Belfast – a lived hermeneutic of class and ethnicity

Belfast is a city like none other I’ve known. It’s not a great city, per-say, it isn’t a tourist destination (other than for conflict tourism), it isn’t a great centre for culture, and it doesn’t have the greatest mountains, seaside or rivers to boast. Nor does it have a particularly useful transit system. But it is walkable, and because of its difficult history it becomes an interesting place to reflect on the confluence of class, culture, state and violence in the western world, most specifically the portion of that world colonized by Britain. It serves as an example of a place touched deeply by a wider set of social forces, a place more deeply traumatized by inequality and hierarchy, which might by the extremes that have been witnessed here, suggest things about other places which you wouldn’t see, too far hidden below the surface.

This is a town with a strong working class history, but instead of moving in the general way – from class solidarity in the 30s to strong unionization and improvements through till the 70s, when unions are broken and class unconscious is enforced by neo liberalism and improved modern marketing, that history is punctuated by a radicalism of a different order. There was no armed working class uprising here, but there have been various armed nationalist uprisings largely coming from the working class community. But nationalism and the Marxist critique of capitalism have always been difficult brothers here – it was in fact in the late 60s when the republican movement had adopted a non-violent Marxist and anti-sectarian ideology that a splinter group broke off and became the mainstream republican insurgency for the following 30 years. Nationalism was the story which crystalized the disenfranchisement and oppression of the Catholic community here, and turned it into sustained opposition to the political order which was gerrymandered in favour of the Protestant population.

But the class and ethnic identities cut different lines through this place – there are protestant working class as well as catholic working class. If any place embodies the idea of “labour aristocracy” it is this place. You probably didn’t know that when the Titanic was built, the shipyards only employed about 5% Catholics, although you may have known that when the troubles broke out, the unemployment rate for Catholics was much higher than it was for Protestants. So it isn’t an accident that Protestants sided against the Catholic working classes – their material lives depended on the privilege of work. And did you know that when the first power sharing agreement which may have ended the troubles was stopped, it was stopped by a general strike, organized by loyalist paramilitaries, but with popular support from the Protestant working classes?

Throughout the conflict, there have been those who called for the de-privileging of ethnic identities and the emphasis on class identity instead. The most important groups to emphasize this were the OIRA/Workers Party, and the UVF/PUP, although it bears noting that both these groups also carried out brutal sectarian murder. But what is interesting about these groups is that their rhetoric of anti-sectarianism (and to be precise, it was only for a period in the 1970s that the UVF published anti-sectarian ideology) did not catch on – that these stories were not persuasive, and that the conflict returned to the language of ethnicity and was ultimately resolved not through class solidarity but by a compromise between the ethnically nationalist groups. Why is this the case – why, despite real effort on the part of sections of the protestant and catholic working class did class-analysis not prevail, why was the focus of the conflict never fully turned towards inequality and away from questions of national allegiance or religious affiliation? Colin Coulter in her sociology of Northern Ireland gives this account:

“Socioeconomic status rarely enjoys an affective power comparable to that of ethnicity or nationalism largely because it fails to produce an equally potent symbolic programme….It is ‘the Sash’ or ‘The Soldiers’ Song’ rather than ‘the Interinationale’ that brings tears to the eyes of working class men as the end of licensing hours beckons…Ethnonational communities have managed to lay stronger claims than social classes to the political loyalties of people living in Northern Ireland not because they have greater material significance, but rather because they tell better stories” (99)

I would be quite sympathetic to this reading of the situation – socioeconomic organizers have focusses systematically on ‘the simple facts’, leaving out the stories that actually motivate social struggles. Struggle against oppression is not easy, and cold hard individualistic logic tends to encourage people to give into power rather than resist it. People resist because they believe in a common future which only becomes possible because of the common belief in it. Therefore, emphasis on telling good stories, on creating the possibilities for futures through symbolic orders, is not optional for those who want to struggle against various forms of oppression today. We can’t under estimate the importance of concrete social oppression in the formation of insurrectionist politics, but neither can we underestimate the importance of the stories that emerge as dominant in extreme situations – like in the bogside, and like in the refugee camp. And we can’t be neutral with respect to the content of these stories, and at the same time we can’t be purists and only endorse stories that perfectly instantiate our values. We need a dynamic understanding of stories which values their objective role in struggle, and forgives them for their idiosyncrasies and even prejudices, because there is no position of observation from which an alternative story can be merely asserted and reasonably expected that it be taken up by the wretched of the earth. If you want to criticize the stories they pick and the particularities that fall by the wayside as they struggle for freedom and self determination, your options are to stand hypocritically on the wayside as a beautiful soul, or become involved yourself and try to influence the struggle in a less pathological direction. The first way is the sedimented purity of ressentiment, and the second the wild politics that accepts that to change the sail which captures and institutes the winds of change, you must do so from on the sail itself.


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