Anarchism, despite being a rich historical tradition with theorists and thinkers from all over the world, and which has influenced a great many social movements, is unfairly maligned at times. Some pigeon hole it as an anachronism, based on the worship of a prelapsarian past; a mindset of the small-society and essentially obsolete today. Others malign it as overtly and centrally European, unequipped to deal with the struggles faced by people of colour and colonised peoples today who may demand a nationalism of their own for the sake of safety. Beyond this, some – often of the more traditionally Marxist stripe – tend to label it utopian and divorced from material change: too busy focused on what could be to deal with what is.
Given that these criticisms are some of the most common that anarchists, and Anarchism more broadly, face, there is always a concern when a book with a historical angle crosses the desk, and has a focus on the thinkers of the past. While it is unquestionably valuable for a modern movement to be aware of the thoughts and struggles of those who came before, is this not just re-affirming some of those critiques above to centralise them in a book of this kind? The pivotal issue of a work such as Ruth Kinna and Clifford Harper’s new Great Anarchists is whether it manages to avoid the trappings of simply repeating and glorifying those of the past, becoming a project of immediacy and relevance, or whether it becomes mired in celebrating long dead men.
Immediately the question is answered: in the introduction, they establish the important principal that, ‘although these contexts were special, many of the issues the anarchists wrestled with still plague our lives’, and that the purpose of the investigations in the book are ‘not just interesting archaeological exercises’, but instead opportunities to examine how classical anarchists thinkers influenced modern movements and offer insight into lessons that apply to modern living. From the very beginning, the project is set up with a powerful motivation towards a useful and ultimately successful goal.
Originally published as a series of pamphlets, Great Anarchists serves as a crash course through individual prominent anarchists and thinkers of influence to the anarchist movement, and to this extent each segment is dedicated to a single individual. Further, Clifford Harper’s beautiful illustrations begin each segment, showing an artful and striking portrait of the subject. The heavy, stark lines and strongly textured designs draw on images of classical woodcuts but without the clutter that can often confuse and bury less expert attempts at the style, and compliment the book in a unique manner. Addition of art such as this breaks up the text, and transforms Great Anarchists from a piece of raw educational material into a singular project, a kind of didactic art-book, fusing the theory with an aesthetic quality that calls to mind the aesthetic and joyful narratives implicit in so much of anarchist thinking.
Comprised of ten miniature biographies of thinkers associated with anarchism, one of the strengths of the project lies in the selections themselves. It would be tempting to approach a project such as this with the desire to nail down all of the ‘canonical’ thinkers, and it is precisely this temptation that Kinna and Harper avoid. While prominent names such as Kropotkin certainly appear, and it can be somewhat disconcerting to see a list of ‘great’ anarchists that doesn’t include Emma Goldman, the choice to include early pre-anarchist figures such as William Godwin, mavericks such as Max Stirner, and those with legacies which have been largely depoliticised by history and education such as Oscar Wilde, allows an image of anarchism to be built more broadly. Further, it implies a vital piece of information: anarchism is somewhat unique among ideological traditions in that while it invariably draws from thinkers in the past, there is no name-giving origin point or presumed ‘central’ figure of authority. Anarchism can be found in any number of places, drawn out from any number of thinkers, and there are more of them around than you might think.
Kinna’s clear and concise style provides a great sense of ease to the reading. Never difficult, there is an almost conversational tone to much of the writing which can allow a reader to almost miss exactly how much information is being presented. Further, and perhaps most importantly to avoid the curse of hagiography, Kinna is never afraid to present critiques of the figures contained in the book: whether it is highlighting Kropotkin’s infamous views on the First World War, Bakunin’s anti-Semitism, or the long-standing tension between Stirner and much of the general anarchist movement, there is always room for nuance in Great Anarchists, and it is precisely this care that avoids the book sliding into myth-making.
All of this is extremely positive, however, that does not mean that Great Anarchists is without some degree of concern. To begin with, there is the first and obvious issue of the selection covered. While it is absolutely true that, shy of writing a tome thousands of pages long, Kinna and Harper would always be forced to make decisions to exclude certain thinkers in a project of this kind, the choice of who to include is worth examining. Inclusions of Oscar Wilde and William Godwin are certainly appreciated, and as mentioned earlier, open up the world of anarchism more broadly than simply focusing on the anarchist ‘canon’ might have, however the limitations of the figures selected do seem evident: other than Lucy Parsons, every figure discussed in the text is white, and with no exception at all, every figure is either of European or North American origin. Given the generally European flavour of most early anarchist theory, it is difficult to critique Kinna and Harper themselves for this issue, but in a text in which they are willing to include figures who pre-date the anarchist movement (as typically thought of) itself, it seems slightly strange that no figures from Asian, African, or South American anarchism are discussed.
It must be emphasised that this is not a damning criticism, and does nothing to impact the valuable nature of the work that is included in Great Anarchists, nor is it intended to downplay the significance of any thinker who has been included. Instead, it simply must be stated that the anarchist movement is broad and multifaceted one, and it might have been nice to see an inclusion of a figure such as Itō Noe (to give but a single example) in order to reflect that and also to combat the idea of anarchism as being a Eurocentric concept.
Further, there is a single note worth making, which is that while the downsides of various thinkers as individuals is a subject of discussion – anti-Semitism, or personal views on war, as mentioned earlier – there is fairly little critique of their thought itself in the broader sense. As Great Anarchists is more of an introduction to thinkers on their own terms than a text of theory in its own right, this is not truly an issue in my view. However, it is easy to imagine an anarchist coming from an anti-civilisational or primitivist perspective taking issue with the discussion of Louise Michel’s support for scientific and technological advancement in an uncritical tone – addressing only potential ‘deeply unscientific practices’ – as if these views were in a state of firm consensus amongst the anarchist community in general.
Neither of these downsides counteract or deny the useful and overall very fun nature of Great Anarchists, which manages to achieve its stated goal of balancing historical education with an emphasis on shared struggle with the present almost effortlessly, and is an enjoyable read.
The question for someone new to the world of radical leftist thought – particularly anarchist thought – is often where to start learning. It can be incredibly difficult without any particular guide to know where to begin, both in terms of which thinkers one should approach first, but also the texts they wrote and which ones should be considered the most urgent to read. Perhaps the most commonly suggested classical anarchist work among modern radicals is Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread, and while still a fantastic work filled with powerful explanation and convincing argument, there is some truth to the claim that the style can be challenging for people with little background in reading older texts. By contrast, many of the attempts that have been made to write modern groundings and introductions to the radical movements of anarchism take an altogether different route and, while they do provide an overview of common perspectives, it is fairly normal for them to avoid delving too deeply into the history of anarchism. Preferring to give modern day examples, and discuss modern day events, this strategy can be very useful but for a number of new readers it can be frustrating: where did these ideas come from, the question is asked?
Kinna and Harper’s new collection strikes a delicate but vital balance between the two approaches. Maintaining constant connections with the movements and struggles of revolutionary groups and radical thinkers of today, they draw a line directly between historical writers and activists without entangling themselves too deeply in what might be intimidating theory for the newcomer; their language is clean and concise, and they refrain from approaching the topic with the assumption that any given reader will already know what they seek to discuss. Given this mixture of the present with the past, as well as the brilliant use of illustrations throughout the book, Great Anarchists takes a centre stage as one of the most useful and beautiful introductions to the history and, more importantly, the present of radical thought. While not without potential nitpicks, the next time you are pressed to show a curious individual something to get them tumbling into the radical movement, Great Anarchists should be near the top of the suggestions. ■
Jay is an anarchist, poet, amateur philosopher, and basketball fan. He did his degree in English at the University of Lincoln, and is a fan of animals, good coffee, and horror movies. You can find him on Twitter @JayFraser1, or trying to find his face mask for the millionth time.
Great Anarchists by Ruth Kinna and Clifford Harper is available now from Dog Section Press for £6. Visit www.dogsection.org/press to buy, and read online.
Ruth Kinna is a professor of Political Theory at Loughborough University, and is currently the editor of Anarchist Studies. Clifford Harper is a radical illustrator, whose work can be found in a number of radical publications.
Carne Ross’ The Leaderless Revolution is refreshing because of its atypical perspective. Contemporary anarchist literature is often written by academics who have studied political theory, or by working class people, who have struggled in a Neo-liberal capitalist society, and understand the need for change. Ross is neither of these; a former British diplomat, he was a lead official at Britain's mission at the United Nations in New York dealing with Iraq. He was responsible for the policy on weapons of mass destruction and the pre-war sanctions. Ross states that Britain and their allies knew that Saddam Hussein did not possess significant WMD. Therefore, the sanctions and the subsequent invasion of Iraq were unjustified, and led to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary civilian deaths. Rather than critiquing the establishment, their systems and institutions from the outside, Ross has been enmeshed in the inner workings of the machine, and has decided it is broken.
This book is for those new to anarchism as a political theory, but who are dissatisfied with the state of the world, and yearn for something better. Many veteran anarchists’ first reaction to Carne Ross might be one of distrust - he was part of the establishment, he wears a suit, looks like a civil servant, and is still involved in international diplomacy, albeit advocating independently for marginalised groups. However, the fact that he is a non-conventional anarchist, might be Ross’ greatest strength. Brexit and Trump were arguably a result of people’s dissatisfaction with current systems, and a desire for radical change. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion have engaged a wide range of people not normally involved in radical politics. This seems a potentially fertile time for enlisting people to anarchism, and many might be more easily recruited to the cause by a well-spoken, respectable former diplomat, than a dreadlocked crusty with a black bandana over their face. Ross’ experience and former position afford him an air of respectability and legitimacy that may make his messages more palatable for many people.
Ross eschews established examples of anarchism in action, such as the Paris Commune or Spanish Civil War, instead presenting more contemporary examples, such as the autonomous region of Rojava in North-eastern Syria, participatory democracy at the municipal level in Porto Allege, Brazil, or even communities’ abilities to respond to their own needs following emergency situations more effectively than the authorities and institutions entrusted to do so, as witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or the Grenfell Tower fire.
Where Ross’ vision of an egalitarian society differs from many anarchists is his commitment to non-violence, and his suggestion of a gradual transition to an anarchist society, rather than through revolution. The belief that large worker-owned co-operative institutions could be built within a capitalist state, and that they would be so appealing, and productive, that the existing capitalist alternatives would simply wither away, demonstrates a naivety on Ross’ part. This book is a gateway drug, which will hopefully lead people to seek out stronger substances in the future. ■
I'm not sure I could name a revolution that hasn't been a focal point for artists, musicians and creatives. The struggle to build a better world and fighting great evils that seek to control us and grind us down is pretty much is a most powerful muse that has inspired great works and idle doodles through-out history. It is a heritage and character we celebrate in almost every aspect of our lives. I think Emma Goldman said it best in Living My Life (1931) when she talks about enjoying some music and someone tells her “it did not behoove an agitator to dance”, enraged she reflects;
“I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. "I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things." Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal. “
So let's take a moment to celebrate some art!
Meet the work of Chris Bird
“ I create speaks about the confusing and beautiful energy of city life and my own struggle against mental health issues. My art stands squarely on the side of the marginalized and poor. I hope that the images inspire people to go on and create their own art and find their own voice. I really value this opportunity to share my art and I particularly hope to reach out to those people who face social marginalization. I drew many of the images while a day patient at the Jules Thorn Acute Unit in Kings X as well as at Portugal Prints’ studio, Arlington House, Camden Town... I don’t believe in art as a removed or lofty exercise. I often listen to music when I draw and I have been influenced by bands such as CRASS, Psychic TV, Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire and X Ray Spex.”
I think it's quite wonderful and powerful. It's a raw and powerful take on our collective struggles in this urban delirium. I'm not the only either, he's had exhibitions at Camden Mind, The Marx Memorial Library, Freedom Bookshop and you'll find his artwork in various punk zines and the likes of The Big Issue. In conjunction with Tom Mallander at ‘Write London’ he has also produced a paperback collection of short stories and drawings called, “From Wapping and West Ham to Istanbul and Back Again” (2018)
His next exhibition will be as part of “LONDONS LIGHT AND DARK” which is being held at The Conference Centre at St Pancras Hospital, opening night being Thursday 2 May 2019 from 5.30pm and the exhibition being up until the 28th of June. The event is a collaboration of the NHS's The Arts Project and Mind's Portugal Prints and will feature artists both trained and self-taught, interpreting the title and theme of the exhibition, London’s Light and Dark by sharing their personal feelings and experience of London through creative expression. London’s architecture, signage, and cultural heritage are subject matters for the artworks along with portraiture of the human face, offering expressions of mood, both positive and negative. The exhibition delves beneath the surface of what it means for all of us living in the metropolis of one of the world’s great cities.
Which is the artsy way of saying the shows going to be tidy and you might want to pop along and experience London through the eyes of it's artists! In the mean time you can have a gander at more of Chris Bird's work on Outside In a website dedicated toproviding a platform for artists who face barriers to the art world and over on his Facebook.
Are you a comrade artist, poet or musician? Email us at [email protected] and let us share your work and celebrate the beautiful creatives in our community.
A Poem by The Uptown Portrayer
The overworked and underpaid,
Have zero hours, treated like slaves,
Money for the 1%, low wage causes resent,
The workers’ rights have been removed,
No compassion very cruel,
It is the Tory way,
No money for people to spend,
So this country cannot mend,
No hope for the unemployed,
Ambition is destroyed,
Neglect is there for all to see,
Bringing the country to its knees,
It is aimed at you and me,
Because there is no work to do,
Become a MOD recruit,
Forced to go into a fight,
Participate in greed and hate,
We know the right wing love a war,
You wonder who the terrorists are,
Surely there’s a better way than,
Between you and me they drive a wedge,
The country’s living on the edge,
Social housing in decay,
Essential funds taken away,
Cost of living through the roof,
Only goes to prove,
A right wing philosophy is,
The NHS is on the floor,
People die in corridors,
Badly run soon privately own,
Everything is upside down,
More homeless people on our streets,
In the doorways, at our feet,
In a so called democracy,
We’ve social depravity.
They won’t just go and let us be,
What we do has to be screened,
To keep us all under control,
Our movements are patrolled,
Their paranoid of what we’ll do,
What repercussions might ensue?
Is this the way that we should be!
Social depravity. ■
Swansea based Punk Poet The Uptown Portrayer was established in 2017, and has been gigging hard ever since at Ska and Punk Festivals and supporting benefit gigs.
You can find him on Facebook.
Renouned for delivering an honest brand of poetry that resonates, and tackling subjects such as inequality, social issues and racism head on. The Uptown Portrayer Punk Poet also highlights the struggles of music venues, and displays a passion for live music, whilst also showing a compassionate side with originals based around friendships and compassion for others. Having recently recorded a verse from the poem "No Robot" with South Wales punk band Tenplusone on their latest album.
The Decolonial Atlas is a volunteer-run project lead by Jordan Engel which is building an ever growing collection of maps which, in some way, help us to challenge our relationships with the land, people, and state. It’s based on the premise that cartography is not as objective as we’re made to believe. The orientation of a map, its projection, the presence of political borders, which features are included or excluded, and the language used to label a map are all subject to the map-maker’s bias – whether deliberate or not.
Thank you for the time, why don't we get started with a little about how you got started with The Decolonial Atlas? What was the original impetus and why do you feel that such maps are so needed? What are the aims of the project?
Cartography is beautiful science and art form that can help us to better understand the world and our place in it. The problem is that most of the maps we use today reinforce an understanding of the world that is flawed. They do this in many ways, from the projections they use, to imposing to place names of the colonizers, to the inclusion of political borders. Borders do not really exist outside our imaginations, but they have been ingrained so deeply into our mental geographies that they seem real. A recent analysis revealed that most international borders are actually less than a century old. A world free from states becomes easier to envision when our maps don't include borders.
They say that 'history is written by the victors.' Well, maps are made by the colonizers. The Decolonial Atlas was started in response to that, to amplify indigenous geographic perspectives and challenge the monopoly that colonial maps have on our consciousness. The world has much to learn from these indigenous perspectives, but even more importantly, indigenous cartography contributes to the overall perpetuation of indigenous cultures which have for so long been suppressed. Knowledge of the land, passed down through generations, is preserved in indigenous place names. Documenting those names now is of the utmost importance, so that when the elders pass, those names are not forgotten forever.
Indigenous toponyms are important reflections of the cultures and places they represent. Compared to colonial toponyms which are often named for important settlers or are transplanted names from their homelands, indigenous names are much more deeply rooted in the local history and geography of that particular place. Documenting these names serves to support ongoing language revitalization efforts, acknowledge unextinguished indigenous land tenure, and help native and non-native people alike to better understand indigenous history, the legacy of colonization, and our relationship with the land.
You mentioned that one of the key issues with the maps in common usage is the projections themselves? Could you tell us a little more about this, why is came about and why it is we are using maps which continue to be problematic? Is there a preferred map?
The issue of projections in cartography comes down to equal representation. So many of the maps we use diminish the relative size of the Global South, while allowing for a greater level of detail in Europe and North America. The most egregious projection that we are all familiar with is the Mercator, a 450-year-old relic that famously makes Greenland appear larger than the entire continent of Africa. Obviously, because the Earth is spherical, there's no perfect way to represent it on a flat surface, but there are many great equal-area projections which are certainly preferable to the Mercator. Some of my favorites are the Eckert IV projection, and the similar Equal Earth projection, which was just invented in 2018.
What is the scale of loss of indigenous toponyms? How much have native communities lost?
The scale of loss varies from tribe to tribe. Eastern nations, which were colonized the earliest, often suffered a huge loss of their cultural heritage. Many of the names on our maps are from the precolonial era, while others are not quite as old. In some cases where the indigenous name for a place has been forgotten or suppressed, contemporary indigenous communities have endeavored to reconstruct a place name based on their cultural relationship with that location. Because indigenous cultures and languages are living and dynamic, none of these names are any less "authentic" than others. Still, I was once talking to DeLesslin George-Warren from the Catawba Indian Nation who brought up a great point when we were discussing indigenous toponymy - "The fact is that we've lost so much in terms of our language and place names. It might be more honest to recognize that loss in the map instead of giving the false notion that the place name still exists for us."
How do you feel about the argument that English toponyms can be set alongside indigenous toponyms? Such as found here in the UK where Welsh/English, Gaelic/English sit side by side, Is this enough?
It's a question for each indigenous community to answer what reconciliation means and looks like to them. Personally, I think there are so many instances in North America where the colonial place names blatantly dishonor indigenous communities, that I don't think dual-naming would suffice. The significance of place names is mostly symbolic, and too often, the names that dot this landscape are symbolic memorials to the white supremacist perpetrators of genocide and slavery. There is no equivalent for that in Great Britain.
What is the main difference between modern state borders and those of indigenous communities? Do they not present similar issues?
The Decolonial Atlas has become a platform for people to share ideas about decolonization. Someone commented recently that the concept of 'tribal territories' is widely misunderstood. Most American Indian nations did not have clearly defined borders as we think of today, and the concept of land ownership itself seemed absurd to many. I'd also direct people to a recent article which explores this topic titled Settler Anarchists Should Tread Lightly Around Indigenous Nationalism..
Is there a particular focus to your work at the moment?
Since 2014, we've been researching and consulting with indigenous elders and language keepers across North America to create a decolonized modern map of the continent. The main feature of this map are the indigenous toponyms (place names) for major landmarks such as cities, mountains, and historical sites. We've worked with more than 100 indigenous communities so far to accurately represent their languages and perspectives on the map.
How can Anarchist communities best practice respect for indigenous names? Is there not an issue of appropriation?
At the beginning many public events, it's becoming more common for there to be a territory acknowledgement, recognizing that these events are taking place on the stolen land of a particular tribe. When possible, we recommend also acknowledging the indigenous name of where the event is taking place. Place names are the intellectual and cultural property of the native people, and as such, we advise seeking permission from those communities and language keepers beforehand.
What are the long-term goals/ road map of The Decolonial Atlas?
We strive to accomplish many goals with the Atlas, including:
- Documenting indigenous knowledge of the land to ensure it's not forgotten
- Fostering a better understanding of indigenous history and the legacy of colonization
- Supporting indigenous peoples' reclamation of culture, language, and connection with the land
- Promoting indigenous pride in seeing accurate cultural representation
- Combating widespread misinformation about indigenous toponymy and
- Acknowledging unextinguished indigenous land tenure. ■
Jordan Engel, who kindly gave us this short interview is a mapmaker and researcher originally from Ga’sgöhsagöh in Onödowá’ga:’ territory. He founded the Decolonial Atlas in 2014.
When people say chav, they mean only one thing.
They'll have different definitions, but they'll mean the same thing.
They'll mean scum, they'll mean those not educated in the right way, they'll mean “keep away from my family”, they'll mean criminal, and they'll mean you are worthless and it's your own fucking fault. The first time I heard the word was when I was called a chavvy twat by a pig who'd arrested me for going equipped to rob. I didn't follow the press in those days so I didn't know how regularly the word was being used in the mid 90's, but eventually the idea trickled down and I understood what they meant. They meant you're not good enough, you have none of the qualities we're looking for in a human being, you're a disgrace, you're a violent thug, you're lazy and stupid.
Chav was a shorthand way of dehumanising a large group of people who responded with indifference towards those who had benefited from their dispossession. There are worse things to be called then a chav for sure. The thing about being called a chav is that it's shorthand. Before, people had a tendency just to call you violent, lazy, stupid and criminal, which, if said to you every day by teachers, social workers, pigs and other state administrators, has a far more violent effect on your psyche. Being called a chav, well that was alright, because you could reclaim it. If me and my friends were being called chavs then that shows we're together, we're a family, we have a fucking bond.
I'm 37 pushing 50 now, and it's been a long time since anyone called me a chav as a way of stripping me of my humanity. To those around me I imagine I'm more like a librarian who shops at JD, and that's fine, but I still identify with the chav name. I take it as my duty to have an eye for the latest generation of young people who are labelled in such away. It's a class thing – you get called a chav and you're being told you're not working class, you're beneath that, and you'll never escape it; you are the underclass for ever and for always. Many of the essays that I've included in this book try to highlight the humanity of the underclass/chav communities, the things that have to be done within them to survive and thrive, and how neither pity nor disgust are relevant responses to those communities' experiences. Most of all I've tried to emphasise the values of solidarity, mutual aid and self-defence that exist within those communities. I'm gonna talk about a few more examples of this just to get ya in the right frame of mind for all of this.
I spent several years in various young offenders institutes before I was 17. These were cages where I experienced incredible loneliness and desperation, where so much of my anger that had built up during my life flared up on a daily basis, and I spent my days with dozens of other boys of a similar age who felt a similar way. During one 6 month sentence in a Y.O.I. in Derbyshire, I lived alongside twenty-something other boys. I was 14 and one of the youngest and smallest of the prisoners. I walked around like a lit fuse just waiting to kick off, but knew no one. My only visitor a social worker, who came to tell me how and why I was there, and what I had to do to avoid coming back. Inside there were small groups of other boys who, based on experiences outside, towns they were from or the colour of their skin, stuck to each other like glue. The groups constantly fought amongst each other, and battled for supremacy over each other. Whilst some of us were on shorter sentences, others knew that they were only biding time before they got starred up, and were willing to take more risks in order to either establish their dominance over the other inmates or to build their reputation inside and outside of the prison. One of the oldest boys, who knew he wasn't getting out until he was at least 21, was particularly determined to achieve these two goals. He had built some credibility because of his connections on the outside and his ability to bring in supplies, including trainers, gameboys and booze, which he sold onto other inmates. In order to get these inside he or someone on the outside was paying at least one of the guards a decent amount of money. This boy was universally reviled on the quiet, to his face the other boys showed him respect and some faked fear in order to curry favour with him.
Towards the end of the summer (which had seemed particularly hot, and was always the worst season to be locked up for obvious reasons) I had begun to develop a tenser than usual relationship with one of the screws. He had demanded pleases and thank you's for unlocking my door in the morning and locking it at night, pleasantries which at best I spat out. This had gone on for a bit until I'd told him to fuck off and he'd given me a swift punch to the gut that had me doubled over and spitting blood. A day later I tripped him up near the stairwell, and he'd very nearly gone tumbling down the stairs. I'd been severely sanctioned for this, and been forced to clean the toilets with a toothbrush everyday for a week. Each day as I cleaned the toilets he would come in and piss into the bowl I was cleaning, spraying onto my hands and face. My planned retaliation meant I had to get my hands on some sharp metal, and having been banned from both the kitchen and woodwork room for various other offences, I felt that my only alternative was to ask the older boy with the connections on the outside.
Our only interactions had been the occasional game of pool, so I assumed approaching him and soliciting his help would be difficult. He would be aware that I would be unable to afford to pay for anything with money, and I was aware that even approaching him without money might lead to him and his friends kicking the shit out of me. But during lunch I saw him alone staring out the window and went over to ask him. He stared at me, laughed, and told me that I'd taken my fucking time. The next day, me, him, and three of his friends ambushed the screw, pinned him down and beat the crap out of him and whilst he screamed for help the other boys all body-checked, tripped and grappled with the other screws who tried to go to his aid. It took them about 20 minutes to restore their order, but by that point my knuckles were bloody from hitting the screw so hard, and his face was going purple. It turned out everybody had seen how the guard had been fucking with me, and some of the older boys had already talked about intervening, but the general consensus had been that I had to step up first; I had to reach out and ask for the back up I needed before anything else got done.
None of my mother's family had “jobs”, most of them worked, but it was not in their mentality to go around factories, shops and bars asking if any jobs were going, it was not in their mentality, either, to go to the job centre. My grandfather's belief was that in no circumstances would he take handouts from the country that had done so much damage to his own. I bring this up not as an indictment of those who do take state benefits, but as an indication of the man's belief system and the culture he instilled in his family. We were told to work for ourselves – no bosses, no state. We would ensure that food was on our plates and roofs were over our head in our own way. This own way included hijacking lorries along the M62, killing and stealing livestock in the large industrial farms around Lancashire and Yorkshire, organising bareknuckle boxing and dog fights, and a host of other things.
Those identified as males in the family were expected to help out, as were those who, like my dad, fucked their way into the family. As a seven year old I was shown how to be a lookout during a robbery, and not long after, my cousins taught me how to steal a car. All of the rewards for this were collectivised, except that my grandfather took as much as he wanted. Everyone else got according to their need, not their ability. One of my uncles was fiercely respected for the amount of money he brought into our family, but he lived in a one bedroom flat which was furnished with a mattress, TV and nothing else. I only have a thin recollection of the flat but I'm not convinced it had a bathroom. This was acknowledged, but never challenged, it was raised by others as an example of how we all should be. Just because you can make a lot of money doesn't mean you need a lot of money. I'm sure my uncle had enough to drink and feed himself, but in comparison to some of his siblings he lived a frugal life. The money went to uncles and aunts with children instead, so that those kids wouldn't go short. One of my grandmother's brothers was placed into what everyone called a “top special place for spastics” because his physical and mental needs were such that the family could not cope, but they would not see him suffer inside anything cheap and nasty.
There were discrepancies to all of this. My grandfather took whatever he wanted from the collective pot, and I'm sure he would say, that as the responsibility for everyone else was with him, it was only right. He was also a violent and abusive man, who let outsiders abuse and violate his family if it suited him, but the culture of collectivisation he instilled was still real to the rest of us. If one of my cousins was given something, they would share it without a second thought. Nothing was saved for later; nothing was personal property. With my mother unable to take care of me and my sisters, we were viewed as temporary orphans who slept in the master's house. My grandfather did not need to take direct responsibility for us; his culture meant that every other family member who was able took responsibility for our food, clothing and general well-being.
Living in Radford in the early 90's wasn't always the easiest. The state had been on a mission to destroy communities like ours, poverty was high and there were a lot of angry people but there were still many moments in which neighbours stood together. We found ways to make it clear that, if we were gonna be fucked with, we would not provide the lubricant. One typical incident involves a couple of friends of mine, a brother and sister who were 12 and 13 years old. They lived with their aunt and her boyfriend who had severe drug and alcohol problems (I know because a few years later I would become their dealer). Their uncle and aunt were not in a position to pay much attention to my friends, and just as I don't judge my own mother for being unable to do this, I don't judge them. So the brother and sister spent most of their days doing what they wanted, going to school if they wanted an easy hot meal, or not going to school if they wanted to nick someone's wallet and go get a Happy Meal. My life was pretty similar, but unlike myself, these two were placid and gentle. They didn't get into fights and they didn't scream at adults who looked at them funny. I doubt they ever smashed a window of a shop the day after they'd been caught stealing from it. The brother even went to church every Sunday on his own. He said it was the most peaceful place in the world. I'd see them most days, and at least once a week we'd spend large portions of the day together. They had other friends and I had other friends so we weren't inseparable or anything like that. But we lived real close, and were bonded because of that.
One day they both came running over to where I was at the corner of Bentinck and Peveril, drinking with a couple of sex workers on their lunch break and a big dude called Malcolm, who I was tight with, on and off, for several years. The brother was screaming, panic all across his face, and his sister was clutching his arm tight, telling him that they had to go back home. He explained that they'd got to the hallway outside of their flat and saw that outside their house were three men with baseball bats and crowbars. They'd bolted looking for help. Malcolm didn't think, just started running to the flats, with those on their lunch break and us three kids trailing behind him. I haven't a fucking clue what was going through my head, other than I'm gonna have a fight. We ran to the tower block, up the five flights of stares, down the hallway and into the flat which now had the door hanging off it's hinges. I was a few paces behind Malcolm and the brother, but when I got in, the uncle had blood pouring from his head and the aunt was screaming in the corner, as one man with a baseball bat pinned her to the wall. Malcolm had another man pinned to the floor and the brother appeared to be shadow boxing as another man swung his baseball bat at him. There was a lot of screaming, but not a lot of sense being made. The two sex workers ran at the man pinning the aunt to the wall, the first got hit so hard around the mouth that a tooth flew out, but the second ran her head into his chest. I followed up leaping onto his head and pummelling him to the ground, at which point we both started kicking him in the head and balls. The uncle had at this point pulled himself up off the floor and joined his nephew in going at the third man. Malcolm had apparently got bored of sitting on his man and decided to pick him up and carry him outside, not via the door but via the window. He held him over the edge and shouted out for everyone to pay attention. Everyone kinda did. Malcolm let it be known that if the men didn't leave now he would drop their friend to the ground. The men did as they were told, and Malcolm dropped their friend anyway (he landed on a balcony just one floor below).
We spent the next few hours fixing up the door, sorting out the cuts and bruises picked up during the fight and drinking a hell of a lot of whiskey. Malcolm slept over on the floor of the flat, and we told the neighbours about what had happened and that some men might be coming back. Most of them said they'd keep a look out and lend a hand if they saw anything. It was what you did – you looked after each other, even if it was from men with baseball bats. The men had been loan sharks, people trying to make some pounds by preying on the poverty that had been inflicted upon whole communities up and down the country by a government and economic system which we often felt powerless to defend ourselves from. But it was in incidents like these that I learnt that self-defence from those with more might than you is possible and that those of us who have lived close to the bottom are the most able to do it.
These moments of collective organising and resistance were carried out by people in this country who live on the margins. I have experienced hundreds of moments like them, and I can only speculate how many others have occurred across the country, just in my life time. The people involved are pathologised and demonised in mainstream culture, as broken people who need to be remade in the image of the good citizen of a capitalist society. I disagree. I think these people and the moments that they create need to be the building block upon which we make a better society. I don't know where many of the people I've talked about have ended up. I know they will have been fighting against the ongoing attacks of the transnational neo-liberal process and it's servants, and that this will have caused unbelievable damage to their hearts and minds. Because of this, many may no longer be able to think or act with the collectivised tendencies of mutual aid, self-defence and solidarity. Of course there will still be many who can, and who need more people in their corner as they seek to survive emotionally, psychologically and materially. ■
Hunter is an ageing chav, whose first 25 years depended upon the informal economy including sex work, robbing, and dealing. For the last 12 years he has been an anti-capitalist motivated community organiser and spent too much time watching football. He is currently flogging a book about himself, poverty and anarchism, whilst finishing his first crime fiction novel. He pays his bills by working as a mental health support worker. He thinks everyone should stop recycling until they've collectivised and/or redistributed all their current and future economic resources.
To the political left Hunter's people are the ignorant and the ill informed, to the victorious right they are the unwashed and discarded waste product of the labouring class. Chav Solidarity is part autobiography, part meditation on trauma, class and identity, part one finger salute into the face of respectability politics, but mostly an articulation of the contradictory heart of Chavvy shit heads across the U.K.
Chav Solidarity is a collection of essay's which pick apart the lived experiences of its author. Hunter uses his experiences as child sex worker, teenage crack addict, violent thug and community activist to examine the ways in which our classed experiences shape the ways in which we think and do our politics.
Photography © Kelly O'Brien
Look for the book at chavsolidarity.com
Contact: [email protected]