August 1976. Six Guajarati women downed their tools and walked out of a photo processing factory in Grunswick, North London. The acrimonious industrial dispute that ensued would persist for two full years, crescendoing in a day of action on the 11th July 1977, whereby an estimated 20,000 supporters arrived at the pickets to show solidarity with the striking Asian women.
Having just recently passed the fortieth anniversary of the strike, the event constitutes an interesting topic of reflection; it demonstrates just how markedly British society and culture has changed, particularly attitudes towards class, religion, gender and ethnicity. Juxtaposed to the protest movements of today, Grunwick almost appears incomprehensible. How so? What precipitated such changes?
Led by Jayaben Desai, the industrial dispute was fought over insalubrious working conditions, inadequate remuneration and chiefly, the democratic right for union recognition at that photo processing plant. As the strike lingered on, the dispute manifested poignant scenes of mutual support which cut across divisions of gender, ethnicity and religion.
Hulking men from the welsh mines stood shoulder to shoulder with the female textile workers, English nationals drew ranks with migrant labourers and both youth and age populated the pickets. Most remarkably, the dock workers which had a reputation for being socially conservative (many marched in support of Enoch Powell after his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech) also turned out en masse to provide succour to the strikers. In the contemporary climate of identity politics, increasing religious and ethnic sectarianism and recrudescent nationalism, such a feat of unity seems unimaginable.
In retrospect, the language of the female workers involved provides a clue as to how such a transcendent esprit de corps was engendered. Principally, the dispute was steeped in notions of natural rights, due rights which were being egregiously violated: the right to trade union recognition, the right to be seen as an equal citizen to British counterparts, the right to have innate humanity recognised.
Jayaben Desai’s remark to the plant manager aptly demonstrates such sentiments:
“What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. In a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr. Manager”.
As a result, myriad people from divergent walks of life made common cause and in the process took numerous pernicious stereotypes to task. The strike dispelled notions of ‘lazy immigrants’ and ‘submissive Asian women’, and no doubt helped call into question patriarchal gender relations both within and outside of diaspora communities.
Fast forward to 2016. Two news stories which exemplify the cultural distance traversed since 1976 concern women’s volleyball at the Rio Olympics and the French state’s ban on the ‘burkini’. Both topics fomented vigorous debate; the latter provoking protests and numerous petitions.
In place of the former cohesion generated by centring on economic matters and human rights, with other issues articulated in this broader context, the touchstones of social protest now focus principally on markers of difference. Factors such as ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender are brought to the fore.
How did it come to pass that identity should usurp rights as the dominant trope? After all, there are no shortages of human rights violations to which attention could be drawn, for example eleven workers died in the construction of the Rio Olympic Park and reports of undocumented labourers being forced to toil twenty plus hour shifts are now emerging. Yet such stories did not permeate into main stream consciousness in the same way that the burkini and the women’s volleyball news items did.
To understand the currents which have fed into this shifting emphasis, it is necessary to consider the legacy of the Cold War and its consequences. One tributary which has fed into the increased fixation on religious and ethnic identities is the emergence of political Islam. It seems a profound irony that in the cauldron of altercations that constituted the Cold War, struggles between two competing economic systems, geopolitical rivalries and the anti-colonial struggles for independence, the groundwork would be laid for the revival of the pre-modern.
In Europe, the Yugoslav Wars and horrors such as the Srebrenica massacre led to an increasing focus on religious identity in British diaspora communities which heretofore, although deeply religious in many instances were otherwise secular in orientation and religion was largely considered a personal affair.
Further afield in Afghanistan, British, American and Pakistani secret services furnished mujahideen forces with arms, training and finance in an effort to stem Russian influence and gain leverage in the region.
In Egypt, Sadat bolstered Islamist forces by releasing militants from prison, relaxing constraints on Islamist organisations and permitting their presence in public institutions such as universities. This was mainly undertaken as an effort to use theocratic forces as a bulwark against his political rivals, the Nasserites and the political left-wing, as well as to detract from criticisms of his economic liberalisation program.
Forming out of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas emerged in Palestine in 1987. Israel’s secret services, Mossad, initially welcomed the development as it perceived Hamas to be a rival to the secular PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). As general Yitzhak Segev commented, Hamas should be welcomed “in order to help create a force that would stand against the leftist forces which support the PLO”.
The Indonesian killings of 1965-66 saw hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese and alleged leftists killed by government forces following an abortive coup d’état, in the process effectively creating a political vacuum which Islamist forces were later to occupy.
Coeval with these developments, the 1960’s also witnessed an eruption of protest movements and alternate youth cultures, many of which brought non-systemic issues into focus. These social movements were frequently organised around gender (second wave feminism), race (the black panthers and the civil rights struggle in the US) and counterculture (‘hippies’, ‘beatniks’, Woodstock and rock ‘n’ roll).
These social movements developed in the context of systems of racial apartheid in South Africa and the US, the stifling social conservatism of the 1950s in Britain and North America, and the growing sense of individualism being drowned in mass production and consumption trends, subsequently inciting reassertions of individuality.
Finally, economic developments in Britain since the late 1970s led to a decline in trade union organization of the kind which the Grunwick strikers were able to mobilise under. Privatisation, onerous anti-trade union legislation and off-shoring of primary industries and public services retrenched organized labour which peaked in membership in 1979.
All of these trends and many others beside have permutated the composition and orientations of British protest movements profoundly. In the era of the Grunwick strike, the approaches towards culture adopted by progressive movements were largely focused on creating a more inclusive arena whereby numerous variegated voices could contribute; where peoples from disparate backgrounds made common cause in advancing a vision of a more equitable and democratic society.
Contemporary British protest movements are much more aligned to matters of identity and single issue concerns. With regards to culture, rather than viewing diversity as organic lived experience, the stance generally tends to be one of institutionalising difference.
This begets multifarious problems; faith schools and religious courts are often discriminatory and segregate people into religious cantons, resources are allocated along ethnic and religious lines instead of provisioning by need, and diaspora communities are viewed as homogenous entities. Worse still, far right movements are pullulating across Europe and anomie grows rife. Instead of instilling a sense of affinity with multiple cultures, people often feel as if they belong to none.
The contentions raised by the new protests movements do voice genuine social maladies; discrimination of all forms should be rallied against relentlessly. However, it must be recognised that if such identity movements are dislocated from their situation in history, economy, culture and polity then they can become centrifugal forces, segregating the very people that they should be consolidating.
The time is long overdue for leftwing activists to reclaim a humanist universalism. It is no accident that the old slogans of the labour movement expressed sentiments of unity: ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ was once the clarion call of organized workers. There is still a human race which requires extricating from the fetters and privations of its own construction; we cannot but do this together.