Tuesday 21 June

Activist: Jack Jeans (Tate Strike)

Historians: Lucy MacFadzean (Aberystwyth), Gavin Grindon (Essex)

Key questions:

  • What does ‘art funding’ mean – funding for large and established institutions or for grass-roots initiatives? Does museums’ non-profit status still apply now that they rely primarily on private funding? Is a general rethink of how culture is funded necessary to reshape work models within cultural institutions too?
  • Who has ownership within a large cultural institution like Tate? What role can artists whose work is exhibited in these spaces play in disputes about conditions within the institution? What about the workers who are also artists, supporting their art work by working part-time or on a casualised basis within the institution and thereby subsidising the prominent artists the institution promotes? 
  • How can social media and digital and visual communication with members and the public be used to raise the profile of labour disputes in cultural institutions? What about the press? How can these communication strategies use museum’s reputations as open and liberal as leverage?
  • How should unions respond to changing working conditions such as outsourcing, migrant work, and zero-hours contracts? How can we rethink professional divisions between unions that lead to conflicts of interest and sectarianism? What about workers whose contracts place them outside union recognition agreements because they are freelance, self-employed, or casualised? Does the unionisation of casualised workers such as self-employed couriers and sex workers offer a more widely applicable model?
  • What parallels can be drawn with conditions and labour activism in cultural and educational institutions and issues such as outsourcing? 
  • How can these campaigns be archived, and how can archiving be used to generate further solidarity?

The History Acts session on 18 June brought together Jack Jeans, an organiser for Tate Strike, and historians of cultural activism Lucy MacFadzean (Aberystwyth) and Gavin Grindon (Essex) to discuss how historical awareness could be used to support culture workers coordinating industrial action. Here is a brief summary of some of the issues and ideas that were discussed. 

A key point of discussion, and one that strongly informed the approach of Tate Strike, was the question of arts funding. State funding for the culture sector has fallen, leading it to rely increasingly on corporate funding streams. This has led to a greater focus on blockbuster exhibitions to bring in private income, increasing pressure on staff as well as reducing diversity in the exhibitions. At Tate, pay has also fallen by 20% in real terms since the financial crash. A PCS survey from May 2018 showed that half of staff at Tate had suffered from pay cuts and overwork and over half of many workers’ pay was spent on the cost of renting accommodation in London. Jack Jeans also noted that workers within the culture sector are perceived as having other motivations than pay in their choice of work and that this is used to justify low pay. 

Jack Jeans and Gavin Grindon, a member of Liberate Tate, noted that cultural institutions value their outward-facing reputation as liberal, inclusive, and progressive spaces, and are sensitive to high-profile campaigns showing that their workers are subject to low pay, overwork, and discriminatory employment practices. The pressure that Tate Strike could exert using social media forced the institution to capitulate and make an additional pay offer to avert strike action that would damage its image. Liberate Tate drew its strategy from direct action groups, staging protests deliberately presented as performances to justify their presence in cultural institutions. Interest and support from the art press raised their profile. They also sought a dialogue with cleaners and other support staff, establishing solidarity and common ground.

A key question was how unions can and should reform their traditional structures to work across professional divisions and represent casualized labour to prevent different unions and workers from being pitted against one another. For instance, union representatives are often not facilitated to support outsourced workers. Joint union meetings may mean that workers are uncomfortable speaking out in front of their managers. 

Through the example of the Greater London Council, Lucy MacFadzean raised the issue of artistic value, where it is housed, how it is represented, and how it is created. The GLC sought to make culture about community building, seeing cultural industries as a means of creating jobs and generating funds for the city. Rethinking the funding structures that support cultural industries could offer an opportunity also to rethink the centrality of big institutions like Tate, which increase gentrification. The labour that cultural institutions rely on to create artistic value is often made invisible through outsourcing work or employing unpaid interns and freelance workers. It was noted that Tate uses its Learning Department as pressure valve for these concerns, inviting radical speakers and artists without addressing structural inequalities in their own workplaces. 

The discussion considered how history and archiving could support these and future campaigns. The Liberate Tate campaign is archived within Tate, but while this means that the campaign successfully infiltrated the institution it sought to hold to account, it also gave the institution the means to sanitise the record. It was agreed that it is crucial to create networks with other groups engaged in similar protests, for instance the campaign against BP funding at the National Portrait Gallery. Protest groups can take direct action that is not open to unions. 

Establishing cross-generational activist links, for instance with activists working with the GLC in the 1980s, will offer a way of working against institutions’ attempts to reclaim historical protests while divorcing them from similar action in the present day. Connecting with activists, artists, and historians across generations can also offer context to present-day campaigns which can generate new publicity.


Tuesday 21 May

Activist: Kevin Blowe (NetPol)
Historians: Anja Johansen (Dundee), Jonah Miller (KCL)

Key questions:

  • How is police violence discussed? What does ‘policing by consent’ mean and how is it understood?
  • How and what can be learnt from the history of how different groups in society interact with (or are demonised by) police?
  • How is the language of ‘extremism’ used to label and ‘other’ an ‘enemy’ the police can be aggressive towards? How does this relate to the concept of the ‘mob’ and fear of political insurrection through history?
  • How does Britain’s history of imperialism inform modern-day practices of policing?
  • What alternatives are there (or are possible) for responding to crime that don’t involve police crack-downs?
  • What is the impact of Liberalism on police practice, accountability, and access to complaints systems?
  • How can understanding legal structures around bringing charges against police officers help us understand accountability?
  • How can historical records from different periods help us understand contemporary accountability (bearing in mind records can be retrospectively closed)? How can activists create our own records in helpful ways?
  • What is the role of the press in challenging the police and what impact has this had historically and can it have now?
  • What does success look like in advocating for victims of police violence?
  • Is there scope to press for change on policing within Labour, perhaps by pitching surveillance as a human rights issue? 

The History Acts session on 21 May brought together Kevin Blowe, coordinator of the Network for Police Monitoring (NetPol) and historians of policing Anja Johansen (Dundee) and Jonah Miller (KCL) to discuss what value history could have in working against police violence and increasing police accountability. Here is a brief summary of some of the issues and ideas that were discussed. 

A key point of discussion was how to bridge the gap between audiences who do not personally experience police violence and the experience of demonstrators and groups who face police repression regularly or continually. NetPol focuses on issues including stop-and-search, violent arrests, and police harassment, and supports the families of people who have died in police custody. Jonah Miller offered historical examples of similar policing practices from the 18thcentury. It was agreed that history can be used to show those not habitually subject to police violence how these tactics are used and how quickly the contexts in which they are applied can change. The panel discussed how modern recording and dissemination technologies can help to spread awareness and give the police less control over the narratives around incidents of police violence, although this has not led to increased police accountability.

The panel agreed that the language around policing was important. Police violence tends to be discussed as an aberration or tragedy. By comparison the language around ‘extremism’ is used to create a criminalised, enemy ‘other’ that justifies police violence and surveillance against people labelled in this way. NetPol calls for the label ‘extremist’ to be scrapped as it has no legal basis. 

The group discussed the influence of imperial history on modern-day police practices and how this underpins the normalisation of an armed police presence. This is frequently linked to a fear of political insurrection and ‘mob’ uprisings.

The discussion turned to how police might be held accountable. Anja Johansen argued that it is crucial that citizens are able to bring charges against police officers. Jonah Miller added that before the police force was professionalised criminal trials of police constables were common and regularly led to convictions. Some historical examples of mobilisation against police power by the press, politicians, individuals, and legal lobbying groups were discussed; however, these often lacked support or developed in different political directions, dropping their focus on police accountability. This raised the question of the hollowing-out of legal aid and the fact that fewer lawyers are able to dedicate time to Pro Bono work. This means individuals face a growing difficulty in bringing legal cases. The possibility of a National Legal Service was raised.

The group discussed the privatisation of public spaces, ‘public space protection orders’, and the criminalisation of ‘anti-social behaviour’ such as rough sleeping, and how these form part of a narrative around the policing of ‘public order’. This climate is currently heightened by issues such as Brexit and climate change protests, increasing the likelihood of police violence. Increased surveillance in the form of facial recognition technology and ‘information-led’ investigations was also discussed.

Kevin Blowe raised the issue of the recent closure of previously open records relating to cases of police violence. The Undercover Research Group has traced these closures. Activists have also kept their own records, but these have not yet been reviewed, compiled, or curated. NetPol activists are currently writing a handbook on setting up a police monitoring network. This would be a good call for historical research. 


Tuesday 16 April, Birkbeck College

Key questions:

  • Why is anti-fascism so white?/ What is the relationship between anti-fascism and anti-racism?
  • How can fascism be effectively combatted on the internet?
  • Is violent confrontation a necessary aspect of anti-fascist activism?
  • What is the significance of language?/ Who gets to define ‘fascism’?
  • Is it useful for anti-fascism to be subculture?
  • Is anti-fascism policing the acceptable boundaries of discourse?
  • How can you counter fascism when it is in power? / What happens when the overton window shifts and you are opposing government policies, rather than fascists on the street?
  • How useful is localism and the idea of defending one’s own ‘turf’ in anti-fascist mobilisation?
  • How can we fight fascism when it is more diffuse and fluid than its predecessors?
  • Are anti-fascists mobilising against organisations/institutions or narratives?
  • How can anti-fascists address the underlying factors that give rise to support for fascist groups and narratives?
  • How can anti-fascists counter the weaponization of the label ‘fascists’ against the left?
  • What role has anti-communism played in fascism historically?
  • Is there any value in the idea of a ‘popular front’ against fascism?
  • How can we deal with the sheer number of fascists that are being mobilised?
  • Should anti-fascists mobilise against fascism in particular, rather than the ‘far-right’ more broadly?

The History Acts session on the 16th April brought together historians of anti-fascism with anti-fascist activists to discuss what value history might have in combating fascism today. Here is a brief summary of some of the issues and ideas that were discussed.

Adam, member of Plan C and one of the hosts of 12 Rules for What, suggested that history could be a tool for anti-fascists, yet has the potential to weigh them down. Campaigns such as ‘Bring Back Rock Against Racism’ are stuck in the cultural moment of the 1970s and risk mis-reading contemporary youth culture – much of which is now orientated towards online platforms like YouTube. Although there has been progress made in the development of a counter-movement of left-wing youtubers like ContraPoints, it is difficult to know how to tackle the sheer popularity of many right-wing youtubers like PewDiePie amongst young people.  

There might be value in drawing parallels between fascists today and WW2-era fascists – such as the picture that was leaked of John Tyndall of the BNP in full Nazi uniform, or the comparison of Tommy Robinson with tape over his mouth to a similar image of Hitler – but this toxification of fascist ‘brands’ might be more difficult in the present day when it is not as easy to draw a straight line connecting key figures to WW2 fascism.

The relationship between anti-fascism and anti-racism must also be explored; anti-fascism must necessarily be anti-racist. The majority of anti-fascist activists are white, but can we expect people of colour put themselves in danger in potentially violent conflicts with fascists in the street? This raised the question of the place of violence and militancy in anti-fascist activism. Nigel Copsey, historian of anti-fascism in Britain, suggested that violence has historically been a defining feature of anti-fascism – which is necessary, effective and justified. Adam also suggested that militancy is itself a territory that needs to be contested and not simply conceded to fascists. What, however, happens when fascists withdraw from the street into ‘community politics’, or take power? How might anti-fascists develop effective techniques and tactics of mobilization which are able to adapt as fascists do?

This related to the broader question of what anti-fascists are rallying against. Anti-fascists are not necessarily organising against particular parties, groups or organisations – as in the twentieth century – but narratives, such as the ‘betrayal of brexit’, sexual grooming cases or the denial of ‘free speech’. How should anti-fascists respond when they are no longer fighting battles in the street – but government policy and the mainstream media?

Discussion also turned to how anti-fascists can address the root causes of fascism. Is ant-fascism useless if it is not combined with a structural critique of the economy? How has fascism, historically, been associated with anti-communism? Anti-fascist mobilisation can often be rooted in localism and the idea of a defending one’s own turf against fascists, but how could this local mobilisation also speak to the material deprivation communities face and offer a transformative vision for economy and society?