Thursday, September 30, 2004

'Fascist-minded, racist... scum'

That's what Gerald Kaufman calls people in the Countryside Alliance who attacked him on Tuesday in his article in today's The Guardian. Kaufman writes that "I was spotted by a pro-hunt demonstrator, a stout, middle-aged man dressed in checked tweeds. He rushed up to me and yelled: "You Jewish bigot!" He went on screaming this at me dozens of times; perhaps it was the only phrase he knew." He goes on to say that "[t]he commotion he made attracted other pro-hunt demonstrators, hundreds of them, who surrounded me... All of them were howling at me, and a number took up the tweed-clad man's theme, offering such observations as: "You're an immigrant", and "You weren't born in this country" ."

No surprise that the Countryside Alliance is full of tweed-wearing racist reactionaries. While the backward views of some in the Countryside Alliance will not surprise most people - pro-fox hunting protesters' threatened and actual use of violence seems to have come as an unexpected shock to many in the media. But, really, the willingness of social elites to resort to violence and illegality when they feel their interests seriously under threat is to be expected. Perhaps I can draw a (rather tenuous) comparison here - Chile 1973. The ruling class in Chile had no compunction against overthrowing the democratically elected socialist President, Allende, in an illegal and murderous coup. In normal periods, when things are going its way, the social elite is, of course, loudly in favour of confining political activity to established 'constitutional channels', respect for 'the rule of law' and parliamentary democracy - indeed they find it hard to shut up about how great they are. However, history shows us that, when the dominant class feels its interests seriously threatened, it will not hesitate to drop its otherwise seemingly inviolable reverence for parliamentary democracy and legality. Parliamentary democracy is fine - as long as the interests of the ruling class are not attacked. This is the central lie of capitalist democracy. I do not mean that parliamentary democracy is a 'sham' and certainly not that 'bourgeois freedoms' are false. We must struggle to protect our democratic rights and freedoms. What I mean is that 'bourgeois freedoms' are severely limited by the structure of economic power inherent in capitalist social relations. The ruling class under capitalism has ultimate political power - democratic freedoms and rights exist only on their say so.

Of course, the parallel we can draw between the actions of the foxhunting protesters and the actions of those who overthrew Allende is only a very vague one. On the most obvious level, the illegality and violence of the foxhunting idiots consists of low level thuggishness and scuffles with police - while the Allende example involves the bloody, military overthrow of parliamentary democracy! The impending ban on fox-hunting clearly does not threaten the central interests of the ruling class - and indeed it is incorrect to see the pro-foxhunting movement simply as a ruling class movement. The defence of foxhunting is, at most, only of significant interest to peripheral fractions of the dominant class - predominantly the rural landowning aristocratic/semi-aristocratic fractions. The comparison between this, then, and the actions of the ruling class in Chile - where the fundamental economic interests of the whole bourgeoisie were under threat - is in many ways a trivial one. However, I think that, in some small way at least, the violent and illegal reaction of the foxhunting elite to the upcoming ban should reinforce socialists' understanding that the commitment of the ruling class to democracy and constitutional activity is by no means unconditional. It should further underline the harsh political reality that, when push comes to shove, the bourgeoisie will react violently against any serious attempts to wrest power from its grip.

Enough of the wider political lessons for socialists to be drawn from this whole foxhunting thing. What about the immediate issue at hand? Is the ban on foxhunting important - in fact should we support it? Much of the debate of course revolves around the issue of animal suffering. Beyond the immediate arguments over animal cruelty, there are two types of argument made in defence of hunting which stand out. Firstly, there are arguments made (especially on the letters page of the liberal newspapers) against the ban on the grounds of 'liberal tolerance'. The argument goes something like this: foxhunting is rather a trivial matter to get upset about and that the activities of a minority group in society should not be banned unless absolutely necessary - especially when that activity is of central importance to that minority group's sense of identity. The second argument (and this argument usually comes from quarters more to the political right) is that that the real impetus behind the moves to ban foxhunting is driven by a barely concealed class issue - dislike of the 'toffs' and 'honest country people'. The claims about cruelty, this argument goes, act as a kind of smoke screen for the real motivations of the anti-hunt lobby.

I think that the answer I would give to these two arguments run into to each other and I will set them out in a minute. Before that, a quick note on the cruelty issue. I certainly think that some elements of the anti-foxhunting lobby articulate rather ludicrously sentimental and unrealistic points of view. The fox is not a cuddly creature (and it certainly has no qualms about ripping chickens to pieces for example). Is concern over the cruelty of foxhunting then, misplaced? No, I don't think so. Though some animal rights campaigners sentimentalise the issue and paint childish images of cuddly foxy woxys, this does not mean that the suffering of hunted foxes can be dismissed as the concern only of infantile idiots. The deliberate infliction of pain and suffering on a sentient creature for the sole purpose of amusing human beings is no activity for civilised people to engage in. The natural world is a cruel place - foxes are not nice to chickens - but humans have evolved to the point where we can make conscious choices about whether or not to inflict suffering on others. If it is not necessary then we should not not do it - choosing not to harm other creatures is a mark of our humanity and of our (partial) separation from other animals. The fact that this creature we choose not to harm does not have the capacity to understand the concept of cruelty and moral choice is neither here nor there.

In addition, it is often argued that it is hypocritical to ban foxhunting while far greater animal cruelties exist unchecked - battery farming of poultry for example. But this is a stupid argument. You can be against foxhunting and battery farming. The fact that far greater evil exists does not mean that we should be unconcerned about smaller ones.

Now for the arguments against banning hunting which make use of the concept of liberal tolerance and idea of class based petty nastiness. Any good socialist will tell you that liberal arguments about 'pluralism' are usually a load of bollocks. Liberal pluralism usually overlooks the economic and political relations of power that lie under the surface. It is all very well to seek to safeguard diversity and plurality - as long as you are not blind to the structures of domination which underlie any given social formation. Those liberals who seek to protect foxhunting on the gounds of 'toleration' and 'minority rights' typically fail to see this 'minority interest group' in the context of wider relations of social hierarchy and power. The foxhunting lobby is not just 'another minority group' on a par with, say, Sikhs or single mothers. As a whole, in fact, they are a very powerful group and foxhunting exists, in a way, as an emblem of that power.

Foxhunting is rooted in the relations of power which grew up around the development of capitalism. Foxhunting only really took off in the late 18th century - at around the same time that land was appropriated on a massive scale by the by the rich, thanks to the Acts of Enclosure. Foxhunting requires the availability of large, relatively unpopulated and relatively open spaces of land. Uncultivated woodland on the one hand, and land divided into plots farmed by large numbers of peasants on the other is awfully difficult to charge across on horseback with a large number of mates. Foxhunting on a relatively large scale was only made possible because of the direct ownership of large amounts of sparsely populated, open land by a small number of people. The act of charging across farmland on horseback is also a great way of signifying your ownership of territory and ability to do what you please on it.

Foxhunting was/is not the exclusive preserve of super-rich landowners of course. Like all high status pursuits, foxhunting attracts the attentions of the nouveaux riches anxious to ape the lifestyles of the social group they aspire to be associated with. This still applies today. Foxhunting is a high status pursuit. Engaging in foxhunting is a way of signifying your belonging to a social elite. Anyone who has seen a hunt gathering will tell you that there is a real sense of elitist social hierarchy amongst foxhunters. Riders will often be gentry-types and relatively rich landowners, together with a sprinkling of nouveaux riches from various quarters (think of Otis Ferry). They are surrounded by cap doffing rural working class types who attend to the dogs and by middle and working class spectators who turn up to watch, in admiration, the activities of people who they, consciously or unconsciously, regard as their 'betters'. Foxhunting and class relations/hierarchy are intimately bound up together. It is the preserve of a social elite and an emblem of their power.

As for the argument that opposition to foxhunting is often based on some barely concealed notion of class war, my answer is - well yes it is, so what? Ok, the liberal left would baulk at being accused of stoking up class struggle. For the far-left amongst the anti-hunt lobby, however, the accusation that we are motivated by class struggle is entirely true and is nothing to be ashamed of.

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