6 Reasons We Need to Name the Enemy

by Gabriel Bristow

12 December 2014

Politics involves conflict and conflict requires an enemy. Often, the enemy is sublimely obvious and is an organic part of the political process: Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax riots (no this is not a post-punk band), for example. But increasingly, the baddies are becoming more difficult to explicitly name. Clearly, we can and do still manage to point the finger of blame – it was the recent victories of the Focus E15 Mothers campaign that first prompted these reflections. But in a world where democracy is circumvented by elites – such as the faceless, technocratic collusion between US and EU officials over TTIP – a deliberate and strategic naming of enemies is as vital to #winning as ever.

1. The enemies have moved from the shop-floor to the top floor.

The principal arenas of political conflict have changed in the last 40 years. In the 1970s, struggles were often located  in workplaces – between unions and ‘enemy’ employers.  This shifted to the arena of electoral politics in the 1980s: the struggle was about political representation, the means was the ballot box, and the enemy was the opposing party. Since the 1990s, democracy has been removed even further from daily life, where obscure financial instruments determine the ability to meet the most basic of needs.

So decision-making power – and consequently potential ‘enemies’ or ‘allies’ – have become less democratically accountable. This is not to say that disputes no longer happen or matter in the workplace – they do. Rather, it is to echo Wolfgang Streeck’s point that the financialisation of the economy has meant a relative insulation of powerful elites. This makes naming and shaming enemies all the more important.

2. Having an enemy allows movements to make effective demands.

Demands are a necessary part of building political struggle. Everyone needs them. For demands to be effective, they need to be well directed. It has been convincingly argued that a key weakness of the Occupy movement was its lack of demands: by refusing on principle to clearly state what it wanted, it was unable to produce the kind of measurable successes needed to sustain itself.

Assuming that making demands would have had more immediate success, who should these demands have been levelled at? The government? The bankers? The G8? All three? Deciding who the enemy is, and where your demands are directed, is just as important as the making of demands itself.

Perhaps if Occupy LSX had made three targeted demands – just maybe – one of them would have been met: 1. We demand that Gordon Brown caps bankers’ bonuses; 2. We demand that Stephen Hester, former CEO of RBS invests the bank’s combined bonuses of 1.5bn in 2009 into public welfare; 3. We demand the G8 implements a global ‘Robin Hood Tax’.

Never in our wildest dreams would all three of these decidedly moderate demands have been met. But a something-in-three chance is better than a none-in-none chance. And explicitly naming a range of different targets or ‘enemies’ – from local to global – would not only increase the chances of winning, but also highlight the interconnected scales at which capitalism operates.

3. When the enemy is too distant or too abstract, battles are lost.

Ironically, while the West’s terrorist foe was sufficiently vague and paranoia-inducing to legitimate (well, kind of…) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, one starts to wonder whether the ill-defined, looming figure of the ‘terrorist threat’ is coming back to haunt US hegemony. They made it bigger than the isolated figures of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and now they are locked into an unwinnable war against an invisible enemy.

In part, the anti-globalisation movement of the turn of the 21st century made the same mistake. While its tactic of summit-hopping was effective in highlighting capitalism’s ‘new’ global managers, this was not enough. The chosen enemies were too distant, too untouchable. The World Bank and the IMF are real and important enemies, but they are not the most tangible or close to home. Indeed, they have quite literally relocated their conferences from city centres (Genoa, Italy in 2001) to remote, temporary fortresses (Enniskillen, Ireland in 2013).

In other words, having a structural critique of capitalism’s global leaders is indispensable, but this needs to be linked to local, nameable enemies, who are within political reach.

4. The Focus E15 Mothers campaign ‘owned’ Robin Wales.

If you haven’t heard of the Focus E15 mothers, get to know. As a campaign, they have done many things right. What I want to emphasise is their named (and shamed) ‘enemy’ – Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham. While he was more of a natural enemy than a strategically chosen target, the success of the campaign makes this a perfect example of the argument being made here.

Robin Wales’ position in local government made him amenable to demands. And the campaign made him look incompetent, nasty, and above all ridiculous. Not only was he forced to re-house the E15 mothers and partially re-populate the Carpenters estate, he also felt obliged to apologise to them in public. In other words, if pushed, local government can set an example by going against central government austerity – let not the Greater London Council of the 1980s be forgotten.

5. The New Era 4 All campaign shows how it can get complicated…

Much the same can be said of the recent New Era 4 All residents campaign, though with a twist. Here, a conglomeration of private investors bought a housing estate in East London, raised the rents, and then threatened to do so again. The New Era 4 All residents campaign fought against this. Their initial focus on Benyon Estate – one of the property companies that bought the New Era estate, owned by millionaire Tory MP Richard Benyon – was successful: Benyon Estate pulled out. This was a visible ‘win’ for the campaign, gaining substantial media coverage.

However, the residents are now left with fewer accessible enemies: Westbrooke Partners, in American investment company that have not pulled out. In a sense, their enemies have been ‘off-shored’, falling outside the traditional sphere of national political accountability. There is no simple answer to this dilemma, but thinking about it helps focus on the way enemies are chosen and constructed, near or far.

6. A Labour government in 2015 will mean re-thinking ‘the enemy’.

While Labour are looking pretty feeble in the current opinion polls (and in general), they may nonetheless form the next government in May 2015.

Lets assume they do: what would it mean to no longer have the coalition government to rail against? Should chief executives of banks become household names alongside the prime minister? Would a ‘centre-left’ austerity government actually make things harder for those who want to bring about structural political change?

I am not arguing for that tired line that ‘for things to get better, they will have to get worse first’ – a Labour victory is the best thing likely to happen next May. But if they do win, new enemies will need to be carefully chosen and constructed in order to effectively build on existing struggles – against austerity and for luxury communism (or whatever it’s called).


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