What do Lenin & the Russian Revolution mean to the 21st century left?

This is an extract from a work-in-progress – No Less than Mystic: What do Lenin and the Russian Revolution mean to the 21st Century left? by John Medhurst. The book will be published by Repeater in late 2016/early 2017 

The aim of this book is to present a new history of Lenin and the Russian Revolution that has a direct relevance for those today who oppose and resist neo-liberal capitalism. It broadly covers the period 1903 to 1921 in Russia and seeks to explain why the Bolshevik Revolution degenerated so quickly into its apparent opposite. Yet it is not only and exactly a work of history. It examines the issues and events of the Russian Revolution through the lens of a 21st century, non-Marxist libertarian socialism. It suggests that corporate capitalism must be opposed not with a set of “revolutionary” formulations which were questionable one hundred years ago and have even less relevance now, but with popular, pluralistic and democratic movements built on people’s needs and experience. As a result it is kinder to Russia’s non-Leninist socialists than are most histories. Although not blind to the many flaws of the Russian Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and Jewish Bundists I seek to rescue them from a century of misrepresentation. I do not automatically assume the knowledge of the subject that many Russian Revolution hobbyists take for granted, nor show much deference to those icons of Bolshevism, Lenin and Trotsky, still common today on the left. I suggest that socialist thinkers and activists such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert, Owen Jones, Naomi Klein and Arundahti Roy have more constructive and positive options to offer the anti-capitalist left today than do the sages of Bolshevism.

Some will ask why, outside of academic history, this should be of any interest? The contemporary left does not look to the events and lessons of the French Revolution of 1789-93 for guidance and inspiration so why does it still scrutinise and debate the Russian Revolution? Mainly because it is the first “modern” revolution – i.e led by the urban working class and with a socialist objective – in an era dominated by global capitalism. As such it is a key issue and intellectual point of contention on which subsequent argument about capitalism and its alternatives rests. Its centenary will no doubt generate articles in the liberal media and documentaries on BBC2. There will be learned retrospectives seeking to establish a consensus for future generations on the lessons of the Bolshevik experiment. Most of these assessments will fall in to two camps – a complacent condemnation of the revolution, and by extension all revolution, from the perspective of capitalist “liberal democracy”, or a defence of Bolshevism with an admission that because of civil war and the failure of the European proletariat to also rise up it degenerated into bureaucratic tyranny and Stalinism. This book adopts neither of those perspectives. It argues that the real revolution of 1917 took place in February not October, and was led by a wide alliance of socialists, trade unionists, peasants and populists in which the Bolshevik Party played a minor role. Despite the enormous difficulties involved in creating a durable democratic framework after the February revolution, it contained great potential for social and cultural liberation and a far better future for the Russian people than they had suffered under three hundred years of Tsarism or would endure under Leninism and Stalinism.

This revolution and many of its key players, whilst they made serious tactical and strategic errors, had much within it that today’s anti-capitalist campaigners should re-examine and respect. Whilst it is true that some elements of the Bolshevik revolution, most notably its attempts to provide greater freedom for women and a short-lived libertarian attitude to social and educational experimentation, were bold and emancipatory, that revolution soon established a power structure as monumental and oppressive as the Tsarism it replaced. Within a few months (in some cases days and weeks) most of the democratic freedoms offered by the February revolution were swiftly crushed by the Bolsheviks after they assumed power in October. For a variety of reasons, not least the undemocratic and authoritarian nature of Leninist doctrine, the Bolshevik Revolution had little to no chance of achieving a genuine socialist transition in Russia, much less in the rest of Europe.

This argument is not in itself new. It could even be said to fall under the rubric of the “continuity thesis”, i.e that the policies of the Bolshevik government from October 1917 laid the groundwork for the Stalinist dictatorship of the 1930s and were the genesis of the oppressive police states of the Soviet Bloc. But I do not advocate the simplistic version of continuity, which is that the decisions and policies of the Bolsheviks led in clear, linear fashion straight to the Gulag Archipelago. There were many forks in the road where a more democratic socialist alternative could have been taken. Some of these alternatives were argued for by prominent Bolsheviks in both the “moderate” tendency in the party in 1917-18, and the “Workers Opposition” grouped around Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov in 1920-21. Most crucially, the history told here does not absolve capitalist society then or now for its terrible inequalities and oppressions simply because the so-called “alternative”, an inherently authoritarian socialism, would be even worse. It denies that is the alternative

Nevertheless, I hope it gives the Bolsheviks their due. Between February and October 1917, especially after Lenin’s return to Russia in April, the Bolshevik Party became stronger and more significant as it took root in the Soviets (Workers Councils) of the major cities and campaigned for Peace, Bread and Land. In this phase it undoubtedly spoke for many, perhaps the majority, of the workers in the cities, and Lenin produced his supreme example of revolutionary theory, The State and Revolution. However this phase of the party’s work and the principles of State and Revolution were comprehensibly rejected once the Bolsheviks took power in October. The Soviets and other manifestations of grass roots workers’ power such as Factory Committees were swiftly curtailed and real decision making power was removed to the Supreme Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarcom) and the Supreme Economic Council (Vesenka). Political and press freedom went the same way within weeks of October. Whilst the “bourgeois” parties were immediately outlawed even other socialist parties did not last long once Sovnarcom had firmly established its power. The Socialist Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks and the anarchists were tolerated for a while after the insurrection, but for a far shorter time than is commonly supposed. Most of their newspapers were instantly suppressed, for example. They were then persecuted, censored and finally banned as the Bolshevik Party became inextricable from the organs of state.

This is not the romantic mythology of the Russian Revolution. Nor is it the counter-myth of an inherently malevolent socialism imposed on a tragic, noble middle-class. It is a deeper tragedy of political authoritarians whose dogmatic philosophy, built into the DNA of the Bolshevik Party by Lenin from 1903 onward, led them to disastrous decisions whose consequences they could not foresee. One of those consequences was the suppression and destruction of independent bodies such as Factory Committees, trade unions and rural and urban Soviets that offered a path to a different form of socialism. This should not be a contentious thesis. Although the October Revolution was greeted by the international left as a great liberatory event that reaction was based on initial reports and was overwhelmingly emotional. It was not long before reliable reports from left witnesses and participants revealed a truer picture of what was happening inside the “first socialist country in the world”, and how far from any acceptable version of socialism that regime was.

From Marxist revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg to democratic socialists like Bertrand Russell many on the political left were critical of the Bolshevik insurrection from the first. Subsequent investigation and the course of the new regime over its first six months reinforced that criticism. In 1918 Rosa Luxemburg, writing of the limits and shortcomings of all institutions including democratic ones, concluded “But the remedy that Lenin and Trotsky have found is worse than the disease it is meant to cure”. Having seen the Bolsheviks’ strangulation of political and press freedom and the suppression of internal democracy in the Soviets, Luxemburg found that “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all.” She concluded that under Bolshevik rule the only “active element” was the bureaucracy and that therefore Bolshevik rule was “at bottom a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the Proletariat however but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians”.

From a different perspective, but equally unafraid to state honestly what he observed even if it shattered the illusions of those who saw in Bolshevik Russia some form of socialism, Bertrand Russell, in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (written in 1920 after a long visit to Russia and interviews with Lenin, Trotsky and Gorky) found that the Soviets had long died out as living democratic institutions because “no conceivable system of free elections would give majorities to the Communists, either in town or country”. This was hardly surprising given that the social and political system created by Lenin and the Bolsheviks was “…a slavery far more complete than that of capitalism. A sweated wage, long hours, industrial conscription, prohibition of strikes, prison for slackers, diminution of already insufficient rations in factories where production falls below what the authorities expect, an army of spies ready to report any tendency to political disaffection and to procure imprisonment for its promoters – this is the reality of a system which still professes to govern in the name of the proletariat”. This centralised state capitalism, presided over by a small political elite that denied political expression to any outside its own ranks, was not created by Stalin in the late 1920s and 1930s – Stalin simply added the physical liquidation of the Old Bolsheviks and a massive increase in the apparatus of state terror. On the contrary, this was the work of the Old Bolsheviks.

Naturally the propaganda organs of western capitalist states violently condemned the Bolsheviks from the very start. This criticism was pure hypocrisy. They did not make similar criticisms of the suppression of democracy in their colonial possessions in Ireland, India, Africa and Asia, or worry about the social and economic hardships suffered by their own working class. Their condemnation was driven not from sincere concern for democracy and civil rights but a desire to safeguard their wealth and privilege and ensure they did not share the fate of the Russian ruling class. It is little wonder many on the left gave no credence to such criticisms even if they were sometimes factually accurate. But it was not particularly difficult to find informed and honest critiques of the Bolshevik state from those across the Marxist and anarcho-syndicalist left who, in different ways, had taken part in or supported the process of revolutionary upheaval began in February 1917 and had seen at first hand its usurpation and corruption by the Bolsheviks.

A week after the Bolshevik insurrections in Petrograd and Moscow, the militant Railwayman’s Trade Union declared that it was strongly opposed to the seizure of power by one party and demanded that a broad based socialist coalition government be formed (it is often forgotten that Lenin’s justification for the Bolshevik coup was not rule by the Bolshevik Party, but to create a government elected by and accountable to the National Congress of Soviets, a promise never kept). Six weeks after October the newspaper Novaya Zhizn, edited by the writer Maxim Gorky, Lenin’s personal friend and a militant socialist, thunderously condemned the new regime. It said that power had not really passed to the Soviets (let alone “All Power”) and that the crucial 2nd Congress of Soviets, which had “ratified” the seizure of power, had in reality been faced with a fait accompli backed by armed soldiers who gave it little choice. The paper said that it was brutally clear that the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” meant in reality “All power to a few Bolsheviks”, and asserted that the new regime was in no sense a Soviet Republic but was actually “an oligarchic republic, a republic of a few People’s Commissars”(note).

But the most fundamental, best informed and ringing critique of Bolshevik authoritarianism came from the Russian socialist and Marxist left itself. Most especially the always present Marxist alternative best represented by the Mensheviks, led by Julius Martov, Lenin’s great opposite and antagonist since 1903 when the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) had split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. At that crucial juncture Martov had stood for a more inclusive and democratic organisation, one not consisting entirely of full time “professional revolutionaries” divorced from ordinary workers and rigidly controlled from the centre. On this issue, Lenin actually lost to Martov and failed to carry the majority of delegates at the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP (it was on a lesser issue to do with the composition of an editorial board that Lenin secured more votes than Martov, and on the lesser issue that the names “Bolsheviks” (majority) and “Mensheviks” (minority) came to stick to the opposing sides). As early as 1904 Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet called Leninism or Marxism? in which she identified the danger of giving the leadership of a revolutionary socialist party sweeping powers that “…would multiply artificially and in a most dangerous measure the conservatism which is the necessary outgrowth of every such leadership”. She concluded “There is nothing which so easily and so surely hands over a still youthful labour movement to the private ambitions of intellectuals, as forcing the movement into the straight-jacket of a bureaucratic centralism which debases the fighting workers into the pliable tools of the hands of a “committee””. Even Trotsky, at the time, was adamantly opposed to Lenin’s conception of the party, stating plainly his belief that when Lenin spoke of the dictatorship of the Proletariat he really meant “a dictatorship over the proletariat”. Ironically, Trotsky himself would later help Lenin construct it.

Martov remained Lenin’s most articulate and principled Marxist opponent from 1903 until his death in 1923. After October 1917 his critiques of the Bolshevik regime were relentless yet always from a position of support for democratic socialism and working class freedom. In the 1920s his acute and honest accounts of the new regime were available through trade union and socialist publications in Europe, although these were marginalised and forgotten as Stalinist ideological orthodoxy clamped itself on the thinking of the western left. For those with ears to listen, though, Martov had already in 1919 laid out the bare truth of life in Bolshevik Russia and the betrayal of the hopes and promises of October 1917. As he put it, “Reality has cruelly shattered all these illusions. The “Soviet State” has not established in any instance electiveness and recall of public officials. It has not suppressed the professional police. It has not done away with social hierarchy in production…On the contrary, it shows a tendency in the opposite direction. It shows a tendency towards the utmost possible strengthening of the principles of hierarchy and compulsion. It shows a tendency toward the development of a more specialized apparatus of repression than before. It shows a tendency toward the total freedom of the executive organism from the tutelage of the electors”(note). Whilst supporting the Soviet government against the reactionary “Whites” in the Civil War, Martov condemned the restrictions on press and political freedom and the suppression of other political parties (the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were semi-legal for a short while but were banned by 1920, by which time the Bolsheviks had long since turned on the working class and trade union movement itself).

For many of today’s anti-capitalist campaigners the legacy and importance of non-Leninist, libertarian socialism has found its best expression in the positions taken by Noam Chomsky since the 1960s. Chomsky’s forensic and damning indictments of US foreign policy are rooted in his anti-authoritarian politics, which he sometimes identifies as anarchism and sometimes as libertarian socialism (he increasingly ignores academic pigeon holes and simply supports any and all initiatives by trade unions, social activists and indigenous peoples that resist corporate capitalism). Chomsky is also one of the few outstanding left intellectuals to unambiguously reject Leninism and Bolshevism as not just misguided but fundamentally anti-socialist, and “in my view counter-revolutionary”. Chomsky identifies “incipient socialist institutions” such as Soviets, Factory Committees and workers co-operatives that emerged in the period after the February Revolution, and asserts “Lenin and Trotsky pretty much eliminated them as they consolidated power”. He concedes that there are arguments about the pressures and justifications for so doing (i.e the need to win the civil war and the terrible privations it caused) but believes that “The incipient socialist structures in Russia were dismantled before the really dire conditions arose”. More detailed studies, such as Maurice Brinton’s analysis of Workers’ Control in the period 1917-1921, tend to confirm this.

Chomsky’s general critique derived from “left Communists” such as Anton Pannekoek and anarcho-syndicalists such as Berkman and Rudolf Rocker, as well as an underlying and long established anti-statist radicalism best expressed by Michael Bakunin, the great seer and leader of 19th century anarchism. In debate with Karl Marx in the 1870s about the structures and policies of the 1st International, Bakunin predicted that Marx’s approach to revolution and socialism would lead to a “Red Bureaucracy” that would be worse than any form of oppression previously seen. Prescient as this was it is not necessary to be an anarchist to condemn Leninism as a departure from the core tenets of democratic socialism and from Marxism itself. Serious thinkers and leaders in the Marxist tradition such as Pannekoek, Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Mattick, Karl Kautsky and Martov all condemned Leninism before October 1917 as well as after it. Lenin himself added credence to their analyses through his political activities and philosophy – from his clearly stated belief when the Bolshevik Party was formed that the working class was “incapable on its own of developing anything more than a trade union consciousness”, and required political leadership “from without” (i.e. from bourgeois intellectuals such as himself) to his blunt admission shortly after October that “socialism is nothing but state capitalist monopoly made to benefit the whole people”. Diane P. Koenker, in Labour Relations in Socialist Russia: Printers, their union and the origins of Soviet socialism (1991) summed up what this meant for ordinary Russian workers, which was “In the shops where one-man management (Lenin’s own preference) replaced collegial management workers faced the same kinds of authoritarian management they thought existed only under capitalism”.

Mark Fisher on #piggate and the death of British satire

Hug a Tory

‘From the early records of Greek and Latin slang, where [words for pig] were used to describe the female genitalia through to modern uses of ‘pig’ to mock the police, the fascist and the male chauvinist, pigs seems to have borne the brunt of our rage, fear, affection and desire for the ‘low’. [But] it was precisely the ambivalence of the pig, at the intersection of a number of symbolic thresholds, which had traditionally made it a useful animal to think with.’ – Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression

As I said earlier, it is hard not to enjoy the ridiculing of Cameron. But if we take a step back, it should be clear that an atmosphere of sexual humiliation is one that favours current forms of power rather than dismantles them. Robin James points out the role of hazing in sexual abuse, and in some ways we can consider the whole range of ways in which the English haute-bourgeoisie initiate children into its ranks as a form of abuse. This is one of the points I was trying to get across in my piece on humour in the latest New Humanist (below). Boarding school and the top end of Oxbridge are environments designed to produce the very hardening and insensitivity which allows Tories to dehumanise and demonise the poor. Class wounds everyone, especially the ‘privileged’.

The Strange Death of British Satire

(reposted with permission from the Autumn 2015 issue of the New Humanist)

Watch one of the BBC’s political programmes – such as the Daily Politics and This Week, both fronted by Andrew Neil – and you encounter a particular tone. British television viewers are unlikely to take much notice of this tone because we take it for granted. Take a step back, however, and it is really rather curious. These ostensibly serious programmes are conducted with an air of light mockery, which Neil, with his perma-smirk and smugly knowing air, personifies. The tone, I believe, tells us something about the widespread disengagement from parliamentary politics in England. (The situation in Scotland is now rather different: the popular mobilisation after the independence referendum has reversed the trend towards cynicism about politics that still dominates south of the border.)

Take This Week. The whole show is conducted in a lamely comic style that it is hard to imagine any sentient creature finding amusing. Guests are required to dress up in daft costumes and present their arguments in the form of limp skits, pitched at an audience whose implied level of intelligence is imbecilic. The atmosphere is matey, informal, and the overwhelming impression is that nothing much is at stake in any of the decisions that parliament takes. While Neil’s dog pads about the set, former Tory leadership candidate Michael Portillo chats on a sofa with professionally amiable Blairite Alan Johnson – no class antagonism here, only mild disagreements. Politics appears as a (mostly) gentlemen’s club where everyone is friends. People from working-class backgrounds, such as Johnson, can achieve entry to this club, provided they accept its rules. These rules are never actually stated, but they are very clear. Parliament is not to be taken too seriously: it is to be treated as a (boring) soap opera, in which the lead characters are self-serving individuals who don’t believe in much beyond getting themselves elected. On no account are any intellectual concepts to be discussed, unless to be sneered at as pretentious nonsense. It has to be accepted that nothing very significant will ever change: the basic co-ordinates of political reality were set in the 1980s, and all we can do is operate inside them.

If you were designing a programme specifically to put people – especially young people – off politics, to convince them it is a tedious waste of time, then you could hardly do better than This Week. The programme seems to be aimed at literally no one: if you are staying up late to watch a programme devoted to politics, then presumably you are pretty serious about politics. Who wants this unfunny froth?

It would be bad enough if this tone of mirthless levity were confined to This Week, but it increasingly dominates political coverage of all kinds on the BBC. It thoroughly permeated the BBC’s election-night coverage this year, which Neil anchored. This trivialising tone is perhaps even more troubling than the problem of bias (as is well known, former Murdoch editor Neil was a Thatcher cheerleader; Nick Robinson, the BBC’s former Political Editor, meanwhile, was President of the Oxford University Conservative Association). The election-night coverage was notable for the disconnection between the shock and alarm that many in the audience felt about an unexpected win for the Conservative Party, and the guffawing banter of Neil and his associates. Reading out tweets and sharing gossip, the grinning Laura Kuenssberg, who has recently replaced Robinson as the BBC’s Political Editor, seemed to treat the whole evening as a jolly good laugh. Perhaps there isn’t that much at stake for her – she was, after all, born into immense privilege, the daughter of an OBE and a CBE, and the granddaughter of a founder and president of the Royal College of General Practitioners.

But where does this tone – with its strange mixture of the middle-aged and the adolescent – come from? The quick answer is class background. The tone of light but relentless ridicule, the pose of not being seen to take things too seriously, has its roots in the British boarding school. In an article for the Guardian, Nick Duffell, author of Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion (Lone Arrow Press), argued that, from around the age of seven, boarders are required to adopt a “pseudo-adult” personality, which results, paradoxically, in their struggling “to properly mature, since the child who was not allowed to grow up organically gets stranded, as it were, inside them.”

“Boarding children,” Duffell continues, “invariably construct a survival personality that endures long after school and operates strategically … Crucially, they must not look unhappy, childish or foolish – in any way vulnerable – or they will be bullied by their peers. So they dissociate from all these qualities, project them out on to others, and develop duplicitous personalities that are on the run.”

Now that the working-class perspective has been marginalised in the dominant British media and political culture, we increasingly live inside the mind of this psychically mutilated adolescent bourgeois male. Here, ostensible levity conceals deep fear and anxiety; self-mockery is a kind of homeopathic remedy that is used to ward off the threat of an annihilating humiliation. You must never appear too much of a swot; you must never look as if you might like or think anything that isn’t already socially approved. Even if you haven’t attended boarding school yourself, you are still required to operate in an emotional atmosphere set by those who did. Andrew Neil, who came from a working-class background and attended a grammar school, attained access to the top table by simulating the mores of the privately educated elite. Thatcherism depended on the conspicuous success of people like Neil – if they could make it, so could anyone.

No programme did more to normalise the mode of mandatory light mockery than Have I Got News for You. In a 2013 essay for the London Review of Books, “Sinking Giggling into the Sea”, Jonathan Coe positioned Have I Got News for You in a genealogy of British satire going back to the 1950s. Coe argued that, back then, satire might have posed a threat to the authority of establishment politicians who expected unthinking deference from the electorate. Now, however, when politicians are routinely ridiculed and a weary cynicism is ubiquitous, satire is a weapon used by the establishment to protect itself.

No one typifies this more than Boris Johnson. Coe points out that Johnson’s success crucially depended on his appearances – sometimes as guest presenter – on Have I Got News for You. The atmosphere of generalised sniggering allowed Johnson to develop his carefully cultivated, heavily mediated persona of “lovable, self-mocking buffoon”. The show allows Johnson to present himself as a hail-fellow-well-met everyman, not a member of an old Etonian elite. In this he has been abetted by his sometime antagonist Ian Hislop. Hislop always has the guffawing, self-satisfied air of a prefect who’s caught out some slightly posher kids stealing from the tuck shop. No matter what the infraction, Hislop’s response is always a supercilious snigger. While this snigger might be conceivably appropriate to MPs being caught with their trousers down, or even with their over-claiming on expenses, it seems ­grotesquely out of kilter with the kind of systemic corruption that we now know has occurred over the last thirty years in Britain, in everything from Hillsborough to the phone hacking scandal to paedophilia involving major establishment figures – not to mention the behaviours that led to the financial crash. As the editor of Private Eye, Hislop has played an important part in exposing these abuses. But on television his mocker-in-chief persona serves ultimately to neutralise and cover over the extremity and systematicity of the abuse: one snigger fits all situations.

Coe’s discussion of Johnson is strikingly similar to the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi’s analysis of Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi’s popularity, Berardi argued, depended on his “ridiculing of political rhetoric and its stagnant rituals”. The voters were invited to identify “with the slightly crazy premier, the rascal prime minister who resembles them”. Like Johnson, Berlusconi was the fool who occupied the place of power, disdaining law and rules “in the name of a spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle”.

In the UK, this concept of a “spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle” goes beyond politics in the narrow sense. The populist right-wing celebration of this energy is surely what kept Jeremy Clarkson in his job as a presenter of Top Gear for so long, and its appeal is what must have motivated over a million people to sign a petition calling for Clarkson to keep his job after he had punched a producer in the face. The prevailing media culture in the UK allows the privately educated Clarkson to come off as a plain-speaking man of the people, bravely saying what he thinks in the face of an oppressive ‘political correctness’ that seeks to muzzle him. The success of Top Gear is another testament to the power – and, sadly, international appeal – of the English ruling-class male mentality. Who, more than Clarkson and his fellow presenters, better exemplifies this bizarre mixture of the middle-aged and the adolescent? What, after all, is it safer for a ruling-class adolescent male to like than cars?

Clarkson is just one of a range of British television celebrities who play the role of pantomime villain; a persona entirely devoid of compassion for others. Except this is a pantomime with real blood. Take the former Apprentice star and Sun columnist Katie Hopkins, for instance. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, condemned her likening of refugees to “cockroaches” for its obvious echoes of Nazi rhetoric. Hopkins is allowed to get away with this because of what we might call the innate postmodernism of the English ruling class. Both she and Clarkson say hateful things, but with a twinkle in their eye and their eyebrows ever so slightly raised.

There is an immense complexity at work in this ruling-class mummery. The humour allows Clarkson and Hopkins to be conduits for a racism that has very real, very tragic effects, whilst also letting them off the hook. The humour reassures them, and their audience, that they don’t really mean it. But the problem is that they don’t have to “mean” it: they help define the terms of debate, and allow migrants to be dehumanised, whatever their “true” feelings about the issue might be.

However, Hopkins’s persona was troubled when she appeared on Celebrity Big Brother earlier this year. While much of the time she stayed in role as a spiteful, hard-hearted bigot, there were inevitably moments when the facade cracked, and she could be seen caring for others. While this increased her popularity – she almost won the show – it was also in danger of destroying the Katie Hopkins brand.

Most tellingly, her greatest moments of vulnerability came when she was asked to accept tenderness from others. In order to survive in the harsh and emotionally retarded world of the English ruling-class male she was trained for in private school and at Sandhurst, Hopkins has clearly been required to forgo any public acceptance of warmth or kindness from others. Sadly, the wearing of such character armour is not now confined to Hopkins and the rest of the privately educated elite.

Self-educated working-class culture generated some of the best comedy, music and literature in modern British history. The last 30 years have seen the bourgeoisie take over not only business and politics, but also entertainment and culture. In the UK, comedy and music are increasingly graduate professions, dominated by the privately educated. The sophistication of working-class culture – which combines laughter, intelligence and seriousness in complex ways – has been replaced by a grey bourgeois common sense, where everything comes swathed in a witless humour. It’s long past time that we stopped sniggering along with the emotionally damaged bourgeoisie, and learned once again to laugh and care with the working class.

Reposted with thanks from the New Humanist.

A rupture in the ground – Alex Niven on Corbyn & the ideal city

This is the edited text of a talk given by Alex Niven at the NewBridge Project, Newcastle-upon-Tyne last week.

I’d like to start with a quotation from Dubliners, James Joyce’s first work of fiction, published almost exactly a hundred years ago. It was written largely in the Edwardian period, in the last days of British colonial rule over Ireland; that is, on the eve of the Irish Revolution:

That night the city wore the mask of a capital

Dubliners is a collection of realist—some might say magic realist—stories about residents of Dublin in which almost all of the characters feel disillusioned or constricted in some way; paralysis is a word that echoes throughout the book. But Dubliners isn’t, in the end, a pessimistic work. Even though the characters in Joyce’s stories are paralysed on the one hand, there is also a sense that something is about to happen, a sense that Dublin is about to break free and come into its own. Within five years of the publication of Joyce’s book, Dublin was indeed the capital of a newly independent nation. And, a century later, it still is.

This is not to say that capitals and nations don’t bring with them their own kinds of problems and responsibilities and limitations. But I think something in the music of that quotation does help to emphasise the fact that radical change in the
circumstances of a city, a country, the world, can happen very quickly. Revolutions are possible. Political campaigns are not futile. Big collective projects can succeed. At certain moments in our history, we are able to take significant steps towards the creation of the ideal city, channelling utopian ideals, even if utopia is by definition unrealisable.

I wanted to begin with the example of Dubliners and this quotation, not necessarily because I think we’re on the eve of a revolution, but because there does seem to be something about the present moment that is analogous with the world, and perhaps the British Isles in particular, a hundred years ago. Like then—the post-Victorian, pre-WWI period—there’s a sense that the previous era is coming to an end, but that it’s coming to an end slowly. The political consensus of the last 30 or 40 years, let’s call it neoliberalism for the sake of argument, is splintering apart. But it hasn’t yet disintegrated. Lots of you are no doubt familiar with the philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s descripton of the post-2008 global economy as a bit like the train in a Road Runner cartoon—it careers over the precipice but carries on for an implausibly long time, before suddenly plunging vertically into the valley below.

Right now we’re probably still in the phase when the train is gliding along in the air on its horizontal trajectory. In the immediate post-2008 period—the years either side of 2010—there was a flurry of populist insurrectionary activity, which peaked in 2011 with the Occupy demonstrations, the Arab Spring, the fallout from the Murdoch phone-tapping scandal, the London riots, and so on. But afterwards, things settled down remarkably quickly. The Occupy movement seemed to quietly pack up its bags, and in Britain at least, the fervour of 2011 was replaced with the torpor of a country drifting inexorably to the right under the auspices of a Conservative-led coalition government.

But now, ironically, in the wake of an outright Conservative victory, and perhaps compounded by more momentous events further afield, the mood is changing again fairly rapidly. Tomorrow Jeremy Corbyn will be elected leader of the British Labour Party, which at the very least, will signal the end of the cross-party neoliberal consensus in the UK parliament, and might just possibly lead to a further radicalisation of the British political landscape. This hot on the heels of the Sun, a notoriously right-wing, habitually racist newspaper, publishing a headline last week in support of the Syrian refugees. Even if the Sun quickly managed to grotesquely torque the death of Aylan Kurdi later in the week so that it became a justification for air strikes on Syria, this was a major about-turn. The writer Mark Fisher was surely right when he argued that the Sun’s support for the refugees was a clear sign or at least premonition of the death of what Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’, the pervasive, deeply embedded belief that there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism. Throughout the west, the conservative establishment is everywhere on the defensive, and is daily being forced to reconsider, change its tone, express uncertainty, shift its feet uncomfortably.

We are clearly, then, in the midst of a moment of change—if perhaps not of outright crisis. But I think the important thing to emphasise about this particular moment is that it’s qualitatively different from the sort of energetic populist mood witnessed, for example, in 2011. And perhaps indeed it’s a very different moment from much of what we’ve come to be familiar with politically over the last half century. By that I mean that, while in 2011 and in countless previous years the protests seemed to be scattered, emotive, spasmodic, energetic, but usually relatively short in length and often directionless (the London riots in particular), the changes we are seeing right now seem to be of a more structural kind—they have an air of seriousness, of deliberation, of constructiveness. The spirit of change in the air right now seems like it might just amount to permanent shifts in the way we are governed and in the way political debates are conducted.

It’s probably the case that the leftist experiment in Greece is now in tatters, with the socialist government led by Syriza looking increasingly beleaguered and at risk of defeat at the upcoming Greek elections. Nevertheless, we cannot underestimate the huge significance earlier this year of a radical leftist European government achieving a solid democratic mandate, and then coming very close to undermining the entire economic grounding of the European Union. This is a very different occurrence from Occupy, for instance.

In the British context, the election of Corbyn will be a moment of genuine organisational breakthrough for the Left. Even if things go awry for Corbyn’s project, as they are bound to in some shape or form, there is no mistaking that his victory represents a kind of generational handover. The mistake of the elder statesmen and women at the Guardian was to view the Corbyn surge as a rehash of the 80s. More fool them, because it actually represents the coming of age of a much younger leftist demographic—the opponents of neoliberalism who have been filing away at the gaps in the brickwork for the last decade: radical theorists who subsisted for many years on the fringes of the internet, journalists like Owen Jones who have been gradually building leftist influence and hegemony in the mainstream media, the new feminists and LGBT campaigners looking for an outlet for their struggles, ordinary people angry about housing or militarism, or having to pay 30 grand for an undergraduate degree, or the fact that their once-proud town on the edge of the world’s 4th richest country is suddenly full of food banks.

These people have been surging for years. For these people, and perhaps for many people in this room, the time is now. A window of opportunity is opening for us to build, rather than merely dismantle, to construct rather than merely deconstruct. As William Blake once said:

I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s

The current mood of radicalism is distinguished by its emphasis on systematic thinking and acting, which is something quite different from the emotive but ultimately ephemeral radicalism of 2011.

On the eve of a Corbyn victory, I would suggest that we need to start thinking in a systematic, ambitious way about how a radical political campaign might affect and improve every aspect of the city we live in, and how this might be joined up with a systematic programme for reform in the rest of Britain, Europe, the world. What would the Corbynite city look like? I don’t pretend to know, but I think the current moment is a moment for a kind of systematic idealism, for large-scale, intellectually ambitious thinking about the way society is constructed rather than the small-scale rebellions and countercultural deconstructionism that has dominated the left over the last three decades, and arguably merely offered a mirror-image to neoliberalism’s belief that states, councils, funding bodies, universities and unions should be disempowered until they disappear.

Corbyn has created a rupture in the ground we know, signalling that society might suddenly begin to change, and change fast. In five years time, our capital might be anywhere.

Oxygen for Terrorists

Dissent is and always has been entwined with media depictions of it, whether it wants to be or not, and whether that coverage is beneficial or not. The traditional assumption is often that it is, however; as Thatcher famously announced: “We must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend.” Thatcher’s government used censorship against the threat of the Provisional IRA in the 1980s, as well as the ANC, who were at the time branded ‘terrorists’ also (and Nelson Mandela in particular). The voices of Irish Republicans were dubbed with the voices of anonymous actors, in a bizarre and at times comic form of censorship, which bore more resemblance to a Monty Python sketch than anything else. The British press, meanwhile, whenever it did mention the IRA, did so with dehumanising and insulting language, comparing Irish revolutionaries (the IRA of the 1920s as well as post-1960s) and the Irish more generally to chimps, Frankenstein, crazy drunks, pigs, a vampire, an inferno, Jekyll and Hyde, and various images of idiocy and barbarianism.

In general, though, the Provisional IRA was given as little coverage as possible from the 1970s onwards, in line with Thatcher’s insistence that depriving the cause of any publicity would stifle them. Indeed it did, but the Provisional IRA fought back with actions that would win their cause and people worldwide interest and at times solidarity, if not the British press (who only changed tack in the 1990s, after the peace talks). The Hunger Strikes, and specifically the death of Bobby Sands, offered a narrative that went some way to counter the British press’ dismissal of the Republican cause.

The hunger strikes of 1980-81 (there were ten deaths in all from the strikes – Sands’ was the best known) took place in Long Kesh prison in Belfast, at the end of a long protest about prisoner status: the Republican prisoners wanted to be recognised as prisoners of war, while the government insisted that they be treated as non-political criminals. While the ‘dirty protests’ began as a long campaign of non-cooperation, continued mistreatment by prison guards and a refusal to take their arguments seriously by the government meant that these protests evolved into the hunger strikes. These went some way to change the public image of the Republican movement from violent perpetrators and troublemakers, to tragic victims.

Drawing on familiar pacifist and religious iconography, popular support for the hunger strikers, the other prisoners, and the Republican cause itself rose exponentially as a result. Public rituals of self-sacrifice, and symbolic gestures about life, death and resurrection were inherent in the hunger strikes, and meant that these protests chimed with the people on a deeper level. They asserted a sense of identity that was bound up in Catholicism and Republicanism, which made these two strands harmonious and all the more powerful for that fusion. The activists themselves became, not merely men, but transcendent figures who would inevitably remind people of the religious figures they had known of since childhood, who had an emotional effect because of a mixture of those early memories and spiritual ideas.

When it came to the media representations of the hunger strikes, these tended to be local rather than national or international at first, given the use of censorship by the British. However, that local awareness gave the activists a local audience and sympathy that was perhaps more powerful because it was exclusive to a grassroots audience at that point. Later, when Bobby Sands died and the story was told further afield, even the most basic facts told a story of martyrdom, and a sense of tragedy, given Sands’ age, his background and the fact that he starved to death for his beliefs. Even the most hardened and distant audience would likely be concerned or ashamed that he suffered such a death. For even people who had no political sympathy, who were not of the same background and identity, would nevertheless recognise that story – that sense of tragedy and self-sacrifice that is ingrained in story-telling across cultures, and which explains, perhaps, why martyrdom is a story used by political actors in so many different settings. The fusion of fame and suffering is one that seems to arrest audiences everywhere. Whatever is the reason for this – be it voyeurism, deeply ingrained social ritual, confused admiration or sympathy – martyrdom is powerful as a political tactic and a narrative arc.

And yet the Conservative government at the time did not quite realise how powerful it could be. While Thatcher’s rationale for ignoring the strikers was that any negotiations or change in status would “represent an acknowledgment of Irish Republican Army violence outside the prison” (Fierke, p. 107), this strategy backfired, partly because she underestimated the power of the hunger strikes from an emotional point of view. The self-sacrifice and deaths of the hunger strikers drew attention to their plight, drew attention to (and empathy towards) the victimhood of Catholics in Northern Ireland (especially given the symbolism inherent in the strikers’ martyrdom) and ultimately encouraged support for the Provisional IRA in spite of their violence.

People were reminded of why these young men had joined the cause in the first place: a series of events in which Catholics were victimised, and peaceful protesters killed. In particular, the shooting of thirteen unarmed civilians during a demonstration in Derry in January 1972 (Bloody Sunday), by British paratroopers, had inspired young activists to abandon more peaceful means of dissent and join the Provisional IRA instead. The substance and history of the cause was exposed, the contemporary Provisional IRA were tied into a longer tradition of Irish Republicanism, and that helped its public image and suggested a more complex story than a simple ‘good versus evil’ and the terrorism narrative of Thatcher’s government and the British tabloids. The lines blurred, the characters, these ‘terrorists’, became first human, then saintly. And with this surge in public support, it became difficult for the British government to keep up their story that the Provisional IRA were a group of troublemakers with no real public support.

The British press, of course, used their expected language of condemnation and vitriol when covering the strikes and Sands’ death, and underplayed the huge effect on public support. The Daily Mail, when Bobby Sands died of hunger, called him out as guilty of “a moral fraud” and the Daily Telegraph called him “ruthless” and corrupted”. The Express dwelled on political failure: “Sands will find no victory in the grave… The shadow of Bobby Sands will pass…” While The Sun focussed on the supposed victory of the British, at his death: “Blackmail has failed… The society which has stood firm against violence in long blood-stained years will remain unshaken.” At the news of Sands’ funeral, the Mirror published an account which insisted that: “[Sands’ funeral was] a pathetic end for a man who never played more than an average part in the deadly moves called by his IRA masters.” The Daily Mail called it “a macabre propaganda circus” and “a gangster parody”. (Roy Greenslade)

Despite this coverage, Bobby Sands’ death was not easily forgotten or dismissed – quite the opposite in fact. Sands became a martyr to the cause – a secular Saint, of sorts. His story, and death, became known and mythologised not only in Northern Ireland but worldwide. Even the British press could not ignore him, especially since he was by this time an elected MP. While coverage of his death remained characteristically derisive, it nevertheless broke the censorship policy that had been in place before and hinted at the reality of public support for Sands and Irish Republicanism in general. Censorship, then, while an ideal for some governments in their dealing with dissent, even in the 1980s, before the Internet, was not always realistic in the face of particularly compelling personalities and their stories.

This is an edited extract from Shooting Hipsters: Rethinking Dissent in the Age of PR by Christiana Spens (forthcoming 2016).

The voices disrupting white supremacy through sound – Adam Harper at The Fader

Excellent and important piece by Adam Harper at the Fader putting some of the most exciting artists currently making music into political context: 

It’s no wonder that African and Afrodiasporic artists are choosing to disseminate music in solidarity. In many cases, this creative decision is a strategy for dealing with the alienation that is so often a part of Afrodiasporic experience. As the London-based writer Kodwo Eshun puts it in his 2003 essay Further Considerations on Afrofuturism: “the condition of alienation, understood in its most general sense, is a psychosocial inevitability that all Afrodiasporic art uses to its own advantage by creating contexts that encourage a process of disalienation.” And yet in the continuing environment of white supremacy, this creativity is routinely either erased, appropriated, or confined to narrow and fetishized aesthetic areas. The music in this article—which is all linked by the multifarious connective tissues of underground culture (labels, releases, mixes, remixes, songs etc)—is not necessarily of the same belief or aesthetic, but can all be seen as resisting the supremacist paradigm in its many different ways and contexts. Often, it can be seen as exploring the way in which race intersects with gender, sexuality and/or queerness too.

…..

Needless to say, the artists mentioned here aren’t the only African and Afrodiasporic artists making challenging and beautiful music in the underground, just a few constellations—there are countless more voices out there. As it has been for centuries, since the traumatic dawn of modernity, finding such voices through music is not just a leisure activity, as it is marketed to many of us. It’s part of the urgent and fundamental search for self and identity in a world that not only erases that identity, or appropriates it, or predetermines it, or constrains it, or renders it fragmented and ostensibly paradoxical, but that also systematically commits physical violence upon people of that identity. This is why so many artists with minority status end up in underground music—this is why they are underground music. Fortunately, the underground can form spaces and networks where identity matters, is audible, and becomes visible.

Read the full article at The Fader.

Ex-Industrial… An extract from J.D. Taylor’s Island Story

 This is an edited extract from JD Taylor‘s forthcoming book, Island Story: Journeying Through Unfamiliar Britain

Morning on the Acklam Garden City Estate, Middlesbrough, surrounded by cheery red-brick terraces, patriotic flags and, a little beyond, row after row of boarded-up houses, many habitable.

By the local estate parade, where I’d been warned of ‘dodgy people’ who might despoil a traveller of their possessions, Gary’s out with his young son. ‘Yer fucken mad, you are’, he says, laughing at my alibi for asking. He flicks his head up proudly. ‘It’s marvellous. Some bits are good round ere, some bits are bad, like everywhere’. His mum and sister live round the corner. It’s a community, he presses. Like Jan, surrounded by her sisters in the nearby streets, in spite of Middlesbrough’s decline it’s still kept together families and communities, and this is what people love about it, something impossible in most growing English towns.

But how does one live? Within the 19th century, Middlesbrough exploded from a dozy hamlet to an ‘infant Hercules’ town of a hundred thousand, producing ships, metals and chemicals. Its Teesside docks and port were live-wired into global trade. But all this was another history lesson, and the last of those industries, ICI’s chemical works at Wilton and Billingham, had been wiped out in the 90s, with a rump of smaller firms operating in its place. Middlesbrough’s population has been plummeting, but there was no serious discussion about a responsible shrinking or ungrowing. Instead there were more retail parks, malls and call-centres promised, and receding memories of a future that had failed to arrive.

 

The sentiment wasn’t merely melancholic. Riding through Billingham among its belching chimneys and swerving juggernauts, air funked with astringent fumes, the Brunner Mond chemical-works later taken over by ICI had inspired Aldous Huxley to imagine his Brave New World. Likewise, the neon-lit towers and flares I’d passed last night at Wilton had inspired Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Both dystopic visions of the future, tagged to the Tees. A ‘space age coated in pigeon shit’ is how Owen Hatherley describes its town centre today, a 60s New Town built by ICI, now marked by its dereliction, a description given with a hint of deserving affection.

Bewley and Seaton Carew follow, disorientatingly bland suburbs, all cul-de-sacs, palisade gates and paved driveways, Sky dishes and CCTV pointed out to the world. Places one could fake one’s death and live untroubled in… as John Darwin almost proved. This was the future that had taken its place, one which, despite its ugliness, had succeeded in offering what more people wanted most, instead of needed. I press on into Hartlepool. Beside the deserted marina and ‘historic quay’, site of ye goodly ol’ HMS Trincomalee, is a binge of retail parks, fast-food drive-thrus, bingo halls and budget hotel chains. The effect is truly bizarre, compounded by its New York-style yellow taxis and the sheer emptiness of the place, as if a millenarian religious cult had massed in the town, built these totems and trophies to the consumer gods, then quietly disbanded after the Credit Crunch apocalypse failed to arrive.

An older couple drift by in the distance. Yvonne and Eddie struggle to explain the town’s present condition. A massive steelworks and harbour have closed, leaving behind a ‘lot of poor’ and unemployment. The retail-glut reflected the magical thinking of the Blair era, that wealth could be simply be magicked into creation, ex nihilo, just as if one could ‘create’ energy into being, rather than harness or redistribute it from elsewhere. One needed credit for these places, now that the jobs were gone, but even that was harder to come by. Eddie points to the empty but modern-looking marina opposite, now owned by the council. There are no plans to use it. ‘I’d turn it into a big sports centre, with football, tennis, badminton’. ‘Kids today sit at home in their rooms on the computer’, Yvonne adds, describing their grandchildren. ‘It’s just the age’.

County Durham. The relatively flat scene is akin to the Cleveland towns, gelded by the closure of the mines. The takeaway and off-licence constitute communal life. After Blackhall, I pull over in Horden for clues. A woman old enough to have been a miner’s wife during the Strike struggles to articulate its story. ‘They’re all gone, shut in 85’. What happened to the people here? She shrugs. ‘Nothing’. Another man of similar age repeats the same. ‘They went out six miles to sea. They reckoned it cost too much money’. He hurries off.

At (another) Easington, the village’s school and council offices are boarded up, their windows smashed through. The pubs are closed, even the neat red-brick miners’ terraces barricaded in places. One might expect this in Detroit or Chernobyl, but on our doorstep? The damage done is plain to see. An old boy pushes a broken lawn-mower down a back-terrace, and we chat. When Thatcher died, he recalls, people came from miles around to party. Some hadn’t returned for at least a decade. When the collieries closed, some miners were sent on computer courses, for certificates ‘not worth’t paper printed on’.

The terrain begins to steepen, then at Sherburn it collapses down again. Durham appears almost from nowhere, secluded from sight in a deep valley. The town is remarkably affluent in contrast to its neighbours, populated by aspirational student bars and luxury homeware shops, its cobbled lanes threading over a gushing river and up a hillock towards its vast, austerely-adorned Norman cathedral and castle. Young Americans babble loudly, and someone busks with a violin.

I pedal on to Langley Moor, an ex-mining village on its outskirts. Clarissa, a friend of my partner’s, lives out here. As we drink beer and wine in her back garden, surrounded by light industrial warehouses and a sports centre, she reflects.

‘There used to be a slag heap there, a colliery down there, even a little railway bringing the coal’. The pits and two-up two-down terraces have almost all been pulled down and eradicated, unlike Easington. ‘I do think it is as bad now as the 80s’ she adds. I wonder how, still struggling to mentally connect up these scenes, past and present. ‘Lots of unemployment’, her late-teen daughter says, her and her mate joining us. Lads join the army. The suicide rate is particularly high.

Perhaps it’s in the collapsing infrastructure, the true, hidden extent of poverty and unemployment. But as they talk, this sense of 80s-scale defeat is in something else. It’s at the level of desire and feeling. Since York, the towns have all been deserted. There are no pricks to kick against, just the stony silence and shame that comes with robbing Peter to pay Paul, of heavy drinking and anti-depressants to salve the pain. The local miners’ gala is now a formalised piss-up, as sheer hedonism blunts the boredom with special occasions for off-the-leash Saturnalia. We hear the radio news from the other room, distant headlines of London and a political elite rattling on about economic growth and employment, but it made no sense out here.

[…]

I’d been told that Ashington had been the biggest pit village in the world, a century ago, employing ten thousand miners in five collieries. Then Thatcher waged war on the organised miners, and the productive mines were closed. The town’s other product, aluminium, had also recently ceased, leaving Ashington cut adrift. A young man’s tip in a newsagent directs me to the Woodhorn Colliery, the last of the mines still standing, open as a museum to this lost way of life.

‘Close the door on past dreariness’. ‘The will to work is the way to prosperity’. ‘Nationalisation 1947. The New Era: Welfare Education Mechanisation’. Queen blue and claret banners hang inside, produced by local branches of the NUM, like Ellington, Seghill and Sleekburn A, all nearby. They are defined by their headline fonts, their sentimental and often heraldry-like use of borders and scrolls, and their emotive depictions of grey and miserable slum terraces, like those of Middlesbrough and Gateshead, a past they wished to put behind.

Their progressive, mechanised future is that which failed to arrive, but there is a specifically working class English modernism to these banners which I hadn’t anticipated. Rather than seeking to defend an unproductive and dangerous form of work, they sought to improve it. The banners were produced in the late 40s, at a time when much still felt possible. Rather than appearing as things back in time, they seem like the artefacts of ghosts of the future. What would demands for welfare, mechanisation, education or nationalisation look like today?

The scenes of the ‘Pitmen Painters’ collected here present a way of life gone, perhaps mercifully too. There are blinkered pit ponies, wandering underground; a Friday fish supper; a Labour man addressing a packed-out pub of menfolk; a woman alone, the drudgery of domestic work before the era of cheap appliances; the death of a wife by tuberculosis. One image captures in cartoon-format the life of a 14 year old miner, who wakes up at two each morning to put in a long shift on an unproductive seam, often where new miners would start until an older relative could negotiate something better. Returning home, he’s too tired to bathe, eat, or see his friends. He falls asleep as soon as he gets in, only to be woken by his mam to go back to the pit. ‘Slept it through’ is the title.

But the paintings are intriguing also in how they were produced. The group began meeting through a branch of the WEA in 1927 in an old hut, and by 1934 they worked with Robert Lyon to develop their paintings, which were then exhibited to the world. Harry Wilson was one miner involved. ‘Here I found an outlet for other things than earning my living’, he said. ‘There is a feeling of being my own boss for a change and with it comes a sense of freedom’.

Their hut was pulled down in 1983, and the last mine in the area shut in 2005, Howard tells me, one of the museum’s volunteers, as I quiz him on the legacy beyond the exhibits. ‘Coal not dole’, the striking miners demanded. Today even the latter’s hard to come by. Paul had spoken of the local foodbanks struggling to meet demand, as numbers of people too poor to even eat were soaring, victims of four-to-thirteen week benefit sanctions, some caused by DWP cruelty, others mere incompetence. That basic right to freedom, to live and to live well, are not expensive or unrealistic demands. Far more is spent on housing benefit to private landlords than on building new social housing; far more is lost in loose tax regulations and tax-breaks for the rich over benefit fraud.

People in London or the South might think that I’m being too negative, ‘playing politics’ over the veracity of the narrative. Come up to Easington and Ashington, if you dare, and spend some time here, seeing, listening, talking with locals. Take a look at just how needlessly ravaged these places are, and think about the past and present political events that are causing this. Consider whether it is morally right that a person should freeze or go without food, or be punished for the crime of being poor and having a spare bedroom, or that they should be coerced into working without a wage, in a country presently the fifth richest in the world. If that is fine with you, continue voting Conservative. You may wish to close the book here.

For those of you who feel, like me, wearied and stunned by it all, then a position of sceptical impartiality or knowing inaction’s no good either, for these things will continue, whether we choose to look elsewhere or not. Trading our grumbles won’t interrupt the processes that protect bankers and billionaires whilst consigning the vast majority of young and old to insecure, low-paid and drudgerous jobs. ‘Close the door on past dreariness’ said the Ellington miners back in 1950. What does a brighter future look like, and how will it work for us all?

The Corbyn Effect

By Pablo K (reposted with permission from The Disorder of Things)

Blair and company argue that the Tories crave a Corbyn win, but the trap has been set a move beyond that: Cameron and Osborne can rest confident that the terror of electoral wipe-out will have a neo-Blairite Labour party galloping towards their position anyway. Always fighting the last war, and on a badly-chosen battlefield. The Labour mainstream cannot adapt to new parameters, cannot think except in the abjection of the spectre of a hard left, even as they appoint themselves the true custodians of the world-to-come.

Having failed to stand up to claims that over-spending caused the financial crisis (it was the allocation decisions of deregulated market actors, since you ask), and having joined in the anti-immigration mood with some vigour (if also with occasional cognitive dissonance), the party is hardly placed to offer a local vision of political renewal, still less muster anything like internationalism or a novel settlement for the great questions of the age (stagnant economies, spreading inequalities, humanitarian crisis within and at the gates of Fortress Europe, a foreign policy that does not undermine itself even in the narrow range of national interest, a trajectory for expanded human freedom and comfort). They have only platitudes, and this explains in part the bile of the anti-Corbyn moment. Utterly unable to engage on the merits, theirs is also a retreat to a ‘comfort zone’, one of personality-engineering and fickle non-policies, desperate to catch the eye of the floating voter who hates them for their indecision and rightly perceives the abyss of their purpose.

As Paul Mason argued the morning after the election, this emptiness is the result of some longer-term trends:

[Labour] in its current form it has almost no ideological base, or coherence. Miliband’s innner team had almost no outriders in the press, no co-thinkers in academia; they had support among artists and film directors, but always half-hearted. Blairism, of course, has massive support among the now wrinkled and pensioned ex-ministers and former giants of 1990s journalism, but that’s not much use… It has failed to account for its defeat in 2010, failed to recognise the deep sources of its failure in Scotland, and failed to produce any kind of intellectual diversity and resilience from which answers might arise.

The failure goes on, and is only compounded by the shrill denunciations, as if Corbyn’s suggestion of opposing tax cuts for the rich in a time of austerity was the common sense definition of “hard left”. This is how the Overton Window works. To have Labour advisors ripping into mild social democracy as if it was the establishment of a command economy is to shrink the possibilities across the entire political spectrum. This is not reorientation to “the centre”. Nor is it moving past left and right. It is establishing the axioms of the right as the very horizon of politics, and then calling it objective reality. We live in a society in which something like re-nationalisation of the railways is a hugely popular policy, even (by a slimmer margin) amongst Conservative voters, and in which no one is able to seriously propose it. Mary Creagh thinks this is a sign of good sense (re-nationalisation apparently unworkable, a stone age notion). But – and here we must concede something to the ‘Mont Pelerin of the Left’ crowd – you have to contest political reality in order to create it. Arguments, organisation, persuasion. Not submission and mimicry (at least not at the scale of the Blairite panic). Or else they win even when you win.

Anti-Corbynites will at this stage justly complain that all of the above misses the central, inescapable, terrifying point: a party leader must be able to win nationwide parliamentary elections, and winning is predicated on capturing new voters, who will mostly be swing electors of no particular ideology and not some shy gaggle of hardcore Bennites in hiding since 1997. And it is winning that requires a range of skills in coalition-building, in political manoeuvrability, and in crafting a narrative which is both suitably empty (so that all positions can be contained within it) and robust (so that there is a narrative identity to hawk). Principles, a strong voting record, repeatedly being proven right in the face of prevailing credulity, loyalty to the historic role of the party, a refreshing honesty, basic decency in talking about opponents…all of that is secondary, or worse. Denying the need for these competencies is thus an infantile leftism, a retreat, a fantasy, a comfort-eating binge (as if there was anything comfortable about being set upon so within Labour’s putative broad church).

Although it can obviously not say so explicitly, such advice counsels that the electorate are idiots, and should be treated as such. Grow up, and realise that this is a game of manipulation in the pursuit of power, not open debate in the service of public good. In the intricacies of political advertising, vapid talk is a feature, not a bug, and yes, it too reflects the alliances made with interest groups in the market and the media. For now, there can only be charisma-void candidates, who can at least be relied on not to actively repulse in the marginals. What else did you expect? As so many have noted for so long, the consequence is an endless dilution of ideas (of what might once have been haughtily thought of as political theory) in which power is its own reward, and a light balm the best the body politic might hope for even in the event of a grand Labour victory. This is, you will notice, the opposite of how the Tories have carried on. They use their position to remould the state, and in ways that are pretty obviously “right wing”. It is hard to imagine that anyone but Corbyn has the political courage to do the same for the left, but then they are not expected to, and no positive case exists to be put for them (apart from that Burnham believes in the NHS, which is, I guess, some kind of comfort). What, say, is the identifiable meaning of Yvette Cooper?

This is an extract from a longer piece, originally posted on the excellent blog, The Disorder of Things – read the full post here

Pablo K is on twitter as @pablok and blogs at thedisorderofthings.com

Jeremy Corbyn — next Labour leader?

Jeremy Corbyn has today taken the lead in the Labour leadership race – something that seemed unlikely even a few weeks ago. Whatever your views on Labour (even amongst the Repeater team, they are conflicted), it’s great to see an overtly radical candidate doing so well. Whatever the outcome, his candidacy seems to be pushing Labour and political discourse to the left, which can only be a good thing.

You can vote for Corbyn as a Labour member, as an affiliated supporter (through membership of an affiliated union etc), or by becoming a ‘supporter’ (sign up online here and pay £3).

Here’s some words from writer and musician Bob Stanley on why he’s supporting Corbyn:

I’ve been thinking about the Labour leadership campaign, and in turn the future of the Labour Party, and so the future of the country. I’ve always liked Jeremy Corbyn. When I heard that he was standing I was relieved that somebody at least to the left of Tony Blair would contest the leadership.

Then yesterday I heard Harriet Harman say that she’s supporting the Tory budget, offering no opposition to policies that hit the poorest, punishing any family with more than two children. What the hell does she think the Labour Party is there for? It’s embarrassing and depressing.

I don’t believe that Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall or Andy Burnham will provide any stronger opposition than she has – which means going along with Tory policies because they’re scared not to, pandering to the electorate’s worst instincts, kicking anyone who’s on a lower rung.

…Jeremy’s campaign has the most momentum. This doesn’t surprise me because Jeremy Corbyn is a socialist! He knows what the Labour Party should be about. Yesterday, reacting to Harriet Harman’s interview, he said “I am not willing to vote for policies that will push more children into poverty. Families are suffering enough… we shouldn’t play the government’s political games with the welfare if children are at stake.”

I don’t think people realise how easy it is to vote for Jeremy. All the campaign are asking people to do is send a text; it’ll only cost £3 to have a proper say on the future of British politics.The cut-off date for registering is August 12th, so there’s a whole month to raise Jeremy’s profile and show the Labour Party which direction we want them to move in.

Bob Stanley is a member of St Etienne and author of Yeah Yeah Yeah: The History of Modern Pop (Faber, 2013).

Dawn Foster demolishing the arguments for free schools in the London Review of Books

In the May 7th issue of the LRB, Dawn Foster demolished the arguments in favour of free schools. In particular, she highlighted how huge amounts of public money has, in some cases, been spent setting up free schools in areas where there is no lack of school places: 

“There is no requirement that free school founders have experience of running a school, and no assessment is made as to whether the prospective founders will be able to meet the legally required standards of school governance.

In effect, this means that any group of parents who believe there is a need for a new school can club together and apply to set it up. Successful applicants have argued that there is a local need for Steiner schools, German schools, and schools that follow Montessori or Maharishi principles. An application to set up a Scientology school was unsuccessful. The ‘need’ for a new school isn’t necessarily based on an assessment of the number of school places available in a given area, but on parental choice and a clamouring for individualism in state-funded education. Petitions often suffice. One academy chain putting forward an application to start a free school in Doncaster offered potential pupils £500 to sign up: other free schools have offered iPads and bicycles…

…In a report from May 2014, the Public Accounts Committee noted that £1.1 billion had been spent on free schools up to March 2014, of which £700 million was for land and buildings; £241 million had been spent in areas with no shortage of school places. While 87 per cent of primary places created were in places of need, only 19 per cent of secondary places were…

…As with the NHS, the slow creep of privatisation in education happens below the surface. ‘There is this group of people,’ Millar explains, ‘who think England will get for-profit schools, and they want to be there at the beginning of it, because it’s a lucrative business once you get chains of schools.’…

…When Ofsted finds that a local authority school is failing, the school is taken over by an academy chain. When a converted academy is found to be failing, it doesn’t return to local authority status: it is handed on to a different academy chain. It’s a one-way street: theoretically, if standards slip, every school in the country could become an academy.”

Unsurprisingly, free schools’ most high-profile advocate, Toby Young wasn’t a fan of the piece. In a letter to the LRB he took issue with with Foster’s interpretation of the statistics, making claims that were immediately demolished in letters from Michael Rosen, Melissa Benn & Janet Downs that are worth reading in full. He then went on to imply that, anyway, all this thoroughly researched analysis is irrelevant, because he knows Michael Gove and Andrew Adonis personally, and they’re decent chaps who with the best intentions. Thanks for clearing that up Toby. 

“…More misleading than simply neglecting these subtleties was the overall thrust of the articles, which is that the reforms initiated by Michael Gove (and to a lesser extent Andrew Adonis) were masterminded by evil capitalists, intent on squeezing the last drop of profit out of state-funded education. That simply isn’t true. Having spoken at length to Andrew Adonis, and knowing Michael as I do, I can say with complete confidence that their sole motive was to improve England’s public education system – in particular, to improve outcomes for the least well-off, who fared very badly under the pre-2010 state-run Shangri-la favoured by both authors. For Andrew and Michael, education reform is and always has been a moral crusade, not an attempt to hand control of England’s public education system to billionaire robber barons.

Toby Young
West London Free School Academy Trust
London W6

Dawn Foster replied, explaining how Young had misrepresented her argument, before delivering a final blow:

“It’s hardly surprising, given his investment in the cause, that Toby Young ignores the main points in responding to my piece, and cherry-picks the data. As I wrote, only 19 per cent of secondary free schools are opened in areas with a shortage of places: a colossal waste of funds that justifiably drew the attention of the Public Accounts Committee. When free schools do open in deprived areas, the students they enrol are not the poorest; one of the problems people have with free schools is that they make it possible for sharp-elbowed parents to separate their children from the children of their more deprived neighbours. Of the first wave of 24 free schools, all but two have free school meals rates below the local average. An Institute of Education report on free schools in 2014 showed that 13.5 per cent of pupils attending primary free schools were eligible for free meals when the local average was 18.3 per cent; for secondary free schools, the corresponding figures were 17.5 per cent and 22.1 per cent. Creaming off the children of more affluent parents constitutes social segregation; so too does the existence of religious free schools.

Young seems to think he is held in high regard by free school advocates. When I mentioned his name in the course of interviewing a former Department for Education employee for the piece, my interviewee headbutted the restaurant table in exasperation. I have found the sentiment, if not the gesture, to be common among his ideological comrades.”

Dawn Foster

Dawn Foster is a writer and journalist. Her first book, Lean Out, a critique of corporate feminism, will be one of Repeater’s launch titles in early 2016. 

 “Stop being afraid” – Jam City and radical politics in dance music

Listen to Jam City’s NTS mix [mixcloud https://www.mixcloud.com/NTSRadio/jam-city-1st-june-2015/ width=660 height=208 hide_cover=1 hide_tracklist=1]

I have zero time for the common refrain of middle-aged music journalists, “why is there no political music nowadays?”. It’s a question that’s lazy at best and disingenuous at worst. But, if I was going to bother to reply to someone asking that this week, I’d just ping them a link to any of Jam City’s recent interviews (if examples from rock were needed, see also Algiers or Perfect Pussy). Here’s a couple of recent excerpts:

From Complex magazine, in April:

Dream A Garden is a statement album, telling stories about emotional fallouts in the neoliberal world, the same world depicted by Classical Curves with its glossy images of luxury possessions. Is Classical Curves, Dream A Gardenbut with a certain cynicism?

Yes, absolutely. In the past, I’ve been fascinated and repulsed by the glossy surface of neoliberal capitalism: luxury products, useless electronic. But after a while, you realise that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Dream A Garden is about learning to situate those luxury images within a larger context of violence, exploitation, and depression….

I hate this line of, “No politics on the dancefloor.” Dance music has never NOT been political! It’s always been transgressive, from disco to dub-reggae to grime. It’s only in the last few years that “the underground” has got further and further away from those agendas. We need to ask why this is. 

Latham picks up on this theme in a great interview with Dan Hancox for the Guardian:

“To Latham, the inherent politics of dancing, raving, clubbing – whatever you call it – are blindingly obvious. “If you take a long view of history, there’s always been a kind of transgressive politics to dance music – disco, dub, reggae, rave, grime – but it’s funny, someone said to me in an interview the other day, ‘People don’t normally associate club music with politics.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’ It’s never not been political! But somehow, in the last five years or something, in correlation to a lot of political things that have been going on, specifically in this country, it has kind of become an island, a little bit.” So you’re not concerned by the cultural gatekeepers who keep saying political music isn’t what it was in the 80s? He laughs. “It’s not! It’s not the 80s! The 80s are done and dusted.”

“People say about this generation that it’s the apathetic generation or whatever, but I think we’re probably more educated about a lot of things than ever, people are plugged in, and they know what’s going on. But the exhaustion is still there. It’s hard to know how to find a language to talk about these things. I don’t understand mainstream party politics, I never have, it doesn’t speak a language to me that I’ve ever felt I could relate to, and I’m sure it’s probably the same for most people.” And yet he has found a language, and as a political lyricist he is refreshingly natural and unconventional, his heavily filtered voice plaintively singing short lines about riots, body image, the sadness and solipsism of consumer culture, “porn and Adderall”, and the yearning to reconnect, and to feel again.

For Latham, hope lies in other people, strangers meeting (or not meeting) in some of the cultural spaces that are themselves falling victim to contemporary capitalism; he cites a spate of club closures in London, the gentrification of others, and also, in light of the cost of tuition fees, “being able to afford to study; and meeting people, and forming a band, or starting a club night. It’s like the internet’s all we have, and none of us really have any money, so of course that’s the way that we organise and seek comfort from other people. But the doors to do that in real life, that historically have made other movements possible, just seem quite closed to our generation. We need those places and spaces where we can celebrate, because it’s a coping mechanism.”

“We have to deal with the complete privatisation of every aspect of our lives, and I just really believe there should be a physical space where we can go for six or seven hours to reorientate ourselves, actually be fucking humans again, and dance, and hear things that make us feel good inside.”

While dance music’s historical role as a site of possibility and transgression is inarguable, there can be an assumption that dance music today, and, by extension, the people involved in it, are inherently left-wing. Which, as anyone saw Boddika’s tweet and the response to it last week will know, is far from the case. He tweeted:

Many industry figures leapt to defend him, to say it must have been taken out of context, that anyone with a jot of sense would know he didn’t really mean it like that. But several also immediately called out his racism, with Jam City (in a now deleted tweet) and Night Slugs boss Bok Bok amongst the most outspoken.

Granted, few currently big electronic artists are quite as outspokenly political as Jam City (at least, ones that get interviewed in the Guardian). And, equally, there are plenty of politically engaged DJs/producers/performers and always have been. It would be OTT to proclaim that Jam City heralds a new era of politically engaged dance music. Dream A Garden probably won’t end up as the soundtrack to a summer of riots, 2015. But it feels like there may be a slight shift towards a somewhat more politically engaged, diverse electronic music scene, and Jam City’s recent output is an encouraging sign.

Jam City plays the ICA tonight, 5th June.

All the straws we clutched at have burst into flames

A new mix and a new tumblr, Base Consciousness from kpunk/Mark Fisher.

Quick mix to explore some of the moods in the wake of the election defeat: initial shock then renewed militancy and sense of purpose ….

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/206154914″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

Extract: A Gathering of Promises, a new book on Texan psych by Ben Graham

The Austin Psych Fest was last weekend, but in the UK we were fully focused on the elections and associated depression/stoicism/recriminations/reinvigoration (delete as appropriate). So in belated celebration of the festival and the 13th Floor Elevators 50th anniversary reunion show (review/photos/video here), here’s an extract from Ben Graham’s new book on Texan psych, A Gathering of Promises (out in June from Zer0). There’s also an interview with Ben about writing the book on the Brighton Noise blog. – TS

On an outdoor stage on the banks of the Colorado River, a 63-year-old man is leading his band through a set of churning, rhythmic, hard-edged blues rock. His grey hair cut short and neat, George Emerson Kinney looks every inch the respectable Texas rancher, dressed smart but casual in pressed blue jeans and white shirt. Yet something in the intensity of his performance gives him away. With the sun starting to set behind him, he lets his electric guitar swing round onto his hip and clutches the microphone stand fiercely with both hands. “There comes a time of starvation, and it is true,” he howls. “If you believe in elevation it will happen to you.”

George Kinney has endured the time of starvation, in terms of appreciation and recognition at least. He wrote and first sang this song, Starvation, with his band the Golden Dawn some 47 years ago, long before many in the audience at this, the 2014 Austin Psych Fest, had even been born. Yet it is also true to say that Kinney never stopped believing in elevation; that is, the potential of the entire human race to ascend to a higher level of psychic understanding and spiritual evolution, a belief that inspired both the name and the songs of the Golden Dawn when they formed in Austin in 1967. It was a belief that the Golden Dawn shared with their close comrades, the 13th Floor Elevators (who Kinney is of course also acknowledging in the lyric), and it would appear that in the 21st Century, long after the original incarnations of both bands disintegrated under pressure and recrimination, things are indeed finally happening, both for them and for many of their psychedelic Texan contemporaries.

The seventh annual Austin Psych Fest is the largest yet, with over 6000 people from all over the world filling the campsite and attending the three day event, as well as enjoying pre-festival warm-up events in Austin’s clubs and bars. The music line-up is as international as the audience, with a broad definition of psychedelic music taking in acts from across North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australia and Japan. In 2014, the festival’s superlative reputation attracted the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Dandy Warhols, Acid Mothers Temple, Loop, the Horrors, Lorelle Meets The Obsolete, Jacco Gardner, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Terakraft and more than 80 other artists including co-organizers the Black Angels, who more than any other band revived Austin’s reputation as a center for psychedelic rock in the 21st Century. The festival also drew music journalists from all over the globe, and reportedly Hedi Slimane, creative director of fashion house Saint Laurent, diligently photographing audience and bands alike while researching his firm’s latest line, 2014’s ‘Psych Rock’ collection.

On the surface it might seem surprising that the upsurge in interest in psychedelic music, new and old, should be focused not on San Francisco or London or even Berlin (with the concurrent and related krautrock revival), but Austin, Texas. Yet the location of the world’s premiere psych festival is no accident, and the organizers, the bands and the audience are all well aware of the city’s rich and noble psychedelic history. What some may be less aware of is the extent to which the Austin establishment of the 1960s despised and persecuted pioneering psychedelic bands like the 13th Floor Elevators and the Golden Dawn, and how by the beginning of the 1970s the Texan psychedelic scene was considered dead and buried, an embarrassment to those who were a part of it, and a flash in the pan misfire before the era of progressive outlaw country that first put Austin on the map, and established its reputation as “the live music capital of the world.” For decades it was Willy Nelson, not Roky Erickson, who was the beloved face of the Austin music scene.

“If the Black Angels could go back in time, they couldn’t get a gig to save their lives!” laughs Billy Miller, a 13th Floor Elevators fan from the mid-sixties on. “They’d probably get run out of town on a rail by the music scene itself. So things have really changed; they are the music scene there now, and I’m glad to see it.”

Though all native Texans, the Black Angels deliberately moved to Austin in order to start a psychedelic rock band, attracted as much by the city’s heritage as by its reputation as a major contemporary music center. “When we first started there weren’t tons of people doing that kind of sound,” recalls singer Alex Maas. “You can’t really touch the 13th Floor Elevators. You can get close; I hear a lot of bands now that I’m like, man, that really sounds like the 13th Floor Elevators, it’s really good. But it’s like saying someone’s as good as the Beatles, you know, it’s not ever going to happen.”

When they co-founded the Reverberation Appreciation Society, the Black Angels began their transition to arguably the most important, powerful and influential band on the Austin scene. Set up to promote shows and release records by like-minded acts, the Society organizes not only the Austin Psych Fest but similar events around the world.

“The Reverberation Appreciation Society is me, Rob Fitzpatrick, Christian Bland and Oswald James,” says Maas. “We started this organization and gave it this weird long name to do stuff like the festival, and we wanted to be able to help our friends if they didn’t have an outlet for their music. We’ve met tons of great musicians over the course of our career, and tons that just don’t have an outlet, and that was kind of why the society was created. It was to keep the music going, the music that we believed in. So we’ll help them find outlets, whether it be stores that will sell their music or a presence online, or just developing the sound of a band.”

This helping hand would also soon extend to the older bands that influenced the Black Angels, like the 13th Floor Elevators and the Golden Dawn. “It only makes sense and it’s only fair to give back to that community and that ball of energy that we were inspired from originally. Whether that be Roky Erickson or the Seeds or the Moving Sidewalks or Simeon from the Silver Apples.”

Maas also has his own theories about why Texas was such a nexus for first generation psychedelic rock music. “It seems like with any action there’s always an equal and opposite reaction,” he says. “So if you have a conservative culture you will have a very liberal underground, whether it’s powerful or whether it’s modest in its approach to how it wants to grow. Austin’s always been a kind of liberal town, and I think the conservative culture in Texas has naturally bred this interesting art escape, this opposite effect to escape from that.”

Initially however the establishment response to the appearance of drugs, long hair, youth rebellion and talk of peace and love in Austin was far from liberal. The psychedelic freaks in Texas had to fight much harder just to survive than their brethren in California, London or New York, and this is perhaps what gives Texan psychedelia its distinctive punk edge. Unlike many of the Californian bands to whom the term was first applied, like the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane, psychedelic rock out of Texas is characterized by an aggressive urgency and desperation that has actually helped it to age far better than its more mellow West Coast equivalent.

Christian conservatism and repressive drug laws were countered by a strong belief in the freedom of the individual and a frontier spirit that could apply to mind expansion as much as lighting out for open land. There is much to be said though for the big skies and the sense of space to be found in the Texan desert and hill country, not to mention the visionary qualities of the native peyote plant, used as a shamanic sacrament by generations of native tribes and curious adepts. The active compound in peyote is mescaline, referred to as “Texas Medicine” by Bob Dylan; mescaline was also the drug taken by Aldous Huxley in his celebrated account The Doors of Perception, and was used by notorious occultist Aleister Crowley in his proto-psychedelic Rites of Eleusis performance of 1910. Though LSD became as popular in Texas as anywhere else, an initial grounding in natural psychedelics like peyote helped distinguish the Texan scene from its Californian equivalent, as George Kinney points out.

“LSD can be a very helpful psychedelic experience, but when all is said and done it is an artificial substance,” he says. “When one starts to really get ‘high’ in the psychedelic sense, one begins to distrust such contrived substances. Psilocybin mushrooms and peyote are natural plants and have a long tradition of being used to enhance the awareness of humans. There is a sense of authority and security in ingesting these medicinal plants that is absent from taking LSD. The result is an experience that is both transcendent and natural simultaneously. One can experience the divine aspects of one’s nature and still remained meaningfully connected to Mother Nature. The outlook and behavior, especially the music, expressed this distinction. That’s why even the most psychedelic voyagers from Texas remained so down home. The main benefit, to me, of psychedelic music was to combine the transcendent elements of intellectual thought with a very physically moving rhythm and sound.

“Texas itself is a very powerful geographic location. The land and the history there is very unique. Texas used to be its own nation and the fierce independence of the citizens is a tangible ambience that pervades all areas of social and community life.”

That “fierce independence” is crucial. Despite the often draconian enforcement of law and order, Texan mythology has also always idealized the rebel, the outlaw and the hard-bitten underdog fighting against the greater power. Nowhere is this last case more obviously exemplified than in the Battle of the Alamo, surely the most powerful archetype and central myth in the collective Texan psyche. Perhaps the brave heroes of the Texas Revolution, who died defending the Alamo Mission in San Antonio against impossible odds, set a precedent that Texas’s 1960s psychedelic revolutionaries were already unconsciously following. And if Lubbock’s martyred icon of early rock n’ roll, Buddy Holly, had already captured the essence of the psychedelic experience in his song Slippin’ and Slidin’ (as Jason Pierce of Spiritualized has suggested), then perhaps his El Paso contemporary Bobby Fuller had already written the whole story of Texan rock, psychedelic or otherwise, when he penned his classic I Fought The Law (And The Law Won), shortly before his own premature and still-mysterious demise.
Certainly, Texas’s outlaw tradition and proximity to the Mexican border gave it a certain primacy in the American marijuana trade, which in turn meant that Texans had a greater connection and interaction with their fellow heads on both coasts that did any other southern state. Unlike in New York and San Francisco though, Texan psychedelia developed from first principles, and in this sense was truly gnostic, stemming from direct personal experience of acid and peyote rather than being filtered through the media or fashion. Also, Texan psychedelic bands were under far less pressure to temper their vision and make it commercial; being so far from the major centers of the music industry, chances are they were never going to make it anyway. Almost all of the records discussed in this book were released on small local independent labels, that didn’t have a clue about this strange new music, but the kids seemed to dig it so what the hell, they thought, let’s put it out anyway and hope it will sell.

And ultimately perhaps, the simple truth is that Texans just don’t do things by half measures. If they’re going to rock, they’re going to rock hard; if they’re going to drop acid, they might just take enough acid to kill a buffalo. And if they’re going to make weird and freaky music, then it’s going to be the weirdest and freakiest music you ever heard in your life. Enjoy.

***

When 18-year-old Rayward Powell St John arrived in Austin in the fall of 1959 as a freshman at the University of Texas, the city was almost unrecognizable as the high-tech metropolis it would one day become. The computing and dot com boom that would transform Austin’s fortunes during the eighties and nineties was still the stuff of pulp science fiction, and the city that would come to describe itself as “the live music capital of the world” was still a relatively quiet, conservative community with a population of roughly 180,000; 20,000 of which were students.

“Austin was a beautiful city, a big town,” Powell remembers. “And I was right in the middle of it, enrolled in a major university and living on my own. The living on my own part was the best part of all.”

Powell St John had been born in nearby Houston in 1940, but had grown up in Laredo, close to the Mexican border. His father had owned a farm, and his earliest memories were of exploring the territory, roaming in the desert and along the banks of the Rio Grande River. When Powell was ten years old his father sold the farm and returned to his original career of teaching; the family moved to town, and Powell began attending Laredo’s Martin High School, where his father now taught English and Algebra.

While some high schools gain prestige for their academic scores and others are known for the success of their sports teams, Martin’s claim to fame was its first-rate school band, and potential players were recruited early. Although he had no experience as a musician, and didn’t come from a particularly musical family, Powell had grown up avidly listening to the country music played constantly on the radio in rural Texas during the 1940s; Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, whose 78 single Jambalaya was the first record he owned. Once he’d got used to living in town the idea of playing music himself began to appeal, and when the Martin band director came to his grade school with a selection of instruments for the kids to try out on, Powell immediately put himself forward, settling on the flute. After about a year in the Martin school band however, Powell was forced to give up his first instrument when he began to suffer from horrendous ear infections that left him writhing on the floor, screaming in agony. It was discovered that he had unusually large Eustachian tubes, and doctors theorized that playing the flute was actually blasting the infection out of his throat and up into his ears. Powell quit the school band and the flute, but he was determined to keep on playing music.

Given his condition and the doctors’ diagnosis, it’s perhaps unusual that Powell selected another wind instrument to replace the flute, but it was one that would remain his axe of choice throughout his life; the harmonica. He bought his first harp from the Laredo Woolworth’s, having spotted it in the shop window on the way back from the Saturday morning picture show. On the back seat of the bus home, he mastered the Stephen Foster tune Uncle Ned, and with no apparent aggravation to his ears either, although those of the other passengers may not have been so lucky.

Powell soon convinced his parents to upgrade his dime store mouth organ for a chromatic harmonica that had all the notes on it, and set to learning his chops with a vengeance. But there were few accessible influences or inspirations for a lonely young harmonica player to turn to; on the radio, his role models were more or less limited to ensemble players the Harmonicats, or the likes of John Sebastian (father of the future folk-rocker and singer-songwriter of the same name, himself no mean blues harpist) and Larry Adler, who played backed by a full symphony orchestra. Powell turned instead to jazz musicians for ideas, gamely attempting to apply to his harmonica the innovations that players like Sidney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins were bringing to the saxophone. Unaware at the time of pioneering blues harmonica players like Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter, Powell mostly resigned himself to simply wandering around his backyard, blowing Ruby to accompany his dreams.

Powell had no thought of becoming a musician when he first arrived in Austin; enrolled in the Art Department and the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, he had vague hopes of becoming a painter or of pursuing a career in the army. But although Austin was still relatively small, compared to Laredo it seemed like the big city, and Powell soon found that his horizons were being widened by life at the University of Texas, generally known as UT.

“Laredo was a border town of about 6500, known as the Gateway to Mexico,” he says. “Coming from that environment I was very callow and clueless. Austin seemed big to me then.”

Austin of course was also the state capital, and as such was a hotbed of lawyers, politicians and campaigners, best captured in local author Billy Lee Brammer’s classic 1961 novel, The Gay Place. One of the first radicalizing influences on Powell was the student Civil Rights movement, or more specifically, the staunch resistance it encountered from the authorities and the establishment.

“For my part I was very naïve, and coming from a community where I was a member of a minority group the correctness of the Civil Rights Movement seemed like a no-brainer,” he says. “Therefore I was taken aback by the controversy swirling around the issue. That was my introduction to Austin conservatism, and it was an eye opener.”

Although UT was one of the first southern universities to admit blacks, albeit as recently as 1956, in 1960 its dorms were still segregated, and its 200 African-American students were excluded from varsity athletics, drama productions, student employment and the University Long Horn Band, among other activities. Powell would soon realize that this casually institutionalized racism was typical of a pervading atmosphere of repressive conservatism and paranoia.

“While I felt free and liberated, the town was a very conservative place,” he says. “The University tried to make up for the lack of parental control by providing a strongly paternal atmosphere and closely monitoring the activities of the student body.” According to Powell, the University’s conservatism was at least partly down to its reliance on certain Dallas billionaires for endowments. “They were very concerned about the Civil Rights Movement for one thing, lest it be a destabilizing influence. And when drugs came to Austin the reaction of the authorities was nothing short of hysterical, and the tension ratcheted up dramatically.”

Nevertheless, Austin’s reputation as a beacon of free-thinking liberalism compared to the rest of Texas was already in existence, though at this stage it was based on a small minority of left-wing students, artists, folk musicians and bohemian holdovers from a previous era. “UT was a major university and there were forward thinking individuals and cutting edge work going on there,” Powell admits. “It seemed to me that there was a tension between new attitudes, social movements and outside ideas, and the conventional and conservative ideas of the establishment.”

Powell’s introduction to Austin’s limited counter-culture came via Ramsey Wiggins, his roommate when he was finally able to live off campus at the beginning of his second year. Up to this point Powell had been working hard and trying to fit in, but had remained socially isolated; Ramsey was an equally scholarly young man, but also a member of the Austin Unitarian Youth Group. He began inviting Powell to some of the group’s social functions and parties.

Unlikely as it may seem, Austin’s Unitarian Youth Group were considered by some to be the hip kids in town. They were young intellectuals and aesthetes with strongly held left-wing beliefs, the sons and daughters of liberal Democrats and veterans of the Labor Movement who had been brought up to believe in peace, social justice and equality. They also held a passion for art and music, and folk music in particular.

At the very beginning of the 1960s the folk music revival, which would soon claim Bob Dylan as its Messiah and then its Judas, was in full hootenanny swing. It had yet to really penetrate the mainstream however, and remained largely the preserve of the socially-concerned, college-educated elite. While their younger brothers and sisters were listening to Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Buddy Holly, these liberal folkniks upheld a sometimes spurious but always well-meant cult of authenticity, and sought out the unsung originators of the blues and folk music the more celebrated rock n’ rollers expanded upon, or commercially exploited and diluted, depending on your point of view. The more committed and thoughtful would also risk their educations, careers and in many cases their lives to support the African-American struggle for equal rights, as well as workers’ rights and the peace movement. They spoke out against the spiraling nuclear arms race, were environmentally concerned, and were generally the originators of what would become known as the 1960s counter-culture. For these young people folk music was inextricably bound up with notions of political struggle and the voices of oppressed people around the world, and Texas and the other southern states were on the front-line of the battle for Civil Rights. Though already an instinctive egalitarian, Powell was relieved of much of his small-town naivety by the Unitarians and their liberal allies.

“These people showed me a lot about life, and the way things work in the real world,” he recalled to the website It’s Psychedelic Baby in 2011. “Whereas a year before I had been a spit and polish ROTC cadet passing in review every Thursday, I was now marching in a protest line trying to bring racial integration to the movie houses just across the street from the UT campus.” As a result of the protests, the State and Paramount movie theaters both agreed to integrate in September 1961, and University housing was finally integrated in 1964. However, as late as the fall of 1963 Austin’s 24,413 African-American residents were still barred from over half of the city’s white-owned restaurants, hotels, motels, business schools and bowling alleys, and discrimination in housing and employment was sadly commonplace.

Simultaneous with Powell’s political awakening was his introduction to folk music. Ramsey Wiggins’ teenage younger brother, Lanny, was an accomplished singer, guitarist and banjo player, who scoffed when Powell told him that he didn’t know any folk songs. “Do you know The Ballad of Jesse James?” he asked, almost rhetorically as the song was a part of most every Texan childhood. “Sure,” said Powell, for whom it also held a special personal resonance, as he was brought up with the cherished and oft-repeated legend that his family was actually related to the famous outlaw. “Well, that’s folk music,” Lanny replied, and began playing the song, encouraging Powell to join in on harmonica. Powell had found his métier, and the two became a folk duo: the Waller Creek Boys.

The Waller Creek Boys were named after an urban watershed that meanders through downtown Austin and makes its way towards the university, becoming an area of shady, wooded parkland where students would traditionally gather to relax before or after classes. In 1969 it would be the scene of violent confrontation between student protesters and the authorities, when 40 trees were cut down to make way for an expansion of the University Football Stadium, and later fell into disrepair. In 1961 however the name still evoked a laid-back, urban-pastoral vibe, and associated the duo with a particular social scene among the students.

The Waller Creek Boys performed at student parties, summer picnics and anywhere that people were prepared to listen; one regular haunt was the weekly Folk Sing held every Wednesday evening in the UT Student Union, organized by Stephanie Chernikowski. Starting in early 1962, this was an informal gathering where anyone could get up and sing or play a song to their peers. Though small and unambitious to begin with, the Folk Sing would prove a vital cultural catalyst, and as the folk scene became increasingly hip and received attention in the mainstream press attendance snowballed. Starting with an initial group of a dozen or so amateur musicians, at its peak the Folk Sing would see nearly a hundred music fans and general non-conformists, including many younger kids who were members of the Folk Music Club at Austin High School, crammed into the student cafeteria, known as the Chuck Wagon. A more selective and low-key hangout was the backyard of a rundown apartment complex where a number of older artists, musicians and leftover beatniks lived, a building that Powell soon nicknamed the Ghetto.

The Ghetto was former officers’ quarters, built during World War II and, like many such buildings, sold to the public once the war was over. A two story structure that had been converted into apartments, it was located at the end of a gravel drive somewhat off the street and behind another house, hence its unconventional address: 2812 ½ Nueces Street. Through the late fifties and into the sixties, this building was home to a collection of poets, writers and artists who made up Austin’s somewhat belated Beat Generation.

“Let me stress, these were not sumptuous accommodations,” says Powell, who says that when he later moved into the building he paid sixty dollars a month, utilities included; cheap even for 1962 (other accounts put the monthly rent as low as thirty dollars). Because of both the low rent and the privacy afforded by being off the street, the building attracted individuals from throughout Austin’s small but active bohemian community, and a younger crowd soon moved in as the beats moved on. It also became a place where like-minded spirits knew they could hang out and socialize without being threatened or ostracized by the straight majority.

“It was an island of hipness in a sea of conformity,” Powell remembers. “Being poor and feeling marginalized and under-appreciated by the dominant paradigm, we tended to hang together, fearing that if we didn’t we would hang separately. For that reason the place was called the Ghetto, in reference to the Warsaw Ghetto where another group of people had been brutalized.”

Though the Austin authorities were convinced that the Ghetto was a viper’s nest of subversive intentions, in reality it was just a rundown party space, where individuals of a liberal and pacifist bent would gather to drink beer and play music. There were two apartments on the ground floor and three above, one of which was a small studio apartment over a garage. This was taken by the first of Powell’s circle to move into the building, long before he gave it its distinctive nickname; a musician named John Clay.

Though not widely known, Clay was a hugely influential figure in the early Austin music scene. A singer-songwriter and banjo player, he was often known as John the Dishwasher, from his job at a North Austin coffee house. Long and lean with close-cropped blonde hair, Clay was also a Linguistics student and a familiar sight around the UT campus, always dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt (before such a look became the unremarkable norm) and carrying a banjo.

“The first time I became aware of John was one day when I was in line at the cafeteria in the UT Student Union,” Powell recalls. “A rather unusual individual was in line behind me, pushing a food tray with one hand and clutching a banjo with the other. It was early for dinner and some of the dinner offerings had not yet emerged from the kitchen. As we approached the cashiers’ station and I was paying for my food this person leaned over and addressed the lady taking the money. Stabbing with his finger, gesticulating and struggling to form his question and get the words out he said, ‘How, how, how long for the hamburger?’ That was my first experience of John Clay.”

Clay’s stammer mirrored a corresponding lack of physical co-ordination, which hampered his banjo playing and made many see him as a gawky clown. The banjo was not taken seriously as an instrument anyway, unless one could play with showboating, rapid-fire dexterity like Earl Scruggs. “Many times when he would attempt to play a song he would get into it about halfway then make a mistake and stop,” Powell remembers of Clay. “He would then start the song again from the beginning. As one can imagine, this made it very frustrating for an audience to listen to John’s performances.”

Clay’s major gift though was as a narrative poet and songwriter, capable of crafting song lyrics that were by turns droll and amusing or thoughtful and sensitive. Many told long stories packed with historic and social detail. “I credit two individuals with giving me the idea that I could write songs,” Powell states; “John Clay and Bob Dylan.”

Dylan of course was in the ascendant nationally, his first few albums proving that it was possible to write new songs within the folk tradition, and with a unique individual voice that seemed both ancient and modern. But Clay was proof that one could be a songwriter closer to home too. “He was much further along in his study of traditional music than I was, and his study was more detailed,” Powell admits. But nevertheless, Clay’s songwriting was something that Powell could aspire to, and soon Powell’s own original compositions began appearing in the Waller Creek Boys’ sets, alongside Lanny Wiggins’ vast store of traditional material.

Alongside the Civil Rights crowd, the art students and the folk music aficionados, another group that contributed to the small but lively counter-culture in Austin at this time was centered on the alternative student magazine, the Texas Ranger. In stark contrast to the straight-laced official campus newspaper, The Daily Texan, the Texas Ranger was satirical and irreverent in its intent, and was renowned beyond the university campus, winning several national awards for best college humor magazine. The unpaid staff and hangers-on around the magazine were a hip and hard-drinking bunch who styled themselves ‘the Rangeroos,’ and included some of the future founders of the 1960s underground comix phenomenon. Artist Jack Jackson (AKA Jaxon) and writer Dave Moriarty shared an apartment above Powell St John at the Ghetto, and from 1962 the Texas Ranger was edited by a rangy 22-year-old graduate student and cartoonist named Gilbert Shelton. Shelton’s most important contribution to the magazine was the ground-breaking superhero parody Wonder Wart-Hog, which began that year and would soon gain fame and notoriety around the world. The strip’s vicious parodies and deconstructions of everything crew-cut America held to be right and true, along with its visceral, grungy and apparently careless art style, set the tone not only for the tiny Austin underground but for the wave of street hippy and even punk culture to come.

These people were the natural audience for the Waller Creek Boys, an anti-establishment, post- beatnik social circle that valued honesty and authenticity above all else, and were quick to ridicule anything that reeked of humbug, pretension or hypocrisy. They were angry about injustice, in love with art and music, and in unqualified revolt against the bland, status-seeking conformity they’d been all but smothered by all their lives. But although they had the attitude down, the Waller Creek Boys were nothing particularly special musically, as Powell would be the first to admit. All this would change however when they recruited a new singer; a first year UT student by the name of Janis Joplin.

Abandon hope (summer is coming) – kpunk election post #4

So, the election results are in and it’s 1992 but with “Ed Sheeran and Rudimental rather than Rufige Kru”. Depressing? Yup. But where do we go now? Below is an extract from kpunk’s most recent post, outlining some potential strategies we can adopt in the face of the election results. Read the whole post here.  – TS

I present below a number of strategies, practices and orientations, starting from the most immediate (something groups can do right now) and moving towards the more remotes. The list is of course not exhaustive; and I can’t claim credit for coming up with any of the strategies myself. The point is to share them, add to them, elaborate them.

The chief obstruction to all of these steps is what, in a trenchant and clear-eyed analysis, Ewa Jasiewicz calls “time poverty”:

Our time is under attack. Work will be intensified, worse paid, and more casualised – if we don’t have it, we’ll be working to have it; mandatory and supervised job searches and workfare will see people forced to spend their time locked into coerced, computerised distraction. A real, diverse, working class self-representative movement needs to include people facing and living these experiences, but how will that happen when we’re too tied up working?

Access to time and our own labour is key and will determine participation and the ability to organise. If we can’t have our own time to organise, we can’t organise, we can’t meet each other, we cannot find each other. Work and the benefits regime – which is work under different conditions and profit margins – are key sites of struggle. Solidarity will need to step up if we are to win workplace disputes and strikes, refusals of workfare and support for people getting sanctioned, so that people have more control over their time and labour.

All our commons are under attack. The condition of time poverty and its roots – intensification of labour, welfare repression, criminalisation and incarceration – have to be recognised as major obstacles to movement, diversity and power. These obstacles need to be tackled if we want to overcome the ideology of wage labour as a determinant of human value on a popular level.

The problem is that, in order to struggle against time poverty, the main resource we require is time – a nasty vicious circle that capital, with its malevolent genius, now has … This problem is absolutely immanent – writing this and the other posts I have completed this week has meant that I have fallen enormously behind on my work, which is storing up stress for the next week or so.

The first thing we must do in response to all this is to put into practice what I outlined above: try not to blame ourselves. #it’snotyourfault We must try to do everything we can to politicise time poverty rather than accept blame as individuals for failing to complete our work on time. The reason we feel overwhelmed is that we are overwhelmed – it isn’t an individual failing of ours; it isn’t because we haven’t “managed our time” properly. However, we can use the scarce resources we already have more effectively if we work together to codify practices of collective re-habituation (setting new rules for our engagement with social media and capitalist cyberspace in general for example).

Any way, here goes:

1. Talk to fellow workers about how we feel This will re-introduce care and affection into spaces where we are supposed to be competitive and isolated. It will also start to break down the difference between (paid) work and social reproduction on which capitalism depends.

2. Talk to opponents Most people who vote Tory and UKIP are not monsters, much as we might like to think they are. It’s important that we understand why they voted as they did. Also, they may not have been exposed to an alternative view. Remember that people are more likely to be persuaded if defensive character armour is not triggered.

3. Create knowledge exchange labs This follows from what I argued a few days ago. Lack of knowledge about economics seems to me an especially pressing problem to address, but we could also do with more of us knowing about law, I suspect.

4. Create social spaces Create times and spaces specifically dedicated to attending to one another: not (yet more) conferences, but sessions where people can share their feelings and ideas. I would suggest restricting use of handhelds in these spaces: not everything has to be live tweeted or archived! Those with access to educational or art spaces could open these up for this purpose.

5. Use social media pro-actively, not reactively Use social media to publicise, to spread memes, and to constitute a counter-media. Social media can provide emotional support during miserable events like Thursday. But we should try to use social media as resource rather than living inside it at all times. Facebook can be useful for discussions and trying out new ideas, but attempting to debate on Twitter is absurd and makes us feel more stressed. (He says, thinking of the time when, sitting on a National Express coach, perched over his handheld, he tried to intervene in an intricate discussion about Spinoza’s philosophy – all conducted in 140 characters.)

6. Generate new figures of loathing in our propaganda Again, this follows up from what I argued in the Communist Realism post. Capitalist realism was established by constituting the figure of the lazy, feckless scrounger as a populist scapegoat. We must float a new figure of the parasite: landlords milking the state through housing benefit, “entrepreneurs” exploring cheap labour, etc.

7. Engage in forms of activism aimed at logistical disruption Capital has to be seriously inconvenienced and to fear before it yields any territory or resources. It can just wait out most protests,but it will take notice when its logistical operations are threatened. We must be prepared for them cutting up very rough once we start doing this – using anti-terrorist legislation to justify practically any form of repression. They won’t play fair, but it’s not a game of cricket – they know it’s class war, and we should never forget it either.

8. Develop Hub struggles Some struggles will be more strategically and symbolically significant than others – for instance, the Miners’ Strike was a hub struggle for capitalist realism. We might not be able to identify in advance what these struggles are, but we must be ready to swarm in and intensify them when they do occur.

Summer is coming

The Lannisters won on Thursday, but their gold has already run out, and summer is coming. What we saw in the debates dominated by Nicola Sturgeon was not a mirage – it is a rising tide, an international movement, a movement of history, which has not yet reached an England sandbagged in misery and mediocrity. Comrades, I hope (ha!) for the sake of your mental health and your blood pressures that you didn’t see the right wing tabloids over the weekend (tw for class hatred): middle England crowing over its “humiliation” of “Red” Ed. Well if they think Ed was Red, wait until they see the coming Red Swarm. Outer England has been sedated, but it is waking from its long slumber, carrying new weapons ….

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Flatford on Wednesday morning

***

Also, a request to anyone with Labour connections…

Can anyone who has any influence in the Labour Party please ensure that as many people as possible read the pamphlet Jeremy Gilbert and I wrote last year? It was specifically designed to counter the Blairite monopolisation of the rhetoric of modernisation, so it has many arguments that can be weaponised in the current struggle to stop Blairism coming back from the dead.

Mark Fisher blogs as/at kpunk. He is the author of Capitalist Realism & Ghosts of My Life (both Zer0). His next book will be published by Repeater.

Pain now – kpunk election post #3

New post on the elections by Mark Fisher, (cross-posted from his blog, k-punk ).

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,

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This was the front page of the Guardian on the day my son was born nearly five years ago. That year, my wife and I earned fifteen thousand pounds between us. I was working as an hourly paid lecturer in adult education and in a university, as well as doing some freelance writing and copy-editing. We were able to survive without living in penury because of the three hundred pounds a month in tax credits we received.

This was the way Brownism and Blairism worked: allowing low wages and precarity to proliferate with one hand, mitigating their effects with benefits on the other. By then, like most of the population, I loathed New Labour. Labour had become so capitalist realist that surely it couldn’t be much worse if the Tories got in? I shared the widespread view that elections don’t change much: all that’s on offer are minimally different versions of the same thing (neoliberalism).

It soon became very clear that this was not the case. Cameron and Osborne unleashed Capitalist Realism 2.0, the most audacious confidence trick in recent political history: make the poor and vulnerable pay for the bank crisis. Use the crisis as a pretext to destroy even more of the welfare state. Sigh their fake sighs, and tell us what “difficult choices” they had to make …

Today, if my wife and I earned what we did in 2010, we would receive only 50 pounds in tax credits a month.

Of course, for me, working like this was something of a bohemian lifestyle choice. If I’d wanted to, I could probably have got better paid work – after all, only a fool would expect to enjoy working for a living. But what of all those stuck in low paid precarious work forever? The disabled? The long-term sick and the chronically mentally ill, forced back to work?

A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,

I wasn’t very interested in this election a few weeks ago. To be honest, even though I had been commissioned to write a piece about the TV coverage of the election, I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to watch the first debate (I’ll watch it later) until Laura Oldfield Ford, excited by Niciola Sturgeon’s performance, texted me and asked what I thought. I switched on ITV+1, and the process of re-awakening that has occurred in the last few weeks began.

For reasons I will explore more fully in subsequent posts, I have spent the last year in a state of de-activation. I was thrown back into the privatised connectivity of the OedIpod, with its constant stream of low-level anxiety and compulsive micro-enjoyments. I couldn’t write, except in a mechanical way; what I produced seemed stillborn, stilted. My main mood altering drug of choice, music, didn’t work. I binged on box sets. I enjoyed time with my wife and son, but there was a fugitive quality to this enjoyment: my fingers always itched to reach for my smartphone. There was always something I should already have done that I hadn’t – the urgencies piling up, like a flashing red light constantly blinking in my peripheral vision, never letting me settle. Most of these urgencies were small things, they didn’t matter too much, but perhaps there would be some long-forgotten urgency was going to calamitously re-emerge, too late for me to do anything about it? I’ll just check …

Liveable Shit

Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,

The coldly terrifying thing about this state of dejection was that it was not a completely paralysing depression – more a kind of exhausting drudgery. It felt liveable; indeed, it felt like I could – perhaps would – live the rest of my life in it. Perhaps I have expected too much from life. Now I would have to adjust to misery, like everyone else does. Others were much, much worse off than me. It wasn’t like I was to chip ice off the windscreen in the morning. I had been precarious for years – now I was in well-paid secure employment. Why couldn’t I just be happy? OK, so I had to do marketing promotions, complete ‘quality’ paperwork, amend module proposal forms six times – but it was hardly coal mining, was it?

You see, you see:

I had become once again the compliant subject of capitalist realism.

“…isolated, cut off, surrounded by hostile space, you are suddenly without connections, without stability, with nothing to hold you upright or in place; a dizzying, sickening unreality takes possession of you; you are threatened by a complete loss of identity, a sense of utter fraudulence; you have no right to be here, now, inhabiting this body, dressed in this way; you are a nothing, and ‘nothing’ is quite literally what you feel you are about to become.”

Engines of dejection

Bifo is right. It wants us to be dejected: not so catatonically depressed that we can’t work, but not so confident and secure that we will refuse to do bullshit jobs. (What is this it that wants us to miserable? Why, the real management of the Overlook Hotel of course. Our misery is like nectar to it …) Capital needs people desperate, scrambling on the edge (watch Tory MPs laugh at starving families!), it needs people scrimping and saving and crossing off lists, it needs people to be grateful for any work, no matter how poorly paid, no matter how insecure, struggle after struggle, year after year …

In the last five years, after the initial euphoria of dissent in 2010 and 2011, an acrid fog of despair has slowly but ineluctably sunk over what Cameron, chillingly, calls “our country” …. choking the social energy out of institutions (no time to talk, sorry!) … reducing workers to automata issuing commands to one another … diminishing, at every level, our capacity to care …. no time, no time …. no money … don’t know, I’ve got to go mate …. looking over our shoulders, fearing the worst …. maybe it will be me next … better stay in line … accept the extra workload, I’m afraid that’s how things are now …

Pain now, more pain later ….

Misery is over (if we want it)

The last week or so, I have, each day, played with my son for a few hours, been out on long walks, enjoying extended time with my wife, and managed to write thousands of words. Why can’t life always be like this? Why indeed? It’s only been possible because I have decided to suspend all my bureaucratic obligations until after the election. (Back to “proper” work tomorrow: so expect another post in a year or so.) I have managed to do this, not by some heroic act of magical voluntarist will, but because of a lift in mood that is not just personal. Scotland, Syriza, Podemos … it’s taken a long while for the significance of these developments to filter through to me … but talking to comrades … attending, as a so far inactive member, to what Plan C are up to …. feeling the electricity that Russell Brand has generated …. All of this has gradually returned to consciousness during this election campaign. I don’t think I’m the only one. But have we awoken too late to stop the Tories? Has their smog of dejection de-activated enough people – people who were hardly likely to have been reactivated by Labour’s campaign?

Shy effects

The two most obvious parallels for this election would seem to be 1974 – a weak Labour government, propped up by smaller parties, or, ominously,1992, with Labour crushingly defeated by John Major’s Tories after they were expected to win. Shaun Lawson makes a strong and convincing case for why today might turn out to be a re-run of 1992. Much of this is to do with the unreliability of polls. Because of the so-called “shy Tory” phenomenon – voters not admitting to pollsters that they would vote Conservative – the polls were spectacularly wrong in 1992. Major didn’t only win, the Tories ended up with the largest amount of votes ever cast for a political party in Britain. Lawson argues that, despite polling being adjusted to factor in the shy Tory effect, current polling may still be inaccurate (because, for instance, it tends to be internet-based, which biases things towards a younger demographic).

I’m not sure how convinced I am by the parallels with 92, however, for two reasons.

1. Hyperstitional effects. As Baudrillard argued, we can’t treat opinion polls as neutral positivist descriptions since they might well affect the very thing they are claiming to predict. It seems likely that this might have happened in ’92.

The atmosphere leading up to the 92 election was very different to that preceding the current contest. There was the disastrous Sheffield Rally. Kinnock’s triumphalist shout of “We’re alright!”, still excruciatingly embarrassing to remember nearly twenty five years on, not only destroyed the “statesmanlike persona” he had confected, it gave the impression of a manic and jubilatory over-confidence. The premature celebration came off as unseemly, desperate – as if Kinnock himself, never mind the electorate, couldn’t quite believe that he would be Prime Minister. It also gave Murdoch’s press something to really stoke the fears of reluctant Tories with, especially when the polls were suggesting that Labour would win: look, they think they’ve won! If you’re thinking of staying at home, don’t – every vote is needed!

Sunkinnock

It isn’t really like that this time. Polls are predicting a hung parliament, not a Labour victory – there isn’t the same resource of fear to feed off. Victory for Labour is uncertain, not an imminent possibility that needs to be desperately averted. Furthermore, while the Tories have certainly tried to scaremonger, a Labour government now is not the terrifying prospect that it could be made to seem in 92. After Blairism, Labour is no longer the Other to neoliberal commonsense that it could be presented as then.

As I said in the last post, Miliband has kept his campaign emotionally subdued – no extravagant promises (“I want to under promise and over deliver”); no messianic fervour (this by contrast with Blair as much as Kinnock). It’s true, Miliband doesn’t seem to have Prime Minesterial gravitas, but, then again, neither did John Major, surely the least likely Prime Minister ever.

2. We’re in New Times

In 1992, we were still in the high pomp of capitalist realism. The crash had not yet happened. There was still something on offer to those who wanted to vote in their own interests and let everyone else go hang.

The Tories have nothing very much to bribe most of their supporters with this time. Without the false balm of the “Big Society”, they only have a negative message – it will be worse under Labour – and a muted promise: pain now, a little less pain later. Is this enough to motivate the wavering?

Neoliberalism is finished as a project, even if it lurches on, thrashing around like a decorticated terminator. We’re finally groping our way, blinking, out of capitalist realism. The psychic blockade that prevented us from thinking and acting is lifting. This has only registered in this campaign in some minor way with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens (the multi-party nature of British politics now is of course another way in which we are in new times by comparison with 74 and 92). If Labour manage to form a government, we will be celebrating a Tory defeat far more than we will be hailing a Tory victory.

But nothing is certain at the moment. I don’t think there will be much certainty tomorrow either. My feeling is that things will be very volatile over the next few weeks. One thing is for sure: we need to be prepared to mobilise if the Tories attempt a coup. And they surely will …

Communist Realism – kpunk election post #2

New post on the elections by Mark Fisher, (cross-posted from his blog, k-punk– TS 

Normal capitalist realist service was resumed on Thursday, on the BBC Question Time Leaders Special. With the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens absent, horizons contracted, expectations lowered, we were once again asphyxiating in the Oxbridge-Westminster bubble. This was most obviously signalled by a discursive exclusion: “austerity” was never mentioned, so we were back on the arid terrain of a debate the terms of which were set by England’s austerians in 2010. The question, once more, was: who would cut the deficit quickest?

Miliband further deflated the mood – I think deliberately – by explicitly ruling out a “deal” or a “coalition” with the SNP.Given the right wing press’s scaremongering, Miliband’s denying that a deal will happen might have been necessary in order to make the conditions for such a deal possible. Any equivocation would surely have been seized upon by the right wing media, and relentlessly used to stoke up the fears of voters less likely to vote for Labour because of the prospect of a coalition. The audience members imploring Cameron and Miliband to be honest about possible deals were as ingenuous as those who hailed the programme as a triumph of participatory democracy. Neither leader could “be honest” about how the vote is likely to go on Thursday because that very speculation could change what actually happens. Such is the state of our current “democracy”: everything is distorted by media projections, by politicians’ (second) guesses as to how voters may behave in response to those projections, a whole phantom science of feedback.

Baudrillard: “Polls manipulate the undecidable. Do they affect votes? True of false? Do they yield exact photographs of reality, or of mere tendencies, or a refraction of this reality in a hyperspace of simulation whose curvature we do not know? True or false? Undecidable.”

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For most of this campaign, Cameron has given every impression that he far rather be tucking into country supper than demeaning himself hustling on the hustings.

Defending the status quo is not as energising as tearing it down, and comfortable Cameron never had the class resentment-jouissance that drove grocer’s daughter Thatcher to battle trade unionists and old school Tory grandees alike. For him, it’s a career, not a mission. Cameron has never seemed like a man burning with conviction; he comes across more like the captain of some public school cricket team who whose main motivation for winning is to remind uppity comprehensive kids who’s boss. On Thursday, Cameron finally went into bat for his class like he meant it.

He needs to. This election is pivotal. Either the Tories can “finish the job” of looting and pillaging everything working class struggle built, or they themselves could be on the brink of destruction. The Conservative Party haven’t won an overall majority since 1992. It’s difficult enough keeping this party of opportunists, quislings and crazies together at the best of times; if they fail to win again, will even Boris be able to prevent meltdown? And with the Tories in disarray, the right could finally be forced off the centre ground that they won and radically re-defined under Thatcher.

Pumped up, calmed down

In front of the BBC cameras, Cameron’s performance wasn’t quite as slick as his upper lip, but he discovered a poise that he has seldom mustered in the past few weeks. The problem with Cameron getting pumped up last week is not only that it looked pathetically forced (his claim that he was “pumped up because I am” was a transparent deception as well as a tautology. He was “pumped up” because Tory backers demanded that he at least gave the appearance of caring). The more serious issue is that such displays of simulated passion undermine Cameron’s key appeal, which has to do with projecting casual authority: what David Smail, writing before Cameron came onto the scene, called “[t]he confident slouch of the hands-in-pocket, old Etonian cabinet minister.” Cameron’s accent, his posture, his smirk, convey a consistent message: relax, I’m in control, defer to me. When he strays from this “ease and familiarity”, he risks looking angry and/ or uncomfortable, and apparent affability gives way an affronted sense of class superiority, as in the “calm down, dear” incident.

Presenting the Tories as the nasty party has been counterproductive, the fake letter of support from small businesses devolved into yet another Thick of It farce, but Thursday’s flooding of the audience with Tory supporters posing as undecided voters worked. Cameron was back on home territory: the bizarre inverted world of English capitalist realism in which referring to a global banking crisis was desperate reaching for excuses, and austerity was the only possible course of action for any prudent government. (The best thing about New Labour was Alastair Campbell – a skilled operator and a technician, an expert on how to win ground on a hostile media terrain. It’s hard to imagine that, if he were still running things, that Labour would have been ambushed like they were on Thursday.)

A picture of discontented new wealth

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Under the questioning of businesswoman Catherine Shuttleworth, Ed started to look like a supply teacher who had earnestly planned an interesting and informative lesson, only to find out that the kids just wanted to humiliate him, whatever he said. The Tory narrative of Labour profligacy was once again established as a self-evident truth that only a fool and/ or a brazen liar would contest. This narrative was all the more convincing when it was re-cycled/ re-cited by a “concerned businesswoman”, “struggling to survive in a tough climate”. The subsequent exposure of Shuttleworth as a probable Tory plant will not erase the impact of her TV encounter with Miliband, if only because complaining about the audience not only implicitly concedes defeat, it makes Labour look like sore losers.

For the moment, let’s believe Shuttleworth’s story that she isn’t a Tory. (Although note that even the DM whitewashing is carefully worded: Shuttleworth only denies that she’s ever been a member of the Tory party, not that she’s a lifelong Tory voter, which is of course impossible to prove or disprove.) The question then would be why she should be so ready to blame hard times not on the government which has been in power in the last five years, but on the government which was in power when she actually built and grew her business? Miliband’s pitch – Labour is all about supporting small business owners – is part of a strategy that could be fruitful in the long run, since it could break the alliance between small business and corporate capital which has been so central to the installation of capitalist realism. But Shuttleworth’s response to these overtures shows that breaking that alliance will be a long and hard struggle. She immediately started bleating on behalf of Tesco – as if Tesco didn’t enjoy its greatest success under New Labour, and as if its downfall wasn’t a direct consequence of the very corporate tyranny that Miliband was moving to attack?

Reflexive cringe

While Miliband was correct not to capitulate to nonsense about Labour overspending, it was clear that Labour has left it far too late to challenge the dominant narrative. On the face of it, Labour’s acquiescence in the austerity myth has been inexplicable. Paul Krugman writes of:

the limpness of Labour’s response to the austerity push. Britain’s opposition has been amazingly willing to accept claims that budget deficits are the biggest economic issue facing the nation, and has made hardly any effort to challenge the extremely dubious proposition that fiscal policy under Blair and Brown was deeply irresponsible – or even the nonsensical proposition that this supposed fiscal irresponsibility caused the crisis of 2008-2009.

Why this weakness? In part it may reflect the fact that the crisis occurred on Labour’s watch; American liberals should count themselves fortunate that Lehman Brothers didn’t fall a year later, with Democrats holding the White House. More broadly, the whole European centre-left seems stuck in a kind of reflexive cringe, unable to stand up for its own ideas.

You say “reflexive cringe”, I say “reflexive impotence” … Labour’s slowness to respond to the crisis was not merely some failure of judgement or strategy; it was a consequence of how deeply capitalist realism had saturated the party. There was no question of Labour using the crisis to impose its own programme, because, by 2008, it didn’t have much of programme beyond capitalist realism. Everything had been set up for a corporate appeasement, and there were neither the organisational nor the intellectual infrastructure to come up with anything new. Capitalist realism wasn’t something that Labour was waiting out and planning to overcome, one day; it was embedded as an effectively permanent baseline set of conditions – conditions which receded from visibility even as they imposed strict limits on what could be said and thought.

I’m in a trance, I don’t ask questions

Following Wendy Brown, I argued that capitalist realism can be understood as a kind of dreamwork. In this dreamwork, briefly interrupted in 2008, the banking crisis is some repressed trauma which is known about but never confronted, a Real that the dreamer stays asleep to keep avoiding. Capital is the dreamer here, and, insofar as capitalist realism is sustained, we remain figments in its dream. Yet capital is also our dream, which, Matrix-like, has constructed the virtual reality in which we think we live from our energy, our desires and our fantasies.

You would think that mention of the banking crisis would produce some cognitive dissonance when set against the narrative of Labour profligacy. If there was a global financial crisis, how could Labour also be responsible for the deficit? No doubt, part of the success of the “Labour did it” story is due to the hold of folk politics. A narrative about incompetent politicians maxing out the credit cards is easily digested; it’s far more difficult to assimilate the opaque and abstract mechanics of finance capital. But one of the most valuable insights in Philip Mirowski’s Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown comes from his account of cognitive dissonance itself. Referring to the work of Leon Festinger, the social psychologist who worked extensively on cognitive dissonance, Mirowski reminds us that cognitive dissonance is not a threat to false beliefs. On the contrary, cognitive dissonance is a mechanism by which false beliefs can be maintained when confronted with evidence that directly disproves them. In fact, as Mirowski writes, Festinger’s crucial claim was “that confrontation with contrary evidence may actually augment and sharpen the conviction and enthusiasm of a believer”. Mirowski quotes Festinger:

Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart…suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting people to his view.

This points to a relationship between desire and belief that has been posited at least since Hume and Spinoza’s critiques of religion: we believe in part because we want to believe. But we also want to believe because the belief has become core to our subjectivity.

If you get too burnt you can’t come back home

The great mystery of neoliberalism is to what extent its advocates “really” believed it. Was it ever anything more than a ruse to restore ruling class power and wealth? Of course, the answer to this partly depends on which advocates we are talking about. It’s possible that certain key proselytisers for neoliberalism never believed it, and only opportunistically fixed upon it as a way of destroying the “red bases” of working class power. With others, it’s more likely that a belief was aided by the desire to believe. This desire was motivated by economic interest, of course, but also by certain libidinal satisfactions: the pleasures of seeing the working class defeated, of seeing the poor and vulnerable stripped of social security. For a certain English petit-bourgeois sensibility, Thatcherism was the equivalent of a riot: a jubilee of destruction, a temporary autonomous zone for a reactionary desire that feeds off suffering and misery.

And as I was standing by the edge
I could see the faces of those led pissing theirselves laughing
(and the flames grew)
Their mad eyes buldged their flushed faces said
The weak get crushed as the strong grow stronger

The funeral pyre will be re-lit if the Tories win on Thursday (bring some paper and bring some wood/
bring what’s left of all your love for the fire
), and after five more years, there won’t be much left … The NHS will have been gutted, sold off by stealth; education will continue to be asset stripped, ripe for yet more corporate plundering …. the most vulnerable will be pushed further into destitution, women and children first …

This is why Cameron’s android smoothness, like Boris’s bluster, is so crucial for the Tories. It is a cloaking device, obfuscating the project, keeping the gibbering libido hidden behind a humanoid face and a calming, plummy voice. Imagine if Gove (who’s been pushed back into the attic for trying just too hard to be one of the posh boys – so vulgar, so nouveau) – imagine if Gove, with his defrocked pantomime dame pout, his lickspittle lips smacking with the class hatred that only a class traitor can feel, imagine if he were leader….

By contrast, Cameron’s strength is that it is hard to work up much class hatred for him. People that wealthy and privileged are like rare beasts: something you hear about but rarely encounter. In fact, I’ve seen more pandas in the flesh than old Etonians. You also get the sense that Cameron has no particular animus towards the poor – it’s rather that the experience of poverty is so remote for him that he simply cannot understand it, except as some theoretical possibility. The poor are pixellated background characters in the blearily cheerful steampunk simulation that Dave projects: everything’s fine so long as you don’t look too closely.

Dismantling capitalist realism

But let’s return to Mirowski’s summary of Festinger’s research:

Philosophy of science revels in the ways in which it may be rational to discount contrary evidence, but the social psychology of cognitive dissonance reveals just how elastic the concept of rationality can be in social life. Festinger and his colleagues illustrated these lessons in his first book (1956) by reporting in a neutral manner the vicissitudes of a group of Midwesterners they called “The Seekers,” who developed a belief that they would be rescued by flying saucers on a specific date in 1954, prior to a great flood coming to engulf Lake City (a pseudonym). Festinger documents in great detail the hour-by-hour reactions of the Seekers as the date of their rescue came and passed with no spaceships arriving and no flood welling up to swallow Lake City. At first, the Seekers withdrew from representatives of the press seeking to upbraid them for their failed prophecies, but rapidly reversed their stance, welcoming any and all opportunities to expound and elaborate upon their (revised and expanded) faith. A minority of their group did fall away, but Festinger notes they tended to be lukewarm peripheral members of the group. Predominantly, the Seekers never renounced their challenged doctrines. The ringleaders tended to redouble their proselytizing, so long as they were able to maintain interaction with a coterie of fellow covenanters.

Mirowski makes an analogy with proponents of neoliberal economic doctrine, who – far from abandoning this doctrine after its discrediting in the crisis – held to it even more doggedly. This is what Miliband faced on Thursday. Blank stares of mesmerised true believers seven years after the saucers didn’t arrive. Shuttleworth’s interjection like some Manchurian Candidate trigger, provoking automaton-applause …

This shows how difficult the task of dismantling capitalist realism will be. A whole process of deprogramming, involving new narratives, new libidinal attractors, as well as new ways of sharing knowledge, will have to be undergone. While this is certainly a formidable challenge, it is something that is already underway and which we can intensify quite quickly.

Of particular importance, it seems to me, is a popular demystification of economics and “the economy”. The austerity myth has only seemed credible because of a widespread economic illiteracy – an illiteracy I very much share. Economics functions now much as theology functioned in the medieval world – as an intricate and elaborate system of concepts, objects and reasoning that is closed to non-initiates. We need something like a Reformation in/ and against capitalist economics – the equivalent of the Bible being translated into English. I think this could be done, not by a series of large-scale conferences, televisions, or films – although of course these wouldn’t hurt – but virally. Small groups of people, including at least one individual who is an expert in economics, could get together and talk through some key concepts and principles, major economic events, etc. This could take place in private homes, in universities and colleges, in social clubs … In addition to everything else, this would also serve the function of reviving sociality, of re-building a class consciousness that has been dissipated by the individualising tendencies of neoliberalism and communicative capitalism.

Communist realism

Back to Thursday, here’s “entrepreneur” Chris. “A ban on zero hours contract would prevent me from running my small business …” Well, would it now? We’ve heard many versions of this plaint over the last few months, from businesses big and small. What this amounts to is saying that, these businesses cannot function without super-exploiting workers, and they cannot function without indirect government subsidies (with benefits supplementing low wages). Hold on a minute: didn’t the capitalist realists make their “hard decisions” to close down nationalised industries on the grounds that they weren’t viable and they were draining too much public money?

We need a new, communist, realism, which says that businesses are only viable if they can pay workers a living wage. This communist realism would reverse the capitalist realist demonisation of those on benefits, and target the real parasites: “entrepreneurs” whose enterprises depend on hyper-precarious labour; landlords living it large off housing benefit; bankers getting bonuses effectively or actually out of public money, etc.

But the concept of communist realism also suggests a particular kind of orientation. This isn’t an eventalism, which will wager all its hopes on a sudden and final transformation. It isn’t a utopianism, which concedes anything “realistic” to the enemy. It is about soberly and pragmatically assessing the resources that are available to us here and now, and thinking about how we can best use and increase those resources. It is about moving – perhaps slowly, but certainly purposively – from where we are now to somewhere very different.

Mark Fisher blogs as/at kpunk. He is the author of Capitalist Realism & Ghosts of My Life (both Zer0). His next book will be published by Repeater.

On Enemies Within – Rhian E. Jones on memories and myths of the Miners’ Strike

This piece was originally posted on Rhian E. Jones’ excellent blog, Velvet Coalmine. Reposted here, with thanks.

“We’re secure in the knowledge that we already lost a long time ago.”

– Richey James, 1992

I knew the death of Margaret Thatcher wasn’t likely to usher in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Eighties, but it’s been good to see the thirtieth anniversary of the Miners’ Strike pass this year and last with due commemoration, and with little attempt to present what happened as a good thing.*

A few months ago I went to a screening of Still The Enemy Within.** This documentary does a fine job of detailing the strike’s background and bringing the experience of the strike to life. Generally I avoid (resist?) revisiting the strike in quite such unflinching detail, because – and apologies if this sounds hyperbolic; it isn’t – I find doing so almost debilitating, as though nothing else matters outside of emphasising how permanently shattering its results have been for a huge part of this country. The depth of feeling can be such that you want to back away from the edge. At this stage, at this distance, all one can do is bear witness.

(Every time I try to write about the Miners’ Strike and its aftermath, the exercise turns out to be merely a scraping at the surface, an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the heart of the matter. It’s a gradual stripping away of layers, on my part, of bravado and defensiveness and fatalism. This post won’t be definitive either. I want to do the thing justice, to give it adequate weight, and I know I can’t, so this will have to do. For the purposes of this piece, in any case, the strike is less of a conclusion and more of a jumping-off point.)

In its uncompromising commitment to telling a bleak and unrelenting story, Still The Enemy Within is a necessary supplement to something like Pride. The strike deserves to be remembered in the latter’s upbeat and uplifting terms of solidarity, sure, but equally what deserves remembering is that there were no happy endings, nothing of what we learned in the Nineties to call emotional closure. (Hoho, the only things that got closure in the Nineties were more of the pits.) There are wider questions here about what counts as history, and whether history must be necessarily cool-headed and objective, not relieved by colour or comedy or complicated by messy, judgement-clouding emotion. But the tangle of story and history surrounding the strike suggests that the event and what it stood for are not “just” history yet. Like Hillsborough in 1989, Brixton in 1985, Toxteth in 1981, the Miners’ Strike is a flashpoint that unforgivingly illuminates its era. That Eighties hot war of government against people still hasn’t cooled.

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You may imagine how exceptionally bored I was as a post-industrial Nineties teenager. (I mean, I couldn’t even join a brass band.) Growing up, before I ever knew I wanted to be a historian, I wanted to understand history – both its grand outlines and its bathetic, personal confines in which I knew my community to be stuck. How did we get here, and why? Growing up I felt stymied and stifled by history, and had the consequent compulsion to dig beneath the surface for the story. What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow, out of this stony rubbish?

Growing up, I was always conscious of how heavily the past weighed on the present. There was no reason, apart from coal, for my part of the country to exist, or certainly for it to be populated. The history of mining towns in my part of the country, as in others, has been a history of striving to create community, culture, entertainment, knowledge, leisure and dignity in the face of tedious and often dangerous and degrading toil. But without the coal, the community had no purpose and no point. And nothing really replaced it after the Eighties – despite “regeneration”, despite the Objective One funding poured upon us like curiously insubstantial manna. This, plus the aftermath of industrial trauma: the spread of petty crime, addiction, depression, despair, broken marriages, lost hope. Coming of age in the Nineties, in a place that no longer fully functioned – or which functioned but to no apparent end – felt like being born into a peculiar variant of original sin. Somehow, within government and media, this state of affairs was held to be our own fault, too: something we’d brought upon ourselves by having the temerity to unionise, to organise and aspire, by wanting better for the collective and not just the individual. By doing so, we had apparently provoked this cataclysmic response from above, as though by our subversive hubris in desiring higher wages, job security, and state provision, we had angered the nervous gods of monetarism and markets.

What was brought down on us in 1984 – the lightning smiting of industrial Britain – has been passed on in oral history, enshrined in memory, family and community. But it was officially, ‘respectably’ documented and analysed too. In 1994 I read Seumas Milne’s account of the state’s covert war against the miners, published at the tail-end of the Conservatives’ second great round of pit closures. There had been no resumption of civil war in response to that second offensive, however vindictive it felt. In 1992 there had been a rapidly mobilised protest march in the pouring rain which looked in retrospect, despite its mass and militancy, like a funeral procession before the corpse was cold. By 1994 a book like Milne’s could come across like an implausible, conspiracist pulp thriller, if you didn’t care to examine the history behind the story.

As a teenager I became preoccupied with finding and reading all possible material – books, newspapers, conference speeches, biographies, cartoons, Spitting Image sketches – produced about the Miners’ Strike. The books pictured above are a few of the several shelves’ worth I amassed – second-hand volumes of first-hand reportage, biography, reflection, investigative journalism, and not excluding Tory triumphalism – in an attempt to understand what had happened, how, and why. (I didn’t want simply to ask those who had lived through it a decade ago for more than they’d already chosen to let me know. It didn’t feel exactly taboo, but, in that manner of children who want to avoid upsetting their parents, I didn’t care to bring it up. The post-traumatic quality of the strike’s aftermath was obvious even to a self-absorbed adolescent. I avoided the subject out of courtesy, out of the desire to let old wounds continue to – not heal, of course, but, ah, scab over. How can you talk to people who, quite understandably, Didn’t Want To Talk About It? The strike was buried close to the surface and best not exhumed.)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61980YP1Yvk?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent]

Well-meaning liberal retrospectives – which Pride decisively, if narrowly, avoids being – can fetishise and exoticise when they lionise. Some stories tend to treat the Eighties as unique – the decade’s divisive brutality as something sealed off from these softer days and never to be repeated – rather than as part of a conflict both longstanding and ongoing. Nonetheless, there was something qualitatively different about the story of 1984-5. Mining communities in Britain had long been considered ‘a breed apart’, with all the ambiguity that signifies. Through strikes – the weaponised withdrawal of labour – British miners made an enemy of countless British statesmen. Churchill, sending troops into the Rhondda in 1910, wanted its people on their knees and starving; Heath in 1974 challenged the country to decide who was running it. Mining communities held an iconic position in the myth and reality of British labour, and Thatcher was nothing if not an iconoclast. For all the history of violent confrontation between state and organised workers, this time was different. Men interviewed for Still The Enemy Within on their experience of the strike still seem shell-shocked when they recall their disbelief, recall not knowing what had hit them.

And yet to talk about the strike as conspiracy, as plot, frequently gets you accused of outdated class warriorship and victim complex, of the politics of envy, bitterness and paranoia, of living in the past. (To which I say: guilty as charged. It’s hardly an irrational response.) What’s been good about most thirty-years-on retrospectives on the strike is the relief, when reading, that it wasn’t just you, that this stuff has been and is being documented, argued, quantified, recorded. You aren’t simply railing into the wind. First off, a confrontation of this kind was a foregone conclusion, planned at least as far back as 1977. The involvement on the government’s side of increasingly swivel-eyed anticommunist agitators suggests that the strike was invested with symbolic and strategic significance stretching far beyond the British coalfield. Yet at the time events were marked by mealy-mouthed denial and obfuscation. With few exceptions, the national media throughout 1984 cheer-led with wholesale misinformation and with a state-sanctioned demonization of the British working class.

The extent of mendacity involved in media coverage of the strike was matched by the strike’s equally remarkable policing. In June 1984, a mass picket of the Orgreave coking plant saw, for the first time in Britain, the deployment of police units carrying not the normal full-length shield used to guard against missiles, but short shields that could be used aggressively in conjunction with batons, and which were used in police assaults of individuals after charges of the crowd by mounted police. These tactics, developed for use in riots by colonial police forces in Hong Kong, were still in evidence in policing of the Poll Tax Riots at the decade’s end. Press coverage of clashes between pickets and police was of course almost uniformly hostile to the former – which you’d expect from something like the Sun. But the BBC, no less, when reporting the pitched battle at Orgreave, ran reversed footage which transposed the sequence of events, making police charges appear a defensive response to provocation by stone-throwing pickets rather than an act of aggression. Only in 1991 was an apology issued for this, with the BBC claiming that its footage had been ‘inadvertently reversed’.

On the ground, meanwhile, mining communities resembled disputed territory under foreign occupation. 1984 was a year of government-sanctioned violence by police against a large section of the mainland populace. The use of truncheons, riot gear, police horses and dogs against strikers became commonplace. Travel restrictions were placed on roads, phone lines were tapped, homes raided and residents intimidated and assaulted. And still the strike’s high stakes were denied and its details obscured – even now, these stories are received with some surprise. (And I mean, what can you really say about something so out-there as the Sun’s attempted ‘Mine Fuhrer’ front page, or families being made dependent on soup-kitchens and food parcels, or the BBC running news footage in reverse? I understand it sounds more like some kind of old-wives’ tale or populist propaganda. But history it is.)

From the perspective of a present day that calls itself post-ideological (when what’s meant is post-socialist), the strike was notable for being an example of ideology-driven politics. All the pleas at the time that ‘the pits were the people’, that their closure would have an almost unimaginably devastating impact, were often presented with heartbreaking earnestness – as though, if only the right people could be made to hear this case, to see it from this sympathetic and rational and empirical angle, then reason and compassion would prevail. But this was too generous an approach. It wasn’t like Thatcher or her ministers or her corporate cheerleaders didn’t know the likely impact of pursuing this course. It was a conscious sacrifice, like rising unemployment, considered a price worth paying. It’s hardly ever stressed that, for Thatcherites, ‘conservative’ was mostly a misnomer; there was very little they cared about conserving. British organised labour, and the people who composed it, were to be taken on, eradicated, ploughed up and the earth salted, with dogmatic and ruthless revolutionary zeal. (And despite all this, however Pyrrhic a victory it may be, we have survived, and are still standing.) In the end, Thatcher simply made a better extremist than Scargill did.

In the years since the strike – and particularly post-Savile – an awful lot of allegations that had previously swirled on the further shores of the internet have turned out to be grounded in fact. But still we seem to have a mental block on seeing the Miners’ Strike as one in which a government deliberately deployed the police, the secret state and the press against a singled-out section of this country. It feels like there’s something not quite cricket about anyone who’d sanction such a thing, even though we know such strategies and tactics have historically been sanctioned by ruling elites across the world, and are still. But if we do acknowledge these things, then what kind of country, and what kind of world, do we acknowledge this one is? How do we reconcile ourselves to it?

Thirty years on, I don’t know what course my life might have taken, what I might have become, without the strike’s disruption of the usual way of things, without its destruction of what I was born into, without its closing off of certain paths. My life has taken the course it has – bitterness, resentment and resolve, the escape route of higher education and economic migration – for lack of other options. This doesn’t change the fact that many equally deserving individuals right now, from where I’m from, don’t even have the options I had. Sometimes I think, perversely, ludicrously, that the strike is something I should be grateful for.

What did the miners’ strike do for me? As has been usefully reinforced in recent retrospectives, the strike involved the empowering of women, the assertion of solidarity across lines of gender, race and sexuality. This meant that solidarity – or, to give it its modern gloss, ‘intersectionality’ – was something I had ingrained as common sense while I was growing up, not something later externally imposed by rote or quota. In addition, it made me aware of how fundamental class is to how one experiences and understands the world around them. The kind of class warfare the strike exemplified was experienced collectively, communally, not as some kind of personal slight. The strike and its aftermath isn’t my story – it’s the story of everyone who knows what I’m talking about. The strike’s impact on me was its impact on others: I grew up as part of a class who had come to expect the worst, who had very few political illusions, and on all of whom something destructive and debilitating was enacted. The Miners’ Strike left me with no faith in the police, no trust in the media, and no illusions about the nature of class relations. Turns out these are all useful transferable life skills.

Growing up, it baffled me that anyone could see the British police as a benevolent force. Visions of unfamiliar men in uniform ranged at the end of the high street or stalking with ill-intentioned confidence through back-gardens at the behest of an unassailable higher authority provide something of a formative experience. Just like, growing up knowing about the press’s muddied reporting, it baffled me that anyone could assume that mainstream media in Britain is or was truthful, accurate and unbiased. When you’re designated an enemy within, you become sceptical that anything – law, authority, justice – works the way you’re told it does. It baffled me, after the Eighties, how anyone could be in any doubt that class war is a reality and always, always fought effectively from the top.

Apologies if this plaint appears to boil down to: I Was Antagonistic Towards The British State Before It Was Cool. It’s merely personal background, brought up to explain why I sometimes get impatient with the excitable commentary of those who took until university or later to realise that the police could be an oppressive and not a protective force. It’s not that such commentary is unwelcome or unhelpful, it’s just galling to be told what one already knows and then expected to applaud the revelation. (You know, like Polly Toynbee discovering that low-paid work and poverty is pretty shit. Yeah, I was shocked, I tell you.) Does it matter, that disparity of experience? Well, only in so far as current media and politics are shaped increasingly by a common class experience – public school, Oxbridge, internship – while the perspectives of others, and the experiences that shaped them, rarely get a look in as direct articulation, only as mediated through a framework of sensationalism or stereotype. (Not that the post-Eighties middle classes can help their sheltered upbringing, of course. We can’t all be given such a vivid crash course in this kind of thing. Maybe I should check my post-industrial privilege, eh. Sorry, there’s that bitterness and resentment again.)

I’ll précis my upbringing under Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown: I, like others like me, was encouraged to aspire by my family, my teachers and my peers, but that only produced a sense of frustration when looking at the world beyond. From the Nineties onwards our communities had no visibility, no political validity, and we were static, stuck, abandoned, left to rot. I grew up with the attitude that I was never going to get anywhere. What did curiosity or drive matter when they were so solidly outweighed by class, when the world in which you were told you could succeed was so obviously unsentimental, unlikely to lend breathing-room to anyone of your class, and already the triumphalist stamping-ground of those who had already made an enemy of you? The neoliberal dogma-dream of individual aspiration was there throughout the Nineties, presented as something that you were a failure if you didn’t buy into and succeed at, but the socio-economic chasm between where I stood and what it offered seemed unbridgeable, and made it all a harder sell and less of an illusion. That particular sense of fatalism, of militant pessimism, is hard to convey if you didn’t grow up with it. Particularly if you grew up entitled and comfortable and innocently shocked by how harsh the world could be, if you remain surprised by the idea of a government making its governed into enemies within.

Stories, of course, are usually wrapped up and not left messily, unsatisfactorily open-ended. That’s partly why the story of the Miners’ Strike is hard to tell as fiction – although it has been tried, necessarily long after the fact. That’s partly why the festivities that greeted Thatcher’s death two years ago were not so much celebration as catharsis: it felt as though some dust could finally settle. Pride, unavoidably, side-steps the inevitable unhappy ending in favour of its larger narrative. Still The Enemy Within, to its credit, lets the narrative bleed into the present, showing its results in the triumph of monetarism, privatisation, defanged unions and the Blairite hollowing-out of the Labour Party. It’s too easy, these days, to fence the Eighties off as a barely-real time of cartoonish heroes and villains, when so much of the present crisis has its roots in battles won or lost in that decade. In just the past few years there’s been an avalanche of uncovered media, police and political corruption, as though no one even feels the need to hide their contempt for those below them. But then why should they, when the Eighties showed them they could get away with anything they wanted?

Ultimately, despite the history, it turns out the miners weren’t all that special. As the Eighties battlefield continued to take shape, it turns out we in 1984 were just our enemy’s most immediate – and most powerful – obstacle. To a mind informed by that enmity, by that fight and its aftermath, it seemed obvious that if the government, police and press could lie about us for a full-on year and afterwards, with so little compunction, and occasionally with such unfettered glee – then they could lie about anyone and anything. And, of course, they do. It’s not as if the intertwining of police corruption and brutality and media misinformation against ‘enemies within’ has improved in the past thirty years. In the run-up to this country’s next dispiriting, disempowered casting of votes, whole sections of society are still demonised, not least those accused of bringing poverty on themselves through ‘low aspiration’, ‘idleness’, ‘fecklessness’ in areas that never recovered from the Eighties. But also, with the uppity and insurgent working class no longer the most convenient scapegoat, we’re seeing a dehumanising focus on other sectors of society – on immigrants, on the unemployed, on claimants of disability benefit. (And let’s not forget the overlap these groups have with veterans of 1984.) When seeking where responsibility for the country’s misfortune might lie, we are, as ever, encouraged to look anywhere but upwards. The battle may be over but the war is still on.

* (I say ‘no attempt’, admittedly I haven’t checked for any such tediously contrarian contortions at, say, the Daily Telegraph or Spiked Online or similar.)

** For upcoming screenings of Still The Enemy Within, click here.

Rhian E. Jones blogs at Velvet Coalmine, and writes on pop culture and politics for various outlets. She is the author of Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class + Gender (Zer0, 2013) and is currently working on a book about the Manic Street Preachers with Daniel Lukes and Larissa Wodtke (Repeater, forthcoming).

Limbo is Over – kpunk election post #1

New post on the elections, capitalist realism and left populism, by Mark Fisher, (cross-posted from his blog, k-punk ) 

LIMBO IS OVER

Tony Blair’s brief appearance in this election campaign, offering tepid support for a tepid Ed Miliband, ought to have been irrelevant. In many ways it was: who needs yesterday’s man, the hawker of an outmoded “modernisation”? Except, like so much of today’s culture, Blairism is obsolete but it has not yet been surpassed.

In Blair’s Castle Grey Skull, it is always 1997. Blair is like some inverted Miss Havisham, frozen not at the moment of his defeat and failure, but just before his moment of greatest success. Be cautious, don’t do anything to jeapordise the project. Blairism was this particular form of false promise, this deferral – if we are careful now, tomorrow we can do more … But tomorrow never arrives, the aim is always to be in government, the price is always the lack of any real power to change the inherited parameters of the possible. This is the formula: government without power, an increasingly unpopular populism.

The illusion of Blairism is that it was an overcoming of the defeats of the 1980s rather than their final consequence. It was a post-traumatic normalisation of catastrophe, not any sort of new dawn. Its legacy is organisational as much as ideological: a Labour Party that napalmed its grass roots (contempt for, and fear of the working class being a signature element of Blair’s rendition of populism) and which now beams down policy and PR from some rarefied Thick Of It Oxford PPE helicarrier circling miles above earth. The project remains getting into government, but without Blair’s showman-messiah charisma to cover over the vacuum beneath this aspiration. Miliband’s awkwardness stems as much from this lack of any vision as from any personal quirks. There is nothing animating the transparently choreographed moves: tack to the right on immigration, a little to the left on taxation etc. The ambition – to be the slightly lesser evil – is painfully clear to all, and can inspire no-one.

All of this is exactly what we expected… But the entry of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens into the TV debates changed the atmosphere. Suddenly, the picture the reality managers have fed us for the last few years – the three ‘big’ parties each offering a slightly different version of capitalist realism, with Farage and UKIP offering capitalist realism with even more ultra-nationalism – was interrupted, and it was possible to imagine that Britain was “headed, in its nuanced way, leftward”. In their different ways, Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett have widened the bandwidth of a media-political scene previously monopolised by the Oxbridge boys’ club. In terms of policy, there isn’t much on offer beyond a reset to social democracy (Plan B as opposed to Austerity’s Plan A), but capitalist realism is so deeply embedded that it was hard not to feel a frission when, for instance, Wood defended trade unions and the welfare state. Cameron’s refusal to appear in the BBC debate – and his banning of Clegg from doing so – was meant as a display of magisterial confidence, the only credible Prime Ministerrising above the irrelevant squabbling of lowly pretenders – but it ended up further reinforcing the sense of ennui that has attended his performances this campaign. Cameron’s appeal has always depended on his ruling class ease-in-the-world, but, in his case especially, insouciance always risks shading into an appearance of diffidence and hauteur. As for the Lib Dems – as Craig Mcvegas observed, their absence was barely even acknowledged in the last debate.

BBC election debate

Which brings us to the photograph above, analysed so well by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian. But, in addition to everything that Jones picks out, one of the most striking elements in the photograph is the empty centre. A clustering to the left, sulking Farage to the right, Cameron and Clegg – the current ‘centre’ ground – absent. Here is one picture of a post-neoliberal UK: a soft left regaining its confidence on the one hand, a glowering far right on the other, nothing where the capitalist realist ‘middle’ used to be. (Whether Farage will be the figure around which this right will coalesce is now open to serious doubt – with it looking as if he is unlikely to win South Thanet, it might be that his moment as the people’s stockbloker is already over. The ominous question is: if Farage falls, which right wing demagogue will emerge to take his place?)

The SNP-Labour coalition is far more than we could have hoped a few weeks ago, but it is far from enough. How have we settled for so little? asked an incendiary Russell Brand at the screening of his and Michael Winterbottom’s The Emperor’s New Clothes in Hackney this week. For those hipster priests who wish to keep activism a marginal pursuit, Brand’s fame and wealth automatically exclude him from being taken seriously. Yet fame, charisma and money are resources, and the left badly needs to be associated with glamour instead of moralising asceticism. Watching the film in a cinema alongside so many of those who feature in it – campaigners from the New Era estate, striking careworkers, fire-fighters – was moving, humbling, electrifying. The Free Association have been doing some interesting work on why comedy has replaced music as a political force. Now, much more than any contemporary musician, it is Brand who embodies the psychedelic-Promethean principle that any given reality is provisional, plastic, subject to transformation by collective action. I love crowds … Brand functions as a figure of identification who intensifies and links together already existing struggles, and incites us to breach the invisible thresholds that lock us into atomised impotence. We can do what we want… Having passed through what on Tuesday he memorably called the “fame paddock” of contemporary celebrity, Brand is now in a practically unique position. Instead of remaining in the condition of hedonic melancholia typical of those with unlimited access to late capitalism’s pleasure gardens, he’s come out the other side, laughing his trickster laugh, with more resources and an invaluable insider-knowledge of how the media machine constructs what counts as reality. His gleeful performance of de-subordination reminds us of the countercultural lesson: if you gain money and success, there’s only one thing to do with the hand that feeds you, and that’s bite it.

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In many ways, The Emperor’s New Clothes tells us what we already know, but this is the point. How can we accept what we know, when what we know is so monstrous, so obscene, so insane? In the Q and A, Brand was asked why people care more about the X Factor than political struggles. But he argued that, rather than decrying the X Factor, its techniques – in particular those which incite emotion – need to be repurposed. “Capitalism has given us the organisms and the machines we can use to produce the revolution”. #accelerate! So the film is an exercise in affective engineering which patiently yet relentlessly dismantles capitalist realist commonsense. One of its most powerful techniques is the use of simple but devastating contrasts: cleaners at RBS earning hundreds of times less than the bosses(same physical space, different worlds); rioters jailed for stealing small items next to bankers who caused social catastrophe not only going unpunished but receiving bonuses. Mark Kermode’s accusation that the film is “simplistic” misses the point. When faced with a media machine that pushes an outrageously simplistic story of its own – it was Labour wot done it – while recounting neoliberal catechisms like Medieval Catholic priests reciting the Mass in Latin, we need an equally simple counter-narrative.

It’s hard not to have some sympathy with Brand’s disdain for voting, which is part of a widespread disillusion with the massively circumscribed conditions of electoral politics under capitalist realism, in which the best that can be hoped for is the least worst. But the problem is that popular disengagement from parliamentary politics suits the right more than us. The right doesn’t need the enthusiasm that Thatcher could call upon from certain portions of the population; it doesn’t need legitimacy. Popular disengagement, ambient despair, the sense that nothing is at stake in elections, is in the interests of capital, now that all the defaults have been set to neoliberal options. Of course, there was no golden age of parliamentary democracy any more than there was a golden age of the Labour Party; there was no point at which progressive achievements were entirely free of compromise and corruption. But the progressive function of parliamentary politics has been to put some limits on tyranny. Capitalist realism has meant the tacit but definite acceptance that corporate tyranny cannot be curbed, resulting in the democratic deficit that Aditya Chakrabortty described so vividly the other day:

democratic leaders have parted ways with their voters – literally. Membership of the main parties has dropped sharply over the past three decades, so that there are now more vegans in Britain than members of the Conservative party. What’s replaced mass democracy is big donors and a professional political elite. It no longer pays for politicians to think hard about fair growth or build more houses, because to do so would antagonise the big corporates or the big media, or deter those middle-class and retired voters who actually do turn out to the polling stations.

The phobic panic that the prospect of a Labour-SNP coalition is provoking indicates that capital fears any reversal, no matter how modest, of this situation. It has grown used to having everything its own way – but this has led to a certain decadence, an exhaustion of thinking and of strategy. It is surely this exhaustion, as much as any desperation, which accounts for the ludicrous, beyond-satire poking about in Ed Miliband’s anodyne love life, or the scarcely believable attempts to discredit Nicola Sturgeon.

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Sturgeon poses a threat, not merely because of her lawyerly poise in debate, not merely because she has articulated an anti-austerity position, nor even because she makes Scottish independence more likely, but more because she has a mobilised base of support behind her. In Scotland, as in Greece and Spain, new models of political organisation, new “logics of proliferation” are emerging and being experimented with. Rather than compulsively repeating the same strategies, rather than dogmatically insisting on the inherent futility of elections, these developments are part of a process of collective learning about how popular movements can be (re)connected with parliamentary politics. The potential power of such strategies is clear. The electoral impasse is not down to some semiotic failure (if only we had the right PR initiative to engage the kids!), but reflects the actual composition of forces in society. Capitalist realism is class war fought by one side only, an organised corporate elite which is very clear about what its own class interests are and what must be done to keep things aligned with those interests. Only a mobilised population can give political parties the power to challenge corporate tyranny. As Keir Milburn says in an important piece, and, as the situation in Greece is showing, you can’t vote out neoliberalism. But as Keir also argues, “[e]ven at their point of failure Plan B electoral politics can be useful if they can clarify the anti-democratic effects of neoliberalism that work against all forms of collective action.”

In the UK, this could be the most important election since 1979. Even the most sentimental pipedreamer couldn’t imagine the Labour Party will be returning to Plan B socialism in the immediate future, still less offering something more modern and radical. Yet it’s perfectly plausible that a Labour-SNP coalition could now achieve what Jeremy Gilbert and I argue that New Labour could have been expected to attempt: “make some efforts to change the strategic situation in the long-term: to rebuild the unions, to re-energise local government, to facilitate the growth of an alternative media sector”. For even this to happen, it will be necessary for those in the party who really want to break with capitalist realism – and, believe it or not, there are such people – to seize the initiative. What is the alternative for Labour? Even the lacklustre and affectless brand of politics that the party have served up under Miliband so far won’t be sustainable for much longer. Entropy might be the best fate a Labour Party which can’t grasp the new mood can hope for; the more likely scenario is a PASOK-like disintegration. In any case, there’s no way back to the pre-2008 world, no way back to capitalist realism with a joker-hysterical face. The party needs really to register that Blairites – and the residual Blairite atmosphere in a demoralised and disconnected Labour party – are as out of date now as Blair argued “Old Labour” was in 1997. Now, more than ever, there are no guarantees. The road to renewal has never seemed harder, or longer. Yet, as Margarita Tsomou said in an important intervention at the Monopol aug Morgen event in Vienna last week, limbo is now over. Are we plunging deeper into nihiliberal dystopia – the ultra-rich retreating into compounds, a vast “surplus population” abandoned to fight amongst itself, and subdued by a militarisedHunger Games-style police force? Or is a new popular leftism about to begin the escape from capitalist realism?

Mark Fisher blogs as/at kpunk. He is the author of Capitalist Realism & Ghosts of My Life (both Zer0). His next book will be published by Repeater.

Austrians Everywhere

This post is by Carl Neville, author of Resolution Way.


Austrians Everywhere

In 1990 body-builder-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, an ex Mr Olympia and probably the biggest box office star of the previous decade, gave an enthusiastic introduction to an updated edition of Milton Friedman’s highly influential 1980 TV series Free To Choose.

This what he said:

“Hi, I am Arnold Schwarzenegger. I would like a moment of your time because I wanted you to know something. I wanted you to know about Dr. Milton Friedman’s TV series, Free to Choose. I truly believe that the series has changed my life. When you have such a powerful experience as that, I think you shouldn’t keep it to yourself, I wanted to share it with you.

Being free to choose for me means being free to make your own decisions; free to live your own life; pursue your own goals; chase your own rainbow; without the government breathing down on your neck or standing on your shoes. For me that meant coming here to America. Because I came from a socialistic country in which the government controls the economy. It is a place where you can hear 18 year old kids already talking about their pension. But me, I wanted more. I wanted to be the best. Individualism like that is incompatible with socialism. So I felt I had to come to America. I had no money in my pocket, but here I had the freedom to get it. I have been able to parlay my big muscles into big business and a big movie career. Along the way I was able to save and invest and I watched America change and I noticed this, that the more the government interfered and intervened and inserted itself into the free market, the worse the country did. But when the government stepped back and let the free enterprise system do its work, then the better we did, the more robust our economy grew, the better I did, and the better my business grew, and the more I was able to hire and help others. Continue reading “Austrians Everywhere”