Monthly Archives: November 2009

Political Science in a Climate of Skepticism

They are calling it ‘climategate’ – the hacking and leaking of some climate scientists emails at the University of East Anglia. Some may wish to believe these emails reveal a conspiracy by the worlds climate scientists to fabricate evidence of global warming. They will not of course, demonstrate that. But they do reveal, once again, how climate science has become a highly politicized field. Climate science is bound to become ever more heavily contested, as it covers an incredibly complex problem, where the knowledge is inherently uncertain, the stakes are incredibly high and the solutions costly.

Solutions to this problem have always implied a challenge to entrenched economic interests – which is why the dominant oil corporations initially responded to the findings of climate science by financing and orchestrating a campaign of denial. Since then, the dominant political powers and big business interests have accepted the theory of anthropogenic climate change.

This shift is bound to generate a growing skepticism amongst ordinary people who are rightly suspicious of governments and corporations, given our experience of the lies, exploitation, greed and cover-ups that seem endemic to capitalism. Furthermore, the ‘solutions’ proposed by the dominant powers do everything to avoid the changes we need. Instead they represent the hijacking of the climate change discourse to promote the interests and agendas of the dominant powers – who will make the masses of the earth pay the price – with increased unemployment, pay cuts, price rises. Other aspects of this new capitalist climate change agenda become manifest in ludicrous market ‘solutions’ like carbon trading, or crazy schemes like biofuels or agrofuels which will starve the poor, evict them from their land and destroy forests, and outdated deadly technologies like nuclear power  (and of course these responses may combine with climate change to make things worse).

Given its profound implications that challenge us in one way or another to remake our society, climate science was bound to be contested. However we now have a situation where this field of science, already one of the most complex fields of human knowledge, lies at the centre of the worlds biggest social and political controversies, one that concerns almost every aspect of human life and how we should live it.

These battles over climate science may shock those who still believe in liberal enlightenment fairy tales of a neutral and disinterested science that merely reveals objective facts about nature. Whilst climate science is an especially politicised field, the history of science shows that all sciences and scientists have their own politics and struggles. Anyone who has read the burgeoning literature of ‘science and technology studies’ will perhaps not be so easily shocked by the emails of climate scientists. Following from Thomas Kuhn‘s explanation of the rise and fall of successive scientific paradigms, emerged a sociology of scientific knowledge which looks at the relationship between society and its scientific ideas. Science is shown to be a human, social activity, whose ideas and practices bear the imprint of that society, and the social and material relationships within which scientists live and work. However, while science is a social activity that constructs partial and uncertain knowledge, this knowledge still has a relationship, through our practice, with a material world beyond our concepts.

Thus scientific paradigms are not mere ‘conspiracies’. If science was a ‘conspiracy’, something that could be bought and manipulated to serve the interests of  the state and capitalism, then the theory of anthropogenic climate change would not have risen to such prominence. It is not the most convenient theory for a system premised on competitive growth and the unlimited expansion of ‘built in obsolescence’ consumer commodity production, a system still dominated by entrenched fossil fuel monopoly power.

welcome to the age of complexity ...

In these complex times, ‘Science’ (with a capital ‘S’) seems to loose its cultural and political authority. This is not because of public ignorance, but rather is a result of an ever more educated and questioning population. Sometimes, the growing skepticism about the authoritative statements of scientific (and therefore political) certainty has worked for environmentalists. In the cases of nuclear power and GM crops, the uncertainties of the science could be used to challenge  platitudinous industry proclamations of  the safe and benign character of their operations. However, environmentalism itself risks becoming the next victim of this same trend, if it tries to push for social change ‘because science says so’.

Climate change is the classic example of what is coming to be known as a ‘wicked problem’ – a term originally coined by computer scientists, and taken to describe problems that are non- linear , involve complex feedback loops and multiple interactions with qualitative  changes.  Such problems do not have clear boundaries, and seem to involve everything, including those attempting to solve the problem. Uncertainty is not reduced by the production of new knowledge. Rather more knowledge generates more uncertainty.

The emergence of ‘wicked problems’ in our new epoch of complexity, reveal the limits of our dominant way of knowing – the limits of reductionist science. Since Newton, we understood things by taking them apart, by reducing them to their essential components, isolating them in laboratories from their surrounding factors. This reductionist science was a powerful tool, it was instrumental in making the industrial revolutions and transforming the world. But now we are faced with a new situation. As our productive powers and scientific senses have grown over the centuries – we have had both the increasing need and the capacity to measure and regulate our impacts on our environment. This is our contemporary ecological paradox, which needs new kinds of science – ones that can bring together many factors and follow their connections. These new sciences of complexity are at their beginning. What multi-centred, holistic and  dialectical ways of knowing will we need in this new situation?

Classical ‘climate science’ attempts to cover an awful lot – potentially everything on earth – the interaction of the earths atmospheric gases with its ecosystems and oceans, with all human labour and activity,  with history, with the solar system, and with countless other factors. Climate science and politics are therefore a strange mixture of humility and hubris. On the one hand we are humbled as we sense the possible limits and fragility of our industrial civilisation. On the other hand, the rise of climate science and politics reveals that our political systems are now contemplating the profoundly hubristic project of trying to regulate the global climate and human societies relationship with it.

We get a new reductionism – a technocratic and marketised carbon-ism – where all human and non-human life, all activity is measured by its carbon footprint.

Reduced into the one currency, all life can be traded. All politics, all the earths multiple ecological and social struggles become reduced into the question of two degrees centigrade. Thus abstracted, and removed from daily life and experience, we become ever more alienated from this issue, and skepticism grows.

To take a political stand suddenly raises questions well beyond even the largest assembly of experts. Should you drive less? This question, in the company of the pub bore climate-change-denier, suddenly requires you to have arcane  knowledge about distant ice ages, methodological questions of collecting data, the effects of solar storms, the history of Mars. An army of climate denialists, often strangely certain for professed skeptics, seem to inhabit every newspapers online commentary box. Once exposed to this, its easy to wonder how an ordinary lay person – myself included –  can now possibly feel they know enough to make a stand either way. Do I try to master and critically asses several vast interconnected fields of science for myself, or do I trust the mainstream scientists and their public statements? Or do I trust the seemingly expert array of online ‘skeptics’?

Climate change is sensed through an array of scientific instruments and theories,trying to make recordings and measurements across the whole earth, and back through its history. But can we sense it and know for ourselves? Sometimes we think we are experiencing warmer or wetter weather. Sometimes gardeners notice changes. Others who climb mountains speak of  the rapidly retreating glaciers. Yet all this feels anecdotal, patchy, it does not make us sure. When we are sure, it will be too late.

What else can we, the ‘fairly ordinary people’ know? We know that money talks and that governments lie. The climate change deniers or ‘skeptics’ now speak of a climate change industry. Scientists are in it for the money, apparently. While this sort of claim about scientific bias is more plausible when applied to molecular biologists connected with the GM crops industry, it seems harder to believe with climate change. And if there is a climate science industry, then surely there are weightier interests, ie the ‘industry industry’. If the world was indeed run by vast conspiracies, and if they could manipulate scientific consensus, the big, vested economic and industrial interests would rather have a scientific consensus that  said climate change was not happening.

Science is not ‘nature speaking the truth to mankind’. It is not the gradual accumulation of neutral facts. Science is a human practice, a social, cultural, economic and political activity. Scientific theories therefore are shaped by and partially reflect the society from which they come. But they also help that society manipulate and interact with the material world (this is their strength and weakness). Therefore, no matter how one sided it is, science is neither simply natures truth, nor simply the story made up by the dominant social actors.

This controversy forces all to recognize that science is often about complexity and uncertainty. Thats how its always been, despite government and industry attempts to placate us by reducing vast complexities into neat little certainties. But some people cling onto the childish illusions of an age certainty. They say they need certainty of anthropogenic climate change (a.c.c.) before they act. Probability or likelihood is not enough for them. Others put it like this: If we try to cut C02 emissions but a.c.c. is not happening, then we may risk severe economic dislocations, (although new industries could grow as well). If we dont try to cut c02 emissions, but a.c.c. is happening, then we face much more than an economic crisis. Learning to act in an uncertain world is learning to move beyond the politics of the playground.

Back to what we can know, you and me, in this age of skepticism. If you cycle, or struggle to cross roads with children, you can sense that the motor-car has passed its optimum use. We can sense in numerous ways the need for, and desirability of change.



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Capitalism, (Eco)Socialism and the Enlightenment.

The fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant?

There has been much heat in recent debate in the left-blogosphere about the correct socialist stance towards contemporary Islam. Much of this involves some leftists staking their all on a defence of ‘the enlightenment’ – the eighteenth century bourgeoise liberal movement of science, reason, universalism and human rights. Now, unfairly for Islam, this enlightenment is often counterpoised with it. However, anyone with an interest in the longue durée of history will find that in many ways, Islamic civilisation formed the roots of the enlightenment. A thousand years ago Islamic societies appear as the bastions of science, maths, technology, reason and religious tolerance – when compared to a backward and mediaeval Europe. But this is not our question here. Rather, it is this. As Marxists, are we simply the inheritors of the enlightenment? And how do these questions look now, after the dawn of modern ecological consciousness?

Not that I want to mix my Marx with too much Weber and go all Frankfurt School, but the mid twentieth century philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer had a point when they wrote in the 1940’s, – after the enlistment of science and reason by the Nazi holocaust, that:

“The Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant”.

(Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944).

nuclear mushroom cloud

The fully enlightened earth ... ?

Some campaigners are comfortable wearing their late eighteenth century intellectual armour of simple enlightenment universalism. That bright and  dazzling set of ideas pretended to be the view from nowhere, a simple discovery of universal laws of nature, (of which the laws of society were a naturalised subset). Yet we can also see that despite this universalism and scientific detachment, it was also the located view of a wealthy elite of western gentlemen.

Capital and enlightenment emerged entangled together. The enlightenment enabled the rising bourgeoisie to challenge the ideological power of feudalism – the Christian Church – and supplant (or supplement) it with its own scientific worldview. But early capitalism also relied on the African slave system and colonial plunder. Thus simultaneously with the enlightenment, with its ‘universal rites of man’ arose the ideology of scientific, biological racism. This was assembled to justify slave labour as ‘beyond the universal rights of man’, as somehow ‘subhuman’. All the great science and reason of  the enlightenment and after became assembled into these doctrines of ‘scientific racism’. It was bright and brazen enlightenment that constructed its singular and darker ‘other’ out of the irreducible multiplicity of the worlds beyond it.

At the same time, patriachy and its gender regimes were being remade along the rationalistic and scientific lines suited to the epoch of capitalist modernity. Hence the witch-burning, and an important stage in the etymological history of the word ‘faggot’.  ‘Science and reason’ were not always deployed ‘progressively’ around relations of sexual, gender and racial oppression, one of the reasons why we have a history of  LGBT and womens movement challenges to oppressions enacted by the scientifico-medical establishment.

And what of the experiences of those being forced to become the first industrial working class in the first mills and factories in these Islands? Was this some cheery process where the masses celebrated the march of the progress of science, reason and industrialisation? Who, then are the mythical figures like Captain Swing and Ned Ludd,  whose names rallied the the people in great riots to break the machines?! When we praise the enlightenment, do we not also remember how this was experienced as a loss, rather than as progress for the new working class? How it was an experience of being dragged backwards, deeper into poverty and exploitation, but with added pollution. Hence it was not until nearly a century of labour movement organsing before the working class began to get even a small slice of this ‘enlightenment’ and ‘progress’, that their labour had made.

And from todays standpoint, after the holocaust, hiroshima, the nuclear arms race, ecological destruction and climate change – how are we to view the enlightenment? Does capitalist modernity appear anymore progressive to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, being evicted from the burning forests than it did to the luddite worker, forced into the mills by the enclosures?

The question of the relationship between enlightenment and socialism becomes therefore inseparable from that of : “Is capitalism progress over feudalism’? For Marx, capitalism was only progressive in that it laid the basis for socialism. It was one-sidedly progressive. Alienated labour means that every step towards progress under capital means further enslavement by our own production. Therefore Science, enlightenment, rationalisation, modernity all have a double edge. Marx articulated this dialectical ambivalence  most clearly when writing about the domination and transformation of india by the British bourgeoisie:

“All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people. But what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both. Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and people through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation?

….When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world and the modern powers of production, and subjected them to the common control… then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain”.

Karl Marx, The Future Results of British Rule in India, 1853.

Thus we want a future that is progress beyond capitalism, rather than regress to barbarism, or a romanticisation of pre-capitalist forms. This future is made possible by capitalism, but never realised by it. So what does this have to do not only at the level of the capitalist mode of production, but its episteme, its scientific world view of reason and enlightenment?

I have sketched out a few well worn critiques of the  enlightenment from the left (there are plenty of others from the right). This does not meant I want to advocate that we abandon the enlightenment in favour of some kind of postmodern cultural relativism. Instead I want to argue for reclaiming the enlightenment, and relocating it away from the instrumental peaks of state and corporate power, where reason is the slave to the production of capitalist chaos. Enlightenment and modernity must be rendered separable from their capitalist makers. The bourgeoisie only invoke their univeralisms to mask the particularity of their class rule. But the global working class, the end result of capitalist globalisation, must begin to assert its own rationality.

So can we can relocate the enlightenment, reclaim it from the bourgeoisie, and declare that the only progressive class today is the global working class? Instead of masking the particularity of bourgeois  rule with a false universalism, a pretend view from nowhere, we can turn to what Marx saw as the genuinely universal class. This makes the new enlightenment a view from somewhere, embedded in social relationships, not a cartesian pure consciousness. Thus an enlightenment transplanted to a rising working class might be a very transformed and different thing. Reason might move from its purely instrumental mode ( with its cartesian subject /object dichotomies) to what? A more intersubjective and communicative reason a la Habermas? Or would we find a different direction for science, and a different relationship with the natural world beyond the human? Specualtive nonsense, maybe, as a postcapitalist episteme inevitably remains occluded to us.

But back down to earth. Of course, comrades like Peter Tatchell have a point about standing with the declaration of Universal human rights. The working class movements globally can claim this as our own, and take it further than the bourgeoisie. And our project is indeed all about seizing the historic achievements of the bourgeoisie, and taking them further. Lets agree that socialism is indeed about reaching for something better and beyond capitalist modernity, – not falling for something worse.

This is therefore a question deeply connected to the traditional socialist project of seizing control of the forces of production hitherto developed within capitalism. (And these productive forces include scientific knowledge, as well as machinery, etc). But after that seizure, true socialism was never really about simply running the old machine as before. Rather it was about how we begin to transform it, away from the needs of capital and towards the needs of humanity and the planet, until it becomes something different altogether.

When capitalist modernity was born, it was met with two main political currents – liberalism and conservatism. You could either be capitalisms liberal cheerleader, or its reactionary critic. Then along came the working class and Marxism. Thus a third option came into being, of an alternative modernity – socialism. With the temporary eclipse of socialism and the working class in recent years it seems we were thrust backwards. Politics has been about capitals liberal cheerleaders or reactionary critics again. And amongst the reactionary anti-capitalists we can place both political Islamicists and deep green ecologists.

Ecosocialism is the rebirth of Marx’s project for our times. It poses anew the question of an alternative modernity, of an ecological enlightenment. But this enlightenment is of a different class, and a different time from Voltaires. And it will provide a different standpoint from those whose socialism has degenerated into secular liberalism, as well as from reactionary fundamentalisms.

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Racism and Islamophobia.

My comments, adapted by the editors of Socialist Unity’ into a front page think-piece on the intersections of Islamophobia and Homophobia has provoked a quite a few reactions in the blogosphere. One of these is Dave Osler’s response, provocatively titled ‘confessions of a left wing Islamophobe’.

Dave kicks of his thoughts in counterposition to a “post by one Barry Kade, which we must presume to be a pseudonym”. Happily, unlike others who willfully misinterpret what I have said as somehow excusing homophobia if it comes from other oppressed minorities, Dave at least has the honesty to write that: “To his credit, Kade stresses the need to challenge homophobia in the Muslim working class”.  So at least I am excused the gross misrepresentations of some still cheaper polemicists!

Nonetheless, to write a jokey piece about being a ‘left wing Islamophobe’ is problematic. Osler has a genuine and legitimate problem wit the term ‘Islamophobia’. He writes that : “The neologism is ugly, for a start. Used as a suffix, ‘-phobia’ implies anxiety characterised by extreme or irrational fear of something commonplace”. Yes, indeed, I would agree we need a better name for this oppression. I also have problems with the term ‘homophobia’ for the same reason. Yet we use the term frequently, and we know what it means. I would not consider someone a good friend or comrade if they confessed to being ‘a left wing homophobe’. (And as a gay man, I think there is plenty that can be criticised about gay capitalist culture, as formed by the gay scene and commodification. The fetishization of youthful looks, the objectification of humans as if on a consumerist meat-rack, not to mention the prices. But for some reason we do not jocularly call these left wing criticisms of the gay scene  ‘left wing homophobia’).

Furthermore, we have come to understand ‘homophobia’ as not an ‘irrational fear of the commonplace’ like arachnophobia, but as something more loaded. Te ‘phobia’ in homophobia is a cultural-political process of constructing an ‘alien other’.  And of course it is not reducible into a subjective ‘phobia’ in individual heads, but is connected to capitals need to reproduce labour cheaply, through the normalisation of the nuclear family. A better word would be ‘heterosexism’.

Now, back to ‘Islamophobia’. Critics of the term point out that it also can catch legitimate criticism of a religion which indeed has patriarchal and oppressive aspects. Thus Dave Osler proposes we restrict ourselves to the term “Anti-Muslim racism”  thus ‘Islamophobia’ is a “distinctive brand of the more general phenomenon [racism], which the left should oppose precisely for that reason”. So should we call it “anti-Muslim racism”? I think Dave makes a good start. The term ‘Anti-Muslim racism’ captures the religious and racial dimensions of the oppression. But I want to think this through further.

The simple term ‘racism’ on its own does not capture what is going on with the current waive of muslim-hating in Britain. The tabloid press, the BNP, the EDL – and many others – are focusing their attacks on the Islamic RELIGION. This undoubtedly has a significantly racist dimension, because most of the vilified Muslims come from racially oppressed minorities.

But while this bigotry stems from racism, it is not reducible into it. Thus rightwing EDL hooligans have learned to say they are not racist, because ‘Islam is not a race’. They would laugh if you called them ‘Anti-Muslim Racists’.  They can pretend they are progressive secularists and anti-racists, as they pursue their fantasies about pogroms and ethnic cleansing. They have learned to cite those passages from the Koran which support the claim that Islam is a religion that demands conquest and war (despite the fact that we have invaded the middle east, not vice versa). They will even hide behind our progressive criticisms of Islam’s sexism.

There is a definite current developing that wants to construct Muslims as the ‘alien other’, an enemy which must be even ‘ethnically cleansed’ from Europe. This is a real right wing ideological movement that we ignore at our peril.

Some old leftists like Dave can fondly imagine that this is the 1970’s, and re-live their ‘rock against racism’ youth. Then NF racism was based upon biological notions of race. It was relatively simple (but not easy) to construct an opposition coalition of black and white, of feminists, gays, socialists and the rest. Most people could be made to verbally denounce skin colour racism as obviously unjust and without foundation.

In the intervening years, we have seen a shift to culture. Whilst ‘biological racism’ remains, it has mutated into the cultural arena, where racism is now voiced (in Thatchers notorious words) in terms of a fear of being “swamped by an ‘Alien Culture’”. This was named as “the new racism” (Martin Barker 1981, Stuart Hall 1992, Paul Gilroy 1992).

This has now gone viral with the mixture of ‘new cultural’ anti-muslim hatred and ‘old biological’ racism we see today. This wave of anti-muslim bigotry has also been greatly stimulated by the western invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the turmoil in the middle east, with the growth of diverse Islamicist movements.

Today in Britain we are seeing violent racist attacks where as well as being called ‘P*ki’ the assailants also criticise their victims for being Muslim, as they are attacking them.

Thus only last Thusdsay, a gang of over 30 black and white youths united to attack a group of Muslim students at City University. According to reports, the attackers shouted “Get those Muslims” and “P*ki”. Four students were stabbed, and one was given a fractured skull, amidst the other serious beatings.

Around where I live in Lancashire, Muslim women have had their headscarfs and veils ripped from their heads by white men.

(Incidentally, are those pro-war ‘leftists’  who inhabit the Harry’s place blog comfortable with this? Perhaps they think that It is this the work of progressive secularists and feminists, liberating women from the veil and resisting theocracy?)

And is it simply ‘racism’, when black and white youths gang up to attack Muslim students, shouting ‘get the Muslims’?

Or is their something more complex for us to deal with? Is there perhaps something called religious hatred? We have seen religious hatred and bigotry before. While the Nazis racialised European Jewry as part of their genocide, it is incorrect to simply reduce the history of European Anti-Semitism to ‘racism’. Perhaps it is best describes as an ethno-religious hatred and oppression. We have also seen a long history of anti-catholic bigotry on these Islands. This used to be one of the most serious divisions hampering working class solidarity in these parts.

So neither the terms Islamophobia, racism or ‘anti-muslim racism’ quite name the enemy yet. But we know what we mean, when we look at the vituperation of the tabloid press.

So how do we challenge the rising ethno-religious bigotry of the muslim-baiters? It is also true that Islam, like other religions, has deeply oppressive and patriarchal dimensions. We can not ignore these, and it should remain legitimate to criticise Islam. However, how can we differentiate this criticism from anti-muslim bigotry and ethno-religious hatred? Some are not that bothered, those ‘pro-war leftists’ who here make fun of our deliberations. If they can support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, then they are not bothered about violence and killing on a massive scale, and all the backward and colonial notions that are revived. They see Muslims as part of the enemy, and have no real concern with the dilemmas we have, or the complexities we see. But for genuine socialists, who want to unite the working class, and overcome multiple religious, racial and sexual divisions and hatreds in order to do this, we have to think and discuss amongst ourselves. We must always support women and gays resisting sexism and homophobia within every community, religion or ethnicity. As a the best and most practical strategy we seek left wing allies from within the Muslim community, to mobilise that section of the population to join the wider working class resistance against cutbacks, unemployment, war, racism and bigotry. By strengthening these allies from amongst Muslims, then progressive forces against fundamentalism, sexism, homophobia and anti-semitism can have a chance within these increasingly besieged communities. And lifting the sense of siege in these communities with a society wide offensive against racism and anti-muslim bigotry would also be a great step forward. And most important, we need a class based mass movement against the recession and cutbacks, uniting people from every race and religion and more. That would be a realistic strategy amongst those who really want to improve the situation – rather than those who want to make their shrill propaganda, or deny the complexity of the problems we face.


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Cutting the Gordian Knot of Oppression. The Intersections of Homophobia and Islamophobia.

A bitter row has erupted amongst left wing lesbian and gay rights activists around an academic article entiltled “Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality in the war on Terror” by Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem. This is a chapter in an otherwise obscure, but useful academic book on race and sexuality entitled ‘Out of Place’ . The ‘Gay Imperialism’ chapter makes some very pertinent criticisms of the role of white gays and western gay movements in collaborating with Islamophobic constructions of Muslims as essentially homophobic, and how this performs a key role in legitimating ‘the war on terror’ and the increased persecution of Muslims in the west. However,the well known gay rights activist Peter Tatchell is also mentioned in the chapter, and he has subsequently made loud accusations that he is slandered in this article, which has lead to the withdrawal of the book from further publication, and a retraction by the books publishers, ( who are somewhat ironically named  ‘raw nerve’).

The chapter by Haritaworn has many flaws and dubious claims, and it is not my purpose to defend its every point. However, it does represent a critical and often marginalised voice from queer people of colour and Lesbian and gay Muslims. And it also contains many important insights, with its central claim about the appropriation of gay liberation discourses to promote Islamophobia remaining valid and deserving of our consideration. It describes how:

“Racism is … the vehicle that transports white gays and feminists into the political mainstream. The amnesia at the basis of the sudden assertion of a European ‘tradition’ of anti-homophobic and anti-sexist ‘core values’ is less a reflection of progressive gender relations than of regressive race relations”.

Haritaworn et al’s chapter raises some difficult questions. They ask:

“How do the new theories reinscribe or challenge the single-issue politics at the root of this problem, where sexual agency (and theory) remains white and cultural agency heterosexual? How do they contest or reinforce a construct of  ‘Eastern culture’ as homophobic (and therefore open to official control and of re-colonisation by the ‘liberated West’)?”

However, all these insights and difficult questions have been lost in the subsequent outrage, as Tatchell strives to defend his reputation. The discussion is reduced into a ‘for’ or ‘against’ gossip column about the merits and demerits of a certain celebrity activist. This has been the case after Tatchell’s press release was reposted on Socialist Unity by my Green Left comrade Derek wall under the title “Academics Smear Peter Tatchell”. To gauge the highly craged nature of the debate, in this thread, I myself and others have been accused of having a homophobic motivation in being critical of aspects of Tatchells politics. This is despite the fact that I am also gay, and have been active over two decades in fighting homophobia, since the famous battles against Thatchers ‘Section 28’! My blog post here originated as a series of comments on that thread, to try and re-focus discussion on the real issues, and away from personality clashes. It has subsequently been reposted as a lead article on Socialist Unity, for which I am grateful.Haritaworn et al’s original and provocative chapter on Gay Imperialism can be read here. Raw nerves somewhat cringing ‘apology and correction’ can be found here. A biting critique by Johanna Rothe of this ‘apology and correction can be read hereTatchell’s defence of his reputation can be found here. Other discussions can be found here and here!

Before I go any further, it seems necessary to first say this: I think that Peter Tatchell is a courageous fighter against homophobia, and is also a comrade on the green left who fights for human rights against capitalism, ecocide, racism and imperialism. However, I have significant tactical disagreements with him, and his co-thinkers. Hopefully these can be discussed in a calm and comradely way.

How are we to cut through the gordian knot of the intersecting forms of oppression of homophobia and Islamophobia?  Most efforts of one sided single issue identity politics seem only to pull this knot even tighter. How can we simultaneously fight against homophobia and Islamophobia? This is a central but highly difficult twin task, but none the less essential if we are to unite the working class against the coming capitalist attacks, and build a new left progressive counter-hegemonic alliance of all the different sections of the exploited and oppressed.

At the heart of this debate is a view prevalent amongst many gay rights and secular humanist activists. This view may be described as simple enlightenment secular humanism. It takes the standpoint epitomised by Voltaire’s polemics against the eighteenth century religious establishment, but then deploys them against the racially oppressed migrant workers of Europe of Muslim heritage.



Voltaire and his comrades were resisting the most powerful force in European society – the church, which stood as a central bastion of feudal power. The overthrow of this power was a central task of the rising enlightenment bourgeoisie. However, today we have many wannabe petite-Voltaire’s whose central task is not to attack the most powerful, but the most powerless. This is epitomised by the publication of the ‘Prophet-Cartoons’ by the right wing Danish newspaper the Jyllands-Posten. Framed in the enlightenment language of free expression against religious obscurantism, these cartoons were about degrading and denigrating the belief systems of Muslim people, who are racially oppressed in Europe.

And this is the heart of the issue. Since the end of the cold war against ‘communism’, the west has had to invent another enemy. Orwell in 1984, had parodied this continual construction of enemies to keep the population docile and in control, with the seamless shift between enemies and allies, Oceania and Eurasia – or in our time, between ‘communism’ and an essentialised ‘global Islam’. This involves not only a series of imperialist wars and occupations to subjugate countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan – but also an increased oppression of Europe’s already oppressed racial minorities of migrant workers and their descendants, with an additional layer of Islamophobia. Thus ‘Islamophobia’ is now an official ideology of western power, uniting capitalists and workers, in both foreign wars and domestic racism. It is also the most serious contemporary threat to the socialist project of creating a united working class resistance of all races and religions.

Yet this racism is veiled in the language of enlightenment liberalism and secularism. The rightwing thugs of the English Defence League can claim that ‘Islam is not a race’ and that they are not being racist, they are merely standing up for secular humanism. This claim was also made on the Green Left discussion list by my fellow gay rights activists. However, this ignores the dangers of the persecution of religious minorities. Ethno-religious persecution has an ugly history, from the persecution of Jews and Catholics, and other ethnic and religious minorities. With Europes Muslims this is combined with race. In Britain, workers of Pakistani and Bangladeshi ancestry have long been on the bottom rung of our society, at the receiving end of the lowest pay, worst housing and also the worst street violence and racial oppression. Now the new ideology of Islamophobia is added on, in a dangerous and volatile mix.

Gender and sexuality have become frontlines in this new battle. Our previous hard fought battles against sexism and homophobia by the women’s and gay liberation movements are now being appropriated by the establishment and other oppressive forces. Thus the war in Afghanistan is sometimes justified with reference to fighting sexism and homophobia. And the BNP and the EDL in the UK, and Dutch right wingers such as Geert Wilders sometimes try to hijack our struggles against sexism and homophobia to promote their racist and Islamophobic agenda.

Leading figures in the feminist and gay liberation movements need to speak out against this hijacking and appropriation of our struggles by the far right and the warmongers. Yet all too often they collaborate with it, attending ‘freedom of expression’ events, etc.

And just because the right try to appropriate gay liberation and feminism in their Islamophobic crusade, this does not mean that they are not also homophobic and sexist. I’ve just witnessed first hand the rising anti-gay bigotry in the USA, around an orchestrated backlash against gay marriage proposals. The thugs of the EDL might try to use us as cover for their Islamophobic racism, but this all male group of football hooligans are just as capable as going queer bashing as embarking on an Islamophobic pogrom.

It is also just as important to challenge homophobia amongst the Muslim working class. Racially and religiously oppressed minorities will not be able to defend or liberate themselves if they remain in thrall to backward and reactionary prejudices. But this will not be done by aligning ourselves with the racist right wing, and using homophobia as a stick to beat Muslims with. People retreat into their religion as a form of comfort, as a defence against a hostile, racist and exploitative world. As Marx said:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions“.

Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.



Thus Marx’s atheism was the opposite of Voltairian secularism or bourgeois enlightenment atheism. Marx did not believe religion would disappear in a cloud of scientific logic, but that it has material roots in social relations of alienation and oppression. If religion is a painkiller, then bourgeois atheists ridicule the oppressed for needing painkillers, while Marxist atheists seek to help the oppressed remove the cause of the pain.

And if homophobia amongst Muslims is to be challenged, then we must first unite with Muslims in common struggles against war and racism, and build alliances with progressive Muslims. That this can be done is shown by the recent courageous statements by Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain who recently proclaimed Muslim support for gay rights, saying:

“At its best, Islamic civilisation was more than willing to learn from other surrounding countries and cultures and adopt the best aspects as its own. Actively working to ensure that people are able to live free of discrimination based on one’s ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation is a worthy goal and should be viewed as an Islamic goal”.

The working class based counter-hegemonic alliance of the oppressed and exploited that we need can only be forged in action. It requires people learning and growing, mobility of position, rather than defensive assertions of  identities and static assumptions of separate communities under their own privileged leaderships. And for the left to play its essential role in building these bridges, making these alliances,  we need the profoundly social insights of Marxism, not the shrill denunciations of the bourgeois secularism of ‘outrage’, Tatchell or Dawkins.


Filed under Fascism and Anti-fascism, socialist theory, Uncategorized