Archive for the ‘Marxism’ Category

Ed Miliband: Dangerous Revolutionary?

Potential leader of the proletarian revolution Ed Miliband, standing in a field.I’ve just read this post over at Max Atkinson’s blog, which admittedly I would have never encountered were it not for an eye-catching tweet containing the link, which insinuated that if elected, Ed Miliband would take the Labour Party back to the dark days of 80’s class warfare.

The main point being made in the post is best summed up in the following paragraph;

Now that Ed Miliband has won the backing of the big unions, whose support Ed Balls had been hoping for, the question is: can Labour afford to back Ed Miliband on his journey back to 1979 and the wonderful world of old Labour?

The implication, that Ed Miliband is some sort of militant figure one might expect to find on the hard left, wo is comparable to the likes of Michael Foot or Tony Benn, is simply laughable, and is something I’ve heard repeated several times recently.

After showing a 5 second long clip of Ed in which he says, “I’m standing because of my values, values my parents taught me” Max go’s on to say;

Although I know nothing at all about his mother’s values, I do know that his father, the late Ralph Miliband, was a militant Marxist and a highly influential member of a generation of sociological theorists who (in my opinion) contributed towards undermining the credibility of a once respectable discipline

Well Max, his mother said Jon Cruddas would be her preferred candidate in the contest if that helps at all…

Quality of Ralph Miliband’s work aside (which I would recommend by the way), there is nothing about Ed Miliband’s ideas on the practical approach to politics, which would lead one to believe he is following in his fathers ideological footsteps. Indeed quite the opposite is true. One of Ralph’s key works, Parliamentary Socialism: A study of the politics of Labour, he questioned the possibility of advancing the Socialist cause through parliamentary politics, as opposed to more militant mobilisation of the working class favoured by his father. So we can safely assume that in this regard Ed isn’t following in his fathers footsteps. Perhaps his mothers more centric, Crudassite tendencies balanced him out a bit!

This kind of lazy, sensationalist analysis bores me. The fact that anyone to the Left of Tony Blair is instantly labelled as deluded, unelectable etc. is a common knee jerk response from anyone who views center ground politics as the Holy Grail of modern political thought, the expression of which sometimes borders on McCarthyism.

So besides the fact that at least one half of his moral inspiration was a Marxist academic, is there any other evidence that Ed is the Revolutionary Class warrior some seem to view him as?

The main philosophical points of Ed’s campaign, that there is more to society than the market, that the state has a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable from the excesses this market produces, and that greater social equality leads to a more cohesive society. All pretty common amongst the left of center, Social Democratic lexicon. As Comrade Doran quite eloquently articulated it recently he is a “Moderate Radical“.

Indeed, when the leadership candidates were asked at a recent hustings event, “are you a Socialist – and what does the word mean to you?”, Ed’s answer certainly seemed to confirm his commitment to Social Democratic Reformism;

“Being a socialist for me is about being willing to criticise capitalism – and saying capitalism produces many injustices, which politics must tackle. It is not about abolishing capitalism but it is about changing it”

It often annoys me how people who claim to want to see “change” in British politics are so wiling to denounce anything that appears to step even slightly outside the current status quo, and to do it with such half-baked observations as this is even worse.

The whole debate about center ground politics in Britain, and more specifically the urgent need to hold on to it, is often distorted by highly opinionated, stubborn points of view, that essentially end up with two sides who disagree shouting long-held, fiercely rigid dogmas at one another, bringing into question its right to even be called a debate anymore.

That in mind, I don’t have any desire to get into the “center ground debate” today, which Carl decided to start some discussion on last night. I just wanted to point out how bloody stupid it was to try to imply Ed Miliband might be the next Tony Benn.

Why I stopped supporting Hugo Chavez

I had the pleasure of being in the audience at the Venezuelan embassy in central London for the British launch of a book by Alan Woods, leader of the International Marxist Tendency, called Reformism or Revolution, released in 2008.

A Venezuelan diplomat sat beside him and gave a talk for a few minutes, while we waited for John McDonnell MP, who sadly was caught in a traffic jam and forced to cancel.

Woods wryly explained that Chávez is the only leader in the world who actually reads books. Whether he has read Wood’s book remains to be seen. The book itself is an explanation of what is happening in Latin America; for Woods something revolutionary is occurring, but people were not without their doubts. Behind closed doors members of the IMT were concerned that Chávez was not Marxist enough, if at all – Woods did mention that Chávez was reading Capital at the time of his visit, but generally speaking, what had been happening in Venezuela was not a Marxist revolution, nor was Chávez a Marxist revolutionary.

With the bag full of buzz words within the bank of the left, Venezuela was not a revolutionary country as such; there were no real attempts to collapse the means of production; there had been the odd factory takeover, but in general private capital had been pretty safe from the state. Although, it was not reformism either. Nationalisation programmes were being met with significant attempts to feed and clothe the poorest, staples were being subsidised by the PSUV, and Chávez had no truck whatsoever with free trade or NAFTA; democracy in Venezuela did not begin and end in the voting booths alone.

Chávez’ socialism was certainly different to other milder happenings in Latin America. Back in 2008 when I was avowedly Grantite, I wrote a piece explaining the difference between what was happening in Latin America countries that were somewhere between revolution and reform (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador) and other countries who were flirting with meek and mild centre left politics (Peru, Paraguay, Chile).

I said:

Although some of [Paraguay's, at the time new President, Fernando Lugo's] policies will be a much needed step in the progressive direction – such as agricultural reforms and reassertion of national sovereignty over energy utilities,- Lugo has been keen to play down the image that he is part of the popular left characterised by Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, although so far his reasoning has been far from substantial.

He dismissed Chávez’s Government for its “lack of pluralism,” but fails to see the dangers inherent in his own coalition which is shared amongst Socialists, Christian Democrats, and certain sections of the centre-right. This is bound to lead to conflicts between the interests of the masses of poor peasants and workers who voted for Lugo expecting fundamental change and those political parties of the ruling class which joined Lugo’s Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC) in the hope of getting a share of power. These sections are represented by Lugo’s vicepresidential candidate Federico Franco, from the Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico. He sought to reassure big business by distancing himself from a “Chávez-style government” and adding that, “Our government will bring the country into a globalised world, into the World market”.


Lugo’s promises of land reform (in a country where 70% of agricultural land is in the hands of 1.7% of landowners), jobs for all, and the use of the country’s resources (hydro-power, oil and others) in the benefit of the majority, if maintained, can only bring him into conflict with the ruling class and the parties in his own coalition. But in order to attain this strong elements of empty reformism and nonsense conservatism must be rooted out, otherwise all the excitement may amount to nothing. If on the other hand he chooses to conciliate or even betray those who have deposited so many hopes in him, then the movement of the masses will find another expression. Lugo will be judged by his actions. Meanwhile the workers and peasants must be ready to fight for the demands in the streets, as these will not be conceded by the ruling class without a struggle.

This was the view of many on the far left; that Lugo and others, (Bachelet of Chile, Lula of Brazil) were either too weak or pandering to the Americans and free trade. But deep down, Chávez was beginning to be too meek as well, in spite of western media outrage that he is authoritarian, dictatorial and trying to introduce Castro-esque communism into Venezuela (the issue with RCTV did not help these matters much).

So the word – often used negatively by certain members of the far left – used to describe Chávez is one that often sticks in the throat of Marxists; populist. The phenomena taking place in Venezuela; popular movement. For the IMT, as with all Marxists, Marxism is a science, it is not a popularity contest, and Chávez needed to pick up pace or they would lose their patience – though this was not made explicit. And for Alan Woods in particular, he was very worried of unwise, unMarxist anti-Americanism, of the type being promoted by Chávez to stoke up popular sentiment in Venezuela and other countries.

Then came accusations that Chávez was an anti-Semite. Unsubstantiated to this day, but problems have arisen of late suggesting that Chávez is either ignoring, or acceptant of, the blatant anti-Semitism of colleagues Martín Sánchez of the Venezuelan Consul General in San Francisco and Gonzalo Gómez an active member of the governing party, PSUV, whose website is awash with anti-Semitic, and historical revisionism of the type that would please Adolf himself.

The Judeosphere has been kind enough to translate sample elements of that particular website:

Failed Zionists, Jews, Fascists, Murderers” — Written in response to the war in Gaza, the commentator says the Zionists “coolly determined that killing thousands of Palestinians in a single operation would facilitate the final dispossession of the ancestral lands of the village that gave birth to the Messiah, whom their predecessors murdered 2009 years ago.”

Jews, Schemers, and Murderers” — A bizarre “history” of Jewish intrigue, beginning with the observation that Jews have carried the stigma of cowardice ever since their false God Yahweh killed 200,000 Israelites in retribution for King David’s census (because the Jewish God feared Moloch and needed to prove his credentials as a powerful warrior).

Hunting Jews” — An “expose” about the “alleged” Holocaust: “If we stop a moment and review the history, we should ask: Why has the supposed extermination of the Jews had and still has more notoriety than the actual extermination of African people? Why has the alleged extermination of Jews achieved major fame?….Does this have to do with a particular project which has sought to make Israel and the Zionist Jews the real owners of this world?”

The Modernity blog has also, probably correctly, mentioned that had the two Government figures written pieces articles praising the US or Capitalism and Chávez had seen them (there is evidence that Chávez quoted from the website, so he felt it was an authoritative resource), they would’ve certainly been thrown out, but anti-Semitism seems not to have jeopardised the jobs of these individuals, which itself has attracted a lot of criticism, and serves as a reminder of comments made about Chávez in 2009 accusing him of being anti-Semitic.

Not one to help matters much, Chávez decided to form close bonds with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I contacted a high ranking member of the IMT early last year to ask what he made of this close relationship. He replied with a link to this statement by the Venezuelan Revolutionary Marxist Current, which said:

On June 18, president Chávez once again congratulated Ahmadinejad on his reelection as a president and added the “solidarity of Venezuela in the face of the attack by world capitalism against the people of that country”. The Revolutionary Marxist Current in Venezuela, disagrees with this position [...].

Reservations about Chávez were becoming stronger within the IMT, but still they gave their support to him and his popular movement, in spite of the fact that Chávez’ decision to form links with Iran and Ahmadinejad – the same Ahmadinejad who sanctions the kidnapping of trade unionists, pretends there are no gays in his country, denies the existence of the Holocaust, expresses interest in blowing Israel off the face of the earth, and allows the perversion of justice and exploitation of Islamic law to stone women for adultery even though stoning is “never used as a judicial punishment” – were based not on leftist principles, but as a way of sticking two fingers up to the US – a classic example of keeping an enemies’ enemy as friends.

It is a well observed point that Chávez may have a despicable international profile (lets not forget his praise for Robert Mugabe, and his observance that Idi Amin was just a misunderstood patriot) but what he does inside Venezuela is what really matters. To an extent this is true, if like me you admire his nationalisation of industry, his welfare programmes, his subsidising of staples and his agreement to talk to the FARC in Columbia in an effort to free hostages (he wasn’t bankrolling the FARC, that claim is unsubstantiated and a lazy hypothesis based on easily modified data on a laptop), but quite why the Marxists in the IMT continue to bother, I’m not sure.

Having said that, his international record has been enough for me to count myself out of the Chavista camp for good; he is no longer a socialist, but a figurehead for unsophisticated politics based alone on wholesale anti-Americanism, principles of which I cannot relate to.

The Limits of Social Democracy [3]

July 3, 2010 3 comments

(This continues Dave Zachariah’s paper. Below are parts 4 and 5. Also have a read at parts 1 and 2, and part 3.)

4. The State in a Capitalist Economy: The total labour performed in the capitalist sector results in a product that is distributed among the agents in Figure 1. People who administer the state hold a position in the economy that gives them opportunities to privileges, wealth and power through its capacity to levy taxes. The state provides the capitalist sector with a juridical system and laws without which it could not operate, but at the same time the state is dependent on tax revenues from the incomes in the sector and credits in order to act in the world economy.

This dependence forces state managers to be concerned about maintaining the economic activity, irrespectively of whether they are bureaucrats or elected professional politicians; regardless of whether their goals are to build military capacity or implement social reforms. At the same time they have to assume an economy-wide perspective in order to keep the destructive effects of the capitalist sector—e.g. crises and unemployment—in check, or else the state rapidly risks losing political support from other sections of the population on which it is dependent to various degrees.

Economic activity is highly dependent on the level of investments in the economy. This fact gives individual capitals a collective veto over policy: Firms make productive investments and rentiers give credit depending on how they perceive profitability and the political-economic climate, i.e. if society is stable; if the economy is expanding; of the workers’ movement is kept under control; if the level of taxes do not rise, and so on.

If the business confidence of capitalists falls, the level of economic activity and the scope for state policy does too. This occurs in the context of rivalling states, that historically predates capitalism, which act in a world economy. An investment strike is followed by capital flight to other states and difficulties in obtaining credits for foreign exchange. This structural mechanism disciplines individual states under stable conditions to implement policies that do not harm the confidence of owners of capital and, on the contrary, act to maintain a stable development of the entire capitalist sector.

5. Economic growth and scope for social-democratic reform: During certain historical periods – war, international crises, reconstruction, mass mobilization – the balance of forces between the agents in the economy are altered and the individual capitalists’ confidence carry less weight. This increases the scope for the state to conduct an alternative set of policies depending on the other forces in society.

But as the situation stabilises, the weight is shifts back to the dependence on the incomes in the capitalist
economy. This creates sooner or later insuperable problems for the reformist strategy. The only way to reduce the dependence then is to increase the non-capitalist sector’s share of production from which it is posible to redistribute resources in order to implement progressive reforms.

Within the early workers’ movement it was clear that this meant some form of common ownership but it did not have a worked-out theory for how the economy would be run and political strategy for how to organise it [5]. The policies that social democracy mainly applied was nationalization of industries, methods that had grown out of a period of global mobilization for war and economic catastrophe 1914-1950.

The question of the structure of the political economy was, however, not central to the reformist strategy that was established immediately after WWII, when the nation-states prioritised reconstruction and industrial development. The balance of forces in the economy shifted to the benefit of industrial capital and workers at the expense of the rentier capital; whose movement and ability to extract interests and dividends were restricted to maintain high levels of investment. Under these circumstances social democracy in power could be a progressive force without having to challenge the economic order.

The high investment levels contributed to an enormous growth of wealth and facilitated full employment in Western Europe while avoiding to severely damage the confidence of industrial capital. The dependence on the incomes in the capitalist sector did not appear to be an obstacle, on the contrary the scope for social democratic reform was wide. The capacity that the workers’ movement had built since the days of the foundation of Second International in 1889 finally yielded political dividends on a scale that was impossible before 1945.

[5]See for instance SAP’s first ‘general thesis’ up to 1990 or the British Labour party’s Clause IV from 1918 to 1995:
“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.” (Emphasis added)

The Limits of Social Democracy? [2]

July 1, 2010 26 comments

(Guest post: This continues a paper by Dave Zachariah on ‘The Limits of Social Democracy’. The first two parts can be found here.)

3. The blind spots of social democracy. But the social democratic conception of the state would also prove to be simplistic. Firstly, the workers’ movement’s struggle for universal suffrage was not based on the classical theory of democracy as a form of government.

None of the central institutions of Athenian democracy had elected representatives, instead they were drawn randomly among the citizens. Elected representatives were considered to be an ‘aristocratic’ principle for chosing ‘the best’ in terms of status and education. This method was used almost exclusively for electing the ten generals of the city.

Only candidates chosen by lot could guarantee that poor farmers and artisans held political power. A look at the national parliaments in the modern world in terms of class, gender and ethnicity shows that the Athenian insight was correct; they are populated by representatives that are not statistically representative.

For mass parties the formation of professional policians, whose social background differs from the movement, leads to long-term problems since there is increasing risk that they cease to share the same perspectives. The risk is further increased when the primary goal is to win parliamentary elections and when the professional politicians can secure economic privileges.

Secondly, even if the state can be a juridical subject, and at times act unitarily, it is a hierarchy of state apparatuses that do not always act in concert. The most extreme example is Chile during 1970-3 when the class bias within the military establishment made it perceive the government of Allende as a threat to the order and decided to end it in blood.

In the improbable scenario that the Swedish Defence forces would turn against a government it would not be hard to guess which political direction it would take. More plausible examples, however, are the Ministry of Finance or Central Bank, which can limit the government’s scope for economic policy and therefore influence its direction.

Thirdly, the power of the state apparatuses flow from the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. No decisions taken within the state, no executive orders by ministries, no laws passed by parliament, would be effective without the possibility to sanction those whom do not follow them. To the extent that this state power is used to reproduce the capitalist mode of organizing society it is effectively capitalist regardless of the what party or intentions are in government.

Fourthly, and most significantly, is the structural dependence between the state apparatuses and the capitalist sector. This is the central problem of the reformists’ instrumental conception of the state and needs to be elaborated at greater length below.[4]

[4] The following analysis is based on Block [2] which was a response to a debate initiated by Nicos Poulantzas [11] and Ralph Miliband [7, 8] i New Left Review.

The Limits of Social Democracy?

June 29, 2010 13 comments

What follows is a paper presented by Dave Zachariah to the conference for the Swedish labour movement’s researcher network. Today’s article includes chapters 1 and 2, Introduction and Conceptions of the State. Chapters 3, 4 and 5, 6 then 7 will follow at intervals on this blog. Dave asked to have this posted here to see if an activist feedback would be forthcoming.

1. Introduction: How did social democracy turn from being one of the most successful political mass movements in history into a series of national parties in political crises and deep ideological confusion within one hundred years? The thesis in this article is that the crisis of social democracy is a long-term result of the fundamental problems that the political strategy of any reformist workers’ movement inevitably encounters in relation to the state and the economy, and which it has yet to solve.

These problems will increasingly bring the question to the fore: is the goal of social democracy to be a party in government or an organization for social transformation? Whilst this may at one point have been synonymous to its members, it will be argued why it necessarily ceases to be so with the passage of time.

2. Conceptions of the State: The struggle of early social democracy for the modern democratic rights and universal suffrage in particular rested on an impulse that went back to antiquity, best summarised by Aristotle’s observations of ancient Athens:

A democracy exists whenever those who are free and are not well off, being in a majority, are in sovereign control of the government, an oligarchy when control lies in the hands of the rich and better born, these being few.[1]

It was this class aspect that was the basis of the struggle by the upper classes to prevent or undermine democracy throughout centuries. Bourgeois thinkers, such as the liberal John Stuart Mill, worried about the “danger of class legislation on the part of the numerical majority, these being all composed of the same class”[2] and could therefore not accept equal votes.

The struggle for democratic rights by the workers’ movements was a precondition for it to become a strong mass movement with a base in the industrial working class. As long as organizing was illegal this strategy for social transformation would remain impossible. The struggle for universal suffrage was a part of the strategy. The spectacular membership growth of social democracy strengthened the belief that seizure of state power through the parliamentary road was inevitable. State power would be used for progressive reforms with the longterm goal to “transform the organization of bourgeois society and liberate the subjugated classes, to the insurance and development of the intellectual and material culture”.[3]

The split of the labour movement after the outbreak of World War I and the October revolution also implied a theoretical split in the conception of the state and thus different political strategies. In the social democratic conception, the existing state was an instrument that could be conquered by the workers’ movement while the followers of the Bolsheviks contended that the state always was an instrument for the ruling classes to uphold their domination.

The gains made by European social democracy would eventually show that the communist parties’ conception of the state in capitalist economies was mistaken. The altered political balance of forces after World War II brought social democracy to governments in several countries, in which it could implement a series of important working-class reforms.

Even in a country like Great Britain, whose parliamentary system was long considered to have kept the state safe from the workers’ movement, the Labour party could implement a series of nationalizations of industry and the country’s most important reform during the 20th century: the introduction of a National Health System that provided the population with health care according to socialist principles.

At the same time it became evident for the Western European communist parties, for instance the large Italian PCI and French PCF which had grown through their instrumental role in the anti-fascist struggle, that the revolutionary strategy based on the Comintern model was fruitless in societies with a stable capitalist economy and working parliamentary state with universal suffrage, as they all gravitated towards a reformist position during the postwar period. Only in parts of Asia, Africa and South America, where such social conditions did not pertain, did the original strategy still have relevance.

1-Aristoteles och Saunders [1, p.245].
2-Mill [9, ch.7,§.1].
3-Party programme of the Swedish Social Democratic
party (SAP) from 1911, [12, §.1].

Localism and electing socialists

June 17, 2010 1 comment

Local newsletters are a key element to the New Localism in campaign strategies.

Paul has written up a document that has been circulating for a while in different forms, about how he won his election in the Bickerstaffe ward in West Lancashire. In it, he details lots of different ways in which one can build up a personal vote by connecting with and serving voters in a constituency.

Emphasis on a local approach to elections seems to be one of the lessons learned by a certain part of the Labour Party. There’s even a desire for leaflets that look like they are homemade, rather than glossies purchased at great expense from Labour Party HQ (like those sold via godawful MembersNet).

To the best of my knowledge, Oxford still stands out as the constituency to adopt energetic local targeting – and was rewarded both at the last set of local elections and this year’s set and by hanging on to Andrew Smith’s seat in Oxford East, despite a wafer-thin majority in 2005. And this is grand, as it kept the Lib/Tories out.

Yet I can’t help but feel that there’s something missing, despite Paul’s injunction not to leave out the politics, not to smooth out views that aren’t mainstream, and I wanted to investigate that.

My first conjecture is that engagement in this local way can be seen as a more intensive farming of what already exists by way of pro-Labour or anti-Tory sentiment. It turns higher numbers of supporters out to the polls, much in the way that General Election campaigns are a qualitative jump on other elections, and produce like quantitative jumps.

All of the stories referred to above contain details of new people – not previous Party members – getting in contact as the result of political campaigns, of doing things like donating to a paypal account or pledging to give out a leaflet or two. And that’s great, so long as it represents the first of a series of steps towards political practice.

One person joining the Party, so long as they sit at home, or only come out for leafleting and the odd branch meeting is useful if the purpose of all this localism is just to continue to win elections ad infinitum, but as we know from the New Labour years, winning elections ad infinitum is not always a good thing.

The natural response of Labour’s left will be, “Aha, but winning elections ad infinitum is a good thing if the Left control selections” – and I would be the last to dispute the value of having Labour Lefties in office, rather than Tories. But to leave the matter there is to be unnecessarily reductive when it comes to political practice.

For a start, it does not take into account the qualitative changes on consciousness that can be brought about by a) wider political events and b) holding power as the result of election at which the masses turn out and then slink back home, without the continuous presence of mass (i.e. working class) interests exerting themselves.

So, for example, Labour’s path from the high tide of the Left back through different types of reaction until Blairism was reached is one not due solely to the technocratic attitude of Mandelson etc but also due to the defeats of the labour movement and the disenchantment and disengagement that this produced.

Thus there are backlashes both from within – through the creation of a bureaucratic layer of representatives who almost as soon as they are elected become separated from the concerns which elected them – and from without, through defeats produced by the actions of organised capital. This has been acknowledged even by New Labour, with calls for politicians to meet more real people – which may see a wider adoption of this local campaigning style.

But adoption of these campaigning methods can’t combat this, especially because the political orientation of Labour itself won’t remain stable, and the campaigning methods themselves are designed to appeal to people as voters, i.e. as consumers of a political product – a passive role. They are not embedded with an affiliation to the working class nor the combative spirit that leading our class to sustainable victories requires.

Instead we have an organisation fit to give voice to local communities – not a bad thing – in defence against cuts etc, but not ideologically equipped to stop those cuts across whole fronts of activity, nor with the necessary sinews required to mobilise the entire working class – which is the only way to stop such cuts.

Again the Labour leftie says “Aha! But…” This time the objection will be that whether or not to further integrate people whose interest is caught by these methods is the choice of that person, and can be aided by actions on the part of the local Labour organisation – e.g. curry nights after CLP meetings etc. There is also the point that most Labour branches and CLPs at least have the nominal involvement of the trades unions.

These tactics and resources can be used to knit the relevant sinews together, and while we Labourites might not approach things with the same all-encompassing methodology of our very rigid Marxist friends, by being local, by being connected, the political ideology intrinsic in everything from our structural position to our methods of engagement performs exactly the same function as your explicit ideology. Only better. And with less silly words.

All of which would be great if the labour movement and Labour Party bureaucracy stood still, or could be simply swept away by one titanic effort at gathering every Left activist together under the banner of the Labour Party conference. Yet these elements of reaction draw a continuing strength and renewal from the confused and contradictory ideas and practices of a great section of the working class.

Including, for example, the section that voted Tory or for other parties. Political engagement on the local model outlined in the various articles cited will not overcome these contradictions. Indeed such contradictions can happily exist alongside them – e.g. the anti-student prejudices of some towns wouldn’t be shifted because students more often than not don’t vote, or vote at home, and only stay in the area of the university for three years or less.

Yet, as has been proved time and again over the last two years, students are a vital key to undoing the attempts by the Conservative, Lib-Dem and Labour Parties to marketise third-level education. In particularly militant areas, they have been the staunchest defenders of trades union rights, of the rights of staff and even the rights of immigrants to work.

Organising and linking these sorts of struggles together requires a particular political perspective – its adoption by Labour would be a positive measure, but there’s no indication that this is what is going on. ‘Localism’ does not apply to this political perspective.

It’s also interesting that not one of these ‘local’ models mentions the ongoing efforts by various Lefts within the unions to retake the leadership of these behemoth institutions. Or mentions people in their single most important capacity: as producers of surplus value. It is here that such confused consciousness will be confronted – and not always at the behest of theoretically aware socialists; more often than not through a simple lense like fairness, as at Royal Mail.

There’s also the contention that intrinsic political understanding can only go so far before we need a valid and all-encompassing critique of the processes which we’re trying to control, whether in the interests of the ‘working class’ or ‘the people’ or whatever constituency one is claiming to represent.

My second conjecture builds upon the first. Taking all the above into account, that the form of engagement advocated is rather narrow, my suggestion is that returns will be yielded a) while Labour is in opposition, or while there is a threat of a Tory government and while Labour is perceived as more interested in ‘people’ than the Tories b) so long as other groups do not adopt the same intensive practices.

As regards a) Labour will not always be in opposition – and what government we get when it moves into power will act to offset local campaigning, however much we think to mitigate it. Similarly, given a Tory victory over organised labour, there’s no guarantee that the political sphere of debate cannot move right. That being so, a rootless Labour Party will tend to move with it, and the advantage of being better than the Tories will diminish all the while.

Likewise condition b) will not always hold. When other parties begin adopting such tactics, it will be politics which distinguishes between the competitors – and the consciousness of the voters, determined as it will be both by the action of opposing interests against theirs and by the efficacy and organisation developed by any defence of their interests. Local action goes some way to providing repositories of resistance – but this is largely defensive, and the point of the socialist movement is to gain things for the working class, not merely defend what there is.

This is the key difference, I would submit, between implicitly having a grasp of theory through practice, and explicitly being able to understand the relationship between the two and the broader processes at work – i.e. the difference between Labourism and Marxism.

Has time run out for Labour socialists?

June 9, 2010 22 comments

I can’t express in words how utterly furious I am that John McDonnell has been forced to withdraw from the Labour leadership contest. After a few days of faux outrage over his comment that if he could, he’d go back to the 1980s and kill Thatcher, and Diane Abbott’s mealy-mouthed supporters saying they think he should be the one to withdraw, despite her pledge to do so if he got more nominations (which he had, at that point), John has rightly judged that her supporters won’t come to him, so he’ll have to give his to her.

Not good enough. Every campaign for the next five years – against library closures, against service cuts, against the attempt to further casualise the public sector – is going to be fought outside of Labour. Only historical revisionists and morons believe that the anti-poll tax campaign was a Labour campaign. And yet the Left has kept the life support switched on, firmly demanding that people exercise the great contradiction at the heart of our democracy: loyalty to a Party the leadership of which does not care about them.

Is it time to pull the plug? Since 1923, we’ve faced the same situation. Labour is elected with high hopes for its success, disappoints those hopes and is then swept from office, leaving the Conservatives to pick up where they left off. Since the end of the great depression, after the war, when the exhaustion of the capitalist system allowed for greater state controls (which had been utilised during the war anyway and rubbed off the red taint they previously had), the journey has been backwards – trying to find a way back before the post-war settlement.

This is the mission of the Conservative Party, and ‘big society‘ is just its latest cover. What has Labour’s leadership done? Nothing. We have been losing the battle, and all the while desperately clinging to what Labour has achieved – scarcely anything new without sacrificing something old. So, of the last three parliaments, we got the minimum wage and a long-overdue rise in benefits (for example) whilst Labour set course towards undermining teachers’ unions and education, through faster deregulation of schools.

Meanwhile, Labour socialists – an endangered breed that I’ll deal with in a moment – ask their comrades and friends to hang on in a party that has been swamped by vapid twits. Anyone who goes to all the events touted by the Fabians, has been to Oxford or hangs out online can’t fail to know who I’m talking about. The twits claiming the legacy of Nye Bevan whilst backing Ed Balls, for example, without seeing the incredible disparity between the politics of the two. Whatever Bevan’s deficiencies and later demoralisation, he was no Balls.

Bevan occupies, as one might notice, the strapline of this blog. His sentiment, that one should not stand in the middle of the road, that one should not be afraid to take a position has been my personal code all my life. It is far from the attitude of the Labour leadership and their coterie. It is a party rotten through and through, corrupt, full of patronage and seeking after patronage, unprincipled. It isn’t really socialist at all. In seeking after patronage, people learn to talk with a certain vocabulary, highly technocratic and bloodless. Totally removed from ordinary people.

Labour socialists of the Labour Representation Committee number somewhere below 1000 people – that’s less than one percent of the total party membership (excluding the trades unions). They are condemned by the Labour Right for being backwards. They are excoriated by those who exist as rootlessly as Labour’s London elite for being too provincial, too unwilling to work with other groups (whatever that means, as every Labour campaign I’ve ever seen has involved LRC members and parliamentarians). But they are the last remaining socialists in Labour.

The last election demonstrated that this clique will not exist forever. The Parliamentary group of the LRC was halved, to say nothing of the destruction wreaked about its bigger, less socialist sister, the Socialist Campaign Group. And even this doesn’t account for the wacky behaviour of a bunch of the members of these groups, like Michael Meacher, supposed Left veteran…who nominated Ed Miliband for leader, even though Ed had cleared the bar and with room to spare. So long as the fortunes of this group are tied to Labour, it exists within a contradiction – urging (critical) support for a leadership that will kick the poor when it’s opportune whilst claiming to represent them.

The leadership contest has demonstrated that no matter how well people like John McDonnell work, no matter how much support they gather, they’ll be outmanoeuvred by Labour’s Right, which can rely on the cowardice and (ironically) the uncooperative nature of Labour’s ‘soft’ Left. Harriet Harman and Ed Ball’s nominations for Diane Abbott play the diversity card but in reality are simply intended to prop her up into a slightly more credible candidate (still not very credible, from a political point of view) and force McDonnell out. All he has done is bow to the inevitable.

Abbott has the nominations – she’s on the ballot – but she’s not going to change the Party. Forgive my cynicism, but I’ve met too many soft Lefts. Despite her feminist credentials, she doesn’t have the detailed critique of the Party that is the remit of the LRC – and that would set free the feminist and radical energies that people were quick to impute to her. Indeed when she does her media appearances – the last I heard in-depth was on a Radio 4 discussion programme on Friday about two months ago – she can even be quite conservative. So good luck to her and her supporters – she’ll be better than the other four, but I don’t have any faith in her, and am rather sickened by how heavily she has stressed the fact that she’s black and female – like these are somehow politically relevant, except as tokenism.

John’s letter to Labour members, in which he announces his decision to stand down, acknowledges that despite enormous grassroots pressure – e.g. Tom Harris’ admission that he and other Labour MPs were deluged with letters and emails to demand McDonnell get on the ballot – the Labour bureaucracy and PLP were unmoved. His final appeal is to the strength of the Labour Left, that the fight against the cuts should be continued and that a Conservative government be denied the chance to have everything its own way.

With this, every socialist will agree – but I will not use my energies to electrify the zombified party that Labour has become, and I am one among many. Campaigns dominated by socialists will come together, and as last time, Labour’s leadership will do what it can to hinder them, so long as they aren’t tied to the apron strings of mother Parliament. They will face no backlash from their members, as the membership have nowhere else to turn. The odd constituency party might endorse the LRC, but even these constituencies can’t seem to get their MPs in line. And this is before the vast and reactionary weight of the trade union bureaucracy is employed by said leadership.

Are we simply to say that time has run out for socialism in the Labour Party? My anger at McDonnell’s withdrawl howls Khrushchev’s famous retort at the PLP and its groupies, “History is on our side. We will bury you!” And yet…

Marxism is not an exact science. Having shaken my socialist eight-ball, the answer comes back “Indeterminate”. This is the truth. The struggle for socialism in Labour is indeterminate. Socialism within Labour may be buried beneath the avalanche of bureaucratic indifference and then made irrelevant by the emergence of an organisation outside Labour that can combine within itself all the loose strings from every campaign the Left fights. The failure to do this after the poll tax campaigns, and after the anti-war campaigns has been the life-support of Labour’s Left.

These failures are contingent – failures of tactics, rather than of principle – and a success in this field will remove that last remaining leg. On the other hand, the failure of Labour’s Left to conquer the Labour Party (whilst a rather taller order than the first) is equally contingent, one of tactics and not of principle. Everything flows, and there will be more mass campaigns thrown up by the intrinsic processes of capitalism meeting the contradiction of the indestructible basic solidarities of the working class. These tactics will have longer to test themselves out until the impulse either to utterly change Labour or to leave it will move even the conservative behemoths of UNISON and Unite.

Tony Benn endorses Ed Miliband

June 3, 2010 37 comments

Having sat in meetings with Tony Benn and John McDonnell, and listened to Tony extol John’s virtues, it’s something of a blow that the old boy has come out to support Ed Miliband. The New Statesman piece on the subject hasn’t really gone into anything of substance but I suspect it’ll boil down to wanting the “Left of the possible”.

Out of Burnham, the Brothers Miliband, Balls, Abbott and McDonnell, the two brothers Miliband seem the most likely to duke it out. Ed is positioning himself on the Left: criticism of the Iraq War, support for the living wage etc. He’s been the front man for the Labour’s green strategies and has been a strong supporter of measures like windfall taxes.

Burnham, despite having more endorsements from the PLP than Diane Abbott or John McDonnell put together, is still a chancer and Balls is reviled by large sections even of the ‘loyalist’ membership for his performance at the Department of Curtains and Soft Furnishings (re-re-branded the Department of Education under the Tories).

Even if McDonnell got on the nomination, despite the passion which he and his team possess, the institutional support of the Milibands would be hard to overcome. Labour’s parliamentarism lends itself to an emphasis on who might be a ‘credible’ leader, and despite the crushing 2010 defeat, it still hasn’t undone the ‘left wot lost it’ mentality post-’83.

Meanwhile, Labour members will largely go with what they know (not to unfairly denigrate the political sophistication of the average Labour member, but that means it’ll be the people who’ve been on TV for the last few years). Even the vibrancy of various union Lefts that would vote for McDonnell would be stymied by a wall of opposition simply because McDonnell is left-wing and represents a threat to the cushy positions in which most union leaderships find themselves.

Presumably this is what has brought out Tony Benn to support Ed Miliband, because it’s the furthest Left option that Labour is likely to get. For an old warhorse like Benn, whose family are steeped in Labour Party history, the idea of leaving Labour is anathema, so it makes sense to simply hope for the most Left of whatever feasible choices are there.

This misses the point that not everyone’s family is steeped in Labour Party history and for those families who are to be thrust into dole queues, to wave goodbye to higher education and hello to fewer helping hands with the kids, the Left of the possible is not awe-inspiring stuff. At least until we’ve had another eighteen years of Tory misrule.

Despite the argument that the Labour-working class link is solid, with the 2010 election cited as evidence, this was a regroupment around an institution unwilling to accept the hopes thrust upon it by many of those who voted. It is not a pre-cognitive political force, it is a temporary, self-interested gesture by many who fear the Tories. Labour will always benefit with such a vote – but reliance upon it allows the Tories to set the pace.

Ed Miliband won’t seize the initiative because he can’t. He doesn’t know how to. The straight-jacket of parliamentarism will cause Labour to return time and again to the narratives of ‘Southern Comfort’ or the ‘pre-1997 grand coalition’, as though these were somehow positive political forces instead of an anti-Tory reaction and the result of a prolonged courtship of the commentariat and their various think-tank and pressure group hangers-on.

Constrained here, talk will ensure about electability, rather than about organising supporters into a combative group that can a) stop the Tories and b) push its own socialist agenda. Labour leaders don’t understand point b). They like elections in which followers are expected to sit around and be talked at – they don’t like supporters getting organised and demanding immediate concessions because suddenly the CBI and the press get anti-Labour in a hurry.

So while the ‘real’ Left – that is the small group inside and outside Labour who were the ones actually organising all the mass campaigns against Thatcher and co last time – fight the old fight (and on less propitious terms nationally, it seems), Labour will continue to avoid or condemn these battles as it has with regard Unite’s fight against BA. Labour leaders will try their best not to lead at all, preferring opinion polling to light their way.

This is why support for John McDonnell is so vital – he is the only one with a clear idea of how to smash up the cycle and re-organise the Labour Party so that it becomes the party ready and willing to seize the initiative, to propose bold socialist programmes and to force them through – through internationalism, through workers’ democracy and, if necessary, through legislation. This is why Tony Benn is wrong.

On raising your vote but not winning seats

It’s undeniable that Labourites have a spring in their step after the election. Fair play to them. If they have an attitude like Bob’s, rather than an attitude like the shocking sectarianism from Susan, they’ve earned it. Sectarian or not, the electoral results mean something for the socialist Left, even if I’m not prepared to draw out the same conclusions as Phil BC. I want to have a look at some of them.

Key among them was the campaign by the Socialist Party in the Telegraph Hill wards. Previously, the SP got two councillors elected, and were hoping, in this election, to retain both of them and get a third in. Instead, Labour won back both SP seats and kept the third. That has been played by sundry commentators as a key defeat for the Socialist Party – but in fact the SP raised their vote by 600 on 2006.

The victory for Labour was won by a massively increased turnout, but, crucially, it’s not unlikely that without the motivator of a General Election, Labour will lose their seats again, because of their behaviour as the Party in control of Lewisham council. That’s why a lot of SP members would reject the narrative that this particular election was a defeat for their preference for running for office and campaigning outside of Labour.

It’s disappointing not to romp across the finishing line, but having been out on the streets of Telegraph Hill, it’s clear that there is a lot of support for the Socialist Party. Even amongst some of those who said they were voting Labour, there was a clear question mark over whether or not Labour is the home of socialism any longer. The election of another Fabian apparatchik like Dan Whittle will hardly dispel such doubts, especially when compared to the solid work of Ian Page and Chris Flood.

Revolutionary organisations use elections to raise their profile, to get their incontrovertibly subversive message out there and to build the sort of sinews necessary for real struggle, which must go far beyond mere elections. A single community resolute and ready to resist further infringement of the already declining deal they’ve got from the State can be more powerful than a chamber full of elected paper representatives.

That’s the goal of any self-respecting revolutionary organisation, rather than election for the sake of election. It is central to the Marxist critique of the State that it is not a neutral forum for the delivery of services to an undifferentiated mass of people. It is a tool of class power. Participation in the mechanisms of the bourgeois state often brings a worldview separated from the continuing needs of those people who put you there.

Bureaucracy, rather than mass activism, and top-down bourgeois democracy, rather than concrete and bottom-up campaigns, become the hallmarks of a movement that becomes ossified into the State. Without the extra-parliamentary element, the process everyone watched Barack Obama go through is replicated on every level from parish council to Downing Street. A move from the Left towards the Centre.

Even if one is not enthused with the ideas of revolutionary socialism and the class-based critique of democracy and the state, there’s another way to look at things. If the defeat of the Socialist Party in places like Telegraph Hill, Lewisham, or in Coventry, where Dave Nellist and others had their vote squeezed, means that working outside of Labour is untenable, are we also saying the BNP is no longer a threat?

As with socialist groups, the BNP found their share of seats squeezed due to the General Election. In flagship Barking and Dagenham, where the BNP won 12 seats, with 14,789 votes, this time they won zero seats. Alleluia. But. The BNP did win 28,987 votes (give or take as I had to tot these up myself and I’m not sure if the original 14,789 figure recorded indicates that some people could vote three times for the BNP whereas in both elections, others could vote only once, due to the ward system) – almost double their previous total.

The BNP increased their vote by increasing the number of seats they stood in from 13 to 32. Yet their strength is still grounds for worry, especially bearing in mind that this result was secured by a concentration of activists, especially from Labour-orientated groups.

There’s no guarantee on what policies Labour will pursue over the next four years, with their complete sweep of 51 council seats in Barking and Dagenham. The space for the BNP will continue to exist unless Labour pursues vigorous pro-working class policies. If they don’t, without the threat of a Tory government to bring people out, the BNPs still scored above 1000 votes in 11 seats and could return more councillors.

The loss of 12 seats is a setback, but the space continues to exist for the BNP, depending upon the actions of Labour. It would be a grave mistake for groups like Hope Not Hate or UAF to now withdraw from the field in Barking and Dagenham etc (however one may dispute their strategy). The BNP have lost their seats, but not their support; they may not control council chambers or the streets, but today’s result doesn’t speak for tomorrow, or for the processes which underpin the drive towards fascism.

Likewise, the loss of several councillors is a setback for socialists, but the space continues to exist for them, outside of Labour, so long as Labour is controlled by a narrow clique from the top, and so long as councillors are simply bound by economic and ideological orthodoxy when it comes to spending. As I’ve remarked before, Barking and Dagenham does have some solid Left policies – and we can hope that their continuation and expansion will push out the BNP. This is not likely to be the case with the councils that the Socialist Party has opposed, where support is built up over a number of years from sustained campaigns against regressive policies on the part of such councils.

For as long as Labour’s organisation is stifled by its leadership, and for as long as it remains attached to likewise bureaucratic and undemocratic unions, Labour’s left flank is unprotected. At least what we can say about this election is that the affection on the part of the working class for Labour, whether in fear of the Tories or based on past (if not present) actions, has not expired, thankfully. There is still space and time to build a socialist alternative, before a more pronounced disenchantment gives the BNP too much room.

In the meantime, raising more votes – especially if it can be followed up by continuing, principled campaigns and the solidification of communities into democratic fighting organisations, on which the Socialist Party has always been shit-hot – is a solid achievement.

Musings on Stephen Hawking, E.T., celebrity and blogging

April 27, 2010 9 comments

I. Stephen Hawking and the aliens
I have heard mentioned in the past that Stephen Hawking is one of that motley crew of believers in extra-terrestrials. And it was confirmed for me this morning, on BBC radio 4, that he has made a documentary in which he speculates not merely that alien lifeforms exist, but that they may be dangerous and we should steer clear. This got me thinking.

Obviously Prof. Hawking is an extremely able, gifted man – and his work in attempting to popularise physics is something to respect. I would not presume to challenge him, nor the other eminent scientists like Prof. Brian Cox, that alien life may indeed exist – that it may be microbial etc.

But where does the science come into speculating as to how dangerous it might be?

Even assuming one surpasses the problem of relativistic physics when it comes to the sheer distances involved between two near stars, never mind distant ones, there’s the question of time. Human civilisation has existed for, say, ten thousand years but that’s only ~ 7.3e-7% of the time that the universe has existed, during which entire solar systems have been wiped out.

So, mathematically speaking, not only is the problem simply one of a vast number of planets where eventually variables like distance from sun, the right type of sun, the size of planet etc come into line, but where we have to be in the right time-frame as well – and bearing in mind the age of the universe, that’s not an easy thing.

On the basis of such calculations it seems a bit sensationalist to speculate that aliens may be dangerous. We may never know. Reading one rather fascinating approach, bearing in mind the geophysical forces which shape our planet, 250 million years from now, when Pangaea re-forms, there may not even be a trace of humans left on Earth’s surface.

II. Media and authority
All of this is where the newspapers step in, of course. “Don’t talk to aliens, warns Stephen Hawking” is the Times title. “Stephen Hawking warns over making contact with aliens” says the BBC. No doubt the Sun’s page 3 will have quote Rebecca, 19, from Bournemouth, who finds the thought of aliens arriving on earth just so exciting.

These are the realms into which we are taken by a lot of television – the realms of celebrity. A well-known face is sponsored to feature in a programme that is by and large well meaning, but if it concentrated on those things which can be empirically verified by science, would be thought to bore the socks off the average punter.

Thus we have Stephen Hawking talking about, of all things, aliens.

It reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s objections to a great deal of scientific discovery – evolution, germ theory and vaccination, for example, and the attention this was given at the time. Now Shaw was not a scientist and spoke from no scientific authority. In point of fact, many of his anti-scientific rants, usefully available in his Collected Prefaces, railed against scientists rather than abstract theory – but the theory caught it hot from GBS’ pen too.

National newspapers reported this stuff all the time, not just as the rants of an eccentric but as if a blow had been struck by one side in a debate against the other. As with Stephen Hawking, this was a departure from the world of science, towards the world of celebrity. Well-known figures expostulating on things they can’t possibly know.

III. Media and celebrity
These days we have Ross Kemp running round battlefields pretending to have a clue. For current affairs programming, Christine Bleakley on the One Show is a happy-clappy joke (I haven’t seen Chris Evans’ slot so I’ll hold judgment). And so on through any number of people who are complete twits, evident non-specialists in the field they are speaking about, and who are elevated by a centralised media to semi-stardom.

There was the blissful moment when nauseating ex-teen, Daniel Radcliffe, was asked about his opinion on the leadership debates, combining pre-existent celebrity, non-specialism and complete gormlessness in one package. All featured in the Sun, unsurprisingly.

Even for specialists the dangers are the same. Watch literally anything presented by ‘historian’ Bettany Hughes, a graduate of St. Hilda’s College, Oxford.

Certain people are elevated over the rest of us to educate us, and not through any great learning but simply because of the nature of a centralised media. There must be sources of authority to ask about things, otherwise newspapers aren’t reporting the opinions of a celebrated personage – merely the opinion of the much less illustrious opinion of a staff writer, and that doesn’t really count as news, apparently.

Even where those sources of authority can reasonably be expected to hazard an educated guess about the stuff they’re presenting, the danger can lie in the method of presentation – speculation independent of a balancing fact, or independent of a sense of proportion. Like aliens being dangerous.

As an avid sci-fi fan, I’m as curious as anyone else about the principles and technologies that would shape a human-alien first contact – and with Stephen Hawking it may be just as honest. We should be aware, however, that this frivolity, like the rantings of George Bernard Shaw, exists in a great pool of pseudo-science, mysticism and other views that serve different social functions.

To take a topical example, the conspiracy theory in the Arab world that Israeli Mossad was responsible for the 9/11 attacks finds its voices of authority in engineers who’ll speculate that aeroplanes alone couldn’t bring down the towers and serves the social function of relieving people from having to challenge the Islamist demons on their shoulder.

Compared to this, of course, the examples of Christine Bleakley and co are less spectacular. I doubt she’ll ever feed a conspiracy theory. But neither are we likely to get piercing analysis. So people can sit back and consider themselves informed, without ever having to actually be informed, one of the most important personal responsibilities in a democracy.

This great pool, as I have called it, is fed into by what GBS would have called ‘vested interests’ – e.g. the corporations who sponsor the cultural programmes of the religious right. We all know just how anti-scientific those are. These interests simply utilise the same form as more mainstream media – hence Christian broadcasting like the 700 Club. While more secular versions may deal with ‘facts’, that’s not to say that it’s better in principle.

When the debate is focused around secular issues, say MMR vaccines, animal testing or immigration, we get the same thing. In one corner a speaker from Immigration Watch or whatever the preposterous anti-science anti-vivisection group of the hour is, and in the other corner, some academic, commentator, journalist or politician. And this is presented as a method for reasoned exposition of key issues that afflict us – which it need not be.

Regardless of ‘fairness’ or ‘popularity’, some of those present may simply not have a clue what they are talking about. And, conversely, there may be issues that go un-discussed as a result.

IV. Arguments to authority and the blogosphere
Elevation by celebrity is deadly, just as much when we are too respectful of genuine specialists as when we permit interlopers of other specialisms and none to take over that role. We can let ourselves be guided by what is being said, especially when presented to us in a shiny format, or from such an august personage. This is despite the fact that both pretenders and personages can very often be full of it.

One only has to read Polly Toynbee columns over an extended period to realise her political expertise is the greatest exercise in political charlatanry since the Divine Right of Kings. It’s little different for the pretenders, hoping through sheer dint of effort to one day be regarded as a specialist in their chosen field. This is often what Tory blogger Iain Dale is accused of – self publicising etc. Well, he’s no better or worse than anyone else.

This danger of an appeal to authority, argumentum ad verecundiam, was eloquently rejected by John Locke in Concerning Human Understanding*, and it is completely undemocratic.

When men are established in any kind of dignity, it is thought a breach of modesty for others to derogate any way from [the opinion of men of established authority], and question the authority of men who are in possession of it.

This is apt to be censured, as carrying with it too much pride, when a man does not readily yield to the determination of approved authors, which is wont to be received with respect and submission by others: and it is looked upon as insolence, for a man to set up and adhere to his own opinion against the current stream of antiquity; or to put it in the balance against that of some learned doctor, or otherwise approved writer.

Whoever backs his tenets with such authorities, thinks he ought thereby to carry the cause, and is ready to style it impudence in any one who shall stand out against them. (Book 4, XVII.19.i)

From the point of view of the Marxist, there also exists the clear danger that Capital, having control of celebrated institutions, also controls and disseminates ‘expert’ opinion to suit itself. Recently, this process was documented by David Harvey when it came to things like the Powell Memo or the sea-change in acadaemia from a preference for ‘embedded liberalism’, which even included a strong Marxist Left flank, to ‘neoliberalism’.

One of the key successes of the blogosphere, in my view, has been the ability to rubbish appeals to authority by challenging the very basis of that authority. Now that many of us can write and opine, the narrow group that do it professionally seem a little less important. Not to denigrate the very real differences between the two – professional journalism is read far more widely than blogging, no doubt, and given much more weight to.

Nor would I challenge the view that quality control is important on blogs, and is sometimes neglected or made irrelevant, the latter in the case of blogs with more than one purpose – e.g. personal musical tastes and politics, where one element is based on argumentation and the other on simply showcasing a preference. Yet overall, I think our contribution is still a net positive.

V. And back to Stephen Hawking…
Beyond the self-congratulatory aspect to all this, there is a wider point. I am not qualified to comment upon Hawking Radiation for example, and this I’ll freely admit. I could pretend to be, but in the absence of any formal qualifications in quantum physics, my views would likely only gain currency if they fulfilled some social function, e.g. as ideology. Yet this doesn’t mean that nobody is qualified to comment, even if they lack formal qualifications.

While above I rail against those who have little or no background in what they talk about, it’s mostly from seeing the effects of this lack of background rather than being because they lack such a background. It would be a mistake to extrapolate from this that only those formally qualified are worthy of having an opinion. I have only qualifications in ancient history but I feel myself quite qualified to talk about politics, music, the arts and so on.

Even if I’m not.

If celebrity elevates people – irrespective of their learning – to preside over us, that is bad. Yet it is equally bad to suppress others simply because they lack formal qualifications that denote learning. What I look forward to is the day when there is some equivalent of the blogosphere for all media – a genuine participatory journalism in which ‘experts’ jockey with amateurs who have access to the same range of experimental data or learned journals.

Which, today, we don’t, nor would we have the time to use them if we did. If the realm of freedom begins after the realm of necessity ends, to speak undialectically for a moment, for most of us, that’s still nowhere near enough free time to establish hobbies that might prove to be intellectually fruitful not just for us but for the entire human race.** Even deprived of such time, however, the contribution of the average moron is still the equal of any expert.

It can be just as tainted with conceits or humility, it can be just as frankly expressed or couched in terms more amenable to socially acceptable proposals and ideals. It can be complete tosh or not. And there’s no reason under the sun such people shouldn’t have the right to be heard, why on matters like aliens, Stephen Hawking’s voice should be heard above the din, or on matters like evolution, GBS’ voice, but others should be condemned to obscurity.

Celebrity is what we call this exclusion and it is toxic.

Read more…


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