berger. With his ability to bring class, race and feminism into the framework of art analysis, Berger did not shy away from historical materialist interpretations of art. Instead he was very much influenced by class struggle and how the constructions of race and gender fit into mass culture.
Analysing how painting and photography influence the way we are inculcated into consumer society and how our participation in this larger cultural spectrum vastly differs depending on one’s sex, race and class, he successfully collapsed the space between high and low culture, encouraging his readers to view art within the material world where race, gender, post-colonialism and class are a political part of our collective reality.
Berger’s writing reveals how class consciousness depends upon the ability to name one’s material reality as well as those ideologies which buttress capitalist culture — colonialism, racism, and sexism — challenging the notion that only the white man can speak for the dark-skinned subject, for the colonised other and for the woman, all assumed not to possess a language for depicting their reality.
The deepest irony of the protest against the library’s inclusion of Julie Bindel in LGBT History Month is that it is bereft of any sort of class consciousness. Or, perhaps, these folks have simply identified their way out of poverty?
Many on the left are growing weary of identity politics as it threatens one of Britain’s most important resources for working-class history and organising. Certainly this protest has come to represent the apotheosis of two opposing schools of thought — the highly individualised, neoliberal and apolitical movement of identity politics versus the communal action of a political movement where the material realities of race, sex and class are not tossed away in favour of an illusory identification with an idealised race, gender or class.
Given that the library’s Facebook feed is replete with those who contribute ad hominem attacks and vast misrepresentations of Bindel’s person and work, there are many posts which are nothing short of shocking and violent.
In an era where we are provided occasions and institutions which aim to commemorate those previously stigmatised and marginalised by society, such as Mental Health Awareness Week, the social acknowledgement of rehab support and LGBT History Month, we must not mistake these politically crafted discourses for the impulse to homogenise thought and action.
From 1990s the Internet seemed like a utopian future of political and social possibility. In 2017, however, it resembles more an Orwellian nightmare.
The multitudes who can afford a computer and Internet connection today could not be less bothered with reading much less committing to reporting facts.
We are living in a social dystopia where the illiterati who cannot be bothered to understand carefully crafted prose dominate media discourse simply because they scream, threaten and vituperate the loudest. Not coincidentally most of these “haters” are white men with huge amounts of spare time and even larger quantities of rage.
As neoliberal constructions of selfhood have begun to implode, people are now taking notice how identity politics serves the perfect foil for class consciousness, the mobilisation of workers and the political activism of women.
The reality is that between each of these letters, L-G-B-T, exists far more division than unity.
The parallels to the obstacles women faced just over 100 years ago are noteworthy. Where suffragettes were beaten up for political action, today there is this mass of largely male-bodied individuals threatening women with violence.
Where women were imprisoned for daring to speak out for the right to vote, today their livelihoods are attacked and their speaking engagements “no-platformed.” Dare they recognise material reality (ie the somatic differences between men and women), they are labelled “bigots.”
In a world where women are still at risk of violences of all sorts it seems almost perverse that the Working Class Movement Library is being threatened by a group of navel-gazing narcissists whose primary concern is how to push women either into submission or silence.
Berger’s spin on the co-optation of art by the rich is applicable to the attempt to derail class and feminist struggles by these identitarians: “In the end, the art of the past is being mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes, and such a justification can no longer make sense in modern terms. And so, inevitably, it mystifies.”
And many somnambulantly accept what this privileged, misogynist minority invents.