Thinking Your Way Through a Labyrinth of Contemporary Issues
It makes me sad to see the crowds of people in support of “freeing Tommy Robinson”. These people look as if they should be supporting a working class movement or in other words they appear to be working class or from some similar level of class strata. The tragedy is that these people are supporting a now very well-known mouthpiece for a sinister group, who was also known for leading the also sinister Far Right group the English Defence League.
Working class people supporting a group who you could define as Fascists and in the same process actually attacking and damaging the real hopes of working class people. It’s like attacking your own cause, unwittingly. The people wearing “Free Tommy” T shirts seem to be quite emotional about their cause and message but are they fully conscious about the real implications of supporting sinister Fascist groups? At this point it is possible to break out into a discussion about how people in our current Capitalist society are separated from a sense of community and social history, through looking at how governments have managed the process of de-industrialisation (loss of traditional working class jobs) and looking at the breakdown in working class community cohesion with the onset of Free-market capitalism since the 1980s onwards, however I’ll save you the details for now.
What I want to talk about are a few of my life experiences and reflect upon how these have led me from a path where I was young, quite ignorant and actually becoming attracted by fascist messages and groups to a new path where I found clarity and enlightenment on thinking about many complex political issues which people face in modern societies.
In the semi-rural village, just out of the suburbs of a small city where I grew up, I had friends who were almost all un-political or not interested in history whatsoever. I gravitated towards friends which I naturally assumed to be more suited to myself and people that I would mainly define as coming from a working class bracket of some type or other. There were friends who I had who I would say were from a more middle-class bracket as our village had recently become gentrified with new housing developments from the 1980s onward. Anyway I gravitated towards the more working class group of friends and it felt natural. I played a lot of football and became involved with the local Working Men’s club who took me on as a promising young player for the local football team. I got a lot of praise and encouragement from the guys at the club which was great for me as I grew up without my father. I also experienced the other side of being part of this group of what felt like the last stronghold of true working class people in the village. The other side included sad and pathetic men who bullied to gratify some unfilled grievance in their own lives. I suffered regular and sometimes vicious taunts which others did also. The taunting bothered me at the time but not so much these days. I have always been a sensitive person and taken a lot of things to heart (like a bullet wound), bullies do tend to pick up on your sensitivities and make you suffer for it, but that’s life and you learn to deal with things in time.
Growing up in this environment I did notice that there were a few guys who were into the National Front and who had infamously been known to graffiti swastika’s and other sinister symbols around the village, one had even had the audacity to have a big swastika tattooed on his arm and appear at the club, attempting to show it off. From what I remember the guy got his comeuppance when one regular to a disliking to this, followed him to the toilet and gave him “a good pasting”. I remember most of us at the club laughed about this and the general mood appeared to be that this young swastika wielding thug had got what he deserved.
I will now admit that I did around this time hold thoughts which I would consider now to be racist and intolerant. I was heavily into history and watched a lot of WWII documentaries at the time, I would say that I became, not obsessed but fascinated by WWII German Nazi memorabilia. I think I found the symbolism and attire rather attractive and impressive, after-all the Nazi uniforms were designed by Hugo Boss! I quickly became wrapped up in the whole poisonous ‘master race’ idea and began thinking my own way through how certain immigrant populations in the UK should simply not be allowed to live here. I feel ashamed of these opinions looking back but I understand how easy it can be for an influential young man or girl to be caught up in such ideology surrounded by attractive symbols and uniforms. I bought a German Wehrmacht helmet WWII era and even considered having a tattoo of a Waffen-SS deaths head on my arm. Luckily a close friend advised me against this. I now believe that I was able to develop these poisonous thoughts due to being a young, ignorant, lonely individual who was trying to look for a meaning to my life. I think that my rationale might have been that I could think of myself as part of a master race and this would make me feel better about all the other confusing and frustrating elements of my life. I humbly and freely admit that I held these thoughts for a brief period of my teenage years. It is through admitting this that I feel comfortable and in a good position to comment upon what I see as the same thing happening to young people (and old unfortunately) today living in a more extreme political climate (with the onset of Brexit) than I did.
What changed my way of thinking was a few things. My father, although I saw him rarely a lot of the things he said and did highly influenced me, and other members of my family were good role models and gave me good advice over life in general. I remember having a discussion with my father about being annoyed about how many immigrants there appeared to be in the UK. My father made me re-think my whole perspective when he said that I should treat everybody the same, and that it doesn’t matter about how they look. He explained that if somebody is a nice person then it doesn’t matter what they look like or where they are from. It was something along those lines anyway. It struck a chord with me.
I gained more enlightenment when I decided to go study politics in Leeds. I thrust myself into a new environment and put myself out there to meet new people with new perspectives. I became more open minded and was happy that my new friends seemed to like me and were impressed by my personality and sense of humour. The lecturers and the education they provided for me at university were one of the greatest things that happened to me. I felt super absorbent for knowledge (like a sponge) and worked hard on my readings. I put my opinions and views forward in seminars and got a lot back from it. The charisma, knowledge and humility of the lecturers who I learned from was key and really spurred my development of character. I felt I was becoming more confident and living in a way I had never done before. I was taking more risks and having fun. I met my first girlfriend at this time and put a lot of effort into courting at the time. It had its ups and downs but worked out in the end.
Early on at University I sided with the more conservative side of politics and even attended a few events and made friends with Conservative Party society members. Gradually as I moved into second year I completely changed my political mind-set. I began to read more material which explained the reality of life and seemed to fit in with my experience of life. I moved away from ideas which focused on freedom of the individual, strict rule of law and became disillusioned that I didn’t seem to connect with any of the figures in the Conservative society or Party. They appeared richer than me and it almost felt like they were patronising me without even realising. I became more interested in socialist concepts such as “class” and “social inequality”. I learned more, dug deeper for material which seemed to connect with my life experience. I chose to study a module focusing on Marx and became fascinated by his critique of the capitalist system. It appeared to me that Marx had highlighted concepts which really spoke to me and that I could relate to. The concept of Alienation was a particularly interesting topic as I saw how being Alienated was a reality for so many people including myself. I felt alienated in the sense that I could not find jobs or work my way into career paths which seemed to satisfy my needs as a human being. Jobs working in clothes shops, behind counters or in call centres did nothing for my sense of self or pride. I began to read about social inequality and through ground breaking studies such as Wilkinson & Pickett’s The Spirit Level, I was able to understand how class is a high determinant of where people end up in life and how our Anglo –American form of capitalism has produced highly un-equal societies, more so than most others around the world. The ideals of socialism in general to try to form a more equal society seemed to link well- with Wilkinson & Pickett’s study finding that the most un-equal societies (UK & US) tend to face more severe mental and physical health related issues for their inhabitants, yet also suffer more intensely from drug abuse, high imprisonment levels, mistrust, anxiety, issues surrounding materialistic tendencies, high rates of teenage pregnancy, poor child well-being, lack of community life and a lack of social mobility. I had heavily come down upon the nurture side of the nurture vs nature debate. I became confident that the specific material conditions of the life you experienced would heavily determine your perspectives, character and where you end up. I still am confident about this belief.
I had developed a way of understanding the world around me through political science, sociology and understanding history. I felt I had become a man. I had a girlfriend, had met lots of new people who I never would have been exposed to if I had stayed in small-town nowhere. I felt confident in my own skin and the way I saw the world. I understood that there were a lot of big problems going on in the world that need to be tackled. I had begun to understand my own limitations and but also understand and take confidence from the journey I had been on and the experience I had gained from my three years at University.
I think it was Tony Benn who said that you become a socialist through your own life experiences and development of thought and understanding. Well it seems that is the way it happened for me. No doubt I have a lot more experiences and lessons to learn from here onward.
Since all this I have not suppressed my interest in history and politics. I visited Berlin, Auschwitz and Birkenau recently, also stopping at the Schindler Museum in Krakow. Whilst there I was able to reflect upon my own knowledge of history and fill in the gaps by learning from an articulate and passionate Polish Tour guide. More than this, it was the haunting experience of actually visiting a place where such horrendous atrocities were committed that gave me a fuller sense and understanding of history and politics. By visiting these places and understanding what sadistic cruelty occurred under the Nazis, the sight today of Tommy Robinson supporters protesting in London and giving Nazi salutes fills me with sadness but also anger. How can these supposed “patriots” square giving Nazi salutes with English patriotism? It should go without saying that our Grandparents and Great grandparents fought a World War against such intolerant Nazi aggressors. What would our late war heroes think of such protests and the behaviour by Tommy Robinson supporters?
Looking today at the crowds of “Free Tommy” supporters I am dismayed by the growth of following that figures such as he are experiencing, yet I have a level of understanding how all this has come to happen. I understand how people are becoming isolated in their own homes, ordering their online grocery delivery, missing out on vital social interaction where we humans as social animals learn to understand each other and develop understanding and relationships. People are exposed to a mass of social media influences, living in a bubble of associated Facebook and Twitter groups which satiate a misconceived grievance many working class people have about immigration and pump out un-articulate, emotive but factually lacking rants. Many do not have the skills or understanding to analyse what could be Fake news and what clearly isn’t, never mind understand the concept of bias in journalism. It cannot be expected that the average member of the public could be politically educated in such a sense, but ideally they should be to certain extent if we are all going to take part in a democratic society. All this leads me to remember a quote I heard early on in first year of my politics studies: “Tyranny of the majority”. It appears to me that we may suffer from the tyranny of the majority quite often into the future as the masses are just not politically astute, and lack the ability to differentiate between propaganda, Fake news and understand the concept of media bias. There may be ways to educate people in this way and I personally believe that some sort of citizenship, democracy and political education should be part of a child’s curriculum at school at least until 18 years of age.
A growing far right movement across the UK, US, Europe and Russia is saddening and worrying. There may be a lot of true racists out there or sadistic individuals who really do hate others depending on the colour of their skin, their language, culture or where they come from, but I don’t really believe that most of the people who get whipped up and involved with these groups really hold these beliefs. I believe there are a lot of people with legitimate grievances stemming from there place in the structure of the global capitalist system, the position of their class strata in their particular country and the education, fairness and justice they experience. These grievances can be channelled in various different ways and certain opportunistic demagogues can use the power of these grievances and attempt to aim it in a direction which suits their personal political or financial gains. Of course the demagogues I speak of can be skilful, clever and charismatic using all of the former to influence people to their cause. A lot of people are finding such anti-immigrant and nationalistic messages attractive in our current political climate. People scapegoat others for complex and frustrating situations that they find themselves in. For me the crises of the global capitalist system is to blame but also our Governments management and measures in the face of such crises. Extreme politics has always reared its head at times of economic depression and has being doing so in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis. People become more desperate and look to extreme ideas for answers. In modern society we have this happening but also the effect of new social media and the distorting and chaotic effects that Fake news has created amongst democratic elections through influencing opinion, connecting on a mass scale through twitter and Facebook. As I have said, it’s obvious that the masses will be effected by such things as we can’t expect to educate everybody with the skills to astutely analyse media in objective terms, although we can try and should try to do this on a more basic level.
It’s not hard for the politically astute to gather that the arguments and messages of groups such as Britain First and the EDL often appear contradictory and unsophisticated (how exactly do you square English/American patriotism with Swastikas and Nazi salutes)? I believe a lot of these groups would deteriorate and wane if it wasn’t for a more highly sophisticated global system of Far Right appeasers, some appearing to be sanctioned by States, who value using far right groups as a tool by which they can oppress and dampen any so called ‘un-patriotic’ groups or messages which the state deems to damage its hold on power. In simple terms some States see an advantage in allowing Far Right groups as a weapon to smash down any purveyors of messages which are critical of it. We have seen evidence of this recently when it was revealed that one of President Trump’s administration, on a state visit to the UK, was actually lobbying the British Government to release Tommy Robinson. Trump’s tweets in support of Britain First appear as blatant US State support for such Far Right groups. Whether this support is real or more a reflection of Trump’s own personal opinion is unclear, although Trump claimed he was ignorant of what the group actually were all about afterwards.
All these worrying issues aside, my personal reflection of how I changed from being attracted by such Far Right political messages in my teenage years to learning about a wider political and historical context, re-assessing my life and moving in a new direction, hopefully can show how others can change their own way of thinking by staying open-minded and being eager to learn new things. Another aspect of this is the influence of charismatic figures, family members and friends on your life. Whether such influences are positive or negative I believe can have a crucial effect on the way you learn to see the world.