“There’s no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced and the preferably unheard.”—Arundhati Roy
Post-crash, countless studies have shown that the impact of cuts and austerity has been borne predominately by women. A Fawcett Society study on the impact of cuts doled out by the coalition government in the UK stated that 75% of all cuts hit women. Women with disabilities, black women, working-class women, and single mothers were the hardest hit.
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission warn that 2010–2020 will be the first decade since records began that sees a rise in absolute poverty in the UK, with the gulf between the rich and poor as irreparable. When the economy tanks, it is predictably women who suffer. The fight for women’s rights is less a long, slow march, and more like a climbing wall: it is possible to climb as well as fall, so vigilance is essential at all times. The clawing back of the welfare state is a direct attack on women’s rights, but boardroom quotas make a tidier headline, based on the assumption that certain rights have already been won.
In reaction to the argument that “there is no alternative” to cuts and austerity, with Labour and the Conservatives in the UK singing from the same hymn sheets, women’s grassroots groups have started to fight back. The Focus E15 campaign grew in Newham in response initially to Newham’s “social cleansing” of the poorest households in the borough, targeting single mothers and forcing them to relocate to cities and towns hundreds of miles away from their children’s schools, families and support networks. In 2013, a group of 29 young single mothers, many of whom were teenagers, were served with eviction notices from their specialist hostel in east London. The Focus E15 foyer provided one-bedroom apartments for the women to live in with their children, or whilst pregnant, after being made homeless, and provided targeted skills training, literacy teaching, and specialist support to help the women back into work or training. Many of the women in the £125-a-week rooms were studying, or in part-time work in the area, and one mother said she was applying for universities in London.
The funding of Supporting People, designed to help vulnerable people live independently, was slashed in England and the foyer said that without funding for specialist support, the hostel would cease to be an appropriate environment for young mothers and children. Newham Council, tasked with rehousing the women, told them they should expect to be placed outside the borough and city. A change to Newham’s housing policy meant working families and people who had served in the armed forces received priority over single mothers like the Focus E15 residents.
Rather than accept their fate, the women took action. Starting from a weekly street stall in Stratford city centre, the women explained their predicament and soon rallied around supporters and other activists. This culminated in September 2014 with an attention-grabbing protest a few minutes’ walk away next to Stratford station. Coinciding with London’s Open House weekend, where iconic and listed buildings are opened to public tours, the Focus E15 campaigners, now comprising the mothers, locals, and seasoned campaigners, broke into two empty flats.
The flats, in the Carpenters Estate, had lain empty for years. Walking around the estate, it was remarkable how many windows were boarded up, so close to the 2012 Olympic site, which had promised regeneration and wealth for a poor area. Members of the Tenant Management Organisation, responsible for managing the site, told me Newham Council had refused to allow them to let properties that became empty if families moved out, slowly turning the red-brick estate into a ghost town.
Once in, the campaigners decorated the properties with toys, soft furnishings, banners and posters and declared their own Open House. Outside, green fabric banners decorated with the slogans “These Homes Need People: These People Need Homes” were unfurled, a simple message underlining the absurdity of the situation the mothers and other homeless families in the borough were faced with. On a sunny Saturday, the flats were thronged with visitors. One room I went into was being used as an impromptu crèche: babies were happily being entertained by two locals in a former bedroom. The living room was a campaign centre, with media phone numbers tacked to the wall, alongside lists of what was needed to make the occupation work.
What was striking about the flats was their state of repair. Curious visitors who popped in after hearing of the occupation via social media and news coverage were genuinely shocked at how immaculate the decor and fittings were. Wandering around, I noticed the wallpaper looked as good as new, and the kitchen was far better than many I had seen in my own rented flats over the years. The TMO said most flats were the same: perfectly liveable, but empty by command of the council. The campaigners pointed out that it would be far easier to move women into these small family homes than ship them miles from their own families, disrupting young children’s lives.
The campaign garnered a huge amount of media and local attention, initially through social media, before being picked up by The Guardian and The Financial Times. In The Guardian, one of the mothers, Jasmin Stone, wrote:
“We wanted to participate in Open House to show how many houses sit empty in London and what an easy solution there is to the housing crisis. This crisis, as it is usually covered in the newspapers, is one experienced by the middle classes, whose steady march from private renting to home ownership has been stopped in its tracks by the hugely inflated market. For members of the working class, however, the crisis is much more virulent. It involves not only the prospect of annual rent increases, the impossibility of home ownership and poor-quality housing, but also removal and displacement from the place in which you were born, leading to isolation in a place where you know nobody and opportunities for jobs are non-existent.”
The campaign, built up over years and still fighting homelessness and gentrification in Newham, meant that a process that usually happens to women silently was brought to public attention. Individually, families facing homelessness, often single mothers because they comprise the lowest-paid and most vulnerable households, are turned away from council housing offices and left to fend for themselves, or placed in unsuitable hostels miles away from their home. Focus E15 challenged this silencing and directly linked it to the rapid development of London due to unsustainably fast house-price growth tempting investors in to make a quick buck. Councils, with slashed budgets from central government, abdicate responsibility to vulnerable residents in lieu of making some quick cash from land sales, in the process (they hope) tempting in more financially flush tenants.
This exact scenario was relayed to me in 2010, when a Newham councillor asked me what I thought the biggest problem facing Newham was (I worked as a student welfare advisor in a university in the Borough). With students, predominantly women, coming in every day complaining about homelessness, poor conditions, or that they were experiencing domes- tic violence but couldn’t afford to move out, I replied that the biggest issue was the need for more social housing. “Oh no”, he said. “That just encourages undesirables.” Instead, they needed to build more new, metropolitan flats, the kind springing up around Stratford Station and the under-development Westfield Shopping Centre. The kind that attracted bankers from nearby Canary Wharf, not the sort of people who lived and worked in Newham already.
But “undesirables” have to live somewhere, and it sticks in the craw of the rich when these “undesirables” live in an area deemed desirable by the wealthy. The New Era estate in Hoxton was bought out in May 2014 by American property develop- ment company Westbrook Partners. Letters sent following the takeover informed the 93 families living on the estate that they faced a four-fold increase in rent. For the majority of the residents, this amounted to an eviction notice: few residents, some who had lived on the estate for as many as 70 years, could afford to pay those sums even if their only outgoing was rent.
Three women took charge of the fight to keep the residents in their homes: Lindsey Garrett, Danielle Molinari and Lynsay Spiteri rallied tenants and got word out about the conditions of the takeover. That the Benyon Estate, the family business of the country’s richest MP, Richard Benyon, had a 10% stake in the estate made it easier to argue their case. The women contacted The Daily Mirror, then other papers, organised a demonstration outside Westbrook Partners’ UK offices, and presented a 300,000-signature petition to Downing St.
After months of work, the campaign had won vocal and public support from politicians across the political divide, including the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and the Mayor of Hackney, the borough the estate resides in. For the investors, the level of attention and the volume of bad publicity made their plans untenable: shortly before Christmas, the Benyon Estate pulled out, quickly followed by Westbrook Partners. The estate was sold to Dolphin Square, a charity that is committed to providing low-cost homes to people on low incomes, and ten- ants were told not to expect rent increases.
Recovering from celebrations, Molinari told the BBC: “They underestimated us three women, but also all the residents on the estate, the community spirit and what Hoxton is all about”. Garrett, currently an NHS worker, is now planning to run for London Mayor in the 2016 elections, and has been elected chair of the New Era Tenants’ Association.
The 3Cosas campaign have campaigned for better rights for cleaners (predominantly women) and fought gender discrimination and unfair dismissal cases when Unite the Union refused to recognise casual staff.
In 2013, the Home Office introduced a billboard van that drove around with the message “Here illegally? GO HOME” with a number listed for undocumented migrants to call. What the government termed the “Immigration Enforcement Campaign” quickly gained a new, more commonly used name: the “racist van”. The glory of social media is that, as with the bedroom tax, you have little control over what people describe campaigns and policies as. Once the general public insists, by virtue of sheer wilful numbers, that they are going to use one term, your more strategic title is binned by most media outlets. One young woman, who writes pseudonymously as “Pukkah Punjabi”, called the number, left a voicemail, then toyed with the Home Office operator who called her back, saying she was just after a lift back to Willesden, as that was her home. Social-media agitators continued to deluge the hotline with similar calls, until the campaign looked less Judge Dredd, more Benny Hill. Southall Black Sisters have campaigned for women for years and again hit the headlines on August 1st 2013, when they were holding a women’s advice centre. Word reached the group of an immigration raid happening close by: the women gathered and drove the van away from their centre, before intercepting and surrounding the vans with supporters and megaphones as they attempted to carry out an immigration raid. “We were all so enraged by it that we emerged from our building and followed the vehicles around Southall
shouting ‘this is racist’,” Southall Black Sisters wrote on their site. “Many of the women have escaped domestic violence and have felt trapped by their immigration status to stay in abusive marriages.” Other groups have also worked to stop raids, notably the Anti-Raids Network, and often local communities act organically to attempt to stop raids, such as in south London in June 2015, when a UKBA van was surrounded, rocked, and had its tyres slashed by locals outraged at the attack on their community and neighbours.
These groups have secured victories and publicity, not by leaning in, behaving and striving individually, but by adopting very specific strategies. Direct action is key to each movement: while petitions and lobbying of local and national politicians have complemented each campaign, it is direct action that has put the cat amongst the pigeons, and allowed the women to fully expose the horror and unfairness of the causes they are highlighting and fighting for. If housing is your issue, why not occupy empty homes to show the claim there is nowhere for vulnerable women to go is a lie? If your community is being raided and your neighbours are being bundled into a van for deportation by state thugs, why let the UK Border Agency do so quietly? Show the world what is going on every day under their noses.
Social media has been a huge force in both mobilising and publicising campaigns and injustices. While a lot has been said about the abuse prominent women receive on the internet, the ability to get online and connect with potentially millions of people who would care about your cause if they heard about it is revolutionary. For women, the democratising potential of social media networks has helped bring attention to campaigns and causes that previously would have buckled without press attention. People speaking in real time, and consistently shar- ing information, has sustained and bolstered many campaigns. Politicians are still wary of social media: some have lost jobs over unwise outbursts, but there’s also a fear of the unpredict- able networks revealing actions (such as in Newham) that tradi- tionally would have passed without outside notice or comment.
Mutual support and solidarity between neighbours and networks have been integral to many of these campaigns. Housing activists in different boroughs in London regularly disseminate email call-outs for more bodies and supplies for ongoing occupations around the capital. Actions against the UK Border Agency’s immigration raids are only made possible by communities fighting back and refusing to see someone who lives or works alongside them dragged into a van only to disappear once deported. Again, social media allows bedroom-tax campaigners to discuss tactics and loopholes nationally and provide emotional support throughout fights to keep their home.
Media attention is still integral to a successful campaign, but has changed tack in recent years. Social media now drives much news —I’ve sat in many commissioning meetings where editors have been unenthused by a story, but journalists have pointed out it’s all anyone is really discussing on social media, so choosing not to cover it looks politically motivated. A successful campaign thereby forces coverage, and coverage is the final stage in cementing victory. Politicians and forces will push not to recog- nise campaigns even when they’re attracting mass attention, but the esteem for traditional media is still far higher, and often once newspapers or TV channels get involved, victory is not far away, as the New Era Estate campaign showed.
Sisters Uncut, Southall Black Sisters, and the bulk of housing and bedroom-tax campaigners are now women, and usually working-class women, often on benefits. They are at the van- guard of anti-austerity campaigning, refusing to accept the cuts that affect women disproportionately. While austerity may be temporary (though the Conservatives and Labour seem happy to accept that it is now ideologically permanent), the effect of austerity on women and children lasts a lifetime.
In her book on class and music culture in the Nineties, Clampdown, Rhian E Jones notes that class is an endemic problem in contemporary feminism:
In mainstream politics and media, there remains a tendency for working-class women themselves to appear in feminist discourse as objects to be seen rather than heard, expected to rely on middle-class activists to articulate demands in their behalf but considered too inarticulate or otherwise “rough” to be directly engaged with.
Will that change? Who knows. But the drive towards direct action by many groups run by women should be recognised as a constructive feminist movement, and will be by anyone sensible who recognises that gender is but one part of oppression.
By occupying, withdrawing labour, and refusing to be complicit in the state’s violence against the most vulnerable in society, they show that “leaning out” of the capitalist model is far more effective at securing attention, provoking change, and ensuring demands are met than “leaning in”. Few people ever get anything radical accomplished by continuing to play the game. The women on the frontline of the new feminist campaigning accept that capitalism and the political and power elites are no friend of women, and that to have a stab at a life that can support you and your children, the answer isn’t to internalise the hatred society casts your way, but to fight to reveal injustice and refuse to participate.
Lean Out is out now, available from all good bookshops & online.
Guest post by David Stubbs. His next book, 1996 and the End of History, will be published by Repeater in 2016.
The first time I didn’t meet David Bowie was at a junior school village hall disco at Barwick-in-Elmet, the small village near Leeds, in which I grew up. This would have been in 1973, I guess. The polish of the parquet tiled floor lingers palpably in my distant memory, as do the sea of flapping corduroy flares and stomping pop sounds of the stereo system they’d wheeled into the hall. Chief among them was “The Jean Genie”. Pop meant everything to me then; I kept an exercise book in which I would list in different felt tip pen the Top 20 singles charts rundown each Sunday. If an entry had gone up in the charts, it was listed in green, if it had gone down, red; if it had held its position to me, grey. I felt distinctly the schism in the charts. There was the stony rubbish, the mouldering crooners who still held sway into the charts appealing to an audience some of whose tastes had formed in the Edwardian age. Oh, and there were The Osmonds and David Cassidy but they were for girls and therefore beneath contempt.
And then there was our gang, our gang. The boys. There was Glitter, of course, Slade, The Sweet, Bolan – but even I recognised that Bowie was the Queen Bitch of them all. And I wasn’t the only one. All us boys, all us little hard boys, thought Bowie was the cock. No more so than on the minimal “Jean Genie”, which, though we didn’t know it, harked back to a tradition that stretched to Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy”. All we Dennis The Menaces who were anti-Walter, anti-softie, loved David Bowie. He was the juvenile delinquent in extremis.
Apologies. It would be nice to report that he effected an epiphany in our young minds with his unabashed androgyny, his deliberate effeminacy, the way he put his arm over the shoulder of his guitarist on “Starman”. It would be nice to report that this sort of behaviour confounded the macho bully boys in 1970s English primary and secondary schools, but that wasn’t my experience. Somehow, it made him more über-male. After all, we were used to long-haired blokes; we had them on the wrestling every afternoon, blokes like Adrian Street; we had them running rings round defenders on Match Of The Day, blokes like Tony Currie, Charlie George and George Best. We didn’t really know what homosexuals were, with The Naked Civil Servant still round the corner in the mid-70s but we knew what puffs were and David Bowie wasn’t puff’s music. There was too much hard guitar, wham-bam percussion and fast, honky-tonk piano for that. Puff’s music was Donny Osmond. Your Granddad might think Bowie was some sort of nancy boy but he didn’t get it, did he?
Of course, David Bowie was implanting all kinds of ideas about maleness and being that would flower later but for boys my age, he was simply a magnificent pop animal with whom we could somehow identify and root for; he made the out of reach seem slightly less out of reach. He mysteriously and disappointingly ascended out of the glam pop orbit in the mid-70s for reasons we couldn’t quite understand. In his place came the likes of Alvin Stardust and David Essex, the sort of ersatz poppers who, unlike David Bowie, would do shows like Seaside Special. Sightings of Bowie became rarer. His value only increased.
Then came Cracked Actor, the BBC documentary about Bowie broadcast in 1974. I watched it avidly; even though I only had access to a black and white TV, Bowie’s presence seemed to colour up the screen nonetheless. What enchanted me most about this bizarro, glamorous, scary monster, diamond-hard rocking man’s man was that he was very much an Englishman. He spoke in the broad, affable vowels preserved from his South London upbringing; he was milkman-matey, even as he tottered around in stacked heels and multi-coloured, flesh-revealing androgynous garb. This impressed me deeply. You could be this and you could be English.
I later went through a phase of deep Bowie scepticism in which I dismissed this manner of Bowie’s as nothing more than a pretence of unpretentiousness, the empty tones of a poseur who had no originality about him, was merely the sum of his chameleon colours. I got past that, fortunately. Today, it seems clearer than ever that, despite his worldwide peregrinations, gender fluidity and shape shifting, Bowie was at heart doggedly English and that being male and English, this somehow meant a great deal to me, to a degree that is almost shameful.
You sense it at the very beginnings of his career; those flickering colour images on YouTube of him as a young, dapper mod, seeking out the camera’s eye. Or the huge influence exerted on him by Anthony Newley, who combined acting and songwriting and despite his jetsetting success was very much the dapper Englishman, a Bond-like international emissary.
Much is made of Bowie coming from Beckenham, as if it is an ironic absurdity that he should have come from a staid, South London suburb but I’m not sure if Bowie himself felt that way. He wasn’t quite JG Ballard, with his seemingly improbable and perverse attachment to his suburban semi-detached home but he kept on a large place in Beckenham as late as 1971. The extent of his fame, the mania and collective, pent-up existential energies it exploded on the world meant that he had no practical choice but to remove himself, place himself in exile, in New York, Switzerland. However, as interview footage with my ex-colleague reveals, he maintained at all times impeccable English manners and courtesy, well above and beyond the call of PR duty. There are countless anecdotes of encounters with him which reveal that his natural instinct was to be matey, helpful and egalitarian, rather than diva-ish or stand-offish.
Of course, he didn’t make England his subject, a la The Kinks or Blur. And, although he politely took a lifetime achievement award from Tony Blair at the height of Britpop in 1996, in which his contribution to British pop was eulogised, the strand of British music that was taking his fancy at that point was the progressive, futurist reconfigurations of drum’n’bass, not the retro homage of Menswear. And yet that attachment to England pops up all over the place, in small but telling places, whether it’s a photo of him on a train chuckling over a copy of the British-as-it-gets Viz magazine, or a picture of him taken in Greenwich Village, NYC on his 50th birthday by Kevin Cummins, in which he’s clutching a Union Jack tea mug and a fag.
Even when he was going through his Young American phase, despite the transatlantic vocal patterns he adopted, you always felt he maintained a consciousness that he was playing a (temporary) role, rather than lapse inadvertently into the faux-Americanisms of some of his peers. When he decided, as he unabashedly put it, to be the soulman, he made no bones about the fact that it was a premeditated pose, thereby avoiding some of the more embarrassing wannabeblack tendencies of 80s and 90s pop stars. And when he went to Berlin, he went very much as an Englishman, a neo-Isherwood, rather than someone determined to become an honorary Teuton. There was always that distance, that thespian consciousness. Finally, the very last photos of him see him just days before he died looking absolutely dapper in a perfectly tailored suit, a poignant echo of those early, Super-8 images of him as a mod about town.
Is this important? Surely the “essence” of Bowie is his existential departure from any sense of the “essence”. That you do not have merely to “be”, that you can become. However, I think of the words of my friend Phil Ramsden, who wrote that Bowie helped “to forge a new definition of what it meant to be a British man: something that wasn’t a City Gent or a chirpy Cockney or even a louche, lock-up-your-daughters kind of Jagger figure. Something that was a touch mysterious and non-self-explanatory.” That is important. The sliver of freedom Bowie on TOTP in the early 70s was one of freedom from a Britain still caught in the staid, repressive pall of a postwar Britain in which glimmers of a future beyond were relatively few and far between. Bowie wasn’t a departure from the dreary hegemony of English maleness so much as an expansion. Those of us who were male and English in his time are, in this respect, particularly privileged.
When future historians come to make sense of our peculiarly disappointed moment (and good luck to them), some will no doubt wonder where the anger was. Every decade of the 20th century had its Marx-quoting middle classes and placard-bearers hailing the imminent end of capitalism. But recent political events have outstripped the imaginations of even the most jaded pessimists. In five years’ time there may be no effective welfare system or health and social care service to speak of. Austerity is re-elected, the prime minister inserts his penis into a dead pig and retains credibility, and the leader of the opposition is called a terrorist sympathiser for opposing another ill-thought out military disaster. Strange times.
There is a prevailing sense of paralysis and defeat all across ex-industrial Britain. And this particularly effects the young, who have not known anything else. So, what is their story?
Darkstar have set out to capture something of it in their third album, Foam Island (Warp records). Washed-out, woozy and subtly groovy, it’s electronica that pulses, bleeps and sighs over twelve tracks. There is a consistency of rhythm that connotes animation and motion, a light-touch percussion of peaceful getting-by over bleeding-heart dramatics. Most interesting of all, sampled into many of the songs are the voices of young people from Huddersfield, who the Darkstar duo interviewed over the summer of 2015, around the time of the general election. James Young and Aiden Whalley present here their findings, the hopes and desires of young people in one small town, as they endure and find spaces of pleasure and communal belonging.
Let’s start with “Stoke the Fire”, one of the strongest tracks on the album. It’s the album’s challenge to its subjects, beginning with a deceptively simple hooky beat and a scene-setting statement that says what it sees (‘Live in a wasteland, but hope for a palace’), one that taps into the underlying feeling of sarky resilience and dreams postponed round ‘ere. Textures cohere and take form over a building pulse. Low-key evocations match them, ‘take the challenge’, ‘the time to try has come’, ‘the hold of fate has swung’. It seeks out a truth written in the ordinary experiences and feelings written out of the mainstream media’s island story. ‘Stoke the fire, so young’ repeats the chorus. Something in that dormant energy, alive but self-contained, needing the oxygen of something to make itself known. ‘Show them where you’re from’. A mantra-like chorus follows, ‘speak or hold your tongue’, speak up, speak out, or let it pass, give up, give in, pass the baton, pass the mic.
Voice is often confused for authenticity: the voice of the young, the voice of the disenfranchised, etc. One shouldn’t forget who selects what voices, how they were edited down, or what questions they were asked. Darkstar approached young people around Huddersfield train station. Their frank approaches to strangers invited amusement and scepticism, and at times they were confused for undercover police. But it worked.
The ambitions of the album are best realised on “A Different Kind of Struggle”. They asked strangers about their lives, a question more complex than it sounds, and through building trust, established this. Darkstar’s voices, all young, a mixture of male and female, speak brightly of what they live for and their values. ‘Loyalty, kindness and honesty, just basic things’ gives the first track its title and focus, as a young woman’s voice repeats and is looped, Steve Reich-alike, as another man talks of the inter-connectedness of friends, and another young woman, of being able to feel herself. ‘I’m not a materialist person… it’s not a full thing’ says another in “Through the Motions”, bringing light to a lilting if often detached, affectless sound. ‘I’ve not experienced that much of the world’, says Javan, ‘and it’s because of that, I feel content here’. Friends, family, glimmers of hope between the ‘arrears’, ‘compromises… concrete structures’ composted into the story.
Community is a recurring motif, even a preoccupation, as Young and Whalley explore their own estrangement from a particularly Northern community. Though from Winsome, Cheshire and nearby Wakefield, respectively, Darkstar have spent the last few years in exile, working and recording in London. Both North (2010) and News from Nowhere (2013) tried in different ways to capture a sense of Northernness, a rare and possibly non-existent quality, associated with abandonment and anger. The production of the latter even involved living fifteen months in Slawaite, a village a few miles south-west of Huddersfield, in order to tap into this subterranean juice. But missing were voices, people’s actual experiences. So the summer they spent smoking and drinking with a crowd of young people, ‘like a holiday’ says Whalley, welcomed in.
One gets a sense of that intimacy in the album. ‘Ruskin Grove, we call it the Gaza’, says Daryl, tongue firmly in cheek, at the end of “Inherent in the Fibre”. We’re on a post-war housing estate in nearby Deighton, a strip where Daryl likes to sit back and watch the world. The police put a surveillance camera up, but it was quickly taken down by concerned locals. Laughter, easy times. ‘Enjoying the sun, drinking some brandy with you’.
The result is a rich series of documentary portraits that deserves praise for resisting the obvious clichés about Northern grimness or authenticity. In its focus on feeling, it does sometimes miss out the landscape necessary to contextualise these young people. The physical landscape of mass suburban housing estates and retail parks, the billboards and broken roads, is not here. The mental landscape, of underpaid, overworked inertia, being stuck in a place, or the ambient anxiety of social care responsibilities for disabled parents and friends as statutory services disappear, is only partly alluded to. ‘It sounds a bit bad, but I try to stay out of it’, says a young woman on “A Different Kind of Struggle”. Her words give this island its impermanent structure. ‘If I do start thinking about it I get worried. I’m in my own little bubble’.
Sleaford Mods are another group that’ll make the Austerity Britain mixtape of the future. Whilst Foam Island was being produced, two documentary film-makers followed the band on a tour of a number of small towns around Britain, filming shows and interviewing fans. The resulting documentary by Nathan Hannawin and Paul Sng, Invisible Britain, shares a common aim with Darkstar, using music as a form of documentary and expression of communities in Britain left behind, silenced or out of sight.
Interspersed between footage of Jason Williamson caustically and wonderfully berating jumped-up individuals in jobcentres, quiet streets or on Question Time, various protest causes set out their stall, from JENGBA (Joint Enterprise) to Unite the Union. Their earnestness is often out-of-kilter with the singer’s own scepticism about political change. What’s most interesting is his own meta-commentary on Sleaford Mods’ political significance to its fans. Like the young people on Foam Island, he’s capable and confident in expressing his own individual anger. But asked to give a political position he becomes awkward, resistant of the pressure to take the mantle of poet laureate for the disaffected working class. Whilst austerity and toffs in Westminster are the problem, the solution’s not clear. At one point he blames human nature for the political malaise.
Though two decades older than most residents of Foam Island, he taps into a similar current of contemporary anger, a more desperate one, ‘it’s a different kind of struggle now’, as an older woman describes, lending another track its title. One wracked with a kind of insular feeling, of being under attack. Though the inhabitants of Foam Island describe their small town as island-like, detached yet self-contained, easily overlooked from outside but with its own rich inner life, their comments seem better purposed to describing the inhabitants themselves. Under immense social pressure (‘like all councils round here, we’ll soon have less money to run local services’, goes a Kirklees council voiceover in the track “Cuts”, £83million cuts so far made, £69 million of ‘savings’ to go), the inner life of the mind remains intact, webbed in friendships and fantasies. ‘Ya distance yerself to concentrate on yer own journey’ says one girl on “Go Natural”. Such a resilient yet blinkered persistence in fantasies of individual survival and success, necessary as they are, are what Lauren Berlant calls ‘cruel optimism’. It makes for broken hearts.
This refusal to hold a consistent and positive political idea is often lauded. John Harris in the Guardian praised Foam Island for not sounding like protest music, and heralds its representation of ‘deep political disengagement’. His social journalism, a beacon of light in a sea of chinless mediocrity, is at times hamstrung by an unexplained contempt for ideas. It’s as if they’re some kind of rabbit-shit wholefood, foisted onto the dinner-plates of ordinary decent folk by a minority of highly-strung lefties, with their iPads, haircuts and intersectionality (cue tittering). This is not the case. There is something patronising and self-defeating in this attitude, one that at times strays into Jason Williamson’s talk. A hostility to being so pretentious as to have an idea and want to do something with it. ‘Jumped-up’ and ‘being pretentious’ are other ways of rendering having ‘ideas above your station’. In taking up the mic or the pen to simply narrate the futility of intellectual and political change, the effect is not unlike that of a sermon by the medieval clergy: passion, catharsis, emptiness, empty hope.
Darkstar were invited to perform last week at the Barbican on a bill with Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods, and others, as part of a series of events on social (im)mobility in the arts. The event was commendable in its political focus. Subjugation by Oxbridge toffs and private school bores has now been extended to music and the arts, and the only media channel now presenting working class lives is Channel 5’s regular slew of benefits misery entertainment. But many invited speakers on social class were either regular talking heads or leading academics, or involved in PR agencies. There was still the problem of the working class not speaking, of the term ‘class’ not even being said. Ordinary people were still out of shot.
This comes at a time when depictions of class are unclear. The traditional bastions of the organised Left have fallen short on description: radicals talk of the ‘multitude’ or ‘the 99%’ or, after the late Laclau, ‘the People’ (in a non-nationalist, empty signifier way, obviously), or ‘the count of the uncounted’. Yes, there are some valid theoretical reasons for this. But it’s effectively consistent with the popular narrative that class doesn’t exist, that the working class disappeared sometime in the 1990s. ‘We’re all middle class now’ – think on that famous line by Lord Prezza of Two Jags. It doesn’t matter that John Prescott never actually came out with it. Around 1996, the dawn of the Blair project, it was essentially true, it indicated a changing structure of feeling. You didn’t know any of them, and it didn’t apply to your friends, but probably everyone now was middle class, and if they weren’t, something was wrong with them – they weren’t working enough, were scrounging on benefits, not paying their way.
In this new world order, class is now something to be ashamed of, a sign of failure. It also explains why political movements that can speak the language of pride, fairness and community, whilst giving vent to its frustrations, are succeeding. The Left isn’t getting it, I hear talk of ‘rainy fascism island’. When I travelled around the island interviewing people, collecting their voices, it blew my mind how much courage, intellectual boldness, dreaming and disappointment I found. Island Story is intended as a barometer of this changing structure of feeling, one that makes the contemporary experience of working class like nothing else in history. That shame, that buried anger, there is nothing comparable in the 1980s or before. Young people are being brought up in it, breathing the air, taking on its shape and norms. And we don’t yet know what the effects of that will be.
Mike Savage and other sociologists have recently attempted to update our notions of class. In Social Class in the 21st Century (Penguin, 2015), they expand what class means, accounting for social, economic and cultural factors. Drawing on a UK survey of around 161,000 people, they offer seven new categories: the elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers, and the precariat. Yet the methodology is weak, as Danny Dorling has noted: these 161,000 people were a self-selecting sample found through a BBC online survey in 2011, which systematically over-estimated its own social status (a smaller representative survey of around 1000 was appended). Its dependence on cultural and social factors mean that, even if you’re a zero-hours care-home worker, having friends who are teachers or listening to classical music could catapult you into the middle classes. The categories themselves are weak: what retail or catering assistant or postal worker is a ‘new affluent worker’? Would you put carpenters in the lowest rung ‘precariat’, and NHS midwives in the ‘established middle class’? Most categories can be refolded back into working, middle and upper, whilst accounting for internal variables of age. But its most interesting contribution is its own inaccuracy. Who wants to be working class? Who even knows what it means?
Over the course of Foam Island there are frequent evocations of fate. ‘The hold of fate has swung’ repeats over “Stoke the Fire”. In “Go Natural” fate is said to be ‘in disguise’, the pre-determination of events unclear to us but not the gods. Later in “Pin Secure” we’re encouraged to challenge what appears as fate, self-fulfilling prophecy, with ‘you call it fate’ – perhaps it is not. Then in “Foam Island” ‘his fate is scarred’, it burdens one who believes it so. There is no better word to sum up everything at stake now than fate: the bitter acceptance of what must come, like it did in the 1980s or the 1930s. Or to fight back, kick against the pricks, bring war against the gods, not out of hope for success, but because it’s the necessary and right thing to do. It all comes down to fate, or fatalism, however you see it. The naturalisation and normalisation of defeat is one of the most powerful functions of ideology.
‘In a positive way now, it’s about how our country’s run’, says a young guy on “A Different Kind of Struggle”. Seeing a way out of fate involves imagination. The idea of Foam Island came accidentally, when Darkstar watched a documentary about the Sex Pistols’ Xmas gigs in Huddersfield in 1977. They did a benefit show for the children of striking firemen. Entrance was free and the kids were given presents (all Sex Pistols merch, granted). Johnny Rotten stuck his face in a big cake and the children jumped on top of him. Now middle-aged, those kids there were electrified by it, by that show of support and the energy they brought. They recall it vividly. It indicated another possibility.
There is a value in documentary work like this: it brings to light how people feel, shows us that others feel as we do, that our grievances are common, and the cause clear. They are more limited in imagining what could happen. A voice can only relay the present spectrum of imaginary possibility, what political strategists call the ‘Overton window’. What lies next is imagining what might be possible. For that we have glimmers and stories, half-shots of memory, detached voices. Johnny Rotten in a Huddersfield nightclub narrating ‘Anarchy in the UK’ to pogoing teenagers; a member of King Mob dressed up as Santa, giving out ‘free’ toys to children in Selfridge’s; Tony Benn drawing up plans to democratise the running of the UK’s mostly publicly-owned industries; all moments, moments of something, like that revelatory vision of ‘one tone, clarity’ that ends Foam Island on “Days Burn Blue”.
That’s what makes Foam Island an interesting and worthwhile project. For all the problems of voice, they didn’t wheel out journalists, established artists and youth workers to speak for the young; instead, they asked them themselves. The resulting picture is richer for it, and the album combines occasional dabbles in melancholia (“Foam Island”) or political commentary (“Cuts”) with some light-hearted, upbeat grooves (“Go Natural”, “Inherent in the Fibre”). Whilst they might have gone further, and longer, integrating their young collaborators into the music itself, perhaps collectively writing lyrics to one or two tracks, it is a very good album.
Dawn Foster reviews Paul Mason & Matt Ridley
This piece is from the Winter 2015 issue of New Humanist magazine, which is out now. Reposted with permission.
In 2008, as Lehman Brothers collapsed, Paul Mason was weaving between the limos, satellite trucks, sacked bankers and bodyguards outside the headquarters in Wall Street. Mason was then economics editor at BBC’s Newsnight: his cameraman wanted to film him “amidst the chaos”. Mason’s latest book, PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, written seven years on, argues that capitalism as an idea is bloated and exhausted, with little power left to continue.
Mason’s argument rests on the belief that the rise of technology – specifically computers and social media – has undermined traditional capitalist structures. He writes about the emergence of the “networked individual” permanently plugged into the internet, easily able to organise online and grasp complex theories due to immediate access to knowledge. Twinned with the catastrophes of the global banking crisis, climate change and a looming demographic time bomb, this is triggering a transformation from capitalism to “post-capitalism”.
Matt Ridley, in his second book, The Evolution of Everything, argues that the theory of evolution can be applied to almost every structure and concept in the world: the economy, education, government, religion, money and many others. In contrast to Mason, Ridley insists the major calamities of history are small bumps on the path to a better society, with the fittest arguments and theories surviving. Ridley emphasises the role of chance in human society. This handily gives mechanisms and institutions that inflict suffering and heighten inequality a benign veneer that absolves them of responsibility for the outcomes.
A common thread weaves through both books: that traditional and assumed power is illusory, and that certain social trends are inevitable. Both could be described as techno-utopian in their arguments, albeit from different standpoints. Mason’s almost breathless belief that technology has flattened power has some purchase in the recent events and uprisings he lists: the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and Turkey’s Gezi Park were given more attention through social media and networks facilitated online. A large-scale strike in rural China and student protests in Hong Kong, both in 2014, were organised through social networks. Whether they succeeded completely in undermining authority is harder to determine. Ridley, by contrast, sees the rise of technology as a welcome threat to the power of the state. The public funding of research in universities, for instance, is to be replaced by private money and the influence of the market.
Those warning that the “sharing economy” – where people rent homes, cars, services and other assets directly from each other online or through apps – is a threat to workers, rather than to capitalism, have often been scorned as Luddites. There’s a common misconception that the Luddites were afraid of technology that could have enhanced their work. In fact, the original Luddites were highly skilled workers, who recognised that the employers introducing the machines were prioritising their profit margins, rather than workers’ interests.
Mason is not ignorant of this, and his potted account of the relationship between labour, the economy and technological change is instructive. Yet his optimism sometimes crowds out the downside of the “sharing economy” and the “internet of things”. Wikipedia, the internet encyclopaedia Mason repeatedly cites as an open-source knowledge project that outperforms its competitors, relies on an army of hundreds of unpaid editors across the globe. Fact-checking and scrutinising articles for balance is done patchily. Uber, the taxi app that matches users with freelance drivers, has caused protests in many major cities, as professional taxi companies lose business to the far cheaper service, whose low rates mean low pay, all the while undermining the earning power of established drivers.
It is revealing to read the two books side by side, especially on the concept of money and economics. Mason’s proposals for a fairer society and banking system point out that a universal basic income – a fixed sum paid to every citizen by the state, set at a rate to cover their basic needs – could ameliorate some of the effects the rise of automation has had on the workforce, allowing more people to pursue non-paid work. It would also offer a safety net, so people could avoid being trapped in what the LSE professor and activist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”. The idea of a basic income is politically neutral. Free-market economist Milton Friedman proposed it as a way of shrinking the state, for instance. There’s little incentive for Tesco to pay higher wages if all workers are afforded a lump sum to survive on.
Ridley was chairman of Northern Rock from 2004-7, which experienced the biggest bank run in living memory at the end of his tenure. He dealt briefly with this in his first book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010), and while it doesn’t merit a mention this time, it’s clear that he still believes, with bullish confidence, that his economic outlook was and is right. The roots of the 2007-8 financial crash in his view were not speculation, sub-prime loans and a lack of financial oversight in institutions – but over-regulation, red tape and the meddling of government and central banks in the finance industry. This gives Ridley’s arguments a dogmatic tone; a marked contrast to Mason, who is generally regarded as on the left of the political spectrum but is informed and curious enough to explore ideas from a broad range of intellectual traditions.
Both parties skim lightly over the question of inequality, which has become an increasingly fraught topic of political debate since the crash. Ridley, in line with his “evolution” thesis, sees poverty and inequality as both inevitable and desirable. The rich earn their wealth as the poor trap themselves in poverty due to the inevitable battle of the survival of the fittest. Ridley, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, appears to see the uneven distribution and the hoarding of wealth as forms of natural selection. High achievers breed high achievers, for instance, “because of genetics”. Mason is more nuanced, considering factors such as “brain drain” migration of skilled workers from poor countries to richer ones. However, his focus on the networked individual as “the new working class” overlooks the fact that most of the educated young individuals described would be from the middle class. The working class still exists, and has suffered from a stagnation in wages. Wealth inequality in many countries, including Britain, has skyrocketed in recent years but the corrosive effects this has on individuals and communities are largely unexplored in these books.
Mason’s proposals for a new economy and society are more convincing than Ridley’s cheerleading for freer free markets. But crucially, Mason’s arguments rely on a belief that the networked individual can force institutions to give up power and reform financial systems and the labour market. Most protest movements that started after the crash have fizzled out, although many (notably Occupy Wall Street and UK Uncut) have succeeded in changing the way in which many ordinary people think about finance and the government’s role in financial regulation. Yet it’s not only protest movements that have access to new technology: the most networked of all are the very wealthy and the businesses they run. Capitalism’s ability to use every shift in technology to increase profits and decrease wages should never be underestimated. Ridley and Mason, with different viewpoints, consider the positive and benign possibilities of technology’s effect on the economy. We would do well to remember the possible pitfalls, too.
There was a point about four or five years ago, a point I’m not bothered about confirming archivally but which nonetheless definitely occurred, at which football clubs almost uniformly, if you’ll allow the pun, changed the way that they marketed their new kits. Not so long ago, you’d have found a posed shot of a star player rehearsing some fabulous piece of technique or even, where the club had a meagre branding budget, a simple team photograph which could create other revenue streams from calendars and similar items. What superseded these more traditional forms of marketing was a style of image which offers the contemporary student of semiotics much to consider. Now, the background will be an electrolysed Blade Runner gloom, perhaps with little serifs of smoke indicating some recent conflagration or catastrophe. Against this will stand three to five players, one of whom will be a goalkeeper, another a winger or attacking midfielder, and yet another a looming centre half with a backwoodsman’s beard and sleeve tattoos. Their arms are crossed and resolute; they are indomitable. The language used to sell the kits will be pared down to abstraction: ‘[Club Name] 2015 Home Kit: We Are One.’ The general tone is a seriousness so ascetic it detonates into camp, unable to withstand the internal stresses on its structure of plausibility.
Nevertheless, for some it must have the appeal of gravitas or it would simply not work as an incentive to purchase. How, then, can it be explained? First, perhaps, with recourse to a certain type of pop-cultural hetero-masculinity which (re-) emerged in the early twenty-first century, initially – if I had to pick a particular moment – with the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations, but more lately underwritten and refocused with HBO’s preternaturally successful Game of Thrones. In these programmes’ fantasy second worlds
, manhood, if done properly and honourably, is a matter of disenchanted seriousness, a saddened and reluctant understanding of the inherently conflictual nature of existence. Any levity here can only manifest itself as grim irony – one does not simply walk into Mordor, remember – and all time between battles must be occupied with sorrowful renditions of stories of the travails of Good. The bearded, tattooed centre-half on the kit advert, then, is supposed to connote the fantasy version of ordeal, the effect of which is not limited to football’s contemporary image-system. Think, for example, of how car advertising has departed from its nineties staple of secure glamour to its present mood of quasi-military exertion, its stubbled protagonists surging through sodden Scandinavian or Scottish gloom in order not, as the case would once have been, to seduce, but to be reunited with family.
The last item in this chain of images is, of course, the military recruitment film, which has become, after a fashion, more honest and explicit about the danger and brutality of conflict in the period that I’m describing. In Britain, the army are no longer particularly reticent about depicting ‘live’ skirmishes in their propaganda, in part because they suspect that computer games are not far from offering a comparable intensity of experience anyway, but also because of a gathering idea which automatically associates soldiering with virtuousness. Ideally, the film prompting its audience to enlist in the Marines or for the Territorial Army shows a gunfight in Helmand, or on a generically be-jungled ‘African’ coastline populated by similarly generic ‘rebels’, before portraying the hero returning to the family that his actions have (somehow) safeguarded.
What I’m trying to get at here is how advertising aimed at men has undergone an elemental shift in how it desires, and in how it seeks to channel desire. The old, but not really that old, male utopia was one of ease, of frictionless libido cruising through a collage of Eurocentric sophistication, waking in Venice amidst the accoutrements of one erotic encounter and falling asleep in Monte Carlo amidst another’s. This no longer holds: it is perceived, understandably, as inauthentic and insufficiently austere for our times. Instead, the dream-work is of extended periods of sexual and romantic isolation in the still largely homosocial realms of military conflict or extreme exploration, interspersed with brief unifications with family. This is the logic to which football advertising in Britain increasingly appeals.
Clearly, nobody seriously thinks that the players of, say, Scunthorpe United visiting, say, Leyton Orient for an awayday is remotely comparable to a six-month tour of Helmand. Nevertheless, enough sticks from this metaphorical equivalence to make us think that footballers fulfil some kind of existential duty, something which exceeds the rubric of paid work, when they play for a team. It has long been the case that disloyalty has been the most atrocious crime a footballer can commit, but the economic insecurity of the historical moment seems to have amplified the notion that we have particular responsibilities to increasingly local social units. There is something especially interesting here in the way that football clubs now seem to be regarded as ends in themselves on this front, as entities more demanding and deserving of loyalty than the broad communities which they inhabit. One concrete example of the contrasting fortunes of club and community is Liverpool fans’ continuing failure to resist the acts of social cleansing taking place on behalf of the club in the vicinity of Anfield: evidence that This Football Club is regarded as a point of social allegiance in almost direct tension with its area. The player, in this case, is asked to behave as an avatar of that unit’s struggle in an increasingly atomised, conflictual world, and asked to buy wholesale into the ‘values’ of the ‘project’ even when those values and that project are things that have been conjured ad hoc by recently installed owners and managers whose heads have been turned by the jargon of ‘smart thinking’ books and TED talks.
‘Sport is a battle’, then, is the metaphor we are now required to live by as football fans. It came to light in a peculiarly candid way during the predictable period of recrimination following England’s equally predictable early exit from the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Even before the players had set off for home Harry Redknapp, the geezerish and journalist-friendly cockney who had been passed over for the England manager’s job in 2012 because of a pending court case, turned up in the press claiming that a number of English internationals were in the habit of begging their club managers to withdraw them from the national squad for friendly games. The allegation was stark: that some English players regard playing for their country not as an honour, but as an annoyance. England coach Roy Hodgson and his outgoing captain Steven Gerrard cannily took the sting out of Redknapp’s comments by asking him to name names, but the matter did not drop entirely. Former England striker and current light-entertainment go-to Ian Wright wrote in his column in the Sun newspaper that any player found to have shirked international ‘duty’ without good reason should be required to phone the parents of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to explain their decision to drop out.
This was imagined on Twitter in plenty of bleakly funny versions of how the transcript of such a call might read. Palpably, the suggestion was a piece of attention-seeking on the part of Wright, who has never, it seems, got over his early-career rejections or his marginalisation in the 1990s England team by more rounded strikers such as Alan Shearer. However, it spoke to something in England’s present-day ideological make-up, namely a resurgent patriotism of symbols which regards Englishness, whatever that might mean, as somehow under threat. The role the football player takes in this set of beliefs is intriguing. Wright was playing to the idea that the default setting for footballers is a patriotic one, that they feel a sense of pride in national symbols which extends beyond their utilitarian, team-bonding value. By linking this version of patriotic obligation to that of the soldier’s, he insisted tacitly on the relative unanimity of nationalistic sentiment amongst the working-class communities that both footballers and the rank-and-file military are drawn from.
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.