We Are Not Your Flock: Reading Angela Smith with Rancière.

What does the Independent Group’s claimed “duty to lead” tell us about their attitude towards the world-making capacities of the working class?

Left responses to the launch of ‘The Independent Group’ have been coming thick and fast; at the time of writing, it’s barely 7 days since the group presented themselves to the public, and Tribune alone have already published three pieces on them. I am reluctant to add my voice to the chorus—reluctant to bathe their strange project in the legitimising glow of the spotlight. But, muffled by the competing clamours of bad graphic design, mystery swearing, and revelatory racisms, something emerged that bears interrogation. During her inaugural speech as a member of ‘The Independent Group’, the following words came out of Angela Smith’s mouth:

For my parents, working class pride was not about enjoying poverty and wearing it as a badge of honour… people do not want to be patronised by left-wing intellectuals who think that being poor and working class constitutes a state of grace.

Where to begin? The double movement of deploying working class identity as a “badge of honour” even whilst disavowing this process? The appeal to a ‘deserving poor’, some ideal proletariat, vulnerable, incapable, stricken with shame and desperate to be led? The related borrowing of poorly-understood theological terms to suggest that we proles—“the unnameable agglomeration of these troglodyte peasants,” in Jacques Rancière’s sharp formulation1—are tainted with mortal sin and need a guiding pastoral hand? The—again, related—implication that so-called ‘left-wing intellectuals’ and working class people are two distinct categories, with no possibility of overlap; that is, the notion that working class people can’t be intellectuals? It has been pointed out that the reference to ‘left-wing intellectuals’ functions as an antisemitic dogwhistle, and this is important to name and condemn. My main interest here, however—and it is by no means unconnected—is in the way in which Smith deploys the figure of the ‘intellectual’, whoever they may be, against the lumpen masses of the poor, abject and ignorant. What are the politics of knowledge at stake here? What does it mean to dismiss the knowledge and wisdom of the people, to refuse to hear our voices as anything other than the bleating of so many disobedient sheep?2

There can be no space for working class left-wing intellectuals in Smith’s cosmology. As Rancière notes, in his critique of Sartre’s politics of knowledge, “an unskilled worker who thinks would ‘damage’ the machine.”3 The machine of production, the machine of capital—and, crucially, the machine of a technocratic, formalist, empty politics, in which everything has its right place. To assert oneself as the upholder, the maintainer of a particular socio-political order, a particular technics, is a gesture of supremacy: how to spot the ruling class. And this sort of technocratic mastery is evident in the stated aims of the ‘Independent Group’: they claim “a right to be heard and a duty to lead;” they intend to “safeguard” not only “Britain’s national security” and “the vulnerable”, but also “the planet” itself, as though by day they are just seven minor elected officials, but by night—powered only by milk, bigotry, and private finance—they transform into avenging heroes. They do no such thing. “The planet” is not theirs to “safeguard”—and, my god, that choice of word: the apotheosis of alienating policy jargon. To care is human, to safeguard is divine.

They have to get around this self-elevation by appealing to some “pure” proletarian who miraculously and intuitively agrees with their anti-worker, technocratic proposals; “the vulnerable” appealed to in their mission statement, entirely passive and dependent; the figure, as Rancière notes, “for whom the possibility of losing [their] chains exists only by… decree”.4 Enter torture-loving Actual Baron David Blunkett, expressing his support for the Maleficent Seven5 by describing the diverse & rapidly expanding grassroots Labour left as “deeply middle class” people who “don’t know anything about real politics and statecraft.” Try as he might to conflate them, there are two distinct claims being made here: an authentocratic appeal to class politics, and a technocratic appeal to expertise. These claims are wilfully incommensurable (the point is that this perfect prole cannot exist), but the gesture of attempted conflation reveals something; and that something is a double bind with which many of my fellow bookishly curious working class people will be familiar.

This double bind operates, like Blunkett’s comment, on two levels: class, and expertise. The class element, helpfully illustrated above by the perpetually sneering Euan Philipps, dictates that any engagement with left politics, or any desire to direct the course of things, automatically marks one as inauthentic. Do you feel entitled to any degree of collective self-determination that expands beyond being framed as “a voter”? Well, then, you must be middle class, and thus out of touch with Real Proles, who know that they should be guided. Then there’s the question of expertise, which declares that working class people who want to act politically (which is to say, collectively, from below, “with and for others”6) are clownish, childlike; this silly desire to have effects and consequences in a sense beyond technocratic individualism works to precisely mark them out as those who should be ruled, guided, governed. They’re too foolish to know that politics is a “job” for “experts”, and that’s precisely why they should never be permitted to get anywhere near the sources of power. Rancière has observed that this conceptualises working class-ness as something close to a pathology; it is a worldview in which working class people are “people who are not born for philosophy;” whose “bodies and souls” are “marked… with an infirmity, the best proof of which is their desire to approach the philosophy of which they are not worthy.”7 So our desire to think and act politically marks us out both as inauthentic, as fake proles, as pseuds and poseurs, and, at the same time, as silly yokels who fail to grasp just how far this thinking is beyond us.

We’re damned if we do, and we’re damned if we don’t. It is revealing that, whatever we choose, in this worldview, we are always damned. There can be no state of grace for the workers. Only the desperate striving for redemption, the cycles of confession, repentance, punishment, sin that keep us bound to certain orders, certain ways of being; keep us dependent on our ministers for our salvation. But the right’s insistence upon this pastoral dynamic reveals a failure to grasp that the moment of salvation is already here: working class people are—always already—political, politicised, politicking. Unashamed, unrepentant—independent! We are not your flock. What, then, are we to make of the Seven’s “duty to lead”? To whom is this duty owed? How can they lead us when they cannot even see us? When on the day of judgement they descend like vengeful angels from their exalted heights, who is waiting to be led, to be saved?

What if, having no need of grace or absolution, of permission or instruction, we have already saved ourselves?

  1. Jacques Rancière. 2003. The Philosopher and his Poor. Translated by John Drury, Corinne Oster, and Andrew Parker. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Ebook version. p.183 

  2. Sheep are, of course, not stupid—they possess their own lifeworlds, their own wisdom, their own collectivities. The pastoral metaphor is wrong about sheep, just as its extrapolation is wrong about the working class. 

  3. Rancière, p.237 

  4. Rancière, p.94 

  5. The founding ‘members’ of TIG, Luciana Berger, Ann Coffey, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Angela Smith, and Chuka Umunna. At the time of publication they have been joined by Labour’s Joan Ryan, and Tories Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry, and Sarah Wollaston; and Labour backbench wrecker Ian Austin has left the party in TIG’s slipstream, though he claims not to be a ‘member’. 

  6. Paul Ricœur. 1994. Oneself as Another. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p.172 

  7. Rancière, pp.89-90