Category Archives: class

A man he may grow

Michael Rosen’s written a long and thoughtful piece about his experience of the grammar school system in the 1950s. I don’t know if it’s going to appear in print or on a higher-profile blog, but at the moment it’s just a post on his own blog – and he’s such a prolific poster that it’s going to roll off the bottom of the front page at any moment.

So catch it while you can – it’s a must-read for anyone who’s interested in the debate around grammar schools, or interested in debates about selective education, or secondary education in general. And anyone who’s got kids at school, has kids at school or is ever likely to. And anyone who went to a grammar school, or a selective school, or a comprehensive, or a secondary modern… Basically, you should read this.

It rings so many bells, both positively and negatively (really? we didn’t do that) that I’m tempted to live-blog my reactions to it, but that would be rather self-indulgent. I’ll just mention one small detail of Rosen’s story. He mentions that he was born in 1946, his mother’s second son, and that she died in 1976, aged 55. My own mother had her 55th birthday in 1976; I had my 16th. The coincidence of one date, and the differences of the others, raise all sorts of questions. I can’t begin to imagine my life if my mother had died in her 50s; it was hard enough when it did happen, thirty years later. Then: is it easier for an adult to lose a parent who dies relatively young? Then: easier than what?

But back to school, and a detail of Rosen’s story that sparked off a problem-solving train of thought. He writes:

the pass rate for the 11-plus wasn’t the same for boys and girls and it wasn’t the same from area to area. That’s to say, it panned out at the time that girls were generally better than boys at passing this exam. However, the places for boys and girls was split evenly between us. Somehow or another they engineered what was in reality something like a 55-45% split into a 50-50% cent split. Clearly, some five per cent of girls were serious losers in this and some five per cent of boys some kind of gainers – at least as far as the system thought of us.

But that last sentence can’t be right.

Say for the sake of simplicity that the children taking the test were evenly divided between boys and girls, rather than being 49:51 or 48:52. Then we want to know how many kids passed, and then how many were pushed up or down to even up the figures. Another thing I learned from Rosen’s post is that the pass rate varied from region to region(!), depending on the availability of grammar school places(!!), but let’s forget that for the moment and assume that about one in five passed the 11-plus (in fact the proportion ranged from 30% down to 10%).

So we’ve got, oh, let’s say 10,000 kids, made up of 5,000 boys and 5,000 girls, and 2,000 of them are going to Grammar School, the lucky so-and-so’s. Now, 55% of those 2,000 – 1,100 – are girls, and only 900 are boys. So we need to balance things up, and we skim off the dimmest 100 girls who passed and promote the brightest 100 boys who didn’t (each and every one of whom is officially less bright, and hence less able to benefit from grammar school, than the 100 girls we’ve just sent to the secondary mod, but we avert our eyes at this point).

So that’s 5% of girls demoted, 5% of boys promoted? No – it’s 100/5000, or 2%. When you massage that 55% down to 50%, the 5% that’s lost is 5% of the cohort that passed the exam (male and female), not of the girls (passed and failed). You could also say that the really serious losers – the ones who have been unfairly discriminated against even by the system’s own standards – are 100 out of the 1,100 girls who passed: roughly 9.1%. The serious gainers, on the other hand, are 100 out of the 4,100 boys who failed, roughly (reaches for calculator) 2.4%.

So there you go: applied maths for real-world problem-solving.

Clearly, some two per cent of girls (or nine per cent of the girls who passed the exam) were serious losers in this and some two per cent of boys some kind of gainers – at least as far as the system thought of us.

At which point I feel a bit like Babbage correcting Tennyson, but it’s right, dammit. And besides, without the maths I wouldn’t have arrived at the figure of nine per cent – for the girls who passed the eleven-plus but were artificially failed to even up the numbers – which is pretty shocking.

Just another country

1. The obligatory Italian parallel

The true intentions of certain groups of young people, who had arrived at Parco Lambro with their ski-masks in their rucksacks alongside their spanners and bottles of petrol, became clear yesterday afternoon … there was the sense of an organised manoeuvre, in the true sense of the word, and police intervention became inevitable: stones were thrown from one side, tear-gas grenades from the other
– l’Unità, 29th June 1976

Last night was an extreme situation. We haven’t dealt with such co-ordinated looting before. People set out to steal. This is a type of organised crime we’ve never seen before. This was organised: I was out last night and people were asking for directions to our town centre in order to attack it. … Businesses are angry, but people are calm. They understand this wasn’t social unrest, it was something different.
– Stella Creasy MP, 8th August 2011

I understand what has led many young people to break shop windows, but I don’t consider it to be the next step in the Italian revolution.
– Rossana Rossanda, 1977

2. Three tweets about looting

@jamesrbuk James Ball
Hard to see anything overly political in the looting of an electrical store (Curry’s) on other side of town (>10miles) to #Tottenham

@kpunk99 Mark Fisher
The right wing line on #tottenham makes no sense: if it’s all down to ‘criminals’, why the sudden upsurge in ‘criminality’ last night?

@sunny_hundal sunny hundal
Seems to me, what encourages looting isn’t poverty but the expectation you can get away with it. Same applies to the banks


3. Why Cynthia Jarrett is less relevant than the Martians

This is a peculiarly unsatisfactory piece: Jonathan Jones observes that images of the Tottenham riot and its aftermath make him feel weird (they are “uncanny and reminiscent of late Victorian science fiction”), then suggests that evoking apocalyptic imagery might be “a corrective to the mis-application of history”, i.e. the temptation to draw parallels with the rioting of the early 80s. But why shouldn’t we draw parallels with the 80s – why would that be a mis-application of history? Jones’s answer, in total, is: the rioters themselves are too young to remember the 80s; Marx warned against misapplying historical parallels in the 18th Brumaire; and…

It is worth looking at images of London’s violent weekend and asking how they make you feel. Far from fitting into any historical model, they seem to me to come from an imagined London, a horror scenario of the city as a blazing wilderness

…in other words, images of the Tottenham riot and its aftermath make him feel weird. What Jones is resisting here becomes a bit clearer in an afterword:

Walking out in my neighbourhood after writing this, I found that Gay’s the Word bookshop on Marchmont Street, one of central London’s best-known gay landmarks, had its window smashed last night. A substance seems to have been thrown at the window before it was broken. This was the only business attacked on the street. So much for any attempt to see radicalism (at least of a cuddly leftwing variety) in these events.

I’ve got to say, I’m gutted to hear that Gay’s the Word has been attacked & hope they get back to normal before too long. (That said, I’m not aware of any trouble in Bloomsbury on Sunday night – this could just be a nasty coincidence.) But there’s a more important point, which is that – as far as I can tell – nobody anywhere is reading a “cuddly leftwing radicalism” into the riots; certainly nobody is saying that looting Curry’s in Brixton was a political gesture. The “Robin Hood” interpretation of the rioting is a strawman, just as much as it was when Rossanda dismissed it in 1977: Jones (and James Ball) can trample it all they like, but it won’t dispose of the real question posed by the riots.

4. Where are we going, and why are we all in this handcart?
What people are saying (self included) is that politics doesn’t stop when crime starts. There are reasons why people steal and smash windows; more importantly, there are reasons why most people don’t steal and smash windows, most of the time. (Sunny was more or less on the right track here – but I don’t think the calculation that you wouldn’t get away with it is the only reason why people tend to obey the law, or the most important one.) One or two people whose behaviour isn’t governed by our usual reasons to obey the law is a problem for the police, the social services and politicians, in that order. The problem becomes political first and foremost when lots of people start acting differently – when all those reasons suddenly stop working in a particular place and time. And then, as Mark says, the question why can’t be avoided. More to the point, the question why is an interesting question – and it’s one that politics is much better equipped to answer than evocations of Wells or fantasies of manoeuvres organised by lurking criminal networks, vast and cool and unsympathetic.

What do I think it’s all about? A couple of quotes, lifted from comments on Guardian posts:

Even if the rioting is just an opportunity to lob stuff at the police and loot local mobile phone and shoe shops (as it appears to be in Enfield) it’s obvious something has been brewing for a while. It may be disorganised and opportunistic but still speaks of a disatisfaction with things as they are.

There’s a widespread myth that law and order is preserved by police, politicians and other forces of authority. Not true. Never has been. If we all decide to go out and chuck a dustbin through Argos’s window and help ourselves, it would take about 15 million coppers to contain it. We actually have about 150,000.

Law and order is kept by a collective acceptance of mutual goals. If, as a society, we look after each other, offer everyone a share and a stake in the common weal, maintain some semblance of a Rousseauian Social Contract, then the vast majority of people will mostly stick to the rules without ever needing to see a police officer. When people lose that sense of being looked after, no longer feel part of society, no longer feel like they have any kind of share in any kind of collective, the ties that bind begin to be broken.

Rioting, especially the type of vandalism and looting we’ve seen in London, is a sure sign that the social contract is unravelling around the edges. In the days and weeks and months to come, we shall see how far it has frayed.

A Socialist Worker friend of mine once explained to me in some detail how every Prime Minister since Attlee had been to the Right of the one before; I’m not sure how he got over Macmillan/Wilson, but he made quite a good case for Heath/Wilson. (This was before Thatcher/Major). I wouldn’t go that far, but it does seem pretty clear that certain trends that were set in motion during Thatcher’s first term have never really been reversed. Over the last 30 years, work at every level has been steadily proletarianised: employment is nothing but a contract providing money in return for a working day, and a contract that is ever easier for the employer to revoke. Business values permeate all areas of society. The overriding goal, at all times, is to turn a profit: anything that contributes to that goal is good, anything that doesn’t is dispensable at best. The service ethic – the idea of taking pride in a job well done, at whatever level; the idea that the job you do is a way of contributing to a society where ‘we look after each other’ – is little more than a nostalgic fantasy. The institutions that used to nurture it, and whose daily workings made it into a lived reality, have been asset-stripped and hollowed out by ideologues with MBAs. Social life has been radically privatised, and deinstitutionalised in the process – party membership, union membership, local authority employment have dwindled away, without anything taking their place. One of the things that gets eroded in the process is deference to authority – because who are these authority figures anyway? Just ordinary people, just interchangeable employees doing an interchangeable job – even if the job involves chasing people with sticks. (And then they start talking about a Big Society!)

What’s it like to grow up in this world – a world where your only consistent role is to ‘consume’, because nobody, at any level, has any interest in you as a worker? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to take whatever job you can get, on whatever pay you’re offered, and not to depend on the job still being there for you next year or next week? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to prove you’re actively looking for work before you can sign on as unemployed – or that you’ve got to prove that you’re incapable of work before you can claim disability benefit – and you’ve got to prove these things to someone who won’t get paid if they believe you? And what’s it like to have grown up in a world like this, and then to be told by a government of unprepossessing Old Etonians that you’ve had it far too easy up to now? And then, what’s it like to read that those same politicians, and the people who write the papers you buy, and the police who keep everything under control, are all involved in a network of corruption and deceit?

What we’ve got at the moment isn’t a protest movement, or even a wave of riots; if anything, it’s a particularly long and broad wave of looting. And looting isn’t a political act – but it sends a definite political message. It says, I’m not going to wait any longer; I’m not going to wait for next month or next year when I could have what I want now. It says, I’m not going to play by the rules of your system; I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but right now I’m having it. It says, I’m not going to live in your world any longer; I don’t know where I’m going to be next week, but right now I’m just going to do what I want.

5. A concluding unscientific postscript
Paul:

while people may have come together to riot and loot, they are likely to be doing so for different reasons. Some may be angry that they have no job.  Some may be keen to have a free mobile handset. Still more may be there because they fear their friends would call them a “pussy” if they did not attend.  Others may be there because they want to be able to talk about it with their mates in the days and weeks to come. For most indeed the reasons will not be fixed, and may change during the evening. I am sure some will have gone down for a look, and found the temptation of a broken-into off-licence a little too great.

We can, ultimately, establish no single motivation, and it is useless to try.  It just makes you sound like Theresa May. What we can say, though, is something about comparative incentives.

Most people from richer areas, who have jobs or who have a good chance of getting a good job, will not riot in the next day or few because their retaining their job or job chance through not getting a criminal record is greater than any of the other incentives I have listed above. … People from poorer, more deprived areas and backgrounds are rioting for different, shifting motivations, but they are doing so because they do not have enough invested in what the state can offer them to outweigh the benefits of that rioting. That is, the state has temporarily failed, because a significant group of people in London have decided it is just not worth living within its jurisdiction.

And Laurie:

People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all.

To end on the ghost of a positive note, that sense of collective power – that if you get a few people together, suddenly the rules don’t have to apply any more – is at the heart of a lot of radical mobilisation, although intellectual honesty compels me to note that it’s also at the heart of counter-revolutionary mobilisations and pogroms. Either way, a lot of the kids who were out last night are going to remember that feeling – is it ridiculously optimistic to hope that some of them will draw the right lesson (“don’t forget, we can also build”)? But that’s some way off. For now, I’m afraid things are going to get worse before they get better – I don’t see why the looting shouldn’t kick off again tonight (or any other night, for that matter), and the crackdown when it comes is going to be no fun at all.

The news, it doesn’t change

I’ll get back to the question of violence soon. In the mean time, here’s a thought about two kinds of radicalism – and two radicals.

One is concerned about threats to her job and its terms and conditions; when her union agitated for strike action on these issues she enthusiastically supported it and urged fellow workers who seemed undecided to vote Yes. On the day of the strike, she’s on the picket line, looking workers who cross it in the eye and asking them to turn back and support the strike. One or two do, which makes her feel she’s achieved something.

The other is concerned about nuclear weapons and about the imperialist blocs which claim the right to use them, and about nuclear power. She is selling tickets for an annual concert to raise money for the orphans of Chernobyl; this year it will also be an occasion to express concern about Fukushima and opposition to the British intervention in Libya. Not many people are interested when she tells them about the concert, but one or two people do buy tickets, which makes her feel she’s achieved something.

What do these two people have to do with each other? (Clearly they could be the same person on different days, but that’s not really the point.) Or rather, what do these two activities have to do with each other? Both of these people are committing time and energy to intervening in the social world, in person and by trying to persuade other people to do likewise. They’re both trying to change things, persuading other people to join their cause and raising awareness. What I can’t see, however, is any necessary connection between the two causes – “don’t sack us or cut our pay” on the one hand, “help the victims of this and express opposition to that” on the other.

Long hours and low wages are, always and everywhere, long hours and low wages. (They may sometimes be outweighed by other factors – the menial job in a glamorous industry which was worth taking because it enabled you to get spotted; the art gallery job at pocket-money wages, designed for people with rich parents and rich friends – but the rule holds: in those cases the worker involved either isn’t on a low wage for very long, or isn’t really on a low wage at all (if by ‘wage’ we mean ‘what you live on’).) Moreover, resistance to hours getting longer and wages getting lower is the same everywhere, and (it seems to me) can never be a reactionary cause. (Again, we can envisage exceptions – self-proclaimed British workers refusing to work with lower-paid immigrants; men refusing to see their pay cut to the level of women’s – and again, the rule stands up to the test: the demand in these cases is “do not cut our wages”, which is only a little way from “do not cut the wages for this job”.)

Campaigning of the fund- and consciousness-raising variety is a very different animal. We could make a stab at a general definition by saying that premature death and avoidable suffering are, always and everywhere, premature death and avoidable suffering; this is true as far as it goes, and it’s also true that opposition to these things cannot be a bad thing. In political terms, however, this definition isn’t particularly incisive: once you get away from the obvious cases (starvation, natural disasters, cancer research) it would give you a bewilderingly large variety of evils to combat, and in many cases wouldn’t give you any guidance at all. (The UN Security Council hasn’t endorsed the intervention in Libya so as to prolong suffering, after all.) In practice what people define as avoidable suffering – or rather, as avoidable suffering which is worth campaigning about – is quite varied. What differentiates our anti-nuclear campaigner from somebody holding a social event to raise money for the Countryside Alliance, or to raise awareness of how wind farms spoil the scenery, or to gather support for a campaign against asylum-seekers? I can’t see anything essential to differentiate these from the anti-nuclear example, apart from the fact that I tend to think they’re wrong. Moreover, I can’t see any obvious reason why the anti-nuclear activist would necessarily be on the side of the striker – any more than the Countryside Alliance activist would be. We know that actually existing anti-nuclear activists do tend to support strikes, and real live Countryside Alliance types tend not to, but this seems to me to be a cultural statement more than a political one: being the kind of person who supports strikers is fairly strongly correlated with being the kind of person who opposes nuclear weapons. Opposing nuclear weapons doesn’t entail supporting strikes in any way that I can see.

What this suggests is – one of two things. Either

1. The Left is a broad social and cultural milieu which bears forward, and continues to develop, a complex but internally coherent vision of the injustices of the world and how best to remedy them, which draws on the heritage of Marxism but also on other sources. Trade unionists are employees organised in their own interest.

or

2. The resistance of organised workers is fundamental to the continuing task of challenging the rule of capital, which will eventually be superseded by workers’ control over the means of production and distribution on a global scale. What goes by the name of the Left these days consists largely of single-issue campaigners.

What do I think? Now, I’m not going to point any moral – I’ll leave that for yourself. But I will say that the starting-point of this post was hearing somebody promoting a concert commemorating Chernobyl and raising money for Chernobyl orphans (it’s a good bill, by the way, there’ll be folkies as well as classical and balalaika). Unfortunately the speaker strayed onto the general topic of the evils of nuclear power and was politely but loudly heckled by a member of the audience who works in the industry -

…and we can all do something to reduce our dependency…
– Yes, we can stop using electricity.
…we can stop using electricity… er, we can reduce our use of electricity… and in view of the tragic accident at Fukushima… when we think that it could happen here…
– No it couldn’t!

Awkward, as they say.

A treasure hunt, but the treasure’s gone

Recent discussion on CT has made me aware of some startling disparities:

UK(2001) Oxford admissions (2009)
White 71.1% 84.9%
Mixed 3.2% 4.6%
Asian 12.1% 4.6%
Black 10.9% 1.0%
Chinese 1.1% 1.8%
Other 1.6% 0.3%


A massive over-representation of the White majority, together with a really glaring under-representation of British Asian and especially Black students, who are being rejected literally nine times out of ten, whereas…

Hang on, wrong figures. That first column is the ethnic breakdown of the population of London (which is where David Lammy MP was born and has lived most of his life, not to mention the obvious point that it’s where he works). Here’s the UK:

UK(2001) Oxford admissions (2009)
White 92.1% 84.9%
Mixed 1.2% 4.6%
Asian 4.0% 4.6%
Black 2.0% 1.0%
Chinese 0.4% 1.8%
Other 0.4% 0.3%

White majority: slightly under-represented. Chinese and mixed-race groups: over-represented. British Asians: very slightly over-represented. Black British…

Well, OK, Lammy has got something here, but it’s not quite as big an issue as it might look if you’re coming at it from an ethnically-mixed background (also known as a ‘city’). The UK population in 2001 was still 92% White – there are whole areas of the country where you just won’t see a brown face, or if you do you’ll go home and tell somebody. I won’t be surprised if the figure that comes out of the 2011 Census is a bit lower, but I’ll be amazed if it’s below 90%. So the fact that the Oxford student intake is 85% White is not, in itself, a problem, except insofar as it suggests that recruitment from Scotland, Wales and the North-East might need a bit of work.

All the same, it’s true that Black students are seriously under-represented; a factor of 2 isn’t as bad as a factor of 10, but it’s not good. But this seems to be a point specifically about Black students and not about non-Whites more generally. If racism on the part of Oxford admissions tutors is at the root of what’s going on here, either it’s specifically anti-Black racism or there are other factors outweighing racist attitudes towards other groups.

Or is the problem at the application stage? Here’s how applications look in comparison to UK population figures (bearing in mind that these are 2001 figures and hence almost certainly out of date). In 2009, there were approximately 185 Oxford applications for every 1,000,000 UK citizens. If the same figure is calculated for each ethnic group, you get the following:

Applications per million Over/under
White 155 83.5%
Mixed 703 379.4%
Asian 353 190.7%
Black 192 103.8%
Chinese 918 495.2%
Other 364 196.6%

Relative to the size of their ethnic group within the population as a whole, White students are under-represented. Asians and the ‘Other’ group – which consists mainly of people who declined to state their ethnic group – are over-represented; Chinese and the ‘Mixed’ group are massively over-represented. Black students are right in the middle of the distribution, a fairly small population represented – relative to the total of applications – proportionately to its size.

Here are the admission figures again, this time side by side with the application figures:

Applications Admissions Success Over/under
White 76.9% 84.9% 27.6% 110.0%
Mixed 4.4% 4.6% 26.5% 105.6%
Asian 7.6% 4.6% 15.3% 61.0%
Black 2.0% 1.0% 12.2% 48.6%
Chinese 2.1% 1.8% 21.6% 86.1%
N/K 6.3% 2.8% 11.1% 44.2%

The “over/under” figure gives the relative success of each group as compared with the overall success rate of 25.1%. And it’s an interesting figure. Relative to applications, White students are quite substantially over-represented, while every other group is under-represented, with the exception of the ‘Mixed’ group (the cynical explanation that they’re seen as ‘white enough’ suggests itself).

Here, finally, is what it looks like if you put it all together. (These are the same numbers I’ve been crunching so far. The ‘Over/under’ figure for applications is the ratio between the number of applicants per million in each group and the number of applicants per million UK residents. The ‘Over/under’ figure for admissions is the ratio between the success rate of applicants in each group and the overall success rate of applicants.)

% of population % of applications Over/under % of admissions Over/under
White 92.1% 76.9% 0.835 84.9% 1.103
Mixed 1.2% 4.4% 3.794 4.6% 1.057
Asian 4.0% 7.6% 1.907 4.6% 0.610
Black 2.0% 2.0% 1.038 1.0% 0.488
Chinese 0.4% 2.1% 4.952 1.8% 0.862
Other 0.4% 0.8% 1.966 0.3% 0.428

Every line tells a slightly different story. The Mixed ethnic group comes off best, with a massive over-representation in applications which is entrenched at the admissions stage; Chinese students are also over-represented, with a larger over-representation among applicants only slightly scaled back at the admission stage. A smaller over-representation over Asian students is almost entirely reversed by the rejection of 85% of applicants. The White group is significantly under-represented among applicants, although the admissions process partially compensates for this with a slight over-representation, relative to applications. Alone among all the major ethnic groups, Black students apply to Oxford at roughly the same rate as the population as a whole, neither over-represented among applicants (like most others) nor under-represented (like White students). However, the Black group suffers enormously at the admission stage, with a rejection rate of nearly 88%; this compares with 74.9% for all applicants and 72.4% for White students.

So what is going on? A large part of what’s going on seems to be that White schoolchildren aren’t getting the top grades in the numbers we’d expect – although this is still being compensated during admissions. Where Black Oxford applicants are concerned, it seems undeniable that something is going wrong somewhere in the admission process. The numbers of Asian – and to a lesser extent Chinese – applicants are cut down fairly significantly in the admissions process, but this is compensated by a massive over-representation of those groups among applicants. Black students get hit both ways: they’re not over-represented (although I would find it hard to label this as a fault, particularly given the performance of my own ethnic group), and they’re turned away at an even higher rate than Asian applicants. Oxford’s own investigation concludes that subject choice must bear some (most? all?) of the blame:

BME students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed courses. Oxford’s three most oversubscribed large (over 70 places) courses (Economics & Management, Medicine and Mathematics) account for 43% of all BME applicants and 44% of all Black applicants – compared to just 17% of all white applicants.

Well, maybe, but I can’t help feeling that this explanation stops where it ought to start. It’s hard to believe that subject choice is the only reason why Black students’ faces so consistently fail to fit; more to the point, the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ subject choices themselves are not entirely weightless and without a history.  I passed this snippet on to my wife (we met at Cambridge). Apparently Black students aren’t being advised to choose the right subjects, I said, and that’s why not many of them get into Oxford. What, she said, they’re not applying to do Land Economy?

A gift from the Queen

Drink to the men who protect you and I!
Drink! Drink! Drain your glass! Raise your glass high!

I’ve lived through several Remembrance Days, you may not be surprised to learn, and for most of those I’ve refused to wear a poppy. (And it did feel – and continues to feel – like a refusal, not a free choice.) Initially this was because I felt I was being asked to endorse Britain’s role in the Falklands conflict and the Irish war: both the British Legion and the government seemed actively to encourage a blurring of the line between the dead in the World Wars and the very different Fallen of the 1980s, which I thought was pernicious. Still, for a few years in the relatively peaceful 1990s I did wear a poppy on November 11th, with the Second World War and more particularly the defeat of Fascism in mind. But for several years now we’ve been back in a period of imperialist war, and I prefer not to celebrate it. I do mourn the dead – including the British dead – but for me they’re dead in a cause that’s pointless at best, barbaric at worst; and you can’t get a poppy with “End this slaughter now” written around the outside.

On the topic of poppies and neutrality Owen is impressively logical:

The red poppy, as the white poppy-producing Peace Pledge Union points out, occupies something of a privileged position among emblems of charitable causes. If you’re a police officer or a TV presenter for the BBC, you’re not allowed to wear a wristband, coloured ribbon or any other kind of symbol that shows your support for a charitable or political cause, and especially not a white poppy, but red poppies, and red poppies alone, are fine.

There are two possible justifications for this that I can see: one is that the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal is neutral in a way that other charitable causes aren’t; the other is that the Poppy Appeal is, out of all the charitable causes in the world, a uniquely commendable cause.

Neutral?

all charities are legally required to be politically neutral, but if you can’t wear an AIDS ribbon or a Livestrong wristband on the BBC then clearly that kind of neutrality isn’t sufficient. But the Royal British Legion clearly doesn’t meet this requirement; the Poppy Appeal is manifestly not even politically neutral; every year the RBL creates ‘Fields of Remembrance’ which are intended as a “tribute to the memory of ex-Service men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their country.” This year there will be one at Wootton Bassett, where the bodies of members of the armed forces killed in Afghanistan are brought. This implies that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security. Regardless of whether you believe this to be true or not, it’s quite clearly not a politically neutral position.

And as for whether the Poppy Appeal is uniquely worthy of our support – well, why would it be?

I’m sure the justification most people would give, if asked, would be something about the fact that servicemen and women put themselves in the line of fire to make the rest of us safer

– but this brings us straight back to the assumption about “all conflicts which the UK has been involved in being justifiable on national security grounds”, which is awfully hard to demonstrate with regard to (say) Suez, or the Malayan insurgency (Britain was agin it, in quite a real and tangible way).

The logic is impressive, but I think Owen misses a couple of obvious counter-arguments – one which I’ve already touched on, and one which Will sums up:

Wearing a poppy is quite a unique thing. There aren’t many ways that the British are able to symbolise a positive relationship to nation without descending to nationalism, to recognise the honour of the military without veering into militarism. It also has a beautiful ambiguity. It may represent something very patriotic and proud, or a form of pacifism. It needn’t mourn the dead of any particular war or even any particular nation. It may even represent mourning for the horrors of the twentieth century more generally. It’s not irrelevant that most of those who have died in war over the last 100 years did not go into the military as a career, but were dragged into hellish territorial disputes. Some people might feel particularly moved by those conscripts, others won’t. These various ambiguities allow people to congregate symbolically without being defined symbolically.

The poppy is about “a positive relationship to nation” and “the honour of the military”. It celebrates membership of a nation state with armed forces, with all the ambiguities and differences of emphasis which that allows: for different people, the same symbol can commemorate an imperialist adventure carried out by professional soldiers and a continent-wide war to defeat Fascism waged by a mass army of conscripts. But these different forms of commemoration remain within the framework of the nation-state: my 1990s anti-Fascist poppies were, precisely, celebrating the role of the British Army in licking Hitler.

This is why it’s beside the point to point out that very few people actually believe that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security – and that anyone putting forward this hyper-militarised view of the world would scarcely qualify as “politically neutral”. The implicit argument here is not that the nation-state is neutral with regard to politics, but that it’s prior to politics: the British state, and the armed forces which underwrite its monopoly of legitimate force, are the precondition of any kind of politics in Britain – and of any kind of public sphere. We are not saluting those who died for no good reason in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Falls Road, but the men who protect you and I. (What we are certainly not doing – and here I entirely agree with Will – is saying that we think being injured is bad and being killed is even worse: an even more pre-political appeal, and one which evacuates the actual poppy ritual of what little politics it still gives houseroom to.)

And it’s because the poppy is a salute to the armed forces – our armed forces – that (coming to my second argument) neither wearing a poppy nor refusing to wear one is a free choice, in the sense that it’s a free choice to wear or not to wear a pink “breast cancer” ribbon or a Help For Heroes wristband. To say that the nation-state is prior to politics – to say that we enjoy British democracy and British liberties – is to say that we, as members of that nation-state, bear allegiance to the ultimate authorities of the state, and the armed forces which are both symbol and last-ditch embodiment of their power over us. (I lived in a Forces town as a child; if nothing else, it leaves you with an abiding respect for the armed forces’ ability to get the job done – whatever the job might be.) And if we bear allegiance, then, once in a while, respect should be paid. Declining to wear a poppy is opting out of allegiance to the state: it’s either an explicit protest or rather distastefully eccentric – after all, why wouldn’t you? (I see this in my children’s reaction to my failure to wear a poppy; I really should make my protest more explicit.) (I’ve never worn a white poppy, incidentally. The white poppy still has an air more of eccentricity about it than protest, perhaps because it says that the wearer wants to join in the ritual of commemoration and yet withdraw from it – like joining a march but insisting on making up your own slogans.)

The danger in all this is that sometimes the most useful thing we can do is not to pay respect to authority – and the time of war may be one of those times. In January this year I was in a pub when a loud and emotional argument broke out between a drunk and a squaddie who was about to ship back out to Afghanistan, where he’d recently seen his best friend killed. He was holding his drink quite well, but he was obviously quite well gone himself. The argument consisted mainly of the squaddie taking exception to everything the drunk said, and trying to shut him up by the drunk man’s usual method of talking over him, very calmly, very loudly and at great length; the drunk responded with the even drunker man’s tactic of carrying on regardless, in the blithe confidence that if he went on talking for long enough everyone in the world would agree with him. It was a fun evening. (I wouldn’t have minded so much, but we were trying to have a singaround at the time.) Anyway, nothing the drunk said upset or offended the squaddie so much as his profession of support and sympathy – “We’re all behind you, mate, we want to get you out of there and get you home safe and sound.” Big mistake. They had a job to do, we were told, and they were going to get it done. Anyone who said different just didn’t understand. There was a job to do, the army had been sent out there to do it and they were going to stay there till the job was done. They had a job on hand, the job was going to get done and they were going to make sure it got done.

From within the armed forces, of course, this is very much how you’d expect the world to look: they’re an instrument of the state and they’re there to get the job done, provided the job involves either weaponry or boots on the ground. The danger of paying respect to our state and our armed forces is that we as citizens buy into this heads-down goal-oriented mindset: theirs not to reason why (why Iraq? why Malaya? why Ireland?), and ours neither. Support the troops, we’re urged – and we’re asked to support them in just the same dogged, unconditional way that they’re told to do their job. But that way, our sympathy for the poor bloody infantry leads us to echo their unquestioning support for the goals they’re asked to achieve – and that’s precisely what we as civilians shouldn’t be doing. They don’t have the luxury of asking whether they should be going where they’re sent, but we do – and we owe it to ourselves to use it.

So: because I don’t think the British nation-state is prior to the politics that matter, in a way that my working-class ancestry decidedly is; and because, while I mourn the loss of life in Britain’s current imperialist adventures, I can’t endorse them; and, above all, because there is a war on, and I believe this is precisely the moment when spaces for debate and dissent most need to be opened up: for all these reasons, I’m not wearing a poppy.

Update A song for today.

Now the grownups have gone

I’ve just signed the 38 Degrees petition on capital gains tax:

Dear George Osborne,

Please stick to your commitment in the coalition agreement by increasing Capital Gains Tax to rates similar to income tax by:

* making the top level of Capital Gains Tax the same as income tax
* reducing the level at which people have to start paying tax on money earned from investments like stocks and shares, and second homes

I’d urge everyone to do likewise, even though it goes against the grain to petition George Osborne for anything – shouldn’t there be structures for this kind of thing? isn’t petitioning a fundamentally pre-democratic mechanism, implying that the subjects are respectfully tugging the sleeve of their exalted ruler, there being no other legitimate way for them to express themselves? Or maybe it’s a post-democratic mechanism, I dunno. (File under ‘cheery thoughts’.)

Anyway, the petition comes with a comment box, and I was very tempted to add the line “Make the rich pay for the crisis”. Then I remembered the provenance of that particular slogan and left the box blank. There’s always the possibility – the depressing possibility – that whoever ends up looking at the petition would see my comment and think “huh, a tired old bit of sloganising from a Radio Tirana listener and fellow-traveller of the RCPB (M-L)!” Not to mention the even more depressing possibility that they wouldn’t.

I owe the Hoxhaites a debt of gratitude, as it happens. Back in 1983, waiting for a demo against anti-union laws to get started, I came quite close to being recruited by the Revolutionary Communist Party; a bored-looking girl with a crew-cut gave me a copy of the next step [sic] and explained how, er, I forget what exactly. I was quite impressed, anyway, and continued to be impressed by what I read in the paper. The RCP were in their phase of well-er-obviously ultra-logical not-quite-ultra-leftism at the time – not quite ultra-left, just enough to outflank everyone else except the anarchists (who don’t count, of course). So obviously the state of Israel must be destroyed, and obviously the IRA must be supported unconditionally, and obviously the union leaders (all of them) must be totally ignored in favour of really extra-vigorous rank-and-file stuff of some sort. This approach had the merit of simplicity, allied to an appealingly cool tone (in both senses of the word – tns really did look nice) and logic – lots and lots of logic. It was also considerably more revolutionary than you, unless you were an anarchist (but anarchists don’t count, of course).

Anyway, I was young, I was radical, I was single and unemployed – I was about as available for recruitment by a Trotskyist group as I’ve ever been, and I vaguely knew it. (My student days don’t count – I was at Cambridge and mostly avoided getting involved in any kind of organised politics out of sheer embarrassment. I didn’t know much about the revolution, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be made by Cambridge students.) So I was mulling over the RCP’s overtures later that day, when the demo finally got going. Being on my own, I’d decided to watch most of the march going by and tag on near the end. And who should pass by but a contingent of about eight middle-aged beardies, clustered quite closely around a large and elderly red banner, walking in step and raising a chant of – you guessed it – “MAKE THE RICH PAY FOR THE CRISIS!” Not the snappiest slogan at the best of times, and being chanted by eight middle-aged blokes (who were passing by at quite a brisk pace) didn’t enhance its impact. The banner – one of those big square-ish ones in a frame – read “REVOLUTIONARY COMMUNIST PARTY OF BRITAIN (MARXIST-LENINIST)”.

Blimey, I thought – so that’s what they’re really like!

Update 4/7/10
In response to Kier in comments: OK, that’s not the whole truth. At first I was genuinely confused by the mismatch between the cool paper with the purple ink and the knot of earnest beardies – and I did momentarily think that the latter was the real face of the former. But I did work it out after a while, and the RCPB(M-L) didn’t put me off the RCP(no relation) for good; in fact I had a few contacts with them back in Manchester until they gave up trying to recruit me. (Which, I remember, they did with a very bad grace, with the strong implication that I’d been wasting their time.) I just think it’s interesting that, while my first impression of the RCP was positive, my second impression was that they were a tightly-knit group of dedicated activists declaiming peculiar-sounding slogans in apparent indifference to how they looked to the rest of the Left.

The Liberal Democrat Party: a concluding unscientific postscript

Unlike leftish fiction-writer Ian McEwan, I am disinclined to extend much goodwill in the direction of the coalition government. In fact, anyone capable of judging this government – and the Lib Dems’ role in making it possible – as positively as McEwan strikes me as having something important missing from their own political makeup. It’s a bit like hearing it seriously argued that apartheid was good for the South African economy, or that Mussolini did in fact make the trains run on time: you just know that you’re not going to agree with this person on anything. (Not that I’ve agreed with old Leftie McEwan for quite a while.) Tory government is bad; if you join a Tory government, or (even worse) make a Tory government possible, you and your party are off the political roll-call forever.

This position seems pretty fundamental to me. But can I justify it on the basis of anything other than what McEwan refers to as “deep tribal reasons”? Continue reading

Imitation of life

Apparently Gordon Brown didn’t really think Gillian Duffy’s remarks were bigoted; he thought something she didn’t actually say was bigoted.

Mrs Duffy had asked him about immigration and also mentioned student tuition fees, among other subjects.

The BBC’s Jeremy Paxman asked Mr Brown to explain what he meant when he said he had misunderstood her comments.

He said: “I thought she was talking about expelling all university students from here who were foreigners. I misunderstood it.”

It’s a sidestep of genius, allowing both Brown and Duffy to be in the right – someone who had said that to Brown would have been a bigot; he simply made the honest mistake of thinking that Mrs D. was that someone.

I also think it’s probably sincere. Here’s a section of the full transcript:
Continue reading

You talk so hip

In the previous post, I wrote:

not only is the personal political, the political is personal: which way you’re heading, and how fast you want to get there, depends to quite a large extent on something as imponderable as who you are

Which is why I’m rather ambivalent about Andrew Neil’s monstering of Chris Mounsey, he of Devil’s Kitchen.

Mounsey says himself that when he wrote the posts that made Devil’s Kitchen famous he was in part railing against his own situation, and that he’s calmer and happier now. This is good news, and I sincerely wish him well. But that’s not all there is to say.

From my very occasional reading of DK I had formed the impression that the writer was a middle-aged Scot who had missed his chances or been robbed of them, had no real prospect of finding them again and was now taking solace in blaming everyone but himself. It turns out that Chris Mounsey is English and in his early 30s. He’s also an old Etonian; which is to say, his education cost his parents a minimum of £28,851 a year in today’s money. As of 2007/8, 95% of UK tax-payers have a post-tax income of £46,800 or below. Anyone as low down the rankings as the 96th percentile would need to commit nearly 2/3 of their income in order to see their son through Eton; I think we can confidently assume that the income of the senior Mounseys puts them in the top 2-3%. In other words, Chris Mounsey was born into the elite.

Here’s an example of what Chris Mounsey used to get angry about:

The Tories want parents and other organisations to have state funds to set up their own schools.
Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove issued the call in a speech to the NASUWT teachers’ union conference.

And can you guess what the union response was? Go on – have a guess.

Was it (a) yes, what a wonderful idea: we’ll show you how a school should be run, given how much we profess to dislike the constant state interference, or was it (b)…

The union did not want to run a school, [union leader] said. Schools should be “democratically accountable” and not operated for and by “the pushy and the privileged”.

Ah. So, schools should not be run for and by “the pushy and the privileged” unless those pushy and privileged are the union members under state sanction.

OK, so this is fairly stupid. Gove suggests a system under which state funding would be used to set up new private schools; these might be excellent or might not, but would sink or swim outside the state system. If standards were low, the government would have no way of raising them; at worst, in other words, this would mean messing up the education of the children unfortunate enough to go to those schools. If standards were high, on the other hand, this would benefit those particular children but nobody else. Anyone who is concerned with providing a consistently good universal service – rather than providing an excellent service to a few and never mind the rest – won’t touch such a scheme with a bargepole. No national teaching union could ever endorse such an idea – Mounsey’s professed outrage is either spurious or stupid. As for his parting shot, I’m not even sure what it means – joining a union, signing up for the collective defence of working standards and employment rights, makes you “pushy and privileged”? Brane hertz. All in all, what we’ve got here is someone with one set of beliefs affecting to be shocked and outraged that someone with a completely different set of beliefs doesn’t agree with him. Or, to boil it down a bit more, someone having a rant at his political enemies. Mounsey, like Gove, doesn’t believe in trade unions, or in state provision, and I shouldn’t think he’s too bothered about the provision of a consistently good universal education. The union leader believes in all three, and so Mounsey hates her.

That was fairly stupid, but it’s not the passage Neil quoted back at Mounsey. The post continued as follows (WARNING: nasty stuff ahead). Continue reading

Read us a story

I considered voting Tory the other day.

It didn’t last – I knew within a minute that I just couldn’t do it – but for a moment it really seemed like a good idea. I was reading Ross McKibbin’s piece in the LRB about the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF, the government’s latest system for funding academic research, gives a lot of weight to “impact”: deliver[ing] demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life. 25% of the final rating will be decided on the basis of ‘impact’, and funding for university departments will be decided on the basis of those ratings. McKibbin does a great, if inevitably depressing, job on unpacking all the many things that are wrong with this idea; if you haven’t read it, go and read the piece now (it’s not paywalled). Suffice to say that ‘impact’ criteria will be so hard to meet, in just about any discipline, that the government might as well just have announced that it was cutting university funding by 25%; it would have saved us all a lot of time and effort.

So I was sunk in McKibbin-induced gloom when I read this line:

David Willetts, the shadow minister for universities and skills, has said that the Conservatives will delay the REF ‘by up to two years to establish whether a sound and widely accepted measure of impact exists’.

I could have kissed the man (and yes, I do know who David Willetts is). Certainly voting Tory suddenly seemed like the right choice. For a moment it really seemed like a good idea, but I knew within a minute that I just couldn’t do it. You’d have to leave the house intending to vote Tory, walk down the road planning to vote Tory, and when you got to the polling booth… bear with me, this part is hard to talk about… In the polling station you’d have to get your ballot paper, and then you’d have to take it to the polling booth and in the polling booth you’d have to… I mean, you’d actually have to pick up the pencil and you’d have to…

No. Best draw a veil, I think.

On one level I’m not a Labour loyalist – I gave up on the party some time around 1992 and have never voted for them since. (Green, mostly, or any token Leftist who’s available. Might have voted Lib Dem once, possibly.) Deeper down, though, a Labour loyalist is precisely what I am: the question “Labour or Tory?” causes me about as much hesitation and heart-searching as the question “What’s your name?” On that basis I was surprised that Andrew Rawnsley was surprised to hear that Roy Hattersley had decided to pan his book sight unseen (I had not realised that Roy possesses such advanced critical faculties that he is able to decide that he will give a bad review to a book before he has actually read it); can he really have thought that career Labour politicians would sabotage the party’s chances for the sheer joy of sticking the knife into Gordon Brown? Apparently he did:

There has been little loathing lost between Lord Mandelson and Ed Balls. Tony Blair will campaign for a Labour victory despite the oceans of poison … that flowed between him and Gordon Brown. It may be hilariously bogus for these men to pretend that they are all good friends. But there is also something quite awesome about their ability to subordinate so much venomous personal history in the greater cause of retaining power for their party. … Despite the odds against Labour, despite the epic deficit that will be inherited by the next government, despite all the hatreds that seethe below the surface, they will still fight to the last ditch to stay in power.

But of course they will – what else would they do? Not even Mr Tony Blair actually wants a Tory victory. (Not sure about Patricia Hewitt – although I love Alex’s “signalling” idea in comments to that post, not least because it confirms my main point.)

It’s been interesting, now an election is looming, to see Labour starting to tap into these deeper reserves of support; in any case it makes a change from endlessly trying to impress us with their patriotism, fiscal rectitude and intolerance of yobs. Our own candidate, the ghastly Lucy Powell, recently sent round a ‘questionnaire’ concluding with two tick-box questions: which party you intended to vote for, and whether you would prefer a Labour or a Tory government. This is a Lib Dem seat – gained from a right-wing Labour MP on an anti-war vote – which the Tories have zero chance of winning. (Even the Lib Dems have written them off: they’ve started telling us that the Greens “can’t win here”.) But a Labour or a Tory government… hmm. If that’s dog-whistle politics, then tickle my tummy and call me Rover.

With all that in mind, this from Jenny Diski was interesting:

In 1979, there was a strike at the National Theatre that caused trouble with a Simon Gray play Pinter was directing. Fraser writes: ‘“Union selfishness and violent behaviour at the National” was what convinced Harold to vote Tory in May. I too voted Tory but that was quite unashamedly in order to see a woman walk into No. 10. Neither of us knew much about Mrs Thatcher’s politics.’ She got her wish, Mrs Thatcher did walk through the door of No. 10, but ‘subsequently, Harold, by his own account, regretted his vote.’

That’s nice to know. Diski also comments on the radical stands Pinter took – “always of the astonished variety”,

as if, having read or thought nothing on the subject previously, he woke up one morning and discovered that there was torture or tyranny occurring in the world beyond. Then he’d pronounce it a bad thing in a poem, a one-act play or a speech to the rest of us who were assumed to be entirely ignorant of such events. Sometimes he, Antonia and other fascinating famous people attend a lily-waving demonstration outside the wrong kind of embassy to bring his awareness to the notice of the entire world. His rage at corruption and the misuse of power was wholly admirable, but his sense of it as a brand new, unpleasant discovery was odd, I always thought.

Travelling light makes it easier to see things with a fresh eye, I guess; and seeing things with a fresh eye is a good thing, I guess. But I lean more towards Robert Wyatt’s answer when asked about his ‘politics’ – I don’t have ‘politics’, just certain loyalties. I’m also reminded of Marc Riley’s brisk demolition of Paul Weller, and in particular Weller’s 1980s re-emergence as a beacon of Leftist integrity -

Who loves the Queen and who votes Tory?
Come on, joker, read us a story!

Green and yellow pinky-blue

Andy did a reasonably good job of making a left case for the findings of the National Equality Panel – it’s true that New Labour have implemented policies aimed at the people at the bottom of the heap, and it’s certainly true that some of the inequalities that remain are more intractable than they were in the 1970s. Andy concludes that this government has taken “a sincere but flawed approach to reducing social exclusion” involving “pushing up the wages of the poorest”, but that this was ultimately vitiated by New Labour individualism: the government “failed to acknowledge that equality has to rest upon shared sense of community, and that community is alien to the spirit of free market capitalism”.

It’s always good to be reminded that there is still a Left case to be made for some of this government’s actions, but I don’t think Andy has joined enough of the dots here. While Andy notes that “for the Blairites, poverty reduction was the target not promoting equality per se, as they did not want to reduce the income of top earners”, I’d go further. A system that generates enormous profits for a few thousand individuals is not just part of the context in which poverty reduction takes place; that system is actually producing and reproducing poverty on a huge scale. I also think it’s worth noting that the vein of compulsion mentioned by Andy runs right through Labour policy on social exclusion, however beneficial it may be in practice; SureStart itself began life as a Home Office project, with medium-term crime reduction as its goal. This is certainly a government which doesn’t want to see anyone starving or illiterate, which is all to its credit. But that genuine commitment goes along with an underlying view of the poorest groups as a problem – a potential source of crime and disorder – and an even stronger commitment to policies likely to keep them poor.

This isn’t a very flattering picture of our Labour government – a Labour government! – but there’s very little evidence that either class politics or egalitarianism has any influence on New Labour policy. Assuming that they must be in there somewhere can lead to some strange misreadings. Andy notes:

The proportion of young people going to university increased from 15% to 28% between 1988 and 1992; but while the proportion of young people from the most affluent 20% going to university rose from 20% to 37%, the proportion from the least affluent 20% increased from just 6% to only 7%. The paradox is that increasing access to higher education has disproportionately benefitted the already better off.

Paradox? What paradox? I see no evidence that New Labour’s drive to increase access to higher education was ever intended to benefit all classes equally; that’s certainly not how it’s been implemented. It hasn’t even been sold that way – Neil Kinnock’s Joe Biden moment was an awful long time ago. These days it’s decent hard-working middle-class people we’re supposed to be concerned about – and when politicians use the words “middle class”, they might just be talking about the middle class and not the working class.

I also thought – like Liam – that these findings demanded to be read alongside the bad news from the British Social Attitudes Survey, published the same week. Indeed, I thought the two shed light on each other. Liam:

”only two in five people (39%) now support increased taxes and spending on health and education,the lowest level since 1984 and down from 62% in 1997.” They add that “support for redistribution from the better off to those who are less well off has dropped markedly. Fewer than two in five (38%) now think the government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off, down from half (51%) in 1994.”

Here’s the punch line: “The shift to the right has occurred mainly among Labour supporters in the wake of the changed stance taken by their party. For example, since 1994, the belief that government should redistribute income has fallen among Labour supporters from two thirds (68%) to half (49%). Among Conservative supporters, in contrast, attitudes have barely shifted at all (from 26% to 24%).”

This to me is a final, sad rebuttal of all those arguments against breaking from Labour to the Left. Yes, millions of working people identify with Labour and with Labour values – but the meaning of “Labour values” can change. Not completely, not evenly and not overnight, certainly, but it still changes. What’s to stop it? After 13 years of a Labour government which regularly proclaimed itself to be the best, fullest, newest and truest expression of Labour values, it would be amazing if the new version hadn’t started to take root. Millions of working people identified with Labour, and New Labour took them with it – and now that New Labour is on the rocks, they’re more available for right- and centre-right politics than ever before. The New Labour project didn’t just set back the prospects for socialism in Britain – would that that had been the worst it did. It wrecked the only viable vehicle for building social democracy, and dispersed and demoralised its natural constituents. A really dreadful piece of political vandalism. Robert:

After the party’s over, my friend
There will be nothing you can put your finger on,
Just a parasol

That goes for any Party.

And yes, I saw it all coming. I wasn’t quite gloomy enough, if anything – I didn’t foresee the possibility that Blair might succeed and then fail. Certainly a future with no Labour Party worth mentioning seems slightly more likely at the moment than one where Labour thrives as an SDP mk. II.

Here, anyway, is a piece I wrote for the eleventh issue of Casablanca in 1994. It was published in the short-running “A gloom of one’s own” series. Most material in Casablanca was either anonymous or pseudonymous, for reasons I was never quite sure about; this one appeared under the name of Brian Parker, for reasons I’m definitely not sure about.

Gloom

Just what is it that makes today’s Left so different, so depressing?

When I was an infantile leftist there were two main groups on the Left, the Campaigners and the Believers. (Three, if you count the Labour Party Members). The best kind of Campaigning, it was generally agreed, was going on strike. The rest of the Left would immediately rally round and offer comradely advice – to stay out for as long as it took (the Trots), to stay out forever and picket everyone in the world until they came out too (the anarchists), to make the rich pay for the crisis (the RCPB(M-L)). Campaigning by leafletting, blocking the traffic and so on was not so good: this made you a Single-Issue Campaigner, and you would usually only be allowed into the Left after most people had gone. (Being on the Left means knowing all the Issues). And if you Campaigned by harbouring foxes and releasing chickens nobody would even talk to you except the anarchists, but that didn’t matter because it’s about something much bigger than just like politics, right.

Like many people, I rapidly graduated from Campaigning to Believing. This is considerably less strenuous, as it consists mainly of (a) finding the right Line and (b) recruiting more Believers. The idea is to ensure that, come the inevitable collision with History, you will be equipped with (a) clean ideological underwear and (b) plenty of witnesses. Being a Believer isn’t a bad way of meeting people and it does get you out of the house (usually on Tuesday evenings, for some reason – so three proletarian cheers to the BBC for moving Barry Norman to Mondays). On the other hand, it is fairly pointless. Realising this, many Believers gravitate towards Campaigning organisations, sometimes in quite large and organised groups. Others attempt to unite the Left, presumably on the basis that if you assemble a large enough group of Believers it will automatically turn into a Campaign. The only problem with this strategy is that the idea of uniting the Left is in fact a Line in its own right and thus only attracts its own Believers – just another strand in the Left’s great dayschool.[1]

About the Labour Party Members there isn’t much I can say, never having shared their belief in the capacity of a Labour government to enact socialism – I suppose every movement needs its dreamers. Actually the rest of us always tacitly relied on the Labour Party. The way it worked was that the press and the BBC would attack Labour for being left-wing – or praise them for being left-wing, it didn’t really matter – and we would attack them for not being left-wing enough. Even the anarchists used to join in, attacking Labour as a way of getting at the Left as a whole. It was quite a good recruiting tactic, while it lasted.

That was how I used to see things – I’m less optimistic nowadays. Most of the Believers have never quite recovered from the end of actually existing Stalinism – arguing about whether Cuba is a deformed workers’ state just isn’t the same somehow. You don’t get the same class of Believers these days, anyway – whatever happened to Red Flame? or Big Stripe? These days there’s hardly anyone doing any Campaigning, either, apart from those young people who sit down in front of trees, play didgeridoos and tell us they won’t get fooled like we did. (They call themselves ‘zippies’, apparently – I grow old, I grow old). Good luck to them, anyway – they’ll need it, now that the Labour Party thinks the Criminal Justice Bill isn’t such a bad idea.

Ah yes, the Labour Party. It’s not Labour’s abstaining on the Criminal Justice Bill that bothers me, or their refusal to support the signal workers; it’s not all the weird stuff which Tony Blair apparently believes (cannabis should stay illegal, the electoral system couldn’t be better and the middle class bore the brunt of the recession – Dan Quayle eat your heart out). It’s true that Tony Blair went to a minor public school, but then so did Prince Charles, and look how well he’s turned out. It’s not fair to attack Blair for coming across as smug, ugly and dull, either – put next to John Major, who wouldn’t?

What bothers me (and I’m amazed it doesn’t bother more people – that’s depressing in itself) is Tony Blair’s obvious intention of redefining Labour as a kind of Socially Responsible Mildly Reactionary Party, somewhere between the Right of the Liberal Democrats and the Left of Melanie Phillips[2]. If he succeeds (which means winning two elections – look at Bill Clinton[3]) Labour will have ceased to exist as a party of the Left. If he fails (which seems highly likely – look at Bill Clinton[3]) Labour will probably just cease to exist. Either way it means that, for the first time since the Labour Party was founded, there’s no party worth voting for with any kind of commitment to the Left – which is an uncomfortable prospect for Believers and Campaigners alike.

What makes it even worse is the odd references to ‘socialism’ from Blair’s direction – a ‘socialism’ which, for the first time in history, says nothing about either collective rights (except those of ‘society’) or individual freedoms (except the freedom to ‘achieve’). It’s as if they’d realised that the Left could never be completely defeated while we still had a language to call our own. (We’ve still got ‘Comrade’, I suppose, and ‘Point of order, Chair’[4], but that’s about it).

It’s almost enough to make you envy the Greens. But not quite.

NOTES
[1] This refers to the Socialist Movement (and indeed a number of other initiatives, before and since).
[2] I’m quite pleased to have called that one right (Ms Phillips was still writing for the Observer at this stage).
[3] I don’t know what this referred to. Don’t bother looking at Bill Clinton.
[4] At the first Chesterfield Conference, I was deeply impressed by the person who raised a point of order at the Saturday night social. To his credit, the MC refused to take it.

Too pale a hue

June? June?

Oh well – I’m back, probably.

What’s been happening? Looking back at the last two posts, both those papers got rejected; in one case it was more of a “revise and resubmit”, so I’m not particularly distressed. The other was more of a “hit the back wall without bouncing” rejection, which did stop me in my tracks for a bit – but I’ll get a resubmission out of it. And my book is almost out, and almost has its own Web page (a holding page as I write this, but I’m going to fix that RSN).

I was going to kick this blog back into life with a few thoughts on blogging, or a political meme that drifted past in the summer, or some thoughts on the mainstreaming of Fascism, or possibly even my long-planned post on the ethics of armed struggle. (Armed struggle: I’m agin it.) Instead of which, I’m going down that time-honoured route to a blog post, the comment that got too long for the comment box. Sparked off by something on Daniel’s site, which has an odd sort of big-fleas-little-fleas appropriateness about it.

First off, how about a bit of Tronti? (Borrowed from my book, which is out soon.)

Capitalist society has its laws of development: they have been formulated by economists, applied by governments and endured by the workers. But who will discover the laws of development of the working class? … We ourselves have put capitalist development first, workers’ struggles second. This is wrong. We need to reverse the problem, change its sign, begin from first principles: and the first principle is the struggle of the working class. Where capital is developed on the social scale, capitalist development is subordinate to workers’ struggles: it follows on from them and has to shape the political mechanisms of its own production accordingly.
Mario Tronti (1964), “Lenin in England”

More generally – Tronti and the workerists argued – capitalist development is parasitic on workers’ intelligence and creativity, which they use in the refusal of work. You get the job done with half an hour to spare and sneak off for a fag; your employer cuts your working day by half an hour and cuts your pay accordingly. Result: profit. You do eight hours’ work in six hours; your employer increases your workload by 33%. Result: profit.

And so to Thomas Friedman.

we need to understand that it is not only our financial system that needs a reboot and an upgrade, but also our public [i.e. state] school system. Otherwise, the jobless recovery won’t be just a passing phase, but our future.

[the] problem will be reversed only when the decline in worker competitiveness reverses — when we create enough new jobs and educated workers that are worth, say, $40-an-hour compared with the global alternatives. If we don’t, there’s no telling how “jobless” this recovery will be.

Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive. Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college — more education — but we need more of them with the right education.

For a start, the “untouchable” theme is a striking example of Friedman’s legendary tin ear. To use “untouchable”, as a noun, to refer to people at the top of the heap – people who will thrive while the rest of us struggle – is bizarrely insensitive. To do so when what we’re struggling against is competition from low-wage countries, like, say, India – ugh. Brane hertz.

The “work-smarter-not-harder” stuff in the last paragraph quoted above is pretty insulting, too – at least, it is for those of us who have been hearing it from management gurus, year in and year out, ever since the last recession. The sermon changes from year to year – sometimes there’s just no money around; sometimes there’s lots of money but lots of people competing for it; sometimes it’s neither of the above but the world is changing! – but the message is always the same. There’s always some compelling reason why we’ve got to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to achieve this and save money on that. We can’t just get on with our jobs – that would be wrong. (More to the point, it would mean we didn’t generate more profit than we did last year. See Tronti.)

But Friedman has something more specific to say here. Something that goes roughly like this:

“Only a minority of American workers are doing well out of globalisation – everyone else is getting shafted! As nobody could possibly have predicted (except for everybody but me)! So we need to move all American workers into that minority! And the key to that is education, government-provided education in particular! And what we need to do to government-provided education is, oh, damn, time’s up.”

I was particularly struck by the line about the $40-an-hour jobs. He’s literally proposing to fix the problem at the margin – by moving everyone who’s being affected by global competition into the margin of jobs so skill-intensive, and skills so specialised, that they can’t be done for less than $40/hour. Because if they could be done cheaper they would be, and if they’re done cheaper on the other side of the world, hey, them’s the breaks.

In The age of insecurity, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson liken globalisation to a strong wind – a conventional enough image these days. They then say that the anti-protectionist orthodoxy is a bit like saying we should deal with this strong wind by opening all our doors and knocking down walls where possible. (That wind is out there whether we like it or not! It’s a fact of life! It’s the way the world is!) Friedman has been urging on a process which other people said should be resisted or slowed down, because it would lead to disruption and immiseration on a large scale. He’s now claiming that it has led to large-scale disruption and immiseration – and his only solution is for the 80% to clamber on board the 20%’s lifeboat. And if that doesn’t work, well, it’s probably the fault of the government.

If a tree don’t fall on me

Apparently I’m up to blogpost #100, a little short of the blog’s first anniversary. How about some beer?

In south London, where I learned to drink, the bitter is generally tawny and malty. In south Wales and East Anglia, the next two areas where I tried the beer, the bitter is usually both malty and tawny. The types of bitter native to Scotland, Cornwall and Yorkshire, in my experience, have similar characteristics. There are variations – Cambridge beer is flat and tannic; a lot of Scottish beer tastes as if a bag of toffees has been dissolved in it (which in a sense it has); and South Walian beer is the best in the world bar none. But they’re variations within a shared style: in most parts of the country, if you order the local bitter you can safely expect something T and M.

Manchester is an exception. At least since the heyday of Boddington’s, there’s been a distinct local style of ale: pale and hoppy, with variations ranging from light-but-sour through cyanide-with-a-hint-of-malt to just-plain-undrinkably-bitter. I am not, as you may have gathered, a fan of this style – but the brewery which owns one of my two main locals is very big on it. They brought on a seasonal ale in summer (when, to be fair, pale and hoppy styles do go down well); I tried it once and seriously considered leaving the pint unfinished. It was the bitterest thing I’ve ever tasted, clove oil not excepted. The brewery does three or four different bitters, but they’re all pale and hoppy; most of the time the guest beers are pale and hoppy too. There’s a definite demand there, too. You can tell by the way the regulars’ favourite guests keep coming back – and the way their names keep including words like ‘white’ or ‘golden’. I’m in a minority on the tawny-and-malty front. A couple of years ago I had two pints of a guest mild they had on, and the barman asked me when I wanted to have the other 62.

The local with the pale, hoppy ales I’ll call Old Local. It’s not particularly old – it’s six or seven years old, in fact – but it looks it; the decor is classic Pub Basic. It’s a small pub, tied to a small local brewery; on an average night they have four or five of the brewery’s ales on, plus a couple of guests and a real cider (from a one-gallon barrel, kept in the fridge). It’s less than ten minutes’ walk away and handy for a good Chinese takeaway.

Then there’s New Local, which was opened a little more than a year ago and looks it. It’s less than ten minutes’ walk away (in the other direction) and handy for a good Indian; it’s a Thwaites’ pub, usually serving Bomber and Thoroughbred plus a couple of guests. New Local doesn’t serve real cider, and they serve the bitter a couple of degrees too cold. But it’s good ale – their Thoroughbred in particular is a very nice pint, without the slightly curdled caramel heaviness of the Bomber. New Local also has a bar snacks menu consisting mainly of things like miniature salamis and Japanese rice crackers. (Old Local, to be fair, serves Kettle Chips and Bombay mix, so it’s not that stark a contrast; I’m not sure where you’d go round here for pork scratchings.) Another difference between the two is that you don’t hear many local accents in New Local; from what I’ve overheard I get the impression that most of the clientele are incomers (like me), working in the social services or education (like me).

Can you guess which of the two has a no-smoking policy?

Last October I wrote (in comments here)

I could approve of a complete smoking ban if we were arguing about the effects on pub staff, whose exposure to smoke in pubs is much more extensive than any(?) of their customers’. If we’re talking about the punters (as people discussing a ban generally are) the case is much less clear. You express puzzlement that market forces have failed to create choice between smoking and non-smoking pubs, but actually this was entirely predictable for as long as smoke actively repelled a lower proportion of pub customers than the absence of smoke. Since smokers have historically been either a majority or a large minority among pub-goers, and since non-smokers aren’t likely to suffer withdrawal symptoms from the lack of clean air, these conditions haven’t obtained; the balance has also had an added level of ’stickiness’ owing to the lack of anywhere for non-smokers to actually go. What’s happened recently is that smokers have dwindled to a small enough proportion of the population that some pub managers can afford to disregard their preferences; there’s also been a decrease in the tolerance of the non-smoking population, although I don’t think this is anything like so significant a factor. Consequently non-smoking pubs have become a reality (one opened from scratch a year ago, just down the road from me in Manchester, & is now doing a roaring trade) – which in turn makes competitive pressures that much freer to operate.So what worries me most about the proposed smoking ban – and almost equally draconian half-measures such as the creation of airtight(!) smoking rooms – is that this nannyish attack on the pleasures of the working class* will take place precisely when it’s no longer necessary.

*Pardon my Johnreidism, but this does seem like the most class-correlated proposal I’ve seen in a very long time – and not in a good way, either.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the pending smoking ban is that it won’t come into force for another eighteen months. I imagine that the imminent threat of a ban will give market forces another nudge, so that by the time the ban actually takes effect it will look even less necessary than it does now. (But then, ‘market forces’ only ever make sense within a given framework of law, custom and expectation.)

But it’s not just clean air that the ban will promote – or rather, it’ll promote clean air by promoting a broader shift of values. And that’s what worries me. I’m a middle-class incomer, with an incomer’s accent, an incomer’s taste in beer and an incomer’s habit of taking the LRB to the pub and sitting on my own reading it (or sometimes, particularly in Old Local, standing on my own reading it). Or maybe that last one’s just me. But anyway – middle-class incomer I am. But I like Old Local because I can feel at home there without being entirely surrounded by other middle-class incomers; conversely, I like New Local, but I’d like it more if it wasn’t quite so full of people like me. I’m settled here – I’ve been in Manchester for 23 years and in this specific area for 18 – but I still feel like an incomer, and I think that’s appropriate: I like the fact that I share a local with people who are actually from around here, and I don’t object to being reminded that I’m not. At some deep level, the opening of New Local and places like it feels like a different kind of middle-class influx – not so much immigration, more colonisation. And the smoking ban seems like a big vote of confidence to New Local, and a big ‘up yours’ to the Old Local crowd.

I wonder if Chris goes far enough:

To New Labour, health egalitarianism is a strong enough principle to justify restricting freedom, but not strong enough to justify seriously attacking inequality.

I think we can simplify: to New Labour managerialists, just about any principle is good enough to justify restricting working class freedoms, and just about any principle is more important than seriously improving working class life chances. (And no, the smoking ban isn’t about doing just that – or if it is, it’s a peculiarly limited and indirect way of achieving that goal. See Chris’s post for more.)

Update A friend challenged me today to specify less coercive means of effectively protecting bar staff from passive smoking. I don’t think it’s that difficult. Firstly (and symbolically), you’d give legal status to smoking bans imposed by the management of pubs and clubs: you light up and it’s not just the management you’re taking on, there’s a chance you could actually be fined. (Or at least have a fee extorted – but that’s another rant.) This in itself wouldn’t do much more than make it easier to non-smoking establishments to open. Secondly, you’d legislate so that the continued tolerance of smoking, in a smoking establishment, rested on the consent of the people who work there: you’d enable bar staff to hold binding ballots on converting to (or, to keep it fair, from) non-smoking status and encourage pubs and clubs to hold such ballots regularly – starting now. If there is any groundswell of support for a smoking ban, among pub customers or pub workers, this should be enough to turn it into reality. And if not, what are we doing imposing one?

Updated update: Brian‘s post reminds me that, with the exception of the clause about balloting the staff, I’ve just reinvented the 2005 Labour manifesto position on smoking. Since the Blairite takeover there have been numerous cases of people and policies moving from respectable centre to extreme left without actually changing; it usually takes a bit longer than this, though.

We’re never together

Back here, I wrote:

Social software may start with connecting data, but what it’s really about is connecting people – and connecting them in dialogue, on a basis of equality. If this goal gets lost, joining the dots may do more harm than good.

It’s not about connecting machines, either – and the same caveat applies. Via Thomas, I recently read this item about location-based services (which, I remember, were going to be quite the thing a couple of years ago, although they seem to have faded since people started actually getting their hands on 3G technology). Anyway, here are the quotes:

This project focuses on [location-based technology's] collaborative uses: how group of people benefits from knowing others’ whereabouts when working together on a joint activity … we set up a collaborative mobile environment called CatchBob! in which we will test how a location awareness tool modifies the group interactions and communications, the way they perform a joint task as well as how they rely on this spatial information to coordinate.

And how did that work out?

“We found that players who were automatically aware of their partners’ location did not perform the task better than other participants. In addition, they communicated less and had troubles reminding their partners’ whereabouts (which was surprising). These results can be explained by the messages exchanged. First the amount of messages is more important in the group without the location-awareness tool: players had then more traces to rely on in order to recall the others’ trails. And when we look at the content, we see that players without the location-awareness tool sent more messages about position, direction or strategy. They also wrote more questions.”

Really, we’re back with ‘push’ technology – which was going to be quite the thing round about 1998, as I remember. Give people device for talking to each other: works. Give people device which gives them a constant stream of information: doesn’t work.

The trouble is, we’ve got the technology. The problems with social software are social; see this deeply depressing Register story.

Alongside video on demand TV services from Homechoice, the SDB [Shoreditch Digital Bridge] will offer a “Community Safety Channel” which will allow residents “to monitor estate CCTV cameras from their own living rooms, view a ‘Usual Suspects’ ASBO line up, and receive live community safety alerts.”

Other aspects of the Shoreditch Digital Bridge are less controversial, but likely to be considerably harder to execute. The SDB proposes an education channel, “allowing children and adults to take classes, complete on-line homework assignments and log-on to ‘virtual tutors'”, a “Health Channel” allowing patients to book GP appointments, and providing “virtual Dr/Nurse consultations and on-line health and diagnosis information”, a “Consumer Channel, allowing on-line group buying of common services such as gas, electricity and mobile phone tariffs”, and an “Employment Channel, providing on-line NVQ courses, local jobs website and virtual interview mentoring.”So within that little lot, the educational aspects will require substantial input from, and involvement of, existing schools and colleges, the Health Channel will need a whole new interface to NHS systems that are already struggling to implement their own new electronic booking systems, and the Consumer Channel will merely have to reinvent the co-operative movement electronically.

But CCTV – ah, now, we’ve got CCTV…

Will:

Yet again, the technology arrives promising us a vibrant civic and economic future … then beds down as a means of protecting us from each other.

Or rather, as a means of protecting us from Them (caution – sweary link).

If we’re talking about social software or social networks, let’s be clear that we’re talking about connecting people rather than dividing them. Connecting machines doesn’t necessarily help connect people.

Who took the money?

This is a fascinating post (in Italian) by Pietro Speroni on the relationship between authority, communities and markets. This is an interesting and controversial area; the fact that Pietro also invokes the Long Tail (which, as you’ll recall, is not what it seems) makes it all the more compelling (to me at least).

I’ll translate as I go along; hopefully Pietro will correct me if I go wrong.

I don’t believe that the ruling class has vanished. I believe that it has simply been transformed – just as the world itself is being continually transformed from day to day. Decades ago, our world was simpler – more homogeneous, less diverse. If you followed a martial art, it would be judo or karate. A game? Chess. A religion? Christian, Jewish, perhaps Muslim at the outside.

on the Net, via Google (and wikipedia), you can find the specific branch of the specific religious tradition which best meets your needs. … And this is not true only of religions, but of everything: interests, political groups, passions, games, ways of life.

Now, every one of these groups has its own implicit hierarchy. … And everyone is a member of more than one group. And in every group you listen to some people, and what you say influences other people.

[In every area of my life] I have leaders: people I trust; people who I admire and learn from. But they’re not the same people as your leaders. Not only that, but there are other people who come to me to learn (worse luck for them!), in some fields more than in others. The process of diversification tends towards having as many groups as people – and every one of us, of necessity, becomes the small-scale leader of a small-scale group, scattered around the world.

This whole process mirrors what’s happening in the economy, where a market consisting of niches is growing explosively … The key phrase is Long Tail.

So I don’t believe that the ruling class is vanishing, but that we’re seeing a gradual diversification of interests, which leads to the diversification of the ruling class – accompanied by the redefinition and contraction [ridimensionamento] of the role of traditional leaders.

There’s a lot that I like about this – I think Pietro’s right to say that there’s a new kind of process of diversification under way, and to trace it back to the Internet’s basic sociality, its nature as a medium for conversation.

But… a transformation of the ruling class? Non tanto. Pietro’s larger argument is undermined by a couple of strange elisions. Firstly, it’s true that we all have multiple ‘authorities’ – the topics of folk music, statistics, Belgian beer and operaismo are all important to me, for instance, and in each case I could name an authority I’d willingly defer to. But those people aren’t the people who enforce the laws I obey, or set the level of tax I pay, or price the goods I buy, or write the newspapers I read, or appear on the news programmes I watch. The ruling class, it seems to me, is still very much in place, and whether I’m a tequila-crazed Quaker or a tea-drinking Tantric Buddhist is a matter of sublime indifference to it. Roy Bhaskar has written that historical materialists, by virtue of starting from the material facts of social existence, cannot propose absolute freedom, “a realm free of determination”; what we can envisage is moving “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”. The world Pietro describes is a world which is governed only by those needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination. It sounds good, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

Secondly, on the matter of niche marketing. Pietro assumes that a proliferation of niche markets will lead to a proliferation of niche suppliers, and hence the dilution of the authority of the big suppliers. I don’t see any reason to believe that this is the case. Indeed, one of Chris Anderson’s own preferred examples is based on Amazon sales rank – and there’s nothing very diffuse about Amazon, or the authority wielded by Amazon. Much of the buzz around the ‘Long Tail’ seems to derive, ultimately, from this confusion of the two meanings of ‘niche’. Clearly, mining niche markets can be profitable, if you’re a monopolistic behemoth like Amazon; but, equally clearly, it doesn’t follow that niche suppliers can make a living in the same way. Indeed, making niches visible to companies like Amazon actually threatens existing niche suppliers. (Ask your local bookshop, if you’ve still got one.)

Of course, Long Tail proponents tell a different story. Back in July, Scott Kirsner quoted George Gilder thus:

His central thesis is that Internet-connected screens in the home – whether it’s the PC in your den or the plasma screen on your living room wall – are going to change the way we consume video by offering us infinite choice.

“The film business will increasingly resemble the book business,” he says, with a few best-sellers that achieve widespread popularity, and lots of publishers making a profit selling titles that no one’s ever heard of.

Lots of who doing what? Run that past us again, could you? While you’re at it, send the good news to the novelist A.L. Kennedy, whose wonderful FAQ includes this:

SO, WHAT’S HAPPENING WITH THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF PUBLISHING?Fewer publishing houses concentrated in conglomerate hands, trying to produce more books of less quality. No full time readers, no full time copy editors and therefore missed newcomers and pisspoor final presentation of texts on the shelves, silly covers, greedy and simple-minded bookshop chains, lunatic bidding wars designed to crush the spirit of unknown newcomers, celebrity “tighten your buns and nurture your inner pot plant” hard backs and much related insanity.

Mass markets are where the units get shifted; niche markets – like literary fiction – are where survivors linger on (until they’re bought out) and upstart competitors emerge (and hang on until they’re bought out). It’s the logic of the monopoly, which is to say that it’s the logic of the market. Some years ago a McDonald’s spokesman, asked if the fast food market had reached saturation point, responded that, as far as his company was concerned, the market would only be saturated if there were no cooked food outlets anywhere on the planet apart from McDonald’s. I don’t think Amazon, or the publishing conglomerates, or the media companies who would source Gilder’s ‘infinite choice’, think any differently.

But Pietro’s half right: there is something interesting going on, even if it doesn’t mirror what’s going on in the economy; there is a process of diffusion and diversification, even if it doesn’t affect the main sources of authority over our lives. In fact, what’s significant about the Net is that it can host conversations which escape the marketplace and evade pre-existing (‘unneeded and unwanted’) forms of authority. That said, it can also reproduce the marketplace and reinvent old forms of authority – just like other conversational media.

In short, what’s good about the Web is – or can be – very good; what’s bad about is – or should be – very familiar.

We are the weeds

My previous post on Katrina and its aftermath focused on the contribution made by incompetence – albeit willed and cultivated incompetence. This post is about malice.

As I wrote earlier,

FEMA is now functionally subordinate to the Department of Homeland Security, founded after September 11; this may help explain why FEMA’s interventions in New Orleans placed such an emphasis on securing the perimeter of the city and ensuring that nobody, as a general policy, moved. The triumph of the Homeland Security worldview: natural disasters as a public order problem.

Apparently the Homeland Security worldview predates the Department itself; here’s a passage from the FEMA article I quoted earlier:

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration endowed FEMA with extraordinary powers to keep the country running – powers bordering on martial law, critics argued. The agency became responsible for “continuity of government” plans devoted to salvaging national authority in the event of a nuclear attack. Other plans, drafted by the likes of National Security Council aide Oliver North, laid the groundwork for rounding up rabble-rousers in the event of societal breakdown, whatever the cause.

Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Stronsky’s story, in case you haven’t read it already, is a graphic illustration of how this approach works out in practice. Now picture the forces of order going from house to house as the floodwaters subside, taking survivors away to ‘refugee camps’, in handcuffs if necessary (I heard that last detail on BBC Radio 4 this morning). And picture the forces of order waiting outside New Orleans until they had built up a large enough force to pacify a supposed insurrection. (Not for the first time, China at Lenin’s Tomb has got the goods: the army had no delusions about their remit – it was not to secure human life and bring supplies, but to suppress an “insurgency”.) If the aftermath of Katrina is a problem, in other words, the survivors aren’t the people who have got the problem – the survivors are part of the problem. In the words of a FEMA staffer at an Oklahoma internment camp, You don’t understand the type of people that are about to come here.

What type of people is that? Here’s Barbara Bush, wife of one President and mother of another, visiting a stadium in Houston which was being used as a holding camp:

What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality.And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this – this [she chuckles slightly] is working very well for them.

And here’s her boy, visiting Mobile, Alabama:

The good news is — and it’s hard for some to see it now — that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house — he’s lost his entire house — there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.

Even if we forget who Trent Lott is, this is dreadful, Marie Antoinette stuff. All those people have lost everything? They’ll be OK – after all, my friend lost his house, and he’s building a new one… If we remember that Trent Lott is the Republican who endorsed the segregationist Strom Thurmond (“we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years”); and if we remember that most of the people who got stuck in those New Orleans internment camps are Black… I’m not suggesting that George W. Bush and his government are pursuing an actively racist agenda – that they saw the chaos caused by Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity to to treat poor Black people like dirt. I suspect it’s worse than that. I’m suggesting that the government is genuinely attempting to mount an effective response to the disaster – but that its criteria for an effective response don’t exclude treating poor Black people like dirt, and may even encourage it.

It’s as if the government is running two sets of books on its responsibilities to the public. There are the deep-rooted assumptions of the social contract: if we have a government, and if it intervenes in our lives, it must surely intervene to maximise the safety of its citizens and prolong our lives – all our lives, without distinction. But then there’s a political contract, which isn’t cited openly but informs the government’s rhetoric as well as its policy-making – and that contract says, quite plainly, that those people don’t count. Hence, perhaps, a certain genuine bafflement on Bush’s part in the face of the public reaction to the aftermath of Katrina: what’s up with them? they knew what they were voting for, didn’t they?

Here’s Alasdair Gray in 1982 Janine:

[Frazer] was telling us about Machiavelli’s The Prince. “Listen,” he said, “you have just conquered a neighbouring state, right?, and you want to conquer another. So what do you do to the defeated people to stop them revolting against you when you withdraw most of your army?”
We could not answer because we had not read Machiavelli.
“Easy!” cried Frazer, “You split the population into three, take most of the wealth away from one-third and divide it with the rest. The majority have now profited by being conquered. They accept your government in return for your help if the minority start a civil war to get their own back, a civil war which will not occur because the impoverished losers know they are bound to be defeated. The conqueror can now repeat his manoeuvre elsewhere. What I don’t understand,” said Frazer, “is why no
governments have taken Machiavelli’s advice? Surely the first to do it would conquer the world?”

Alan, who seemed not to have been listening, said, “They do.”
“Where?”
“Here.”
After a pause I said, “You don’t mean the British Empire.”
“No. I mean Britain.”

I don’t think this is a question of racism, in other words. (A friend of mine once wrote that she saw just as much evidence of a class structure in the US as she had in her native Britain; the only difference was that Americans persisted in referring to class as ‘race’.) The concerted neglect and casual brutality which have characterised the US government’s response to Katrina seem to be the product of an authentically Machiavellian philosophy of government, which holds that leaders can gain consent by mobilising their subjects against one another. We don’t get many hurricanes here, thankfully, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought that this was someone else’s problem:

Mr Blair said he wanted to change the culture of the criminal justice system. He called for “an historic shift from a criminal justice system that asks, first and foremost ‘How do we protect the accused from the transgressions of the state or police?’ to one whose first question is ‘How do we protect the majority from the dangerous and irresponsible minority?'”.

A criminal justice system which downgrades the presumption of innocence, the better to neutralise the ‘dangerous and irresponsible minority’. An emergency management system which lets people die, the better to control poor and unruly survivors. All we need now is more votes for the decent folk – and perhaps that’s not far away (Non-registration was highest in densely populated urban areas with mobile populations, particularly inner London, and areas of economic deprivation).

“Where?”
“Here.”

All those pretty lies

A few weeks ago I spotted a really dazzling example of stupidity – and cynical exploitation of same – in the LRB. David Runciman was writing about the American campaign to repeal death duties (‘estate tax’), which succeeded despite the fact that the change only really benefited the top 1%. Ah, but…

A poll conducted by Time/CNN on the estate tax issue in 2000 revealed that 39 per cent of Americans believe that they are either in the wealthiest 1 per cent or will be there ‘soon’.

There it is. If you think you already are obscenely rich – or that you’re going to be obscenely rich some day soon – you aren’t likely to identify with all those little people down there. People who aren’t obscenely rich and probably never will be. People like you yourself. In the immortal words of Kermit, stupid, stupid, stupid.

But there’s more to this than stupidity – quite a lot more. There’s the politics of aspiration (got to keep selling the Dream, or the people will vote for somebody who will); behind that, there’s the politics of division and atomisation (treat the workers mean, keep the workers keen); and behind that there’s the 1% themselves, pursuing business as usual by swinging a ‘democratic’ government behind their interests. The layers fit together only too well.

Still, only in America, eh?

Charles Kennedy yesterday sought to capitalise on the feelgood factor from the Cheadle byelection victory, calling on his colleagues to be “bold, positive and united”.

Mr Kennedy said the party was not afraid of redistribution, but added: “High taxes are not a moral good in themselves. We were correct to point out at the general election that only 1% of all taxpayers would be affected by our proposals on top-rate taxation. But we must not lose sight of those who aspire to achieve income levels which will bring them into the top rate taxation band in time to come.”

Do they really believe this – do they really think we won’t vote for them if they don’t sustain our ‘aspirational’ illusions by lying to us? After May 7, surely not – the party’s great successes were against Labour, and much of its political capital derived from the appearance of being a little more honest than Labour, willing to tell a little more of the truth. The simplest explanation is the most depressing: that the Lib Dems have finally taken the blue pill and rejoined the neo-liberal consensus.

“Yellow Tories”? Not quite. ‘Tory’ has to mean ‘worse than Labour’, to my mind – ‘worse than New Labour’, even – and I can’t see that the Lib Dems are quite that bad. But by God, it’s getting to be a close thing.

Meaders can have the last word:

“Left-wing”? This shower?

What I tell you three times is true

Ellis Sharp, whose Marxist surrealist fiction deserves better than lazy tags like ‘Marxist surrealist’, has a fascinating post here about Robert Lowell’s poem “The Fens”. It’s a short poem, so I’ll include it here:

The Fens
(After Cobbett)

From Crowland to St. Edmund’s to Ipswich
The fens are level as a drawing board:
Great bowling greens divided by a ditch –
The grass as thick as grows on ground. The Lord
High Sheriff settles here, as on a sea,
When the parochial calm of sunset chills
The world to its four corners. And the hills
Are green with hops and harvest, and a bitch
Spuddles about a vineyard on a tree;

Here everything grows well. Here the fat land
Has no stone bigger than a ladybug,
No milkweed or wild onion can withstand
The sheriff’s men, and sunlight sweats the slug.
Here the rack-renting system has its say:
At nightfall sheep as fat as hogs shall lie
Heaped on the mast and corncobs of the sty
And they will rise and take the landlord’s hand;
The bailiff bears the Bell, the Bell, away.

From Robert Lowell’s second collection ‘Lord Weary’s Castle’ (1946)

There’s nothing much I can add to Ellis’s discussion of the poem’s language, its politics, its roots in Cobbett’s writing and his politics. But I can throw some light on that mysterious last line, which – with its onomatopoeic repetition of “the Bell” and that weird, mythic capitalisation – seems to evoke everything from the Bells of Aberdovey to Lewis Carroll’s Bellman. Ellis:

The landowners rule the Fens through their complete social control and their lackeys. The bailiff is the sheriff’s agent. To bear the bell means to take the prize. (The notes to the ‘Collected Poems’ say of this line: “See the anonymous ballad ‘The Baily Beareth the Bell Away’”, but what you see when you do isn’t explained. This is irritating since none of the ballad collections I’ve consulted contain it.)

In an online nursery rhyme collection, I’ve found a piece titled “The Bailiff Beareth”:

The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay,
The silver is white, red is the gold,
The robes they lay in fold;
The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay;
And through the glass window
Shines the sun.
How should I love and I so young?
The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.

And so it ends. I don’t know if it’s a fragment of a longer piece; I certainly don’t know what it’s ‘about’. It is an extraordinary piece of writing: a kind of verbal stained-glass window pieced together out of luminous, resonant images, and written almost entirely in the kind of poetically heightened language which has always seemed archaic but never actually been in common use (“pass us my robes, love, it’s time I was off to lay the lily and the rose”). Perhaps it’s about a girl being given in marriage and seeing herself as property being confiscated from her family home. Or perhaps that’s an over-intellectual reading, and it’s simply ‘about’ the lily and the rose, silver and gold, the window and the sun – and the sad alliterative fall of the bailiff bearing the bell away.

It’s beautiful, either way. And it’s another way in to what Lowell was trying to do with that poem, it seems to me: to write something that could carry both types of workload, functioning as a constellation of luminous images and at the same time as a critique of rural property relations. An exercise, as Ellis said, but an interesting one – and a reminder of how political good writing can be (and vice versa).

(Incidentally, I’ve never knowingly read a damn thing by Lowell before this poem. Thanks, Ellis.)

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