June 15, 2010

Aldermaston Ethnography: Activism Identity section

This is the activism Identity section of my ethnography I did in March after the Aldermaston trip. The actual ethnography itself is well over 9,000 words, so I thought this section is the most self contained. 

I will need to cut it down, but at this stage I don't know by how much, as I'm not sure how much space other articles will take up. I will cut it down to act as a gaps filler to make up the 12 pages, so please do make comments, but understand it will end up being a lot shorter possibly.

The bring-and-share meal

As was touched upon in the previous section, the bring-and-share is a lynch pin of student activism. Members of the Aldermaston affinity group frequently joked about the pulling-power of the bring-and-share over and above any sense of social duty or conviction. Facetiousness aside though, the act of sharing a meal that everyone has in some way contributed towards is a tangible and enjoyable example of the anarchist principle of reciprocity and mutual aid.[1] All but one member of the Aldermaston group was vegetarian, and among those a significant minority tend to live on a vegan diet. This is fairly common amongst activists, either for ethical reasons or environmental reasons[2], or a combination. In the case of the latter particularly, a vegetarian/vegan diet is an example of reflexivity and the day-to-day application of politics.

Last year’s S0.21 sit-in coincided with ‘Go Vegan Month’, and the arguably difficult transition to a vegan diet –most beers, snack foods, and even meat substitute products contain animal produce- was made easier by the support of an entire group which shared the responsibility for cooking good vegan food on a massive scale. The bring-and-share lunches in the Gaia space offered, on a smaller scale, the same support. Whilst members of the group bought some foods from Gaia, a significant number of dishes were home made, including risotto, falafel, salads, and vegan cakes.

Perhaps the most notable food combination connected with activism is pitta bread and humous. This, along with falafel is a staple part of any bring-and-share. Evidently neither originate from Western Europe; the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine suggests a cultural import possibly associated with the pro-Palestinian ethos of many activist groups. This is an unsubstantiated claim, but arguably not without some merit. Humous was voraciously consumed by the Aldermaston group to such an extent that one group member brought twelve pots with her on the outward journey!


The act of smoking amongst activists is something that has been covered in David Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography, and whilst only two members of the Aldermaston group were regular smokers, it is still worth mentioning how the idea was often mooted that support roles for non-arrestables should include rolling cigarettes –all three arm-tubers would be incapable of doing this themselves with at most one free arm.

Language and humour

By no means are all of Warwick’s student activists studying for degrees in politics, sociology or history, however the use of certain vocabulary indicates at least a passing acquaintance with these fields of study. Conversation often includes esoteric terminology. Frequent reference to ‘prefiguration’, ‘reflexivity’, and ‘heteronormativity’ is a distinctive trait of Dissident Warwick, and the collective that produces it. This type of language’s use in everyday speech is perhaps more remarkable. It is also fairly problematic. One of the Warwick anarchist group –and broader activist community’s- oft-voiced concerns is how many people perceive it to be a revolutionary vanguard. The common usage of academic and esoteric language seems to perpetuate this perception.

Perhaps aware of this, or at the least aware of how bizarre the straight-faced use of the above terms in a social environment is, the use of academic language has begun to inform the humour of the group. In an equally perplexing and exclusionary fashion, the group’s humour has become largely self-referential. For reasons all but forgotten –though usually cited as originating during the Faslane preparations in 2007- the group finds great amusement in suggesting actions or protests that take place ‘in waves’.

Another saying that has become commonplace in the last few years is the disparaging remark, “X has/have no analysis”; mostly used to decry the ‘reformism’ (another black word) of the moderate left.

In reference to the group’s constant use of compound phrases like ‘anarcho-feminism’, ‘anarcho-pacifism’, ‘post-Marxist’, ‘neo-liberal’, such prefixes are used to describe seemingly incongruous nouns. ‘Neo-laddish behaviour’ and ‘post-sexist’ can be understood without the prefix, which is solely used to denote the fact that a member of the group is doing or being it in a facetious manner.

Drawing more directly from the PAIS degree programme, a mock-credence is given to J.S. Mill’s notion of ‘lower pleasures’ and hedonism. If someone wishes to make fun of another person in the group, accusing them of preferring ‘lower pleasures’ will suffice.

This should not be understood as a permanent or embedded aspect of activist identity. As we have explored, affinity groups at university are inherently transient, and so to are the stylings of its humour.

Arguably more analytically important is the prominence of foreign languages –most particularly Spanish- in activism. A number of the chants, slogans and songs most associated with socialism, communism and anarchism aren’t in English. The Internationale (French), and Bella Ciao (Italian) are both notable, deriving, in the case of Bella Ciao particularly from the anti-fascist struggles of the twentieth century.

Spanish is the predominant influence however. ‘Compañero’ is used among the Warwick group interchangeably with ‘comrade’, and in written form the male-centric grammar that gives primacy to the masculine in a mixed address (compañeros) is rejected in favour of the gender-neutral ‘compañer@s’.[3] Four members of the Warwick affinity group (although not of the Aldermaston group) have spent around a year in Latin America, two of whom spent the majority of their time in Chiapas, Mexico, visiting the Zapatista liberation movement. As a result, eight out of 24 pages in the latest issue of Dissident were given over to studies of the Zapatista struggles for autonomy and in gender issues.[4]

Clothing and symbols

The rejection of capitalism and the unjust relations of production that capital entails means that activists’ clothing tends to reflect this. The collusion of many high street labels in sweatshop labour has been both the focus of campaigns, and informs the dress habits of the community. Most recently in early 2009, Russell Corp, a subsidiary of Fruit of the Loom, sacked over 1,000 workers in its Honduran factory for attempting to unionise. Fruit of the Loom are a major provider of apparel to universities. A pan-Atlantic universities boycott, including support from People and Planet in the UK eventually led to the reinstatement and compensation of the sacked workers.[5]

In terms of identity, the Aldermaston group’s clothing tended to reflect the politics or musical taste of the wearer. In this respect there is no profound distinction (in using clothing to express your identity) between the activist community and anyone emblazoning a Top Shop design across their t-shirt.

Briefly returning to the notion of a pro-Palestinian ethos mentioned in the bring-and-share section, the keffiyeh is a common accessory in the Warwick group, and the activist community internationally. This is hardly a recent import, but it is less and less a distinct marker of activist identity, or as an identifier of sympathy with Palestine. The keffiyeh has been increasingly co-opted by high-street shops as a generic fashion item. The name keffiyeh has been shed in favour of the anglicised ‘desert scarf’. According to Amazon.co.uk’s webpage, the desert scarf is ‘stylish and versatile…[a] must have fashion accessory for both girls and guys- 8 colours available’.[6] For the activist at Warwick then, authenticity and foreign origin seem to be the crucial distinguisher (along with referring to the keffiyeh by its ‘proper’ name), now that the identity marker has been diluted to include any fashion-conscious person.

In a final digression about the co-opting of once potent symbols of resistance or radical politics by the capitalist system[7], one of the Aldermaston group was canvassing for support on a new green initiative on campus in late 2009. In spotting a student wearing a t-shirt with a large CND ‘peace’ logo he approached her, expecting to find a kindred spirit. The girl, looking perplexed as to why he would walk across the entire length of the Piazza to speak to her, told him that she had “no interest in politics”. Our group member apologized, explaining how he had made an assumption about her based on her t-shirt. She cited the logo’s fashionableness and continued on her way.

In summary then, whilst there are some markers that the activist community continues to identify with after a decades-long history, the continued depoliticisation and marketisation of some of these symbols and items of clothing by capitalism has led to a nuanced reinvention of the identity marker, be it through the language used to describe the item (as with the keffiyeh/desert scarf binary), or its authenticity. Is it perhaps an understandable response to the alienation of many identity markers that certain elements of activist identity, such as the use of overtly political language in everyday speech, have been emphasized, as if in compensation?

Activist Identity: conclusion

It seems fitting to finish this section with a brief look at the politics of identity in relation to activism. In The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey puts forth a dichotomy between the ‘politics of being’ and the ‘politics of becoming’. Whereas liberalism, Marxism, and particularly anarchism are exercises in the politics of becoming –where the focus is less about what you are than what you can become; they all see themselves as universal, and not applicable just in a particular time and space- the predominant trend now, Harvey argues, is the politics of being, which, conversely is less about becoming anything than what you are. It is a form of identity politics located exclusively in the present tense, where geography, ethnicity and language are particularly relevant.

In the postmodern world, where so much is in a state of flux, he posits that the politics of being, and the often sectarian identity politics that this entails, has risen in prominence to counteract increasing casualisation and fluidity in the labour market, and social relations, and in doing so, provide some much needed psychological stability.

When we consider the above sections on activist identity through Harvey’s analytical standpoint I believe we can show that despite immediate appearances, the activist community is still within the framework of a ‘politics of becoming’. Whilst some traits of activist identity might indicate an exclusionary or vanguardist community, as with the use of language or the perceived fundamentalism that an anti-capitalist stance comes with, others, such as the bring-and-share, are the epitome of mutual aid and an inclusive community. Indeed, the ‘prefigurative’ politics of most activists (where the ‘modes of organization and tactics undertaken…accurately reflect the future society being sought by the group’[8]) are inherently forward looking. The simultaneous feminist, green, and LGBTUA+ agendas that particularly define Warwick activism are the politics of emancipation, tout court.

[1] Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism: a Collection of Revolutionary Writings, (New York, 2002), p. 79.

[3] Puneet Dhaliwal and Sarah Reader, Zapatista Caracoles and Indigenous Emancipation in Chiapas, Mexico, (unpublished, 2009), p. 6

[7] The most ubiquitous being Che’s image.

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