The precursor of ‘safe spaces’ was unsuccessful and destructive in past movements of the oppressed, argues Mike Macnair. This article – a response to criticisms raised by comrades in Left Unity – was first published in the Weekly Worker
Last month the Weekly Worker published my article proposing an alternative to Left Unity’s draft ‘safe spaces’ policy. My proposals have since been agreed after some amendment by the Communist Platform and put forward to LU in this amended form. However, the posting of the original article on the Left Unity websitei has produced a long but mostly irrelevant response from Felicity Dowling, some shorter comments supporting her view, more serious points from Bev Keenan, and an intervention from John Pearson, who argues against the policy from a different angle. It is most convenient to deal with comrades Pearson’s and Keenan’s arguments first and then address comrade Dowling’s points later.
Comrade Pearson agrees with me that the draft ‘safe spaces’ policy poses a danger of witch-hunting. But his approach is emphatically not mine. He denies the ‘safe spaces’ document’s claim that contradictions of class, gender, race, etc “will always be an issue” in collective organising. I, on the contrary, agree that they “will always be an issue” in class society: it is precisely for this reason that the ‘safe spaces’ approach to them is fatally wrong.
Comrade Pearson insists that the problems ‘safe spaces’ addresses arise from organisations having “longevitous cliques of revered leaders”, thus creating “power relations within which abuses could occur”. LU, he argues, has broken with this model through its constitution, by term limits, reducing the powers of leading bodies and rejecting personality cults like that practised in the Scottish Socialist Party. LU’s commitment to a party of equals provides the fundamental basis for avoiding abuses.
I agree that term limits for leaders is a good idea. The rejection of personality cults is also desirable, but, since it is not founded on a clear programmatic alternative, it will probably collapse if LU is successful enough to get serious media attention. LU’s Heath Robinson constitution will inevitably produce an unaccountable ‘shadow leadership’, because at the end of the day leadership is no more than a means for taking decisions for common action. It is true that the ‘comrade Delta’ case in the Socialist Workers Party was mainly about the SWP’s power structure, but we cannot generalise from this particularly egregious case. Much of what the ‘safe spaces’ document tries to address is merely the normal sexism, etc of capitalist society. There is therefore no reason to suppose that LU’s constitution (whatever you think of it) or the ideological commitment to a party of equals will prevent problems arising from contradictions of class, gender, race, etc.
‘Freedom from harm’
Bev Keenan, one of the comrades involved in the suspension of Laurie McCauley from Manchester LU branchii, says that “the mediation stage of the safe spaces policy is not compulsory”. This may not have been the authors’ intentions, but what they have actually written – taken together with the existing provisions of the constitution – does make it compulsory. If you do not trust my opinion (admittedly that of an academic rather than a practitioner), ask another lawyer; I am confident you will get the same or a similar answer.
She goes on to argue that first-step mediation is common to “most workplace grievance procedures”. No doubt. This is, however, hardly a recommendation. It is not the strength of trade union organisation which has produced first-step mediation rules, here, but the weakness of trade unions and the fact that this mechanism is advantageous for management(and to a lesser extent for trade union full-timers).
Comrade Keenan says, roughly correctly, that “power relations will be present within any social setting” (it is necessary to add: “in class society”). She goes on: “The aim of the safe spaces policy is to address this in LU, by creating equality between members, regardless of their position in the party …” I respond that we can – and should – combat hierarchies and inequalities within the party. But we cannot create equality in our own little space in an unequal society by mere acts of will.
Comrade Keenan’s third point is that I see “Left Unity as a sort of breeding ground … in which members can be toughened up to take on the real world.” My point was more limited: that excessive speech controls in LU could lead to members talking such a different language from their workmates, neighbours, etc as to reduce the ability to interact with these people politically which members had before they were ‘trained’ by LU ‘safe spaces’. (The same problem can, of course, also arise with traditional left ‘Trot-speak’.)
In this particular context, comrade Keenan insists that we can redefine ‘respect’ in such a way as to tear it from its historical roots in ‘honour’ (as in ‘honour killings’). Perhaps. But to do so involves a lot more work than has been done for the ‘safe spaces’ policy.
She goes on to say that “we are used to employing concepts such as safeguarding, privacy, respect, confidentiality, freedom from harm, psychological or physical.” This is question-begging. These are the currently ascendant discourses in sections of the academy, the legal profession, the state bureaucracy and the world of trade union and NGO full-timers. There is no reason to suppose that these discourses are in the slightest sense prefigurative of a better future. “Respect” is the very word at issue. Privacy and confidentiality are no more than private property in information: and this is the foundation of Friedrich Hayek’s critique of socialism, and also of Trafigura’s super-injunctions, and so on.
“Freedom from harm, psychological or physical” is at the very least far too broad. A couple of examples from personal experience: a few weeks ago I slipped on some oil on my kitchen floor, fell over backwards and cut my head open, and had to spend four hours in A&E. Physical harm, but merely a stupid accident. In 1998 my father died, and quite shortly afterwards I got divorced: a very painful experience – psychological harm – but neither anyone’s fault nor something against which I could demand protection.
I take it that what comrades really mean is that we should not hurt each other, either physically or psychologically. But even this is too broad. In relationship breakdowns, for example, people commonly do hurt each other psychologically (often unintentionally). Of course, pro-‘safe spaces’ comrades actually mean something narrower still; but once the concept is narrowed even further, the link to the ‘safe spaces’ idea is lost.
Comrade Keenan’s final point is that “if we properly involve branches and members in the debate, I don’t think that it will necessarily be the same as the one that has been discredited in other organisations” (I take it that she means by “other organisations” the soft Maoists and the women’s movement, etc, groups who wrecked themselves by this method in the 1970s-80s). Again, perhaps. In my opinion, however, to do better we have to get away from the whole method of “speaking bitterness” (in the old Maoist phrase) and ultimatums on the basis of particular oppressions, which is inherent in tying the issues to party disputes/disciplinary procedures and evident in the contributions of comrade Dowling and her other supporters.
Comrade Dowling’s contribution opens with the claim that LU is proud of those who have organised and fought on the several issues of oppression. I agree. I am even mildly proud of my own small contributions as an activist in the LGBT movement between 1971 and 1989 (I am bisexual), such as raising gay liberation in my school in 1971, outing myself as gay on the shop floor of a car factory in 1977, and moving the successful lesbian and gay rights motion to Labour Party conference in 1986. It is precisely because we should be proud of the movements against oppression and discrimination that we should also be willing to be critical of what has gone wrong with them. Nobody suggests that pride in the trade unions – which is right – should immunise the unions from criticism.
The large bulk of comrade Dowling’s contribution consists of repeating evidence of the existence and severity of oppression and discrimination against women and other oppressed groups both in Britain and worldwide. I do not in the slightest doubt any of this evidence. Nor did my first article in any way suggest that any of these inequalities are unimportant.
My point is that the proposed method of addressing these issues of oppression – by mixing them up with party disciplinary/disputes procedures – has been tried and failed, over and over again, and not merely failed, but proved positively destructive.
There are, in fact, some important omissions in comrade Dowling’s list: the oppression of Roma and travellers in this country and Europe, of Shia in Saudi and the Gulf States, of Sunnis in Syria and (under the current regime, as long as it lasts) in Iraq, and so on and on ad nauseam. As with the contradictions between ‘orthodox’ Islamism and feminism, to which comrade Dowling refers, and for the same reason, these oppressions pose issues of contradictions between groups experiencing different oppressions. It is these contradictions, far more than those between ‘white, middle class, straight males’ and the rest, which produced the failure of the ‘liberated zones’ precursors to ‘safe spaces’.
Once we take out the issues of the existence and importance of oppression, and pride in the movements against oppression, what is left in comrade Dowling’s contribution is episodically repeated claims that LU needs a “respect and safety” policy closely analogous to workplace “health and safety” policies; that it needs a “safeguarding policy” in relation to abuse closely analogous to the “safeguarding policies” of local authorities and NGOs in relation to children and vulnerable adults; and that – connected – comrades who suffer from one or another sort of oppression are entitled to claim that the existence of this oppression makes them “unsafe” in LU in a sense closely analogous to children or vulnerable adults placed under the authority of sexual or violent abusers, or of workers employed in unsafe mines, factories or building sites.
These analogies are misconceived. In the first place, as comrade Dowling herself, and comrade Pearson, point out, LU’s constitution is designed (perhaps over-designed) to avoid the SWP-style regime in which ‘Delta’ was his victim’s (senior) line manager. Beyond this context, it is clear that abuse of children and vulnerable adults is primarily facilitated by privacy or confidentiality (in the home, in the children’s home, the residential school, the church). But the draft ‘safe spaces’ policy’s disputes procedure is built around confidentiality and Bev Keenan’s contribution defends it as elementary principle. To defend privacy is to defend unsafe spaces from the point of view of abuse.
Health and safety
Health and safety at work policies have to be understood in their context, which is that of class exploitation. Since the beginning of the industrial age, employers have pressed workers to work faster and work longer hours, under threat of the sack, thereby putting life and limb at risk. In effect, the employers claim the right to expropriate their workers’ arms, legs, eyes, lungs, etc, for the sake of higher profits.
Since around the 1830s, the English legal profession collectively (if not every individual lawyer) and hence the judiciary, have been committed to the idea that the employer has a common-law right to expropriate parts of their employees’ bodies, unless the employer can be proved to be ‘negligent’: and pressure for speed-up and longer hours does not, in this context, count as ‘negligence’. With the Factories Act 1844 the working class, by alliance with old-school, paternalist Tories against the Liberals, got the first public controls on dangerous machinery. The employers and the judiciary fought back with ‘strict construction’ of the laws to reduce their effectiveness. Parliaments episodically responded with new and stricter legislation to get rid of judicially created loopholes.
With the combination of medical advances, and the welfare state after 1945, the interest became an interest of capital as a whole against the individual employer and the bar and judiciary, and Tory as well as Labour governments extended workplace safety laws. The result at present is the baroque elaboration of ‘health and safety at work law’ through statutes (currently the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, as extensively amended), statutory instruments, codes of conduct, and requirements that each workplace have its own health and safety policy. They are all necessary because employers continue to press for speed-up and over-long hours, and judges are too biased on the issue to be trusted with general rules, even if these are in the interest of ‘the taxpayer’, meaning capital as a whole.
Into this context have come, from the 1980s on, both squeezes on welfare and increased unemployment, and ‘the right of management to manage’: that is, to bully and harass workers for speed-up. In this context in turn, the (small) minority of lawyers who work for trade unions and the poor managed, under the Blair government, a small miracle. They persuaded the judges that, where manager bullying and harassment – or manager blind eyes to racist, etc, bullying and harassment – led to an actual psychiatric illness, this was a violation of the employer’s duties under health and safety legislation. Hence the small minority of people who were made seriously ill by workplace bullying could recover damages.
But this small miracle, by its nature, cannot benefit the large majority who are not made seriously ill, but grumble and put up, or engage in forms of passive resistance, or whatever, as a response to their local David Brent. Like other legalistic ‘solutions’, it is a response to the underlying weakness of trade union organisation; but one which by individualising the problem, actually reinforces the weakness of union organisation by separating the ‘deserving’ sick from the ‘undeserving’ healthy.
Left Unity is not an employer (except for any full-timers it may take on) driven to speed-up and lengthening hours by competition in profitability, which therefore needs an elaborate ‘safety policy’. Equally, it is not a local authority with tax-raising powers or a charity NGO with tax-exempt status – both, therefore, with substantial resources – and children or vulnerable adults in its care. It is a small organisation which we can all create and build if we agree to collaborate. Equally, we can all too easily break it up.
The method of ultimatums backed by prominently displayed anger – “speaking bitterness” – is clearly visible in comrade Dowling’s contribution and those of her supporters. It is inherent in tying together the equalities policy with the disputes/disciplinary procedure in the draft ‘safe spaces’ policy. It was unsuccessful and destructive in the movements of the oppressed in the 1970s-80s and it will be unsuccessful and destructive if we try it again in Left Unity.
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