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Iron fist populism; what can we learn from Obama?

October 29, 2008 Leave a comment

ObamaShould we follow David Lammy in asserting that Labour can learn a lot from Obama? Absolutely. However, unlike David Lammy, I think that Obama’s success story is a cautionary tale for Labour activists everywhere because it points in the direction the New Labour oligarchy might try to take us. Despite Lammy’s admission that New Labour is not a movement of the grassroots, his praise for Obama’s “high level” of grassroots support is plainly worrying.

Not least is this because, although Obama does indeed enjoy plenty of support, the acts of jumping on an already rolling political bandwagon and building the bandwagon from scratch then choosing its direction are two entirely different things. It is the former which the American electorate is currently in thrall to, and the latter which genuinely democratic campaigners should be seeking. Lammy’s emphasis was upon Obama bringing people together – a top-down model for change.

Indeed much of the American political landscape is defined by this top-down model for change. At primary elections, people get to rubber stamp one candidate over another. Democratic political activists are coached in university on phone banking and so on, but the big names and the media still dominate the thoughts of political activists. Labour have introduced something similar with the plebiscite on leader and deputy leader, rather than have a system where people must meet up and argue the point.

As I seem to say so often, voting is not the alpha and omega of democracy.

Voting does allow for choice, but it also constrains choice within a framework set by numerous other factors. Obama represents a vote against the Republicans and their long record of championing unregulated industry, of attacks on the separation of church and state and so forth. That’s a stark choice. However, the average Democrat has no more effect on Obama’s campaign once he’s decided to run than what marketing polls and wedge-issue targeting allows for.

Even then, that’s not always a matter of policy so much as of presentation, policy having been decided beforehand. That’s not to say a candidate shouldn’t have principles, but the candidate isn’t being elected simply for himself. The candidate is part of a movement which, even after the election, should have the right to control his decisions. At this point, every successful Western social-democratic movement falters, just as Labour did when rejecting the binding authority of National Conference.

Restricting our conception of ‘grassroots movement’ to a mass of people individually rubber stamping the same candidate, or to a judgment based on the number of activists who turn out for campaign work, is only half the true concept. To be truly democratic, the people who purpose to represent a grassroots movement need to be accountable. This is something that even on the Left, elected officials have fought against, but a man and his views cannot be bigger than the movement.

David Lammy, despite his attempt to grasp for the golden grassroots, fails to see that. His conception of politics is about the individual, as his previous speech to the Fabians also demonstrates. The personal stories of McCain and Obama feature heavily, men outside the “political establishment” as though this gives them a better grasp of what “ordinary people” want. In essence Lammy’s critique is simply an edited-for-consumption version of the endlessly repeated Republican equation of liberal, sophisticated and corrupt.

Lammy extends this critique to encompass the reasons for Labour’s successes in the early part of the 20th century – miners and other manual workers, coming to Westminster for the first time, to represent their own kind. The reality, of course, was somewhat different. The people who turned up to Westminster had that sort of background but had moved beyond it, conditioned by newly acquired membership in a social class that was not subject to the same capitalist exploitation as workers in Britain.

For just this reason, their movement on to the political stage was timorous and half-hearted, and when faced with real struggle they ran screaming – as in 1910-1914, so in 1926. Little seems to change. The truth is, they were not then and are not now subject to their own movements. The last major attempt to make them so, in the battles of the late 1970s and early 1980s, provoked such a backlash that Labour split and the Party bureaucracy was victorious.

One wonders, when history returns to that particular struggle and the different camps line up once more, which side David Lammy and his approbation for grassroots movements will be on. When the grassroots begin taking over the garden, I imagine no few people will find less delightful things to say – and Lammy will be among them.

The crushing logic of idealism

October 28, 2008 4 comments

ObamaNeil over at the Bleeding Heart blog celebrates the foiling of a potential assassination attempt against Barack Obama. Whilst thwarting the half-cocked plans of a pair of skinheads is worthy of applause, I don’t think I can go out on quite the same limb that Neil has. Saying that the arrest of these two men, who wanted to kill 88 black people, 14 by decapitation, before trying to kill Obama, deals a heavy blow to white supremacy is going a bit far. Neil also far overestimates the significance of a black win.

Of course this isn’t a sin committed by one blogger, alone in all the world. The media deliberately overplays the significance of getting a black man elected President of the United States. Yet the opinion of one lefty blogger, in my view, matters more than the views of the established media.

The cause of white supremacy is not dealt a blow by arresting the participants – indeed, were that the case, we should simply order the arrest of all neo-Nazi groups and have done with the problem. In this one instance, we’ve stopped a plot and while that is laudable, it is a matter of treating the symptoms rather than engaging with the root of the problem. Nor will getting a black person elected challenge the root of the problem – in fact I can see circumstances where it makes matters worse.

The root of the problem, as Jon Cruddas has been trying to highlight, is the low-level perpetuation of myths and the linking of these myths to local problems to give the far-right a political base. Without this base upon which to operate, the far-right falls back on its thinly-veiled racist cultural scene to sustain it, punctuated only by the occasional and violent reaction to circumstances far beyond the control of their movement – such as their intervention in race-related riots.

Arresting one or two people isn’t going to change that. For as long as people live under the exploitation of capitalism and have little direct say, the idea that this exploitation is increased by immigration or that life generally is made worse by the races living side by side, is an easy way for the simple minded to explain their bad circumstances. An Obama presidency isn’t going to change this – how Obama’s leadership plays out remains to be seen. It could be beneficial and then again not.

One way in which it could be beneficial is through it’s deconstruction of the liberal critique of racism. Obama’s victory, and the failure of white racism to diminish thereafter, will prove once and for all that racism is not just about a battle of ideas. It has a structural element. It will also weaken the left-populist critique of a top-down racism, wherein racism is orchestrated, along with all the other ills of society, by capitalist overlords in charge of where the “glass-ceiling” is set.

Considered from another perspective, it might not be such a good thing because with the accession of a black man to the most powerful office in the land, popular consciousness of racial issues might be diminished. Certainly a lot of Brits, those not connected to the American inner cities where racial issues are the norm, seem to think that with this victory, a decisive blow will have been struck against racism. If some Brits can think that, I can’t imagine the American middle classes will be far behind.

This could inspire a dangerous complacency, creating the space for exactly the opposite reaction that we might logically expect from an Obama presidency. Racists will plausibly be able to say that they’re not racist, but… – an age-old formula that might carry new weight in a country which has just elected its first black President.

Earning a crust: MPs and funding

October 26, 2008 Leave a comment

OsborneHow much should MPs be paid? Which of their expenses should be paid for and how? These are the subjects taken up by an article by David Mitchell over at the Guardian’s Comment is Free website. His argument is that we pay so little attention to local government and so much to national that MPs, who should be paid more, get away with nothing. All the while local government is apparently having it large with your council tax. There’s something to be said for this view – and that something is: it’s complete bollocks.

In retort to the inevitable, “they earn much more than me” complaint that Mitchell evidently hears enough, he wants to say “I want them to be cleverer than you” but this creates a faulty syllogism. How many teachers earn £60,000 per annum plus expenses? None so far as I know. Wages are nothing to do with intelligence – and let me say that no few teachers far outrank many of the MPs I’ve met in general intelligence and in specific qualifications.

MPs earn so much because…guess what? MPs control their own wage budgets and the only check on them is the slight suspicion that if they vote for exorbitant rises and massive expense cheques, “the people” will find out and toss them out of their cushy job. Whatever happened to the idea of running parliamentarians on the average worker’s wage and the rest of it going to their local constituency party and to fund the campaigns of grassroots democracy we need?

Perhaps Mitchell might concede that if we did that, then local councils might not get away with as much corruption as they do.

Beyond the wages, Mitchell says that he doesn’t see why “anyone with prospects” would do the job. The unspoken ideological assumption behind such a statement is that history is over, that capitalism has conquered the world and that the battle of ideas is over. All that remains now is technocracy, whereby the most competent managers of the free market economy will be the government that is consistently re-elected. Perhaps someone might suggest to Mitchell that he raise his expectations somewhat.

People should want to do the job because of their beliefs. If they don’t want to do the job because of their strongle held, full-blooded beliefs then you may as well appoint Saatchi and Saatchi to run the country and have done with it, because what we’ll have done is elevate the colourless, vapid and unimaginative to supreme authority. I’d rather have Edward Leigh and the Cornerstone group in charge of the country than David Cameron because politics isn’t about having the lesser of two evils.

It’s about a battle of ideas born from different material circumstances – two ideas in fact, and everything in between those two ideas, everything which attempts to appropriate shades of those ideas can rarely be anything more than anaemic populism.

Mitchell is writing as though we’re keeping politicians back from that which is the right of every other senior professional: to be paid a lot of money. We should reverse his thinking: politicians are our last bastion, the payment of which we can restrict even in our weakness as a movement divided. In our strength, the other professions were held back too – as they should be. The billions of taxpayers’ pounds being spent to help the very bankers who cocked up should be proof enough of that.

The answer to watching the spectacle of Mandelson and Osborne fighting about who is the most corrupt is certainly not to pay MPs so well that they never need donations from private funds. Firstly, the state shouldn’t be funding political parties and thereby entrenching the status quo. Secondly, we shouldn’t be elevating MPs significantly above the level of the average worker, whom they are paid to represent. Thirdly, do we really want our MPs swanning off to spend MORE time with the glitterati?

Party political funding is a problem, not least because politics is a big-money game and only those with money can afford to play it. The answer is to make funding more democratic. Nat Rothschild earns X amounts of pounds per business, so the staff and management of each business should have to vote to approve his spending X amount of pounds in funding politics. Business funding should be brought into line with trade union funding, with political funds, opt-outs and all.

That way, there’ll be no secrets about where money comes from – and moreover we’ll be able to strangle those types who are backing both horses simply because they think it’ll get them a good deal whoever is elected. So long as an MP can commute freely between constituency and London, so long as they own a few good suits and so long as they can feed their family, then the taxpayer has done their duty by that parliamentarian. Party political funding is thereafter a wholly separate issue.

Categories: General Politics

On more than bread alone?

October 22, 2008 Leave a comment

atheism busAn article penned by Chris Sugden over at Comment is Free suggests that religion, not atheism, is the answer to people’s everyday anxieties. His article is in direct response to the rather frivolous advertisements by the British Humanist Association and others on the side of London bendy buses. At least the response of the Christian Voice group in London was pithy: “Bendy-buses, like atheism, are a danger to the public at large.” Sugden’s response is not pithy and comes with a dollop of disingenuity.

Beginning with a discussion of recession fears, Sugden moves off to talk about how Jesus saw beyond the problems of every day living and put his faith in a creator. He thus raises a challenge to the atheist-bus contention that “There’s probably no god; now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. As an aside, it has to be said that if Slavoj Zizek and the Lacanian lunatics heard this slogan, they would cream themselves, seeing in it the ultimate exhortation of the super-ego.

For Zizek, no doubt, this would turn atheism into another religion.

That escapes the point. Sugden is being intellectually dishonest by raising this challenge to the atheism bus, because the two worries in question are fundamentally different. The atheist activists are trying to challenge the idea of a god, and thus the stressful compulsion to live as God’s diktat demands. Sugden, on the other hand, is excusing the happenings of the every day by reaching for the surety of a god who, come hell or high water will be there for his faithful flock.

Socially this is a ridiculously irresponsible attitude which in truth goes to the very heart of Marx’ ringing condemnation of religion as the opium of the masses. If we shouldn’t worry about recession because there is a god, then why should we worry about poverty? Why should we worry about equality? No doubt Sugden or a worthier theologian would postulate Christian agape into that hole, but then it isn’t hard to adapt trickle down economics to fulfill the terms of Christian love.

Effectively we have the opening for a justification of the status-quo.

Indeed Sugden goes a step further by interposing Christianity as mediator between man and the realisation of earthly harmony.

God knows that people need food and clothes and shelter and security. God made us the way we are. “Your Father knows you need them,” he says. We just need to seek God’s kingdom which he is pleased to give those who will receive it and “all these things will be yours as well”.

Sugden is suggesting that, as we’re all motivated by a desire for security, we should seek our security in God, not in man. However this clearly ignores the point that security in god is mediated by other men on the terms of most religion. Whether the Pope for Catholicism, the Bishops for Anglicans or the local charismatic for the more esoteric religions, the ‘security’ provided by God is still mediated through man. The extent to which this is so is shown by Sugden’s own commentary.

“My late brother, an accountant, was achondroplastic – among his other accomplishments was as an actor in professional productions of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Towards the end of his 54 years of life he said that in all likelihood under present legislation he might not have been allowed to live at all. Some might have considered his life, and his last six months in spinal paralysis, as second class. Human personhood, human enjoyment, and the value of life will always be measured. The question is, “By what standard?” Remove God, probably, and we are at the mercy of our own solutions to security…”

The argument that all life is sacred, and that in a properly Christian society, euthanasia and abortion would be illegal, is thinly veiled. However, this very notion that euthanasia would be forbidden by any Christian society is as controversial as the notion that women should be Bishops. Jesus addresses neither situation directly, yet men interpret the words of the Gospels or the Pauline letters in this way or that way. By disregarding God entirely we would instead trust human reason.

Doctrine mediated through one set of books or the capacity for each individual to decide for themselves. It’s evident what Sugden fears. I’ll take my chances with human reason.

Categories: Religion

Puritanism, Sex Workers and the Left

October 22, 2008 Leave a comment

IUSWChatting with a friend some months back, we agreed that the Left has always had something of a puritanical streak to it. During the English revolution, the Presbyterians who sought checks on arbitrary rule and a greater democracy both in church and state were often accompanied in their endeavours by the very Puritans who were later to be driven out of England. On most occasions I find myself firmly opposed to a puritanical approach to any issue – but on the latest “Pro-porno” protest, I do wonder.

The government is seeking to introduce laws which curtail the dissemination of any pornography which shows injury to genitalia or a threat to life. By and large, I agree with the sentiment that in these cases, depiction of acts harms no one. If the people involved are consenting adults, doing these things things is a matter of personal choice. I want an answer to the following question: are the people being filmed there out because it’s one of their quirks or are they compelled to be there by financial necessity?

Certainly that it’s a quirk is a possibility: if one reads over the website of the GMB-sponsored International Union of Sex Workers, there are awards given out at an annual charity event called Night of the Senses/Erotic Awards. These include Stripper of the Year. Having never attended the event, I can’t help but wonder whether such an award isn’t tongue-in-cheek. It all seems quite gentile – but how characteristic of the whole trade is this type of celebratory attitude?

I have never met a prostitute, though I know a few girls who’ve posed for grotty lads magazines because they needed the money and being good-looking women, they had that option. None of them are proud of the fact – indeed they felt quite exploited. Are women being compelled by such a necessity to engage in violent acts, such as the government are trying to ban, in front of a camera? Moreover, do we have the right to restrict them from doing so out of financial necessity?

Clearly the question is not so simple as protest in London might make it out to be. I’m sure that Vivienne Westwood’s son is right when he attacks the opportunistic approach of the government – no doubt the government are merely trying to appear like they’re doing something about today’s “social problems”. However, a genuine solution involves more than simply indicting the government for being thought police – it could very well be that the answer is to ban such material.

Circumstances under which I would consider that acceptable would exist if it could be demonstrated that the women involved really didn’t want to be taking part, or if they were compelled into it by their boss in the part of the sex industry they more regularly take part in. Naturally the flipside to that would be a need to provide a better social safety net so that such women aren’t starving as a result of having this revenue stream cut off – but at that point it wouldn’t be merely about personal choice.

Personal choice could still be protected by laws allowing not-for-profit distribution of material made by afficionadoes. No doubt the importation of illicit material would continue whatever the law said, but at least women in this country wouldn’t feel compelled to put their safety at risk by engaging in such acts for the sake of money. It’s not a question of morality, or a question of thought-policing, it’s an issue of workers’ rights and making sure sex workers have the same rights.

Not being a sex worker or a woman for that matter, it is no doubt easy for me to speculate on these matters from an academic standpoint. However I know that I feel revolted at the number of rich City people going to strip clubs after work, snorting coke or just getting utterly drunk. Sex is just another commodity – and though the women providing it might in some circumstances not mind that this is their job, it’s not them I am repulsed by. It’s those who would indulge themselves in the purchase of another person.

Perhaps that is naive on my part, or a vestige of the entrenched Catholicism of Northern Ireland. After all, all labour is in part the purchase of someone – a worker – for however long they have to labour. Indeed, it seems somewhat hypocritical to baulk at the purchase of sex when you consider the attitude of many males, myself included, to freely-given sex. If we baulk at violent acts in porno flicks, should we not be equally opposed to Zoo and Nuts, or to lap-dancing clubs?

It’s still the purchase of a person who doesn’t necessarily want to be doing what they are doing, for a person whose attitude to the whole matter may range from that of someone doing their Sunday groceries in Tesco to the lewd and demeaning. Something bothers me about that, though I can’t quite pin down what. Perhaps even I, radical leftist, haven’t managed to purge the Puritanical streak from my chosen ideology.

Anti-Americanism: obfuscating change

October 20, 2008 Leave a comment

The slow collapse of the McPalin campaign, especially in some of the battleground states where Obama can afford to outspend them two to one, has dragged the most extreme elements of the Republican Right to the foreground of political debate. Palin has basically called Obama a colleague of terrorists and now extreme freshman Representative Michele (R-Minn) has called Obama anti-American. Nancy Pelosi and Obama are “radical” or “far laftists”, presumably meaning leftist.

Have a look at the following video:

Of the 435 members of of the House of Representatives, Bachman wants to see a survey of all views to prove for once and all how many liberals have anti-American views. What exactly she means by anti-American is not hard to guess from the tenor of some other comments coming out of this election campaign. McCain’s unthinking equation of being Arab with not being a good family man, for example. Anti-American is basically anything that presents a threat to the dominant values of the country.

Capitalism and a conservative concept of the family, to name just two. It’s easy for the liberal-centre and left to combat this type of thing as, to many Americans, I imagine that it seems equally preposterous as it does to most Brits. Most obviously it is easy to smack the Republicans about for the presumption and arrogance of defining for the rest of the country what it means to be pro- and anti-American. After all, they haven’t covered themselves in glory in that respect during previous years.

However, as the tidal wave grows after Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama, something is being lost. On Radio 4 this morning, there was discussions as to whether Marxism is credible once more. The Independent reports that “Capital” is now literally flying off the shelves to scores of business-types and students searching for an explanation or even the beginnings of an explanation for the current economic crisis. In America what is being missed is the possibility of real change.

Drowned in Obama-mania, we seem to be forgetting that this man is not just the supposed saviour of millions of ordinary Americans but also the darling of large swathes of the business elite. To cries of “change we can believe in”, we’re forgetting that Obama is being cited by everyone and their neighbour as the only one who can restore the lustre, the credibility of the United States government, of US foreign policy, in short of all those things which we should be seeking to challenge and change.

As the debate moves away from civil liberties, where Obama voted for NSA wire-tapping, and from foreign policy, where Obama’s speech to AIPAC lays out his steadfast adherence to years of American orthodoxy, Democrats can tread on the safe ground of Keynesian intervention. Regulations and government spending should be the start of change – instead they will be all of it. The Democrats are thus building their victory out over a yawning gap where once the organised labour movement stood.

Though the Democratic leads looks to be steadily increasing, it would be foolish even still to count out the Republicans. Economic orthodoxy has not properly begun to shift, as listening to virtually any banker will tell you. Even the recently unemployed of Wall Street and the City of London are hoping to continue their streak of huge bonuses, pads in Chelsea and bottles of Roederer Cristal for lunch. Decision makers are divided, leaving scare tactics for use on the average Joe.

Yet one wonders if this is not the last throw of the dice for the Republicans before the elections. Having seen Bachmann on television, we should fervently hope so.

Categories: US Politics

Famine and democracy in the ancient world

October 19, 2008 Leave a comment

RomaReading over Gracchii’s [sic] discussion of famine in ancient Rome, which I came by via Vino’s blog, I feel compelled to add a few points. Briefly to recapitulate, Gracchii makes the argument that the ancient world was particularly susceptible to political upheaval on the basis of an unsecure food supply. Gracchii discusses the period of Cincinnatus, taken from Livy’s account of Cincinnatus’ securing of the Republic. However, I thought it would be more interesting to look at Ancient Greece.

The importance of the food staples at Athens were, if anything, even more vital than they were at Rome during the period of Cincinnatus life, which was the late sixth century and mid-fifth up until around 430 BC. Indeed, wars which decided the fate of Greece were won and lost on the basis of the food supply of Athens. The Great Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BC was decided when Sparta gained control of the Hellespont. The Spartans used the same strategy again in 386 BC as did Philip II in 340 BC.

As for famine, there were some terrible famine years during the fourth century for the whole of Greece. Athens was able to deal with the famines, and the epigraphical record contains conferments of citizenship upon Leucon I of the Cimmerian Bosporus and upon Dionysius of Syracuse. Both of these were masters of grain producing regions. What enabled Athens to deal with famine was not its democratic nature, it was its commercial nature – it’s position as a naval power.

This enabled the Athenians to import corn from Egypt (for example Psammetichus’ convoy), the Ukraine and Sicily as well as from its own purpose-built grain colonies of Lemnos, Imbros and Skyros. Indeed, Athens took serious steps to secure the grain trade when it was threatened or the distance looked tenuous. These ranged from full-scale military expeditions as under Pericles or Thrasyboulos to the colonisation of points along the the route, known as kleruchies.

On balance, this gels well with the thesis that a full-fledged imperial power had the policy to deal with whatever crises it might face better than a recalcitrant and limited city-state or empire. Yet the nuance, which Gracchii misses, is the character of Roman imperialism was not naval until later in the Republic. Rome was compelled to turn to a balanced maritime and military strategy by the concurrent Punic and Macedonian Wars. After this point, famines at Rome were limited affairs.

There are references by Cato in the Origines to “how often the price of food is expensive” by the early second century BC, but once Rome’s competitors are emasculated, there is no longer such talk. Indeed it is at that point which grain becomes a political tool to be used by aspirant Senators. To further confound some of the subtler points of Gracchii, it is possible also that food scarcity was a regular feature of the early Roman Republic – for which see Frederiksen (1984) 164ff and Garnsey (1988) 167ff.

Athens upon reduction in status and upon the complete loss of its naval empire succumbed to the Hellenistic predisposition towards food crisis (see, for example, the repetitive reference to grain in the award of Callias during the rebellion of 286 BC). As Gracchii mentions, this seems to have been the default state of affairs for most pre-modern economies, however in the other circumstances it did not necessitate political upheaval such as that which Cincinnatus had to put down.

The extreme poor, those most vulnerable to famine, did not make up the backbone of the Roman army until the reforms of Gaius Marius. Only then did the proletarii and capiticensi gain admittance to the Roman army. By that point, the Roman grain supply could sustain a large urban population, and the decline of the smallholder and rise of the latifundia plus the ready accessibility of huge quantities of labour necessitated a change. Thus famine is not quite so integral to understanding Roman politics.

Most of these changes happened independently of the Roman grain supply. My conclusion is simple: though I agree with the broad (if rather synchronic) approach of Gracchii, there are other factors to consider also, which, from time to time, especially after the conquest of the Egyptian grain supply, shaped Rome even more dramatically than the opposition between Plebeian and Patrician and the correspondence of their antipathy to the quality of the harvest.

Categories: Miscellaneous
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