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Laurie Penny: A response to Alex Callinicos

Deregulating resistance will mean deregulating the organisations that control resistance.

Let me say right from the start that I know I shouldn't do this. Arguing strategy with revolutionary leftist parties in a public forum is a little like discussing venereal disease at a children's birthday party: half the people there won't know or care what you're on about and the other half will start trying frantically to shush you in case you inadvertently reveal some oozing detail that relegates you to pariah status. Last week, however, I wrote an article for the Guardian that appears to have got me into trouble with the Socialist Workers Party and I'd like to respond to the ensuing brouhaha.

In the article, I wrote that the old organisational structures of revolution -- far-left parties, unions and splinter groups -- are increasingly irelevant to the movement that is building across Europe. The organisational structures, not the organisations themselves. The fact that there remains, in most communities in Britain, a small but dedicated group of left-wing activists with gloriously unreconstructed socialist sentiments and an inexhaustible energy for leafleting is just one more thing that makes me proud to live on this bitter little island. Some of their ideas, like the notion that one can truly change the world by standing on the corner of every demonstration selling copies of the party newspaper, are a little antique but the essential idea of revolution and resistance is never going out of style. When students and young people say that the unions and far-left parties will have to follow our energy rather than seeking to lead and control it, we're not saying that the notion of a people's revolution isn't trendy anymore because it's somehow not 2.0 enough for us.

Alex Callinicos is right: students can't do it alone. Of course they can't. Nor can schoolkids or workers or people who are unemployed. That's what class solidarity is all about and solidarity has been the watchword of these protests. The structures of labour and power and information distribution have changed irrevocably since the 1980s, however, which is why the structures of solidarity and revolution have to change, too. The power of organised labour was undercut across the world by building in higher structural unemployment and holding down wages, by atomising workers, outsourcing and globalising production while keeping working people tied to increasingly divided and suspicious communities. Thatcher, Reagan and Blair deregulated oppression. In order to be properly effective, rebels have to deregulate resistance.

Deregulating resistance will mean deregulating the organisations that control resistance, making them more anarchic, more inclusive and more creative. The function of the SWP over the course of these protests is an important example of how this can work. SWP activists are the street-fighting men and women of the far left and their energy and skill sets are vitally useful -- they have, accordingly, been involved in many of the high-profile actions that have taken place this winter, but they have not been leading from the front. SWP members have been most effective in conjunction with school pupils, anarchists, students and unaffiliated members who adapt their organic techniques to the changing nature of the whole. They have been least useful when trying to sell copies of the Socialist Worker to children running away from horses.

The question of the paper is fantastically indicative. The notion of a communistic worker's revolution developed smack in the middle of the golden age of newspapers, which is why Lenin's ideas about the function of a party paper -- that it ought to be a key organising tool produced for the edification of the masses by an influential vanguard of radicals -- were and remain so important to many radicals who see themselves as the inheritors of Marx and Lenin. At the time, Lenin was advocating revolution that utilised the structures of the most cutting-edge technology anyone had available to them. This new wave of unrest is happening at a similar turning point in the history of communications technology. New groups can exchange information and change plans via Twitter and text message in the middle of demonstrations. It's no longer about edicts delivered by an elite cadre and distributed to the masses, or policy voted on at national meetings and handed down by delegates. It's not the technology itself so much as the mentality fostered by that technology that is opening up new possibilities for resistance.

The Socialist Workers Party and other far-left organisations do not have a monopoly on class consciousness. Many organisers of this year's student revolutions have a background in far-left agitation and many more do not -- but nearly all of us know precisely what's at stake. If any one group tries to claim ownership or exert control over this new movement, they will have missed the point entirely. Nobody can own this revolution: not the unions, not the far left, not the Labour Party and not the students. It's far bigger than that.

As the sun went down over the Whitehall kettle and the icy winter wind began to bite, an extraordinary thing happened somewhere behind the police lines. I was huddled with a group of school kids and stiff, bewildered protesters around a dying fire made from exercise books and ripped-up bits of placard. We had hours yet before the police would let us free and nothing left to burn and, as we watched the embers fade away with mounting panic, a young man approached and asked if any of us would like to buy a copy of the Socialist Worker.

We rounded on him in desperation. None of us had any money but we were all freezing and we needed paper -- not to read but to burn. We begged him to give us even one paper and join us at the fire. A slew of emotions chased across the SWP seller's face as he considered this dilemma. Finally, he agreed to give us two copies, if, and only if, any of us could sing at least two verses of the Internationale. So we did -- me, some Neets and schoolkids from the slums of London -- our voices shaking a little from the chill. He handed over the papers with a smile and shuffled into the circle to warm up.

Ultimately, I'm not interested in whether you're a Leninist or a liberal or a Blairite or a Brownite or an anarchist or a concerned member of the public with no time for ideological flim-flammery. I'm interested in whether or not you're going to join me at the fire. I want to know if you're up for a fight. I want to know if you are prepared to put your body on the line to battle social oppression and fight the machinations of a dissembling government working to protect profit at the expense of the people. Because this is the future, not some cultish Petrograd-enactment society where we all dress up as revolutionaries and shout at each other for hours and then go home before anyone gets hurt. This is the future, it's happening now, and innocent people have already been hurt. The question is, are you prepared to stand with the tens of thousands on the street and stop injustice in its tracks?

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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On World Aids Day, let’s end the stigma around HIV for good

Advances in treatment mean that being HIV positive is no longer a death sentence, but attitudes still lag behind.

Stigma is a dangerous human construct, principally based on unfounded prejudices. None more so than the stigma surrounding HIV. The condition has been a recognised health issue in the UK for more than 30 years, and the advances in treatment have been staggering. Unfortunately attitudes seem to have remained in the 1980s.

A recent Terrence Higgins Trust poll asked people who are living with HIV for words that they have heard to describe their health condition. “AIDS”, “riddled”, “dirty”, “disgusting”, “promiscuous”, “dirty”, “deserved”, “unclean”, “diseased” – were the most cited.

Imagine turning to someone, who lets say has a long term health condition like high blood pressure, and branding them “lazy”, “fat”, “deserving”. Or someone who has just been diagnosed with diabetes being dismissed as “greed”. Of course, I’m not saying that these health conditions are without their own stigma. Rather I doubt that Charlie Sheen would have been subjected to such a vitriolic witch hunt, had it transpired he had either of those.

Once the nausea of that coverage subsided, it was telling to note the absent voices from most of the media debate around HIV and stigma. The thing that struck most was the total lack of understanding of the condition, the treatment, and the lack of representation of those who are living with HIV.

There was little written about the stigma women living with HIV face. That which those within the black African community, or the trans community, or the over 50s – the first generation of people living into old age with HIV – are subjected to.

Such is the stigma and the shame of HIV in black African communities that it can divide families. HIV positive people can be asked to leave home, resulting in separation from their family and isolation from their community. We know of a woman from the black African community who felt so stigmatised for not breastfeeding her baby – due to her HIV treatment – that she stopped her drug regime. She died unnecessarily of an Aids-related illness. After her death, her medication was found in the attic.

While living with HIV can be stressful for all ages, ageing with HIV can introduce challenges to mental health and quality of life. When compared to their peers, older people living with HIV are disadvantaged in a wide range of ways – from poorer health, to social care and financial security. We’ve found that older people fear that social care services will be prejudiced about their HIV diagnosis. One man shared that he feared hugely going into a home – the attitudes towards HIV that he might find, and ignorance from the staff. This fear is rooted in many people’s historic and continued experience of HIV-related discrimination.  

Often considered to be a lower risk group than gay men, women are sometimes forgotten in HIV discourse and yet women are stigmatised as much as any other with HIV. Women living with the condition face a unique stigma. Some are mothers and have been accused of being “irresponsible” and “putting children at risk”.

For the record, taking antiretroviral medication (ART) lowers the amount of virus in your blood to “undetectable” levels. When the level of HIV in your blood is so low that it can’t be picked-up in tests it is undetectable. This means there is an extremely low risk of passing on HIV.

Because of ART, undetectable women have a very low risk of passing on HIV to their babies. New-borns are given their own short course of ART to further reduce their risk of developing HIV, and undergo a series of tests during the first 18 months of life.

Many transgender people are on a difficult gender journey, which includes lots of access to GPs for onward referrals to specialists, and still they worry about HIV stigma. Some deny their HIV status in settings where possible, as they look at it as a barrier to achieving their goal. Gender specialist clinics are embedded in mental health departments, and some positive trans people worry that the stigma of diagnosis might be seen as an indicator of promiscuity, which they feel might work against their cases.

And what of stigma in the gay community? The poll mentioned earlier found that of 410 gay men living with HIV, 77 per cent experience stigma – with more than two thirds experiencing this most from within the gay community.

Those gay men who take the plunge and live openly with their status are often heckled, and sent abuse on dating apps like Grindr, even receiving messages that they shouldn’t be using it because “they’ll infect others”. It’s all too easy in the digital age for stigma to persist, and ignorance to remain faceless.

Stigma is best countered with fact. But there’s a clear lack of education amongst many – both positive and negative. Growing up with sex and relationship education lessons that only teach the reproduction cycle is not enough. Young people should be given clear and detailed information about the risks of HIV, but also how living with HIV in the UK has changed, and it is now an entirely manageable health condition.

Officially, stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. Let’s turn that around today, and use the red ribbon to stop stigma. Let’s use it a mark of solidarity, compassion and understanding.

Let’s start a conversation about how we speak and write about HIV. Let’s stand together, today of all days against HIV stigma. Start now – join the solidarity on social media by taking a selfie with your red ribbon and #StopStigma.