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What is political distinction?

The term 'distinction' is borrowed from Bourdieu's seminal work, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1984). Bourdieu was referring to class, not political distinction. His notion of habitus is central when it comes to uncovering class inequalities, especially the way in which citizens embody and exercise class-based choices, what he calls tastes. However, class, as far as my data are concerned does not reveal any significant difference with respect to political choices or what I term political tastes. Anarchists and socialists may have similar class backgrounds but this does not determine what political networks or organizations they join.

One key argument that emerged in the literature on the relationship between class and political activism during the 1960s suggested that those who were active within new social movement organizations were mostly from a radical middle-class background (Parkin, 1968).1 A more recent study by Bagguley (1995) seemed to suggest a similar relationship. However, what was key in the latter work was that, rather than class determining one's politics it was the other way round. The values of a political activist led them to certain careers and therefore determined their class position. McAdam (1989) suggests certain activists are attracted to the 'helping professions', the types of occupations that involve working towards human betterment, which lead to intrinsic job satisfaction for the worker rather than extrinsic satisfaction through payment. The other characteristic of this type of activist was education. Activists are frequently highly educated and often take lower-paid jobs than others who are equally educated; while they have to work to earn a living, they work in professions that aim for social justice rather than being motivated by profit. Even if they do not work towards social justice specifically they tend to work in occupations that are at least politically neutral, for example, librarian type work. This is so they do not compromise their political principles.

My data mostly accords with this argument in the literature in terms of the activists' class background, occupation and level of education. The socio-economic profile of the activists interviewed revealed that they mostly work in public sector professions and are highly educated. The anti-capitalist activists were aged between 23 and 56 years; 13 were women and 20 were men. Of the respondents, 27 had a first degree, of these 12 had a first degree and a Master's degree, and out of these three had a first degree, a Master's degree and a PhD. Six had no degree, and had attended only compulsory education. All those who had attended university had been active at university, involved in student union politics and other associated political and cultural activities. Those who did not attend university had parents who were or are active in teaching and other public sector unions and charity groups. All but two of the activists interviewed worked in public sector professions or trade unions. The public sector workers included trade union activists, a university professor, university lecturers, librarians, teachers, social workers, nurses, artists and curators; of the two activists who did not work in the public sector, one was a freelance graphic designer, and the other was a full-time paid activist.

These socio-economic characteristics are typical of social movement activists, who could be categorized as 'middle-class radicals' (Bagguley, 1995; Parkin, 1968). Most of the respondents I interviewed fitted into this category. However, there were two activists who were from manual working-class backgrounds, both of whom had family involved in the mining industry. Interestingly, one is a trade union activist and a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the other is an anarchist activist and a former member of Class War. I would argue that class does not reveal any significant political distinction between these activists, since anarchists and socialists are found in the same socio-economic groups. To explain political distinction, it was necessary for me to uncover the cultural, social and symbolic capital acquired through their political activist history, and how this became embodied within their habitus: that is, to explore their political history, and the development of their political ideas and ideologies and political practices.

The data revealed that those who became activists were indeed influenced by their parents, who were active in working towards social justice. However, for some, it was at university that their socialization sharpened into more concrete ideological understandings. They developed a taste for political contention and chose either socialism or anarchism as their main ideological preference. As such I sought to discover their political socialization after leaving the parental home. Thus political distinction refers to how the activist habitus develops an ideological preference. Their choice, of course, depends on what political organizations or activities they join or become involved in, which offers further political socialization. This will include the dominant values, the skills, knowledge and political practices of the group. These over time become embodied and anchored within activists. Distinct schemes are formatted and organized, made sense of and practised. These then become routinized and durable.

However, there were three activists who demonstrated ambiguity over their ideological affiliation. Two, who claimed to be libertarian socialists, aligned themselves with a Chomskyian world view. Interestingly, they left socialist groups and carried on being active within other political groups such as NGOs.

I now turn to the qualitative and substantive findings of this chapter, which interrogates the themes of activist histories and ideological reproduction, reflexivity and political action repertoires. These areas highlight the political distinction between anarchist and socialist activists.

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