Only got better? David Stubbs on the Blair “revolution” of 1997

This is part one of an edited extract from 1996 and the End of History by David Stubbs, published last year by Repeater. Part two coming next week. 

“For the future, not the past. For the many, not the few. For trust, not betrayal. For the age of achievement, not the age of decline.” – Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference, 1996.

“I think if we win the election, the greatest burden on Tony Blair and the rest of us will not be delivering on the economy so much as the huge expectation that we will somehow be the agents of a different ethical order.” – Jack Straw, 1996.

In 1996, the Labour Party were regularly commanding leads of over 30 in opinion polls against the Tories. The party was in a unique position. In the past, it could only hope to achieve power when the incumbent Conservatives had made a hash of the economy, or plunged the country into darkness through their industrial relations incompetence. In 1996, however, this was not the case. Mortgage interest rates had dropped from double figures in the 1990s to under 7%. John Major’s administration had put the brakes on some of the worst, conspicuous excesses and injustices of Thatcherism. There was already a feelgood factor in the air. As the Guardian airily put it,

Unemployment is down, people are shopping more (car sales are up more than 10%), house prices are rising, the London Evening Standard says ‘Suddenly, Britain is feeling really good’, building societies are soon to create millions of new shareholders

And yet, fewer and fewer people felt good about the Tories. A series of allegations of sleaze involving Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken, amongst others, spoke of a party who had done themselves too well and for too long at the political high table. Major himself cut a greying, weary, beleaguered figure. His risible, high profile Cones Hotline, in which members of the public could report apparently unnecessary traffic cones, had been quietly closed in 1995, having fielded fewer than 20,000 calls in its three- year life (a figure that frankly seems remarkably high). Major’s wistful visions of a Britain of warm beer and “old maids cycling to church in the morning mist” seemed to belong to the credits of some Sunday evening middlebrow period drama rather than a Britain whose heartbeat was pounding assertively with the delirium of the End of History. This was a dead man talking.

What’s more, the social liberalism regarded as loony in the 1980s had now become mainstream, with even Richard Branson looking to join in on the victory lap. 1996 was the year Virgin Vodka would introduce an ad featuring two men kissing. As for the Tories, Michael Portillo was obdurately upholding a ban on gays in the armed services.

Thing is, the country was not falling to pieces. It felt buoyant. There was simply a crying need for new faces at the helm, to displace an old guard who felt disassociated with the sense of self-confidence and triumphalism of Cool Britannia. “Things can only get better”, the refrain on which Labour would surf to victory in a year’s time, implied that the country was at rock bottom – but it was not. The feeling was more like: “Things are good – but they could be even better”. It was into this breach that Tony Blair stepped, a saviour for a country that did not particularly need saving – or certainly did not require the salvation he had in mind. It was as if he were being gifted the Premiership.

In 1996, Tony Blair was presented with the opportunity to present David Bowie with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Brits. You sense it was a slightly invidious task; as Chris Evans introduces him to the stage with customary half-wit (“foot-tapping, pop-loving, he’s got nice hair, Tony Blair”), the sound system strikes up facetiously with Bowie’s “Fashion”, as he descends the stairs in an estate agent’s suit and orange polka dot tie, his hairstyle, like Glenn Hoddle’s, having weighed anchor somewhere in 1978 and receded ever since. The half-soused crowd greet him with no great enthusiasm; there’s a low, mocking drone as he takes to the podium which he tries to ignore in that rictus way of his that would later become more pronounced when facing angry members of the Women’s Institute. And then, as if addressing the CBI rather than some of the dimmer bulbs of the Britpop alumni, he speaks:

It’s been a great year for British music. A year of creativity, vitality, energy; British bands storming the charts, British music once again back at its rightful place at the top of the world.” He talks of how new bands are able to draw inspiration from “the bands of my generation – the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks – and the later generation, the Clash, the Smiths, Stone Roses.

It could well be that Tony Blair, former guitarist with Ugly Rumours, was sincere in this tribute. But, coated in a politician’s unctuousness, the words seem today to proceed from his mouth in an utterly stilted fashion, all the more so because when he actually took office, he was far too busy waging global warfare to monitor and extol the health of British music. It’s probable that this was the very last time he uttered the words “Stone Roses”. The list encapsulates far more shamelessly, loudly and clearly than any mumbling, equivocal frontperson corralled under its banner the guiding principle of Britpop; the history of music in the UK as a retrospective series of white lines down a grey, established road, a tribute to British heritage, enterprise and industry. Interesting who is missing from the list: Joy Division (too despondent – they were on the other side of the sun of the 1990s), the Sex Pistols (too anarchic, despite the fact that they removed the sting from their legacy by reforming for purely financial reasons in 1996), and, strangely, Oasis, despite their own, fulsome praise for Blair.

It wasn’t the only effusive comment Tony Blair made about British pop during 1996, as he brazenly sought to associate his forty-two year-old self with the crest of the Britpop wave in a way the late John Smith could never have done, and John Major never hope to do. Blair was all over pop in 1996, as energetic as a ligger in his attendance of awards ceremonies, always ready to talk up the energy of British pop, as if to imply, by osmosis, that he was a key generator of the broader energy it represented. “Rock’n’roll is not just an important part of our culture, it’s an important part of our everyday life”, he claimed, as if rock’n’roll were as vital to his daily routine as cleaning his teeth and saying his prayers. He wasn’t always selective in his upbeat praise; he described Morrissey as being part of our “vibrant” culture – Morrissey, with the possible exception of Alan Bennett, probably the least vibrant human being on earth, then as now. And, killing three birds with one stone, he sought to conflate rhetorically the rise of lad comedy, the England team of Euro ’96 and the trad indie du jour by alluding to the “Three Lions” anthem thus: “Seventeen years of hurt / Never stopped us dreaming / Labour’s coming home.”

Embarrassingly, however, Blair dazzled in 1996. This extended to to vast swathes of the electorate, including many who would marvel that they hadn’t known better. The lefty tanktops pooh-poohed him, but then, those malodorous malingers would, wouldn’t they? Meanwhile the Tories hired Charles Saatchi to rework his 1979 magic with their “New Labour, New Danger” posters, in which a grinning Blair was depicted as red-eyed and demonic once you peeled back a strip from his plausible veneer. They convinced absolutely no one of the Red Terror he represented; they might as well have waved garlic at him. For many of us sceptical about Britpop, we were affected by the New Sanguine of which Blair felt a part; he blazed white like the blinding light in a doorway to an uncertain future – an exit point at least. And he mentioned the Stone Roses. My God, a future Prime Minister mentioned the Stone Roses! This was surely something worth clutching at.

The prospect of finally ridding the country of the Tories intoxicated even some the most hard bitten. Noel Gallagher was the most conspicuous example, as:

There are seven people in this room who are giving a little bit of hope to young people in this country. That is me, our kid, Bonehead, Guigsy, Alan White, Alan McGee and Tony Blair. And if you’ve all got anything about you, you’ll go up there and shake Tony Blair’s hand, man. He’s the man! Power to the people!

He later sheepishly confessed he’d been “off his head” when he bellowed this pronouncement, in which the Oasis members effectively amounted to a shadow cabinet in waiting, but he wasn’t the only one. In co-opting the English Euro 96 anthem he wasn’t just piggybacking on a pop moment, he was tapping into the snarling sense of frustration still festering from the 1992 disappointment, when, despite leaning about as far to the right as seemed feasible without toppling over, Neil Kinnock still lost to John Major. Next time, anything would do. An ugly tap-in, a penalty shoot out, a Blair administration, so long as we won.

I was among those who had suspended my leftist qualms and joined in the chant for Blair, another who should have known better but found the urge to back this gift horse irresistible. Or was he a Trojan horse? Suppose, I told myself, Blair had dropped Clause IV, was cosying up to Murdoch by having Labour’s front bench trade and industry team abandon its support for a tough regulatory regime on the ownership of newspapers and television broadcasting in favour of a freer market, simply so as to deceive the public, business and the media that the party was deliberately forfeiting its leftist teeth, that it was the party that would no longer bite? And then, once in power, use his overwhelming mandate to exercise a full-blooded, socialist transformation of the UK? Be the New Danger the Tory posters depicted him as for real, after all? In any case, wasn’t that what Margaret Thatcher had done prior to her election in 1979? She certainly hadn’t frightened the British public by detailing the full extent of the right-wing programme with which her name would become synonymous. Might Blair have a similar trick in mind?

There was no excuse for such inebriated, wishful thinking. One had only to read, if one could be bothered, Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle’s The Blair Revolution, published in 1996, which set out in no uncertain terms what kind of “revolution” New Labour were planning, one that certainly would not involve hordes of cloth-capped proletariats storming the gates of Downing Street à la the Winter Palace in 1917. No – what would be really revolutionary about the Blair Revolution is that it would be entirely non-revolutionary, making it the most revolutionary revolution of all. A revolution no one need fear, least of all our latterday Tsars.

This is part one of an edited extract from 1996 and the End of History by David Stubbs, published last year by Repeater. Part two coming next week. 

Femme Fatales, ‘Female Psychopaths’ and Narrative ‘Science’: Part Two —Tristam Vivian Adams

This is part two of ‘Femme Fatales, “Female Psychopaths” and Narrative “Science”‘ by Tristam Vivian Adams, author of The Psychopath Factory. Find part one here.

Film and Television’s methods for hinting or alluding to the non-conforming private life, to the ‘deviant’ inner world, reveal an intrinsic sexism. There is, generally, a gross inequality in terms of deviance from the conformist norm. A character doing something appalling usually conveys a male psychopath’s ‘bad side’: Hannibal’s cannibalism or Underwood’s canicide, for example. But female psychopaths’ tells are less extreme.

A trope of depicting female psychopathy is to show a woman doing something considered traditionally ‘male’; like being sexually independent and going to a bar to pick up a partner. The Last Seduction (1994, Dahl) is a great example of this. Bridget Gregory, a telemarketing manager (played by Linda Fiorentino), leaves her husband Clay (played by Bill Pullman). Bridget takes a large sum of cash that Clay made that day by selling pharmaceutical cocaine to drug dealers. She essentially dupes her husband, promising him sex before taking off with the cash whilst he is in the shower. Previously Clay, when returning with the money, physically abuses his wife. Bridget’s opportunistic thieving and fleeing is bold but understandable. After some driving her car runs out of fuel and she finds herself in Beston, near Buffalo. Bridget Gregory is by no-means a fulltime charming psychopath. She deceives and cheats, but only does so with charm and social niceties – only conforms to expectations of being a vulnerable and demure young woman – when it will immediately advantage her.

When she walks into a local bar in Beston, filled mostly by local blue-collar worker type males, she asks for her Manhattan without chit-chat, social prelude or manners: ‘Gimme a Manhattan’ she says flatly. The barman, Ray, ignores her. ‘I know you hear me, pal.’ She presses. The barman then begins checking if anyone wants a drink, feigning obliviousness to Bridget. ‘Jesus Christ. Who’s a girl gotta suck around here to get a drink?’ despairs Bridget before asking again, ‘Gimme a Manhattan!’ At this point Mike, taking his chance to save this out of town damsel in need of a Manhattan, steps in.

Ray, a Manhattan for the lady please.

Sure, Mike.

What – that’s the game? I gotta say please?

Er, yes, it helps.

You’re not from around here?

Fuck off.

Of course, after this brief encounter, Mike follows Bridget back to a booth hankering for attention like a once fed stray. At first Bridget is dismissive, but even when she changes her mind her too-direct frankness feels sociopathic. She doesn’t play the role of the to-be-wooed nice-little-lady, instead she takes the advantage. ‘Could you leave? Please.’ She asks…

Well I haven’t finished charming you yet.

You haven’t started.

Give me a chance.

Go find yourself a nice little cow-girl, make nice little cow-babies and leave me alone.

I’m er, I’m hung like a horse. Think about it.

Let’s see.

Excuse me?

Mister Ed, let’s see.

Bridget checks Mike is as equine-good as his word, and that he has his own place, and that it is clean and has indoor plumbing. Mike, a little taken aback, confirms all of these. Bridget then finishes her drink and tells him to meet her outside.

But let’s switch the gender roles round, suppose a young out of town male went into a local bar. Suppose he ordered a drink and picked up a partner for the night. Would this scene tell the viewer there is something deeply manipulative, conning, narcissistic or ‘cold’ about the character? If a male walked into a bar and picked up a partner for some casual sex he would just be another ‘red-blooded’ male – but not necessarily a psychopath, to be that the man would have to do something much worse (like killing a dog or cannibalism, to recall the previous examples). It seems that the tells directors opt for to tell viewers a character is psychopathic are murderous and criminal for men, but merely a case of over independence or confident sexuality for women. For male psychopaths the sociopathic tell scene is always undeniably bad. Yet for female psychopaths the sociopathic tell scene is subtle – it is often merely a case of not conforming to traditional expectations of female characters: or, to put it another way, being a bit too ‘male’, being too equal to the heteronormative male equivalent.

Saga Noren, a vaguely autistic sociopath type (like a Replicant in dire need of a social protocol systems update), is another example. In The Bridge (2011, Rosenfeldt) the private-life scenes that tell the viewer Saga is different are, again, based around picking up partners for casual sex in bars. The scenes play out in much the same way as Bridget’s in The Last Seduction. Saga is all too frank and single-minded – to the point of being blunt and rude at times. Saga is not interested in finding a nice man to marry; she wants ‘just sex’ as she orders, more than once. Her attitude intimidates and baffles the nameless male characters from the bars. This is a 2011 series from a liberal European country. Why is a women’s freedom to independently pursue casual sex presupposed as being outré, significantly outré enough reveal the character as socially ‘deviant’ to the viewer? What sort of archaic gender role assumptions are being presupposed in this choice of ‘tell’ scene?

There is an additional facet of intrinsic sexism at play in depictions of female psychopathic characters. There is the resurgence of the femme-fatale in ‘men’s-rights films’. Not only are independent women demonised as being manipulative or psychopathic – by being ‘too male’ (i.e. equal), but in a cruel double bind their very femininity (adherence to a feminine ideal) is pitched as being manipulative. When women are being too independent they are demonised for not being placid good-girls, yet when they play up to the good-girl role it is taken as being manipulative, conniving and disingenuous.

To Die For (1995, Van Sant), Knock Knock (2015, Roth) and Gone Girl (2014, Fincher) all tow this double-double standard for women. In To Die For, Suzanne Stone-Maretto, played by Nicole Kidman, is too career driven in a man’s world. She is too ruthless, too goal oriented and single minded and not ready to fulfil the traditional role expected of her: ‘housewife’. However, Suzanne also plays on the heteronormative assumptions of her gender role. She flirts and utilizes the construct of her femininity (much like Bridget in The Last Seduction at times) – but, and this is what is supposedly wrong, for her own personal gain.

In Knock Knock, two young women appear at the door of a family man, Evan Webber (‘played’ by Keanu Reeves). They ask to use his phone, they are cold and wet, then over the course of the evening, after escalating favours reminiscent of Haneke’s Funny Games, begin flirting, then sleeping with, then torturing and blackmailing Evan. The average viewer might suppose that Evan has been duped, he has fallen for the womens’ feminine wiles. But at each turn in the first hour of the film Evan has choices, he doesn’t need to entertain them with his DJing skills. He doesn’t need to engage in lengthy conversations that lead to flirting and banter – but he does. This leads up to consensual sex, before Evan’s regret, before his being held hostage, before blackmail. The viewer’s sympathy is supposed to be with Evan, the poor old affluent and physically stronger man who has been unlucky enough to fall for these temptresses.

The opening line of Gone Girl is a husband’s sadistic fantasy of dispelling the mysteries of what lurks behind his wife’s, Amy’s, pretty face:

When I think of my wife…

…I always think of her head.

I picture cracking her lovely skull…

Unspooling her brains…

Trying to get answers.

The primal questions of any marriage.

“What are you thinking?”

“How are you feeling?”

This is, albeit violent, the ponderance of an epistemological blind spot. How to know for sure if others feel and think like oneself – the anxiety about empathy in others, of other’s capacity for iso-experiential connection – the sharing of the same feeling. Gone Girl tells the story of Amy Elliot Dunne, played by Rosamund Pike, and how she, after staging her own disappearance, leaves her unfaithful husband framed for her suspected murder. Whilst on the run, she stays with an ex-boyfriend, Desi, whom she frames as her rapist and captor – but not before murdering him. When Amy utilizes the heteronormative assumptions others hold for her it is manipulative and conniving – in a domestic correlate of our CCTV’d and selfie’d online existence she uses the surveillance of Desi’s luxury home to her advantage: knowing where the cameras are she performs the aftermath of a rape. Bridget, in The Last Seduction, also leads others to believe she was at risk of being raped. Her husband’s (black) private detective catches up with her and forces her to drive them back to her place where the money is. After noticing that the vehicle is driver-side airbag only, Bridget pesters the man into confirming the old myth about penis size. At this point she accelerates and steers the car into a lamppost. The detective is thrown through the windscreen. Later, in hospital, Bridget leverages small-town racism to her advantage:

There’s only one more question I need to ask. I don’t mean to pry…the man with you appeared to be not entirely in his pants at the time of impact. Can you tell me what happened just before you went off the road?

Well, like I told you before he tried to get me to contact my husband and… I refused of course. Well he became… you know, ‘motherfucker’ this, ‘motherfucker’ that…

Like in the movies?

Exactly. Next thing I knew… I only remember bits and pieces of it but he… the jist of it was that he was going to…impale me with his…big…

The prevalence of supposed female psychopaths making false accusations or framing male characters is notable. But the mode of framing or accusation is always an ultra-reflexive return to the damsel in distress role. The opposite of the woman’s, all too equal, too independent, ‘sociopathic’ and ‘deviant’ tell scenes. This is the cruel double bind for women protagonists in films that have a whiff of men’s rights propaganda about them. When acting the girl they are manipulative, conniving types, temptresses – yet when refusing to conform to a gender stereotype they are framed as sociopathic deviants.

When Amy or Bridget refuse to kowtow to dated expectations of gender it is within sociopathic tell scenes – directorially presupposed as divulging there is something sinister about their character, something amiss. Yet, on the other hand, when they do adhere to heteronormative expectations of subservience and neediness, it is manipulative, conning – psychopathic. Amy and Bridget are psychopathic by virtue of both hamming it up, playing on patriarchal gender expectations, and by virtue of refusing to conform to such asymmetrical expectations and value sets.

The term psychopath is frequently employed in commentary about these three films, to refer to and describe these, at once, too independent and manipulatively feminine characters. The limbo of too feminine to too equal is the double bind. The former temptress facet of the narratives is one informed by a history of femme-fatales in film and television. However, the too equal facet, the case of being psychopathic solely by doing/behaving in a way that is traditionally reserved for men has correlates in how the sciences, particularly criminal psychology, attempt to define female psychopathy through physical traits. Many studies effectively seek to equate female maleness with psychopathy and/or criminality.

An above average testosterone level in women is frequently posited via correlation and comparison with psychopathic, sociopathic and criminal behaviour proclivities. Here we meet the political reductions and warped logics of ‘science’ that seeks to find physical traits in an individual for ‘their’ social failures (criminality). Of course, this assumption between testosterone (or the physical traits associated with the hormone) is not right on a number of levels. Testosterone has, at a stretch, only a semi-firm relation to aggression and confrontation in males, however, much of this data is mostly gleaned from an atypical – read incarcerated – set of subjects (as is the case with most clinical data regarding psychopathy).

However, for women, there is even less cause for such a connection. Even in incarcerated females little connection between testosterone and aggression is found – yet increased testosterone in females with an anti-social personality disorder is pervasive myth. A similar lack of causation holds true for many other hormones and neurochemicals. Nonetheless, studies and cultural commentary exist that seek to equate the physical traits of testosterone with masculine characteristics before retrofitting the fiction into a correlation of say, below average hip-waist ratios, laryngeal prominence, clitoris size and chin/jaw profile with psychopathic character traits in women. Cultural conservatism and politicization of science thrive in the penumbra between etiology and fictioneering (Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference is a case in point – the thesis being that there is a genetic essentialism behind the differences in gendered adult brains: ‘from page 1: The female brain is “predominantly hard-wired for empathy” and the male brain “hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”’[1] – let’s not let the wealth of research into gender qua social construct or epigenetics or neural-plasticity get in the way of a popular science hit.) Less creative than mythopoeisthesizing, this is the crude jerry-rigging of traditional constructs into biases of causal scope. The tale wagging the dog.

Testosterone is not the sole cause of maleness in terms of behaviour. Acting masculine is not solely due to chemicals or genes but a kaleidoscope of developmental, social, personal and political experiences and histories. This is not to say that gender is a personality, but that the characteristics (with varying degrees of validity) of physical and behavioural gender are as subject to historic environments as any empirically based proclivity (be it chemical or genetic) within individual. Plasticity and epigenetics are of more relevance here than the out-dated yet stubbornly continuing click-bait simplicity of simple correlations and the reductive determinism of ‘hard-wiring’. The politicized and essentialist mode of much criminal psychology that seeks to equate female criminal psychopathy with subjects being too male or not quite feminine enough are examples of how the ASPD variant of psychopathy is a gendered concept with ultra-conservative social undertones.

The diagnostic criteria for psychopathy are deeply political and conservative. Cleckley and Hare (the two major checklists for the personality disorder) both list sexual behaviours and proclivities as characteristics. ‘Promiscuous sexual behaviour’ is one of Hare’s criteria, as is ‘Parasitic lifestyle’ and ‘Many short-term marital relationships’. Cleckley lists ‘Sex-life impersonal, trivial and poorly integrated.’ Cleckley’s conservative bias out to be regarded with more tolerance than Hare’s – the former’s ground-breaking work on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, was published in 1941 whereas Hare’s Without Conscience, in 1993. Each list paradoxical criteria; psychopathy is a subset of anti-social personality disorder, yet so many of the criteria seem pro-social. Hare’s and Cleckley’s flip-flopping from anti-social to seemingly social personality facets is the same mode of oscillation we see in the television shows and films mentioned previously. The dynamic of shifting from seemingly charming, intelligent, empathetic and social character to deviance and anti-social behaviour is the privilege of a narrative structure.

Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanity spends a great deal of time analysing works of fiction (e.g. characters in the works of Dostoevsky, Dickens, Faulkner…). Hare’s Without Conscience utilizes many examples from True Crime literature and newspaper reports. Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that the established psychopathic checklists read like impossible fictional narratives (where we see a character behave both perfectly socially and grossly anti-socially) rather than objective arrays of consistent observations. It is this fictionalized mode of character definition that allows cultural bias into the concept of female psychopathy. Just as the catch-22 of psychiatric evaluation renders those who say they are not mad to be regarded as mad, the same double bind operates for women in the examples cited – even when the characters are seen as a the ideal heteronormative cis-gendered feminine they are just as suspect as the sociopathic antithesis. (Precisely this issue is found in the damned either way injustic Amanda Knox, explicated in the eponymous 2016 Netflix film. Mongibello via Perugia; Knox’s lack of upset was cited as evidencing her guilt, yet when she was upset this was regarded as histrionics, conning, performance and manipulation).

The intrinsic sexism of screen portrayals of female psychopathy share much in common with clinical approaches of criminal psychology and other ‘sciences’. The reinforcing of gender inequality and the demonization of at once femininity and non-feminine equality are prevalent in each (conformity is just as suspect as deviance). However, perhaps the more troubling parallel is the utilization of narrative strategies for telling a story about the differences between the sexes that serves to impose asymmetrical values and inequality for women. Akin to how the problematically masculine threads of Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres don’t let explicit sexism get in the way of the good story, neither does these character portraits of psychopathy both on screen and in textbook. Sadly, the non-fiction popular science shelves contain as much creative story telling for the purpose of reinforcing gender constructs as the DVD library.

[1] See:

Yeats, Graves & the Bunnymen — Alex Niven

The origin of the luminous phrase ‘killing moon’ is obscure (at least it is to me). Google throws up no reference other than the 1984 Echo and the Bunnymen tune, and a 1994 video game called Under a Killing Moon, ‘the largest of its era’ according to Wikipedia. Elsewhere, there are stray hints. An early draft version of Yeats’s ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ begins:

Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
Changeless and deathless; above the murdering moon …

For Yeats the moon had an occult symbolism, which we can fit into a broader Romantic tradition of viewing the moon as a source of terrible beauty. This was, more or less, the lunar worship famously avowed in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess (1948), which argued that the Romantics—and indeed poets going back into prehistory—celebrated the moon because it preserved memories of an ancient matriarchal society. In Graves’s account, prior to the arrival of male sun gods (Apollo, Christ) European societies paid tribute to a female deity associated with the moon: a ‘White Goddess’ at once ‘terrible, beautiful, inspiring, and destroying’. For Graves, all true poetry must pay homage to the Goddess and her ultimate dominion over the creative soul:

The reason why the hairs stand on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine when one writes or reads a true poem is that a true poem is necessarily an invocation of the White Goddess … whose embrace is death.

Graves’s theory was highly influential, and for better or worse we can see it impacting on post-forties poetry in all kinds of ways (the life and work of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, both of whom were White Goddess devotees, is a notable example).

While I doubt that Ian McCulloch had Graves in mind when he sat down to write ‘The Killing Moon’, it seems clear that the wider, ancient poetic tendency of exalting the moon’s dark majesty and sway over human fate is somewhere behind the lyrics of this incredible piece of music:

In starlit nights I saw you
So cruelly you kissed me
Your lips a magic world
Your sky all hung with jewels
The killing moon
Will come too soon …

I’m not trying to shoehorn this pop lyric into an orthodox study of literary influence. All lyrics set to music (from Campion to Beyoncé) are different in texture from non-musical poetry—they are less dense and allusive, and so do not lend themselves to the techniques of close reading established over the last century or so of literary discourse. But I think we can probably agree that this sort of writing is nonetheless something unique and lovely. Like the best pop lyrics, it emerges from the moment when adolescent simplicity and sincerity are perfected with a sudden flash of mature self-awareness—a Bildungsroman in a nanosecond.

More concretely, as mentioned, we can see literary presences filtering through here to a work of art that is not self-consciously literary. Even if McCulloch was not as versed in the poetic canon as someone like Ted Hughes, he was writing in the early 1980s at a high watermark of popular literacy: a time when certain historical conditions (generously funded higher education, a strong counterculture, widespread intellectualism, no internet) meant that literary pop songs happened as a matter of course, growing organically out of the social-democratic soil, as it were. ‘The Killing Moon’ with its evocative title and lyrics—not to mention its sophisticated melody and arrangement—is one of the greatest and most successful translations of the Romantic literary aesthetic into the medium of the late-twentieth-century pop song. And it manages the feat without even trying.

But what, after all, is the song about? The arresting chorus hook (‘Fate / Up against your will / Through the thick and thin’) doesn’t need much decoding. Indeed—and again, note the effortlessness—apparently this fragment came to McCulloch full-fledged in a dream, just as the melody of ‘Yesterday’ was magically gifted to another Scouse Romantic back in 1964. We don’t need to follow McCulloch’s claim that the lyric arrived direct from God to appreciate the simple profundity of lines like this: will and fate in an endless tug of war, with the earth of life churned by the footfall.

Of course, this is at bottom a song about a death wish, or perhaps just death (remember the White Goddess, her embrace):

Under a blue moon I saw you
So soon you’ll take me
Up in your arms
Too late to beg you or cancel it
Though I know it must be the killing time…

Perhaps you’ll forgive me if I move from the critical to the personal to attempt to understand the power of these lines. I don’t know why, but since (belatedly) discovering this song for the first time over the last month or so, I haven’t been able to break its dark spell. In echo of its composition, I’ve woken up many times in the middle of the night with the chorus hook ringing round my brain. Life for me is good right now, perhaps better than ever. But there is something not quite right in the night sky.

I cannot work out what is meant by the final couplet of the chorus of ‘The Killing Moon’, a song released in the year I was born: ‘He will wait until / You give yourself to him’. Does God, or the Goddess, wait mercifully for us to decide we have given up on life? And being so overshadowed by death, how are we to muster will, hope, energy in the meantime? Perhaps we are living in the killing time, sliding passively towards decay, with ingenious lovely things disappearing around us every second. Like so many others, I am finding it difficult to see a way forward right now. Political options have narrowed, the counterculture is gone, and the wisest man I knew took his own life at the start of the year. I can acknowledge the light of the morning, and savour how it makes my baby son smile. But you must believe me when I say that lately I have felt haunted by the killing moon.

Alex Niven is a Repeater editor, writer and lecturer in English Literature at Newcastle University. He is the author of Folk Opposition, The Last Tape and Definitely Maybe (33 1/3), and is currently editing a book of Basil Bunting’s letters for OUP. He blogs at

Femme Fatales, ‘Female Psychopaths’ and Narrative ‘Science’: Part One —Tristam Vivian Adams

This is part one of two of ‘Femme Fatales, “Female Psychopaths” and Narrative “Science”‘ by Tristam Vivian Adams, author of The Psychopath Factory. Adams discussed the topic of this essay in a recent episode of Very Loose Women on Resonance FM. Read part two here.

In The Psychopath Factory I make a distinction between psychopaths and sociopaths. Ordinarily, in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and in culture more generally, the two terms are interchangeable. But sociopathy is distinctly distinguishable from psychopathy. Sociopaths fail at behaving socially; they might do or say the wrong thing, they might be awkward or just plainly dangerous and anti-social. Sociopathy requires an audience. The dominant consistency of sociopathy is that it is observable, it is about interaction – we know when someone does or says something they shouldn’t. In a sense young children are adorably cute mini sociopaths; they don’t always know what is acceptable and what isn’t – they might say something a little rude or embarrassing for parents. I would class Alan Partridge, David Brent, Larry David (the character in Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Mr. Bean as comedic examples of harmless sociopathy – they are also quite childlike, their cringey blunders stem from their social myopia and self-absorption. Nonetheless, sociopathy is conspicuous.

Psychopathy is different. It cannot be detected through behaviour; it isn’t obvious. Psychopathy is more about the inner world – being cold hearted or lacking empathy. If sociopathy is about the external social realm psychopathy is more about the inner psychological realm. More precisely, psychopathy is about how a hidden psychology is not reflected in behaviour. Take Patrick Bateman, Frank Underwood or Hannibal Lecter – they seem nice at first, charming even, but of course beneath their superficial manners lurks a truer personality: anempathic with dangerous impulses or uncaring narcissism.

It is this anxiety about the disjunct between behaviour and character that is fascinating for us. People say ‘take care’ or ‘have a nice day’ after we buy coffee from them – but how does one know for sure that they mean it? Most of the time we might expect that they do not mean it, it is just what people say – normalized psychopathy. Psychopathy is about the disjunct between external presentation, behaviour, and inner intents that we cannot fathom.

Of course, we are quite like sociopaths and psychopaths on some level. In terms of the former, we have all made a faux-pas at some point and accidentally offended someone – if not that then perhaps we failed at the minutiae of social code: manners and the ‘correct’ ways to dine (elbows off the table, don’t slouch Miss Ward…) But we are psychopathic at times too – our behaviour doesn’t always reflect our wants; we curb, temper and conceal ourselves sometimes. Haven’t we all lied a little for the sake of politeness? Further still, we may even have lied plainly and brazenly during a job interview: ‘genuinely I, myself, am personally passionate about admin’ or suchlike is now a mandatory performance – its disingenuous nature more acceptable than the truth: ‘I don’t care about admin. I just need the money.’

The at once fascinating and unnervingly relatable facet of psychopathy is this disjunct between a person and their behaviour. This, of course, leads to an anxiety about the empathy of others – sure, they seem nice, they seem genuine: but how can one tell for sure? We do not have Voight-Kampf machines in this boring dystopia of ours, instead we have Facebook, Twitter and Tinder.

Dating sites seem to evidence an insatiable appetite for ‘banter’. But banter is anything but honest or genuine… isn’t it more a mode of evasive social sparring: a jolly and smirking façade? In a similar vein, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that ingeniously monetise both relationships and loneliness, we project a life of holidays, achievements and Disneyesque Apple-pie positivity. We sycophantically like, love and praise yet omit our woe, bitterness, jealousy or vexation whilst, IRL meet/meat space we erect a wall of sarcastic (so-caustic) banter. This is normalized disingenuousness; to call it the lowest form of wit is too generous. Online selfhood qua self-promotion is indefatigably optimistic and ‘fun’. We gaze affectless, icy-eyed and apathetically type ‘lol’. ‘Lol’ is commonly accepted to mean audible laughter yet doesn’t this de-abbreviated acronym of laugh-out-loud also refer to silent supine apathy? The de-abbreviated acronym of ‘lol’ was originally intended to signal energy and fun, yet now it is employed in a sense closer to the older homograph of lol – signalling a lack of energy, a passivity, a lateral indifference with shades of languor, lethargy and torpor. One can pivot around the term ‘lol’. One can strafe to regard the antithesis of its accepted online textual staging, the z creeps in orphaned from its multiplied guise as comic shorthand for snoozing (Zzzzzz), in a term that cites, re-cites and makes legible the opposite of laugh-out-loud lol/lolz: narco-lolzzzzzz (can’t we, then, now, Jacques?).

Our online self is an unblinkingly positive projection, a resolute departure from our ‘true selves’. A contemporary register of this is the online dating profile that claims to adore everything: the calculated personality match trawler net pitch of ‘loves laughing, going out and staying in’. In life, it is difficult to know people for sure, because people increasingly present an edited (a shopped) version of themselves. When we type lol is it a testament to the inadvertent convulsion of hilarity or the passive placeholder of sleepy isolation and interactive avoidance? When people urge us to ‘take care now’ is it a caring personal sentiment or a void-scripted platitude or is it a vaguely authoritative reference to the stipulations of health and safety regulations (‘caution HOT beverage’)? What do others really mean and feel?

TV, Film and literature are different. We get to see multiple aspects of a character’s personality. We can read of, even in first person fiction, the inner world on one page whilst learning of the social interactions of a character on the next page that are at odds with their ‘true’ character. Film and television is particularly quick at flipping from depicting inner self to social self. Time is of the essence for the digitally twitching and attentively fickle box-set viewer. One must watch a character trick, con, and lie and know that they are doing so; if the film or show does not allow the viewer to be privy to the character’s true intent then how do they know the scene they watch is one of deceit, conning or manipulation? Film and television must show the viewer that despite a character acting one way, they do not mean it – they are lying, it is a ruse.

This is the satisfying difference between the fictional psychopaths and the polite people we speak to every day. TV and film always provide a clue that someone isn’t what they seem. The viewer is shown the disjunct between behaviour and intent. The psychopath’s disjunct is manifested in film and TV’s penchant for mirror scenes, masks and various other methods that show a character is one of façades and pre-meditated self-projection. The mirror scene trope or the mask metaphor tells the viewer in the opening scenes of a film that whilst a character appears normal they, as well as being hyper-reflexive, are hiding something. They might be charming, polite and perfectly social… but really…

The mirror scene trope in serves this purpose well. Patrick Bateman’s mirror scene in American Psycho (2000, Harron) tells the viewer that the man is all show, that what he does and says is all an act, a façade, a mask. The same trick is employed in Malice (1993, Becker). Tracy Safian, played by Nicole Kidman, stares into the mirror mimicking emotions – she is practicing her façade, rehearsing the ‘right’ ways to react, preparing her performance for when it is needed within a social context. Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) also deploys the same trick of reflectively divulging character.

Another strategy employed to convey a character’s janus faced double life is the fourth wall break. Francis “Frank” Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey in HBO’s House of Cards (2013), breaks the fourth wall to tell the viewer he’s only pretending to be nice so he can get his way; as does Stuntman Mike in Tarantino’s Deathproof (2007, Tarantino). Note the smirking irony of Underwood’s preferred name ‘Frank’; he is anything but. Stuntman Mike is similar – his job is to con the viewer: he’s a stuntman, like magicians and actors his trade is deception. In comedy a more recent example can be found in Fleabag (2016). The eponymous protagonist, wrote and played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, quick-fires asides to the viewer relentlessly. Fleabag is schizo-narrative, an Adderalled up oscillation of the fourth wall. The break of the forth wall is a satisfyingly plain way to show that even though a character is doing or saying one thing they mean to do another. They might seem social… but really…

Peep Show (2003-2015) depicts deceit and social performance in a different, more multi-faceted manner. The show is essentially multiple first-person perspectives replete with inner monologues. A character strolls about, forcing smiles and convivial greetings one second, but in the next moment we hear their inner thoughts – often derogatory – about the acquaintance currently being charmed or ingratiated to.

But the simplest example of this showing a character one way whilst also depicting them to be opposite is in Silence of the Lambs (1991, Demme). Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, is perfectly polite – but we are primed before hand, peripheral characters explain just how bad he is. As FBI Agent Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, is walked through the labyrinth of the prison holding Lector she is informed of the abhorrent nature of his crimes by Dr Chilton (Anthony Heald). The spiel is as much for Clarice’s benefit as it is for the viewer. Moments later Clarice stands before Lecter. He is softly spoken, polite and eloquent. He stands in stark contrast to both the incarcerated ‘degenerates’ in the neighbouring cells and the history of his crimes recounted moments previously.

Certain interactive antisocial behaviours in film and TV also tell the viewer a protagonist isn’t entirely what they seem to be. The opening scene of House of Cards shows ‘Frank’ Underwood killing a wounded dog with his bare hands. Right from the start, we see that despite his stately magnanimity and deep southern crooned charm Underwood is a cold man. In itself the act is sociopathic, Underwood shouldn’t kill a domestic animal quite so readily and with such ease. However, only the viewer is privy to this act – the other characters remain unaware of such behaviour. This strategy is a step away from the mirror scene, fourth wall break or diegetic priming. We see a character act in different ways in different contexts. The two-scene trick evokes their mercurial personality.

Often the two-scene trick involves the protagonist being antisocial, or nonconformist, with someone who is not involved in the main narrative thread. Most commonly this involves an out-of-hours sociopathy. By day the characters are polite conformists, but at night they indulge in whatever wants they have, be they nonconformist, misanthropic, antisocial or dangerous. These are the TV equivalents of the boring office suit whom by day talks the pseudo-Deleuzian late capitalist jargon of business speak – all abstractions and metaphors – but whose nights are antitheses whiled away feverishly fretting a Burzum din or writing atrocious modernist poetry or similar avocation.

TV and film must depict both sides of someone’s double life: the viewer must be shown how a character might seem fine at work, but after hours, when a conning charm is not necessary, they might do something unusual or ‘bad’. This is the troubling parallel between Stella Gibbons and Paul Spector in BBC’s excellent The Fall (2013-2016). Both lead, for most of the first season, double-lives. Spector is a counsellor and family man by day but a rapist and torture-murderer by night. Stella is a shrewdly demure and sensitive detective, knowing to bite her lip when dealing with institutional and personal sexism by day, yet at night she is portrayed as being sexually independent, and, in notable juxtaposition to the heteronormative machismo of the police force, bisexual. The mode commonly employed in TV and film to convey a psychopath often involves some slight slips into sociopathy, of doing something ‘wrong’, to allude or hint that their truer personality, the person behind the niceties and charm, is anti-social, non-conformist, heartless or anempathic.

But, again, is this not how we behave on a ‘daily basis’? In an office one might feign or cultivate an interest in something that, had one not had to ingratiate oneself to the many others treading water in the open-plan jungle of pointless work, wouldn’t interest one otherwise. The reflexive double lifer, the Ripleyesque pretender (‘I just love Jazz!’), is essentially a fantastic and exaggerated version of our working selves – the self that performs passionate enthusiasm for customers and clients by day but lives a private life by night, whinging about managers or colleagues, indulging in niche interests, fringe pursuits and underground cultures.

Continued in part two here.

The Ferguson Revolt Did Not Take Place — Richard Gilman-Opalsky

This is an edited extract from Richard Gilman-Opalsky’s Specters of Revolt: On the Intellect of Insurrection and Philosophy From Below (out now). He will be speaking at Five Leaves bookshop, Nottingham (UK) on 16th March (more details/FB event)

The Ferguson Revolt Did Not Take Place

Black people desire to determine their own destiny. As a result, they are constantly inflicted with brutality from the occupying army, embodied by the police department. There is a great similarity between the occupying army in Southeast Asia and the occupation of our communities by the racist police. The armies were sent not to protect the people of South Vietnam but to brutalize and oppress them in the self-interests of the imperial powers.
—HUEY P. NEWTON, “A Functional Definition of Politics” (1969)[i]

We don’t need anybody to agree with our tactics, right? We’re disrupting business as usual. That is the whole idea. We’re not going to stand in a corner and protest, because nobody pays attention to that. We are going to disrupt your life. You are going to know that business as usual in America and the world is not going to continue while black people —unarmed black people —are literally being shot and killed by law enforcement in the street every day.
—MISKI Noor, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis (2015)[ii]

The Ferguson revolt did not take place; the Baltimore revolt is proof.[iii] The Ferguson revolt did not take place because it has occurred and is still happening in different ways in other places. In so many uprisings, from Shays’ Rebellion in 1786 to the many North American slave revolts of the 18th and 19th centuries, to the race riots of the 20th century, from Springfield, Illinois in 1908 to Watts, Los Angeles in 1965, to current insurrections in Ferguson 2014 and Baltimore 2015, to the Black Lives Matter disruptions at the Mall of America and Minneapolis airport in Minnesota in December 2015, there is always some part of the event that expresses disaffections carried over from the previous ones. Revolts are nodal points in the elaboration of a transformative “politics” that exceeds them. To historicize revolt by marking its beginning and its end is to cut it off from itself, to misunderstand it. In particular, the fixation on the end of revolt disguises that old quotidian hope for a retour à la normale.

Riot and revolt are difficult to predict. And yet, as soon as they break out, the reasons for their occurrence are easy to see. The hardest part of processing riot and revolt in an intellectual register is always: not why they happen, but why they do not happen (until now). They are difficult to predict because of the remarkable capacity of societies to bear the unbearable, to suffer the insufferable.

Historians have a difficult time with the continuity of discontinuous events. But we can find a close connection between any two coordinates in the history of black revolt in North America. In the recent examples of Ferguson and Baltimore, the linkages are clear (i.e. killer cops, poverty, racism). Yet, historical accounts always want to identify the start and end dates of each uprising, especially because discrete and isolated events can be treated as local aberrations, not expansive fabrics of discontent.

What if Baltimore does not begin with the case of Freddie Gray? What if Baltimore does not end in Baltimore (which we discover when it is taken up again in six months, in one year, in two years, in another city)? Each revolt is itself, as Deleuze and Guattari claimed, “an unstable condition that opens up a new field of the possible.”[iv]

But what exactly is possible here beyond the possibility of posing old questions in new ways? First of all, the whole question of revolt is thoroughly imbricated with selective concerns about violence. Violence pervades and disfigures everything from the start. Every revolt, every riot, is haunted by the figure of violence. On April 28, 2015, The Wall Street Journal declared that “violence breaks out” in Baltimore.[v] That is the basic treatment: “Violence breaks out” whenever black people revolt against racist violence. For The Wall Street Journal, there is no violence when the cops kill black people, there is no violence on Wall Street, let alone any consideration of the violence of capital more broadly. The article could have been written by the Baltimore Police Department, and the fact that it wasn’t is indicative of the depth of the problem. Bakunin’s basic understanding of revolt from 1872 far exceeds the understanding from The Wall Street Journal in 2015. Bakunin said: “To revolt is a natural tendency of life. Even a worm turns against the foot that crushes it. In general, the vitality and relative dignity of an animal can be measured by the intensity of its instinct to revolt.”[vi] Contrary to racist caricatures of insurgents as wild animals, revolt is —for the human animal —a modality of indignation, a measure of dignity.

Nonetheless, ideological and idiotic depictions of “violence” remain effective and reliable mechanisms for the disqualification of the critical content of revolt. Georg Lukács explained that “the radical and mechanical separation of the concepts of violence and economics” are the result of the fetishization of economics as a nonviolent and legal field, and the fetishization of violence as always outside economy and law.[vii] Revolt exposes the “invisible” violence of economy and law, challenging that separation. Economy and law establish themselves as the normalization of the non-violent order, so anything that opposes them is identified and condemned as violence and disorder. Voltairine de Cleyre had it right when she observed the violence of the social order: “watch a policeman arrest a shoeless tramp for stealing a pair of boots. Say to your self, this is civil order and must be preserved… Aye, I would destroy, to the last vestige, this mockery of order, this travesty upon justice!”[viii] What the revolt invites, encourages, and makes possible, is to worry less about “violence” to capital (its inanimate objects and commodities), and more about the violence of capital. A broken window, looted food, a burning bank, a burning car, are violence from the perspective of property law. From what perspective, however, is the police killing of Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Abner Louima, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Jamar Clark, and so many others, called violence? So many others indeed: On August 9, Michael Brown became the 668th person killed in the US by the police in 2014, and he was far from the last. Police killed over 1,000 people in the US in 2014, and in between every killing you do hear of, there are hundreds of others you don’t. Someone is killed every day by police in the US. In fact, it’s usually several each day.[ix]

It is therefore necessary to reject all efforts to reduce each revolt to the stories of the murdered individuals who trigger them. We all know that the “Arab Spring” was not about Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who lit himself on fire in December of 2010. We must try instead to see the violence in the conditions that made self-immolation appear sensible to Bouazizi. Can we ask, as Bouazizi’s sister asked: “What kind of repression do you imagine it takes for a young man to do this?”[x] Treatments of particular cases matter, but even “justice” in a verdict, as sug- gested by the indictments of the six officers responsible for the death of Freddie Gray, resolves none of the everyday violence of capital and law.

Everyday violence indeed, and one which it is necessary to confront as an overwhelmingly racist violence. Angela Davis points out: “The sheer persistence of police killings of Black youth contradicts the assumption that these are isolated aberrations.” She refers to “an unbroken stream of racist violence, both official and extralegal, from slave patrols and the Ku Klux Klan to contemporary profiling practices and present-day vigilantes.”[xi] In light of this everyday violence, which is of course not the only form of violence, revolt is patient, revolt is kind. Revolt may even appear too moderate, too restrained, and too peaceable.

Professional academics are typically part of the problem. We need less intellectual analysis of revolt, and more consideration of the active intellect of revolt, revolt as analysis itself. Can we only hear the demos when it speaks in ballots? One participant in the Baltimore revolt answered in the midst of the uprising: “They tell us when we ‘vote’ we are being heard. No THIS is an example of us young people being heard!”[xii] That revolt does not need to speak through experts, elections, figureheads, and analysts is a lesson that even the most sympathetic political scientists are slow to learn.

Academics can be helpful only if they possess a deep and abiding understanding —as did Socrates and Jacques Rancière —that intelligence is not the private property of professionals. Discourse in the form of text can be useful indeed. Rancière’s beautiful book, Hatred of Democracy, diagnoses the hatred of democracy that hides behind the professed love of democracy.[xiii] I propose the following variation on Rancière’s theme:

Those who condemn the riots secretly love them — the purported hatred of the “violence” of the riots conceals a special love for that “violence.” They love the riots they condemn, for their own reasons, most of them racist. The riots are made to serve as evidence for what liberals and conservatives already think about politics, race, class, and capital.[xiv] This is particularly clear with the media, but can also be seen throughout society (universities included) in the surrounding conversation.

Deleuze and Guattari claimed that what “we institutionalize for the unemployed, the retired, or in school, are controlled ‘situations of abandonment’.”[xv]275 This is also true of impoverished black communities throughout the US. Institutionalized abandonment and everyday violence are always more the causal factors of revolt than the personal immorality and intellect of participants.

In the Baltimore revolt of 2015, there was an early celebration of a black mother, Toya Graham, who discovered her son participating in the uprising. She chased him down in the street, grabbing him and hitting him in the head, scolding him loudly. Forget the National Guard, said her fan club, send in the moms to tame the revolt. Graham knows well what the police do to young black men like her son, but she was not applauded for concern over his well-being. Rather, she was applauded for berating and beating him in the streets. The message in her celebration was clear: Black people in revolt are like out-of-control children, and what they really need is the paternalistic power of containment.

Meanwhile, capital hides behind the scenes of revolt, staying aloof and quiet. But what of the peculiar silence of capital? Even those who acknowledge the class dimensions of the problem often do not acknowledge that capital has nothing to offer impoverished communities that face a dilapidated opportunity structure with no future.

Over 63% of Baltimore’s population is black, but the median income of the black population ($33,000) is roughly half that of whites in the city. Maryland is the richest state in the country, which exacerbates the already abysmal conditions of life for the poor. Young black men in Baltimore were unemployed at the star- tling rate of 37% in 2013. Compare that with 10% unemployment for white men of the same age. One-third of Maryland residents living in the state’s prisons come from the mostly black communities of Baltimore.[xvi]

Impoverished black people in the US don’t need to be taught how to stand up for themselves. Everyday life shapes and informs the knowledge and experience of the disaffected, and indicates that “the field of the possible lives elsewhere.”[xvii] You cannot simultaneously reproduce everyday life and transform it. Revolt understands that basic logic.

Thinking about May ’68, Deleuze and Guattari argued: “There can only be creative solutions. These are the creative redeploy- ments that can contribute to a resolution of the current crisis and that can take over where a generalized May ’68, amplified bifurcation or fluctuation, left off.”[xviii]

Baltimore 2015 takes over where Ferguson 2014 left off, keeping Ferguson (and Springfield 1908 and Watts 1965) on the list of unfinished business. But the creative solutions and redeployments that Deleuze and Guattari call for may still be premature. Creativity is a productive activity, but there is still much to abol- ish. Perhaps the abolition of racism calls for creative solutions, and perhaps abolitionists need to get more creative. Yet, we cannot create new worlds without transformation, and transformation implicates abolition. Hegel and Marx understood well that there is an abolitionist force in the negations of transformation. The abolition of old forms of life, political institutions, and social structures implies the creation of new ones, implies creativity. There is always an abolition of old understandings in the creation of new ones, even if, in Hegel’s sense, the new understandings carry forth much from the old. And there is always an abolition of the present state of things in the construction of a new state of things, even if some things stay the same.

Those who condemn the revolts actually love them because they get to condemn a “violence” that justifies the violence they defend, the violence they love. Critics of revolt do not, therefore, fear the violence, but rather the transformative potentialities of revolt, its abolitionist (and creative) content. Their wager and hope is that nothing they love will be abolished, that the present state of things will be defended against every revolt. And if the existing order is maintained against revolt, as it often is, that existing order will be haunted by the specters of future revolt. Defenders of this present capitalist society know well that surviving a revolt is not busting the ghosts, is not laying them finally to rest. The conditions that give rise to revolt, left unchanged, also leave the abolitionist impetus in place. If the imprecators of upheaval tremble, perhaps they know: Efforts to realize abolitionist dreams continue on where previous ones leave off. Nothing is over and done.

Specters of Revolt: On the Intellect of Insurrection and Philosophy From Below is out now. 

[i] Newton, Huey P., “A Functional Definition of Politics, January 17, 1969” in The Huey P. Newton Reader, ed. David Hilliard and Donald Weise (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), p. 149

[ii] Noor, Miski, “Interview on CNN with Carol Costello about the Black Lives Matter Protest Planned for the Mall of America” (12/22/2015), accessed January 11, 2016, .

[iii] This short chapter is a détournement of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s shorter essay, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place” in Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader, ed. Chris Kraus and Sylvère Lotringer (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001).

[iv] Deleuze and Guattari, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place,” op. cit., p. 209.

  • [v] Calvert, Scott and Maher, Kris, “Violence Breaks Out in Baltimore After

Freddie Gray’s Funeral,” accessed May 6, 2015, .

[vi] Bakunin, Mikhail, “On the International Workingmen’s Association and Karl Marx,” accessed January 7, 2016, archive/bakunin/works/1872/karl-marx.htm.

[vii] Lukács, Georg, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge, MA: The MIt Press, 1988), p. 240

[viii] de Cleyre, Voltairine, The Votairine de Cleyre Reader (Oakland and Edinburgh: AK Press, 2004), pp. 71-72

[ix] Killed By Police, accessed February 8, 2016, /.

[x] Reuters, “Peddler’s martyrdom launched Tunisia’s revolution (1/19/11),” accessed January 8, 2016,

[xi] Davis, Angela Y., Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), p. 77.
271 Ibid.

[xii] The 2015 Baltimore Uprising: A Teen Epistolary (New York: Research and Destroy, 2015), no page numbers

[xiii] Rancière, Jacques, Hatred of Democracy, trans. Steve Corcoran (London and New York: Verso, 2006).

[xiv] In short, liberals and conservatives hold in common that procedural and electoral politics and reform are sufficient, that racism is a shrinking or minor difficulty, that socio-economic class positions are more-or-less negotiable through hard work and upward mobility, and that capital is either neutral or good, respectively.

[xv] Deleuze and Guattari, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place,” op. cit., p. 211

[xvi] Malter, Jordan, “Baltimore’s Economy in Black and White,” accessed 
January 8, 2016,

[xvii] Deleuze and Guattari, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place,” op. cit., p. 211.

[xviii] Ibid.

“Fiat ars – pereat mundus” — Huw Lemmey

The first mistake in analysing the travel ban is thinking its primary aim is to ban travel. It won’t work. It isn’t intended to work. The Trump administration is not aiming to institute effective policy. It’s aiming to communicate. If you understand communication as the primary aim of the ban, it has worked and will continue to work. If you try to counter it by proving it’s inefficient, unjust and unconstitutional, you’re not addressing it, as it’s not intended to be any of those things.

To tackle it, you have to understand it as communication and out-communicate it. This is a culture war and a meme war. You establish a narrative about immigration. Within that narrative you lay down a solution that you know you can meet. You reach power, you implement the “solution” you’ve seeded over the previous decades. The resolution is extremely satisfying to those who are emotionally invested in the narrative. The issue is not about policy; it’s about storytelling.

For well over 30 years political “realists” on the soft left have thought concerns about immigration policy were really about immigration policy. In worrying about, and pandering to, “legitimate concerns” on migration they have validated the hard right’s narrative of immigration being one of the major challenges facing administrations in the US and Europe. Every attempt to steal that ground has actually just been acquiescing to it, adding credence that the narrative is valid. Triangulation has not, and cannot, work. They will never be able to create a satisfying resolution to that narrative because they don’t fundamentally believe in genocidal racism — although their objections are more economic than humanitarian. They do, however, believe in their own political superiority and right-to-govern, and will pander to genocidal racism in the mistaken belief they’re seeing it off. In doing so they have validated the story told by the hard right. They have created the conditions whereby the narrative has reached its dramatic high-point and can only be resolved by decisive, public, unashamed and totalised genocidal racism.

They have also, in their infinite intellectual superiority and strategic nous, handed the fascist right all the (literal, infrastructural) tools needed to implement these high-camp public displays of genocidal racism. Britain has concentration camps for migrants. They were built by the Labour Party. The United States has the tools for absolute surveillance of migrants. They were (partly) built by the Democratic Party. Indefinite house arrest: Labour. Drone strike assassinations of your own citizens: Democrats. Fire to fight fire, with plenty of petrol cans as spare capacity.

This is why supposed pragmatic support for Clinton was so dangerous – it has allowed the right to legitimise the narrative. This is why Blairite triangulation on immigration was strategically idiotic as well as morally disgusting. Any capitulation to TINA (There Is No Alternative) is taking the brakes off any narrative the right might choose to implement. The solution is not to address the inefficiency of Trump in implementing spectacular versions of your own racist border policies. It’s to develop a counter-narrative of similar vision and resonance, and, despite its seeming popularity (or otherwise), to hammer away at it for decades until it becomes a vision of the world that people buy as credible, humane, beautiful. A pole of attraction that resonates more than a promise on immigration, carved in stone.

That’s why “No Borders” is not just a utopian slogan but a political vision that it is vital to pursue. No one is illegal, no borders. No one is illegal, no borders. No one is illegal, no borders. Create the world by changing all expressions of political vision into long-sighted narratives of who humans are and what we can be.

“The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.

All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula for the situation. The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system. It goes without saying that the Fascist apotheosis of war does not employ such arguments.


“Fiat ars – pereat mundus”, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.”

—Walter Benjamin – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (full text here

Huw Lemmey is a writer based in London. 

Richard Gilman-Opalsky speaks

Last week I had the privilege of speaking with Richard Gilman-Opalsky about his new book Specters of Revolt. Here is a 12-minute excerpt of our conversation and the transcript is below. –John Tintera

Richard Gilman-Opalsky on Specters of Revolt [transcript]

I really want to turn our understanding of revolt upside down. I want to invert it, to turn it upside down. Rather than looking upon it as a lowly emotional outburst, I want us to see it as, in some ways, the high point for politics, for our ethical commitment to others on earth.

And within that, there is also a kind of historical concern that my book takes up and that is the idea of the revolt as not being over when it’s done. This gets to the whole title of the book Specters of Revolt and its meaning.

This is why I wrote the book within the context of a hauntology—being haunted. Societies are haunted by revolts because often times something happens—a revolt, an uprising takes place over a weekend or it goes on for two weeks—maybe if it’s a very intense thing it can go for three or four—and then it’s over and people say, “Ah, it’s over but nothing happened.”

I think this is a fundamentally flawed historical understanding of each individual revolt. A revolt is always taking up the unfinished business of previous uprisings. It’s never really over. Once we stop seeing it happen it doesn’t mean it’s done. It’s only finished when the grievances it reacts against are thoroughly resolved – when the conditions that gave rise to it are transformed.

That’s why I look at these more recent revolts within the US as continuations of a long history of revolts that go all the way back to the slave revolts. In fact, in the introduction of the book, I talk about the famous slave revolt of Spartacus in gladiatorial times.

When we don’t have a revolt, we always know, and I believe people in positions of power know full well…there’re a couple of examples in the book that I use to illustrate this…that until the society really does transform and address the conditions that give rise to revolt, times in between revolt are really “ante-revolt” – they’re times before the next one.

We’ve started to see a new wave of black revolt, within the US, in response to police brutality, police killings of unarmed black men across the country. We saw uprisings in Baltimore, in Charlotte, in Ferguson among other places. The book is really about trying to treat these revolts with the dignity they demand and, I think, deserve. And trying to take seriously that, contrary to the typical caricature of revolt as irrational and violent, that they’re actually full of exceedingly thoughtful content. And that they’re more a reaction against violence and various forms of violence than they are themselves violent.

Quite a long time ago, I had taken up, for a book that was published in 2008, the example of the Mexican Zapatistas who made a revolt in Mexico on the inauguration day of NAFTA. This was in 1994, early into the post-Cold War period, when people were saying that the old revolutionary politics is dead and that it was time for a tombstone to be placed above everything under the heading revolution, transformation, criticism of capital and capitalism, and all the rest. Because the old Soviet Union and the communist projects of the 20th century were now dead and buried.

And then come, out of the mountains of Chiapas, people with virtually no power, out of the mountains, and that indigenous population threw into question the neo-liberalism of the early ’90s.

Really, ever since that moment, I have been interested in what we might call revolutionary alternatives to revolution. Not the old 19th-century idea of revolution where people storm the Bastille, take the state, and govern it from above, but different ways of challenging the existing situation from below.

In the years after that, I had thought, written, researched, and taught about social movements and all kinds of challenges that were coming from everyday people. What usually was the case was that students and readers saw this as a highly impractical theoretical debate because we didn’t live in a world of revolution. We lived in a world of acceptance, of acquiescence, of conventional politics, and failure.

So when 2008 came around and we started to see uprisings throughout Greece, Europe, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and in the inner cities throughout the US, finally, at long last, it was much easier to say, “You see. This is not a pure theory trapped up in text or philosophy. This is the actual practice of people everywhere. Whenever they can do it, whenever the conditions are there they do rise up and always have.”

Events in the world have forced me to take up the question anew. For myself and for a whole generation of people, there was a big question in the early ‘90s. And that question was, is there anything else; is there nothing but global capitalism of one form or another, is there anything else? Is there any other way of thinking about and against this newly consolidated power of capital?

In the ‘80s, really throughout the whole Cold War period, the idea that dominated was, there’re two systems. That was the Cold War ideology. There’s the system of capitalism versus the communist system. Of course, we knew for a long time — across the disciplines in the social sciences and humanities — that the Cold War ideology was a fake. It was a fraud; it was a lie.

Many of the philosophers I read, many of the sources I used, demonstrated that that period was a period not between capitalism and communism but; rather a period of contest between two forms of capitalism; state capitalism, bureaucratic and administrative capitalism, on the one hand, versus the free market deregulating capitalism of the US. And that was the capitalism that won at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s.

In that period of the early 1990s, people were generally convinced that now there was no alternative, not even an alternative within capitalism of one form against another. It was just the victory of neo-liberal free market global capitalism and nothing else.

The indigenous rebellion in Mexico–the revolt of the Zapatistas, which in many ways was a failure but in other ways was a success–showed those of us who learn from revolts… (that’s the kind of scholar I always have been, one who didn’t want to teach revolt but rather to be a student of it and learn from it) the Zapatistas taught us that there were still new ways of thinking against the situation.

As I said, some of it was a failure but some of it was a success. What it did was spark what I call in the book, the “insurrectionary imagination.” It didn’t directly and immediately solve problems, but what the Zapatistas did do was they unjammed the insurrectionary imagination, which is the title of the third chapter of Specters of Revolt.

They got us thinking in a very big way, open and creative, about the possibility for challenging the power of capital. The interest in human psychology, in social psychology, that the health of the human person in our society, for me, comes out of a really long tradition of what is sometimes called critical theory—thinkers like Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and other sociologists and theorists.

What they tried to do is understand the political situation and social situation—the reasons why we accept the unacceptable; the reasons why we tolerate the intolerable. Not from the old merely political and economic point of view but also from the point of view of human psychology, and the position of the person within the society, and why it is that we think the way we think about ourselves and the world.

Why it is that we can call certain things totally unacceptable—for example, growing inequality, brutal exclusions, mass incarcerations, incredible levels of violence associated with poverty and racism. Why we can say that those things, on their face, that they’re totally unacceptable and then continue to accept them as if they weren’t.

Psychology, when fused with political theory and the social sciences more broadly can help us to explain some of the human conditions, I think, on levels that earlier political scientists and theorists, either neglected or often times didn’t have the tools to undertake.

Buffoonery and erotic fascism — the meaning of Donald Trump

Buffoonery is almost an extended phenotype of dictators, and in times and places in which seriousness, judiciousness, and integrity reign, the buffoon assumes his rightful place near the bottom of the social order, ranting on street corners or sending out misspelled newsletters. It is not the buffoon who should be feared, but the social conditions that permit him to rise above the ridicule that is his natural state. Can one speak of physiognomy here? It doesn’t seem a coincidence to me that Trump, like Franco, like Hitler, is a flaccid, wimpy man with little hands and a grating voice. After Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” moment, the saggy sycophant Nigel Farage, whose constantly gaping mouth recalls one of those plastic coin purses you squeeze to get open, called Trump’s words “typical alpha-male boasting.” Who but goons like Farage or Giuliani could bestow such a title on an erectile-challenged flesh-sack in badly tailored suits whose greatest pleasure is eating Hershey bars in the dark?

It smacks of, but isn’t, hyperbole to say that the popularity of Trump has answered definitively the question of how authoritarianism happens. Strangely, the sight of the real thing renders obsolete the numerous, often ingenious models put forth by thinks as varied as Hannah Arendt and Walter Lacqueur – not because their conclusions are incorrect, but the idea that an explanatory model is needed is fallacious. For much of the population, abjection is inherently pleasurable, and prevarication indistinguishable from truth. The abstention from immediate judgment, the search for right, the broader questions of human destiny that involve the need to understand, listen, compromise, and forgive –– everything, in short, implied in wisdom and conscience –– is an annoyance, and in some way profoundly alien to most people’s natural condition.

This has been on my mind frequently in recent years as I have watched the European and American left stagger from failure to failure. Is it possible that the values of the left simply do not possess the same robust appeal as those of the right, particularly of the extreme right? It has been said many times, with reference to Trump’s unforeseen triumph in the primaries, that the Republican party thought its base cared about fiscal conservatism, low taxes for the wealthy, open markets, and all the rest, when in fact, what drove them all along was racism, xenophobia, and hatred of government. If Klaus Theweleit is right, and fascism must be understood in part as an erotic phenomenon, then the apparent irrationality on the part of the Trump voter in his full-throated advocacy of a farrago of half-baked “positions” that change by the day and range from the impracticable to the impossible must be dismissed as irrelevant: what matters is the feeling of being with Trump, the highly pleasurable relinquishment of intellectual responsibility and the submission to a messianic illusion of a return to “greatness,” the precise definition of which is ever elusive.

In ‘The Stars Down to Earth’, Adorno analyzes the resort to astrology as a response to the generalized inability to comprehend the real economic and political forces determining the conditions of life. Since the time of its writing, the knowledge demands of conscientiousness have grown incalculably while esteem for intellectual and humanistic values has plummeted. As a result, events such as the 2008 economic crash, the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, or the relation between free trade and prosperity are submitted to the judgment of people ignorant of the criteria distinguishing fact from belief. To proffer a few statistics about Trump supporters:

 66% believe Obama is a Muslim, and 61% believe he was born outside the United States.

40% believe Ted Cruz was born in the United States, though it is a matter of public record that Cruz is from Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

54% believe whites suffer more racism than blacks, while only 19% believe that blacks suffer more racism than whites.

This list could be extended ad nauseam. But it is unfair to cast the blame on Trump’s followers alone, as though they were the benighted, Duck Dynasty-watching, Oxycontin chewing underbelly of an otherwise well-informed society. 73% of Americans cannot correctly state the aims of the Cold War; 30% can’t place the Pacific Ocean on a map; 40% believe God created the earth and man fewer than 6,000 years ago; and only around 17% have the necessary literacy skills to correctly read and interpret a bus schedule. The percentage of Americans who report not having read a single book in the past year has quadrupled over the past four decades, and only 28% have read ten or more. One shudders recollecting that Twilight and The Art of the Deal are also books, and may therefore count toward the attainment of this milestone of virtue.

In this situation, the will of the people impends not upon the real contents of political reality, but upon the hyper-simplistic daydreams of the ill- and uninformed, who have made politics into a folk religion whose Bible is filled with stories of September 11, Welfare Queens, Benghazi, and the War Against Christmas.

The idea, if not the reality, has long been that at some point, an educated left would find the Rosetta Stone that would allow it to minister to the masses in a language they could understand, piercing the veil of ignorance and manipulation, exposing false consciousness, bringing together the workers and the intellectuals, etc. But of that small portion of the left not swallowed whole by neoliberalism, the greater part seems to have confused political action with “taking a stand,” particularly on social media platforms that can track these simulacra of rebellion for the sake of better curated “ad content”; and far-reaching concerns about global justice and oppression have crumbled in the face of recondite disquisitions on the arcana of identity politics and thinkpieces about the racism of Vice Principals.

In his diaries, Gombrowicz observes that for all their prattling on about workers, liberals’ true heritage is the nobility, and this is more and more evident to me every time I return to the States. The anger, resentment, hatred, and nihilism that fuel the authoritarian right (a term I use freely because, just today, the hardly un-representative Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage, has declared, “We need a Donald Trump to show authoritarian power”) have, for many of my left-leaning acquaintances, the inevitability of climatological trends: as they drink craft cocktails or flat whites or stand in line for the best ramen or whatever gastronomical trifle is now the rage, they may hear the murmurs of the barbarians in Slidell, Peachtree City, or Benton, but these people are as strange to them as residents of another planet.

My mother is a nurse who for a time worked in home health care in the marrow of Trump country. Her patients were poor white pillheads who lived off public relief and only left the “holler” once or twice a year. One day, while my mother was changing out a tracheostomy tube or something similarly exquisite, the family matriarch turned to her and said, “Did they ever catch that man what shot Kennedy?” It is not shocking that people like this know nothing about the world –– what use might such knowledge be to them? Whether they descended from farmers, whose livelihood was ravaged by agribusiness, or from steelworkers in the many mills in the nearby city, the last of which closed in the 90s, at some point they were expelled from an economic order that is unlikely to invite them back in. Perhaps the Mexicans, who only appeared in the last twenty years, didn’t “take” their jobs; but the Mexicans have jobs, they don’t, and it would stand to reason that if the Mexicans weren’t there, those jobs could be theirs. It may also be true that “objectively,” black Americans continue to suffer grotesque economic inequality; but access to “objective reality,” which is in fact a kind of consensus, requires a cultural fluency rooted in a system of customs and privileges that millions of people find profoundly alien.

Ignorance in itself is not incompatible with democracy, so long as a society is sufficiently unified as to make common interest a reality. This was possible, perhaps, in America until the interests of capital diverged from those of the nation, and “a rising tide lifts all boats” yielded to the temptations of the virtue of selfishness. Theoretically, a strong left might have opposed these developments, but as Steinbeck remarked, the poor in America have always conceived of themselves as temporarily embarrassed capitalists, and true progressive ideals have never held much sway there. Now, the two halves of the country Lincoln yoked together by force are once more coming asunder, and the Democrats have stuck their heads in the sand while Republicans have fanned the flames. At present, only 29% of Americans believe an armed revolt may be necessary in upcoming years to stave off government tyranny, with another 20% undecided on the matter –– presumably, Trump will draw support from many of these voters, and thankfully, there are not enough of them for him to win. But the mere presence of such a figure on the world stage is terrifying, and there is no sign of political will on either side of the aisle to repair the ideological rifts that made his ascension possible.

From honest sociopathy to charming psychopathy

One in five CEO’s have high levels of psychopathic traits!  It is a common headline. Bankers have no empathy, are greedy narcissists or egomaniacs. But such vilification misses some important, perhaps uncomfortable, subtleties and similarities. Considering that the laissez-faire finance industry is essentially a state-funded gambling racket where initiated gamblers can play to win with the money of others, such demonisation is understandable. But, how different are we to these Savile Row-suited silhouettes? We can take some general outlines of so-called corporate psychopathy in turn.

Narcissism first. Greed, egomania, attention seeking, vanity and a grandiose sense of self-worth seem apt descriptors for such Gordon Gekko types. But today we live in a world of normalised narcissism. Taking an unsolicited selfie to share with hundred or thousands of strangers is now a perfectly accepted public activity. Yet, in the late 90s and early 00s (before the dawn of ‘smartphones’) if I was to walk into a local pub and take photographs of myself I’d have garnered some strange looks – in that context I’d look, well, a little crazy, unhinged. I’d have appeared as narcissistic to the point of delusional. Today, however, such practice is normal, we don’t bat an eyelid. The same can be said for other aspects of social media. We don’t hesitate to share our organic, locally-sourced, dairy and gluten free lunch with hundreds of followers, or tweet that our train is late, or that it is raining where we are. Does the world need to see my avocado on toast? Of course! Just Do It. Because I’m Worth It. How self-centred, how utterly narcissistic, it is to share every opinion piece we look at (or even read) with the hundreds of follows we have? The term, narcissism of questionable validity today – because distinguishing narcissism from normalcy is like slicing fog. We are way past what Tom Wolfe called ‘The Me Decade’.

Vanity is now accepted too. The rise of the metrosexual (whilst doing nothing for gender equality) opened out the worst forms of conscious and conspicuous vanity to heteronormative male culture. Creatine, moisturizer and fake-tan have partially usurped cigarettes ’n’ alcohol. Façade and appearance is sought instead of experience. This is symptomatic of the shift in the nature of working. In the industrial era, bodies were owned and put to work, whilst the mind went largely unused. Today however, we are stationary, in the open-plan-purgatory of contemporary decline-Britain. Our attentions and social exchanges are colonised by the requirements of work. We have little say over our cognitive and social-life, but we can take ownership of bodies. ‘The Man’ exploits our creativity, cognition and social-networking, but ‘pecs’ and ‘delts’ are within our vestige of control. Patrick Bateman’s (1980s) obsession with his physique, his vanity, is not abnormal by today’s selfie-snapping and protein-chugging standards.

Machiavellianism is similarly normalized too. The brutal honesty and ruthlessly rude, unsocial culture of macho corporate Darwinism has gone. Consider how Gordon Gekko (Wall Street, 1987) or Guy Ackerman (Swimming With Sharks, 1994) would fare in the contemporary work place. They wouldn’t ‘get on’ – because social exchange, empathy and bonds are now the mode of power and control. A ‘boss’ no longer cracks the whip by sheer expression of authority, but by being friendly, social and convivial. Managers, it seems, are now everyone’s best friends: ‘Hi mate. New shirt? Good weekend?’ More recent explorations of workplace meanies reflect this shift. The ‘villains’ depicted are the opposite of Gekko and Ackerman. Christine Stanford and Isabelle James in De Palma’s Passion (2012) are nice, polite and charming – at least on the surface. House of Cards riffs upon a similar dichotomy of façade and intent; Francis Underwood schmoozes and cajoles his way to power, his understanding or empathy with other characters is always a con. The disjunct between Underwood’s social self and his deeper, malicious and selfish, intent is impressed by his constant breaks of the fourth wall: ‘I know I’m being nice to him but…’ But, such Janus-faced disingenuousness is more normal than we might like to admit. We often, out of politeness, tell people we are fine really we are quite the opposite. During job interviews we spout barefaced lies about being ‘passionate and enthusiastic’ about, say, customer service or retail experience or admin. Perhaps part of such social-con artists appeal in contemporary culture is that they appeal to what we have to do daily. Francis Underwood and Christine Stanford are dramatically exaggerated characters, yet on some level we might identify with their conning and faked sociality – everyone fakes enthusiasm or interest at some point. That’s life, part of being a social person: ‘say sorry like you mean it’ we teach our children. One curiously relevant example from film recently is Ex Machina (2015), the film is saturated with questions of façade and what is truly genuine, what is real. Ava (the smart one) even asks: ‘Is Nathan your friend?’ But Nathan is the real con artist, the one with the convincingly casual façade. Like Mark Zuckerberg (everyone’s friend) Nathan is an unfathomably rich and powerful CEO, yet he is presented as a casual and social fellow. Wearing a T-shirt and jeans, a few beers on the couch are his preferred method of dominance: ‘I want to have beer and a conversation with you’ he presses on Caleb. He even explicitly rejects any position of authority, he calls Caleb buddy all the time: ‘You see, there’s my guy, there’s my buddy’. Of course, similar to social-networks, the whole social and friendly set-up is a ruse for exploitation.

Being like Nathan, Christine or Francis Underwood is hard though. And there are risks. We can get lost in our narcissism, vanity and mimicry of enthusiasm and empathy. To be narcissistic, Machiavellian and vain requires reflexivity. Yet, we can become paralyzed by reflexivity, confused and uncertain. It is one of the binds of late-capitalist living and post-modernity: we, our self, may become lost and discombobulated. Two recent novels explore this symptom of the uber-reflexive self. Ben Lerner’s Leaving Atocha Station (2011) is a first person (mostly) narration by Adam, an American poet in Madrid. Adam’s self conscious reflexivity is giddying, vertiginous. He succumbs to the Drost effect, the rabbit hole of self-reflection. Adam constantly views or considers himself from the third-person; the effect is soporific, sinking, and endless – like a literary Shepard Tone. Shifts from first to third person, much like the ‘mental breakdown’ section in Ellis’ American Psycho, Adam, like Bateman, is a casualty of self reflexivity:

But if there were no sun and the proportioning was off, if there were either too many people around or if the park was empty, an abyss opened up inside me as I smoked. Now, the afternoon was boundless in a terrifying way; it would never be tonight or the next day in room 58; silver and green drained from the landscape. I couldn’t bring myself to open the book. It was worse than having a sinking feeling; I was a sinking feeling, an unplayable adagio for strings; internal distances expanded and collapsed when I breathed. It was like failing to have awoken from at the right point in a nightmare; now you had to live in it, make yourself at home. He, if I can put it that way, had felt this as a child when they sent him to camp; his heart seemed at once to race and stop. Then his breath caught, flattened, shattered; as though a window had broken at thirty thousand feet, there was a sudden vacuum. Some of the gray was sucked inside him, and he was at a loss; he became a symptom of himself.

(Lerner, Leaving The Atocha Station, 2011, pp.16-17)

Another example is more literal, Adam’s self is splintered into the self that watches himself and the self he considers as if from afar.

In the distance airliners made their way to Barajas, lights flashing slowly on the wing, the contrails vaguely pink until it was completely dark. I imagined the passengers could see me, imagined I was a passenger that could see me looking up at myself looking down. (…)

I would roll one or two spliffs and put them in a pack of cigarettes, drink a glass of water, brush my teeth, walk down the stairs and out of the apartment into the plaza. I felt as I crossed the plaza that I was observing myself from the roof of my apartment; from there I could see that I was walking too fast and I’d stop, light a spliff or cigarette, then resume walking at a less frantic pace toward Puerta del Sol, the literal center of the city, which I could reach in a few minutes. From Sol I would pause and decide where to pretend I needed to be.

(Lerner, Leaving The Atocha Station, 2011, pp.21-22)

Tao Lin’s Taipei evokes the protagonist’s vertiginous reflexivity in a way that alludes to a much more technologized way of living life. Taipei is written in the third person mode, unlike Lerner’s. The protagonist of Taipei, Paul, often imagines himself as a red dot moving on a map like GPS tracked parcel, views life as a series of windows that may be collapsed, regards waking as accessing a PDF file and remembering as accessing a memory stick. Notably, Lin’s prose remains painfully yoked to our technologically imposed reflexivity and isolation (we have all considered our ‘online self/persona’).

In a taxi to a party, forty minutes later, Paul imagined another him walking toward the library and, for a few seconds, visualizing the position and movement of the two red dots through a silhouetted, aerial view of Manhattan, felt as imaginary, as mysterious and transitory and unfindable, as the other dot. He visualized the vibrating, squiggling, looping, arcing line representing the three-dimensional movement, plotted in a cubic grid, of the dot of himself, accounting for the different speed and direction of each vessel of which he was a passenger- taxi, Earth, solar system, Milky Way, etc.
(Lin, Taipei, 2013, pp.24-25)


Most mornings, with decreasing frequency, probably only because the process was becoming unconscious, he wouldn’t exactly know anything until three to twenty seconds of passive remembering, as if by unzipping a a PDF, showing his recent history and narrative context, which he’d delete after viewing, thinking that before he slept again he would have memorized this period of his life, but would keep, apparently not trusting himself.

(Lin, Taipei, 2013, p.35)

There were times when his memory, like an external hard drive that had been taken away from him and hidden inside an unwieldy series of cardboard boxes, or placed at the end of a long and dark and messy corridor, required much more effort than he felt motivated to exert simply to locate, after which, he knew, more effort would be required to gain access.
(Lin, Taipei, 2013, p.75)


Paul realized he’d said “America” not “Canada” and, in his state of near immunity from shame and/or anxiety, acknowledged a theoretical embarrassment, which someone not on MDMA, in his situation, might experience.
(Lin, Taipei, 2013, p.120)

Paul is constantly beside himself with self-consciousness, ensnared in a vicious doubt and reflexive stasis. Crucially though there is the use of the smile — or, to be more precise, the seemingly earnest grin — in Lin’s work. In Taipei there are over fifty references to grins and/or grinning. The grin is significant because a grin is often taken as being somehow disingenuous, when we force a smile we grin. The grin, has an implicit dishonestly, it is for appearance, a calculated expression, not a ‘natural’ expression like uncontrolled laughter. ‘Seemingly’ and ‘earnestly’ also populate Lin’s prose to impress the same sentiment of façade and the fragility of genuine interactions.

Many forms of work today are colonised by social interaction and empathy, but it is a shallow, exploited and, I argue, psychopathic mode of interaction. Friendly managers grin, seemingly earnest, as workers apathetically parrot various faux-social sentiments of consumerism like ‘take care now’ or ‘have a nice day’. Psychopathy is not the reserve of the ultra-rich or ‘greedy’ bankers but a facet of contemporary subjectivity. Charming, social psychopathy is more a symptom of our time, than it is characteristic of the criminal, amoral or villainous.

It’s been over a month since we “got our country back” – but do we still want it?

At the time of writing, six weeks have passed since the EU referendum and what have we learned, in that time? That ‘Brexit means Brexit’ (whatever that means), that ‘we’ve got our country back’ (the same), that ‘we’ve regained our sovereignty’ (ditto, because we’d never lost it) and ‘taken back control of our borders’ (you get the picture). We’ve been told that to categorise every Leave voter as an uneducated, xenophobic hick is offensive and wrong (but that every Remain voter was a spoilt middle class brat), and that people were sick and tired of answering to an unelected elite; Nigel ‘Breaking Point’ Farage has told us this, as has Boris ‘Piccaninnies’ Johnson, and Michael ‘Had Enough of Experts’ Gove, and we should believe them, exclusively educated and powerful as they are, because they’re evidently superior to us. And we should believe Theresa May too, unelected leader though she is, because, well, the disenfranchised have spoken, haven’t they? They’ve had their voices heard, and now they want something to be done, although no-one has any idea of what that might be. It’s just, well, y’know; British values and all that. Freedom from Johnny Foreigner and his wily ways. Straight bananas, health and safety gone mad, that sort of thing.

So, what will be your abiding memory of the last days of June 2016? Will it be of Farage, declaring ‘this is our independence day’ and that ‘this was a revolution without a shot being fired’, or will it be of Jo Cox and her shattered family, or of the fact that many countries on the planet have their own independence day and it usually signifies independence from Britain? Or will you remember Nige in Brussels, little man with his little flag, scion of Dulwich College, son of a wealthy stockbroker, telling the gathered grandees that they’ve ‘never done a proper job in their lives’? Or will it be of the Lithuanian representative, cringing at those words, the man who was born in a gulag, everything in his early life militating against the highly respected and successful heart surgeon that he would become? Perhaps you’ll remember Nige and his Breaking Point poster; the immigrant-descended, immigrant-marrying heroic defender of Britain’s borders using an image of Syrian refugees attempting to enter Slovenia from Croatia to illustrate the threat to Lincolnshire of eastern European agricultural labourers?

Or maybe you’ll remember Bojo; loveable, bumbling, zip-wire, man-boy Boris on the morning of the result, giving his speech before dashing off to post his Daily Telegraph column, for which he is paid a quarter of a million a year (a sum which he describes as ‘chickenfeed’), his speech in which he declared that nothing would change, that everything would stay the same? Because he was speaking for the downtrodden, wasn’t he, him and his mini-me Michael, defending the zero-hour-contracted, the rent-crippled, the sacked, the struggling, the stigmatised? They were his people, weren’t they, in that summer of 2016; it was his concern for the deracinated that drove him to join the Leave campaign, not slavering opportunism, no, not monstrous self-promotion. Alexander Boris De Pfeffer Johnson, indicting the elitist establishment; how that hypocrisy must’ve stung him, hurt his very soul, because the beneficiaries of his validation of UKIP’s carnival of hate, and of Brexit itself, will be the working classes, not his political career, even though the man who has insulted almost every country on earth has now been promoted to Foreign Secretary (what larks! What jolly japes!).

Or maybe it’ll be Cameron’s jaunty little tune that you remember, as he abandoned the country that he ‘loves so much’ to the wreckage that he made of it. Maybe you’ll remember the immediate spike in hate crime; of the Polish family labelled as vermin, of the black children spat at, of the grocery shops with non-British-sounding names above their doors fire-bombed. Maybe you’ll remember the 350 million a week promised to the NHS, a figure denounced by its author the very day of his triumph. Or the puerile squabbling of those who should’ve been able to put their differences aside and provide the coherent opposition that a well-functioning democracy needs. Odds are you won’t remember Scotland or Northern Ireland in all of this, because neither Leave or Remain thought them important enough to mention.

And the memories, now, are they helping you in any way? Are they illuminating the place where you are now, this length of time on from the ‘historically democratic event’? Perhaps they’re helping to heal the familial rift, the generational breach, that has occurred with the realisation that those dearest to you harbour thoughts anathema to your own, which you in fact find repellent, which they were encouraged to express, and that they voted for an upheaval, the negative consequences of which they won’t be around to see or suffer. Perhaps the memory of Farage’s union jack shoes scurrying across the stately home lawn towards Rupert Murdoch – no unelected elite, him – is a balm across this wound. Maybe those shoes are helping you to cope with the realisation that, well, some of the Leave promises were a teensy bit exaggerated; that it might be, in fact, further austerity that will support the ailing NHS, rather than the 350 million that isn’t given to the EU every week. That maybe there won’t be control of immigration after all, because the free movement of labour is a precondition of involvement in the single market, and that maybe immigration of labour is a good thing anyway; and maybe it works two ways, and that the freedom to live and work and study in 27 other countries is, actually, quite a good freedom to have, or was. Maybe the promised gains are, really, losses. But never mind that because Marie Le Pen and Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are happy for us, and you’ve got to keep the neighbours sweet, haven’t you? Even if they’re not, y’know, ideal.

And the memories, now, are they anchors against the uncertainty of the future, as Britain goes forwards into 1952? Perhaps they’ll help when Scotland secedes, and when Northern Ireland starts to bleed again, because after all, this is freedom from tyranny, isn’t it? When it’s recognised that the collapse of public services is due to underfunding and not to the presence of foreigners, and that rents are unaffordable not because of demand but because of exploitation by the rapacious empowered by inequality, maybe the recalled image of Nigel’s little flag will pull you through, even when that flag has to be re-designed (and not by a vexillographer, no, because we’ve had enough of experts). Repeat the phrase ‘the voters have spoken’ because that’ll gloss over, maybe even deny completely, the bitter tatters of the country you live in, rent by self-serving monsters masquerading as our selfless betters. ‘Britain is great again’, ‘we’ve got our country back’; repeat these phrases, and let them, and the memories, be what we’ve been told to believe they are; emblems of national pride, and most definitely not national fear, or national disgust, or national shame. Definitely not that.

Cruel optimism of the will in Bay Area punk production

This is an edited extract from Johanna Issacsson’s The Ballerina and the Bull: Anarchist Utopias in the Age of Finance (out now).

By 1986 punk was not just a battle cry, it was a scene that required institutions like show spaces and record labels. In this context we see the rise of the Gilman Street Project, an all-ages punk musical venue in Berkeley. The club opened soon after the closing of Mabuhay Gardens and The Farm, two important punk venues in the area. You could join as a member by paying $2 per year, and membership came with rights to participate in decision making. The rules included: no drugs, alcohol, violence, misogyny, homophobia or racism, and no major label bands were permitted to perform there. Says Zarah of her introduction to Gilman at 14 years old:

Gilman was dirty, it was small, but it was impressive because of how many people were there. I was meeting lot of people right away (people my age). I was in love with the place form the first time I saw it, even though it was, you know, gross.

For Eighties teenage Bay Area punks, Gilman was a semi-utopia: a creative, social space where they could come-of-age in ways not permitted in family and school institutions.

Alexander Kluge calls this kind of DiY institution a “counterpublic sphere,” a place that redefines spatial, territorial, and geopolitical parameters, reflecting new transnational boundaries while remaining subject to the constraints and logic of dominant post-Fordist forms of production. In this counterpublic sphere, the Gilman punk could experiment with residual temporalities, such as DiY artisanal production, without ever leaving the home of modernity — the sphere of universal, fungible commodity production. In this elastic sphere, people like Robert Eggplant, creator and primary writer of Absolutely Zippo, could find a viable way of life that was social and at times ecstatically political:

When I first came to Gilman (yes shortly after I came to punk) I was faced with something that I never encountered in my previous subculture groups, (that being rap and metal). There was more in the atmosphere than music. (Yes even more than liquor and sex). It was politics.

Eggplant describes himself as a somewhat lost soul until attendance at the “new world” of Gilman made him into a punk convert, speaking to his hunger for openness and community, totally immersing him in its culture and social scene.

Gilman materializes and spatializes this feeling of community, fortifying a subculture that could once only be described as an impulse or a feeling with a layer of solidity and permanence. The club has the appearance of spontaneity and haphazardness, but it represents years of concrete work that were put into finding, funding, and creating the space. The space supersedes the temporary squats and show spaces that preceded it. Most of the organizers developed their skills by organizing illegal shows, gradually building up to getting a permitted, legal establishment. The group that had been organizing underground shows collaborated with Maximum Rocknroll to find a location and to acquire the appropriate funding and permits. After lengthy attempts to get the city to approve, Gilman Street was born as a self-regulating institution. This permanence is an important asset to the scene and yet with every step away from the fleeting and ephemeral Gilman approaches punk’s dreaded nemeses: hierarchy, bureaucracy, reification.

Despite these threats, Gilman served as a punk haven and base from which to build a radical community. In the Eighties Gilman provided a home base for anti-racist punks to fight off skinheads. In this moment, racist skinheads were a strong, insidious presence in Northern California. Because of overlapping musical tastes, the Gilman staff had to drive off Nazis from hardcore shows and in some instances the punks of Gilman rallied to fight Nazis at racist demonstrations. In the Nineties Gilman became a center for punk protest against the Gulf War and the Rodney King decision. For Ben Sizemore, of the Bay Area anti-capitalist band Econochrist, these politics were inextricable from hardcore aesthetics. Radical politics were a bodily and totalizing power:

Bands like those got my heart pumping and my spine tingling. I could feel the chords hit me in the gut. I felt like they were singing directly to me. The music moved me, but it was more than music, it was something else, a more powerful feeling and it ran deep.

These were the politics of musical ecstasy and at the same time the politics of the mundane everyday, quotidian survival and mutual aid:

Hell, people I’ve met at Gilman have become some of my closest friends. I’ve met people at Gilman who hooked me up with work, housing, and have just helped me out with my problems. More importantly they’ve helped me realize I’m not alone and that there are alternatives to this fucking competitive, dog eat dog, oppressive, materialistic, earth raping, dominant culture that we find ourselves in.

In this milieu mutual aid extended from attending and supporting Gilman shows to all realms of the everyday — dumpster diving, parties, and communal living.

Gilman’s everyday politics provided a social and political world for young punks stranded in an atomized world where, as in Karl Marx’s prognosis, “all that is solid melts into air.” But with the anchorage of Gilman as an institution came what Econochrist calls “the same damn old circle game”:

we scream fight the system’s schemes/but we still work for the machine/so safe in our social clique/time to part this sea of shit

With the materialization of Gilman as an institution comes a creeping entrepreneurial ethic, an urge to codify and market the punk convergence of art and life. As one of the many who came of age at Gilman, Mike Stand lived this ambivalence. He was a high school kid in Berkeley in 1986, at the birth of Gilman, and clung to its “all-ages” ethos, which defied the strange age segregation of the suburbs. Before he went to the club, Mike hadn’t met anyone between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. This age segregation belies the myth that a wholesome suburban life is the proper path to maturity. Suburban life actually prevented teenagers from meeting young adults, carefully cordoning them off from any adults who hadn’t already settled into the suburban norm. Slipping into the role of Gilman’s coordinator and manager, Mike matured quickly, but this led to his tacit disavowal of the youthful spontaneity that is the core of the punk aesthetic. Mike framed himself as the resident “pragmatist” who learned skills that would help him in the business world. He kept Gilman afloat, calling for membership fees and making it fiscally sustainable, but, as Erick Lyle points out in his account of the punk role in the San Francisco Mission District’s gentrification, contrary to the boosterish slogans of urban development, a rising tide does not lift all boats.

Chris Appelgreen also “matured” quickly in the nurturing countersphere of Gilman, inheriting Lookout! Records from Larry Livermore at the age of twenty-three. Drawn to punk for its social space more than its musical qualities, he describes coming from a small town and immediately becoming absorbed in the club and Lookout!

I couldn’t really differentiate what made punk rock better than say Depeche Mode or other mainstream bands that were on the radio. Then I started seeing this humanity and personality and connection you just couldn’t have if you were a fan of Tina Turner or Bruce Springsteen, for instance, also the band members were people my age. I felt really empowered. (Edge 152)

He notes that this was a first step in taking himself more seriously and led to his quick ascension to heading Lookout! At the same time he recognizes that his involvement with Lookout! complicates his relationship to Gilman:

It was also a difficult place to come into things from, since I had to maintain somewhat of a business relationship with the people in the bands on the label, people who I was friends with. It was different than I think most people’s experiences were with Gilman. (Edge 153-154)

The permanence of Gilman and Appelgreen’s position in it came at the price of a certain degree of specialization and alienation.

The paradox of the punk entrepreneur or manager is not a stark problem of choice. Rather, it’s a necessary consequence of what Guy Debord called the culture industry’s “rigged game” in which there is no possible autonomy from entrenched systems of production and private property. The punk anti-corporate myth faced new challenges in the late Eighties when this independence moved from the realm of the aesthetic to the realm of commerce. Independent labels were never as pure as their mythic status. For instance, the Bay Area band Dead Kennedys has been held up as a pure signifier of this form of delinking, but in 1980 the Dead Kennedys signed to IRS records which had a distribution deal with the major label A and M, the third largest label in the US (O’Connor 3). It was not the Dead Kennedys who rejected this label, but A and M who dismissed the Dead Kennedys because of their offensive name, precipitating the advent of the Dead Kennedys’ label, Alternative Tentacles. It was only well into the Eighties that punks began to distribute and produce most of their own records. This coincided with punk becoming more niche oriented. For example, in 1980 the Dead Kennedys could sell 150,000 copies of the album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, but by the mid-Eighties it was rarely heard of for even the most popular punk band to sell 40,000 albums (O’Connor 3).

The widely published punk music zine Maximum Rocknroll was central to what can be called punk’s “economic turn.” At the same time the zine was widely distributed, its editors and writers, especially central editor Tim Yohannan, were deeply committed to notions of authenticity and independence. Maximum Rocknroll is at the hub of many of the debates about the management and goals of Bay Area punk institutions. It began in the 1980s and went on to become a central site of punk scene interaction nationally and internationally, facilitating growth through its ever-expanding letters column and involvement in many areas of Bay Area punk music, venues, and labels. It was also an ideological hub of punk, featuring debates and manifestos about the meaning, politics, and goals of punk music along with interviews with bands and global scene reports. Although the zine was profitable, it donated these profits to DiY projects such as Gilman. Maximum Rocknroll was passionately committed to the ethos of autonomy and would only carry ads and review records from independent labels. This was important, because Maximum Rocknroll was a central source of information about bands.

Maximum Rocknroll functioned as a global hub that launched punk culture into small towns and other countries, serving as what Andy Asp of the Oakland punk band The Pattern calls the “internet of its times,” allowing punks to connect to Mexico City, Croatia, and other global punk communities. Maximum Rocknroll’s power and influence, along with the strong opinions about politics and culture in its pages, made it a global center, but also launched debates about whether the zine’s centrality served to standardize punk. Tim Yo was seen by many to be morally rigid and authoritarian, a complaint voiced by Tim Tonooka:

He was deeply concerned that kids might think incorrect thoughts unless they were provided with carefully selected correct info… Because left to their own those people might come to the wrong conclusions. The mentality is elitist and condescending.

To the annoyance of many, Tim Yo served as the superego in the Bay Area quest for punk authenticity. He attempted to run Maximum Rocknroll as a prefigurative anti-capitalist project. It was produced in the house where the staff lived and everyone worked for free. Even though the zine passionately defended hardcore music, in private Yohannan expressed less interest in the music than the hope that it would provide youth with collective revolutionary identity.

DiY’s incursion into the economic everyday required great organization and collaboration. Maximum Rocknroll’s powerful place in the Bay Area punk scene was based on reciprocity with other institutions, such as the distributor Mordam Records, which was dependent on the business brought in through Maximum Rocknroll’s wide distribution and therefore also upon the involvement of Tim Yohannan and other Maximum Rocknroll editors. Because of Mordam’s scale and ambiguous place as an autonomous/profit-driven punk institution, the label makes clear the tensions between punk aspirations and material realities. Mordam attempted to remain autonomous by refusing to sell through major labels or to distribute any zine that accepted major label advertising. Paradoxically, they were largely able to maintain this independence because of the great success and commercialization of the Bay Area band Green Day. When Green Day signed onto a major label, their earlier releases became popular, eventually selling over a million copies through Mordam.

While Mordam grew and expanded due to this boom, the intransigent nature of real estate in the Bay Area simultaneously curtailed this expansion. With the dot com boom, real estate prices soared and Mordam could no longer afford their large warehouse once their lease expired. These vicissitudes cannot be explained through a reductive binary that pits authenticity against selling out. Rather, the context of a post-Fordist economy must be taken into account. This can be seen in the class position of DiY entrepreneurs, which reflected the emerging occupational structure of the US, the shift to services, and the importance of what Pierre Bourdieu calls “cultural capital.” Punk culture participants, musicians and workers are emblematic of a new kind of precarity. They often come from middle class homes, but do not inherit stability from their parents. In some senses, then, these institutions present a limit case of neoliberal entrepreneurialism.

These experimental forms of DiY institutions and collectivities are impassioned but equivocal responses to a period dominated by precarity and impasse. Lauren Berlant argues that the fantasy of the good life characterized by economic success has been disrupted by contemporary crisis and the “fraying” of fantasies such as meritocracy, upward mobility, job security, intimacy, and political and social equality. In place of these hopes, individuals and groups form optimistic stances in relation to jerry-rigged, DiY, forms of habituation and precarious public spheres, acting as “an intimate public of subjects who circulate scenarios of economic and intimate contingency”. Impasse is for Berlant both a temporal crisis and opportunity:

a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic, such that the activity of living demands both a wandering absorptive awareness and a hypervigilance that collects material that might help to clarify things, maintain one’s sea legs, and coordinate the standard melodramatic desires.

Punk’s teetering and inquisitive dialectical position between active resistance and passive style embodies this experience of crisis.

In this precarious and crisis-ridden era, punk arguably ceases to be a genre, transforming into a more nebulous modality. Fredric Jameson sees the postmodern as a post-genre moment marked by pastiche and the death of referentiality. However, punk’s aesthetic can be seen as the flip side of pastiche. It has no pretension to originality, but rather takes up the detritus of meaning and referentiality, cutting and pasting these shards to negate their original meanings in an intentional way, a process formulated by Guy Debord as détournement. As Dick Hebdige argues, punk’s cut n’ paste aesthetic can allow a critical incursion “through perturbation and deformation to disrupt and reorganize meaning”. This counters what Benjamin Noys sees as an “affirmationist” trend in contemporary literary and theoretical formations, which imagine an autonomous aesthetic “site of creativity and play detached from the forms of capitalist economy and value” (“Recirculation”).

Lauren Berlant’s notion of cruel optimism can help with the investigation of punk’s role in spheres outside of the purview of subcultural theory. Berlant’s formation of “cruel optimism” develops the critique of affirmationism and positive representation, by bringing it into the field of everyday life, extending an analysis of détournement and hacking, as analyzed by McKenzie Wark, into the arena of jerry-rigged counterpublic spheres. The optimism in these moments of the “crisis ordinary” can be seen in the vibrancy of these social experiments, but the “cruelty” of this situation is that the attachment it allows is to a problematic and precarious object or situation.

Within this “crisis ordinary,” DiY projects like Mordam, Maximum Rocknroll, Lookout! Records and Fat Wreck Chords optimistically create new forms of social and spatial practice. However, because of the “cruel” circumstances of these formations, these desires end in what I want to call, following Stacy Thompson, productive failure, with “failure” operating as a troubled category. This is echoed in a lyric from Echonochrist’s song “Bled Dry”: “What you call success I call failure.” Jameson points to failure or impasse as a possible means to cognitive mapping in which “a narrative of defeat” can cause “the whole architectonic of postmodern global space to rise up in ghostly profile behind itself, as some ultimate dialectical barrier or invisible limit”. The trajectory of Bay Area label Lookout!, headed by Larry Livermore and later Chris Appelgreen, maps this contradictory form of failure. One of the early utopian stances that the label took was that it initially did not sign contracts with its bands, which allowed bands to come and go as they pleased without tying them down to requirements to tour or sell a quota. They also gave bands a significantly higher percentage of profits: 60% as opposed to the average of 12-15% in commercial labels. In 1998 Livermore sold Lookout! to Appelgreen, who changed these policies to be more commercial. As Stacy Thompson points out, this transformation was not simply a selling out, but a productive failure that highlights larger structural contradictions and the impossibility of true independence from the system.

Here “failure” is a complex term. Punk productions “fail” in selling on a scale that would register in the commercial sphere. The DiY approach doesn’t pose any significant economic threat to the music industry, representing only a tiny sector of the indie market. This failure, however, is a success in that it allows these labels to avoid being controlled by economic logic. A second productive failure is the inability of punk to supply a living income to musicians, condemning them to supplement their income by working in the commercial sphere. This, however, is “an inverted form of success,” prohibiting music from becoming merely a means to an economic end. In zines such as Maximum Rocknroll the volunteer aspect is philosophically central; each issue notes that all the work is donated and all proceeds are invested in nonprofit projects. The smaller scale of Lookout! is a “partial failure that renders visible the problem inherent in punk’s attempt to free itself from the sphere of commodity exchange”. Punk records cannot fully escape the need to make capital available and to purchase the means of music production, and bands themselves must do some alienated labor, such as touring and repeating sets. However the work done is considered less alienated than other forms and much of it is unwaged. The implicit logic of the ongoing passionate argument about selling out in the punk world is an interpretation of winning as the true loss. Maximum Rocknroll becomes the arbiter of this failure, refusing to review, interview, write articles, or allow advertisements by bands that appear on major labels or that appear on indie labels but are distributed by major labels or their affiliates. In the face of the impossibility of creating a totally new community, punk’s idealistic failures “preserve the possibility of a potential social organization that did not yet exist.” Unable to overturn the current system it “rendered its logic visible and suspect”.

This “failure,” is often framed as “the death of punk,” but can be seen as rather the mark of punk’s deepened incursion into the everyday, in a period that coincides with the Bay Area replacing New York as the capital of DiY. The post-Seventies phase of DiY culture has become self-reflexive, bringing its own foundations and discursive assumptions into question and developing a more sophisticated critique of the culture industry as “a skilled predator on the prowl for fresh young subcultures”. Punks saw that the general speed-up in absorption of stylistic innovation in modernity meant that grassroots culture could become commercialized in a matter of months. An aesthetically fragmented punk could partially evade this cooptation of what Dylan Clark calls “market democracy”. This phase of punk is already post-punk in that early punk relied on shocking a confused mainstream. As Fredric Jameson often notes, the postmodern mainstream becomes more and more adaptive to experimental forms. Because of this, late punk’s strategy had to be an evasion of spectacle and a deepened critical anarchism. This phase draws on the stripped down ideology of earlier punk and its dedication to experience in place of symbolic encounters. Punks refer to the scene in which they hang out rather than calling themselves punk, and evade concrete descriptions of themselves but rather participate in political projects such as anti-corporate movements, Earth First!, and Reclaim the Streets. In this way, “punk faked its own death,” decentralizing and losing its markings, becoming instead “a loose assemblage of guerilla militias”. As it enters this phase, the punk aesthetic becomes inextricable from anarchism. Jeff Ferrell notes that while some participants may draw their practice from an overt understanding of anarchism,

this isn’t a necessary prerequisite, appropriately enough for an orientation founded on direct action, many seem to find their anarchist politics right there in the experience of everyday life.

In a moment where, as the situationists argue, the everyday is fully colonized by capitalist logic, it is also, conversely, permeated by the political in all its mundane forms.

Bay Area institutions such as 924 Gilman and Lookout! point to what John Charles Goshert refers to as the “pervasive economic and social attitude in the Bay Area punk scene”, with Gilman providing a political meeting space, local collectivity, and creativity. San Francisco becomes the capital of punk modernity as these institutions become the models for other labels, bands, and venues throughout the country. With the rise of punk as an economic and institutional force and the gathering of political and other communities around these institutions, punk had the opportunity to become more diverse. So in the early Nineties, Gilman hosted diverse genres such as performance art, funk, jazz, heavy metal, and country alongside the predominant punk shows. The explicit anarchism and collective running of Gilman allowed for this collaboration, and freed punk from rigid aesthetic requirements. Instead, it was understood that punk’s survival was becoming dependent on “constant mutation and unrecognizability”.

Larry Livermore describes this phenomenon in the zine Absolutely Zippo, in a discussion of the play of a high school student (although she is not named, it turns out that it’s Miranda July who went on to be a well-known performance artist and film maker) at Gilman as embodying the spirit of punk by avoiding punk clichés and avoiding reification, rather stressing what he sees as innovation and independence. His description of July gets at a core punk value of refusing punk clichés:

I also have to tell you that even though I’ve never seen her at a show and she doesn’t have any piercings or tattoos (not that I saw, anyway) she’s more punk than 95 percent of you reading this mag. Why? Because she does something, she takes her vision and makes it your reality, she takes imagination and shapes it into something we all must contend with… Because she’s not waiting for the next edition of the punk handbook to tell her the appropriate ways to rebel and be creative.

This constant evolution of punk as a logic rather than a set of encoded practices is central to its capacity for expressive negation as subcultures struggle against increasingly adaptive forms of capitalist logic.

This understanding of the relationship of subcultural music to a transformed everyday helps to explain how punk music can be simultaneously popular and difficult. Fantasies of punk authenticity are belied by the fact that markets themselves are parasitic on grassroots taste. This push and pull of resistance and complicity forms the core contradiction of the punk approach to everyday life. These marginal phenomena: DiY musical, entrepreneurial, and everyday production thus navigate success and failure, high and low, inside and outside, rebellion from and absorption in everyday life. Because of the complexity, diversity and centrality of the contemporary city, the everyday merges with high, experimental art, “the avant-garde project of purposefully mismatching perception and the taken-for granted in order to release perspectives from the fetish of common sense tends to find a contemporary realization in the daily culture of the metropolis” (Chambers). This relationship to capitalist temporality, ratiocination and ambition in the ghostly “25th hour” of a counterculture temporality does not constitute a clear political program or a full utopian transformation. Instead, Bay Area DiY is a flexible form of utopian negation that necessarily fails, and in doing so succeeds in mapping the impasses that must be known in order to one day be surmounted.

The Ballerina and the Bull is out now, available from all good bookshops and online.

Interview with JD Taylor, author of Island Story — podcast and transcript

I interviewed JD Taylor—author of Island Story: Journeys Around Unfamiliar Britain—about the motives behind his extraordinary 4-month bike tour of the UK. Dan explains that the bicycle was secondary–what was important was to get out of London and see the parts of the island that have been written out of the story—JT

Listen to the interview here, or read the full transcript below:

JT: When you set out on this journey, what did you expect to find?

island storyJD Taylor: I had been writing a lot about politics in Britain, and I was expecting that the decreases in the standard of living would really stand out. I expected that the recession and unemployment would have caused a kickback reaction of people starting to demand a more democratic way of life. That hadn’t happened and I was quite surprised by that. It made me come to realize that perhaps what is most instrumental is not what is external, but the internal and state of culture and politics, particularly the rule of fear. I sensed that people were very afraid.

When I set out, I wanted to find out why people weren’t doing more to take their communities into their own hands…why people weren’t shocked that their children/grandchildren were going to have a much worse quality of life than they have. I sensed a confusion and inertia about what could be done. I felt like people were very disempowered.

But at the start of it, I was just completely open. I was almost confused by my own country.

JT: I see. It wasn’t first and foremost a travel journey. It was really about connecting with people and trying to get out into their nooks and crannies and test this theory.

JD Taylor: Yes. When I set out the bicycle was almost the cheapest and easiest way to get around, but I could have been quite happy walking or taking the train. What was most important was to go to places that I felt people hadn’t heard from or talked about for a long time. Somewhere like Burton. London just dominates politics and the media so much—the stories and the people from the rest of the island are made to feel provisional.

It was a research project, I suppose. It was also my own way of trying to understand my own island—I felt that I knew more about Europe or the United States than I did about the North of England or Wales. So I wanted to go out there and just talk to people and find out how they felt, what they thought, and why. I felt the best way to do that would be to just go on my own [laughs] with a tent and just talk to people and ask them, what is life like here?

JT: You’re a native Londoner?

JD Taylor: I am a native Londoner. I am from South London, and I’d not travelled at all around the West of Britain. I had some family in Leeds in the North of England, but that was it, everywhere else was a complete mystery. I couldn’t name more than about five English Counties—counties of Wales and Scotland were a total mystery; they might as well have been in Egypt or Peru. I felt almost embarrassed that I didn’t know more.

JT: What stands out to me in the book is you seem to have a narrow set of questions, which is what you’d expect from a sociological project like this. But at the same time, your observations about the countryside, and the towns, and the highways and byways really come through, so was that unexpected that you would fall in love? There’s a real romance that comes through as a reader.

JD Taylor: Yeah, that’s really well observed. I didn’t expect to get that much from the landscape if I’m honest, but I think a few days in I began to start reading something in the landscape.

I came across this really remarkable quote by W. G. Hoskins and he says that “Most of England is a thousand years old; in a walk of a few miles one can touch nearly every century in that long stretch of time.” As always, I began to think, “Well how could one read the landscape now, and how could one appreciate what was there rather than just being about the motorways, the freeways, and the shops and supermarkets, and then I began to realize that people are produced by the landscape as well. The landscape isn’t just buildings; it’s not just trees and fields. It’s the kind of people that inhabit it and speak in these dialects.

People didn’t really want to talk to me about politics because that was a domain where nobody really felt that they had any agency, but they wanted to tell me about their communities. They wanted to tell me about local myths and about beautiful spots that one could travel to in a day. This information became so much more compelling that in the end the politics and the landscape become completely interlinked. The landscape was something that people loved a lot more and I began falling in love with it through their stories.

JT: One thing that comes through again and again is you have an interest in the built aspect of what you’re observing, so here is another car park, here’s another disgusting supermarket, here’s another drab building. Maybe you could elaborate more on that? How did England strike you in terms of the built aspect not just the landscape aspect?

JD Taylor: I wanted to communicate just how ugly so much of the island has become. I felt it was necessary. Because up until, maybe about I suppose 70 or 100 years ago, so much of the landscape was fields and forests; there were far fewer roads. Up until 200 years ago, most of the population of the island were farmers, or craftsmen, or fishermen and these ways of life gave people immense satisfaction. I found that out when I talked to their children or talked to people that were still holding on to their farms and I did meet a few of them.

I wanted to almost report the damage that had been done in this quest to shuttle people into the cities to make the industrial revolution. I felt it was necessary to let people know that we’ve really damaged the place and that was regrettable, but also it’s reversible; we can rewind the landscape. We don’t need all these supermarkets, and we don’t need all these roads. People don’t really want them either, but they have never been consulted in the changes that happen to their community.

JT: You also bring in a lot of history, history that I did not know about – earlier rebellions 5, 6, 700 years ago. How did you come upon that knowledge? Is that part of the school-book learning when you’re a child in England, or is that more specialized knowledge that you’ve picked up as an adult?

JD Taylor: The knowledge I found about the island’s rebellious history was a mixture of things that people told me in odd places like pubs and supermarkets and a mixture of my own research. Generally, we’re not educated in our own history here in Britain, beyond the First and Second World Wars.

People don’t really know that much about the countryside. They certainly don’t know anything about the Neolithic settlement of the island, the farming population there, and the different migrations there. The struggles that have taken place on the land – people demanding fair rights, democratic representation is not something we’re educated in. I don’t know how to exactly give a reason why.

Some of it I found out myself through reading. People directed me to books as I was travelling. I was blogging along the way and so even if they weren’t able to put me up in their homes they would send me information for the blog. But in other places people would talk to me. I was in a supermarket in this rural part of Wales, and I was talking to a man there who was helping me put through my groceries. He started telling me about the “Rioting Rebeccas” who were a bunch of Welsh men, agricultural laborers, and they dressed up as women and would go around burning down toll gates and attacking the gentry, about a hundred-and-fifty years ago—dressed as women and dressed in costume!

JT:  Why was that?

JD Taylor: It was a protest against their poverty and their low wages. I never would have found out about it had he not told me, when I was having a quite casual conversation with him about the area.

JT:  Amazing.

JD Taylor: These histories are there and people often know about them. People are grateful to share them because it’s not common knowledge even though it concerns the commons, the common people.

JT: Right there is an example of this living oral-history.

JD Taylor:  Yeah.

JT: Was that a common occurrence, where you’d pick up old stories that had been handed on?

JD Taylor: In different places, yes, it almost reflected how, I don’t know, politically beleaguered a certain region was. In the Northeast of England, where there had been a lot of coal mining and the famous miners’ strike of 1984-1985, people would often tell me in pubs, if I stop them by on the street, and talking to people by the roadside they would tell me things about the miners’ strike, or where mines had been, or about their grandparents and how they struggled and also the difficulties of these different jobs.

There was no history in some places. At first there was a great absence; it’s like people only really lived in the present and that was certainly true of the Midlands in the South of England, which are relatively more prosperous than the rest of the island. There, there wasn’t really any kind of awareness of how people had lived up until about 60 years ago. I found that just as strange, just as interesting as these areas where people could tell me about life 500 years ago.

JT: Amazing! What was your biggest take away from the journey?

JD Taylor: Wherever you go people are generous and kind, they’re wise and intelligent, and they’re willing to help strangers and to help friends. I didn’t expect that. To be honest, I thought my bicycle was going to get stolen. I thought I’d probably get run over. I thought I might get attacked. I expected bad things. I expected xenophobia and reactionary views.

What I found instead was progressive ideas about the future; people that were concerned about their children and grandchildren. People have a great deal of ecological awareness and maybe not enough hope. That really struck me—how disappointed people were with the way things have become, with the government that we’d gotten in ’10, the way that we live, working far too much, not spending enough time with our loved ones.

It was a common story—people wanting a better life and not yet believing it’s possible, and it left me with a lot of questions at the end. I was quite ambivalent, I guess. I knew that I’d met so many good people that really wanted and deserved a much better quality of life; collectively want to be much more democratic and equal, but at the same time no one had any clear idea about how that would happen.

I wondered if people would have been feeling similarly 500 hundred or 1,000 years ago, or if this is something that really is specific to our moment—the commons being dispossessed, wanting a better life, and people giving up on politics and politicians.

[Interviewer’s note: I spoke with Dan a few weeks before the Brexit vote on June 23, 2016.]

You can hear Dan in his own voice by clicking here.

Statement on Brexit

Soon it will be difficult to find anyone who will have admitted to doing it. Leave’s leaders are dropping like flies – they can emigrate to Canada and enjoy the perks of an open society they affect to despise, leaving the foot soldiers behind to pick up a bill of opprobrium, self-harm and shame that follows from being had. No one sings “no one likes us, we don’t care” and really means it. The referendum was the wrong place to make a valid point against poverty and exclusion, an exclusion even more of us will share living in a country we don’t want to be identified with.

Repeater is more London-based than anything else, but we don’t exist in a London bubble. Our editors and staff are based in London, Newcastle, Wiltshire, Suffolk, and Argentina; our authors all over the UK, Europe and the world. We refuse to paint over half the country as dim racists beyond salvation. Yet no-one could deny the racism of much of the leave campaign, and the damage this has done. Racism is nothing new – in London or the rest of the UK. But what may have been covered with a thin veneer before is coming swaggering into the light, emboldened.

Unity is needed right now, but that unity must not come at the price of pandering to racism and anti-migrant rhetoric. As publishers and as people we pledge to do what we can to work towards unity, to defend and boost the marginalised, to listen, to learn, and to fight encroaching fascism wherever we can.

Repeater Books

Dawn Foster on Theresa May

In an extract from her recent book Lean Out, Dawn Foster explores the limits of self-proclaimed feminist Theresa May’s solidarity with women.

The notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre was opened in 2001, under the last Labour government, and management was outsourced to private company Serco in 2007. Poor conditions in the centre and protests against the 400-capacity facility have intensified in recent years, coming to a head in 2015. Reports of sexual abuse and mistreatment in the compound became increasingly common, and self-harm was rife among the women, who comprised of failed asylum seekers awaiting deportation, imprisoned despite committing no crime. A Channel 4 investigation obtained footage of the systemic mistreatment of women detained in the centre, included a guard shouting “Headbutt the bitch. I’d beat her up.”

Rashida Manjoo, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on violence against women, was barred from Yarl’s Wood by the Home Office in April 2014 when she tried to investigate complaints as part of her fact-finding mission into violence against women in the UK. Cameras have never been allowed in. In April 2015, in the same week as a woman died in Yarl’s Wood and a guard with a history of sexually inappropriate behaviour was suspended pending investigation for a revenge assault, Cristel Amiss, of the Black Women’s Rape Action Project, told The Guardian: “We’ve been supporting women in Yarl’s Wood for over a decade and have heard consistent reports from brave whistleblowers exposing abusive treatment and sexually predatory behaviour by guards.”

After the Channel 4 investigation, Theresa May refused to come to the House of Commons to answer an urgent question from the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, on the treatment of detainees, called amongst other abusive names “black bitch”, “animals”, “beasties”, and “evil”. Cooper said, “There is no point in ministers pretending to be shocked at news of abuse. This is not news. Even now, the ministers have not set up an independent inquiry. This is state-sanctioned abuse of women on the Home Secretary’s watch and it needs to end now.”

Despite May’s assertions that she believes in women’s empowerment, there is a distinct limit to her solidarity, which depends on how your race, country of birth, and economic wealth intersect. As Home Secretary, May is in a position rarely occupied by women, and rarely occupied by anyone for so long. Home Secretaries tend to be hit by scandals and forced to resign with wearying regularity. But whilst in office, May has overseen some of the most draconian immigration legislation for decades, defending immigration detention, renewing contracts with Serco despite sexual violence reports, and introducing rules that mean low income families are split up and British people split up from their partners and children if they don’t earn over a soon-to-be-raised income threshold.

May sits in a cabinet with many other powerful women, especially after criticism of Cameron’s disproportionately male and Etonian cabinet refused to die down until a reshuffle. The policies that trickle down from that cabinet harm women disproportionately. Despite launching a campaign titled “Theresa May for Equal Pay” in 2008, May has endorsed an austerity regime that saw the gender pay-gap increase, and been a stalwart of a government that introduced cuts that affected four times as many women as men.

Meanwhile, there is a burgeoning crisis in the women’s sector: provision of domestic violence services and rape crisis centres and helplines has been reduced due to austerity cuts. Headline figures on cuts to UK domestic violence services often mask the full impact of government cuts on people fleeing abuse at home. Women across the UK have been hardest hit by austerity and attendant spending cuts. Charities in the sector speak out about the problems they’re seeing: Women’s Aid has warned that services are “at breaking point”, with a third of women turned away from refuges due to lack of space, and the total number of refuges falling from 187 to 155 between 2010 and 2014. But for many of the women escaping violence, moving to a refuge is only the first step on the journey to safe, independent living.

The housing crisis, especially in the south east and London, is one of the biggest factors affecting women trying to move on. Most women spend between six to nine months in refuges, where they’re assigned a support worker who offers counselling, signposts services and advocates for the women, helping them build independent living skills, and getting them into education and training. The move to independence after surviving violence is crucial, as without support and safeguards put in place, the risk of returning home to violence and abuse is heightened.

At one refuge in London last year, run by the charity Hestia, the service manager Louise Dickerson told me: “It’s really difficult in the climate now. Because social housing is pretty much abolished, local authorities discharge their duty through private rented accommodation now most often, which is maybe on a yearly license or tenancy.” Housing waiting lists in the UK’s local councils, who have a legal duty to help homeless and vulnerable people, are at an all-time high. With so much pressure on councils, domestic violence survivors can struggle to convince council employees they are a priority. Women have even spoken of being disbelieved when they disclose their need to flee because of violence. Moving to privately rented flats means the women and families are offered less security and are liable for far higher rents: most private housing offers tenancy agreements of no longer than a year, and Hestia report more women are being asked to have a financial guarantor, who agrees to be financially liable for rent arrears. For women fleeing violence, who’ve often cut all ties to their wider family and friendship groups, this is an impossibility and an insult after their ordeal.

Even when women do find a home to move on to, the cuts mean they face even more hardship. In the raft of public-spending cuts in the last few years, many of the financial assistance schemes councils offered have been slashed. The crisis loan fund, which provided a total of £180m in hardship loans to people in extreme financial need, has now been scrapped. Economic control is a commonly used tool of domestic violence perpetrators when preventing women from leaving: removing financial help for such vulnerable women and children puts lives at risk. This money was previously a lifeline for people in extreme distress and very vulnerable situations, and losing it puts even more pressure on domestic violence services. As Dickerson explains:

They’ve taken away the crisis loan, and women relied on that for resettlement. So women will leave without a mattress to sleep on, and some of them have young families. One woman was self-harming recently, living in a shelter that was not homely. It’s very challenging for our workers. We work really hard just to make sure the women can survive.

Other lifelines of financial support are also being slowly eroded. The Discretionary Housing Payment funding, which provide payments of up to a year for people facing difficulty paying their accommodation costs, is to be slashed by 24% from 2015.

In a speech to Women’s Aid’s annual conference in 2010 in the early days of the coalition, May told the audience that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would reverse the decline in rape crisis centres, but tentatively refused to make any funding commitments to the women’s sector in the face of looming local authority cuts. “Your problem is my problem”, May said, adding, “Success for us will not mean we’ve spent more of the money we don’t have. It will mean more women have been helped, more abusers have been brought to justice and more attitudes have been changed.”

It’s not precisely clear how May and the government expect rape crisis centres to continue to provide an identical service with less money, which perhaps explains why she is not chancellor, but does little to comfort the women in need who find their service threatened with closure. Violence against women is a problem for all of society, and without accepting that all services must be welcoming and accessible for women fleeing violence and crucially that they must be adequately funded, more women will find their lives in danger.

The benefit of having women in the cabinet remains to be seen for migrant, low-paid, or abused women. For now, it seems as though there is no difference: the powerful look after the powerful, with gender as an afterthought, or a bargaining chip when trying to deflect criticism for cuts that harm women.

This is an edited extract from Lean Out by Dawn Foster, available now from all good bookshops and online (links here)


Another Island — J.D. Taylor

J.D. Taylor on the Brexit vote’s fallout as a search for new island narratives.


Strange energies have been unleashed by the Brexit campaign which no political faction looks capable of containing, whatever the outcome of this Thursday’s vote.

Whilst the Brexit vote has effectively become a plebiscite on uncontrolled immigration, the anger it has unleashed around the country raises older questions about narratives of identity and belonging. The cumulative effects of deindustrialisation, austerity, privatisation and the demonisation of the poor has reached a point where many of these narratives are unravelling into incoherency. And whilst efforts are being expended, often ineffectually, to argue for the values of cosmopolitanism or political sovereignty, less has been made of the decades-deep disempowerment and disaffection by which the island’s own collective story has come undone.

The social security contract has become a war against the poor, and an eerily popular one at that; the National Health Service may soon collapse into a mess of private provision and statutory but overwhelmed free access. The great public industries and utilities have been dismantled and sold overseas for peanuts. Talk to any frontline professional in health and social care, education, housing or justice and one is warned that services are at breaking point, crushed between increasing demand and diminishing workforces and pay. For now, heroic efforts are made to keep things going. No doubt fears about rent arrears or losing one’s home are equally compelling. Few (rightly) believe that the welfare state would support them should things turn south. But it is becoming clear that even this noble lemming logic is insufficient to the demands placed on it. And this disaffection against this unravelling ratchets in intensity.

Birmingham centre
Communities that made things or mined them, farmed things or fished them, have been dashed against the rocks in the last forty years at an accelerating rate, in a story most of us are familiar with, even if some still groan at terms like neoliberalism. Standing without purpose, the towns and cities outside the island’s capital cities, and the lives within which animate them, have found themselves superfluous to a new economic order founded on crooked financial activity and inflated property prices down South. I describe places that I travelled through and spent time in when I wrote Island Story, an account of a long summer journeying across Britain by bike in an attempt to understand its diverse communities and stories. I found a surfeit of communities of non-participants, excluded economically and politically, angered that the decisions that transformed their work, neighbourhoods, family lives and self-images have been made elsewhere. I believe that their voices have for this brief moment become politically important.

The Leave campaigners have exploited this disaffection and disorientation and projected it onto Europe. The EU is now a euphemism for undemocratic, unaccountable and arbitrary authority. Whether this is true or not isn’t in question, because the tenor of the Brexit arguments has been intrinsically anti-political and, in many cases, sceptical of factual evidence or discussion. The interests of private capital have been internalised. People talk of economic growth and trade deals that will benefit no person they know of; they talk of migrants overwhelming services they have never used. They do not perceive that the island’s infrastructure and social safety net has collapsed so unsustainably that in five years Promethean efforts will be required to rebuild them. Remarkably, a decision that could permanently deface apparently ‘British’ ideas about fair play, solidarity, liberalism and communal obligation is being made on the flimsiest of evidence.

But this is a vote about narratives, even where politics is reduced to personality and prejudice. More interesting is that the Remain vote expresses hatred for the political establishment and, in many cases, for the debilitation of working class ex-industrial communities left by capitalism. Contempt for Brussels is overblown: the largely English, non-London support to leave Europe is an English independence movement in parallel to the Scots. Of course, wherever a dominant social group is appealed to as a victim of injustice and moral outrage, bad things follow. But there is a markedly working class composition to this independence movement, one which rejects not the values of cosmopolitanism (an erroneous judgement by the mostly young, middle-class pro-Remain contingent – people like me) but what it considers a political and social establishment which has rubbished and destroyed their class cultures and ways of life, like those I encountered, lived among and narrate in Island Story.

Its response is misguided and likely to lead to disappointment. But this anti-establishment turn among the English is significant. Whether this collection of different social groups will cohere in enough numbers to force the UK out of the EU and its status in the global economic order is unclear, but this new pressure will leave behind an imprint on the terrain around it.

‘Most of England is 1,000 years old’, writes the landscape historian W.G. Hoskins. In a ‘walk of a few miles one can touch nearly every century in that long stretch of time’. Witness time in the undulations, roads and settlements along the landscape. Observe its failure of passage in the fatalistic deference to traditions and to beacons of aristocratic authority. If much of the Brexit discussion is insular and inward-looking, the question it raises — who owns Britain? — presents a more compelling line of inquiry. The old narrative of the United Kingdom is no longer sustainable. Divisions between the island’s countries, let alone between the South-East and the rest of England, are becoming irreconcilable.

In the collapse of the old ways, and the murkiness of the contemporary political fog, comes the possibility to explore what another island story might amount to. One that reckons with the facts of automation and the required reduction of work in our lifetimes, with the possibilities of renewable energies and of the necessity of living sustainably, of individual liberalism, of a sceptical, Internet-reliant citizenship. One that learns from but is no longer burdened by the past.

As I travelled around the island, I found ways of life wrecked, communities dispersed, and a prevailing sense of despair and acquiescence in an unjust but apparently inevitable fate. But I also found people and projects that inspired me in their drive to question the realism and inevitability of the current political order, one that seems now more fragile than at any point in recent history. I met remarkable individuals and collectives determined to re-establish the foundations of a fairer, kinder, more wise and equal society. Rarely are they popular, but they indicate another story or journey that might lead beyond the ugly, hostile and xenophobic miasma of the Brexit question.


I met people like Eden, rearing sheep on a council farm in Darlington beside a gargantuan Argos distribution centre. He told me of EU subsidies, subsistence farming, the one way of life he and others know, and ‘the unholy mess that’s developing’ in food production. Farmers are often misunderstood and vilified, so too are welfare recipients, like those Sonya was helping in Morecambe. Sonya was a lettings agent in the private sector, increasingly the main handlers of those dependent out of disability or circumstance on housing benefit. She described the choices people made between heating and eating, trapped in a cycle of unemployment, debt, temporary work, and back again. ‘What good are foodbanks when people haven’t got enough to pay their gas or electricity to heat the food?’ she asked. She was also a local historian, one of the brightest minds I’d met, locked out of higher education by circumstance, trying to give her two sons a better life.

Then there was Ciaran, like me in his 20s, working at the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig college on Skye, a centre for the renaissance of the Scots Gaelic tongue. He argued that Scotland’s future had more in common with social democratic Scandinavia than neoliberal London (‘London feels like a foreign country here’). He and his friends couldn’t afford to buy a home locally because of the migration of second-home seeking English incomers, forcing up house prices. Like many young Scots, he was politically informed, passionate, and hopeful about the future, in a way often missing south of Berwick.

I met Thomas Turgoose, the muse of Shane Meadows’ films, pulling pints and interrupting fights in a rough and tumble boozer in Grimsby, who spoke of the incoherency and impossibility of locating a singular national identity. Then there was Colin, attempting to rebuild from a few forgotten rail-tracks the Teign Valley railway that once weaved through Dartmoor. I slept on one of his train carriages and talked into the night about the lost future of a modern and sustainable railway travel that might one day become possible again. Dreamers some, heartbroken others. ‘Stay with life’, said a melancholy Father Michael on the Kyle of Tongue. Among the sadness and incoherence and heartbreak and anger is a hope, a possibility, that permeates these stories, and the book, like a pulse.

And so I have told their stories, because if we are to reconstruct a sense of collectivity and possibility out of this mess, then it will not be through venal and corrupt politicians or Twitter hot-takes, but each of us, all of us, thinking, deliberating and cooperating, living together as a collective endeavour.

The story of another island.

The Cult of Brexit

Phil Knight’s take on the impending EU referendum

On the surface, the debate, such that it is, around a possible exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, appears to be between two irrationalisms – between the fear of immigration and a globalized world on the one hand, and between the fear of economic collapse and a rise of dangerous nationalist sentiment on the other. The debate has also highlighted an asymmetry in the sides ostensibly conducting the debate, between “populists” who profess to represent the people, and an internationalist elite who affect to represent a disinterested, common sense, preference for stability.

Both of these sides, although they are largely unaware of it themselves, are capable of appearing surprisingly sinister, and that is because Brexit has unavoidably brought to the fore the structures of power that govern the global economy, and which normally prefer to remain unseen. The harsh warnings, easily interpreted as threats, against leaving the European Union that have emanated from foreign leaders and supranational institutions have been surprising not just for their starkness, but for the obvious approval they have garnered from the British establishment, notably from the Prime Minister himself, and his Chancellor, George Osbourne. This has demonstrated a key factor in Neoliberalism, not generally recognised but keenly felt, that national elites are not on the side of those they govern. The referendum has made abundantly clear that Cameron and Osbourne’s “people” are the likes of Christine Lagarde, Donald Tusk, Francois Hollande and Jamie Dimon – these, their fellow members of the international ruling class, are who they feel answerable to, and not their voters or the British public in general. This is now in the open for all to see, in a way that it hasn’t been before.

The consolidation of this ruling class also has a bearing on the stresses within the EU that have helped to generate the referendum. Fundamentally, I suspect that a pan-European state is perfectly feasible, and that state would be capable of absorbing large numbers of immigrants from outside Europe if that was felt to be necessary or desirable. However, such a state would require the genuine acquiescence of the people of Europe, and such an acquiescence would by necessity be a slow, organic process. Patience would be required as a genuine sense of a primary European identity, above existing national identities, slowly emerged and crystallized over generation after generation. This might take centuries to happen, and would require great tact and flexibility from the leaders of the EU.

However, there are two potential problems to such an approach. The first is the ordinary impatience that derives from human mortality. Few people are prepared to lay the groundwork for projects that will only bear fruit years after they are dead. Mostly, people want to see their projects completed within their own lifetimes. Secondly, the necessities of international capitalism, the need to harmonize and regulate markets and reduce barriers to trade, do not move at an organic pace. Indeed they are fundamentally inorganic. The result of these influences has been that European integration has been conducted to an artificial and inflexible timetable, with little regard to the views of the various European publics. This approach could just about be undertaken when the EU could dependably deliver economic growth and social improvement, but any significant economic rupture would always expose doubts in the legitimacy of the European project.

There is yet another, more existential quality to the manner that “ever-closer union” has been undertaken. Both the EU and Globalisation are escatological concepts, and both place their eschatons in the recent past. Just as Globalisation posits the fall of the Berlin Wall as the end of history, so the EU’s eschaton is the Maastricht Treaty, which transformed the European Community into the nascent state that is the European Union, and created its flawed currency, the Euro. This moment, being an eschaton, bestowed upon the EU another pair of characteristics that are implicit in escatology.

Firstly, it conferred upon the EU the aura of a spiritual project, the idea that the EU marks a clear break from the dark days of the old Europe, riven as it was with discord and warfare, into a new, permanent era of peace and light. This sense of a clear break inevitably suggests the second characteristic – the dogmatic, inflexible insistence that there is no turning back. The project goes in one direction and one direction only.

As such the EU, as with globalisation, is a religion, but as the people have not bought into them, they are high caste religions, or temple cults. This is particularly problematic because as the various peoples of Europe increasingly reject the European project, and question its legitimacy, the EU cannot respond with flexibility and compromise. Thus a pernicious dynamic has been generated in which the EU responds to such existential threats by attempting to advance its agenda all the more urgently. This is creating nationalists and demagogues, and contrary to those who believe that the EU represents stability, it is in fact the very source of the instability that threatens to undermine it.

The existential, spiritual necessity of the EU to its ruling class also explains the so-called scaremongering of the Remain campaign. Although its warnings of economic disaster and warfare are dismissed as being purely manipulative by its opponents, this is not the whole story. Because the EU, and globalisation, are necessarily a permanent state of affairs, it is unthinkable to their proselytisers that they might be reversed, or cease to exist. Thus the elite Remainers are, with their scaremongering, projecting the destruction of their own psyches. Following the collapse of 2008, and the failure of the Euro, Brexit threatens to continue the collapse of their entire worldview, as the EU cracks and Globalisation starts to be rolled back. This collapse will happen anyway, as the fissures in both the EU and the global economy are already beyond repair, and all Britain leaving the EU will do is hasten their demise. World leaders, or those who replace them, will then begin the search for the next eschaton on which to build their secular religion.

Perhaps there will be a Cult of Brexit.

Battle of the Britons: England vs Wales

Mark Perryman previews England v Wales as competing versions of nationhood

The traditional ‘Battle of Britain’ match is of course England v Scotland, the very first recognised international football match dating back to 1872 and the most intense of rivalries ever since. The last time two ‘home’ nations met in a major tournament it was again England v Scotland at Euro 96. The spark in so many ways for the break-up-Britain agenda that was to follow the Blair government devolution referendums a year later and latterly transformed into the SNP ‘tartan landslide’. Once derided by Jim Sillars as ‘ninety-minute nationalists’ Scots today are so busy building a nation they can call their own they haven’t much time left over for their under-performing football team, ouch!

Instead it will be the Welsh who will take the field on Thursday against Scotland’s ‘auld enemy’. An encounter inevitably affected by the ugly scenes the weekend before in Marseille. It was the historian Eric Hobsbawm who once observed, “ The individual, even the one who only cheers, becomes a symbol of the nation himself.” This was sadly true of those brutalised encounters in the south of France. Though as my friend Julie Nerney who was there has pointed out the habit of most travelling England fans is to “learn where to go and not to when you travel to games. Avoiding the places where it was obvious there was a chance of things kicking off.  Knowing what the signs of a flashpoint were and extricating yourself from any situation where you might simply end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  And thus in Marseille as Julie reports “Bars in the main square of any town are a magnet for trouble. Many sensible fans give them a wide berth.” This is the hidden story behind the headlines about an episode like Marseille 2016. Meanwhile in another part of town I’d helped organise a fans’ mini tournament England v Russia, another mate, John Lunt, who played describes the experience, “Had fun, we may have lost all our games, but made a few friends when others were doing their best not to.”

Little of this features in how most would think of the Englishness on parade at Euro 2016. Britain is a mix of contradictions, at home right now. Bathing in the collective and transnational experience of being European via the Euros while according to the referendum polls more than half the country couldn’t exit the continent fast enough For the English such contradictions are exacerbated by a very particular identity crisis. When England and Wales line-up for kick off each set of players, and fans will belt out their respective National Anthems. The Welsh, Land of our Fathers, while the English, like the Northern Irish, have to sing somebody else’s. Eh? That’s right us and the Northern Irish don’t have an anthem as every other country does, instead we have to sing an anthem that belongs to somewhere else, Great Britain. Yet the English tenaciously cling to an anthem which isn’t even ours as a source of great comfort. “Long to Reign Over Us, Happy and Glorious ” in those two lines the English contradictions of subjecthood neatly summed up.

American author Franklin Foer in his book  How Soccer Explains the World  points to the range of forces of globalisation which threaten this settled subjecthood founded on an unchanging notion of what it means to be English.  Take a look at the players on any Premier League pitch, in the technical area the managers, coaches and backroom staff, the ownership of the bigger, and some smaller, clubs, the audience in the stands and via TV, the exchange of playing styles and tactics. There is very little left about our football which is precisely English.

Despite these forces of Europeanisation and globalisation however Foer makes a key point about soccer(sic) and culture; “ Of course, soccer isn’t the same as Bach or Buddhism. But it is often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community’s fabric, a repository of traditions.” This is why England v Wales is always going to be about more than a football match.

An Englishness subject to imperial and martial tradition helps explain the ugly saliency of immigration as an issue in the Euro referendum non-debate and this reminds me of Satnam Virdee’s description of 1970s Powellism.

A powerful re-imagining of the English nation after empire, reminding his audience it was a nation for whites only. In that historical moment the confident racism that had accompanied the high imperial moment mutated into a defensive racism, a racism of the vanquished who no longer wanted to dominate but to physically expel the racialised other from the shared space they occupied, and thereby erase them and the Empire from its collective memory.

The make-up of the England team might appear a powerful antidote to these forces of reaction. But unlike the Welsh, and most particularly the Scots, the English barely possess a civic understanding of nationhood, instead it is mired in the racial. A football team may project some kind of alternative sense of being English but in the absence of political forces to make that argument it’s not enough. In June 2016 that couldn’t be more obvious.

None of this will help us predict the score when Bale’s Welshmen take on Rooney’s Englishmen but it certainly helps us understand how such an encounter is framed, consumed and understood. Performance isn’t something restricted just to the pitch y’know.

Mark Perryman is the editor of the new book 1966 and Not All That published by Repeater Books and available from Philosophy Football.

Regulating capitalism in Marvel’s Civil War

Guest post by John Medhurst 

The central concern of modern politics is the extent to which the destructive, anti-social effects of neoliberal capitalism – most obviously those produced by the financial sector and fossil fuel industry – should be subject to public regulation. The most life-threatening activity within modern America—wide-spread and easily accessible gun ownership—is a relic of rampant free-market individualism. The results are grim.

The superhero genre (comics or film) cannot avoid the issues raised. Most superheroes, after all, are vigilantes. They have no legal sanction to do what they do, yet because the rules of the superhero story function in their favour they are seldom hunted down and arrested. The threats they respond to are always real, the actions they take avert a far worse injustice or disaster (sometimes genocidal), they never accidentally kill someone, and thus their actions are justified in the terms of the world they inhabit.










In the most famous example of police-vigilante collusion, Batman is given tacit authorisation for his activities by Gotham’s senior police official. In recent Batman stories Commissioner Gordon is criticised for this by the media and politicians, even investigated by antagonistic colleagues, but he always prevails, usually after a homicidal psychopath like the Joker is brought to heel by Batman. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films placed its hero’s relationship to the law front and centre.

DC and Marvel rarely do the same. Superman, the Flash and Green Lantern carry on regardless. Grant Morrison’s iconic run on the Justice League simply made the League’s threats so cosmic they either never took place on Earth, or if they did there was self-evidently no other body than the League who could deal with them. Warren Ellis’s The Authority addressed it by frankly admitting that the Authority – An alternate version of the Justice League with added sexual diversity, radical politics and ultra-violence – were imposing their power on “bad guys”, and bad governments, simply because they could. As a limited series outside DC continuity it could do that. Mainstream heroes cannot, or at least not without raising intractable problems that would dominate future storylines.

Marvel has a double standard. On the one hand its “street level” heroes – Spiderman, Daredevil, Luke Cage – are routinely harassed by the media, the most obvious example being the Daily Bugle’s editor J. Jonah Jameson’s obsessive pursuit of Spiderman; and the X-Men are frequently persecuted by anti-mutant forces within government. On the other its premier superhero team, the Avengers, is granted enormous latitude.

Although the Avengers’ team roster continually changes it revolves around the “big three” – Captain America, Iron Man and Thor. Given the iconic nature of these characters, and the manner in which the Avengers operate openly from Avengers Mansion or Stark Tower in New York, a dramatic device is needed to explain their freedom to operate. Thus, since the 1980s, the Avengers have been a semi-official arm of first the American government and then the UN. They have official license to respond to major threats. Their status dwarfs that of local law enforcement or even national armed forces, and ensures support from inter-governmental bodies such as SHIELD.

The only real political difficulty was in Kurt Busiek’s daring 2001 storyline in which the Avengers’ government liaison insists they meet diversity criteria and have more black and minority ethnic heroes in their main 7-person roster. “All the founding Avengers were white,” he points out, “even the Hulk, when he’s not green”. Thor, not of this earth, finds the demand incomprehensible. Captain America frankly admits he is of a different era and not the man to oversee it. Iron Man concedes the group should be more representative of society but prefers “…it happen naturally, rather than by quota”.

Busiek carefully balances the issue by including a demand from anti-mutant bigots that the Avengers actively exclude mutants like the Scarlet Witch. For all the subtlety of the storyline, the main Avengers (Thor aside) are presented as well-meaning liberals, assailed by petty ideologues on both sides.

It is the great merit of the 7-issue Marvel “event” comic Civil War (first published in 2007) that it directly addressed, in a relatively adult and sophisticated manner, the politics of superhero regulation. Significantly, it was written by a non-American writer, Mark Millar, whose Kick-Ass and Wanted also gleefully deconstructed the tropes of the genre.

In Civil War a crisis of confidence in superheroes arises when a second-tier band of heroes, whose adventures are filmed for a reality TV show, attempt to take down some “super-villains” who are out of their league in order to secure higher ratings, leading to a catastrophic explosion in a suburban town which kills hundreds of people, including an entire infants school.

The disaster starts a public debate about the need to “register” superheroes to ensure they are trained and accountable to the public they are supposed to serve, encapsulated in the proposal for a “Superhuman Registration Act” (SRA) under which all who wish to behave as a superhero must first divulge their identity to the government, which will then train and license them.

The proposal splits the superhero community down the middle. At a meeting called by the Fantastic Four to discuss the issue, the Wasp (who is independently wealthy) decries the absurdity of “turning us into civil servants” with “pension plans and vacation time”. Others disagree. Interviewed on Larry King Live, She-Hulk – aka lawyer Jennifer Walters – asks of super-heroes, “Training them up and making them carry badges? Yes, I’d say that sounds like a reasonable response”.

The debate polarises around Iron Man (Tony Stark) and Captain America (Steve Rogers), with Stark regarding the accident as a “wake up call”. “Becoming public employees makes perfect sense if it helps people sleep a little easier” he tells his colleagues. Rogers, the man from the 1940s, sees the demand that superheroes disclose their identities and work only to government dictat as a fundamental attack on civil rights.

Significantly it is Stark, not Rogers, who has the personal effect of unregulated superheroics brought home to him. At a memorial for the dead, the mother of one of the children killed in the explosion slaps his face and blames him for her son’s death. Stark is shaken by the encounter and forced to re-think his assumptions. Rogers never has such an encounter.

Instead, his crucial moment is a stand-off with the new Director of SHIELD, Maria Hill. At first Hill believes that Captain America will help SHIELD enforce the new law, simply because it is the law, but Rogers disabuses her. He insists that superheroes must “…stay above all this stuff, or Washington starts telling us who the super-villains are”, to which Hill responds “I thought super-villains were guys in masks who refused to obey the law?”. Rogers then breaks out of the SHIELD Helicarrier and forms a group of underground heroes who refuse to abide by the SRA whilst continuing their activities.

Interestingly, the common position amongst American readers was that Stark was the “villain” and Rogers the “hero”. But the text does not bear this out. Stark’s arguments are logical and reasonable, whereas Rogers’s are emotional and dogmatic. It is clear that Stark is simply trying to control an impossible situation and respond to public concern. Later in the story the argument is skewed because Stark and his main supporters (Reed Richards and Hank Pym, the “intellectuals” of the Marvel universe and therefore, by implication, lacking Rogers’s simple humanity) make some dubious decisions and catastrophic mistakes.

After it becomes clear that the two sides are evenly matched Richards and Stark make a cyborg clone of the absent Thor to take down Rogers’s team, but it malfunctions and accidentally kills the second-stringer hero Goliath. Stark and SHIELD then grant a special license to jailed super-villains such as the homicidal Bullseye and Venom (controlled by nano-implants to ensure they do not go too far) to enforce registration. At this point Stark loses the moral high-ground.

But Millar is careful to balance every decision and compromise. Even the flinty integrity of Captain America is tainted when he allows the mass murderer Frank Castle, the Punisher, to fight for his side. Castle, who is already a wanted fugitive, joins Captain America’s team after Stark starts using super-villains to enforce registration. When two minor villains come to Rogers’s team for help against the government the Punisher casually shoots them both dead, whereupon an appalled Captain America beats him to a pulp. When one of the team wonders why Castle refuses to strike back, another answers “Are you kidding? Cap’s probably the reason he went to Vietnam”.

Millar’s most effective device (impossible to replicate in the film version as the Fantastic Four belong to another studio) is to bring the division in the Marvel fraternity down to the most intimate level – the marriage of Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, Reed and Sue Richards. Sue, appalled at her husband’s complicity in creating the Thor-clone that killed Goliath, and after penning a poignant goodbye note, leaves Reed to his “graphs and social projections” and joins Captain America’s underground network.

Sue is presented as more emotionally empathetic, but is Reed actually wrong? In discussion with She-Hulk, who feels that he and Stark “gave us a future”, he cites massive public approval for the SRA and a subsequent decline in crime rates after the new “50-state Initiative” (a different team of registered super-heroes assigned to every U.S state) is rolled out. His points are never answered or refuted.

This is rich source material for a film, and is the basis of the recently released Captain America: Civil War. In the film the main issue is not superhero “registration” in the sense of revealing secret identies, but the need for the Avengers to place themselves under the “Sokovia Accords” agreed by 150 countries – in effect UN oversight, with the Avengers only allowed to do what an inter-governmental panel authorises them to do. As in the comic, Stark (who in the last Avengers movie created the Ultron robot that led to mass destruction in Sokovia) agrees that this is for the best. Rogers does not.

Naturally, in a film intended for a mass audience, the nuances of the comic are simplified. The final confrontation between Stark and Rogers, seemingly averted after they realise the entire situation has been stoked by a hidden villain, erupts because Rogers’s brain-washed friend the Winter Soldier is revealed to have killed Stark’s parents.

But neither Civil War the comic or Captain America: Civil War the film can disguise the vital political issue they raise, which is the extent to which important public functions should be publicly controlled and accountable, not privatised or subject to “light-touch regulation”. The notable achievement of the comic – and the film, to a lesser extent – is to base its drama around a real philosophical and political argument, and to give the protagonists on either side credible, understandable positions, neither of which is entirely “right” or “wrong”.

The final word should rest with Maria Hill, the salaried civil servant possessed of no super-power except her democratic political mandate. When Captain America stands before her in all his glory and tells her “Masked heroes have been a part of this country for as long as anyone can remember”, she brusquely replies “So’s smallpox. Now grow up and stop being an idiot”.

The camouflage of conspicuity — Tristam Vivian Adams on psychopathy and sociopathy


Psychopathy and sociopathy

In my forthcoming book, The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organizes Empathy (forthcoming from Repeater), I make a distinction between psychopathy and sociopathy. The two terms are commonly used in an interchangeable way, as if they are one and the same, but in my view there is an important difference. I argue that sociopathy ought to refer to behaviour whereas psychopathy ought to refer to internal psychology. More precisely, sociopathy ought to refer to behaviour that fails to meet our expectations and psychopathy to a psychology that does not align with how we expect others to feel and think.

Let’s consider sociopathy first and look at how and why persons fall foul of social expectations or do not conform to social code. People may fall foul of social code for any number of reasons. The reasons could be linked to malice, kindness or ignorance. David Brent from The Office, for example, is reflexively impoverished—he just isn’t aware of his faux pas; he cannot see himself from the view of the other. Brent thinks he is a charming and smooth operator when he is quite the opposite—a cringingly awkward sociopath. Alan Partridge is similar; he thinks he’s cool but often fails to behave in the socially expected manner. It’s not that Alan Partridge has bad intentions, he is not spiteful – but he doesn’t always know when to curb his honesty. At a funeral, in the episode ‘Towering Alan’ he asks “Would it be terribly rude to stop listening to you and go and speak to someone else?” Moments later, after a further faux pas, he finds himself speaking to the deceased’s widow. She asks him if “something is the matter?” and Alan Partridge, the all-too-honest sociopath, plainly explains “I want to be talking to him over there”, pointing and grinning. Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm is sociopathic too. David often causes offence, yet he never means to—more often than not he causes offence or finds himself in an awkward social bind because of his overactive altruism.

Of course Brent, Partridge and David are innocent sociopaths: they don’t really do anybody much harm. Brent and Partridge might be a little self-centred and insensitive at times, yet they are not mean. But how do we know? Why do we suppose that someone behaving in an anti-social way or failing to conform to social expectations should be mean or ‘evil’? Is it right to make assumptions for internal psychology based on external behaviour that falls foul of social expectations? A person might bump into you on the street and not apologise. This is unsocial, and the bumper is sociopathic in this instance. But we should not guess their internal drives from this episode. They could be clumsy, ill, poor-sighted. They may not know our language. Of course, they might be out to do us harm or steal from us—but really, we just don’t know. We know their behaviour is, in local terms, sociopathic but we cannot know with certainty what their internal psychological drive is and we shouldn’t begin making paranoid or judgmental assumptions.

Social behaviour has a tenuous relationship to internal psychology. Many times we behave in a manner that doesn’t quite reflect our internal self. Who hasn’t sat through a boring presentation wishing to get up and leave but remained fused in place because it’d be rude to leave? The disjunct between behaviour and psychology is, in many ways, the root of socialization, politeness and manners. Children are honest sociopaths, they ask ‘rude’ questions like ‘why is he fat?’, until they are socialized—until they learn to lie, curb their impulses and behave in the expected ways. ‘Say sorry like you mean it’ we tell them. This is the other side of the disjunct between behaviour and psychology—being perfectly social whilst secretly yearning to be otherwise. Behaviour being at odds with psychology is where psychopathy comes in. Those we suspect of having a psychology at odds with how we feel they ought to feel (given their behaviour) are psychopaths. We could quip that the process of socialization is a case of impulsive sociopaths learning to be controlled and polite psychopaths.

If we suspect someone lacks empathy, or is being nice, behaving just right, for secretly manipulative or controlling purposes we might call them a psychopath. On some level we know that many people are nice and very social for ulterior motives (salesmen, for example). We readily accept the disjunct between behaviour and psychology. Indeed, the notion of a charming and polite psychopath is very much the form of psychopath that is a contemporary fascination. Part of the enduring appeal of Hannibal Lecter is surely the juxtaposition between his socially adroit conduct, his manners and sensitivity on one hand, and our knowledge of his violent and depraved wants, on the other. Patrick Bateman, too, is fascinating because of his normal appearance: his inconspicuousness, his conformity to social codes. If we met him at a cocktail party, he’d be anonymous, unremarkable and forgettable. In cinema the go-to trope of showing the viewer how psychology is at odds with appearance and behaviour is undoubtedly the ‘mirror-scene’. In such a scene we see the gaze of a character checking their own appearance, making sure they look normal, just right. We see such a device in Sexy Beast, Malice, American Psycho, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cruising and Taxi Driver, to name a few.

Psychopathy is not necessarily always good behaviour masking a psychology that is lacking in empathy or good intentions. It may well be that a person with bad intentions behaves true to their wants – in which case we would view them as a sociopath. Nonetheless, this similarity between the honest psychopath and a sociopath does not vitiate the distinction drawn here. The distinction is based on what we are taking to be at odds with what we expect. If we are considering behaviour, we can say to what degree a person is sociopathic, whereas if we are considering psychology we may speculate to what degree we consider them to be psychopathic. In each instance behaviour has no necessary bearing on psychology and, of course, vice versa. There is a socio-axis, behaviour based and observable, and there is a psycho-axis based on our speculations of another’s psychology. Thus, we can draw up some modes of the disjunct or correlation between behaviour and psychology: well-meaning sociopaths, ill-meaning sociopaths, super-social psychopaths and, lastly, anti-social psychopaths (anti-social psychopaths may be quite similar to ill-meaning sociopaths).

Super-social psychopathy is perhaps the category we can best relate to. Don’t we all put on an act that is at odds with how we really feel inside? We have probably told people we are ‘fine, thanks’ when, actually, we might have been far from it. We may have embellished a little too much during an interview and said we are ‘passionate and enthusiastic’ about whatever mundane cognitive work pays a wage. Perhaps we are, at times, like a polite and charming super-social psychopath—yet behaving more like a sociopath might reflect our true selves more accurately.

The mask of conspicuity: psychopaths masquerading as sociopaths

Throughout the writing of The Psychopath Factory, a certain real-life character haunted me—Jimmy Savile. Savile never quite fitted into my scheme of categorization. On one hand, he knew how to behave socially and could manipulate others. But on the other hand, he was not exactly a conformist. Nor was he an extrovert either. He seemed paradoxical, chimerical: at once reclusive and secretive whilst also showing off and craving attention, power and control. One of the insights of Dan Davies’ marvellous In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile is how brazenly open Savile was about his proclivities and impulses. “Jimmy Savile offered a rare glimpse into his mind-set as he dragged his ageing body around the 26.2-mile course. ‘At times I feel like strangling every other competitor in the race,’ he confessed. ‘I mean really, truly murdering them.” This is one of many iterations of his strategy of revealing his deeply anti-social mind-set in a light and open fashion. Another is his notorious declaration of hating children. ‘‘’I hate kids…I’m very good with them because I hate them,’ he continued. ‘They know I’m not some yucky adult. I like to confuse them because they don’t know where they are then. Then they start to fall in love with you. Nobody confuses kids like I do; they try to understand them and reason with them. I think all kids should be eaten at birth.’’’ Savile seemed to state truths so horrid that they would be taken as outlandish jest or banter. He would lie about many things—he was a pathological liar by many accounts—but he would always pepper his lies with the most unthinkable truths. Davies recalls how the last time he met with Savile, at a restaurant, a waiter asked him if everything was OK after Savile had barked ‘c*nt’, causing a commotion. The waiter then asked if there was anything else he needed and Savile said, plainly, “two 16 year old girls from Ukraine”.

Savile was also flash. The garish tracksuits, the statement Rolls Royce, the blonde hair, large cigar (he’d smoke bigger cigars in public), the bling—the diamond studded Rolex, the ‘jangle-jangle’—were all part of a campaign of cultivated conspicuity. “’It’s part of the charismatic package’ he offered”. This is psychopathy masquerading as sociopathy. It is the knowing performance of sociopathy, the camouflage of conspicuity—the distraction tactic of appearing not to conform. It is not sociopathic in the sense of a violent and misbehaving criminal. Nor is it sociopathic in the sense of Brent and Partridge who fail at trying to conform to social code. Savile wasn’t a sociopath but a psychopath who performed a certain form of sociopathy. He maintained an appearance of sociopathy, knowing its potential to obfuscate and cloak his true self: “I don’t have to do anything, I just have to be. I’m like a piece of soap in the bath; you can see it but when you try to get hold of it it’s gone’’.

Of course, we all perform a little, we might brag about not conforming to the speed limit for example. We might not like to think of ourselves as a total conformist, we like to be a little different, special or unique. But there is a performance of sociopathy that many high-profile people maintain to at once distract from and advance themselves. There are many low-level performances of sociopathy.

Boris Johnson, the lovable Teflon rogue, allegedly spends an hour on his hair each morning. His shambolic and rumpled appearance has, it seems, a certain appeal—he plays on the ingratiating potential of self-depreciation: the charm of fluster. (We may have done something similar, we may have put a little bit too much effort into appearing like we don’t care, spent some time composing a text or tweet with just the right amount of nonchalance.) Boris Johnson is not a sociopath, he’s not quite Toad of Toad Hall; he’s not reckless but merely appears to be so, and this has proved advantageous. (It could be argued that Trump is the US equivalent. His ex-butler said of him in a documentary; “He loves mirrors…he morphs into whatever you want him to be”). Unlike many other politicians, ‘Boris’ seems to get no bad publicity. Even his outright failures and gaffs seem to serve only to ingratiate him more. Bungling, buffoon, blundering often prefix Boris – even genuine mistakes that ought to finish the career of mortal politicians are laughed off. Primed by his dishevelled and casual abandon we excuse Boris. ‘That’s Boris!’ We chuckle and tut.

Jeremy Clarkson is another skilful performer of sociopathy. He has built a career on pre-meditated faux pas and calculated offence. Although in many ways he is unlike Savile (contrary to the suggestions of some who, in terms of Clarkson’s ‘Savilesque’ power and influence, made the comparison after David Cameron came to Clarkson’s defence—supposedly echoing Thatcher’s praise of Savile— after his suspension from Top Gear for physically assaulting a producer in an altercation glossed jollily as a ‘fracas’ or ‘scuffle’ in most mainstream media) there is a striking similarity in terms of performing sociopathy. What’s more, there is also a notable similarity in his motivation for performing sociopathy—to prevent his true self being revealed. He has been quite frank about this in a recent interview published in The Times:

“The whole thing is an act, of course,” he says at one point. What? “My job, my TV persona. ‘Jeremy Clarkson.’ It’s a mask. We all wear masks. It’s not the real me.” Is he suggesting that the man who’s made £30 million from “being himself” is a con? “Yup.” Then who is the real you? “I’m not telling you,” he laughs.

His insistence on masks is repeated later on in the interview when he says ‘“We are who we were born and, bar some very early nurturing, that is set for the rest of our lives. Everything else is a mask.”’ This brag of insincerity is an uncomfortably similar sentiment to Savile’s soap metaphor. Clarkson performs sociopathy but at once negates any confusion that it is anything but a performance or a mask of who he really is. The old Top Gear excuse, as Stewart Lee has observed, is the ‘it’s only a joke’ caveat to any offensive remark—at once swerving responsibility whilst seeking to invalidate any offense caused. Clarkson’s ‘slope’ remark is a case in point. “while trying to build a bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand…Clarkson commented, when he saw someone walk across it, ‘“That is a proud moment … but there’s a slope on it.’” So too is his use of the ‘n-word’ when saying the Eeny Meeny Miney Moe rhyme (in other versions he plumped for ‘catch a teacher by his toe’).

However, there is a power and control dynamic at work here—like the bantering demi-bully who, when seeing he has pushed too far, instantly reneges any serious intent. Like a sociopathic child, constantly testing the boundaries of authority, there is a certain power-play. For the Times piece, Clarkson snapped his fingers and the interviewer flew to Barbados. In the next paragraph the interviewer describes how:

he has a hangover. He’s spent much of the day sitting on the bottom of the swimming pool with an oxygen tank, refusing to be coaxed up by a desperate scuba instructor, on the grounds that he wanted to drown out the world. “It was so nice and peaceful down there. Why would I want to come out?”

Clarkson’s lucrative brand of childlike petulance is impressed at other moments too. His status as an enfant terrible man-child is indelicately declared later in the interview with an outright lie. He tells the interviewer he has no pubes and that he only knew he went through puberty when his voice broke, but later confesses that he made this up. There is also a reference to his love of AA Milne, but his comment is so clichéd and vapid that this must be read as another insincere performance of his cheeky, childlike sociopath (“every character you’ll meet in life is a character from Winnie-the-Pooh: May is Wol [how Owl spells his name], Hammond is Piglet, I am Tigger”).

Clarkson’s offensive remarks are not ill-judged but exquisitely well judged flouts. Despite being laughed off or excused as harmless banter, as something not to be taken seriously, they are serious. These are not accidents but pre-meditated acts of insolence. Even when Clarkson falls foul of what is acceptable – even ‘as a joke’ – it is, rather implausibly, chalked up as a coincidence and he casually draws attention to his friendship with the Prime Minister:

While filming a Christmas special in 2014, they had to be evacuated from Argentina after his Porsche’s number plates (H982 FKL) were said to be a deliberately provocative reference to the Falklands conflict. (Clarkson denies this: “It was just an impossibility for us to have chosen that number plate on purpose. I drive thousands of cars a year; I never look at the registration.”)

The situation was so tense for the remaining crew—attempting to reach Chile cross-country—that Clarkson feared they’d be killed. “I rang [David] Cameron, who was out in Afghanistan. ‘Get someone over from the Falklands. You’ve got to help us out here, otherwise you’re going to have 40 dead English people.’ There were 40 stuck in that convoy. It was one of the most unpleasant nights of my life.”

There is also an aspect of Clarkson’s performed sociopathy that is much more like the self-depreciating buffoonery of Boris rather than the Savilesque kaleidoscope of lies and truth. Nonetheless, it is still obfuscatory. He plays up to and exaggerates his awkward appearance. Awkwardness, as I argue, is a low-level form of sociopathy. More than once on Top Gear he remarked, either via sarcasm or plain self-depreciation, about his ungainly physique. Again, some time is given to highlighting his clownish and clumsy physiognomy in the interview:

Clarkson is tall and misshapen with wire-wool hair and tobacco-stained teeth. With the possible exception of Wembley Fraggle, he looks like no one else. He likes to say he was made in God’s factory on a Friday evening, when all they had left was two good feet “and a pair of good buttocks. Look at these rubbish hands, this paunch, this hair.” Someone like Andrea Corr, he adds, was made on a Monday morning.

He claims to be utterly ham-fisted. “My first memory is peeling a hard-boiled egg. I was only about 18 months apparently, and it’s still the most practical thing I’ve ever done.

“As Hammond always says, I look like an orangutan when I’m presented with simple tasks, like opening a bottle of wine.

Clumsiness alone is not sociopathic—someone has to witness the awkward behaviour. Attention must be drawn to it; the performance must be seen. And this is precisely what Clarkson, like Boris, achieves. He makes sure he is seen as awkward, he works hard at being conspicuous.

These performances of sociopathy, the conspicuous flouting of social code that serves to mask the true self are the examples par excellence of virtuosic psychopathic performance. They show such sensitivity to social expectations and such ultra-reflexive self-awareness. They also show the nous and cunning to know that behaving normally isn’t always the best disguise, or advantageous. The performance of sociopathy is the psychopath’s double-bluff. Rather than conform to anonymity like Ripley and Bateman, they flout social expectations and hide in plain sight. Rather than being a super-social psychopath, these impostors masquerade as sociopaths.


In a stink about a pink St George Cross

Professional controversialist Toby Young has got himself all in a froth about a pink St George Cross at England’s international this week

Oh dear. Toby Young is all in a lather, a victim once more of the ‘PC brigade’.

Writing in the Daily Mail, he describes the scene he seems to have witnessed at Tuesday night’s England international versus the Netherlands. “It was fitting that Tuesday’s England match was awash with pink shirts, pink ribbons and pink flags. After all, football — along with rugby, cricket and every other traditionally male sport — has been forced to undergo what you might call, to borrow a fashionable phrase, gender re-assignment surgery in the past few years. An area of life that used to be associated with men has been colonised by women determined to prove a point about gender equality, regardless of whether they have any genuine interest in the sports in question.”

Oh dear, the thinking-bloke’s Jeremy Clarkson really has his boxer shorts in a twist hasn’t he? I have a confession to make to Toby. I’d spent most of Tuesday afternoon laying out thousands of cards across the England home end in the stadium. It’s a fan-led initiative called ‘Raise the Flag’, and when God Save the Queen strikes up they’re held up to form a huge St George Cross flag, mosaic-style. Except this time, when the anthem came to an end, the red cross was flipped to form a pink one, honouring the victims and survivors of this most deadly of diseases, breast cancer. I’m not sure where Toby was sitting in the stands but where I was there wasn’t one murmur of discontent but, rather, a ‘wow moment’ and widespread approval. Then the game kicked off; what Toby fails entirely to mention was what happened at the 14th minute, the entire crowd – English and Dutch – standing to honour the memory of Johan Cruyff. The cancer that killed Johan attacked his lungs, not his breasts – same disease, different body parts.

Toby sees political correctness almost everywhere, a phantom stalking this most illiberal of lands. Now, in his view, its got a grip on sport, or more particularly, Toby’s very particular version of a masculinity epitomised by football . When I lay out a St George Cross before each and every England game, be it red, pink or any other colour under the rainbow I don’t see a symbol of nationalism or politics, correct or otherwise. Rather I see a flag made up of thousands of individual fans holding up a huge vision of human solidarity. A fans’ flag, it belongs to all of us, not Toby, not me, all of us. I’m not sure if Toby was at Wembley last November, I certainly don’t remember him writing about the huge flag we held up that night. Not St George, but the French Tricolour, solidarity once more, this time with the victims of the terror attack on Paris , including the Stade de France, a few days earlier. Was that ‘political correctness gone mad’ Toby? Or was it simply a symbol of borders not meaning very much when as fans we are all united against the bloody terrorism of ISIS and their off-shoots?

Toby’s main point seems to be that he thinks breast cancer has nothing to do with football. A game increasingly played by women, in which the England women’s team beat Germany a year ago  – not in a meaningless friendly but in a World Cup. This seems to have gone unnoticed by Toby. Nor does he seem much bothered that many of us blokes will have mums, grannies, aunties, sisters, nieces, girlfriends, daughters, neighbours, friends and workmates who suffer from this most gendered of diseases (although, its worth noting that 330 men a year are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK too). It’s called caring about others, Toby. Isn’t that something we should all stand, cheer, have some pride in, whatever our team?

Football is never going to change the world. That’s not its place, an England team that can stick it out at the Euros to the quarters or beyond is about as much as most of us can hope for. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a space, on the pitch and in the stands, where ideas aren’t offered and contested. Toby would prefer a world of football unchanged from that golden 1966 summer 50 years ago, where men were men and women knew their place. I prefer instead a football that at least tries to keep up with, if not always change with, the times. An England for all, whatever our colour, gender or sexuality; faith or none; whatever the country we or our parents originally came from. This – the single biggest change in what an England team looks like, is supported by Tuesday night’s team on the pitch: once more – Sturridge, Alli, Rose, Smalling, Clyne and more. Gender diversity on the pitch is is perhaps a bit further off. But male fans standing up to show they care about breast cancer – that’s the kind of England crowd I want to be part of, even if Toby doesn’t, thank you very much.

The Great Digital Swindle by Mark Fisher

Who dares dissent from the gospel according to Silicon Valley? There is – we are insistently told – no alternative to the invasion of capitalist cyberspace into all areas of consciousness and culture.  Anyone who expresses even the mildest scepticism about social media and smartphones is roundly denounced as nostalgic.  The old, desperate not to seem out of touch, rarely dare question the young’s compulsive attachment to their smartphones. Anti-capitalists join with
tycoons to celebrate the potentials of network society. In article after article, conference after conference, the “new” is routinely equated with “the digital”, to such an extent that is now difficult to remember a time when “technology” wasn’t a shorthand for communicative software.  When mobile phones entered the marketplace, they were the object of mockery: who could be so self-important as to believe that they needed to be contactable everywhere and anywhere? Now, everyone is required to act like some cross between a hustler always on the make and an addict jonesing for contact.

But how has this model of progress, in which history culminates in the glorious invention of iPhones and apps, become so uncontested? And, if we attend closely, isn’t there a desperate quality to all this cheerleading? Addicts always rationalise their compulsions, but the desperation here belongs to capital itself, which has thrown everything at the great digital swindle. Capital might still swagger like some data cowboy, but iPhones plus Victorian values can only be a steampunk throwback.  The return to centuries’ old forms of exploitation is obfuscated by the distracting urgencies of digital communication. 

What if Silicon Valley was not – as we are relentlessly hectored to believe – a stupendous success story but a massive monument to failure? In Defence of Serendipity encourages us to pose this counter-intuitive question. Sebastian Olma demonstrates that neoliberal capitalism has systematically destroyed the conditions which allowed Silicon Valley to emerge, at the very same time as it pimps 70s California as the definitive model for all cultural as well as business innovation. In Olma’s narrative, Steve Jobs and the other Californian oligarchs come to seem like the hapless figures from a fairy tale. They wished to totally transform the world, but instead they received unimaginable wealth. Their devices only led to more of the same: the ‘changeless change’ of a capitalism that endlessly crows about innovation in a manic attempt to cover over the glacial monotony of its homogeneity and repetitiveness.  The Silicon Valley princes provided capital with new tools of capture and captivation. More than that, they gave capital a new hymn sheet, a way to sell drudgery as creativity and hyper-exploitation as sharing, so that we are all expected to be “passionate” about our cyber-serfery.

It is by now screamingly clear that innovation does not spontaneously effloresce when capital dominates society and culture. Generalised insecurity leads to sterility and repetition, not surprise and innovation. The conditions in which the new can appear have to be produced and nurtured. This, Sebastian Olma demonstrates, is the real import of the concept of serendipity when it is properly understood. The irony of Silicon Valley is that its very hegemonic dominion has contributed to the disappearance of such conditions in the capitalist world. Silicon Valley emerged from the serendipitious synthesis of the counterculture and state-sponsored cybernetics, but neoliberal capital has destroyed the possibility of a counterculture even as it has annexed and subdued the state. In Defence of Serendipity shows that that the real future is building itself beyond the instrumentalising urgencies of business, in the spaces between a new bohemia and a revived public sphere.

This is an edited version of the introduction to Seb Olma’s In Defence of Serendipity, which will be published by Repeater in November 2016. Available to pre-order now: Amazon UK / Amazon US.

An extract from Lean Out by Dawn Foster


“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.

photo via

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 focusoccupation1shocked 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 racist vanbedroom 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

ukba sbs.png
Photo via Southall Black Sisters

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. 

A neo-Isherwood – David Stubbs on Bowie, Englishness and masculinity

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.
starmanApologies. 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.

Show them where you’re from: a trip round Darkstar’s Foam Island

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.

Where next for capitalism?

Dawn Foster reviews Paul Mason & Matt Ridley

Is the rise of technology strengthening capitalism or tearing it down? Dawn Foster reviews two new books PostCapitalism, by Paul Mason and The Evolution of Everything, by 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.

Mordor, Helmand, Brisbane Road: Football’s New Rhetoric of Ordeal

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.

Postdubstep to postcapitalism – further reading from the Long Progress Bar

The November Lighthouse Arts Progress Bar happens tonight in Brighton, featuring Repeater faves Claire Tolan and PAN founder Bill Kouligas

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)

Lastly the Laboria Cuboniks collective presented their Xenofeminism manifesto – you can read it in full here, and a good explanation by Aria Banks here.

Always the Ramsay MacDonalds: Lessons from 1931 for Labour today

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.