Transformation: Opinion

Abolishing oppressive institutions starts at home

A review of D. Hunter’s Tracksuits, Traumas and Class Traitors.

Liam Barrington-Bush
23 August 2020, 10.01pm
Flickr/Jürgen Telkmann. CC BY-NC 2.0.

"The calls for abolition are spreading, and the answers are not solely the defunding and abolition of the carceral states institutions, but in the ways of being that we create with one another that will replace those institutions." D. Hunter

There’s no shortage of snippets you could take out of context to sell D. Hunter’s new set of memoirs to an audience looking for the kinds of poverty porn or scandal rag fodder they won’t find in his collection. It’s got all the sex, drugs and violence of a Tarantino film...if it was secretly directed by Karl Marx and Marx had lived his life battling the sheer brutality of the sharpest edges of late-stage capitalism, before learning to read in his twenties and deep-diving into radical political theory to explain the inexplicable violence of his past.

Following the underground success of his first set of self-published memoirs, Chav Solidarity, Hunter’s second offering, Tracksuits, Traumas and Class Traitors, takes us deeper into the trials of a life on the postindustrial margins of Nottingham and the English Northwest in the 1980s and 1990s. Hunter revisits the experiences he opened wide in Chav Solidarity - from hard drugs and sex work to child abuse and homelessness - bringing to light the humanity and social leadership of those who spend their days embroiled in these realities but who are typically reduced to caricatures by those outside of them.

This time though he goes several steps further, making space to explore the complexities of race and class, the inherent violence of social services, and prison abolition and transformative justice. His book is a critical offering to a political discussion that emerges from places we rarely look for such offerings. It breathes life, compassion and depth of character into perceptions of people who are all-too-casually discarded by many across the political spectrum.

Bridging class politics and intersectionality.

While class is clearly at the forefront of Hunter’s writing, he avoids the old Marxist pitfall of attempting to reduce all forms of oppression to subsets of the class system - a trope which ends up glossing over both the harm of many-a-predatory male working-class leader, and the contexts that lead to wealthy people of colour being profiled and abused by police. His understanding of different identities keeps economics in the picture and vice versa.

Never does his brutal experience of class lead to a ‘Not All White Men!’ defensiveness, making perfectly clear that, whatever traumas he has faced (and he’s faced a lot), they could be a whole lot worse did he not inhabit the cis-white-male body that he does. Hunter moves between the lenses of class and identity politics throughout the essays with a seamlessness that gives the impression that the two were never at odds (an encouraging line that relatively few people manage to walk).

Throwing rocks at the Academy.

While Hunter fills much of his book’s introduction with a meta-exploration of the academic and theoretical underpinnings of his work, the pages that follow contain more than enough swearing and informality to avoid any serious consideration from the academy. For the few academics who choose to see past the colloquialisms and street slang, Hunter offers extensive citations to bolster the institutional credibility he seems simultaneously to mock and seek.

There are moments when the writing loses a bit of its flow and a gripping personal account feels abruptly jolted by a lecture in macro-political theory. The ideas are never bad ones - far from it - but the way in which Hunter presents them at times works against his aims, bludgeoning the reader with polemics when the relative subtlety of a first-hand narrative would have cut deeper than an ideological explanation. These moments, however, are relatively few, and the readability of the incredibly distressing subject matter is strong testament to Hunter’s prose as much as to his intellectual prowess.

Why the Labour Party can’t answer our prayers.

One of Hunter’s themes is dispelling the idea that politicians or government institutions can bring about the kinds of change that poor and working class people need. People and communities facing the brunt of the violence those institutions perpetrate will never trust them to become vehicles of genuine progress. While Hunter’s writing never screams a ‘Capital-A Anarchism,’ it hammers home how the oppressive nature of government is embedded in the DNA of the same welfare state that many parts of the Left - especially in times of austerity - defend unquestioningly.

"The cages I understood, but the bureaucracy was oblique and terrifying, something that I did not know how to resist,” Hunter writes of his experiences of the more and less benevolent arms of state violence in his early life. “The screws in [Youth Offending Institutes] hit you, spit at you, call you a cunt and keep you locked up, but I understood their power over me. The paper and pens, the benign smiles, gentle scowls, calm tones of shirts and blouses, was a bewildering matrix of manipulation that I could not engage with."

Children's services, social services, youth services - none of these escape Hunter’s razor-sharp pen, despite, or perhaps because of, his later employment as a youth worker. He casts aside the nuance that the ‘objective’ privileged outsider typically affords themselves when observing these professions, instead offering a raw analysis gained through painful personal experience:

“I’ll be honest, whilst there were plenty of adults in office clothes who spoke to me during my trial, my sentencing, my stay in the YOI, the care homes that followed my time locked up, I do not remember which ones were social workers, which ones were solicitors, or any other roles that might have been involved in the process…I only have memory to fall back on, and whilst I have vague recollections of the faces attached to the shirts and blouses, I have no memory of any shirt or blouse doing anything to persuade me that they were in my life to do anything other than to exert control over me.”

Solidarity on the margins.

More optimistically, Hunter’s writing also points to countless stories in which lives are saved by the small and large acts of solidarity and not-so-everyday-kindness of poor and working people in the early stages of his life. From neighbours bathing and feeding his mother when they found her unconscious in the lift of the building where she lived, to the free chicken a local Jamaican takeaway provided to him and his younger sisters for years when it was clear they couldn’t afford to pay, Hunter illustrates a collective care that is rarely visible in wider social narratives of day-to-day life in post-industrial English urban centres.

“Go to any poor or working-class neighbourhood community and you will find local individuals and community groups experimenting with trauma-informed processes to address the emotional and psychological wellbeing of the neighbourhood,” Hunter states unreservedly. It is in these experiments - so critical to maintaining life under capitalism - that he holds hope.

While no one would accuse him of preaching lifestyle politics, Hunter’s commitment to change happening close to home is a powerful alternative to the top-down assumptions of much of the mainstream (and parts of the radical) left: "...we must also acknowledge that the inequality amongst us can not merely wait for the revolution,” he declares in the book’s final pages.

Hunter pushes us to recognise the forms of power that exist within and amongst the broadly-working class, whether in terms of income, resources or personal connections. He also points to practical steps we can take to redistribute whatever resources we have amongst us in order to make life more livable and dignified for one another, while building up alternatives to the state and market structures that cause so much harm. Anything else, he argues, constitutes an act of class treachery, in which we choose to hold onto whatever money, power, connections or leverage we have for personal gain over collective liberation.

Radical politics from the ground up.

Tracksuits, Traumas and Class Traitors is what radical politics might look like if those involved spent more time with the people hit hardest by the issues they stand for - or if more of us learned to truly step aside and make space for those voices to make themselves heard.

His book presents an implicit set of political beliefs, ideas and practices that emerge from taking the time to sit with exposure to incomprehensible levels of state and economic violence, and then to imagine what the alternatives might look like, based on the survival strategies of those at the sharpest edges of that violence. It’s not an all-encompassing theory imposed from an ivory tower, but a praxis that’s generalised from daily practices that allow people to stay alive amidst horrific levels of systemic abuse. While Hunter’s reference points are vast and varied, there is an implicit coherence to his politics that offers a clear direction to those looking for it, without hammering home a ten-point manifesto.

The imperative to actively transform how we do our politics doesn’t always make for easy reading, but Hunter’s core ideas are hard to argue with. Some will be put off by the uncompromising onus for practical change that this book puts on its readers, while others may take the first awkward steps to begin to heed its call. Whatever people’s choices, it would be hard to remain unmoved by Hunter’s writing and the eminently practical choices towards which he points us.

Tracksuits, Traumas and Class Traitors is published by The Class Work Project.

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