My own involvement in this community accountability process against sexual violence began in September 2015 and remained pretty much constant until this website went online in June 2020. Though the process was more or less active at different times during this period I can say that it was a physically, mentally, and emotionally draining experience throughout and I stand by the conclusions reached in the group reflection. In this personal reflection I would like to elaborate on the reasons for my own involvement and some of my feelings regarding the left wing community in Birmingham. I would also like to outline what I believe the value of this website is and draw attention to a few key points which I believe should be considered by anyone else who attempts to be involved in a community accountability process.
1) My involvement in the early days of this process
When I received the letter back in September 2015 I was still involved in our free education group and my primary political engagement was as a Marxist campaigning for free education. I will admit that at this time my understanding of feminism was relatively undeveloped and my understanding of sexual violence as a political and social phenomena was practically non-existent. I knew enough about the incidences to know that a bad man had committed a series of bad acts but I did not yet understand this in relation to how social norms and values pertaining to gender and sexuality had facilitated these acts. Likewise, I did not understand how the dynamics of our group and the broader community enabled these acts nor how these dynamics were related to broader social structures such as the state and the universities. I think the fairest and most appropriate way for me to characterise my views at the beginning of this process is to say that I understood the issues of sexual abuse and violence in terms which were moral but not sociological or political.
Following from this, my primary motivation for becoming involved during the early days of the process was born out of the fact that two of my longest standing friends and comrades, both of whom were key figures in this process and were involved in the contact group work, had been visibly shaken by the revelations. At this time I felt that my involvement may be helpful because it would help them feel less isolated and as such may have made it easier for them to be involved. Put in simple and straightforward terms, my motivation at this time was primarily interpersonal, born of a bond, rather than an abstract and impersonal commitment to a Marxist-Feminist praxis. If they had not been involved it is entirely possible that I wouldn’t have been either. As such I think it is fair for me to say that in the early days of this process I saw myself in a supportive role to these two people though I would not have described it in these terms at that time. This was compounded by the fact that I had only met the survivor once or twice in my life and had a weak bond with Ed because I knew him as a comrade in the movement but was barely acquainted with him outside of political activity. Further to this, at this stage I was not sure how I could actually contribute to the process because what we should be doing was not obvious to any of us. In short, my motivation for being involved early on was less ideological or practical than it was interpersonal.
2) The Left in Birmingham (2015-2020)
Time changes us all and this process has changed me. My understanding of sexual violence as a social and political phenomena is far more developed than it was back in September 2015 as is my understanding of the dynamics of our free education group and the broader community. At one time our group had been a force on campus which despite its outsider status and minority appeal was still able to achieve something and was still dynamic enough to be worth putting time into. However by the time the 2015/16 academic year had started it was a dying horse which deserved to be put out of its misery and as more people left this is precisely what happened. As for the broader community which existed in September 2015, it is my view that this community has been recomposed so many times since that the left wing community in Birmingham is now unrecognizable to me. At one time I bemoaned the loss of this community but from the perspective of summer 2020 I am actively glad that the community that I knew and felt a part of no longer exists. The demise of that community simply means that many of us who were involved have carved out a life for ourselves, have been relatively successful in the pursuit of our own interests, and have either found other communities to belong to or have been able to integrate into the left community in Birmingham as it stands today. This does create difficulties for community accountability processes like this one but at the same time life should be dynamic and not stagnant.
On a darker note, I am certain that not every story has been positive and that some of those who ‘dropped out’ of the Birmingham left community over the years were not able to establish themselves elsewhere. I am certain that this is the case because as referred to in the article mental and physical health issues have always been widespread within our community and if I am being honest the community has not always done a great job of looking after its most vulnerable members. However, moralising and guilt have no place in these discussions. In the context of austerity politics and the decimation of welfare communities are being put under increasing pressure to provide support to their members. The demand from the state is increasingly that sick people take care of each other and that the buck stops with them. Blaming sick people for not being able to consistently provide support misses the point and ignores violence which is structural and institutional. For support to be beneficial it must consist of healthy practices and be provided consistently, both of which are very difficult if not impossible to do by what is essentially a community of volunteers. As such, there is nothing inherently liberatory about the materialisation of a community and this is especially the case for those who are most marginalised and for whatever reason not fully accepted into left wing communities.
The left wing community which existed in Birmingham in 2015 is now dead and for the sake of everyone who was involved I am glad that it is.
3) Lessons Learnt
It is my view that, amongst other things, the group reflection presented here elaborates a well-considered critique of the horizontalist mode of organising which we adopted in our free education group and which was commonplace in the free education movement at universities in England during the 2010s. As such, though the attempt to hold Ed accountable to the community in Birmingham can be considered to have failed this does not exhaust the aims of this process nor does it invalidate the time and energy which those involved put into it. In addition to a critique of our free education group, many of the difficulties associated with the process itself are elaborated clearly in the writing found on this website and I am confident that the lessons which the left wing community in Birmingham will be able to take from this process will be invaluable. A world where all people can live without fear of being subjected to abuse and violence, whether sexual or otherwise, is a worthwhile goal for the left to aim towards and beginning in our own communities is a difficult but essential moment in working towards this.
In accordance with this I would like to mention what I believe are a few key takeaway points from the last 5 years of this process. I hope that these will provide useful insights for anybody else on the left who attempts to get involved in a community accountability process, whether the issue is sexual violence or some other form of abuse.
a) The Left would benefit from more philosophy
As mentioned in the group reflection, a large part of the work which this process involved meant that our reflective capacities were tested by the questions which we attempted to answer in our discussions. Given that many of us involved in the process had been in our free education group and the surrounding left wing community in Birmingham for several years it would have been very easy for our conversations to get bogged down in the details of particular actions, campaigns, and the various happenings which had occurred over the years. Philosophical perspectives which underpinned many of our discussions helped us with exploring the more general trends in the dynamics of our social and political groupings and this allowed us to explore topics such as instrumentalism, oppression, state power, recognition and accountability. These topics ultimately proved to illuminate the situation which had emerged in our community. Without these I fully believe that we would have reproduced a liberal account of sexual violence grounded in simplistic moral terms (i.e. abusive behaviour as bad acts carried out by bad people) rather than one which tries to understand sexual violence as socially contingent and socially situated (i.e. abusive behaviour as acts enabled by practices which were normalised within our community).
b) Be prepared for a community accountability process to test your communication skills and your relationships with people
Any community accountability process like this one will test your communication skills. This will vary massively depending on the history which you share with others involved in the process and on what your own particular communication needs are (i.e. what pattern of strengths and weaknesses you have in regard to communication). As such it isn’t really of any great help for me to say more on this point other than to say that processes like this one can only work as well as the people involved are able to talk to each other. This has led me to the conviction that political theory narrowly defined cannot provide enough of a perspective on our social practices. Indeed, I now believe that in our case we would have benefited from more knowledge of the apparently apolitical discipline of communication theory. An outside perspective on how we communicated at both the group and one on one interpersonal levels could have been provided by knowledge of communication theories.
This would have been particularly helpful for us because, as mentioned in the group reflection, our free education group had historically been a motley crew of Marxists, anarchists, environmentalists, feminists of various tendencies, Labour Party people, and many others who at times just had thoroughly bizarre views. As such, our group was not politically coherent in any formal or even informal way and so we were not able to begin our discussions from a place of political unity. There were at times clear differences between those involved on a variety of issues and in this respect the core group involved in the process can be considered to be a coalition of individuals rather than as a more organised collective. A knowledge of communication theory would have been helpful when navigating these political differences. Ultimately there was a contradiction within our process; at one and the same time the limits of what we could deal with as a group was a recurring theme in our discussions whilst reaching a consensus on what these limits were was difficult and arduous work which strained our interpersonal relationships with each other. This contradiction demonstrates that more conversation does not immediately materialize in better understanding and that a shared theory of communication would benefit community accountability processes like this one.
c) The Supportive Others Need To Be Organized!
In the section of the group reflection entitled ‘Limiting Factors : Support and Care’ reference is made to ‘supportive others’. Supportive others refers to the broader layer of engagement which many people created throughout this process. The intimate partners, friends, and housemates of those directly involved in the community accountability process offered their support throughout in various ways. The ability of those offering support to communicate with each other about their own difficulties supporting us during the process could have ultimately helped create a more stable and coherent left-wing community in Birmingham. The growing incoherence of our community became apparent shortly after the beginning of this process when our free education group ended in November 2015. Indeed, no longer having an activist group at the university, combined with the fact that many of those involved most central to our group had graduated from the university and ‘aged out’ of the free education movement, meant that our community became more fragmented as there were fewer focal points for its activity. The focal point of supportive work could have helped make our community more defined while those more directly involved were attending meetings and forming working groups.
There is little to be said here about the practicalities of what the supportive others organizing themselves would entail because it would have to be worked out by those involved and in our case it never happened. As such it is only possible to speculate and given the way our process played out I believe that this supportive work would have been shaped by the same dynamics of in-group/out-group distinctions and informalised social relations which characterised the activities of both our free education group and this community accountability process.. The responsibility for organising and coordinating this work would have to be worked out by those involved in the broader layer of supportive others involved in the process. Communication between the broader layer of supportive others and those directly involved can be easily facilitated through technologies such as mobile phones and email. In addition, the previously mentioned knowledge of communication theory could help facilitate community wide discussion about accountability processes so that the communist motto of ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’ can be actualised in theory and materialised in practice.
4) The value of this website
Finally I would like to close with a few words on what I believe the value of this website is. I was not involved in the contact group at any point in this process and so my main contribution was being involved in discussions and contributing to the article which appears on the section of this website called ‘Response’. following approximately two years of discussions we began meeting to write the article in July 2017. Though it is It is always difficult to pin point at exactly what point your views on a matter have changed I can say that by the time we formed the article writing group my perspective had broadly changed from the morality based one which I had at the beginning of this process to the socio-political one informed by Marxist-Feminism which I have now. In addition to my ideological development during the first two years of the process the founding of the article writing group gave me a practical opportunity to use my writing skills to further the aims of the process.
As mentioned earlier in this reflective piece, it is my view that the article which we produced presents a well articulated critique of the horizontalist mode of organising as it played out within the British free education movement with a particular focus on sexual violence. In as much as this is the case, I hope that the article is able to find an audience amongst those on what might be called the extra-parliamentary left so that they may begin a process of learning from our case, discussing the issues and actually making the changes which are required to create an extra-parliamentary left in which all people regardless of gender, class, race, sexual orientation, or disability can organise without fear of being subjected to violence and abuse. More broadly, I hope that this reinvigoration of extra-parliamentary left wing praxis can have a broader influence on the left generally. Groups and organizations which organize within the electoral system may not find our experience as useful due to fundamental differences in the way that they do things but this does not exonerate them from examining their own practices. Those involved in the parliamentary left (whether they be a Trotskyist group, a left wing faction within the Labour Party, or some other electoral force) evidently have time, energy and motivation enough to engage in factional disputes, argue about minor differences in policy, and disagree over increasingly niche and obscure procedural processes which are shrouded in mystery to anyone not involved and boring to anyone who is but isn’t sufficiently obsessed with the group/organisation or paid enough to be interested. After nearly 8 years of being involved in left wing organising I can say without fear of contradicting myself that if groups and organisations (whether parliamentary or extra-parliamentary) have the time, energy and motivation to fight over petty matters and argue about subcultural esoterica they have the capacity to work towards institutionalising structures which stamp out abusive and violent behaviour.
In addition to the contribution that this website can make to discussions on the left, I believe that in light of the current (as of June 2020) reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement the conclusions which we have reached as a result of this process can make a contribution to discussions regarding defunding the police and transforming our justice system. This is a discussion to be had not just on the left but throughout society as a whole and our attempt to hold Ed accountable and get justice for the person who he harmed means that we are more aware of what community based attempts at justice can achieve in the current situation. We have achieved what we were able to within the limits presented by the circumstances which we were working within and hopefully future attempts by others to hold perpetrators to account will be more successful because the circumstances will be more favourable. Factors which limited our attempt at justice are outlined in the section of the article called ‘Limiting factors’ and should be considered when discussing defunding the police and how the justice system should change in order to adapt to this defunding.
Social reproduction is praxis. One-nil to Marx!