I don’t want to make the crass observation that EDL are little more than football hooligans. That element should be clear enough to anyone who has encountered them en masse, and, indeed, the group emerged from the organisational structures already existing within the British hooligan movement. The ability to mobilise “firms” into attendance gave EDL the appearance of an early burst of dynamism, with rapidly swelling numbers brought about more by existing loyalties than diligent community organisation.
It is that brand of loyalty that guides the politics of the group, too. Frequently branded as “fascist”, the group actually walks a muddled line between a rather nostalgic provincial patriotism evoked by the apple-cheeked (non-halal) village butcher, and more contested and complicated discourses of liberalism and multiculturalism, such as their LGBT division.
This balancing act is ham-fisted in practice– the EDL ranks harbour a good number of hardened fascists from the endlessly splintering history of the British far-right, including BNP, NF and C18. They march uncomfortably alongside rainbow flags and the Jewish Division under the banner “POLITICAL EXPEDIENCY”. However it would probably be more accurate to trace their ideological lineage back to the League of Empire Loyalists rather than National Socialism, lacking as it does any form of revolutionary aspiration or politics. The EDL are extremists, in that their positions are at the uncompromising and super-simplistic end of a discourse on multiculturalism which starts in the centre right, rather than radicals, implying a distinct ideological break with those positions.
This is one of the reasons why the rallying cry of “fascism” by their opponents fails to ring true for many- whilst in the EDL drinking grounds and coaches there is no doubt radical fascist opinion, there is little in the EDL’s explicit discourse or propaganda which cannot be found in the dinner parties and clubs of the Tory establishment, or on the pages of the majority of national newspapers.
Indeed the EDL operate not as a traditional fascist party hunting for power, but more as a street pressure group aimed at nudging parliamentary policy and British culture, opening the Overton Window to increasingly aggressive anti-Muslim policies and attitudes. And it is this street activity which offers the members the incentive to join up and turn out. The core activity of the EDL is the symbolic demonstration. Its rituals offer the same rewards of the football match; the traveling and pre-match boozing, the camaraderie, the chants (often taken straight from the terraces), the highs and lows of “the game”, the temporary freedom from the more restrictive social norms, the caricatured enemy and shared loyalties, the anonymity of the crowd and finally the post-mortem pints, the arguments around tactics and management styles.
This attitude to demonstrations isn’t limited to the far-right, of course. I see much the same attitude displayed on the organised Left, albeit with a little more internecine rivalry thrown in, and for some sections of both left and right the ritual of the demonstration ”fixture” remains the limit of social activism, with violence increasing in its intensity as each demonstration decreases in its potential for social change.
Saturday’s Tower Hamlets demonstration between EDL and UAF (Unite Against Fascism, an anti-fascist organisation) reached the nadir of the “demonstration as sporting event”. Both sides established their mythology well before the big derby; for the EDL, this was a “March into the Lion’s Den” of British Islamism. For the UAF, this was nothing less than a re-run of the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when 300,000 people fought off the Metropolitan Police who were attempting to facilitate a British Union of Fascists march through the East End.
On those terms it seemed far from a symbolic demonstration; the EDL wanted to march, despite a ban, into Tower Hamlets to threaten and intimidate local Muslims, whilst the UAF wanted to physically prevent them from doing so and demonstrate the unity of the local population whilst doing so. There is much to be said for the large-scale community mobilisation of the counter-demonstration, and I do not want to appear to be deriding such hard work, but I feel it’s important to distinguish between the symbolic demonstration and the direct intervention when it comes to anti-fascism.
It was clear, monitoring the social media and youtube chatter after the event as well as talking with activists, that the matchday mentality had sunk deep in sections of these groups, with talk about ‘who had won’ (a contested issue) greatly overriding any other issues the day may have raised. In point of fact, this was displayed literally with members of both sides bragging “TH 1 – EDL 0” or “EDL 1 Tower hamlets nil”. But the game on the day failed to live up to the importance of the derby in the hype and mythology of both groups. The EDL barely got to the borders of the borough, let alone to the East London Mosque which forms the target of so much of their venom. For the UAF, the day was far from a “Cable Street” moment; unlike Cable Street, the state were actively preventing the EDL from marching on the East End; it was the Metropolitan Police who ended up scrapping on the street with the “fascists” whilst the UAF stood 100 yards away behind police lines.
Both the EDL and UAF could claim victory in equal measure, but for the Metropolitan Police it was an almost textbook policing operation that reinforced the state role as arbiters of anti-social street politics and keepers of the peace (much like during sporting events– and it is worth pointing out that policing of football matches is routinely far more heavy-handed than most demonstrators will ever face). It certainly was not a significant and real standoff between two dynamic and radical social movements, with the fascists scurrying off in the face of the might of the organised working class, but rather a victory for state power. A better scoreline would perhaps have been EDL- 1, TH- 2, Met Police- 5.
THE FACEHUGGER MOMENT: When the Real breaks forth, uncontrolled, from the chest of the Symbolic.
The fragile chrysalis of symbolism and self-mythology was only shattered briefly, after the organised mass demonstrations ended. A coach carrying EDL members home was travelling through Tower Hamlets when its learing and gesturing passengers were attacked by local youths, throwing street furniture through the coach windows, until police arrived to arrest and escort the EDL members from the area. This was a breakthrough of the lines and limits of protest proscribed by the state, of the day’s theatrical narrative, and a breakthrough of Real violence out of the symbolic protest. It is this uncomfortable dualistic relationship between Symbolic violence and Real violence that has defined the extra-parliamentary political sphere since the eruption of the Millbank riot last November. Sitting side by side have been the Symbolic violence of the self-avowed “Political” street demonstration with the “post-political” of Real violence, breaking out without context or codification, as a reaction rather than a provocation, both in communities and entangled within political demonstrations.
The street demonstration is the site where symbolic political violence is played out in an ideologically structured and limited environment. The violence of the Black Bloc (for example) isn’t “meaningless”; it is tightly codified and understood within the context of a dying parliamentary system and increasing exasperation and resentment from the populace. The fear for the State is the violence that isn’t limited by these parameters; whether it was the outbreaks of far more extreme violence within the Parliament Square kettle on December 9th, when supposedly apolitical British youth attempted to storm the British Treasury with makeshift battering rams to chants of “We want our money back!”, to barricades across major London roads and street-to-street fighting with Police during August’s riots. Violence without limit, violence without demand, violence without end.
Talking to EDL members and reading their propaganda, it’s easy to see that the social conditions the organised Left blames for creating the August riots are certainly not racially defined but are aggravating factors within the far-right; lack of social cohesion, poverty, unemployment, resentment and immobility. I’m far from sure these are the causes of the riots, at least not exclusively, but increasingly precarious living conditions and resentment of parliamentary politics are rapidly becoming a defining characteristic of the entire working-class in the UK, and I think any prediction that future social unrest will continue to focus on material needs (i.e looting) and anti-police violence would be foolhardy; manifestations of intraclass-war are just as viable.
My fear is that a very real fascist terror will emerge from the very same social and political environment the riots emerged from; seemingly spontaneous within the media narrative, but completely predictable to working-class communities, seemingly apolitical, but laced with fierce social resentment, “disorganised”, but involving mass coordination on a personal and online level. This new fascist threat won’t take the form of either the Blackshirts or the shirtless EDL and their symbolic street demonstrations, but rather in the taster we saw in Eltham, as in the video above, during the riots (which did have EDL involvement). Racial vigilantism, kangaroo justice, small-town micro-fascism, and the insidious, creeping booze-filled street violence of the market-town high street led to what were, for me, the most horrifying scenes of the rioting. If we are facing a growing fascist threat, it is this form of fascist terror that we will find ourselves up against in the coming years, and an organisational legacy of symbolic demonstration and scorecard politics will leave our communities spectacularly ill-equipped.
Crossposted with thanks from Deterritorial Support Group.