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Archive for March, 2009

And the love affair with David Davis continues…

March 29, 2009 2 comments

I have something of a love/hate relationship with the Guardian Comment is Free site. Sometimes the articles are so arty-farty that I just close the browser in disgust and go hammer up some drywall to feel manly again. Sometimes the articles provide an interesting insight into just how batshit crazy some members of the government are. And sometimes the articles are penned by otiose former Tory cabinet ministers, leading me to wonder who would ever call the Guardian a progressive newspaper. Maybe just a hate/hate relationship then.

David Davis is leading the charge against the Secret Intelligence Service, by claiming that there is ‘a prima facie case to answer’ over the torture of Binyam Mohammed. Admirable though that may be, it is of course a political hitjob on the government penned under the rather patronising title, “We did things differently in my day, Mr Miliband.” The very title begs the raised eyebrow and sardonically toned question, “Oh did you really, you condescending bag of wind?” The answer to which is, unsurprisingly, no.

It was in fact a Tory government which was in power whilst the security services colluded in murder in Northern Ireland, for example. Or a Tory government which was in power when this country sold weapons to torturers, murderers and terrorists. In the case of the government of Saddam Hussein, I seem to recall that the arms sales flagrantly breached the rules laid down by Geoffrey Howe when he was Foreign Secretary. Not the same as in your day, Mr. Davis? I respectfully disagree.

That’s not to suggest that our current Foreign Secretary won’t deserve everything he gets when the truth about Binyam Mohammed comes out. He deserves it for other things too, such as the continuing arms exports to Israel, where those weapons are being used in shocking fashion. For the love of smeg, let us not pretend however that Davis would ever suspend the arms trade; we make too much money out of it. It’s difficult even to see a Conservative government standing up after the World Trade Centre attacks and not committing to apprehending terrorists with any means necessary: torture, extraordinary rendition, illegal detention and so on.

Except the Conservatives didn’t face these pressures. Their party was a wreck, at the time. This is the problem with allowing frontline politicians to pen their own op-ed pieces. Nuggets like this are left out of David Davis’ ridiculously self-conscious portrayal of himself as the defender of all that is lawful. It is time for the David Davis love-in to end, before we wake up one morning and see the real face of the person we went to bed with – and realise that, having exchanged rhetorical frippery for actual power, he and his Tory mates are not who the liberal intelligentsia wants them to be.

Jade Goody, Russell Brand and Hegemony

March 28, 2009 2 comments

I’ve heard it said that there’s a special irony to blog articles complaining about the Jade Goody story. By complaining about it, apparently we’re vindicating and perpetuating the rather nauseating circus surrounding the whole issue. I think such logic is bollocks, of course, because the mainstream media – TV, radio, newspapers, blogs belonging to all the aforementioned and others – would have merrily continued to spout crap regardless of what a few poxy political bloggers decided to say.

Nor, by continuing to talk about the whole thing, are we somehow justifying what has to be one of the most grotesque hypocrisies of modern celebrity journalism. A woman, ridiculed for being, well, let’s face it, a bit thick, subsequently bullied for being a bit racist and then beatified for getting cancer, getting married and dying, leaving millions to her kids. And probably to her thug husband, though I am not going to bother checking that up, since I already feel dirty just writing about this subject.

Why, I hear the masses cry, do you bother writing about it then? Why not go back to reading some pretentious wank by Sartre, of the type I am disposed to moan about on this blog? These are good questions, and the answer is that not five minutes ago, I spotted a ridiculous article on the BBC website titled, “Star dubs Jade ‘Primark Princess'” and then I made the mistake of reading it. Thankfully we don’t allow firearms in this country or I reckon I’d feel compelled to hunt down Russell Brand and kill him, earning myself a British Comedy Award for services rendered.

Brand came up with the following wank, which outdoes any Existentialist for pretentious fuckwittery…

One of the charges often levelled at Jade was that she was just a normal girl with no trade or practiced skills. Well people didn’t care and our heroes are not prescribed to us, we have the right to choose them and the people chose Jade. Fame has long been bequeathed by virtue of wealth and birth and this was the first generation where it was democratically distributed by that most lowbrow of modern phenomena – Reality Television…When Big Brother 3 made her famous she was vilified in the paper and bullied in the house but through her spirit she won people back round and became a kind of Primark Princess with perfumes and fitness videos and endless media coverage – because people were interested in her.

Now, it’s easy at this point to simply become choked with rage at the notion of Jade Goody being anyone’s hero but I actually have a serious political point to make. Brand has bought in, hook-line and sinker, to the notion that fame is now in the gift of ‘the people’, perhaps thanks to the concept of telephone voting, such that it can be ‘democratically distributed’ on the basis of individual likes and dislikes, which we in turn presume to be beyond reproach precisely because they are individual and we’re all entitled to our own opinions.

Except there’s nothing democratic about any of this. Our very likes and dislikes are not formed in a world with infinite choice. Our choices, especially in the matter of subjects covered by the media, are limited to the options offered by the industry that exists for the purposes of creating and extolling celebrity. Even when we make a conscious choice not to be interested in something, its transmutation into a cultural meme means that few of us can escape it, howsoever we wall ourselves off.

Consider the fascination with Jade in the same terms as the fame of the Beatles or any other mega-star. This sort of unreasoning adulation (or its opposites) is part of a form of cultural production that grew into existence alongside the first truly mass media. This cultural production is not merely, however, an attempt to pander to popular prejudices – quite the opposite. Men like Max Clifford have the contacts and the resources to convince the media that the public should/will be interested, and in turn the media whip up a frenzy.

When one section of the media works itself into a lather, the very fact of commenting on commentary extends this unhealthy attitude all across the nation. It is almost a textbook example of some of the processes which Nick Davies describes in his book, Flat Earth News. It is not new. Other, perhaps worthier, subjects have their place in the media usurped by this story on the basis that editors know we’ll succumb to the same frenzy-whipping techniques which have succeeded in the newsroom.

Brand’s point about Jade’s personality is therefore dead wrong. The whole charade has nothing to do with the personality or qualities of Jade Goody. It is not the case that the punters are simply ‘choosing’ the Jade Goody story out of an infinite list of stories they could be interested in. For a couple of days last week, it was the only story and received coverage in every medium imaginable. Similarly, the media themselves aren’t interested in Jade’s qualities or personality – and they were quite happy to demonize her in the past.

In fact, the celebrity cancer theme is readily exploited because people are basically caring, and because many thousands of people get cancer. It’s a problem with which our society is familiar. Russell Brand himself, foppish shithead though he is, is a clear example of how cancer as a theme can cause people to relate to the story of Jade Goody. The terminal illness, the kids, the last-minute wedding – all are eminently marketable, and I suspect the wedding and Jack’s release from prison were dreamed up by Clifford for that purpose.

Had it not been Jade Goody, however, it would have been someone else. Brand’s attribution of public interest to Jade’s normality, and his claim that this marks Jade down as different (“authentic” or “accessible”) from Posh Spice-Beckham, J-Lo or Jennifer Aniston, are therefore rubbish. Actually, Brand’s contention ignores that there was a well connected PR firm dedicated to insinuating Jade into the popular consciousness, to making her appear authentic and accessible, even though thousands of normal people die from cancer each year, people who can’t afford Max Clifford’s rates.

It may be revealing that the ‘Primark Princess’ (or People’s Princess or any other populist epithet) is what the PR gurus have arrived at as the best vehicle for commercial exploitation, but we must remember that the audience in this process is essentially passive. The audience can applaud or shout its dissent – but even for the dissenters, there’s a marketing angle to be played. Some of the more high-brow papers and blogs denounced Jade, denounced the media circus around her and so on and so forth.

It would surprise me not a bit if Max Clifford’s PR firm was behind a few of those as well. This should tell us something about the concept of Hegemony, which this blog wrestles with quite a bit. Hegemony entails not merely the exploitation of labour for the purposes of extracting surplus value, it also entails the exploitation of the basic oppositional drives between the classes, a contained subversion manifesting itself as populism but never actually challenging the inequalities that this populism implicitly or explicitly rejects.

Categories: General Politics

Who the f**k is Daniel Hannan?

March 27, 2009 23 comments

So apparently the following video on YouTube has gone viral; in fact tonight I got invited to a Facebook group set up here in Canterbury declaring that Britain needs more politicians like Daniel Hannan. The video in question shows Hannan having a go at Gordon Brown. Why people are applauding this intrigues me, bearing in mind some of the things Hannan is actually attacking.

He says that all the other nations enduring recession took the opportunity of the good years to reign in their expenditure, whereas Britain didn’t. Presumably this means that Hannan would have preferred that instead of PFI-PPP measures designed to keep government expenditure down, we should have had no hospitals, no new schools and a collapsed public transport infrastructure.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine to attack PFI-PPP, but the only direction from which this guy is smacking about the already Right-wing Labour leadership is further Right. Anyone who thinks that a demand to cut yet more money from the public spending budget is impressive needs to go back and do politics 101 all over again – or perhaps spend a few months living on the dole and then weigh in.

Unsurprisingly this is far from Hannan’s background, being yet one more privately educated, Oxbridge oik that the Tory Party have found fitting to promote to the European Parliament. So what, exactly, is there to applaud? Gordon Brown is a crap Prime Minister and I love having a go at his awful policies and the ignorant twits he surrounds himself with, but Daniel Hannan’s attack is only to point out that actually the public purse could have been strip mined more effectively in search of industries to privatise.

Like the railways, that ever-present reminder of Tory successes. Oh, wait a minute…

So, Daniel Hannan can fuck right off.

Categories: Uncategorized

Get off the stage, Pat McFadden

March 25, 2009 2 comments

In an article explaining why Labour is doomed, Alix Mortimer roundly castigates our up and coming wannabe parliamentarians – so many of whom richly deserve it, being second rate wannabes. However, for my liking Alix spends far too little time on the shower of bastards we already have at the top of the Party. Example was given to this sentiment by today’s headlines from the BBC – turns out business minister Pat McFadden has been complaining that the Unions don’t talk up Labour’s achievements enough.

My query is this: why should they? Sure, Labour may have thrown one or two sops to the Unions but the overriding message of Tony’s 1997 takeover was “business as usual”. And so it was – the crippling restrictions on industrial action remain in place. The Labour Party leadership remains inert on the subject of outsourcing, the appalling conditions faced by immigrant labour and many of the other issues which are holding back an activist agenda on the part of many sections of the Trades Union movement.

The minimum wage was great – in fact, I benefitted from it – but it’s not enough. The point of New Labour was to suggest that there would be no radical change to life in Britain, a jettisoning of ‘outdated’ policies and ideologies that threatened to actually up-end the balance of power in the UK between the ruling and the ruled. And now Labour apparatchiks want us to talk up their achievements of the past, right when the whole economic system is telling us that the achievements of the past are but molehills compared to what we need?

Bugger that for a game of soldiers.

Talking up the achievements of the past – such as campaign to celebrate the 60th anniversay of the NHS – is only relevant when the achievements of the present can be lightly dismissed. Labour is stuck in the mud, with no policy – especially on things like civil liberties – which the Tories can’t claim to match, so of course they’re going to want banal puff pieces talking up what Labour has done so far. The problem is, vast chunks of what Labour has done is disastrous – such as the privatisations – and they’re still at it!

That’s why at his TUC speech, Pat McFadden was met by a protest of CWU members at the proposed changes to the Royal Mail.

Gushing bullshit about “Labour’s achievements” are more often the preserve of silly, politics-lite wannabes such as Miranda Grell than cabinet ministers – and this should tell us something about how desperate Labour leaders have become. Whether the “NHS at 60″ nonsense (an NHS which, incidentally, is increasingly privatised, increasingly inefficient – whether on hygiene or learning disabilities) or the rubbish from the Guardian about which “old Labour” figure ministers most liked, it’s time to stop talking about the achievements of the past.

There’s a bloody election coming up – right now would be a good time to tell us what Labour is seeking a mandate for after the next Parliament. But to actually tell that story will be to excite no one because the answer is more of the same: more dubious centralisation, ever more invasive laws on privacy and the internet, continuing privatisations, a country working longer hours than anywhere in Europe with a lower Quality of Life score and with health and transport networks that need massive investment and planning.

Except Labour just spent the money on bailing out banks, which, it turns out, are reluctant to actually change their policies. And this despite an opposition which is caught between the hammer of its own pro-market rhetoric and the anvil of popular suspicion that actually all avowed capitalists are rat bastard scavengers who should be hanged.

Barack Obama and the Internet for Activists Conference

March 21, 2009 16 comments

An excerpt at Liberal Conspiracy from the Fabian book about Obama gives me the perfect opening to return to last Saturday’s conference, “Internet for Activists.” I was speaking at it, on a panel with one of Obama’s many net campaign managers, some anonymous chap from the anti-scientologist movement and an anti-deportation activist. My speech focussed on Liberal Conspiracy’s efforts as regards the defence of women’s rights during the HFE Bill debates, but in the course of my summation I also introduced a wider question about activists.

Surely, I thought, the sort of campaign that we individuals want is one built and run by, and accountable to, activists. I contrasted that vision to the reality of Obama’s election machine – though (inevitably) a dissenting view can be found from the Obama campaign manager who attended. Obama may have at one stage been an activist, but when he ran for President, he was a US Senator. Obama was actually backed by banks such as Goldman-Sachs to the tune of almost a million dollars – and they weren’t the only ones.

Wall Street executives “bundled” for Obama, throwing big events which were used to collect in staggering amounts of money. Names from Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase can also be found on Obama’s list of donors – not to mention that several figures were tapped by the great man to help put together his administration. Because nothing says activist or accountable like investment bankers on the payroll. In this, the Democrats actually outdid the Republicans for a change – these companies gave more to Obama.

The book about Obama, and the wave of American political change he’s riding, misunderstands the relationship between activists and power. It discusses MoveOn.org as a group that linked up over common issues – and that’s great. It can exert pressure through the media, it can provide a forum for debate free from the jingoistic distortions of the Republicans and it can highlight information neglected by the mainstream – but only in the crudest way possible can sites like that hold any individual politician to account for the power they wield.

Say that in four years, America is mired still further in economic crisis and Obama hasn’t turned it around. A group like MoveOn.org could tell it like it is and provide these wonderful services which activists need, but that won’t mean a better Democrat in power – it’ll mean a Republican. Online campaigning and record levels of individual donations, even if these things are put to use through the ultimate individualisation – the Primary, will not have changed Obama’s record in office, the same way they didn’t stop the Iraq War or Clinton’s impeachment.

Our “Internet for Activists” conference didn’t discuss these things at all – I didn’t want to pick a fight when I was only there at someone else’s request, to tell a particular story about a particular campaign. I did, however, outline my basic view of praxis – in this case the interrelation between our online war of counter-contextualisation against the mainstream media, and our relationship with a specific political movement. It is the question of that relationship which is at issue when we talk of Obama as an activist.

To begin with, I need to define what political movement I’m talking about. My goal is to knit together a movement, potentially numbering in the millions, who will not just put individuals into government but will collectively redraw government from the ground up. This is the goal of every socialist revolutionary – what CLR James described as the Paris mob taking a hand. I feel justified in using my vision as paradigm here because Obama used a lot of rhetoric which is appropriate to such a notion of grassroots, collective politics.

Yet my goal is not the same as Obama’s goal. There are many things about Obama of which I approve, but he’s not interested in expanding the power of a grassroots, collective movement. People were invited to do their bit for him, whether via MyBO or the millions of dollars in individual online donations – but that’s not grassroots on the basis that between Obama and those people there is no real connection other than that they share some of his ideas. There is no accountability.

To respond that these people will have the chance to de-select Obama in four years is to ignore the nuance of politics. Most of us who consider ourselves on the Left would rather have Obama than any Republican. So this leaves the grassroots, those activists who give of themselves, with little real clout. As in the UK, the grassroots can be taken for granted in electoral politics because they can’t vote for the other side – however bad Labour gets, the Conservatives are always going to be worse.

In America, through the primary system, they can choose between candidates – but the millions of people involved in campaigning are tied to individual politicians, not to each other. The relationship is heirarchical, not associative.

When, at the conference, I demanded a movement led by activists, this is what I was referring to, which seems to have escaped Karin Robinson in her rebuttal (linked to above). Barack Obama is not John Kennedy, no one is pretending that he is – but the absence of a politically dynastic family background doesn’t make Obama any more “of” the people, much less a one man government “by” the people. Within American politics, there is no provision for government by the people except 2-, 4-, or 6-yearly elections.

In between times, activists have no power to control their elected officials. Moreover, even when it comes to elections, there is the power of the media to consider. Without an organised, activist-led, accountable movement, the way is open for politics to become simply another form of marketing. This is the problem I have with Sunny in the comments section of the LibCon article; when we are relying on people like Glenn Greenwald to “hold Obama’s feet to the fire”, we forego our own need to do that.

The problem is, we have no way to do that.

Labour has had fights about this issue since the 1918 constitution. Conference, the united body of Labour activists and their representatives, regularly came into conflict with the PLP, led by a Labour Prime Minister. The result was a defeat for the activists – the PLP flouted the desires of Labour Party members. When activists were in the ascendant, the Labour Party moved sharply to the Left; when activists were weak, the Party bureaucracy fought back, divesting conference of much power.

Hence Labour is now in its current impasse; power in the Party is held by the Party bureaucracy – the PLP, the Trades Union leadership and so forth. Activists are not the arbiters they should be – since upon activists rests the greatest responsibility for the movement as a whole. Moreover, its with an activist-led movement that lies the only chance to escape politics as marketing and an endless series of talking heads. This is something we share with our American and European cousins, and this is why I made a dig at the Obama campaign.

Mind-boggling power? Balls on Education

March 19, 2009 12 comments

Following a request to write out some of my views on Ed Balls’ latest proposals, I read the following Guardian article. It outlines proposals from the apprenticeships, skills, children and learning bill that would give the Secretary of State huge amounts of control over precisely what is taught in a classroom. The guidance notes accompanying the bill apparently state that the Secretary could specify which authors and their works had to be studied in order to pass an English literature-based GCSE or A-level.

Presumably, since I was asked by a homeschooler, I’m supposed to defend the rampant centralisation of education. I am, of course, not going to. It is a frightening thought that for a government that continues to make noises about empowering communities, the man in charge of DCSF seems intent on grabbing an insane amount of power. Despite claims that it would only be used to counteract something like the scrapping of Shakespeare, one wonders if this government actually believes its own communitarian rhetoric.

As it stands, the system is far from perfect. Each exam board carries its own restrictions on what can and can’t be studied, meanwhile Chief Examinations Officers have a nice little sideline in pawning their mutterings on a given subject because they know what’s going to be on the exam. This power is set to increase in certain subjects as coursework options – ranging from ‘a local study’ to pretty much anything – are gradually phased out. Again, I’m mostly talking about history, since it is what I know.

The choice by heads of department as to what exam boards are followed is largely based on what pupils will score highly in, and what the department staff can actually teach. Important subjects such as the French Revolution therefore have no chance of a look-in, since they are perceived as more difficult to grasp by pupils and many staff in history departments simply aren’t qualified to teach them. Not to impugn other subjects such as the Risorgimento, German unification or Russia under Stalin and Khrushchev, of course.

I am just as guilty of this as any teacher – I’d rather eat my own liver than teach a course on the Suffragettes. Not because I am against women’s rights or women’s history, but simply because I find the whole course boring. Yet imagine the question of what is taught being removed from the classroom environment – in such an environment, the preferences and skills of the teachers and pupils are important. Teaching at A-level would go from being responsive to classroom needs to dependent upon some arbitrary opinion of the Secretary of State.

Frankly that would be disastrous.

Do I think there’s a sinister element about the whole thing? No. Rhetoric about 1984 is far from my mind – more important is focussing on the hypocrisy of the government and the needs of students.  That said, the apparatus will be in place to restrict the study of certain books – and none of the new apparatus addresses the rather appalling ability of independent schools to teach whatever they want – whether it’s true or false or questionable. The state system isn’t perfect at addressing that – but there are means towards improvement.

Bearing in mind that Shakespeare will never be scrapped from the English Lit syllabus, made even less likely by the fact that numerous English departments now do Shakespeare outreach to make it cross curricular (this equals orgasmic bliss for SLT), what I want to know is this: for what reason does Ed Balls really want this power? For those who hysterically scream about “state worshipping fascists” the answer might seem obvious, but normally for powers such as this there are obvious reasons – and right now, there are none that I can see.

Categories: Labour Party News

Calling time on long working weeks

March 17, 2009 1 comment

The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Labour government, SNP and UKIP all agree: the idea of the European working time directive is a bad idea. It is European federalism run amok, health and safety gone barmy and infringes the right of individuals to work for however long they want. It may be all those things, but from a social-democratic perspective it can also be considered as an issue around which to reorganize a unionized, full-time workforce, capable of wresting greater concessions from employers.

First of all, the idea that any of us mere mortals who survive (rather than wax super-wealthy) on our wages want to work more than 48 hours a week is just a tad ludicrous. I love my job, but it’s a constant bugbear of the teaching profession that we spend 8am-4pm working in school and then go home to do marking, planning and resource our lessons. I for one would rather have additional time to relax, to socialize, to spend with family, to get involved in politics and so forth – and I doubt I’m the only one.

Probably one of the major sources of illness, increasingly touted over the last ten years, is stress. In turn, stress bears a direct correspondence to having to work ever longer hours – and this has an effect on the risk to your general health. Working hours have been gradually increasing since (surprise, surprise) the 1980s – some four million people worked longer than 48 hours a week in 2002, which is an increase of 350,000 on 1992 and which today is potentially higher still. Britons work the longest hours in Europe.

Politicians denouncing the idea of the European Working Time Directive have pointed towards junior doctors and firefighters as among the groups who might ‘suffer’ from decreased working hours. Indeed, the major political parties have agreed that it’s a scandal that someone might be denied overtime opportunities simply because of some bureaucrat in Brussels. This looks at the whole issue upside down; isn’t it more scandalous that we should be compelled to work longer than 48 hours a week to feel a little affluent?

With regard to the firefighters in particular, part-time firefighters have long been the way the government has aimed at using to quell the power of the FBU, the union for full-time firefighters. If indeed we were going to limit the length of time people could work, it could only result in the employment and training of more full-timers, which is to be applauded for multiple reasons. One, it’ll help union efforts to get a fair pay deal and two, it might begin to reverse the stress-inducing labour ‘flexibility’ which employers use to cut wages, terms and conditions.

The whole notion of “post-Fordism” and the flexible labour market are markers not of an inevitable and linear historical progression from one form of production to another. Quite the opposite: they are the physical manifestation of a weak socialist movement. We failed to stop them being implemented, and we have so far failed to reverse them – but as opposition to the European Working Time Directive demonstrates, employers and politicians are likewise afraid that behind this issue lies an attempt to do just that.

Perhaps this seems an unlikely ascription since politicians mask their fear with talk of productivity, and making business competitive. That sort of language is essentially the same as pitting British against foreign workers in a race to the worst terms and conditions – after all, such terms and conditions (by the logic of those talking ‘productivity’) would make Britain infinitely competitive. In France, the whole campaign by Sarkozy was fought on just this issue, without consistent, substantive opposition from the Parti Socialiste, I may add.

If we could organise to push against these combined ideological and practical obstacles when it comes to organisation of workplaces and the basic politico-economic struggles, we might begin to get traction on some of our other issues. Claude Carpentieri writes an interesting article over at Liberal Conspiracy, asking why the Left is always on the back foot and declaring that the national political agenda is currently set by the newspapers. I think this perspective is grossly flawed, but it originates at a correct starting point; Left weakness.

Our weakness isn’t that tabloids “boo and hiss” about subjects such as welfare, social workers, foreigners and ‘political correctness’, or that Left newspapers fall over themselves to praise the British Army in Iraq, but our weakness causes those things. By being disorganised when it comes to achieving practical concessions from bosses we can see, or re-shaping the labour market to make it more open to strong unions, we’re forever gifting the initiative to the other side. Socialists and trades unions are liable to get denounced whatever we do, so we may as well give the tabloids something good to rant about.

By simple virtue of being organised and instituting our own ideas and practices (Gramsci’s hegemony to the rescue!) we’ll begin limiting the effects of tabloid journalism, whatever they say. Indeed, by attempting to re-shape the labour market after a fashion we find more conducive to our aims, we may find that we rebuild the NUJ and the printers’ unions from without. That day is a long way off, of course, but our fightback can start by a twofold push – first for the working time directive opt-out to be cancelled, and secondly for a labour-friendly reorganisation of those services likely to be affected.

Stretching far beyond merely the firefighters, this sort of issue takes in the entire workforce – and the General Council of the TUC would need to co-ordinate efforts between different unions. The effects, however, would be far reaching and the gains might reverse some of the last thirty years of union failures, just as laissez faire orthodoxy is being reversed.

Nationalist parochialism

March 17, 2009 Leave a comment

Several instances worthy of mention from the Scots’ Nats have appeared on the BBC website recently. Christine Grahame, MSP, tabled a motion at Holyrood calling for the return of a letter carried by William Wallace upon his capture. The letter was originally from the King of France, not that anyone should care in a modern political context since all of these people have been dead for about seven hundred years.

What interests and irritates me isn’t so much the call for the return of the letter – the British Empire, after all, had form in regard to pinching things. The Parthenon Frieze is probably the outstanding example, but there are others as well. The Stone of Scone was symbolically returned by John Major’s government as a way to pacify Scottish dissatisfaction (not that it did much good, since the 1997 wiped out the Tories).

The important part is the way in which the return has been called for (hat tip BBC):

“This is a very significant historical document related to Scotland’s most iconic and lasting national hero,” she said.

“In the year of homecoming it would be fitting to see this document finally returned to Scotland.

“There are very few artefacts around today that we know for certain Wallace handled and held in his possession.”

Ms Grahame said it would be “entirely inappropriate that it should languish, forgotten in some closed drawer in Surrey and urge the UK National Archive to pass it to the National Museum of Scotland where it can be properly displayed.”

My question is this: so what? SNP members of the Scottish Parliament have been calling for the return of all sorts of things, including a letter written to the city of Lubeck, Germany, telling them that Scotland was once more open for trade. What right does Scotland have to any of this stuff? Moreover, on what reckoning can William Wallace be accounted a “hero”?

Blood and soil nationalism I’ve always accounted as foreign to the traditions of these islands, but counting a blood thirsty murderer (for he was no less a murderer than Edward Longshanks) and tyrant as a “hero” surely puts the SNP one foot down that road. Discussing and celebrating the past is important – but glossing over the reality of William Wallace á la Braveheart is a tad disingenuous.

On the point as to the legitimacy of the claim, surely if the Scots have a right to a letter written to Wallace, surely Lubeck has a right to a letter written to the merchants of their city? Or vice versa: if the SNP claim the right to the latter, then surely we should ship the other letter back to France. It’s inconsistent and smacks of a bunch of juvenile delinquents bloviating simply because they can.

Reading over some of the debate on the European Working Hours Directive, calling for random historical artefacts to be returned isn’t all. Trying to outdo Gordon Brown for pointless nationalist sloganeering, MSP Alyn Smith demanded “A Scottish solution for a Scottish issue”. I’ll have more on the European Working Hours Directive presently, but this aspect of it just highlights what an opprobrious bunch the SNP are, and why they’re no better or more progressive than Labour.

What they lack in being mildly pro-redistribution of wealth, they more than make up for in nationalist parochialism.

Categories: General Politics

The widest possible movements and hegemonic strategy

March 13, 2009 9 comments

Is ‘nationalism’ ever a good thing? To this basic question, I’ve always answered no – and in so doing, I choose to deploy various Marxist theories to justify my answer. First of all, there’s no single nationalism – different parts of society articulate different ideas of what it is to be nationalist. The only way these discourses can be understood as part of the social totality, simultaneously constitutive of it and constituting it, is through the Marxist theory of hegemony, outlined initially by Antonio Gramsci and expanded upon by Raymond Williams.

Transcending earlier theories of Marxism, that formal systems of belief – ideology – were the pure inferences of class interest, hegemony theory does not reduce consciousness to ideology. This is important, since parts of the Left often looks upon certain aspects of nationalism with favour. National traditions, as they exist in popular consciousness, are susceptible to appropriation by the Left since the practices of the past can include oppositional practices as well as those practices related to the dominant class.

Where consciousness is not reduced to ideology, an additional layer of complexity is added to socialist strategy – and it was the contention of people such as Laclau and Mouffe that this additional layer of strategy voided the idea of the proletariat as the universal class. Indeed, ‘post-Marxism’ has aimed to interpret the new ‘subject positions’ as irreducible groups which must be courted as part of a broad electoral strategy – but this steps far outside the notion of hegemony as conceived by Gramsci himself.

The concept of hegemony becomes reduced to electoral strategy. Where we should be thinking about how to overturn the institutions, practices and ideas which sustain these ‘subject positions’, too many socialists of the ‘soft Left’ (as it has traditionally been known) want to think instead how we can ameliorate our own programme to better subsume these subject positions on their own terms. It is from this perspective that I’ve always viewed Compass, and its repudiation of the notion of the working class.

Indeed, in a certain light, the project of the Labour Right from the days of Kinnock to Blair and Brown strongly resemble this description. From Marxism Today to Melanie Phillips, the capitulation of many Leftist theoreticians before capitalism can be explained by this underlying dynamic – a dynamic which is ultimately hostile to the interests of the working class. I am, of course, defining the interests of the working class as being the ultimate overthrow of capitalism – to do anything else would be a repudiation of Marxism.

In so saying, I’m not claiming that the fall of capitalism is inevitable. Nor am I being ‘idealistic’ about the potential of a class conscious working class to finally overcome all opposition and seize power. I am, however, openly stating that these goals are not helped by the Marxist Left seeking coalition and alliance with groups such as Compass. The route of Compass is either that of Melanie Phillips or that of the young Tony Blair; the emasculation of labour’s shock battalions behind a veneer of radicalism.

Supporters of Compass might point to Compass’ support for the CWU over the Royal Mail issue and say that this proves me wrong. I accept that argument, but I’m ever conscious of the positions held by the New Labour clique prior to their accession: support for the FBU, for example. My view on this is reinforced by the opinions repeatedly demonstrated by those who are de facto regarded as the Compass leadership – Cruddas, Trickett and Lawson. Not all of those are merely ‘de facto’ either.

With all this said, then, what attitude should Marxists take towards Compass and the ‘soft’ Left generally? My answer is perhaps coloured by the fact that the ‘soft’ Left, including the large penumbra based around the Socialist Campaign Group at its height, were imbued with radical socialism only in the wild dreams of many activists who just needed to believe. This penumbra would go on to betray socialist members of the Labour Party through witch hunts, and by producing people like Hazel Blears.

Leaving my personal opinion and my tendency towards ad hominem attacks to one side however, the task of properly using hegemonic theory ultimately devolves upon Marxists. If we don’t point out the theoretical weaknesses of Compass, the backsliding, the concessions to capitalism before we’ve even fired a metaphorical shot, then no one will. Insofar as people are the direct representatives of these tendencies, people will bear some criticism, perhaps excusing me some ad hominems, but it is the tactics and theory which are really at fault.

There is room for co-operation, considering that with Compass, the socialist Left has a better chance of being permitted some basic protections of Party democracy. Yet, Marxists – both within and outwith Labour – should first be facing the working class, recruiting new layers and educating them in the course of struggle. This struggle itself overrides the ‘subject positions’ on which the facile argument about electoral strategy depends – arguments which Compassites share with such unlikely groups as the SWP.

The nature of Left factions as member-driven groups means that a face-the-class-first policy will not eradicate an often acrimonious dispute, where Compassites denounce socialist manifestations within Labour as ‘purist’ and those socialists return fire with the label ‘sell-out’. The soft Left will continue to ‘sell out’ and it will continue to see different emphases on tactics and theory as purist opposition to what is ‘achievable’ on the basis of buying into the status-quo, as New Labour did, rather than achieving things in the teeth of the status-quo.

What I want to stress here is that tactics and theory are inextricably linked towards the respective ends of Compass and Marxists – especially since the day to day experience of tactics conditions each of us to adjust our theory and aims. These are different for Compass and Marxists and even while co-operating, it is my view that Marxists must ceaselessly point this out.

Categories: General Politics

The widest possible movements?

March 12, 2009 4 comments

Having been a writer at Liberal Conspiracy for a while now, the concept of co-operation between political parties should be one of interest to me. LibCon has writers from amidst Labour, the Lib Dems, the socialist Left, Greens and oodles of independents. Party political co-operation is the theme of veteran commentators Neal Lawson and John Harris, addressed also by Paul over at Bickerstaffe Record. As the nature of political movements is something I’m forever debating with Tom, I figure I should toss him a link also.

A particularly relevant passage in the Lawson and Harris NS article describes Charter 88 and the Countryside Alliance, or the Scottish Constitutional Convention, as the sort of groups the Left need to emulate. Oh really? We should be aiming to bring together ‘parties, churches and other civic groups’ should we? The aim of such a coalition is obvious from the article; to ‘regulate’ the market and reverse the ‘failure of democracy’ which led to our sacrifice upon the altar of free market fundamentalism, and other such nifty alliterative phrases.

Accepting the need to establish a minimum programme on which basis to consider political coalitions is an obvious step for the socialist Left. A unity on the basis of a minimum programme, however, isn’t what Lawson and Harris advocate – nor is it the only issue. The methods of coalition are just as important. If ‘form follows function’, then the unity of a bunch of NGOs, churches, political parties and so forth can only result in a rather stale political environment, sheltered from the will of the people they’re trying to serve.

From the point of view of the socialist Left, moreover, the programme that Lawson and Harris advocate is so far from being tall enough to tie the bootlaces of a minimum programme. They laud the market as a creator of wealth. They claim that it is a fault of democratic vigilance that the economy has reached the crisis it is currently in. Though they recognize the ‘nature’ of capitalism to tend towards monopoly and disaster, we shouldn’t hold that against our system, because if properly regulated, it’ll do its job fine.

In saying these things, Lawson and Harris still place themselves on the political Right of the Labour Party as it has existed for most of the last one hundred years. They are correct in that the ability of organised capitalism to run rampant is ultimately contingent upon our ability to stop it, but they neglect to mention that every time we’re in a position to stop it, people much like themselves try to put on the brakes. Indeed they lay the embryo for such a stance by their very support for this mystical invention, ‘the regulated market’.

If we examine the other rhetoric from these commentators, their professions of faith in coalition may carry even less weight. Both Harris and Lawson were fine with Blairite policies during the 1990s; in retrospect it’s easy to pick out free market fundamentalism as a bad call, but for Lawson in particular, it seems tendentious to forget that the door to such fundamentalism was opened by his Trot-hunting buddies in the Labour Co-ordinating Committee. Is a coalition to return us merely to the era of untarnished ‘modernisation’?

So the shared ‘aims’ of socialists (within Labour) and people like Lawson and Harris are suspect, throwing ‘coalition’ into doubt.

That’s not to say I don’t know who the ‘enemy’ is right now, within Labour. Should Compass, in a bid to win the leadership of the Labour Party, promise organisational and policy changes which the LRC supports, we should throw our weight to them. But there’s a difference between qualified support and a simplistic advocacy for coalition between Left groups. This advocacy for coalition also covers important differences between those Left groups and ignores just how limited the common ground is.

Even while we work on common ground though – for example, civil liberties or wealth redistribution – we should acknowledge that the space for this collaboration is effectively sustained only by our separation from the levers of power. Should Compass accede to government at some point in the future, the conflicting pressures of a popular movement and the constrictions of the capitalist State will tell upon the Compass programme and it is my view that Compass would fail at the test, as have all Labour governments before it.

At that point of course, the space would open for a neo-Compass and the cycle would repeat perhaps. All of this hinges upon the notion, which seems fairly current, that Compass will be the future of the Labour Party, post-election, when most of the Blairite/Brownite PLP will be wiped out. Whether it is the case that the slick policy wankery of Compass will attract a following sufficient to swing CLPs and some Unions remains to be seen – but bearing in mind the contradictions which Compass enshrines, this isn’t unlikely.

And so we come to the key issue of coalition, from the point of view of an LRC member. We can’t afford to big up Compass in the eyes of what supporters we have, since they only seem radical in contrast to the most frightfully right-wing leadership that Labour has ever had. If we need to support them to improve our own ability to agitate amongst workers, then we should – but we need to be able to criticize their weaknesses clearly, delineating our own position as ultimately antagonistic to Compass.

During a time of intensified class struggle, the importance of these divisions will heighten measurably as elements of the Labour Party are propelled towards the interests of Capital, and elements are propelled towards the interests of labour. Radical talk about redistribution can become bitter opposition to the most basic activist-led demands of the working class, as in the case of Kinnock with the Miners or of Gordon Brown with the strikers at Lindsey Oil Refinery and subsequently all across the country.

When considering this future, we need to remember the phrases of the United Front: we march separately and we strike together. No illusions in Compass, or its prophets, but an open handed policy towards united efforts by those groups who command the support of socialist activists.

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