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.
At the moment, there are two political forces with global reaches in this world: western capitalist democracies and Islamic fascist theocracies. One is winning, the other is waning. Righties turned centrists have woken up to this, like John Gray (the academic, not the Labour councillor or the prick in the states who tries to have sex with non-smokers). Lefties turned neo-con lefties like Christopher Hitchens saw this as well. But there is a third way (and I’m not saying the two previous authors were not aware of this). The way of socialism. Socialists the world over would do well to remember that our beef is with capitalism and islamofascism in equal measure. That one is doing better than the other is beside the point; that one is given so much dominance while the other is a useful tool with which to beat enemies under the radar is, also, beside the point. Truth is absolute, not resting on relative morality or the awkwardness of lily-livered liberals (in which I include anarchist twats like Kit Withnail).
Capitalism is a system loose enough, socially, for lefties to dip in to without foregoing our own political prejudices. Fascism, of any order, is not. In some decisions there is not a “them and us” but a serious question of proximity, for which we hold a nose peg to the force which we consider the lesser of two evils.
Principled people did this with Libya, saying a No-Fly Zone was the correct course of action, even by leaders of countries we felt did shit for their own people. My tribe, the Labour left and the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) did not vote correctly on Libya, instead giving air space to Tankies and wankers, but that’s not to say principles are dead. Principles are alive and well, but let us not be complacent; our principles must never be sidelined for fitting in with the crowd – there’s a good deal of people in our tribe need winning over, and fast!
Alex Callinicos, a cunt in the SWP, took his opportunity as a known idiot to say that in order that fascism and totalitarianism is defeated, the West must first defeat capitalism. Saying this around the time that we, the politicos, were debating whether or not to take action, as a united set of nations, was farcical, and no more should the swappies pretend a moral high ground to the Stalinists, which they try to shit on every time they meet.
No, instead they should sit and think. There’s something. Honestly, I don’t think we should sit on our hands and wait, because given the state of the left in the UK we would be waiting a long time. We should not be making decisions on the basis of how little lip service we’re obliged to pay by being third fiddle in the world, fought by Capitalism and Islamism. We should be working out what it is we want to replace these two redundant epochal-potentials with.
The knee-jerk reaction against action in Afghanistan and Libya should be noted; but, of course, it won’t be. It – the history of now – will be rewritten for us on the left by those without recourse to reason or pause for humanity.
The years to come won’t bring any less complex motions, and that should give us fear. The left in this country often have it right economically, and are failed by counter-revolutionary forces; evil, almost above our control. But our regard for history knows too many bounds.
Here’s to those who sit outside this hysteria.
Happy Christmas. Against Capitalism and Islamism. With equality.
A journalist called Christopher Hitchens, who died a few days ago, has received thousands of column inches in his praise largely because, in addition to a good prose style, he chose to take controversial positions. One of Britain’s greatest sociologists, Professor John Rex, who died on Tuesday at the age of 86, will gain few column inches, perhaps because he chose excellence, rigour and consistency in all his work.
It seems a shame that the works of a serious socialist thinker and researcher like John Rex are likely to remain consigned to the backshelves of secondhand book shops, while the entertaining but ultimately frivolous offerings of Christopher Hitchens go off for further reprints.
In 1968, in a typcially forthright piece The Race Relations Catastrophe, Rex predicted what would happen in British inner cities, and urged politicians to take decisive action:
We have just about ten years to break down our ghettoes and to see to it that all men have the same opportunities in education and employment…The difficulties we face do not arise from our ignorance about how the problem should be tackled. They arise from a lack of will or from opportunist electoral fear. Yet trying to placate the electorate with semi-racialist policies, or keeping quite in the hope that you won’t be called a nigger-lover hasn’t paid off, while a deliberate assault on the ghettoes with a view to clearing them would eliminate one of the most important of all the secondary causes of racialism.
The politicians did not act, and in 1981 race riots took place across the country. For another 30 years, politicians continued to pander to opportunist electoral considerations. In 2011 rioting took place again - though the intervening years had changed some of the specifically racial characterstics in the ghettoes, and some of the ghettoes had been relocated to outer estates. Most of those involved think further riots will take place soon, and the police are drawing up their plans.
Rex is probably best known in the academic community for his key works Key Problems of Sociological Theory (1964), Race Relations in Sociological Theory (1970), Race and Ethnicity (1986). However, it is his groundbreaking and meticulous 1967 study (with Robert Moore) Race, Community, and Conflict: A Study of Sparkbrook which really mark him out for members of the non-academic-but-politically-engaged community that I like to thing I belong to.
In this, he set out with great precision the overtly racist policies being enacted by local and central government in Birmingham, and the legacy of discrimination it was creating, which would in turn create the conditions for much of the urban conflict we see today.
Rex founded the Sociology Department at Warwick University in 1970, when Warwick was very much a new ‘red brick’, not the institution with the world-class reputation it has now earned. He stayed with Warwick for most of his career.
I emailed him a year or two ago when I discovered his work – at the back of a secondhand bookshop - seeking his advice. I got an automatic reply saying that he was in hospital and that he’d reply on return. Sadly, he was never able to. I wish I’d read his stuff earlier.
I hope this little obituary note will at least persuade one or two others to look up his work. He had, and still has through his published a lot to say that is relevant to where we are now.
As I set out here, better late than never to act on his advice.