By D. Hunter
In November I sent my book “Chav Solidarity” to the printers, the cheapest one I could find on the internet. I ordered a 100 copies, for a third of my monthly wage, and figured I’d sell 50 copies to some comrades and the other 50 would sit around in the front room of the two-up, two-down Forest Fields terrace I shared with my partner. Six months later, I still have 50 sitting in our new flat in North Merseyside, but now 750 copies have been sold. I’ve visited a dozen cities to do readings on the book, and had folks from Santiago, Wellington, Dallas, Moscow and Sofia order the book. In the world of books I imagine this is very small fry; in the world of me, this is fucking ridiculous.
The book is a collection of essays, most of which I began writing whilst working night shifts in a care home for folks with long-term psychiatric diagnosis. They were/are a response to the shitty attitudes and behaviours I’d seen all over the Left in my decade plus of activism and political organising; attitudes about and behaviours towards the communities of people I had come from, and still feel deep kinship with. Communities of economically marginalised people who have constantly been subject to the sharpest edge of the policies and practices of the British State and Capital. The essays focus primarily on the so-called British underclass over the last 40 years, during which I lived as mental health support-worker, child sex-worker, anti-capitalist activist, crack addict, youth worker, writer, and thief. They aim to highlight the mutual aid, solidarity and self-defence that occurs on a daily basis in these communities, but to which the left I have worked within is largely disinterested and ignorant of, unless it is able to use them as symbols to bolster their arguments.
Most mornings I get myself a cup of coffee, and sit at my laptop readings the news, scrolling through social media feeds, checking my emails. And each morning brings different news stories, think-pieces and memes announcing the suffering caused by austerity, capitalism, neoliberalism, Brexit (delete as appropriate). Reading through stories of men and women freezing to death on the streets, consumed by addiction, having their benefits sanctioned and being left to starve, the rise in child poverty, the rise in prison deaths – essentially, the rise in state-sanctioned murder. I read these “news stories” and I am reminded of the first 25 years of my life. Often the headlines are sympathetic, dripping in tragedy and pathos. Criticisms of social inequalities and the policy decisions that create them are made. Occasionally the dead are named, maybe a previous occupation might be mentioned, a home-town and its collapsed industry, its deprivation statistics stated, an attempt to humanise and contextualise what has occurred; the rise of food banks, benefit sanctions, child poverty, the effects of privatisation and public sector cuts, and the always-increasing levels of inequality – there is genuine suffering and a body count to go with it. But these news stories, think-pieces and memes leave a bitter taste in my mouth.
It’s not that they’re wrong, it’s not that I disagree with the sentiment: there is a systemic attack on poor and working class people both nationally and globally. It’s been going on for a while now. Journalists, commentators and activists would be cretins for not connecting the dots between the government, economic policy and the suffering occurring up and down the country. Likewise, NGOs and charities that focus on issues around mental health, homelessness, child poverty, the prison industrial complex, deaths in custody, unemployment, housing, institutional racism and domestic violence, would be fools to not make these connections. What is leaving a bitter taste in my mouth is the passivity that is attributed to those at the sharp end of austerity and neoliberalism.
For the first 25 years of my life I lived in what this nation-state would consider poverty, primarily surviving through the informal economy. My family and the community around it, fully comprehending the contempt/disinterest with which the state held it, found a variety of ways to provide food and shelter for themselves and those closest to them. From stealing live stock for dinner to selling stolen Reeboks in pub gardens. During the decade I lived on the streets, I experienced collective responses to deprivation, examples of mutual aid, solidarity and co-operation that in the last 15 years of living as respectable citizen I have seen no equal to.
Friends I had whilst on the street would share their quids, their food, their drink and their drugs, with others. Whatever they had they shared. When they found a new source of income they’d share it. An unlocked door to an abandoned house, a closed-down shop that had left some stock behind, a sizeable score from robbing a lorry at a service station: they weren’t opportunities to hoard and capitalise upon for solely personal gain, they were moments to revel in community, to take care of those you knew and were in the same boat as you.
As a sex-worker in my adolescence, I avoided physical assault and arrests because of the other young people I worked alongside. We kept track of who was going off with who, how long one another had been gone, where each of us was going to sleep that night, and ensured we all got home safely at the end of the night.
The boys I knew inside young offenders’ institutes were able to show compassion, mutual aid and self-defence when they could. If someone was being bullied by a guard, they were willing and able to respond collectively, and put the needs of the individual first. They didn’t decide what needed to be done about it, but offered assistance based upon what the individual said was needed.
In the communities I come from, where social marginalisation and economic poverty are high, resistance is not just something you organise for because you see injustice, it is woven into the fabric of everyday survival. Despite the patronising and paternalistic behaviour of the organised Left, ideas of what to do in response to attacks on the poor by governments and the economic system are not in short supply in poor and working class communities. What is in short supply are resources, time and energy.
All of this does not negate the social, cultural and political violence that is inflicted upon individuals in these margins. The generational trauma is real, and it leaves scars that may not heal; often it turns us against each other, as we are encouraged to trample on one another to get ours. Though the infection of a neo-liberal mindset does exist in the poorest of communities in the UK, that’s not all there is – but it does appear to be the only narrative that is acceptable within the dominant discourses. The battle of discourses that view the poor as either violent, feckless cretins or passive victims is a battle carried out by two groups who have class privilege, and no respect for those they are speaking about. When journalists, commentators, talking heads and activists present the economically marginalised as passively accepting their fates as victims, they are denying them their humanity in order to score political points.
When talking about the atomisation of the working class and the individualisation of society, the left would do well to note that whilst this has occurred within economically marginalised communities, it is the organised Left and the respectable classes – both working and middle – who are the most separated from one another. Whether it’s the Left’s in-fighting over approaches and methods, complaints of burnout, and dogmatic adherence to ideologies that increase disappointment and isolation, or the professionals whose economic status is more secure, but who tightly grip their economic security not as a community but as individuals. The organised Left and its figureheads need to learn from the resistance practices carried out by those they usually only engage with symbolically. And learn they must, if they are to play a role in moving towards the liberation of the working class from the capitalist class and it’s state infrastructure.
D. Hunter is the author of Chav Solidarity.