We went down to Brighton last month for the Long Progress Bar – a two day version of the monthly event, and a ‘festival of radical imagination’ featuring talks, workshops and performances from artists, activist, musicians, writers, academics & more.
There was A LOT to take in across the two days, so we’ve compiled a brief list of further reading on some of the work/topics covered:
Having not had a chance to read the book yet, it was good to have the chance to hear Paul Mason talking about Postcapitalism. He posted his notes from the talk here. There was an extract and video on the Guardian back in July, and the book is out now (paperback not until June 2016) .
Holly Herndon & Jam City were in conversation about music and politics – a combination that’s extended to sharing a bill at the Illuminations festival this week. We love Platform, Herndon’s 2015 and have been rinsing the new Jam City EP for the last month. Read some background on the radical ideas and huge range of collaborators that went into Platform here. For more on Jam City check out this good recent Dazed interview and Laura Oldfield Ford’s response to the Dream A Garden album on kpunk from earlier this year.
Mat Dryhurst presented his Saga project, which aims to give content creators control over how their work is shared/presented online. Saga has now been released, read more here.
The universal basic income movement is gaining ground, and economist Guy Standing made a strong case for it. Read an article by him making the same argument here – he’s also great on changing understandings of work, and his latest book, Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (Bloomsbury, 2011) is well worth a look. For more on UBI check out the work of American sociologist Erik Olin Wright, especially his book Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010)
On September 13th 2015 at a packed TUC fringe event at the Brighton Corn Exchange, ex-Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis delivered a stirring speech on how the Syriza government had been undermined by the EU’s financial institutions and what this portended for a future Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. At its close he finished with one last warning to the British left, born from his own experience in office, – “The enemy is always within. The enemy is always the Ramsay MacDonalds”.
Following the election of Jeremy Corbyn no-one would claim Labour is now led by a second Ramsay MacDonald (a role already perfectly filled by Neil Kinnock, who managed to betray his class and his party without even getting elected first). But although Corbyn’s mandate for a real socialist alternative is undeniable and impressive the Labour Party machine and most of its MPs remain unreformed. Too many local Labour parties – like my own in Brighton – are led by midget-Blairs whose response to the election of Corbyn and the subsequent inrush of enthusiastic new members is fear and distrust. Their strategy for the next four years will be to ignore, suppress and defuse their own members who wish to turn the party into a radical anti-austerity opposition. Nor are the unions Corbyn’s automatic allies. One need only see the grotesque Sir Paul Kenny, General Secretary of the GMB, who after accepting his “honour” from the Tories for selling out public sector pensions condemned Corbyn’s stance on Trident as a threat to the “defence of the realm”.
Most Labour MPs are still stunned by the size of Corbyn’s victory, but internal resistance and sabotage of Corbyn’s agenda will inevitably increase the longer he remains leader. The future MacDonalds are plain to see – the likes of Umunna, Hunt, Cooper, Bradshaw, Cruddas, and fair few of his own Shadow Cabinet. These people have no political base inthe sense of mass support, but they do not need one. They have a platform and high profile cheerleaders in the form of Andrew Rawnsley, Jonathan Freedland, Suzanne Moore and the entire Guardian–Observer nexus of corporate liberals. Much of the naivety on the Labour left about this still-powerful strand inside Labour, and the latitude they continue to receive inside the wider party, derives from ignorance about Labour history and the lessons it contains. What, then, are the lessons of 1931, and why are “the Ramsay MacDonalds” still the main enemy?
In 1928 the voting age for women had been reduced from 30 to 21, bringing it in to line with men (a move strongly opposed by Winston Churchill and a host of reactionary Tories). This made the Labour Government elected in May 1929 the first in British history to be elected under equal universal suffrage, and the most legitimate government ever put into power by the British people. This was significant, given that power within British society continued to reside where it always had. A.J.P Taylor, in English History 1914-1945, neatly summarised the social forces aligned against Labour and the organised working class –
Universities, Chambers of Commerce, the civil service, the armed forces, nominally non-party organisations such as the Women’s Institute, and to a great extent the Church of England, were pillars of conservatism in thin disguise. Other things being equal, those who rule go on ruling, and those who are ruled acquiesce.
Once again, as in 1923 when the first minority Labour government was elected, Labour’s pre-election rhetoric outstripped its intentions in government. Its programme, “Labour and the Nation”, written by R.H Tawney, had declared that Labour’s aim was to “use the weapons forged in the victorious struggle for political democracy to end the capitalist dictatorship in which democracy finds everywhere its most insidious and relentless foe”. The biggest challenge facing the new government was the ever rising tide of mass unemployment, created by the great post-war depression of 1921-22. The problem of “the intractable million”, as it came to be known in the 1920s, carved great wounds in British society as unemployment reached and seldom dipped below 10% of the population. In 1922 the total of jobless had been 1.54 million. In 1929 it was still 1.2 million, about to jump up to nearly 2 million in 1930 and then exceed 2.5 million in 1931, as the effects of the Great Crash and a second, still worse economic depression hit Great Britain. In regions dependent on traditional staple industries unemployment rates was far higher than the national average, and poverty endemic.
After the 1929 General Election Labour did not have an absolute parliamentary majority. This would have been a severe impediment to pursuing radical policies, had that been the intention. However, the only genuine radical success of the 1924 government, John Wheatley, was carefully excluded from the new Cabinet. The reasons for this were made clear at the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) after the election, when Wheatley opposed forming a minority government, which he feared would inevitably pursue capitalist policies and end up cutting unemployment benefits to assuage the City. MacDonald ignored him, and said that the greatest danger the government faced was “sniping from within”. The vast majority of Labour MPs applauded him.
The former radical firebrand George Lansbury, Leader of Poplar Council in the 1920s, had been invited into the Cabinet as First Commissioner of Works, but by 1929 he had lost some of his former zeal. With Lansbury muted the government, as in 1924, posed no objective threat to the British ruling class and its interests, no concrete programme to socialise the means of production, no attack of wealth and privilege, and no deviation from a pro-Empire foreign policy. The Fabian intellectual Sidney Webb, now Lord Passfield and the new Colonial and Dominions Secretary, said of the challenge of leading the country towards the socialist commonwealth, “All I know is that I don’t know how to do it”. Faced with this kind of “socialist”, the UK’s powerful vested interests had no need to resort to underhand or unconstitutional methods to subvert the Labour government. The capitalist economy itself, aided by servile newspaper empires run by rich plutocrats, served just as well.
The Federation of British Industries (the FBI, the pre-cursor to today’s CBI) drove the point home. It informed MacDonald that it had strong objections to an interventionist economic policy, and that it expected “a holiday from social legislation”. The FBI offered the government and the trade unions a deal – that in return for “greater flexibility in labour practice” it would deliver “a truce in wage rate reductions for the next eighteen months”. Robert Skidelsky’s comprehensive analysis of the economic policies of the 1929-1931 Labour government describes the City’s deep economic orthodoxy, and its fear that
Any tendency to toy with unsound expedients such as raising a huge loan for development purposes would seriously undermine international confidence. This was especially true, it was held, if the offending government were a Labour one (“Politicians and the Slump: The Labour Government of 1929-1931”, p.77).
The City worried unnecessarily. Labour’s Chancellor, Philip Snowden, could not have been more attentive to their needs had he got down and polished their shoes. He faithfully echoed the Treasury and the Bank of England’s commitment to the Gold Standard and Free Trade. Snowden’s unwillingness to take Sterling off the Gold Standard (to which the previous Tory Chancellor Churchill had returned the UK in 1925, thus stifling the flow of credit and hampering industrial expansion) had crippled from the start proposals to alleviate unemployment through government spending. In complete agreement with Treasury/City doctrine that deficit spending was calamitous and unemployment benefits were excessive, Snowden ensured the Labour manifesto’s “unqualified pledge” to deal “immediately and practically” with mass unemployment was never actioned, although by July 1930 unemployment had topped 2 million, and 2 ½ million by the end of the year.
When not restrained by Snowden’s financial strait-jacket Labour made a few jabs at some of the British economy’s worst injustices. It passed the Coal Mines Act 1930, which revoked the 8 hour day imposed on the miners in 1926 after the General Strike (it legislated for 7 ½ hours) and sought to control coal prices. The new Minister for Health, Arthur Greenwood, also made clear he would continue John Wheatley’s house building subsidies introduced in 1924, which had been under threat from the Tories, and legislated for a programme of slum clearance in the Housing Act 1930. These were resisted by the Conservative opposition under Stanley Baldwin but nevertheless had some residual impact, particularly later in the 1930s when Greenwood’s act led to a massive attack on Victorian slum housing.
These were fleeting moments of radical challenge, overshadowed and virtually extinguished by the economic crisis inaugurated by the Great Crash of October 1929
These were fleeting moments of radical challenge, overshadowed and virtually extinguished by the economic crisis inaugurated by the Great Crash of October 1929, whose ripple effect hit Britain in 1930 and 1931 and accelerated already high unemployment. As the devastating effect of the Great Crash sent shockwaves around the world and impacted on European economies, MacDonald gave voice to Labour’s deep yet incoherent belief that the capitalist system was fundamentally unsound, and it was beyond human ken to address it – “We are not on trial. It is the system under which we live. It has broken down everywhere, as it was bound to break down”. Unfortunately he had no schemes or policies to redress this breakdown, and he was not open to those who had.
The government’s doctrinal incoherence left it vulnerable to whoever talked loudest and wielded financial and institutional power. Sadly, this was not its own activists, or those calling for radical departures in economic policy. On the contrary
the decline in business profits produced a predictable clamour in favour of retrenchment in public expenditure, which was focused in a attack on the “dole”, and its alleged “abuses”, but over which already loomed the spectre of an unbalanced Budget and all its attendant evils. (Skidelsky, p.203).
With some exceptions, Ministers internalised and reflected these voices. Ostensibly socialist politicians elected by a primarily working class electoral base to restructure British capitalism and address the burning issue of unemployment began to see the unemployed themselves as the problem. Hugh Dalton, then a junior member of the government, recorded in his diary that
In niggling discussions about abuses and anomalies in the payment, in a small number of cases, of unemployment benefit, most Ministers and their officials quite lost sight of the major “abuse” and “anomaly” of mass unemployment itself.
There were ideas to tackle the blight of mass unemployment and the threat to social peace it represented, but they were advanced by an odd consortia of Independent Labour Party (ILP)/left Labour MPs, progressive Liberals and economists like J.M Keynes, and championed inside the Labour Government by Minister of Works George Lansbury and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Sir Oswald Mosley. Although these alternative policies were far and away the most creative and energetic proposals put forward at the time, and would eventually find effective expression in the USA as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, they suffered in Britain by association with Mosley. Brilliant but erratic, he eventually left Labour to form the New Party, and all his potential was wasted as he declined into fascism.
In January 1930 Mosley put all his proposals for dealing with unemployment into a document subsequently known as the “Mosley Memorandum” and sent it to the Prime Minister. Amongst other things it called for greater public ownership, control of banking and credit operations to ensure stimulus to the economy, increased pensions and social security payments, and protectionism. It also recommended the creation of a Development Bank that would co-ordinate government credit, rationalisation and regulation of the banks, and planned industrial development. The Memorandum was explicitly critical of the inability of British banks to focus on the long term national interest, considering them “…unfitted by tradition and present practice to play any such part”. Mosley had discussed an earlier draft of the memorandum with Lansbury, and also with J.M Keynes, who considered it “a very able document”.
MacDonald set up a Cabinet sub-committee consisting of himself, J.H Thomas (who had responsibility for tackling unemployment, and whose inactivity had driven Mosley into independent action), Arthur Greenwood, Tom Shaw and Margaret Bondfield. Only Bondfield, Minister of Labour and a former member of the TUC General Council, had any sympathy for the proposals. The Memorandum was also sent to the Treasury for views. After cursory consideration the Cabinet sub-committee rejected the memorandum, partly prompted by a negative assessment from the Treasury, partly by the savaging of Mosley’s proposals from a press that with minor exceptions was extremely conservative. The Daily Mail editorialised (May 22 1930) that
No reasonable person would refuse the Government in general and Mr J.H Thomas in particular commendation for the firm stand they have taken against the crazy proposals put forward by irresponsible members of their party, and against the wild-cat schemes of Sir Oswald Mosley”.
Instead the Mail strongly recommended “…the most drastic economy in expenditure, accompanied by large remissions in taxation.”
The leading members of the government feared and followed the wishes of the press and shaped policy around the headlines of the Mail. In frustration, Mosley resigned his government position and tied to bring the fight for alternative policies to the Parliamentary Party. At a packed and dramatic meeting of Labour MPs Mosley laid out his proposals in what those present reported as a brilliant and passionate speech. Nonetheless he was soundly defeated by 202 votes to 29 after MacDonald demanded loyalty to the leadership, and only a small minority of left-wing MPs (amongst whom was the young Aneurin Bevan, elected in 1929) were prepared to defy the Prime Minister. After this Mosley self-destructed, producing a manifesto supported by only 17 Labour MPs and in early 1931 leaving the Labour Party.
Although Mosley’s proposals were rejected by the Cabinet sub-committee and by most Labour MPs, his stinging criticisms of the lack of focus within Whitehall on the problem of unemployment had enough effect that MacDonald felt compelled to create a new Ministerial “panel” to bring greater coherence to government attempts to tackle the problem. To assist the panel a new Secretariat of senior civil servants was created headed by Sir John Anderson, Permanent Secretary of the Home Office. Yet the force and logic of the Mosley Memorandum had clearly left an imprint on MacDonald, even if one he wished to discard. In July 1930 he sent the memorandum on to Sir John Anderson to “examine the proposals made here and see what is in them”. Whilst Sir John did not specifically reply to the Mosley Memorandum, he did respond on 31st July with a detailed summary of the findings of the Secretariat during its seven weeks of existence. Sir John wrote to MacDonald that the Secretariat considered the scale of the unemployment problem had been exaggerated as “a large number of people really abused the insurance scheme”. Rejecting the possibility of “radical measures” such as government funded schemes to promote employment in the depressed regions, he added that “we are now reaching the limit of works which will conform to any reasonable standard of economic utility or development” and the government must dispense with “illusions that a substantial reduction of unemployment figures is to be sought in the artificial provision of employment”.
In its short existence Anderson’s Secretariat had not examined the provision of the “dole”. More reliable data from the Ministry of Labour disproved Anderson’s assertion that there was wide-spread abuse. In the later opinion of a resolutely non-Marxist commentator, the explanation for Anderson’s complacency lay in the class solidarity of the British ruling elite –
It is perhaps not unfair to speculate that, far from having thoroughly investigated all possibilities, Anderson had met a number of captains of industry and the City, over luncheon or dinner at Brook’s or the Athenaeum, who had warned him that any “radical measures” would undoubtedly so damage confidence as to produce economic collapse (Skidelsky, p.219).
There was in any case virtually no chance that Mosley’s policy prescriptions would get past MacDonald and Snowden. After the fall of the government Mosley’s successor as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, future Labour leader Clement Attlee, confirmed to Hugh Dalton that “Snowden had been blocking every positive proposal for two years”. Now Snowden moved beyond inertia into outright Tory policy. With the threat posed by Mosley eliminated and unemployment now topping 3 million Snowden confirmed in February 1931 that, in line with Treasury orthodoxy, he envisaged a massive attack on social spending.
To provide him with the political cover he needed to force through measures he knew would be unpopular with his own party, Snowden took advantage of a Liberal motion (supported, with astonishing naivety, by most Labour MPs) for an independent committee of “experts” to examine the public accounts and make recommendations for cuts in public expenditure. To chair the committee he appointed the industrialist Sir George May, recently President of the Prudential Assurance Company and a man with no background or expertise in government finance. Four of the committee were likewise leading industrialists, balanced by two senior trade unionists. Snowden was prepared to wait upon their recommendations, and so his April 1931 Budget was comparatively mild. He was planning a much more severe “austerity” Budget in the autumn.
On August 1st the May Committee reported as expected, “a report compounded of prejudice, ignorance and panic” (Taylor, p. 288). It exaggerated the total deficit and strongly recommended that it be dealt with immediately by a £96 million programme of “economies”, most of which would be achieved by a 20% cut in unemployment benefits allied to an increase in contributions. In addition, conditions for receiving benefit would be tightened and receipt would be limited to 26 weeks in any one year. Teachers salaries would be cut by 20% and police officers by 12.5%. Public works programmes would be cut back. Keynes considered the report “”The most foolish document I have ever had the misfortune to read”. The two trade unionists on the committee dissented from its conclusions, suggesting there be fewer economies and increased taxation instead. Snowden ignored their dissent. MacDonald created another Cabinet sub-committee to consider the report, to meet later in August after the summer break.
On August 11th the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Ernest Harvey, laid out for MacDonald and Snowden his view of the seriousness of the economic crisis, now compounded by a run on the pound and contracting government finances. Sir Ernest then met the Conservative and Liberal Treasury spokesmen, and was more forthcoming than to the Prime Minister. According to Shadow Chancellor Neville Chamberlain, Sir Ernest made clear that “The cause of the trouble was not financial but political, and lay in the complete want of confidence in Her Majesty’s Government existing among foreigners”. The Bank of England’s concern was for the views of the big New York banking houses, whom the British government was asking for a short-term loan to tide over its deficit. New York did not believe a Labour Government, allied to the trade unions and the wider labour movement, would institute massive cuts to social spending. It needed reassurance and proof of compliance.
One of Chamberlain’s advisers, J.C.C Davidson, telephoned Tory leader Stanley Baldwin, on holiday in France, and told him to return home immediately. He sensed that the government “was already breaking up”. He may have been assisted in this by secret communications from MacDonald’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, who broke Civil Service rules to pass information to the Opposition Front Bench. Davidson’s diaries record “MacDonald’s Private Secretary, Usher, kept me closely informed of the situation”. Apparently Usher doubted that Labour would survive much longer, as “…only Snowden and Thomas could be relied on to see the situation through, particularly if the correct solution to the crisis was a cut in unemployment insurance.”
Finally the TUC woke up to the scale of the crisis that was upon them. On the TUC General Council Ernest Bevin was the leading voice against the cuts programme. On August 17th he told the TGWU National Executive “The crisis has not arisen as result of anything the Labour Government has done, or of its social policy, or the cost of unemployment. It has arisen as result of the manipulation of finance by the City…”, and he was firm that “The City should not be saved at the expense of the working class and the poorest of our people”. Inside Parliament Arthur Henderson, hitherto a MacDonald loyalist but also linked to the trade unions, started to voice discontent with the May Report. Under immense pressure the Economy sub-committee reported back early to the full Cabinet on 19th August with proposals to implement much of the May Report, though trimming some of its severer recommendations. The Cabinet agreed to authorise a lesser programme of £56 million of economies, though there was vocal disagreement as to whether this would include cuts to unemployment benefits. The Opposition parties insisted that the full programme of cuts, including the 20% cut in unemployment benefit, must be made to ensure New York retained confidence in the UK economy.
Impelled by Bevin, the General Council sent a special deputation to meet the Economy sub-committee to convey its “complete opposition” to the proposed cuts. Asked for alternatives to Snowden’s cuts programme, the TUC General Secretary Walter Citrine questioned whether the “crisis” of sterling was really as catastrophic as the City maintained, and he outlined a programme of tariff reform and increased taxation for higher earners (especially those on “fixed yield” interest, i.e. rentiers) that could start to address it. The meeting became rancorous, with Snowden firm on the need for financial discipline as disaster would follow if sterling went off the Gold Standard. When he asked sarcastically why, if the TUC supported increased taxation on rentiers it did not support taxing teachers and policemen as well, Bevin answered that the latter were useful to society whilst the former were not!
A subsequent letter from the General Council to the Cabinet made it clear to those who supported the cuts, and to those who did not, where the organised labour movement stood. Whilst this gave strength to those, like Henderson, who were now disengaging themselves from MacDonald, it infuriated those in the Cabinet (still a majority) who supported him. Snowden, happy to accept direction from Treasury mandarins, snapped that interference by the TUC was an affront to democracy. Sidney Webb, having spent a lifetime lecturing the working class on what they should do and not do, was infuriated that their representatives should disagree with him. “The General Council are pigs” he raged to his wife Beatrice, although he did not exhibit similar hatred for the Opposition parties, the Bank of England, Sir George May or the New York banks.
But the crucial decisions were not to be made by the General Council, or by Labour MPs, or even the Labour Cabinet. MacDonald was subject to a tidal wave of extra-Parliamentary pressures. On August 20th MacDonald and Snowden met Neville Chamberlain and other Tory and Liberal leaders to discuss a common approach to the economic crisis. Chamberlain insisted that nothing less than the full May Report was acceptable to the Opposition. Snowden agreed this was required but was worried he could not carry his colleagues with him, whereupon Chamberlain urged MacDonald to consider the formation of a “national government” to carry forward the full cuts programme. This would be done “in the national interest”.
Many others were making this suggestion, including George V. When MacDonald saw the King on the morning of August 23rd he told him the government could not reach agreement on the cuts and might have to resign. After MacDonald left the Palace the King saw Sir Herbert Samuel, the Liberal leader, and told him what the Prime Minister had said. Samuel was concerned, and told the King that “In view of the fact that the necessary economies would prove most unpalatable to the working classes, it would be in the general interest if they could be imposed by a Labour government”. He explained that if Labour did not stay in power the next best outcome would be a national government composed of representatives of all three parties, with MacDonald as Prime Minister to give the impression of continuity.
Later the same morning, the Editor of the Times, Geoffrey Dawson, fully informed of Whitehall and Palace discussions, called the King’s Private Secretary, Sir Clive Wigram, and suggested that the King needed to impress on MacDonald that it was his responsibility to “get the country out of the mess” and to do so “with any flattery he liked”. By this stage MacDonald did not need flattery to see himself as the national saviour rising above petty party concerns. The King, his Private Secretary, the editor of the Times, the Treasury, the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Parties, and increasingly the Labour Prime Minister himself, were all converging on the belief that democratic party politics should be suspended in favour of a “national” government that would respond swiftly to the dictates of the City and Wall St.
The King, his Private Secretary, the editor of the Times, the Treasury, the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Parties, and increasingly the Labour Prime Minister himself, were all converging on the belief that democratic party politics should be suspended in favour of a “national” government that would respond swiftly to the dictates of the City and Wall St.
That evening MacDonald received a telegram from the American banking plutocrat J.P Morgan, in the name of the New York banking houses from whom the government was seeking credits. He read it out to the Cabinet, emphasising Morgan’s blunt enquiry whether the programme of cuts under consideration “…had the sincere support and approval of the Bank of England and the City generally” since it was necessary that there be “internal confidence” in the government. It was clear that if it did not, and unless the programme included at least a 10% cut in unemployment benefits, the American loan would not be forthcoming. At this the Cabinet broke up in loud shouting. Eight Ministers (including Henderson and Lansbury) were adamant that they would not be dictated to by New York and would not accept the cuts in benefits.
MacDonald had no choice but to go back to the King and offer his resignation, which he did at 10.20 pm on August 23rd. Sir Clive Wigram recorded that the Prime Minister looked “scared and unbalanced”. The King reassured him that he was still needed, and that he if he could not carry his Cabinet he should from a national government. Relieved, MacDonald agreed to meet Baldwin and Samuel to discuss this, which he did in the presence of the King at 10.00 the next morning, August 24th. With the King’s promptings (already discussed and agreed with Baldwin and Samuel in separate meetings) MacDonald agreed to form a national government with himself as Prime Minister. At this point no member of the Cabinet had resigned and none, except Snowden, were even aware of MacDonald’s meetings with Baldwin and Samuel.
The last Labour Cabinet of that government was held that afternoon. In a tense atmosphere MacDonald informed his colleagues that at the request of the King he was to lead a national coalition government to institute “emergency measures”. He asked Snowden and Thomas to join him and they agreed. No other Ministers were even asked. That afternoon the Palace formally announced that MacDonald had resigned. The communiqué went on “The King then invited him to form a national administration. Mr MacDonald accepted the offer, and kissed hands on his appointment as the new Prime Minister”. At the same time it was announced that the new National Government would implement cuts of £70 million which would include a cut of 10% in unemployment benefits. New York was pleased. The loan was assured.
MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas ended their careers as mere figureheads for a “national” government that was essentially a Tory-Liberal coalition. They provided political cover to impose savage spending cuts and immense suffering on Labour’s heartlands, where unemployment was severest. The reasons for Labour’s collapse in 1931, for its inability to resist the austerity that the “national” government would inflict on the country throughout the 1930s, were many and varied, but fundamentally it was an intellectual failure. Macdonald and his closest supporters held to a narrow, anaemic conception of politics, a naive reformism with no understanding of how utterly ruthless the UK’s ruling class are and how far they will go to protect their power and privilege. Whilst the Labour Government was subject to unprecedented political and economic pressures during 1929-31 these could and should have been predicted. Even after the first effects of the Great Crash had reverberated across Europe and hit the British economy, the government could have survived, and protected those who had elected it, through a combination of greater flexibility in economic thinking, a firmer alliance with Labour’s core constituency and the trade unions, and political backbone. Instead, it allowed itself to become the willing victim of “a ministerial revolution engineered in the City, Downing St and Buckingham Palace” (Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan, vol 1, p.118).
Labour’s servility to the institutions it ostensibly set out to control was nowhere better illustrated than by the issue of the Gold Standard. A few days after the formation of the National Government MacDonald was asked why, before he collapsed the Labour government, he had not first summoned Parliament and candidly explained the situation to them. “There was no time” MacDonald replied. “Prompt action had to be taken to prevent the disaster of going off Gold”. A month later, on 21st September 1931, after advice from Treasury officials that despite the £80 million New York loan Britain’s gold reserves were still dangerously low, the National Government took Britain off the Gold Standard. The Treasury mandarins and newspaper editors who had insisted that the only way to prevent this national disaster was to slash unemployment benefits, made no complaint. Sidney Webb, when informed that Britain had, after all, left the Gold Standard, was incredulous, and his reaction summed up the first generation of Labour Ministers and the government of 1929-1931. “Nobody told us we could do that” he said.
If a transformed Corbyn-led Labour Party is elected – and it is a huge if – there will be many inside the Labour and Trade Union movement, and in the “liberal” media, lining up to tell it what it can and, more importantly, what it cannot do. Whether directly or indirectly these people are the compliant, instinctive servants of the 1%. They speak the language of an Oxbridge-BBC-Guardian elite, well schooled in visionless pragmatism and unquestioning acceptance of capitalist realism. Their every action will be devoted to undermining a Corbyn-led opposition and a socialist government. They should be recognised for what they are – our future Ramsay MacDonalds.
This is an extract from a work-in-progress – No Less than Mystic: What do Lenin and the Russian Revolution mean to the 21st Century left? by John Medhurst. The book will be published by Repeater in late 2016/early 2017
The aim of this book is to present a new history of Lenin and the Russian Revolution that has a direct relevance for those today who oppose and resist neo-liberal capitalism. It broadly covers the period 1903 to 1921 in Russia and seeks to explain why the Bolshevik Revolution degenerated so quickly into its apparent opposite. Yet it is not only and exactly a work of history. It examines the issues and events of the Russian Revolution through the lens of a 21st century, non-Marxist libertarian socialism. It suggests that corporate capitalism must be opposed not with a set of “revolutionary” formulations which were questionable one hundred years ago and have even less relevance now, but with popular, pluralistic and democratic movements built on people’s needs and experience. As a result it is kinder to Russia’s non-Leninist socialists than are most histories. Although not blind to the many flaws of the Russian Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and Jewish Bundists I seek to rescue them from a century of misrepresentation. I do not automatically assume the knowledge of the subject that many Russian Revolution hobbyists take for granted, nor show much deference to those icons of Bolshevism, Lenin and Trotsky, still common today on the left. I suggest that socialist thinkers and activists such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert, Owen Jones, Naomi Klein and Arundahti Roy have more constructive and positive options to offer the anti-capitalist left today than do the sages of Bolshevism.
Some will ask why, outside of academic history, this should be of any interest? The contemporary left does not look to the events and lessons of the French Revolution of 1789-93 for guidance and inspiration so why does it still scrutinise and debate the Russian Revolution? Mainly because it is the first “modern” revolution – i.e led by the urban working class and with a socialist objective – in an era dominated by global capitalism. As such it is a key issue and intellectual point of contention on which subsequent argument about capitalism and its alternatives rests. Its centenary will no doubt generate articles in the liberal media and documentaries on BBC2. There will be learned retrospectives seeking to establish a consensus for future generations on the lessons of the Bolshevik experiment. Most of these assessments will fall in to two camps – a complacent condemnation of the revolution, and by extension all revolution, from the perspective of capitalist “liberal democracy”, or a defence of Bolshevism with an admission that because of civil war and the failure of the European proletariat to also rise up it degenerated into bureaucratic tyranny and Stalinism. This book adopts neither of those perspectives. It argues that the real revolution of 1917 took place in February not October, and was led by a wide alliance of socialists, trade unionists, peasants and populists in which the Bolshevik Party played a minor role. Despite the enormous difficulties involved in creating a durable democratic framework after the February revolution, it contained great potential for social and cultural liberation and a far better future for the Russian people than they had suffered under three hundred years of Tsarism or would endure under Leninism and Stalinism.
This revolution and many of its key players, whilst they made serious tactical and strategic errors, had much within it that today’s anti-capitalist campaigners should re-examine and respect. Whilst it is true that some elements of the Bolshevik revolution, most notably its attempts to provide greater freedom for women and a short-lived libertarian attitude to social and educational experimentation, were bold and emancipatory, that revolution soon established a power structure as monumental and oppressive as the Tsarism it replaced. Within a few months (in some cases days and weeks) most of the democratic freedoms offered by the February revolution were swiftly crushed by the Bolsheviks after they assumed power in October. For a variety of reasons, not least the undemocratic and authoritarian nature of Leninist doctrine, the Bolshevik Revolution had little to no chance of achieving a genuine socialist transition in Russia, much less in the rest of Europe.
This argument is not in itself new. It could even be said to fall under the rubric of the “continuity thesis”, i.e that the policies of the Bolshevik government from October 1917 laid the groundwork for the Stalinist dictatorship of the 1930s and were the genesis of the oppressive police states of the Soviet Bloc. But I do not advocate the simplistic version of continuity, which is that the decisions and policies of the Bolsheviks led in clear, linear fashion straight to the Gulag Archipelago. There were many forks in the road where a more democratic socialist alternative could have been taken. Some of these alternatives were argued for by prominent Bolsheviks in both the “moderate” tendency in the party in 1917-18, and the “Workers Opposition” grouped around Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov in 1920-21. Most crucially, the history told here does not absolve capitalist society then or now for its terrible inequalities and oppressions simply because the so-called “alternative”, an inherently authoritarian socialism, would be even worse. It denies that is the alternative
Nevertheless, I hope it gives the Bolsheviks their due. Between February and October 1917, especially after Lenin’s return to Russia in April, the Bolshevik Party became stronger and more significant as it took root in the Soviets (Workers Councils) of the major cities and campaigned for Peace, Bread and Land. In this phase it undoubtedly spoke for many, perhaps the majority, of the workers in the cities, and Lenin produced his supreme example of revolutionary theory, The State and Revolution. However this phase of the party’s work and the principles of State and Revolution were comprehensibly rejected once the Bolsheviks took power in October. The Soviets and other manifestations of grass roots workers’ power such as Factory Committees were swiftly curtailed and real decision making power was removed to the Supreme Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarcom) and the Supreme Economic Council (Vesenka). Political and press freedom went the same way within weeks of October. Whilst the “bourgeois” parties were immediately outlawed even other socialist parties did not last long once Sovnarcom had firmly established its power. The Socialist Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks and the anarchists were tolerated for a while after the insurrection, but for a far shorter time than is commonly supposed. Most of their newspapers were instantly suppressed, for example. They were then persecuted, censored and finally banned as the Bolshevik Party became inextricable from the organs of state.
This is not the romantic mythology of the Russian Revolution. Nor is it the counter-myth of an inherently malevolent socialism imposed on a tragic, noble middle-class. It is a deeper tragedy of political authoritarians whose dogmatic philosophy, built into the DNA of the Bolshevik Party by Lenin from 1903 onward, led them to disastrous decisions whose consequences they could not foresee. One of those consequences was the suppression and destruction of independent bodies such as Factory Committees, trade unions and rural and urban Soviets that offered a path to a different form of socialism. This should not be a contentious thesis. Although the October Revolution was greeted by the international left as a great liberatory event that reaction was based on initial reports and was overwhelmingly emotional. It was not long before reliable reports from left witnesses and participants revealed a truer picture of what was happening inside the “first socialist country in the world”, and how far from any acceptable version of socialism that regime was.
From Marxist revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg to democratic socialists like Bertrand Russell many on the political left were critical of the Bolshevik insurrection from the first. Subsequent investigation and the course of the new regime over its first six months reinforced that criticism. In 1918 Rosa Luxemburg, writing of the limits and shortcomings of all institutions including democratic ones, concluded “But the remedy that Lenin and Trotsky have found is worse than the disease it is meant to cure”. Having seen the Bolsheviks’ strangulation of political and press freedom and the suppression of internal democracy in the Soviets, Luxemburg found that “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all.” She concluded that under Bolshevik rule the only “active element” was the bureaucracy and that therefore Bolshevik rule was “at bottom a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the Proletariat however but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians”.
From a different perspective, but equally unafraid to state honestly what he observed even if it shattered the illusions of those who saw in Bolshevik Russia some form of socialism, Bertrand Russell, in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (written in 1920 after a long visit to Russia and interviews with Lenin, Trotsky and Gorky) found that the Soviets had long died out as living democratic institutions because “no conceivable system of free elections would give majorities to the Communists, either in town or country”. This was hardly surprising given that the social and political system created by Lenin and the Bolsheviks was “…a slavery far more complete than that of capitalism. A sweated wage, long hours, industrial conscription, prohibition of strikes, prison for slackers, diminution of already insufficient rations in factories where production falls below what the authorities expect, an army of spies ready to report any tendency to political disaffection and to procure imprisonment for its promoters – this is the reality of a system which still professes to govern in the name of the proletariat”. This centralised state capitalism, presided over by a small political elite that denied political expression to any outside its own ranks, was not created by Stalin in the late 1920s and 1930s – Stalin simply added the physical liquidation of the Old Bolsheviks and a massive increase in the apparatus of state terror. On the contrary, this was the work of the Old Bolsheviks.
Naturally the propaganda organs of western capitalist states violently condemned the Bolsheviks from the very start. This criticism was pure hypocrisy. They did not make similar criticisms of the suppression of democracy in their colonial possessions in Ireland, India, Africa and Asia, or worry about the social and economic hardships suffered by their own working class. Their condemnation was driven not from sincere concern for democracy and civil rights but a desire to safeguard their wealth and privilege and ensure they did not share the fate of the Russian ruling class. It is little wonder many on the left gave no credence to such criticisms even if they were sometimes factually accurate. But it was not particularly difficult to find informed and honest critiques of the Bolshevik state from those across the Marxist and anarcho-syndicalist left who, in different ways, had taken part in or supported the process of revolutionary upheaval began in February 1917 and had seen at first hand its usurpation and corruption by the Bolsheviks.
A week after the Bolshevik insurrections in Petrograd and Moscow, the militant Railwayman’s Trade Union declared that it was strongly opposed to the seizure of power by one party and demanded that a broad based socialist coalition government be formed (it is often forgotten that Lenin’s justification for the Bolshevik coup was not rule by the Bolshevik Party, but to create a government elected by and accountable to the National Congress of Soviets, a promise never kept). Six weeks after October the newspaper Novaya Zhizn, edited by the writer Maxim Gorky, Lenin’s personal friend and a militant socialist, thunderously condemned the new regime. It said that power had not really passed to the Soviets (let alone “All Power”) and that the crucial 2nd Congress of Soviets, which had “ratified” the seizure of power, had in reality been faced with a fait accompli backed by armed soldiers who gave it little choice. The paper said that it was brutally clear that the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” meant in reality “All power to a few Bolsheviks”, and asserted that the new regime was in no sense a Soviet Republic but was actually “an oligarchic republic, a republic of a few People’s Commissars”(note).
But the most fundamental, best informed and ringing critique of Bolshevik authoritarianism came from the Russian socialist and Marxist left itself. Most especially the always present Marxist alternative best represented by the Mensheviks, led by Julius Martov, Lenin’s great opposite and antagonist since 1903 when the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) had split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. At that crucial juncture Martov had stood for a more inclusive and democratic organisation, one not consisting entirely of full time “professional revolutionaries” divorced from ordinary workers and rigidly controlled from the centre. On this issue, Lenin actually lost to Martov and failed to carry the majority of delegates at the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP (it was on a lesser issue to do with the composition of an editorial board that Lenin secured more votes than Martov, and on the lesser issue that the names “Bolsheviks” (majority) and “Mensheviks” (minority) came to stick to the opposing sides). As early as 1904 Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet called Leninism or Marxism? in which she identified the danger of giving the leadership of a revolutionary socialist party sweeping powers that “…would multiply artificially and in a most dangerous measure the conservatism which is the necessary outgrowth of every such leadership”. She concluded “There is nothing which so easily and so surely hands over a still youthful labour movement to the private ambitions of intellectuals, as forcing the movement into the straight-jacket of a bureaucratic centralism which debases the fighting workers into the pliable tools of the hands of a “committee””. Even Trotsky, at the time, was adamantly opposed to Lenin’s conception of the party, stating plainly his belief that when Lenin spoke of the dictatorship of the Proletariat he really meant “a dictatorship over the proletariat”. Ironically, Trotsky himself would later help Lenin construct it.
Martov remained Lenin’s most articulate and principled Marxist opponent from 1903 until his death in 1923. After October 1917 his critiques of the Bolshevik regime were relentless yet always from a position of support for democratic socialism and working class freedom. In the 1920s his acute and honest accounts of the new regime were available through trade union and socialist publications in Europe, although these were marginalised and forgotten as Stalinist ideological orthodoxy clamped itself on the thinking of the western left. For those with ears to listen, though, Martov had already in 1919 laid out the bare truth of life in Bolshevik Russia and the betrayal of the hopes and promises of October 1917. As he put it, “Reality has cruelly shattered all these illusions. The “Soviet State” has not established in any instance electiveness and recall of public officials. It has not suppressed the professional police. It has not done away with social hierarchy in production…On the contrary, it shows a tendency in the opposite direction. It shows a tendency towards the utmost possible strengthening of the principles of hierarchy and compulsion. It shows a tendency toward the development of a more specialized apparatus of repression than before. It shows a tendency toward the total freedom of the executive organism from the tutelage of the electors”(note). Whilst supporting the Soviet government against the reactionary “Whites” in the Civil War, Martov condemned the restrictions on press and political freedom and the suppression of other political parties (the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were semi-legal for a short while but were banned by 1920, by which time the Bolsheviks had long since turned on the working class and trade union movement itself).
For many of today’s anti-capitalist campaigners the legacy and importance of non-Leninist, libertarian socialism has found its best expression in the positions taken by Noam Chomsky since the 1960s. Chomsky’s forensic and damning indictments of US foreign policy are rooted in his anti-authoritarian politics, which he sometimes identifies as anarchism and sometimes as libertarian socialism (he increasingly ignores academic pigeon holes and simply supports any and all initiatives by trade unions, social activists and indigenous peoples that resist corporate capitalism). Chomsky is also one of the few outstanding left intellectuals to unambiguously reject Leninism and Bolshevism as not just misguided but fundamentally anti-socialist, and “in my view counter-revolutionary”. Chomsky identifies “incipient socialist institutions” such as Soviets, Factory Committees and workers co-operatives that emerged in the period after the February Revolution, and asserts “Lenin and Trotsky pretty much eliminated them as they consolidated power”. He concedes that there are arguments about the pressures and justifications for so doing (i.e the need to win the civil war and the terrible privations it caused) but believes that “The incipient socialist structures in Russia were dismantled before the really dire conditions arose”. More detailed studies, such as Maurice Brinton’s analysis of Workers’ Control in the period 1917-1921, tend to confirm this.
Chomsky’s general critique derived from “left Communists” such as Anton Pannekoek and anarcho-syndicalists such as Berkman and Rudolf Rocker, as well as an underlying and long established anti-statist radicalism best expressed by Michael Bakunin, the great seer and leader of 19th century anarchism. In debate with Karl Marx in the 1870s about the structures and policies of the 1st International, Bakunin predicted that Marx’s approach to revolution and socialism would lead to a “Red Bureaucracy” that would be worse than any form of oppression previously seen. Prescient as this was it is not necessary to be an anarchist to condemn Leninism as a departure from the core tenets of democratic socialism and from Marxism itself. Serious thinkers and leaders in the Marxist tradition such as Pannekoek, Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Mattick, Karl Kautsky and Martov all condemned Leninism before October 1917 as well as after it. Lenin himself added credence to their analyses through his political activities and philosophy – from his clearly stated belief when the Bolshevik Party was formed that the working class was “incapable on its own of developing anything more than a trade union consciousness”, and required political leadership “from without” (i.e. from bourgeois intellectuals such as himself) to his blunt admission shortly after October that “socialism is nothing but state capitalist monopoly made to benefit the whole people”. Diane P. Koenker, in Labour Relations in Socialist Russia: Printers, their union and the origins of Soviet socialism (1991) summed up what this meant for ordinary Russian workers, which was “In the shops where one-man management (Lenin’s own preference) replaced collegial management workers faced the same kinds of authoritarian management they thought existed only under capitalism”.
Hug a Tory
‘From the early records of Greek and Latin slang, where [words for pig] were used to describe the female genitalia through to modern uses of ‘pig’ to mock the police, the fascist and the male chauvinist, pigs seems to have borne the brunt of our rage, fear, affection and desire for the ‘low’. [But] it was precisely the ambivalence of the pig, at the intersection of a number of symbolic thresholds, which had traditionally made it a useful animal to think with.’ – Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression
As I said earlier, it is hard not to enjoy the ridiculing of Cameron. But if we take a step back, it should be clear that an atmosphere of sexual humiliation is one that favours current forms of power rather than dismantles them. Robin James points out the role of hazing in sexual abuse, and in some ways we can consider the whole range of ways in which the English haute-bourgeoisie initiate children into its ranks as a form of abuse. This is one of the points I was trying to get across in my piece on humour in the latest New Humanist (below). Boarding school and the top end of Oxbridge are environments designed to produce the very hardening and insensitivity which allows Tories to dehumanise and demonise the poor. Class wounds everyone, especially the ‘privileged’.
The Strange Death of British Satire
(reposted with permission from the Autumn 2015 issue of the New Humanist)
Watch one of the BBC’s political programmes – such as the Daily Politics and This Week, both fronted by Andrew Neil – and you encounter a particular tone. British television viewers are unlikely to take much notice of this tone because we take it for granted. Take a step back, however, and it is really rather curious. These ostensibly serious programmes are conducted with an air of light mockery, which Neil, with his perma-smirk and smugly knowing air, personifies. The tone, I believe, tells us something about the widespread disengagement from parliamentary politics in England. (The situation in Scotland is now rather different: the popular mobilisation after the independence referendum has reversed the trend towards cynicism about politics that still dominates south of the border.)
Take This Week. The whole show is conducted in a lamely comic style that it is hard to imagine any sentient creature finding amusing. Guests are required to dress up in daft costumes and present their arguments in the form of limp skits, pitched at an audience whose implied level of intelligence is imbecilic. The atmosphere is matey, informal, and the overwhelming impression is that nothing much is at stake in any of the decisions that parliament takes. While Neil’s dog pads about the set, former Tory leadership candidate Michael Portillo chats on a sofa with professionally amiable Blairite Alan Johnson – no class antagonism here, only mild disagreements. Politics appears as a (mostly) gentlemen’s club where everyone is friends. People from working-class backgrounds, such as Johnson, can achieve entry to this club, provided they accept its rules. These rules are never actually stated, but they are very clear. Parliament is not to be taken too seriously: it is to be treated as a (boring) soap opera, in which the lead characters are self-serving individuals who don’t believe in much beyond getting themselves elected. On no account are any intellectual concepts to be discussed, unless to be sneered at as pretentious nonsense. It has to be accepted that nothing very significant will ever change: the basic co-ordinates of political reality were set in the 1980s, and all we can do is operate inside them.
If you were designing a programme specifically to put people – especially young people – off politics, to convince them it is a tedious waste of time, then you could hardly do better than This Week. The programme seems to be aimed at literally no one: if you are staying up late to watch a programme devoted to politics, then presumably you are pretty serious about politics. Who wants this unfunny froth?
It would be bad enough if this tone of mirthless levity were confined to This Week, but it increasingly dominates political coverage of all kinds on the BBC. It thoroughly permeated the BBC’s election-night coverage this year, which Neil anchored. This trivialising tone is perhaps even more troubling than the problem of bias (as is well known, former Murdoch editor Neil was a Thatcher cheerleader; Nick Robinson, the BBC’s former Political Editor, meanwhile, was President of the Oxford University Conservative Association). The election-night coverage was notable for the disconnection between the shock and alarm that many in the audience felt about an unexpected win for the Conservative Party, and the guffawing banter of Neil and his associates. Reading out tweets and sharing gossip, the grinning Laura Kuenssberg, who has recently replaced Robinson as the BBC’s Political Editor, seemed to treat the whole evening as a jolly good laugh. Perhaps there isn’t that much at stake for her – she was, after all, born into immense privilege, the daughter of an OBE and a CBE, and the granddaughter of a founder and president of the Royal College of General Practitioners.
But where does this tone – with its strange mixture of the middle-aged and the adolescent – come from? The quick answer is class background. The tone of light but relentless ridicule, the pose of not being seen to take things too seriously, has its roots in the British boarding school. In an article for the Guardian, Nick Duffell, author of Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion (Lone Arrow Press), argued that, from around the age of seven, boarders are required to adopt a “pseudo-adult” personality, which results, paradoxically, in their struggling “to properly mature, since the child who was not allowed to grow up organically gets stranded, as it were, inside them.”
“Boarding children,” Duffell continues, “invariably construct a survival personality that endures long after school and operates strategically … Crucially, they must not look unhappy, childish or foolish – in any way vulnerable – or they will be bullied by their peers. So they dissociate from all these qualities, project them out on to others, and develop duplicitous personalities that are on the run.”
Now that the working-class perspective has been marginalised in the dominant British media and political culture, we increasingly live inside the mind of this psychically mutilated adolescent bourgeois male. Here, ostensible levity conceals deep fear and anxiety; self-mockery is a kind of homeopathic remedy that is used to ward off the threat of an annihilating humiliation. You must never appear too much of a swot; you must never look as if you might like or think anything that isn’t already socially approved. Even if you haven’t attended boarding school yourself, you are still required to operate in an emotional atmosphere set by those who did. Andrew Neil, who came from a working-class background and attended a grammar school, attained access to the top table by simulating the mores of the privately educated elite. Thatcherism depended on the conspicuous success of people like Neil – if they could make it, so could anyone.
No programme did more to normalise the mode of mandatory light mockery than Have I Got News for You. In a 2013 essay for the London Review of Books, “Sinking Giggling into the Sea”, Jonathan Coe positioned Have I Got News for You in a genealogy of British satire going back to the 1950s. Coe argued that, back then, satire might have posed a threat to the authority of establishment politicians who expected unthinking deference from the electorate. Now, however, when politicians are routinely ridiculed and a weary cynicism is ubiquitous, satire is a weapon used by the establishment to protect itself.
No one typifies this more than Boris Johnson. Coe points out that Johnson’s success crucially depended on his appearances – sometimes as guest presenter – on Have I Got News for You. The atmosphere of generalised sniggering allowed Johnson to develop his carefully cultivated, heavily mediated persona of “lovable, self-mocking buffoon”. The show allows Johnson to present himself as a hail-fellow-well-met everyman, not a member of an old Etonian elite. In this he has been abetted by his sometime antagonist Ian Hislop. Hislop always has the guffawing, self-satisfied air of a prefect who’s caught out some slightly posher kids stealing from the tuck shop. No matter what the infraction, Hislop’s response is always a supercilious snigger. While this snigger might be conceivably appropriate to MPs being caught with their trousers down, or even with their over-claiming on expenses, it seems grotesquely out of kilter with the kind of systemic corruption that we now know has occurred over the last thirty years in Britain, in everything from Hillsborough to the phone hacking scandal to paedophilia involving major establishment figures – not to mention the behaviours that led to the financial crash. As the editor of Private Eye, Hislop has played an important part in exposing these abuses. But on television his mocker-in-chief persona serves ultimately to neutralise and cover over the extremity and systematicity of the abuse: one snigger fits all situations.
Coe’s discussion of Johnson is strikingly similar to the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi’s analysis of Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi’s popularity, Berardi argued, depended on his “ridiculing of political rhetoric and its stagnant rituals”. The voters were invited to identify “with the slightly crazy premier, the rascal prime minister who resembles them”. Like Johnson, Berlusconi was the fool who occupied the place of power, disdaining law and rules “in the name of a spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle”.
In the UK, this concept of a “spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle” goes beyond politics in the narrow sense. The populist right-wing celebration of this energy is surely what kept Jeremy Clarkson in his job as a presenter of Top Gear for so long, and its appeal is what must have motivated over a million people to sign a petition calling for Clarkson to keep his job after he had punched a producer in the face. The prevailing media culture in the UK allows the privately educated Clarkson to come off as a plain-speaking man of the people, bravely saying what he thinks in the face of an oppressive ‘political correctness’ that seeks to muzzle him. The success of Top Gear is another testament to the power – and, sadly, international appeal – of the English ruling-class male mentality. Who, more than Clarkson and his fellow presenters, better exemplifies this bizarre mixture of the middle-aged and the adolescent? What, after all, is it safer for a ruling-class adolescent male to like than cars?
Clarkson is just one of a range of British television celebrities who play the role of pantomime villain; a persona entirely devoid of compassion for others. Except this is a pantomime with real blood. Take the former Apprentice star and Sun columnist Katie Hopkins, for instance. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, condemned her likening of refugees to “cockroaches” for its obvious echoes of Nazi rhetoric. Hopkins is allowed to get away with this because of what we might call the innate postmodernism of the English ruling class. Both she and Clarkson say hateful things, but with a twinkle in their eye and their eyebrows ever so slightly raised.
There is an immense complexity at work in this ruling-class mummery. The humour allows Clarkson and Hopkins to be conduits for a racism that has very real, very tragic effects, whilst also letting them off the hook. The humour reassures them, and their audience, that they don’t really mean it. But the problem is that they don’t have to “mean” it: they help define the terms of debate, and allow migrants to be dehumanised, whatever their “true” feelings about the issue might be.
However, Hopkins’s persona was troubled when she appeared on Celebrity Big Brother earlier this year. While much of the time she stayed in role as a spiteful, hard-hearted bigot, there were inevitably moments when the facade cracked, and she could be seen caring for others. While this increased her popularity – she almost won the show – it was also in danger of destroying the Katie Hopkins brand.
Most tellingly, her greatest moments of vulnerability came when she was asked to accept tenderness from others. In order to survive in the harsh and emotionally retarded world of the English ruling-class male she was trained for in private school and at Sandhurst, Hopkins has clearly been required to forgo any public acceptance of warmth or kindness from others. Sadly, the wearing of such character armour is not now confined to Hopkins and the rest of the privately educated elite.
Self-educated working-class culture generated some of the best comedy, music and literature in modern British history. The last 30 years have seen the bourgeoisie take over not only business and politics, but also entertainment and culture. In the UK, comedy and music are increasingly graduate professions, dominated by the privately educated. The sophistication of working-class culture – which combines laughter, intelligence and seriousness in complex ways – has been replaced by a grey bourgeois common sense, where everything comes swathed in a witless humour. It’s long past time that we stopped sniggering along with the emotionally damaged bourgeoisie, and learned once again to laugh and care with the working class.
Reposted with thanks from the New Humanist.
This is the edited text of a talk given by Alex Niven at the NewBridge Project, Newcastle-upon-Tyne last week.
I’d like to start with a quotation from Dubliners, James Joyce’s first work of fiction, published almost exactly a hundred years ago. It was written largely in the Edwardian period, in the last days of British colonial rule over Ireland; that is, on the eve of the Irish Revolution:
That night the city wore the mask of a capital
Dubliners is a collection of realist—some might say magic realist—stories about residents of Dublin in which almost all of the characters feel disillusioned or constricted in some way; paralysis is a word that echoes throughout the book. But Dubliners isn’t, in the end, a pessimistic work. Even though the characters in Joyce’s stories are paralysed on the one hand, there is also a sense that something is about to happen, a sense that Dublin is about to break free and come into its own. Within five years of the publication of Joyce’s book, Dublin was indeed the capital of a newly independent nation. And, a century later, it still is.
This is not to say that capitals and nations don’t bring with them their own kinds of problems and responsibilities and limitations. But I think something in the music of that quotation does help to emphasise the fact that radical change in the
circumstances of a city, a country, the world, can happen very quickly. Revolutions are possible. Political campaigns are not futile. Big collective projects can succeed. At certain moments in our history, we are able to take significant steps towards the creation of the ideal city, channelling utopian ideals, even if utopia is by definition unrealisable.
I wanted to begin with the example of Dubliners and this quotation, not necessarily because I think we’re on the eve of a revolution, but because there does seem to be something about the present moment that is analogous with the world, and perhaps the British Isles in particular, a hundred years ago. Like then—the post-Victorian, pre-WWI period—there’s a sense that the previous era is coming to an end, but that it’s coming to an end slowly. The political consensus of the last 30 or 40 years, let’s call it neoliberalism for the sake of argument, is splintering apart. But it hasn’t yet disintegrated. Lots of you are no doubt familiar with the philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s descripton of the post-2008 global economy as a bit like the train in a Road Runner cartoon—it careers over the precipice but carries on for an implausibly long time, before suddenly plunging vertically into the valley below.
Right now we’re probably still in the phase when the train is gliding along in the air on its horizontal trajectory. In the immediate post-2008 period—the years either side of 2010—there was a flurry of populist insurrectionary activity, which peaked in 2011 with the Occupy demonstrations, the Arab Spring, the fallout from the Murdoch phone-tapping scandal, the London riots, and so on. But afterwards, things settled down remarkably quickly. The Occupy movement seemed to quietly pack up its bags, and in Britain at least, the fervour of 2011 was replaced with the torpor of a country drifting inexorably to the right under the auspices of a Conservative-led coalition government.
But now, ironically, in the wake of an outright Conservative victory, and perhaps compounded by more momentous events further afield, the mood is changing again fairly rapidly. Tomorrow Jeremy Corbyn will be elected leader of the British Labour Party, which at the very least, will signal the end of the cross-party neoliberal consensus in the UK parliament, and might just possibly lead to a further radicalisation of the British political landscape. This hot on the heels of the Sun, a notoriously right-wing, habitually racist newspaper, publishing a headline last week in support of the Syrian refugees. Even if the Sun quickly managed to grotesquely torque the death of Aylan Kurdi later in the week so that it became a justification for air strikes on Syria, this was a major about-turn. The writer Mark Fisher was surely right when he argued that the Sun’s support for the refugees was a clear sign or at least premonition of the death of what Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’, the pervasive, deeply embedded belief that there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism. Throughout the west, the conservative establishment is everywhere on the defensive, and is daily being forced to reconsider, change its tone, express uncertainty, shift its feet uncomfortably.
We are clearly, then, in the midst of a moment of change—if perhaps not of outright crisis. But I think the important thing to emphasise about this particular moment is that it’s qualitatively different from the sort of energetic populist mood witnessed, for example, in 2011. And perhaps indeed it’s a very different moment from much of what we’ve come to be familiar with politically over the last half century. By that I mean that, while in 2011 and in countless previous years the protests seemed to be scattered, emotive, spasmodic, energetic, but usually relatively short in length and often directionless (the London riots in particular), the changes we are seeing right now seem to be of a more structural kind—they have an air of seriousness, of deliberation, of constructiveness. The spirit of change in the air right now seems like it might just amount to permanent shifts in the way we are governed and in the way political debates are conducted.
It’s probably the case that the leftist experiment in Greece is now in tatters, with the socialist government led by Syriza looking increasingly beleaguered and at risk of defeat at the upcoming Greek elections. Nevertheless, we cannot underestimate the huge significance earlier this year of a radical leftist European government achieving a solid democratic mandate, and then coming very close to undermining the entire economic grounding of the European Union. This is a very different occurrence from Occupy, for instance.
In the British context, the election of Corbyn will be a moment of genuine organisational breakthrough for the Left. Even if things go awry for Corbyn’s project, as they are bound to in some shape or form, there is no mistaking that his victory represents a kind of generational handover. The mistake of the elder statesmen and women at the Guardian was to view the Corbyn surge as a rehash of the 80s. More fool them, because it actually represents the coming of age of a much younger leftist demographic—the opponents of neoliberalism who have been filing away at the gaps in the brickwork for the last decade: radical theorists who subsisted for many years on the fringes of the internet, journalists like Owen Jones who have been gradually building leftist influence and hegemony in the mainstream media, the new feminists and LGBT campaigners looking for an outlet for their struggles, ordinary people angry about housing or militarism, or having to pay 30 grand for an undergraduate degree, or the fact that their once-proud town on the edge of the world’s 4th richest country is suddenly full of food banks.
These people have been surging for years. For these people, and perhaps for many people in this room, the time is now. A window of opportunity is opening for us to build, rather than merely dismantle, to construct rather than merely deconstruct. As William Blake once said:
I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s
The current mood of radicalism is distinguished by its emphasis on systematic thinking and acting, which is something quite different from the emotive but ultimately ephemeral radicalism of 2011.
On the eve of a Corbyn victory, I would suggest that we need to start thinking in a systematic, ambitious way about how a radical political campaign might affect and improve every aspect of the city we live in, and how this might be joined up with a systematic programme for reform in the rest of Britain, Europe, the world. What would the Corbynite city look like? I don’t pretend to know, but I think the current moment is a moment for a kind of systematic idealism, for large-scale, intellectually ambitious thinking about the way society is constructed rather than the small-scale rebellions and countercultural deconstructionism that has dominated the left over the last three decades, and arguably merely offered a mirror-image to neoliberalism’s belief that states, councils, funding bodies, universities and unions should be disempowered until they disappear.
Corbyn has created a rupture in the ground we know, signalling that society might suddenly begin to change, and change fast. In five years time, our capital might be anywhere.
Dissent is and always has been entwined with media depictions of it, whether it wants to be or not, and whether that coverage is beneficial or not. The traditional assumption is often that it is, however; as Thatcher famously announced: “We must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend.” Thatcher’s government used censorship against the threat of the Provisional IRA in the 1980s, as well as the ANC, who were at the time branded ‘terrorists’ also (and Nelson Mandela in particular). The voices of Irish Republicans were dubbed with the voices of anonymous actors, in a bizarre and at times comic form of censorship, which bore more resemblance to a Monty Python sketch than anything else. The British press, meanwhile, whenever it did mention the IRA, did so with dehumanising and insulting language, comparing Irish revolutionaries (the IRA of the 1920s as well as post-1960s) and the Irish more generally to chimps, Frankenstein, crazy drunks, pigs, a vampire, an inferno, Jekyll and Hyde, and various images of idiocy and barbarianism.
In general, though, the Provisional IRA was given as little coverage as possible from the 1970s onwards, in line with Thatcher’s insistence that depriving the cause of any publicity would stifle them. Indeed it did, but the Provisional IRA fought back with actions that would win their cause and people worldwide interest and at times solidarity, if not the British press (who only changed tack in the 1990s, after the peace talks). The Hunger Strikes, and specifically the death of Bobby Sands, offered a narrative that went some way to counter the British press’ dismissal of the Republican cause.
The hunger strikes of 1980-81 (there were ten deaths in all from the strikes – Sands’ was the best known) took place in Long Kesh prison in Belfast, at the end of a long protest about prisoner status: the Republican prisoners wanted to be recognised as prisoners of war, while the government insisted that they be treated as non-political criminals. While the ‘dirty protests’ began as a long campaign of non-cooperation, continued mistreatment by prison guards and a refusal to take their arguments seriously by the government meant that these protests evolved into the hunger strikes. These went some way to change the public image of the Republican movement from violent perpetrators and troublemakers, to tragic victims.
Drawing on familiar pacifist and religious iconography, popular support for the hunger strikers, the other prisoners, and the Republican cause itself rose exponentially as a result. Public rituals of self-sacrifice, and symbolic gestures about life, death and resurrection were inherent in the hunger strikes, and meant that these protests chimed with the people on a deeper level. They asserted a sense of identity that was bound up in Catholicism and Republicanism, which made these two strands harmonious and all the more powerful for that fusion. The activists themselves became, not merely men, but transcendent figures who would inevitably remind people of the religious figures they had known of since childhood, who had an emotional effect because of a mixture of those early memories and spiritual ideas.
When it came to the media representations of the hunger strikes, these tended to be local rather than national or international at first, given the use of censorship by the British. However, that local awareness gave the activists a local audience and sympathy that was perhaps more powerful because it was exclusive to a grassroots audience at that point. Later, when Bobby Sands died and the story was told further afield, even the most basic facts told a story of martyrdom, and a sense of tragedy, given Sands’ age, his background and the fact that he starved to death for his beliefs. Even the most hardened and distant audience would likely be concerned or ashamed that he suffered such a death. For even people who had no political sympathy, who were not of the same background and identity, would nevertheless recognise that story – that sense of tragedy and self-sacrifice that is ingrained in story-telling across cultures, and which explains, perhaps, why martyrdom is a story used by political actors in so many different settings. The fusion of fame and suffering is one that seems to arrest audiences everywhere. Whatever is the reason for this – be it voyeurism, deeply ingrained social ritual, confused admiration or sympathy – martyrdom is powerful as a political tactic and a narrative arc.
And yet the Conservative government at the time did not quite realise how powerful it could be. While Thatcher’s rationale for ignoring the strikers was that any negotiations or change in status would “represent an acknowledgment of Irish Republican Army violence outside the prison” (Fierke, p. 107), this strategy backfired, partly because she underestimated the power of the hunger strikes from an emotional point of view. The self-sacrifice and deaths of the hunger strikers drew attention to their plight, drew attention to (and empathy towards) the victimhood of Catholics in Northern Ireland (especially given the symbolism inherent in the strikers’ martyrdom) and ultimately encouraged support for the Provisional IRA in spite of their violence.
People were reminded of why these young men had joined the cause in the first place: a series of events in which Catholics were victimised, and peaceful protesters killed. In particular, the shooting of thirteen unarmed civilians during a demonstration in Derry in January 1972 (Bloody Sunday), by British paratroopers, had inspired young activists to abandon more peaceful means of dissent and join the Provisional IRA instead. The substance and history of the cause was exposed, the contemporary Provisional IRA were tied into a longer tradition of Irish Republicanism, and that helped its public image and suggested a more complex story than a simple ‘good versus evil’ and the terrorism narrative of Thatcher’s government and the British tabloids. The lines blurred, the characters, these ‘terrorists’, became first human, then saintly. And with this surge in public support, it became difficult for the British government to keep up their story that the Provisional IRA were a group of troublemakers with no real public support.
The British press, of course, used their expected language of condemnation and vitriol when covering the strikes and Sands’ death, and underplayed the huge effect on public support. The Daily Mail, when Bobby Sands died of hunger, called him out as guilty of “a moral fraud” and the Daily Telegraph called him “ruthless” and corrupted”. The Express dwelled on political failure: “Sands will find no victory in the grave… The shadow of Bobby Sands will pass…” While The Sun focussed on the supposed victory of the British, at his death: “Blackmail has failed… The society which has stood firm against violence in long blood-stained years will remain unshaken.” At the news of Sands’ funeral, the Mirror published an account which insisted that: “[Sands’ funeral was] a pathetic end for a man who never played more than an average part in the deadly moves called by his IRA masters.” The Daily Mail called it “a macabre propaganda circus” and “a gangster parody”. (Roy Greenslade)
Despite this coverage, Bobby Sands’ death was not easily forgotten or dismissed – quite the opposite in fact. Sands became a martyr to the cause – a secular Saint, of sorts. His story, and death, became known and mythologised not only in Northern Ireland but worldwide. Even the British press could not ignore him, especially since he was by this time an elected MP. While coverage of his death remained characteristically derisive, it nevertheless broke the censorship policy that had been in place before and hinted at the reality of public support for Sands and Irish Republicanism in general. Censorship, then, while an ideal for some governments in their dealing with dissent, even in the 1980s, before the Internet, was not always realistic in the face of particularly compelling personalities and their stories.
This is an edited extract from Shooting Hipsters: Rethinking Dissent in the Age of PR by Christiana Spens (forthcoming 2016).
Excellent and important piece by Adam Harper at the Fader putting some of the most exciting artists currently making music into political context:
It’s no wonder that African and Afrodiasporic artists are choosing to disseminate music in solidarity. In many cases, this creative decision is a strategy for dealing with the alienation that is so often a part of Afrodiasporic experience. As the London-based writer Kodwo Eshun puts it in his 2003 essay Further Considerations on Afrofuturism: “the condition of alienation, understood in its most general sense, is a psychosocial inevitability that all Afrodiasporic art uses to its own advantage by creating contexts that encourage a process of disalienation.” And yet in the continuing environment of white supremacy, this creativity is routinely either erased, appropriated, or confined to narrow and fetishized aesthetic areas. The music in this article—which is all linked by the multifarious connective tissues of underground culture (labels, releases, mixes, remixes, songs etc)—is not necessarily of the same belief or aesthetic, but can all be seen as resisting the supremacist paradigm in its many different ways and contexts. Often, it can be seen as exploring the way in which race intersects with gender, sexuality and/or queerness too.
Needless to say, the artists mentioned here aren’t the only African and Afrodiasporic artists making challenging and beautiful music in the underground, just a few constellations—there are countless more voices out there. As it has been for centuries, since the traumatic dawn of modernity, finding such voices through music is not just a leisure activity, as it is marketed to many of us. It’s part of the urgent and fundamental search for self and identity in a world that not only erases that identity, or appropriates it, or predetermines it, or constrains it, or renders it fragmented and ostensibly paradoxical, but that also systematically commits physical violence upon people of that identity. This is why so many artists with minority status end up in underground music—this is why they are underground music. Fortunately, the underground can form spaces and networks where identity matters, is audible, and becomes visible.
Read the full article at The Fader.
This is an edited extract from JD Taylor‘s forthcoming book, Island Story: Journeying Through Unfamiliar Britain
Morning on the Acklam Garden City Estate, Middlesbrough, surrounded by cheery red-brick terraces, patriotic flags and, a little beyond, row after row of boarded-up houses, many habitable.
By the local estate parade, where I’d been warned of ‘dodgy people’ who might despoil a traveller of their possessions, Gary’s out with his young son. ‘Yer fucken mad, you are’, he says, laughing at my alibi for asking. He flicks his head up proudly. ‘It’s marvellous. Some bits are good round ere, some bits are bad, like everywhere’. His mum and sister live round the corner. It’s a community, he presses. Like Jan, surrounded by her sisters in the nearby streets, in spite of Middlesbrough’s decline it’s still kept together families and communities, and this is what people love about it, something impossible in most growing English towns.
But how does one live? Within the 19th century, Middlesbrough exploded from a dozy hamlet to an ‘infant Hercules’ town of a hundred thousand, producing ships, metals and chemicals. Its Teesside docks and port were live-wired into global trade. But all this was another history lesson, and the last of those industries, ICI’s chemical works at Wilton and Billingham, had been wiped out in the 90s, with a rump of smaller firms operating in its place. Middlesbrough’s population has been plummeting, but there was no serious discussion about a responsible shrinking or ungrowing. Instead there were more retail parks, malls and call-centres promised, and receding memories of a future that had failed to arrive.
The sentiment wasn’t merely melancholic. Riding through Billingham among its belching chimneys and swerving juggernauts, air funked with astringent fumes, the Brunner Mond chemical-works later taken over by ICI had inspired Aldous Huxley to imagine his Brave New World. Likewise, the neon-lit towers and flares I’d passed last night at Wilton had inspired Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Both dystopic visions of the future, tagged to the Tees. A ‘space age coated in pigeon shit’ is how Owen Hatherley describes its town centre today, a 60s New Town built by ICI, now marked by its dereliction, a description given with a hint of deserving affection.
Bewley and Seaton Carew follow, disorientatingly bland suburbs, all cul-de-sacs, palisade gates and paved driveways, Sky dishes and CCTV pointed out to the world. Places one could fake one’s death and live untroubled in… as John Darwin almost proved. This was the future that had taken its place, one which, despite its ugliness, had succeeded in offering what more people wanted most, instead of needed. I press on into Hartlepool. Beside the deserted marina and ‘historic quay’, site of ye goodly ol’ HMS Trincomalee, is a binge of retail parks, fast-food drive-thrus, bingo halls and budget hotel chains. The effect is truly bizarre, compounded by its New York-style yellow taxis and the sheer emptiness of the place, as if a millenarian religious cult had massed in the town, built these totems and trophies to the consumer gods, then quietly disbanded after the Credit Crunch apocalypse failed to arrive.
An older couple drift by in the distance. Yvonne and Eddie struggle to explain the town’s present condition. A massive steelworks and harbour have closed, leaving behind a ‘lot of poor’ and unemployment. The retail-glut reflected the magical thinking of the Blair era, that wealth could be simply be magicked into creation, ex nihilo, just as if one could ‘create’ energy into being, rather than harness or redistribute it from elsewhere. One needed credit for these places, now that the jobs were gone, but even that was harder to come by. Eddie points to the empty but modern-looking marina opposite, now owned by the council. There are no plans to use it. ‘I’d turn it into a big sports centre, with football, tennis, badminton’. ‘Kids today sit at home in their rooms on the computer’, Yvonne adds, describing their grandchildren. ‘It’s just the age’.
County Durham. The relatively flat scene is akin to the Cleveland towns, gelded by the closure of the mines. The takeaway and off-licence constitute communal life. After Blackhall, I pull over in Horden for clues. A woman old enough to have been a miner’s wife during the Strike struggles to articulate its story. ‘They’re all gone, shut in 85’. What happened to the people here? She shrugs. ‘Nothing’. Another man of similar age repeats the same. ‘They went out six miles to sea. They reckoned it cost too much money’. He hurries off.
At (another) Easington, the village’s school and council offices are boarded up, their windows smashed through. The pubs are closed, even the neat red-brick miners’ terraces barricaded in places. One might expect this in Detroit or Chernobyl, but on our doorstep? The damage done is plain to see. An old boy pushes a broken lawn-mower down a back-terrace, and we chat. When Thatcher died, he recalls, people came from miles around to party. Some hadn’t returned for at least a decade. When the collieries closed, some miners were sent on computer courses, for certificates ‘not worth’t paper printed on’.
The terrain begins to steepen, then at Sherburn it collapses down again. Durham appears almost from nowhere, secluded from sight in a deep valley. The town is remarkably affluent in contrast to its neighbours, populated by aspirational student bars and luxury homeware shops, its cobbled lanes threading over a gushing river and up a hillock towards its vast, austerely-adorned Norman cathedral and castle. Young Americans babble loudly, and someone busks with a violin.
I pedal on to Langley Moor, an ex-mining village on its outskirts. Clarissa, a friend of my partner’s, lives out here. As we drink beer and wine in her back garden, surrounded by light industrial warehouses and a sports centre, she reflects.
‘There used to be a slag heap there, a colliery down there, even a little railway bringing the coal’. The pits and two-up two-down terraces have almost all been pulled down and eradicated, unlike Easington. ‘I do think it is as bad now as the 80s’ she adds. I wonder how, still struggling to mentally connect up these scenes, past and present. ‘Lots of unemployment’, her late-teen daughter says, her and her mate joining us. Lads join the army. The suicide rate is particularly high.
Perhaps it’s in the collapsing infrastructure, the true, hidden extent of poverty and unemployment. But as they talk, this sense of 80s-scale defeat is in something else. It’s at the level of desire and feeling. Since York, the towns have all been deserted. There are no pricks to kick against, just the stony silence and shame that comes with robbing Peter to pay Paul, of heavy drinking and anti-depressants to salve the pain. The local miners’ gala is now a formalised piss-up, as sheer hedonism blunts the boredom with special occasions for off-the-leash Saturnalia. We hear the radio news from the other room, distant headlines of London and a political elite rattling on about economic growth and employment, but it made no sense out here.[…]
I’d been told that Ashington had been the biggest pit village in the world, a century ago, employing ten thousand miners in five collieries. Then Thatcher waged war on the organised miners, and the productive mines were closed. The town’s other product, aluminium, had also recently ceased, leaving Ashington cut adrift. A young man’s tip in a newsagent directs me to the Woodhorn Colliery, the last of the mines still standing, open as a museum to this lost way of life.
‘Close the door on past dreariness’. ‘The will to work is the way to prosperity’. ‘Nationalisation 1947. The New Era: Welfare Education Mechanisation’. Queen blue and claret banners hang inside, produced by local branches of the NUM, like Ellington, Seghill and Sleekburn A, all nearby. They are defined by their headline fonts, their sentimental and often heraldry-like use of borders and scrolls, and their emotive depictions of grey and miserable slum terraces, like those of Middlesbrough and Gateshead, a past they wished to put behind.
Their progressive, mechanised future is that which failed to arrive, but there is a specifically working class English modernism to these banners which I hadn’t anticipated. Rather than seeking to defend an unproductive and dangerous form of work, they sought to improve it. The banners were produced in the late 40s, at a time when much still felt possible. Rather than appearing as things back in time, they seem like the artefacts of ghosts of the future. What would demands for welfare, mechanisation, education or nationalisation look like today?
The scenes of the ‘Pitmen Painters’ collected here present a way of life gone, perhaps mercifully too. There are blinkered pit ponies, wandering underground; a Friday fish supper; a Labour man addressing a packed-out pub of menfolk; a woman alone, the drudgery of domestic work before the era of cheap appliances; the death of a wife by tuberculosis. One image captures in cartoon-format the life of a 14 year old miner, who wakes up at two each morning to put in a long shift on an unproductive seam, often where new miners would start until an older relative could negotiate something better. Returning home, he’s too tired to bathe, eat, or see his friends. He falls asleep as soon as he gets in, only to be woken by his mam to go back to the pit. ‘Slept it through’ is the title.
But the paintings are intriguing also in how they were produced. The group began meeting through a branch of the WEA in 1927 in an old hut, and by 1934 they worked with Robert Lyon to develop their paintings, which were then exhibited to the world. Harry Wilson was one miner involved. ‘Here I found an outlet for other things than earning my living’, he said. ‘There is a feeling of being my own boss for a change and with it comes a sense of freedom’.
Their hut was pulled down in 1983, and the last mine in the area shut in 2005, Howard tells me, one of the museum’s volunteers, as I quiz him on the legacy beyond the exhibits. ‘Coal not dole’, the striking miners demanded. Today even the latter’s hard to come by. Paul had spoken of the local foodbanks struggling to meet demand, as numbers of people too poor to even eat were soaring, victims of four-to-thirteen week benefit sanctions, some caused by DWP cruelty, others mere incompetence. That basic right to freedom, to live and to live well, are not expensive or unrealistic demands. Far more is spent on housing benefit to private landlords than on building new social housing; far more is lost in loose tax regulations and tax-breaks for the rich over benefit fraud.
People in London or the South might think that I’m being too negative, ‘playing politics’ over the veracity of the narrative. Come up to Easington and Ashington, if you dare, and spend some time here, seeing, listening, talking with locals. Take a look at just how needlessly ravaged these places are, and think about the past and present political events that are causing this. Consider whether it is morally right that a person should freeze or go without food, or be punished for the crime of being poor and having a spare bedroom, or that they should be coerced into working without a wage, in a country presently the fifth richest in the world. If that is fine with you, continue voting Conservative. You may wish to close the book here.
For those of you who feel, like me, wearied and stunned by it all, then a position of sceptical impartiality or knowing inaction’s no good either, for these things will continue, whether we choose to look elsewhere or not. Trading our grumbles won’t interrupt the processes that protect bankers and billionaires whilst consigning the vast majority of young and old to insecure, low-paid and drudgerous jobs. ‘Close the door on past dreariness’ said the Ellington miners back in 1950. What does a brighter future look like, and how will it work for us all?
Blair and company argue that the Tories crave a Corbyn win, but the trap has been set a move beyond that: Cameron and Osborne can rest confident that the terror of electoral wipe-out will have a neo-Blairite Labour party galloping towards their position anyway. Always fighting the last war, and on a badly-chosen battlefield. The Labour mainstream cannot adapt to new parameters, cannot think except in the abjection of the spectre of a hard left, even as they appoint themselves the true custodians of the world-to-come.
Having failed to stand up to claims that over-spending caused the financial crisis (it was the allocation decisions of deregulated market actors, since you ask), and having joined in the anti-immigration mood with some vigour (if also with occasional cognitive dissonance), the party is hardly placed to offer a local vision of political renewal, still less muster anything like internationalism or a novel settlement for the great questions of the age (stagnant economies, spreading inequalities, humanitarian crisis within and at the gates of Fortress Europe, a foreign policy that does not undermine itself even in the narrow range of national interest, a trajectory for expanded human freedom and comfort). They have only platitudes, and this explains in part the bile of the anti-Corbyn moment. Utterly unable to engage on the merits, theirs is also a retreat to a ‘comfort zone’, one of personality-engineering and fickle non-policies, desperate to catch the eye of the floating voter who hates them for their indecision and rightly perceives the abyss of their purpose.
As Paul Mason argued the morning after the election, this emptiness is the result of some longer-term trends:
[Labour] in its current form it has almost no ideological base, or coherence. Miliband’s innner team had almost no outriders in the press, no co-thinkers in academia; they had support among artists and film directors, but always half-hearted. Blairism, of course, has massive support among the now wrinkled and pensioned ex-ministers and former giants of 1990s journalism, but that’s not much use… It has failed to account for its defeat in 2010, failed to recognise the deep sources of its failure in Scotland, and failed to produce any kind of intellectual diversity and resilience from which answers might arise.
The failure goes on, and is only compounded by the shrill denunciations, as if Corbyn’s suggestion of opposing tax cuts for the rich in a time of austerity was the common sense definition of “hard left”. This is how the Overton Window works. To have Labour advisors ripping into mild social democracy as if it was the establishment of a command economy is to shrink the possibilities across the entire political spectrum. This is not reorientation to “the centre”. Nor is it moving past left and right. It is establishing the axioms of the right as the very horizon of politics, and then calling it objective reality. We live in a society in which something like re-nationalisation of the railways is a hugely popular policy, even (by a slimmer margin) amongst Conservative voters, and in which no one is able to seriously propose it. Mary Creagh thinks this is a sign of good sense (re-nationalisation apparently unworkable, a stone age notion). But – and here we must concede something to the ‘Mont Pelerin of the Left’ crowd – you have to contest political reality in order to create it. Arguments, organisation, persuasion. Not submission and mimicry (at least not at the scale of the Blairite panic). Or else they win even when you win.
Anti-Corbynites will at this stage justly complain that all of the above misses the central, inescapable, terrifying point: a party leader must be able to win nationwide parliamentary elections, and winning is predicated on capturing new voters, who will mostly be swing electors of no particular ideology and not some shy gaggle of hardcore Bennites in hiding since 1997. And it is winning that requires a range of skills in coalition-building, in political manoeuvrability, and in crafting a narrative which is both suitably empty (so that all positions can be contained within it) and robust (so that there is a narrative identity to hawk). Principles, a strong voting record, repeatedly being proven right in the face of prevailing credulity, loyalty to the historic role of the party, a refreshing honesty, basic decency in talking about opponents…all of that is secondary, or worse. Denying the need for these competencies is thus an infantile leftism, a retreat, a fantasy, a comfort-eating binge (as if there was anything comfortable about being set upon so within Labour’s putative broad church).
Although it can obviously not say so explicitly, such advice counsels that the electorate are idiots, and should be treated as such. Grow up, and realise that this is a game of manipulation in the pursuit of power, not open debate in the service of public good. In the intricacies of political advertising, vapid talk is a feature, not a bug, and yes, it too reflects the alliances made with interest groups in the market and the media. For now, there can only be charisma-void candidates, who can at least be relied on not to actively repulse in the marginals. What else did you expect? As so many have noted for so long, the consequence is an endless dilution of ideas (of what might once have been haughtily thought of as political theory) in which power is its own reward, and a light balm the best the body politic might hope for even in the event of a grand Labour victory. This is, you will notice, the opposite of how the Tories have carried on. They use their position to remould the state, and in ways that are pretty obviously “right wing”. It is hard to imagine that anyone but Corbyn has the political courage to do the same for the left, but then they are not expected to, and no positive case exists to be put for them (apart from that Burnham believes in the NHS, which is, I guess, some kind of comfort). What, say, is the identifiable meaning of Yvette Cooper?
This is an extract from a longer piece, originally posted on the excellent blog, The Disorder of Things – read the full post here.
Jeremy Corbyn has today taken the lead in the Labour leadership race – something that seemed unlikely even a few weeks ago. Whatever your views on Labour (even amongst the Repeater team, they are conflicted), it’s great to see an overtly radical candidate doing so well. Whatever the outcome, his candidacy seems to be pushing Labour and political discourse to the left, which can only be a good thing.
Here’s some words from writer and musician Bob Stanley on why he’s supporting Corbyn:
I’ve been thinking about the Labour leadership campaign, and in turn the future of the Labour Party, and so the future of the country. I’ve always liked Jeremy Corbyn. When I heard that he was standing I was relieved that somebody at least to the left of Tony Blair would contest the leadership.
Then yesterday I heard Harriet Harman say that she’s supporting the Tory budget, offering no opposition to policies that hit the poorest, punishing any family with more than two children. What the hell does she think the Labour Party is there for? It’s embarrassing and depressing.
I don’t believe that Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall or Andy Burnham will provide any stronger opposition than she has – which means going along with Tory policies because they’re scared not to, pandering to the electorate’s worst instincts, kicking anyone who’s on a lower rung.
…Jeremy’s campaign has the most momentum. This doesn’t surprise me because Jeremy Corbyn is a socialist! He knows what the Labour Party should be about. Yesterday, reacting to Harriet Harman’s interview, he said “I am not willing to vote for policies that will push more children into poverty. Families are suffering enough… we shouldn’t play the government’s political games with the welfare if children are at stake.”
I don’t think people realise how easy it is to vote for Jeremy. All the campaign are asking people to do is send a text; it’ll only cost £3 to have a proper say on the future of British politics.The cut-off date for registering is August 12th, so there’s a whole month to raise Jeremy’s profile and show the Labour Party which direction we want them to move in.
Bob Stanley is a member of St Etienne and author of Yeah Yeah Yeah: The History of Modern Pop (Faber, 2013).