What factors in the social and political context support abusive and exploitive behaviour?

When considering the factors which contribute to the reproduction of abusive and exploitative behaviour we are confronted with a near staggering complexity. Sexual violence or sexualised violence is at once a deeply personal yet also depressingly ubiquitous experience. In response to the open letter we have discussed the structural and contextual factors for this particular case which sparked this process and, indeed, this article, but we must also understand what happened as specific to our own lives, friendships, alliances and group. As such, we have broken up our reasoning in terms of macro-scale, middle-scale and micro-scale factors.

Macro scale

Concerning society, we are confronted by the organised subjugation of the state which seeks to maintain our narrow existence as labour in the service of capital. Its politics are a politics of market police, reproduced in law and its necessary violence. Our social reproduction as people is thus denied its full expression, reduced instead to the reproduction of capital on a global scale. Our existence as labour thus limits what is recognised as legitimate and worthy of compensation. Much of our social reproduction falls beyond these narrow limits, and is thus left to us in our time outside of work and politics, drawing on our residual energies to perform. In this way, our lives are cleaved in two between the public realm of capital and the state, and the private realm of non-labour. This divide is gendered and is racialised, determined by the needs of a system which profits from the invisibilisation of this divide, and which is reproduced in everyday forms of violence and silencing. Hegemonic ideologies of gender, of sexuality, of right and wrong, of the entrepreneurial self, serve to reduce the innumerable complexities of earthly existence into something controllable and eminently manageable.

Heide Gerstenberger summarises this well in saying “The open violence of former times has been replaced by the silent force of market conditions. Once material conditions have forced men, women, and even children to offer their capacity to labor on the market, direct violence is no longer necessary to establish exploitation, because this result is achieved by the impersonal functioning of competition on the labor market. And it is this impersonal power which ensures the acceptance of dominance that is inherent in every capitalist labor relation. This capitalist form of violence, no longer in the open and no longer sporadic, has become the central element of the everyday life of capitalism.”1

In agreement of the often silent, often unchallenged interpersonal violence that is facilitated by capitalist social relations, what has this to do with violence that assumes a specifically sexual form? In so much as men have historically, institutionally and socially harnessed power over women, sex as a dominating substance of human experience has been both weaponised and abused, and notable feminists have acceded that sex constitutes a base from which men have leveraged social control over women. While instrumentalisation in patriarchal gender relations therefore precedes capitalist violence, it is crucial for our purpose that we understand the character of sexual violence, or rather the sexual character of violence, in societies historically specific to late capitalism.

That we experience a normalisation of violence in everyday life is one such factor. Cultures that normalise abuse tend to silence the affected and in some cases applaud the perpetrator or “let them off the hook”, key tenets of a patriarchal administered society. Laws written by men, for men, seek to protect the power of the perpetrator. Historically this had been upheld explicitly in terms of property, a woman as a man’s private possession. Once this property-relation has been normalised by state institutions, implemented through policy and embodied through the interactions and discourses of everyday life, exploitation and abuse assume naturalised forms, albeit in the guise of exchange, work, even love. To be objectified under such conditions amounts to a more insidious encroachment upon one’s autonomy than an act of premeditated and calculated instrumentalisation, simply because it has crept into the fabric of capitalist social relations. An unspoken hierarchy of violence becomes established, in which aggressive or manipulative behaviours are gendered or otherwise pathologised, rendered exclusively the responsibility of the individual, a depoliticised, ahistorical subject.

Cultural expectations add another layer to the surrounding silence that prevents those who have experienced sexual violence from being able to define and recognise their experiences of violation, or in cases that they do, from having their experiences validated by others. The violence inflicted on the level of society, reinforced by policies and political manoeuvring implicitly validates and normalises abusive and exploitative behaviour. Real social change being slow and wrought with pain, the struggle is waged between material and symbolic resistance against a condition inherited through generations of violence.

The Left is no exception

There seems to be a common misconception that Leftist activist groups are places of belonging, alternatives to the family, the workplace and other social institutions. They are likened to places of safety, trust and loyalty where through an assumed understanding of shared political beliefs, one can find some solace. One might even call them “communities” – but what kind of community is this? United around this sense of community, political comrades become friends and lovers; relationships develop. To a large extent this is to be expected. But it is problematic to ignore the subsequent implications to power dynamics, leadership and –always potentially- violence. In these established groups, a perpetrator is often facilitated by a social network that endorses, silences or refuses to confront a problem as serious as sexual violence within their spaces. At the same time, as the globalisation of capital requires people to move around, communities dissipate. One implication for perpetrators of violence is that they have a relatively easy escape-route, away from the community, away from responsibility. More so, a community does not necessarily equal a support network for vulnerable or powerless members; there is nothing inherently supportive in the materialisation of a community. Oppressive structures are formed in the Left and priorities are executed depending on how decisions are made and who rises to an assumed position of leadership.

Middle-scale – The University and the Student Movement

Within this broader context, it is also essential to examine our position within Higher Education and the student movement for free education. Universities are sites for the performance of academic labour, which is by and large performed in a solitary fashion. The ideology of the entrepreneurial self permeates the university, meaning that one’s success or failure is borne individually.. The student, therefore, is engaged in predominantly solitary forms of work throughout their time at university, exemplified by their individual grades and degree qualification at the end of the course. Thus, academic labour is institutionally solitary. Yet, the contemporary university does offer forms of sociality, often mediated through the Student Union and student societies. These institutional forms of sociality are often the only option open to students outside of their immediate living situation for socialising with other students on the basis of common interests. However, such societies are purely voluntary, meaning that an institutionalised separation between the solitary nature of academic work and the sociality of student societies is maintained throughout the ‘student experience’. Thus, university life is divided between the solitary experience of gaining a degree, where all liability is held by the individual; and the purely voluntary forms of social interaction which may or may not be available to individual students.

This can result in the clear trade-off between a healthy social life and a successful completion of a degree programme, with the former often being abandoned in favour of the latter. This is related to the social necessity of academic labour – one has, afterall, taken on significant individual debt in order to access higher education so as to gain a degree. No such necessity undergirds sociality within student societies, meaning that the student experience is definitively secondary to considerations of individual success within a degree programme. Therefore, social isolation is a very real threat confronting many students within universities, especially for those who struggle, for whatever reason, to engage with the legitimate institutional expressions of sociality – the student union and its attendant student societies.

The student movement for free education which sprung up on campuses in response to government proposals to increase tuition fees emerged within this division. In many ways, the political groupings on campuses provided alternate means of sociality, this time organised around a concrete campaign relating to the well-being of students and the prospects for education in general. The student movement, therefore, had its own responses to the division of academic labour and sanctioned forms of sociality – these groups became, themselves, communities or sub-groups within a campus culture. Free education groups became, for many of us, the principal means of doing political work and socialising. These groups thus blurred the lines between the personal and the political, and not always in positive ways.

The free education movement was itself stratified. It existed at the official institutional level (National Union of Students), the national coordinating level (National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts) and local/regional groups (Defend Education groups, etc.). At the lowest, most immediate campus level the groups which composed NCAFC were unofficial, non-sanctioned and non-institutionalised groups pursued by university and state authorities due to their propensity to perform occupations and demonstrations in direct opposition to leadership at the student union and university-wide levels. This outsider status for such groups, and the fact that they were often condemned or directly attacked by the authorities, tended to make them intensely inward. Lacking formal structures, intense bonds of trust were formed between free education activists within these groups, in spite of significant political and ideological differences. As such, these groups tended to manifest significant in-groups which formed the core of much free education activism on campuses. As such, free education groups had to tackle the solitude of academic life in the university, the narrowness of peoples’ social lives and the lines of legitimacy/illegitimacy drawn and maintained by the state and its agencies. These groups mediated these problems by becoming quite intensely social as well as political entities. People socialised with comrades, often exclusively. Thus, social and political boundaries tended to blur into one, allowing politics to be mobilised for social reasons and vice versa. The horizontalist and relatively informal means of organising further facilitated this blurring.

Horizontalism, the idea that there is no leadership or hierarchy within an organisation but a series of networked roles and responsibilities, tended to fit the free education movement quite well. Given the focus on a single issue – education and tuition fees – political differences were sidelined. Unity around the issue of free education is all that mattered, meaning that such groups were often patch-work in their political composition.

As a result of the commitment to the abolition of tuition fees as a demand and the horizontalist mode of organising there was little opportunity for a coherent critique of political and social relations beyond the universities to emerge during this era of the student movement. Indeed, this focus meant that developing any kind of community perspective on the interpersonal dimension (i.e. on the interaction between individuals and small groups) was sidelined and reduced to the issues of formality/informality and hierarchy. The result of this was that critique of abusive practices, either generally or in particular relationship to patriarchy and sexual violence, was not developed enough in theory or materialised enough in practice. Indeed, it is impossible for us to know how many cases of sexual violence took place over the years within the student movement or the broader communities which emerged from this movement. Some of the reasons for this are outlined in the section of this article called ‘What factors prevent victims from sharing their experience, asking for support, or leaving the threatening situation they are in?’ At the institutional level of the universities however we do have some research on the prevalence of sexual violence. For example, the Hidden Marks report published in 2010 by the NUS found that 68% of respondents had experienced either verbal or physical sexual harassment and 14% had experienced sexual assault. Under reporting of cases of sexual violence means that it is certain that these figures do not accurately represent either the full extent of the problem nor the degree to which sexual violence is normalised at universities in Britain.The reduction of the politics of the interpersonal to questions of formality/informality and hierarchy, and the focus on abolishing tuition fees education as a demand meant that the free education groups failed to develop a critical perspective on the kind of instrumental rationality which can develop within social movements, particular those where bureaucratic procedures and intense in-group/out-group distinctions are unavoidable. Indeed, the lack of reflection found its accompaniment in the perceived need to constantly organise campaigns and protest actions. This need was shaped by the relatively short-term duration of university courses and consequent high turnover of activists. As such activity within the groups was almost constant, with particularly high levels of activity around  student union elections. The outcome for the free education movement was that individuals were considered one-dimensionally in instrumental terms, terms in which people were valued in relation to how useful they were for furthering the goals of the movement. This went for both those who were in key organising positions as well as those who were considered to be foot soldiers in the fight for free education.

Micro level

Sexual violence or sexualised violence is at once a deeply personal yet also depressingly ubiquitous experience. We have discussed above the structural and contextual factors for this particular case which sparked this process and, indeed, this article but we must also understand what happened as specific to our own lives, friendships, alliances and group. The inter-personal dynamics of the group played its role in what happened but were thus, in turn, created and influenced by the wider context of patriarchy, disableism, rape culture etc. but also, as described, the student movement in the UK within a specific time period.

Yet, how our group functioned was unique in some ways. It had to be, for it was comprised of a set of individual actors who constituted its actions and culture. For many of our early meetings we discussed and attempted to analyse the actions of the perpetrator as an individual, perhaps to our own detriment – for understanding these actions without the person in question is an almost impossible task. Instead, then, we looked to the actions of the group itself and how we organised work, socialising and relationships. We found the question of who does social reproductive and emotional labour to be an important factor in how we understood the group to have functioned. Related to this, the question of care and how we cared or, in some cases, did not care for one another, was recurrent.

A group without formal hierarchies, as already discussed, is one in which informal hierarchies will inevitably develop. Our group was no different. Those with charisma, those with a high commitment to political campaigns, those with so-called social capital were able to become de facto leaders within the group. Effectively this meant that they were able to control not only the political but also the social dimensions of the group. Being a ‘leader’ here also allowed one to influence how work was done in the group and by whom. Yet it came at the cost of constant work for yourself, a constant need to saturate yourself with tasks but also a sense of martyrdom. A sacrifice of yourself to the state, to others. This allowed a certain power to form through manipulation of people’s respect and, perhaps, guilt at their own perceived lack of sacrifice or work commitment. This mirrors Jo Freeman’s description of the ‘elite’ group formed via structurelessness in her astoundingly resonant essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness.

Related to this, state repression had a large effect on this informal hierarchy. The state and its actors do not comprehend fully the idea of a non-hierarchical organisation nor do they recognise actions as being collective. Freeman describes these de facto leaders as ‘stars’ who are selected without the consent of the group and who, therefore, are not accountable to the group itself as they might be were they selected by it. This functioned a little differently in our group, however, as we did tend to release things like press statements and statements posted on our collective blog about our actions rather than speaking directly to the press. Instead of controlling the public narrative the victimisation of individuals by the state meant that the group was forced to galvanise around these individuals, who were victimised by the state due to implicit leadership, in order to support them. This is common in activist circles which tend to institute person-specific campaigns around those who are experiencing repression in some way.

Our group did experience a large degree of state repression as it often participated in high-risk actions such as occupation, confrontational protests, rallies and banner drops. Those who tended towards taking on the higher risk positions during actions were often part of the aforementioned ‘elite’ group and were able to consolidate their power through continuing to place themselves in these high risk roles.

Whilst it is important to support our victimised comrades in a political sense there is also a large extent to which they must be supported emotionally and socially. This work can often fall upon their partners and close friends and thus not be taken up by the group as a whole. Of course, this is only natural as we tend to see this type of work as fundamentally ‘private’ and therefore not of political import or concern. However, this does have an impact upon those closest to those comrades as they are doing a great deal of unrecognised and undervalued labour. This labour typically falls on women and feminised people, as it did in our case.

In terms of overall care for one another this theme continues to be of concern. Fundamentally some people have higher care needs than others – thus, the idea that care and reception of care can be doled out equally is a flawed perspective. One’s need for care and capacity to enact care for others can alter many times in the course of one’s life. This depends on many factors but within the context of our activist group we saw this play out in specific ways. Disability and the need for physical and emotional comfort in the face of it had a large impact on power dynamics, for example, as it was never formally recognised.

Many groups lack the ability and political direction to confront these matters directly. Our context was one of chaotic and campaign-driven organisation which did not take seriously questions of care, social reproduction and emotional labour. Many of us were very young activists for whom this was a formative political experience. In many ways, our relative youth and inexperience led to our inability to challenge one another and to have the confidence to intervene in our comrades’ social and political activity. We did not have a strong point of reference for how to do this, nor much experience of how political organisation functions and grows. Those with more experience did not tend to disseminate this information effectively. Though there were often attempts to transfer practical skills there was little meta conversation of how the group itself functioned.

It is difficult to determine an overall view or perspective towards sexualised violence that those in the group held. Certainly among us were strongly feminist people, many of whom pursued more explicitly feminist activity, such as Women’s Association, outside of the group. It was commonly brought up, for example, how education cuts could affect women differently and more substantially than men. Many of the ‘elite’ group were women and the group itself was fairly gender balanced. Politics of identity had their place in the discussion, in an abstract sense, yet in our own personal context they were not usually applied. Certainly we had absolutely no formal mechanism to cope with conflict in the group, let alone anything more serious such as rape.

Interestingly, in this discussion of the ‘elite’ or ‘in’ group it should be noted that, in fact, both survivor and perpetrator could be categorised as belonging to said ‘elite’. Although this gave both some level of power, it also isolated them. Seeming to be in charge, a ‘power couple’ beyond reproach meant that they were also seen as invulnerable. They were allowed to take on political work together, were considered to be ‘taking care’ of one another and thus have no need of outside care or influence. This is a common problem and exists due to the heteronormative view of relationships, particularly intimate partner relationships, as thoroughly ‘private’ and not to be meddled in by those outside of them.

Here we can see, then, that all levels here play into one another: the general into the specific and vice versa. What’s more – we can see patterns emerging, the structures we exist in, the context, the political situations, the interpersonal dynamics between us all playing their part in creating our own interpretations of the situation we found and continue to find ourselves in. Some key themes that we identified,  in all cases, were those questions of the relegation of care, social reproduction and emotional labour to an implicit gendered task rather than a task or tasks of political and social import. This is a general statement yet one that resonates throughout society, the student movement and our own group as well as the lives of the individuals who participated in it.