A great man once said why, if there is an economic meltdown, is there no good music being made? Few wiser words have ever been spoken.
Which is why I was delighted to read that 20 years after its anniversary there are some signs of a re-emergence of riot grrrl.
Music journalist Everett True, while debunking some of the myths around riot grrrl said, as to whether it has had its day, “Nope. Nope. Nope. Ask the Cribs. Go on. Ask ‘em.”
Tempting as it might be to call The Cribs post-riot grrrl, this is clearly not what they have in mind – the core anger is still there, as it was in bands like L7 and Bikini Kill in the 80s and 90s.
Riot grrrl never went away – but we need more of it.
And a return today would be timely; an underground movement, replicating the anger of a generation, and challenging the “common-sense” of the coalition government, could never be out of place, but particularly not today.
To remind ourselves of what this looked like, by one of my favourite bands in my youth, I give to you L7 – Wargasm.
Happy new year!
One of the more interesting documents from yesterday’s 30 year rule Cabinet paper release is a ‘Brief for a Debate on Recent Outbreaks of Civil Disorder’, prior to a Commons debate on the 1981 riots( pp. 55-60 of this file).
Section 2 of the briefing is titled ‘Extremists and the Disorders’, and starts by giving details of the recent activities – down to the content of local leaflets – of a number of groups: Militant Tendency, Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton (noted as unrecognised by the Labour party), WRP, RCG, RCP, The Race Collective, SWP, and Labour Party Young Socialists.
The briefing then go to a subheader to this main title: The Labour party and law-breaking. Most of the focus is on Ken Livingstone, and it is clear that his activities were being followed very closely, with detailed records of his local speeches kept.
But perhaps the greatest surprise is what the paper has to say about the Labour leader, Michael Foot:
As Labour Leader, Mr Foot has condemned the recent violence. So, too, has Mr Hattersley. Neither Labour leader has, however, been able to resist the temptation to refer to the high levels of unemployment as a possible cause of the violence. Mr Foot’s record in the past has been equivocal. He gave firm backing to those who defied the Industrial Relations Act, and made, under the last Labour government, some notorious attacks on the judiciary. These include a reference to “judges who stretch the law… to suit reactionary attitudes (ITV, People and politics,, 9th May 1974)) and the remark that “if the freedom of the people of this country has been left to good sense and fairmindendess of the judges, we would have few freedoms in this country at all” (Daily Mail, 16th May, 1977).
All of this begs questions.
Did the Thatcher government really consider the mainstream Labour party, including its leaders in the Commons, to be potential violent insurrectionists, enough for the briefing paper to include them under the main ‘Extremists’ header?
Was the establishment actually scared of widespread insurrection, or was this just attention to the details of small groups just a reflection of civil servants operating to its normal code?
Is this kind of briefing still going on? Is the state still this scared?
The Guardian’s big splash today is headlined:
Thatcher government toyed with evacuating Liverpool after 1981 riots.
Dave Osler’s in there with the follow up at LibCon:
[T]op Tories Geoffrey Howe and Sir Keith Joseph advised Margaret Thatcher to abandon that beastly city altogether.
And Kerry McCarthy’s hot on his heels at Labourlist:
Today’s disclosure of Cabinet papers under the 30 year rule reveal that Tory ministers tried to persuade Msrgaret Thatcher to write off Liverpool after the 1981 riots and abandon it a process of ‘managed decline’.
Now, I’m all for a bit of Tory-bashing when the opportunity arises, but I think we need to stand back a little and put what Howe wrote in the context of the time. Howe wrote to Thatcher:
Currently regional policy, on which large sums of public money are spent, is biased towards manufacturing industry on a geographical basis founded on past economic patterns. Michael’s [Heseltine's] report raises issues…. about the relevance of the present structure of regional incentives to our current circumstances – whether, for example, greater importance should now be accorded to service industries. These questions go wider than Merseyside. Political difficulties in changing the system are formidable. But we need to get to grips with the problem.
Should our aim be to stabilise the inner cities….or is this to pump water uphill? Should we rather go for “managed decline”? This is not a term for use, even privately. It is much too negative, when it must imply a sustained effort to absorb Liverpool manpower elsewhere – for example in nearby towns, of which some are developing quite nicely – as well as some real attention to the community and townscape that is left behind.
There are two key issues here.
First, the “nearby towns” Howe refers to are most likely Runcorn and Skelmersdale, designated as New Towns in the early 1960s but only nearing completion in the late 1970s (in fact Skelmersdale has never been properly completed), as well as other small urban centres on the Wirral, to the North and East of Liverpool (Crosby, Maghull, Kirkby and Huyton), as well as Widnes higher up the Mersey.
1981 was therefore only really the tail end of this phase, so it is not so surprising therefore. in the context of a dominant urban policy which then still favoured Fordist new town/suburban planning, that Howe should talk in terms of managing inner city decline.
Second, and much more damning, is the stark reminder that Howe and his colleagues really never had any proper plan for this, or any other, industrial region.
Howe’s blind faith that these new towns can suddenly and magically find jobs for those already forced out of inner-cityLiverpool (and those he wished to see leave) turned out to be utterly fanciful. By 1983 the unemployment rate in Skelmersdale was around 25% , and the town has only ever had 40,000 of the 80, 000 residents originally planned. The story of continued deprivation and worklessness on some of the outer estates of Merseyside and Runcorn is testament to the Tories’ incompetence.
Today, Tory apologists for Thatcher are claiming that she stood up for Liverpool, by turning down the plans to manage the city’s decline. They may be right, technically, but only in the sense that the decline was much wider than Liverpool, and wasn’t managed at all.
Market researchers GfK NOP recently found that consumer confidence this month had fallen to its lowest level since early 2009 – at a time when the economy was still contracting. Boxing Day sprees saw a rise of 21.5% up from the same day in 2010, but the outlook on purchase power is bleak.
But what defines a consumerist society? One where there is mass consumption of tat, or where consumption is forced down our throats? One where there is more to your pound, or where someone is actually killed for a pair of trainers?
Whether confidence on the high streets is low or not, individuals in our society are seen primarily as the consumer.
Some commentators have analysed the UK riots through reference to consumerism. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman had the following to say:
These riots were, so to speak, an explosion bound sooner or later to happen… Just like a minefield: one knows that some of the explosives will true to their nature sooner or later explode, but one doesn’t know where and when.
This particular social minefield has been created by the combination of consumerism with rising inequality. This was not a rebellion or an uprising of famished and impoverished people or an oppressed ethnic or religious minority – but a mutiny of defective and disqualified consumers, people offended and humiliated by the display of riches to which they had been denied access. We have been all coerced and seduced to view shopping as the recipe for good life and the principal solution of all life problems – but then a large part of the population has been prevented from using that recipe… City riots in Britain are best understood as a revolt of frustrated consumers.
This chimes with various stories, told by those involved in the riots, re-told by the Guardian and the LSE in their Reading the Riots project. Stand out stories include:
“It was like Christmas; it was so weird … Snatch and grab, get anything you want, anything you ever desired”.
“The rioting, I was angry. The looting, I was excited. Because, just money. I don’t know, just money-motivated. Everything that we done just money-motivated.”
Interviewees spoke about the need on the streets where they live to have the best equipment, new phones, gadgets, clothing and accessories.
“Yeah, in our generation it is [important]. Clothes. Having the nicest clothes … the updated things, the big tellies, the fancy phones.”
One rather odd Guardian story had it that the consumers had chosen to target only big brand shops, not small businesses owned by families, seemingly unable to see how silly this strained appeal to a counter-narrative about support for local enterprise is.
Even Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek laid off seeing the riots through a revolutionary perspective, instead plumping for the Hegelian notion of the ‘rabble’, which he defined as “those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence – what Hegel called ‘abstract negativity’.”
On the same day that there was a high street surge, a young man by the name of Seydou Diarrassouba died after being stabbed in a fight on Oxford Street. Police so far have stopped short of saying what caused the fight, but there are reports suggesting a row broke out over which trainers to steal from the shop he and some others were in. Allegedly, the young man is a part of a South London gang called ABM, which stands for All ‘Bout Money. Rivalries between similar gangs such as 031, G-Street and RSG Blood gangs from Brixton and Stockwell are supposedly to do with music differences between older members, but it probably won’t be apparent to younger members why there is such friction, only that they must uphold it.
The young man appeared in court a week before his death to face jail for stealing a phone from another man in the street, and it is rather telling that every picture of him in the papers have him, and those around him pushing or barging the police, wearing blue – this is supposedly because ABM has come to be associated with blue, and gangs associated with red are unofficial or fake “blood” gangs.
It’s not all good for the rich either. According to the Times recently (£) Paul Aitken, who runs the pawnbroker borro (which targets the cash-strapped, asset-rich), is about to receive his 100,000th loan application, three years in the business. He has put his success down to distrust in bank lenders, and a new found trust in alternative ways of lending. He told the Times:
the volume of clients has more than doubled and the average size of loan has tripled … We get a lot of people saying they don’t even bother trying at the bank any more.
The Times reported that loan funding for his company has come from Kreos Capital, which also backs Wonga – another element that will probably see great leaps of growth in the coming year.
It almost seems natural to say consumerism has gone pear-shaped this year, but a consumer is still a consumer when they take out high interest loans to fund a new pair of shoes that will last a year but keep him or her sweet with peers, or when ramming down the doors of Footlocker stores in Clapham Junction.
The consumer is low in confidence, but consumerism is doing fine.
Francis Fukuyama in his new Foreign Affairs piece (no longer available for free) has held off positing for sure what the end of history will be (like he did back in 1989), instead plumping for situating a series of challenges that may knock off existing liberal democracy as it exists today.
In the piece he notes that the left, particularly in the US and Europe, have failed to hone in on where capitalism has seemingly failed us. Further, in the marketplace of ideas, where historically liberal democracy has come up trumps, business-as-usual is threatened, and that something new is needed because the sharp elbowed elites are knocking aside the middle classes worldwide.
For Fukuyama, the left have only really been able to make a case for an “unaffordable form of old-fashioned social democracy”. (Has the American academic not read In the Black Labour?). What he spends too little time doing, in this article at least, is understanding those movements that have not only challenged the staus quo by way of occupy movements, but also acknowledge how good the powers that be are at flogging what is essentially a dead horse, i.e. lightly regulated financial systems.
Further on this point, though he does at least tip his hat at mentioning those social conservatives who are also feeling the pinch, but would sooner cut their noses off than stand on the streets handing out leftist leaflets, he doesn’t make any effort to understand or acknowledge the capacity of conservative anti-capitalism – something very small at the moment, but which will play a part in the oncoming shift in the marketplace of ideas (at odds with the prevailing tea party movement).
On global challenges to western capitalism, Fukuyama mentions the two hot potatoes: China and Iran/ Saudi Arabia. With the latter, their rejection of liberal democracy is in turn a promotion of Islamic theocracy, but Fukuyama writes that off as a “dead end” model (neglecting to mention its global reach). China, for him, is the threat. Combining a partially marketised economy with an authoritarian government, the Chinese may have started touting their model as an alternative model to the American one, but it is a sub-model of capitalism. If anything the Chinese model is the one that sits at a dead end. As Fukuyama says himself, later on in the essay after some time to forget an obvious contradiction, “it is unlikely that a spreading middle class will behave all that differently in China from the way it has behaved in other parts of the world [and further] there is little chance that much of the world will look like today’s China 50 years down the road.”
The proof of the supremacy of western liberal democracy is not in the pudding, but in the eating. The pudding, here, is the Middle class, and for Fukuyama the bit that really provides the proof is that they are getting better off. Nobody can stop the middle class now. Fukuyama says:
Marx believed that the middle class, or at least the capital-owning slice of it that he called the bourgeoisie, would always remain a small and privileged minority in modern societies. What happened instead was that the bourgeoisie and the middle class more generally ended up constituting the vast majority of the populations of most advanced countries, posing problems for socialism.
This seems only to have posed a problem for socialism, if one’s socialist politics are predicated on the race to the bottom. Looking beyond the fact that Fukuyama seems to confuse the bourgeoisie and the petit-bourgeoisie in the same paragraph (carelessly writing “middle class more generally”), there is more to the left wing challenge than simply saying we want to see a growth in how many people can call themselves middle class.
The gap between the rich and the poor in the US, where Fukuyama is, is growing rapidly. Recently the Congressional Budget Office said that the richest one per cent of the U.S. population saw its income jump 275% over the past three decades, while the poorest one-fifth gained just 18 per cent.
Furthermore, the “Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show[ed that] the wealthiest one-tenth of U.S. society has an income 14 times the size of that of the poorest one-tenth.”
Closer to home in the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that “workers in the worst paid jobs – such as dinner ladies, hairdressers and waiters – have seen their pay fall sharply in real terms” and the “bottom tenth of earners saw their pay creep up just 0.1% between 2010 and 2011 while the top tenth saw their pay grow 18 times faster.”
Added to that, on a global scale, tax evasion accounts for more than $3 trillion, or about five per cent of, world gross domestic product, and the UK is losing £69.9bn a year to tax evaders.
Real incomes of the middle classes will stagnate, too.
As is typical of Fukuyama, his latest piece is bluster. Of course, he is correct to say the left haven’t acted on this global crisis, but before posing his ultimate question – what is there in the wings that can save us today? – he denounces socialism, as he always does. I say, there is nowhere else to turn but socialism.
Since guilt and the feeling of remorse has a good deal to do with why we don’t do evil, would there be anything stopping us being immoral if we somehow grew out feeling guilty, or indeed fearing the consequences of our actions.
Questions have been raised since time began how to instill good morality in children in a way that is itself moral. If you’ve no reason to believe in, say, a God, then you could appeal to Blaise Pascal, for whom since the existence of God can not be proved (or disproved) through reason alone, a person should wager that there is a God on the grounds that eternal damnation (the punishment for not believing) is far worse than all life stopping at death (for which there can be no eternal punishment).
Of course this in itself is a fear of the consequences; it is not belief in God based on revelation to the senses, or indeed reason, but worry that if one is wrong they will be subject to torture for ever more.
In this sense the belief on God could perhaps be an example of the noble lie. In the Republic, Plato conceptualised the noble lie to mean a myth that is maintained by the upper orders to keep social harmony by those among the lower orders. Today it could be applied to a parent who is trying to maintain order among their children. They could apply it one way by saying that if they are not good they will not go to heaven – which would again be instilling fear of the consequences. Conversely they could say heaven is rewarded to those who live the good life, which would at least be toying with the notion that the good life is a good in itself, but it is still conditional on a consequence, and is a telling of the good of the good life with reference to something that cannot be proven – is this moral?
Parents have often used Christmas, and the givings of Santa Claus, as a way of instilling a moral life of good. In the song ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ we are told that in order for us to meet the criteria of Good, as understood by Santa, we:
- better not pout
- better watch out
- better not cry
But Santa, according to the song, needs to know that we have been good for its own sake. Unlike Pascal’s Wager, we can get in to the kingdom of heaven, not because we have been good without fear of consequence, but because we have limited faculties to know the truth within the domain of reason alone, and have to appeal to assessing what is best in eternity, despite no concrete knowledge of the latter. For Santa, we understand through the song that:
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!
So between Pascal and Santa, waging hard against the backdrop of Plato’s discussion on whether a person can be moral without fear of the consequences, assuming it is better that a person does good for the sake of good alone, it is Santa who takes first place.