Category Archives: pinkoes

No top and no bottom

1. I agree with Vladimir Putin, up to a point

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.

It’s the way he tells ‘em.

To be fair, Putin’s address to the American people did make some good points, in particular this one:

The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.

No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.

I liked his conclusion, too:

I would rather disagree with a case [Obama] made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy.

In passing, I was amused to see that this last glimpse of the blindingly obvious had annoyed Thomas Friedman. Who does this so-called President Putin think he is, making out that America isn’t the greatest goddamn country on earth?

2. Inter arma enim silent leges, only not just yet

But is the man from the KGB really standing up for international law – and what does it actually say about Syria? This is a bit less of a live issue, thankfully, than it was before the rush to war was stopped in its tracks (well done that weakling!). The UK government’s case for intervention, set out by Attorney General Dominic Grieve, rested on the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”. The argument was that it would be permissible under international law for the UK (or, presumably, any other state) “to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime”. Such an intervention would be legal under three conditions:

That there is “convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief”; it is “objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved”; and the proposed use of force is “proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need”.

In response, Dapo Akande of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict pointed out that neither the second nor the third condition had been met. The third was particularly hard to get past:

“Even if there is a rule allowing intervention to avert a humanitarian catastrophe that rule would not simply permit action to deter and disrupt use of chemical weapons,” Akande said. “This standard is too lax. It would be a rule about preventing and about stopping. The UK is not proposing to take action which will actually prevent or stop further uses of chemical weapons.”

Unless, of course, what the UK government was planning was to carry on bombing until every last chemical weapon in Syria had been put beyond use; we’ll never know. It’s probably just as well.

Akande also made a broader point, which is that the idea of legality invoked by Grieve is rather a provisional thing. To the extent that it’s codified in any way, international law provides for military action in self-defence, in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution and, er, that’s it. What Grieve is referring to is the informal or ‘customary’ international law which is constituted from year to year by what states actually do.

when the attorney general’s advice says international law allows Britain to take measures to alleviate a humanitarian catastrophe without security council approval, this can only be in reference to customary international law which is based on the “views and practices of states”. [Akande] said there is “very little evidence of state support for this view. Indeed most states have explicitly rejected this view.”

3. Better not ask them to split the bill

The BBC canvassed opinions from Akande and four other lawyers (Geoffrey Robertson QC, Professor Sigrun Skogly, Professor Robert McCorquodale and Professor Dr Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg) as well as the political analysts Dmitry Babich and Sinan Ulgen. Their views stacked up as follows. There were five key issues: the role of the UN, including but not limited to the UN Security Council; the legality of “humanitarian” interventions; the legality of past interventions in Iraq and Kosovo; the “responsibility to protect” doctrine in the case of crimes against humanity; and the appropriate response to breaches of the ban on chemical weapons.

ROBERTSON: Intervention to prevent crimes against humanity – such as the use of banned chemical weapons – does not require UN Security Council approval; the legality of humanitarian intervention was established even before the UN was founded, in the context of actions against piracy and slavery. The intervention in Kosovo was not condemned by the UN Security Council, making it legitimate.

SKOGLY: Normally, any intervention needs to be approved by the UN Security Council. However, the legality of humanitarian intervention is a separate question. UN member states have a duty to promote human rights; consequently, if the regime has used chemical weapons, they have committed crimes against humanity. This means that UN member states are obliged to act on the basis of the responsibility to protect.

McCORQUODALE: Military action must be approved by the UN Security Council; failure to gain this approval means that the Iraq intervention is considered illegal. Intervention for humanitarian reasons, or on the basis of the responsibility to protect, is not lawful in terms of international law, although it may be in future.

AKANDE: The principle of responsibility to protect “does not create a legal right for intervention without Security Council approval”. The doctrine of humanitarian intervention rest on “a view of international law that has been rejected by most states”. (The humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, while not approved by the UN Security Council, was in pursuit of demands made by the UNSC.) A General Assembly resolution might be a possibility, but permanent members of the UNSC are unlikely to offer the GA that kind of authority.

HEINTSCHEL VON HEINEGG: In the absence of a UN Security Council resolution, intervention could only be justified on the basis of “customary international law”. The US and allies acted on this basis in their humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, although many states still regard this intervention as illegal. International treaties outlaw chemical weapons but do not provide for military intervention in response to their use. Some states currently turn a blind eye to limited action against chemical weapons, but this may change.

BABICH: Although the US might cite chemical weapons as a justification, UN Security Council approval is essential to make any intervention legal. Iraq and Kosovo didn’t have UN approval and were therefore illegal. And let’s not forget that they never found any chemical weapons in Iraq.

ULGEN: Only action approved by the UN Security Council would have “full legitimacy”. An alternative would be to try to get a resolution passed by the General Assembly. Other possibilities, outside the UN framework, include the responsibility to protect principle (invoked successfully in Kosovo) and international law banning chemical weapons, going back to the 1925 Geneva Convention.

4. At the shatterproof heart of the matter

So what does that lot add up to? For McCorquodale, Akande and Heintschel von Heinegg (three of the five lawyers), as well as Babich, the lack of UN approval makes intervention illegal. At the same time, all three lawyers acknowledge that international law changes over time and that customary international law may, arguably, give support to actions which are formally illegal. In this respect they contrast the Syrian situation unfavourably with Kosovo, although it’s a question of degree: none of them goes so far as to assert that the Kosovo intervention was legal. They also note, as does Babich, that customary international law is contested: one state’s customary international law may be another state’s illegal aggression.

Robertson dismisses the idea that UN approval is needed before military action can be taken. He argues that humanitarian intervention is legitimate, and that it’s legal under international law unless and until it’s ruled to have been illegal. Robertson’s invocation of piracy in this context is odd; action against piracy was justified historically on the basis that pirates were hostes humani generis, enemies of mankind and outside the protection of any nation. Robertson also refers to slavery, which seems more relevant: British actions in suppressing the slave trade – such as detaining slave ships and offering the slaves their freedom – could certainly be seen as outside the law, and did cause international incidents. However, these were at worst acts of unlawful expropriation, for which the slaveowners and their governments could (and did) ask for redress. Any parallel with the proposal to ‘free’ the people of Syria from the use of chemical weapons through outright acts of war is stretched in the extreme. Skogly and Ulgen both argue that the responsibility to protect could justify intervention, although Ulgen does acknowledge that this would be outside the UN framework. Skogly goes so far as to argue that “responsibility to protect” makes intervention obligatory, although she avoids stating outright that it would be legal.

Four of the experts refer to the “responsibility to protect” principle; only Akande notes, correctly, that it supplies a reason for intervention rather than a separate justification, and does not justify action by individual states outside the UN Security Council framework. (McCorquodale says that a state-level “responsibility to protect” would not make intervention lawful; Skogly and Ulgen both suggest that it would.) Another word worth watching is “legitimate”, a particularly slippery concept in this context (and only used by Robertson and Ulgen out of our experts). “Legitimate” doesn’t have a precise definition, but I’m taking it to mean “of uncertain legality, but unlikely to be challenged”. Of course, this is a fundamentally political judgment, as it depends on what you regard as a challenge: a nasty comment on Voice of Russia? a formal diplomatic rebuke? a referral to the International Court of Justice? (Or, if you’re a Republican President, none of the above?)

Having picked my way through all these different opinions, I think things ultimately are as simple as Babich makes them seem. The putative legal justification for an intervention has been variously rested on the 1925 Geneva Protocal banning chemical weapons (which doesn’t justify intervention), on the doctrine of preventing crimes against humanity (which is purely customary) or on the ‘responsibility to protect’ (which is codified, but doesn’t justify intervention outside the UN Security Council framework). In short, there’s nothing there, unless you define ‘international law’ as ‘what states do and then claim to be legal’ – and that’s not really satisfactory if the reason you’re invoking international law is to justify your state doing something and then claiming it to be legal. In this ‘customary’ perspective, international law (like reality) really is “what you can get away with“. This approach may work for a while if, like the USA, you’re one of those states that tends to get away with things (Britain historically isn’t, to its credit). But it’s not a principle that could ever coherently be generalised – which may be why, as Akande says, most states don’t want it to be. Remove this impossible option – of a kind of informal international legal order built on generalised lawlessness – and we’re left, as Putin effectively said, with a choice between international law and exceptionalism: either the law applies to everyone, or we maintain that it doesn’t apply to us because we say so.

This isn’t to say that there will never be an international mechanism for intervention in cases of humanitarian crisis, or that the ‘responsibility to protect’ will always be subject to agreement at the level of the UN Security Council. International law can and does change. But it hasn’t changed yet – not in the way that the interventionists would have liked.

5. Hark, now the drums they beat again

I think the failure (legal as well as political) of the arguments for intervention is significant – and very welcome, if that doesn’t go without saying. It should, hopefully, set an enduring precedent.

I have some sympathy for the people who say

it cannot be the case that [Security Council authorisation] is the only way to have a legal basis for action … We could have a situation where a country’s Government were literally annihilating half the people in that country, but because of one veto on the Security Council we would be hampered from taking any action. …That is why it is important that we have the doctrine of humanitarian intervention

or

a system of law that would countenance mass atrocity without any remedy simply because the interests of a veto-wielding power at the UN blocks remedial action is morally unacceptable, indeed intolerable; and so where the UN itself becomes delinquent by not upholding some of its own most fundamental principles, the UN not only may, it should, be defied by member states willing to give those principles more respect.

or, more succinctly,

Viewed from the angle of UN legality, military action against Assad cannot possibly be legal … If military action against Assad is morally justified then that must be the case regardless of whether or not it is ‘legal’.

(James Bloodworth, David Cameron, Norman Geras. Not necessarily in that order.)

I don’t agree with them, because I believe they’re missing two very important points. One is that legality – even the cobbled-together legality represented by international law – is a virtue in itself, and an extraordinarily important virtue. If the legal system of England and Wales governs 56 million individual actors, the international legal order governs 200 (give or take a few). If a handful out of 56 million actors defect from an agreement, they’re in trouble; if a handful out of 200 defect, the agreement is in trouble. An action in breach of international law isn’t simply an action with the quality of not being internationally legal  – it’s an action which breaches international law, leaves a (customary) breach in it. In other words, it’s an action which makes international law harder to invoke from then on, and harder to develop further. (Let’s say we hope to gain Russian and/or Chinese agreement to the principle of “responsibility to protect”. Would acting unilaterally now make gaining this agreement in future (a) easier or (b) harder?)

Pace James B, if military action against Assad (or anyone else) is illegal, that must be the case regardless of whether or not it’s morally justified – or, to put it another way, regardless of how much we may want it to be legal. And if you’re going to use your moral justification to knock a hole in the – already horribly imperfect – edifice of actually existing international law, it’s going to need to be a very good moral justification. Which brings me to the second point, touched on by Akande. Politically, the great merit of a rush to war is that it gets you into the war nice and quickly, without too much time to sit around debating the whys and wherefores. Conversely, one of the great merits of insisting on legality – at least, insisting on stopping for long enough to have the argument about legality – is that it creates a pause in the rush to war, in which there’s time to ask the awkward questions: in particular, what is the government trying to achieve, and has it chosen the best means to do it? Fortunately – and thanks to some excellent political footwork from Ed Miliband – there’s been a long enough pause for those questions to be asked; I think it’s fairly widely acknowledged now that the UK (and US) government’s goal was all too unclear, and the means chosen seemed likely to be horribly counter-productive. But it was a close thing.

Too often, when the drums start beating, the appropriateness of military force goes unquestioned, even by people who position themselves on the Left. But if all your solutions look like craters, I think you need to ask yourself why you believe that all your tools are missiles.

How can a good man keep the wolf from the door?

Twenty-two years ago today, Peter Bellamy took his own life. He was 47. His discography includes three albums made with the seminal vocal group The Young Tradition and (at a rough count) seventeen solo albums, some only released as privately-produced cassettes. Most of his material was traditional; some consisted of his own settings of poetry, mostly by Rudyard Kipling; some was self-composed. One of his outstanding achievements was the Transports, a self-composed “ballad opera” written in traditional styles and telling the true story of a couple transported to Australia aboard the First Fleet in 1787. He worked with Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, the Watersons, Tony Rose, June Tabor, Dave Swarbrick, Shirley and Dolly Collins… basically, if you can think of a British folkie active in the 70s and 80s, the chances are that he worked with them at some point.

At the same time, Bellamy had a fierce commitment to his own vision – wherever it was leading him at any given time – and a reputation for independence bordering on self-imposed isolation. What his politics were nobody seems quite sure, but he had little time for the Communism of many of the 50s and 60s revivalists, or for the more woolly Guardian-reader liberalism which characterised the later folk scene. Traditional songs were his passion, and if (as it turned out) there were rather few traditional songs about fomenting revolution, going on strike or hunt sabbing, it didn’t bother him; he would sing what was there, even if it was about less right-on topics such as fox-hunting, fighting for England’s glory and loyalty to the boss. Take the political wrong notes this attitude produced, add his fascination with Kipling (the great poet of Victorian Empire), his spiky personality and his insistence on accompanying himself on concertina rather than the more ‘normal’ acoustic guitar, and it’s not entirely surprising that the 1980s – the ebb tide of the folk revival – weren’t kind to him.

By the end of the decade it seems as if the folk world had decided to leave him to it. At around this time of year a few years ago, his friend Michael Grosvenor Myer gave some details of his last days in a thread on Mudcat, from which I’ll quote a couple of lines here:

I remember his once showing me an almost empty forthcoming gigs diary, and saying words to the effect that “I did The Transports, everyone loved and respected it – and from that moment my bookings practically ceased and my career went phhhttt!” … a few days before he died, he spent the entire evening playing right back through all his records, listening carefully and as best he could objectively, and said at the end, “Well, I AM good! What the hell has gone wrong?!”

Was he good? He was an inspired songwriter, a superb interpreter of traditional songs and a unique, unforgettable singer. Yes, he was good. I don’t know what the hell went wrong, but twenty years on folkies up and down the country, from Bellowhead and the Young ‘Uns on down, are paying him the homage of listening to his music and singing his songs. If he’d hung on a few years he could have been massive. How he would have hated that.

Heffle Cuckoo Fair (Kipling/Bellamy)

Minesweepers (Kipling/Bellamy)

The Innocent Hare (traditional)

I once lived in service (Bellamy, arr. Dolly Collins; sung by Norma Waterson)

The fox jumps over the parson’s gate (traditional)

Death is not the end (Dylan)

The most cruel

Growing up in the 1970s, it’s hard to overstate how important the cause of Chile was. 11th September 1973 was, I suppose, a “naked lunch” moment – a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork; we knew who was on whose side, and what they were willing to do.

Joan Jara:

on the 18th of September … a young man came to my house, said, “Please, I need to talk to you. I’m a friend. I’ve been working in the city morgue. I’m afraid to tell you that Victor’s body has been recognized,” because it was a well-known — his was a well-known face. And he said, “You must come with me and claim his body; otherwise, they will put him in a common grave, and he will disappear.”

So then I accompanied this young man to the city morgue. We entered by a side entrance. I saw the hundreds of bodies, literally hundreds of bodies, that were high piled up in what was actually the parking place, I think, of the morgue. And I had to look for Victor’s body among a long line in the offices of the city morgue, recognized him. I saw what had happened to him. I saw the bullet wounds. I saw the state of his body.

And I consider myself one of the lucky ones, in the sense that I had to face at that moment what had happened to Victor, and I could give my testimony with all the force of what I felt in that moment, and not that horror, which is much worse, of never knowing what happened to your loved one, as what happened to so many families, so many women, who have spent these 40 years looking for their loved ones who were made to disappear.

But the real significance of 11th September wasn’t the treachery or the horrors of the coup itself, or the years of brutal misery that followed. The coup mattered because of what it destroyed: the beginnings of a radical social experiment, bringing millions of people a chance of a decent life, some power over their own lives, a bit of confidence in the future. The sheer joy of that period has never been captured better than in this song (which I’ve cited before but not linked). Listen to the middle eight – it’s as if Victor Jara’s saying, you get it now? being alive is good, being in love is great, but this – this is happiness! this is how we were meant to live!

Forty years after that hope was destroyed, let’s celebrate it. (Translation in comments.)

Maria,
abre la ventana
y deja que el sol alumbre
por todos los rincones
de tu casa.

Maria,
mira hacia fuera
nuestra vida no ha sido hecha
para rodearla de sombras
y tristezas.

Maria, ya ves
no basta nacer, crecer, amar,
para encontrar la felicidad.

Pasó lo mas cruel,
ahora tus ojos se llenan de luz
y tus manos de miel

Maria…

Tu risa brota como la mañana,
brota en el jardín
Maria…

2/2/43

STALINGRAD (Peter Blackman)

Hushed was the world
And oh, dark agony that suspense shook upon us
While hate came flooding o’er your wide savannas
Plunging pestilence against you -
All that stood to state: “Where men meet
There meets one human race!”

Therefore did men from Moscow to the Arctic
Rounding Vladivostok to the South where Kazbek lifts its peak
Still work and working waited news of Stalingrad
And from Cape to white Sahara
Men asked news of Stalingrad
Town and village waited what had come of Stalingrad
The tom-tom beat across thick forest
While every evening at Palava
Old men told of Stalingrad
The gauchos caught the pampas whisper
The windswept hope of Stalingrad
And in the far Canadian north
Trappers left their baiting for the latest out of Stalingrad
In the factories and coal fields
Each shift waited what last had come from Stalingrad
While statesmen searched the dispatch boxes
What they brought of Stalingrad
And women stopped at house work
Held their children close to hear
What was afoot at Stalingrad
For well men knew that there
A thousand years was thrown the fate of the peoples
Stalingrad, oh star of glory
Star of hope, oh star of flame

Oh what a midwife for this glory
Take for the pattern Pavlov and his men
A soviet soldier and his nine companions
Who full seven weeks sleepless by night and day
Fought nor gave ground
They knew that with them lay
That where men meet should meet one human race

Carpenters who had built houses
Wanted only to build more
Painters who still painted pictures
Wanted only to paint more
Men who sang life strong in laughter
Wanted only to sing more
Men who planted wheat and cotton
Wanted only to plant more
Men who set the years in freedom
Sure they would be slaves no more
They spoke peace to their neighbours in tilling
For in peace they would eat their bread
Uzbeks, Tatars, Letts, Ukranians
Russians, Muscovites, Armenians
Who ringed forests wide around arctic
Brought sands to blossom, tundras dressed for spring
These kept faith in Stalin’s town
We may not weep for those who silent now rest here
Garland these graves
These lives have garlanded all our remaining days with hope
Stalingrad, oh star of glory
Star of hope, here spread your flame

Now when news broke that Stalingrad
Still lives upon the banks of Volga
That Stalingrad was still a Soviet town
Then the turner flung his lathe light as a bird
And the gaucho spread his riot in the pampas
For this news of Stalingrad
The tom-tom beat wild madness
When the elders brought Palava these tidings out of Stalingrad
The English housewife stopped her housework
Held her child close and cried aloud
Now all men will be free!
And from Good Hope, black miners answered
This will help us to be free!
In the prison camps of Belsen
Sick men rounded from their guards
Now life was certain
Soon all men would be free
New light broke upon Africa
New strength for her peoples
New trength poured upon Asia
New hope for her peoples
America dreamed new dreams
From the strength of her peoples
New men arose in Europe
New force for her peoples
Once more they stand these men
At lathe and spindle
To recreate their hours and each new day
Bid houses rise once more in Soviet country
Men ring forests wide round arctic
Move rivers into deserts
And with high courage
Breed new generations
For still the land is theirs
Uzbeks, Tatars, Letts, Armenians
Caucasians, Muscovites, Crimeans
Still they speak peace to their neighbours at tilling
To all the wide world
And men come near to listen
Find by that day of Stalingrad
That this voice is theirs

Then Red Star spread your flame upon me
For in your flame is earnest of my freedom
Now may I rendezvous with the world
Now may I join man’s wide-flung diversity
For Stalingrad is still a Soviet town

Thanks to Shuggy for the reminder.

They work so hard

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

One’s a member of government, one’s a member of the opposition. To be more precise, one’s an independent-minded but powerless member of the government coalition; one’s a leading member of the parliamentary opposition, with nothing to lose by attacking as forcefully as possible. Also, one’s 30 years older than the other. See if you can tell which is which from these quotations:

“I am not against a private element in the NHS, which may bring innovatory ideas and good practice, provided it is within the framework of a public service … But why have they tried to get away from the NHS as a public service, among the most efficient, least expensive and fairest anywhere in the world? Why have they been bewitched by a flawed US system that is unable to provide a universal service and is very expensive indeed? The remarkable vision of the 1945 Attlee government, of a public service free at the point of need for all the people of England, should not be allowed to die.”

“As David Cameron’s government railroads the health bill through parliament, MPs are being denied their constitutional role to properly scrutinise his plans for the NHS. The prime minister has already done a political fix with Nick Clegg on the health bill, and now he’s trying to force it through with a procedural fix.”

You’ll note that the second politician says nothing about the substance of what’s being done, why it’s wrong, why it’s not even cost-effective in its own terms, how it betrays one of the greatest reforms of the last century, or for that matter what it is. Instead, this person focuses entirely on procedure and personality, reducing issues of huge importance and interest to playground gossip about rule-breaking and who said what to whom. Apart from anything else, whether or not the revised health bill is being forced through with a “procedural fix” really doesn’t matter, in the scheme of things – if it weren’t being “forced through”, would that make it OK?

Comedy break:

As for who’s who, the first quote came from the semi-detached member of government (Shirley Williams, 81); the second from John Healey (51), who is currently Shadow Health Secretary. Healey was at Cambridge from 1979 to 1982 (as I was myself); he was elected to Parliament 15 years later, having spent the entire intervening period as a political hack (starting with a role as “deputy editor of the internal magazine of the Palace of Westminster, The House Magazine for a year in 1983″). It’s depressing that Baroness Williams sounds so much more left-wing than Healey – what with him being in the Labour Party and so on – but what’s really striking is how much more political she sounds, in the good sense of the word: the sense of talking about how the country is run, in the knowledge that this is a huge and endlessly important subject, and with the awareness that the conversation itself is serious and has been going on for decades. Healey could be talking about backstairs intrigue at Borchester Land.

But perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising. It was 1997 when Healey was first elected: his entire parliamentary career has been in New Labour. And New Labour has emphatically not been about principle or history or serious discussion of how the country is run, if only because all of those things were a bit, well, Old Labour. What Blair brought to Labour, as I wrote a while back, wasn’t mere opportunism or lack of principle but something more motivated and more destructive:

it’s more like a commitment to abandoning the party’s principles, repeatedly and demonstratively, so as to disorientate and marginalise the opposition, so as to make it impossible for the party not to be in power. The trouble is, this can’t possibly be a long-term strategy. Political principles aren’t a renewable resource; abandon them once and they’re gone.

And when they’ve all gone, what have you got?

To focus on the issues myself, you can read more about the Tories’ plans to privatise the NHS here. Thanks, Spinwatch.

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.

Always been the same

Some thoughts on AV, mostly culled from the BBC’s Vote 2011 liveblog/twitterfeed/thing.

No to AV means PR is dead, say opponents of PR, who know how to make hay while the sun shines:

2050: No campaign director Matthew Elliott gets a massive cheer as he address supporters at the official count in London. He says the result is “emphatic” and will “settle the debate” on voting change for the “next generation”.

No to AV means PR is dead, say supporters of PR, who apparently don’t:

2130: New Statesman journalist George Eaton tweets: “Those who said “No to AV, Yes to PR” couldn’t look more foolish tonight. Electoral reform dead for a generation.”

1858: Labour’s Tessa Jowell, an AV supporter, says the issue is now closed and there should be no more talk of changing the voting system. The “chance has gone”, she tells Sky News.

You’re all thick, says Prof:

2115: Elections expert Prof John Curtice says the No campaign has apparently won the referendum by securing the support of older people, Conservatives and those who have not enjoyed a university education.

Steady on, say punters:

1920: David Pybus in Whitby writes: “I resent the implication that I’ve been swayed by a dirty No campaign or an inadequate Yes campaign. I haven’t listened to either of them as I had a view before the campaigns started – I voted No because I didn’t want a system introduced that allowed floating voters to have as many votes as there are candidates instead of casting one vote honestly for their preferred candidate”.

2036: Bashir Shah in Blackburn writes: “We were promised PR – we got sold down the river by Clegg and the Lib Dems with AV – a costly, unworkable system that would have caused more confusion and even less participation. The UK has answered in the only way it knew how and the only way it could – NO to AV and NO to the Lib Dems”

2136: Simon Reid in Slough, writes: “Dismayed at the condescending attitude of some Yes supporters. However the essence of democracy is the election of the most supported, not the least unsupported, and so I feel it was doomed to failure. PR would be a different matter, with a genuine alternative”

And it could all have been so different!

2112: It is scant consolation but Yes voters have prevailed in Oxford. There’s a certain irony here as their varsity rivals Cambridge were among only a handful of other areas to support change

Cambridge Yes vote: 54.3%. Oxford Yes vote: 54.1%. Seriously, there is no need to overthink this. Of the minority who bothered to vote, nearly 70% voted No. If seven people vote one way and three vote the other, it’s not generally the seven whose behaviour needs explaining – least of all by invoking their deficient education or creeping senility. The Yes camp scraped a majority in a handful of highly atypical urban districts (they don’t come much more atypical than Oxford and Cambridge), and even there the vote was hardly a thumping majority. (Manchester: 44.5% Yes. Even in Brighton the Yes vote got stuck below 50% – 49.9%, to be precise.)

All that’s just happened is that a big and unpredictable change was proposed, and it was rejected. It wasn’t an outstandingly good change (there were plenty of good arguments against it, and almost all of its main proponents had been in favour of something else a year ago); its effects weren’t explained very well; and the campaign in its favour was spectacularly bad. The entirely unsurprising result was that only 30% of the people bought it. (If we’re talking about campaigns, I have to admit that the No campaign was even worse, but they didn’t have to convince anyone; voting No just meant that you didn’t want the Yes campaign to win.)

A horrible Tory gloats horribly:

The idea that anyone would see Tony Robinson or Eddie Izzard as anything other than a paid-up member of the metropolitan elite was risible. The “Yes” campaign made no attempt to deploy any arguments, or any personnel, with appeal beyond a narrow slice of the soft Left – the one constituency whose support was guaranteed in any case.

The liberal Left was, with pleasing karma, undone by its own narcissism. “Yes” campaigners seemed genuinely not to understand that Caroline Lucas, Ed Miliband and Benjamin Zephaniah do not, among them, cover the entire political spectrum.

(Don’t tell me you didn’t just wince, hypocrite lecteur.)

Another Tory tells it like it is:

Most Liberal Democrats loathe being in coalition with the Conservatives – not least because they know they are now loathed in turn by the ex-Labour supporters who have been lending them their votes since the Iraq War. This is a divided and unhappy party which was never keen on AV in the first place and was neither inclined nor able to win over a sceptical public; any energy it had left was devoted to its traditional pursuits of bellyaching and character assassination. I’m sorry if I’m labouring the point, but there was a reason that the Yes to AV campaign turned so nasty, and that was because it was dominated by Liberal Democrats.

And the fat lady sings:

2015: Actor Stephen Fry tweets: “We AV yessers got our botties spanked. Hey ho. Such is democracy.”

A complicated game

Some thoughts on AV, mostly cut and pasted (it’s late) from comments on other people’s blogs.

First, the mechanics. AV is basically the Single Transferable Vote, but in a single-member constituency. STV gives a seat to every candidate who can muster a ‘quota’ of votes, where a quota is defined as (1/n+1)+1 vote, n being the number of seats in the constituency. In other words, in a three-member seat the three people who can each claim more than a 1/4 of the votes cast get elected (there can’t be more than 3, for obvious reasons.

Now, in AV there is by definition only one seat per constituency, so the quota is 1/2 of all votes cast plus one vote. So the maximum number of voters whose preferences can have no influence at all on the outcome is 50% minus one vote. This potentially leaves a lot of voters out in the cold.

Under the Simple Preference system we’ve got now, the ‘quota’ can only be guaranteed to be as high as 50% if there are only two candidates. In multi-party contests, the winning plurality may be arbitrarily small. Except, actually, not that arbitrarily small. In practice, approximately 10,000 MPs have been elected in the 17 General Elections held since 1945; out of those MPs, only 30 have had less than 33.3% of the vote (source: Wikipedia). Most of those were close to 1/3; the winning plurality has been below 30% 7 times – 1 SNP, 1 DUP, 2 Tory and 3 Lib Dem(!).

So the representation deficit that AV offers to put right is, at worst, the difference between an MP representing 33% of the voters and an MP representing 50% of the voters, with the gap generally being much smaller. And what’s the practical effect of assembling a 50% vote from first and lower preferences instead of going off first preferences? There are two possibilities, represented by these two scenarios.

Scenario 1:

33% vote Left, all with Centre as second preference (L1, C2)
18% vote C1, L2
13% vote Centre, with Right as second preference (C1, R2)
24% vote R1, C2
12% vote Neo-Nazi, with Right as second preference (N1, R2)

First round: N eliminated; 36% R, 33% L, 31% C
Second round: C eliminated: 49% R, 51% L. Left candidate duly elected.

In this scenario 51% of voters are happy – the 33% of the voters who put the L candidate first plus the 18% who put them second; therefore only 49% of the voters are unhappy. Result. But the outcome would have been exactly the same under SP, the only difference being that those 18% of voters have had to explicitly state that they preferred L to R instead of just thinking it to themselves.

Scenario 2:

33% vote L1, C2
16% vote C1, L2
15% vote C1, R2
24% vote R1, C2
12% vote N1, R2

First round: N eliminated; 36% R, 33% L, 31% C
Second round: C eliminated: 51% R, 49% L. Right candidate duly elected.

All that’s changed is the split within the Centre voters, and even that hasn’t changed by much (18/13 to 16/15 – the majority is still C/L rather than C/R). But because the split is slightly different, the happy (represented) 51% now consists of the 24% of the voters whose first preferences went to the Right party, together with the neo-Nazi voters and the minority of Centre voters who preferred Right to Left. It’s not at all clear to me that the fact that 27% of voters for smaller parties lean more to right than to left should be given enough weight to overturn the verdict expressed by first preferences. (According to this paper, in any case, the first scenario would apply most of the time: a full simulation based on survey data found that only 43 of 650 seats would have changed hands if the 2010 election had been held under AV.)

The problem with AV is the way that preferences are counted, and aren’t counted. Under STV, the surplus votes for any candidate who has met the quota are redistributed to second preference parties, in proportion to the overall split of second preferences. Under AV there are no surplus votes – elected is elected, and only one elected candidate is required – so second preferences are weighted differently according to what’s happened to the first preference vote. Some voters’ second preferences are decisive; others’ are never counted. And which party is in which category cannot be predicted. Another scenario:

35% vote Labour 1, Green 2
30% vote Tory 1, Lib Dem 2
14% vote Lib Dem 1, Tory 2
6% vote Lib Dem 1, Green 2
10% vote Green 1, Labour 2
5% vote BNP 1, Tory 2

BNP 1st prefs transfer to the Tories, Green 1st prefs transfer to Labour, some Lib Dem 1st prefs transfer to the Tories and others are wasted because the Green has already been eliminated.

Final score:
Labour 45% (35% 1st pref + 10% transfer from Green)
Tory 49% (30% 1st pref + 19% transfers from Lib Dem and BNP)
The Tory is therefore elected.

But look what happens if we add up the first and second preferences:

Labour: 35% (1) + 10% (2) = 45%
Tory: 30% (1) + 19% (2) = 49%
Lib Dem: 20% (1) + 30% (2) = 50%
Green: 10% (1) + 41% (2) = 51%
BNP: 5% (1) = 5%

On a simple addition of first and second preferences, the Green would actually come top. Even a weighted addition of preferences – what’s known as a Borda count – puts Labour ahead of the Tories, although the Lib Dems and Greens stay in third and fourth place. If those Labour second preferences shouldn’t be counted against their first preferences, why should the Lib Dems’? Big differences in the way votes are counted could rest on very small – and unforeseeable – differences in vote totals.

On the CT thread on AV, I have also argued that (a) AV favours, nay produces, bi-polar contests; (b) AV in Britain would chiefly benefit the third party, the Lib Dems; and (c) that I support PR, which would also benefit the Lib Dems. It looks as if at least one of these statements ought to be incorrect, but I think they’re all valid. The key is to focus on individual constituencies. Up and down the country, the Liberal Democrats consistently campaign on the position that “$X can’t win here”, X being the Tories in Labour seats and Labour in Tory seats. Their interest in three-party politics is strictly tactical; their ideal is to turn every constituency into a “two-horse race” (a phrase that appears in Lib Dem literature almost as often as those bar charts), one of them being the Lib Dems. AV is well suited to producing this result. More generally, AV’s preference-aggregating procedure, and the single-member constituencies which make it necessary, will tend to favour parties whose programmes are bland, opportunistic or both. A minority party with a consistent and distinctive programme will have less chance of getting an MP elected under AV than even under SP; AV structurally favours a smaller number of contenders aggregating a wider range of preferences. I am perhaps biased by my long-established tendency to vote for small left-wing parties: I tend to look at it from the standpoint of a minor party trying to get into the system, and it seems clear to me that the barriers to entry are higher under AV. Indeed, some advocates of AV number among its advantages the fact that it puts smaller parties in a position to exert pressure on larger parties without getting representation in their own right (the two contenders in Australia’s lower house each appear to have a slew of preference-trading satellites); others argue that AV would be a good thing because it would makes the major parties seek votes in the centre ground, making it less likely that they will be dominated by their extreme wings. (These things can’t both be true, but it’s interesting that neither of them has any role for smaller parties with independent representation.)

I also believe that getting AV would damage the movement for electoral reform worse than failing to get it: if AV passes, AV’s supporters and beneficiaries will be happy anyway, the supporters of FPTP will regroup to fight for single-member constituencies, and there’ll be no public appetite for messing around with the electoral system again. Anyone pushing for PR after AV had passed would be told, at best, that the system needed time to bed in before we thought about changing it again; at worst, we’d simply be told that we’d asked for electoral reform and we’d got electoral reform. In addition, I believe that the Coalition would be destabilised far more effectively by failing to get AV (and lighting a fuse under Nick Clegg) than by getting AV (and annoying Tory backwoodsmen, whose main role in life is to be sat on by their leadership); I also think that getting AV would be highly conducive to the perpetuation of a Lib Dem/Tory coalition after the next election. However, I accept that all these points are arguable.

So on balance, no, my position really isn’t one of “pretend that you have reasons other than ‘I hate Nick Clegg’ for your otherwise unjustifiable political position”. My position is one of supporting PR and opposing AV, because I think even our current system is preferable. That’s why I’ll be voting No, and I encourage anyone who thinks likewise to do the same.

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.

You are the fairest creature

Listen, if you can (the audio may be taken down before long), to this. It’s one of those traditional tunes that seem to do everything that a tune can or should do, twining around the scale like ivy and resolving back where it started. It’s a particularly fine rendition by Jon Boden, with a harsh, keening fiddle accompaniment (played by Jon) which perfectly accentuates the darker notes of the song. I think it might be the best thing Jon’s done all year.

If it has been taken down, have a listen to this:

That is a beautiful song.

Now listen to this:
Scritti Politti, “Hegemony”
There’s no getting away from it – at some level that’s the same song. (And yes, Googling establishes that Green Gartside was a folkie in his youth, and specifically a huge Martin Carthy fan. There’s a small puzzle here, though, which is that Carthy didn’t record the song until 1980, after Scritti Politti had recorded “Hegemony”. He did sing it as part of the score of the theatrical version of “Lark Rise to Candleford”, which was staged at the National Theatre in 1978 and 1979; perhaps Green was in the audience. Either that, or he heard Peter Bellamy’s version, released in 1975.)

I’m slightly staggered by this. Picture a fan of cutting-edge contemporary art who turns his back on the edgy echo-chamber of conceptual this and reinterpreted that, and rediscovers craft – good stuff well made. And imagine that, a few years down the line, he’s appreciating a particularly well-made pot, when he realises that it’s a Grayson bloody Perry. That’s me that is. Here’s a song which does what folk songs do, and does it so well – a slow, deliberate melody; lyrics that say one or two simple things, but simple things that have stayed true; a spare, delicate arrangement. No anxiety, no uncertainty, no rough edges, no contemporary resonance that wasn’t equally resonant 200 years ago. And here’s a song which is pure punk (intellectual wing): it’s all uncertainty and rough edges, an urgent, gabbled bulletin from the front line of one man’s confrontation with the world that faces him. And it’s the same bloody song.

As it happens, although I was vaguely into folk in the 70s – and I did see “Lark Rise” – I never really heard that much of it: Steeleye, Pentangle and, er… By 1979 I had given up on it altogether, partly in reaction against Steeleye’s new direction but mainly because the cultural earthquake of punk had seemed to make it utterly irrelevant. So I never heard “Sweet Lemany” until after I’d got back into folk, 30 years later, in search of the well-made pots of the tradition. Even then I only heard it at singarounds; it was only when I heard Jon Boden’s version last week that I really listened to it. And suddenly I’m back with Green in 1979, agonising over the production of meaning and semantic instability in ‘beat’ music in that legendary Camden squat, and I’m in my room at Cambridge poring over the sleevenotes and feeling his sense of the utter necessity of intellectual work and his despair at the isolation it brings with it -

About the university the pages let you down
It helps you find your way around in any English town
About the university the pages are in French
It helps you find your way around in any English town

And then I’m not.

As I was a-walking one fine summer’s morning,
Oh he fields and the meadows they looked so green and gay;
And the birds were singing so pleasantly adorning,
Right early in the morning at the break of the day.

Hark, oh hark, how the nightingale is singing,
And the lark she is a-taking her flight all in the air.
On yonder green bower the turtle doves are building,
The sun is just a-glimmering, Arise my dear.

Arise, oh, arise and get your charming posies,
They are the fairest flowers that grow in yonder grove.
I will pluck off them all sweet lilies, pinks and rosies,
All for my Sweet Lemeney, the girl that I love.

Oh, Lemeney, oh, Lemeney, you are the fairest creature,
Yes, you are the fairest creature that ever my eyes did see.
And she played it all over all upon her pipes of ivory,
Right early in the morning at the break of the day.

How could my true love, how could she vanish from me
Oh, how could she go so I never shall see her more.
Well it was her cruel parents who looked so slightly on me,
And it’s all for the white robe that I once used to wear.

In retrospect there’s something nightmarish about the political life lived with the kind of intensity that Green appeared to advocate back then. Certainly there’s a nightmarish quality, rather than a hopeful or liberating one, about the idea that everything could and should be transformed, from the conventions of pop songwriting to the living conditions of the band – after all, what if you forgot something, or allowed your guard to slip, and the old world crept back in? (“And ‘common sense’ is things just as they are”.) But if you get to the point where everything is a problem, the problem that you need to deal with is all yours. Green has dismissed the recordings of this period as “some anti-produced labour of negativity, kind of structurally unsound and exposed, by design and default … evocative of extraordinary times and a bit winceworthy”. For all that he’s the artist, that seems more like a list of symptoms than a description of the condition. I think something like “Hegemony” is best seen as the product of an attempt to fuse three things – the music, the politics, the personal sense of urgency and wrongness – which didn’t really belong together and certainly didn’t fit together. It struck some extraordinary sparks – thirty years on I still know “Hegemony” word for word, which is saying something given that I’m not even sure what all the words are – but it couldn’t ever work. The trouble was, the fact that it didn’t work chimed with the personal sense of the world’s wrongness, which was validated by the politics, and round the process went again.

I remember reading an interview with Jackie Leven, in about 1980, in which he talked about having worked his way to a place where he’d regained his innocence – “waking up a virgin the morning after the gang-bang” was his image. Green recovered his psychic virginity by journeying into shiny manicured pop – a long way from the anxiously self-deconstructing racket of “Hegemony”, and a long way from “Sweet Lemoney” too. As for me, Scritti Politti’s first few releases meant a huge amount to me at the time, and an important time it was too – Green was a lasting intellectual influence on me, just before Raymond Williams and a couple of years ahead of Guy Debord. So it’s interesting – and somehow at once chastening and heartening – to think how much of the power of those songs came from the music; and how much of the music, in this case, came from a song that had nothing to do with the manufacture of consensus and a lot to do with love and flowers.

“Hegemony” is still strange, powerful and unsettling; some of the songs Green wrote a couple of years later, on the cusp of his rediscovery of pop, are amazing (“The ‘Sweetest Girl’”, “Lions after slumber”, “Jacques Derrida”). But I’m going to stick with Limandie, playing on her pipes of ivory at the break of day. For all the tradition-garbled pastoral imagery, that song’s still about something true – and it’s something much more livable-with than “Hegemony”‘s anguished protest at the impossibility of changing everything immediately. The old songs endure, with their strangely elaborate melodies, their stock of familiar images and their tiny repertoire of subjects – love, sex, babies, death. They’re songs to remember.

Cheers then mate

The second point I want to make about the debate over last Saturday’s violence (following on from the previous post) is about the representation of violence in the media.

There’s a widespread view that the black bloc’s approach was wrong because of how it looked – specifically, because of how it looked on TV. Thus Christopher Phelps on Sunday:

Here is what the story for yesterday’s demonstration should have been: half a million marchers, in the largest show of labour union strength in decades, turn out to oppose the government’s draconian cuts.

Here is what the story became: a few hundred anarchists, many dressed in black, trashed businesses and clashed with police on Oxford Street and in Trafalgar Square.

The anarchists, calling themselves the black bloc, stole the headlines from the 500,000 other protesters who’d travelled from all over the UK to express the refusal of millions to accept austerity as the consequence of a crisis they did not create.

and commenter Andrew on CT:

Demonstrations matter only insofar as they impact public perception. You have x minutes on the news, y column inches, and z number of reported salient facts to make that impact.

It makes very little difference whether those actually at the demonstration saw a mostly peaceful gathering; what matters is x, y, and z – at least if you’re interested in effecting change.

A small group of anarchists can switch over any number of those z salient facts, x TV minutes, and y column inches to negative.

Call me an old pro-situ, but I get very twitchy when I see it argued that what matters about a demonstration is how it looks on TV. It reminds me of something Joe Strummer (and a few friends) said in 1977, in the middle of a rendering of “What’s My Name” that was being shown on Revolver. Sang, rather – he inserted an extra verse, which went like this:

JOE: Here we are on TV!
What does it mean to me?

[looks at crowd]
What does it mean to you?
JOE AND CROWD: F*** ALL!

I remember that feeling: what mattered was to do it yourself, and if you couldn’t do that what mattered was to be there. And if you couldn’t do that, well, you could read about it in the NME, and read the letters the following week saying the first writer got it all wrong, and try to get along next time. Punk could disrupt TV, but it couldn’t work within TV any more than it could work within the marketplace – what would be the point? (Punk didn’t last.)

Radical politics, same same. As a general thing I think we all pay far too much attention to rally-as-spectacle as distinct from rally-as-collective-event. I’ve been on marches and demos, and I can confirm what Simon and Edd say:

A great thing about protests is the transformations in political consciousness that take place: people no longer feel alone, they feel empowered and part of something big; they are prompted to think about the issues that moved them to protest; they form political friendships.

There are moments, on huge demonstrations, where you can see and feel the ocean of people surrounding you, the jokes being cracked, the songs being sung, the drums beating. You lose a friend in the crowd, swap an anecdote with a stranger, and you think, “How can this possibly not make any difference?”

Even at a small demo of a couple of hundred people, the atmosphere changes; life feels different. Collective action seems like a reality, a possible way of living – in fact, for the duration of the demo collective action is a reality, and you’re living it. This change in the air is only temporary, and it has built-in limits. To continue the quote from Edd:

and you think, “How can this possibly not make any difference?”

Then you walk past Parliament and Downing Street, and you remember that just marching never makes any difference.

But it’s a temporary experience that can be returned to and built on. Back to Simon:

Uplifting mass protests, though, come with a danger attached. Unless they become the beginning of something sustained, with the capacity to keep a large number of ordinary people engaged, they can serve to simply defuse anger at the expense of political change. … This must be the first mass demonstration against this government, but not the last. There have to be regional events, industrial action, and occupations.

If it becomes the beginning of that sort of process – or, more precisely, another step in the development of that process, which (future historians may judge) began last autumn with the university occupations – the march will have done its job. What it looked like on TV is neither here nor there.

I’ve been particularly bemused by Harry’s argument on CT, seconding Christopher Phelps’s piece and comparing the march with the (huge and inspiring) mobilisation in Wisconsin. Harry:

We’ve lost in the short term (but so have the Brits), and yes, now, the issue is reversing some of the damage (as in the UK case). But we were not, according to the opinion polls, smeared as extremists or as having done $m of damage. That is, the party in power attempted to smear us as such, but failed … People are upbeat and optimistic, which enables them to do the dreary footwork of going to meetings, taking petitions door to door, making the arguments to their recalcitrant neighbors and workmates … 150 anarchists (or whatever they are) would have had a good shot at making the smears successful.

I think CP’s original piece was a bit of a vent, partly probably because the Brits seem so inured (as lots of you do) to this kind of thing and its effects, accepting that it will happening and discounting the effects of good press, or of negative press that can’t actually get a grip on the public because there is nothing to back it up. He doesn’t have a solution, nor do I, but it sounds as if nobody here thinks these folks can be more marginalised than they already are. Maybe that’s right, but its hard to believe.

Here’s why I’m bemused:

good press

I remember being at a union meeting, about 25 years ago, discussing possible strike action (it was a bit easier in those days; the first time I went on strike the decision was taken at a mass meeting, would you believe). A senior manager who had come along spoke at some length about how striking just now couldn’t achieve anything, there was this going on and that just round the corner, so really it was the wrong time to strike. Someone asked – either very naively or not naively at all – whether, in that case, he would support us if we called a strike in three months’ time. The manager actually laughed at this – No, of course not! I’m management!

I feel very similar about the possibility of demonstrations ever getting ‘good press’ in this country – and about the related question of the policing of demonstrations ever getting a bad press. There is a narrative of the events of last Saturday which assumes that the overall outcome was negative and locates all the responsibility for this in the black bloc: something like

1. Mass peaceful demo
2. Violence by anarchists
3. Police are forced to attack anarchists to prevent violence
4. Media are bound to cover anarchist violence, because it’s more newsworthy than the peaceful demo
5. Demonstrators smeared as vandals and hooligans, lose popular support

(More radical commenters may substitute “are forced to” at 3. with “take the opportunity to”.) By contrast, in Wisconsin there was

1. Mass peaceful direct action
2. No violence by anarchists
3. Police not forced to take on anarchists
4. Media cover peaceful demo
5. Demonstrators not smeared as vandals and hooligans, retain popular support

Which sounds great, and I’m glad the mobilisation is going so well in Wisconsin. But I’m also slightly baffled, for three reasons. Firstly, I’ve never believed that the police reaction to a demonstration is something that can be controlled by the demonstrators – any demonstrators. The relationship between political activity, heavy policing and arrests for public order offences is very well established in this country; it goes back to Duncan v Jones 1936, in which the court effectively endorsed the right of a police officer to prevent a public meeting taking place if the officer anticipated that disorder would result. The police, the logic runs, are there to prevent disorder, which may involve restraints on political activity; if the form taken by these necessary restraints involves physical force (or the denial of freedom of movement), too bad. This way of thinking gives limitless discretion to the police in deciding when a forceful response is needed: it does nothing to prevent them from escalating the level of confrontation unnecessarily, or even from provoking a level of violence which will justify the use of superior force on their part. The first of these certainly happened in and around Trafalgar Square on Saturday, and from what I saw (on TV!) I wouldn’t rule out the second.

Secondly, I’ve never believed that demonstrators have any influence over the media coverage of the demonstration, either. Where there is violence – any violence – it will be focused on, and the narrative of the Violent Minority who Spoil Everything will get trotted out. (Interestingly enough, where there is mass violence, as at Millbank, the narrative of the Violent Minority will still get trotted out.) In the unlikely event that a demo passes off completely peacefully, they’ll find another stick to beat it with – I remember coming home from a huge Anti-Nazi League demo with my mother (who had gone along with the Christians Against Racism And Fascism contingent) and hearing the BBC newsreader explain that the size of the demo was all down to “the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party, which has been recruiting in schools”. I still watch the news – let’s not get all this out of proportion; I still call the police if I get burgled, too – but, when it comes to reporting protest, the media are not on our side and never have been. In the case of last Saturday, I don’t believe the day would ever have ended without a few breakages and some graffiti – or, for that matter, without the Met getting some kettling action; consequently I don’t believe the media coverage would ever have been positive or unbiased or balanced or respectful. Everything would always have been Spoilt.

Thirdly, and to end on a positive note: after all that, I don’t believe the anti-cuts movement has lost any popular support. Or rather, I don’t believe it’s lost any of the popular support that it had. Like Simon, I started the day following Twitter (#march26, #26march or #march26march?), and like him I was struck by the level of hostility displayed by a few people. And this was while the coaches were still on their way – people were denouncing the march before it had even set off, much less been ‘hijacked’ or ‘eclipsed’. Some people really hate trade unionists; some people really hate workers in the public sector generally. Some people are convinced (at least for as long as it takes to compose a one-line message) that real workers – good, honest, British workers – cross picket-lines, work Saturdays and don’t get a pension, and that the worst injustice being done to these hardy souls is the extraction of income tax from their pay. And, needless to say, some people hate the whole idea of collective action. We didn’t lose the support of any of those people, and it’s hard to see how we could have gained it. So who did we lose? Are there a lot of people out there who didn’t go on the march and don’t know anyone who might have gone, and who might have supported it but for the intervention of the violent anarchists? Even if there are, can we be sure that taking the anarchists out of the picture would have resulted in media coverage that was entirely supportive, or police reactions that were entirely proportionate and restrained?

I don’t think we should be too quick to heap blame on the violent minority: partly because they aren’t entirely to blame for the impression that’s been created around them, and partly because that impression may not have done all that much damage. But there’s also a third reason, which is that the demand to identify, isolate and denounce ‘violent extremists’ is a very old one, and one which rarely does the Left any good – or is meant to. I’ll get on to that in the next post.

An extremist scrape

Our Margit declares if hoo’d cloas to put on,
Hoo d go up to Lundun an’ see the young Queen,
An if things didn’t alter when hoo had been,
Hoo swears hoo would fight, blood up to th’een.
Hoo’s nought agen t’queen, but hoo likes a fair thing,
An’ hoo says hoo can tell when hoo’s hurt.
- “The Four Loom Weaver” (trad., 1830s)

Well, I didn’t go – partly influenced, I confess, by dystopian fantasies of mass kettling – and it went off brilliantly:

a wonderful, spirited, and conviction-driven multitude of ordinary people, representative of the British population in their diversity, marched in their hundreds of thousands.In doing so, they made it clear – we made it clear – that we simply will not accept the dismantling of our welfare state and public services

And I’m not going to qualify that. The march went off brilliantly. Half a million people, give or take, assembled in the middle of the capital to protest against the government’s attack on public services. Activists, burnt-out veterans and absolute beginners, they came from all over the country – from the post-industrial northwest to the Tory shires – and they marched together. It was a truly remarkable march and it went off brilliantly.

Shall we look at that picture again?

I was right the first time: that was what last Saturday looked like. Cheerful, united, determined and very, very large.

If you stop here you won’t miss much. Continue reading

Go! Goodbye!

“In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate, citizens, during these very difficult circumstances Egypt is going through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from the office of president of the republic and has charged the high council of the armed forces to administer the affairs of the country. May God help everybody.”
- Omar Suleiman, 16:12 GMT, 11/2/2011

You can no longer depend on the land in which you were born.
You can no longer depend on any land in which you choose to place yourself.
You can no longer depend on the bed in which you lie by night, or the room in which you sit by day.
You can no longer depend on the pillow on which you lay your head.
You can no longer depend on your lover for anything.
You can no longer depend on the existence of silence in your mind when you close your eyes.
Go to England, baby-raper, false economist! Call yourself King Charles III.
Nobody will notice. Nobody will be alarmed. There is no constitution.
Go! Goodbye!
Goodbye.

They’ve done it; they’ve actually done it. It took eighteen days, but they’ve done it.

The significance of Mubarak stepping down as President today cannot be overstated. It marks the arrival onto the stage of history the Arab masses as an actor rather than the passive and infantilised observers they had been for generations. The stranglehold of dictatorship has been broken from below.

The Arab world shall never be the same. The remaining dictatorships and kleptocracies throughout the region have just moved closer to their end. In Washington, London, Paris, and Tel Aviv frantic efforts to adapt to a new reality will be taking place.
John Wight, Socialist Unity

You know something big has happened – or is starting to happen – when you get that sense that the power holders of the world are running to keep up. Something’s happening here, but they don’t know what it is…

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Of course, what comes next is anybody’s guess, and it certainly won’t be the triumph of a movement of generalised occupation and the establishment of workers’ councils (which some of us were hoping for). This is where the real struggle starts. But that’s precisely the victory that’s been won: after 30 years of imperialist-imposed stasis, the people of Egypt have won the right to fight their own battles. A clock that was stopped half a lifetime ago has started again. This, perhaps, is why the Eastern Bloc parallels seem so appropriate. Here’s another, from 1989.

Nagy Imre, 1896 – 1958

These are the hard times. Not the remembered days
Of tanks in the streets and firing in the square;
When today was torn off from yesterday, when
The light of the day was broken, swept aside,
Reduced to painful breaths in a doorway
As the achieved future rolls on past you;
Not hearing your ruler confess imaginary crimes,
Starved in tie and glasses; sentenced; shot;
Buried under earth and a number. Now,
Thirty-one, thirty-three years on – these are the hard times.

For their future is over, and you are still here.
All that we do is watch, but we have watched
While their history moved on, while the decades
Ground into place, slabs across our memories.
It wasn’t enough – thirty-one years, thirty-three -
And they are tired and their future is over,
And people whose children lie in the empty coffin
Are still here. The present begins again for you
As we still watch. And these are the hard times.

Husni Mubarak’s future is over – the future so many people wanted to prolong, from the government of Israel to Tony Blair. The people he oppressed are still here. These are the hard times, right enough – but now is a time for celebration.

Avert your eyes from his gaze

Michael Gove is an enduring mystery to me. (For some time I was convinced that he was the same Mike Gove who ran the UK branch of the OS/2 User Group in the 1990s – something which would make him quite interesting in a perverse corporate-rebellious sort of way, as well as conferring considerable geek cred – but apparently that was someone else.) How on earth has such a sanctimonious nullity risen so far? He seems to be trading on a reputation as an intellectual, validated by his experience as a broadsheet journalist. But that just raises the same question in a different form: however did someone with so little to say, and such an irritating way of saying it, achieve so much prominence in the media? (He even used to appear on the Review Show, of all things – although on reflection that’s not such a surprise: even at its best that programme was basically a blend of heavyweight contrarianism (Paulin, Greer) with lightweight ditto (Tony Parsons, Allison Pearson), and these days the heavyweight slot seems to get taken by Natalie Haynes or Bidisha.)

Perhaps part of what Gove has going for him, from the Right’s point of view, is that he’s a good hater. The other week on the News Quiz, Jeremy Hardy recalled how Gove, in opposition and writing for the Times, had outed him and Linda Smith as SWP moles, infiltrating the commanding heights of Radio 4 comedy programmes so as to, er… have to get back to you on that. I was curious, and didn’t entirely take the story at face value (he’s a comic, he tells good stories), so I did some googling. Initially I thought Jeremy Hardy was talking about Revolutionaries with RP accents, a lump of Goveage that appeared in the paper at the end of 2004. (Some bloke on Twitter seems to have come to the same conclusion.) But on inspection that story was attacking the BBC for putting on Hardy & Smith (and Mark Steel! he’s another one you know!):

Radio 4 operates, as so many British institutions do, on two levels. Its structures reflect the natural conservatism of the British people, but the world view of its guiding spirits is more naturally radical, leftish and Guardianista. From the Royal Opera House to the Foreign Office, the same combination of traditional outward forms legitimising bien-pensant attitudes is at work.

The most successful leftwingers in British life have been those, such as Clement Attlee, whose personal style has been most bourgeois. It was no coincidence that, during the 1980s, the greatest threat to moderation within the Labour Party came from one sect, Militant, which insisted on a certain douce respectability from its adherents, demanding that they appear suited and tied, while other Trotskyists wallowed in combat-jacketed irrelevance.

The leftish bias in Radio 4’s content manifests itself subtly, yet insistently. Voices from the far Left such as Linda Smith and Jeremy Hardy are introduced on the News Quiz, or given their own shows, in a way which gives no clue to their political shading. The station treats them as though they were souls with no mission save laughter, like Humphrey Lyttleton or Nicholas Parsons, but the humour of Smith, Hardy and others such as Mark Steel is deployed for a particular polemical and political purpose.

Which is a bit different from accusing them of infiltrating; an unkind way of putting it would be to say that it’s a higher level of paranoia – “actually it turns out they don’t even need to infiltrate, because actually the people running Radio 4 want them there…” (In passing, I was also struck by the reference to “commentators from the Left, such as Jonathan Freedland or Andrew Rawnsley”. Perhaps they’re sleepers.)

Then I found this from the New Statesman:

The red menace, like the poor, is always with us. We must all be grateful to Michael Gove of the Times for taking a fresh look under the bed. In two articles, he reports that Trotskyist and communist organisations, all “dedicated to eventual revolution . . . and hostile to private property and profit”, have sunk old sectarian disputes to become the Socialist Alliance. Inevitably, he finds they are behind the recent rail strikes and are set to tighten their grip on “a major British institution” (he seems to mean South West Trains). Worse, they have “infiltrated” the legal profession. But most damning is their “skilful manipulation of the media”. Socialist Alliance stalwarts such as Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and Linda Smith, disguised as comedians, get themselves on Radio 4, notably The News Quiz, where they “make jokes about the Conservatives and the government”.

Date: 21st January 2002. This looks much more promising. Googling found a copy of the first of the two articles, which is dated 15th January and makes quite interesting reading. (Pardon the long quote – this is actually a fairly heavily edited excerpt from the original column.)

The biggest component in the Socialist Alliance is the old Socialist Workers Party (SWP) … As well as old Bennites and the SWP, the Alliance has fused together a bewildering array of hard-left parties. They include the Communist Party of Great Britain, the International Socialist Group (not to be confused with the also allied International Socialist League), the Revolutionary Democratic Group, Socialist Solidarity Network, the Alliance for Workers Liberty, Workers International, Workers Power and Red Action. What unites these groups, apart from membership of the Alliance, is a commitment to Marxist thought and practice. Dedicated to eventual revolution, contemptuous of social democrats such as the Blair Government, and hostile to private property and profit, they remain dedicated followers of communism long after others in the Left have condemned it as the god that failed. None, perhaps, are as deeply dyed revolutionaries as Red Action.

Listed on the Socialist Alliance website as a fully participating organisation, Red Action has a record of violent protest that stretches from low-level street violence to the involvement of two of its members, Patrick Hayes and Jan Taylor, in an IRA bombing campaign. On Red Action’s website, its part in planting a bomb outside Harrods in 1993 and placing another on a train from Victoria to Ramsgate is recorded. The website also notes Red Action’s leadership role in the organisation Anti-Fascist Action and AFA’s involvement in deliberately triggering street brawls with the British National Party. … Under the Alliance’s umbrella constitution Red Action members have the same rights as the Pilgers and Pinters to help to select candidates and vote on policy. But the existence of an IRA-supporting, street violence-endorsing group among the Alliance coalition does not yet apparently attract the criticism of other activists such as Tariq Ali, Greg Tucker, Jeremy Hardy or Imran Khan, the campaigning lawyer.

The Stop the War Coalition is run by, and in the interests of, the Alliance, allowing it to proselytise and recruit. It is only one of several organisations run by Alliance activists. Others include the anti-globalisation movement Globalise Resistance and the race-campaigning National Civil Rights Movement run by Suresh Grover … More targeted, but no less important for the Alliance, has been the industrial action of the RMT. The timing of the strike on South West Trains has given Tucker and [Bob] Crow the perfect opportunity to secure attention as the workers’ defenders in advance of next month’s internal elections. The death of Jimmy Knapp left the position of general secretary vacant and Crow is determined to secure it, along with the funds, influence, and strike-calling power it yields. If Crow is successful, Tucker is in line to step into his shoes as the union’s number three.

Crow was a former member of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party before joining forces with the Alliance. The SLP is almost certainly Britain’s hardest-line left-wing party. It supported Slobodan Milosevic’s presidency, argued that the September 11 bombings were America’s own fault and had a “Stalin Society” in its ranks for that large proportion of its members who venerated the memory of the Russian dictator. Whether Crow left the SLP because its ideological position proved too much, or he thought its political prospects came to so little, has never been made clear. Tucker is a Trotskyist, a member of the International Socialist Group (ISG) that proudly proclaims its adherence to the Leon Trotsky-venerating Fourth International of revolutionary parties. The ISG believes that social democratic governments such as new Labour are continuing an “offensive against the working class” and argue that revolutionaries such as themselves should enter and take over “broad campaigns” to advance as part of a “United Front.” Tucker is secretary of the London Socialist Alliance and was granted leave by South West Trains to stand as an ISG candidate, under the Socialist Alliance umbrella, in Streatham during the last election. Tucker’s platform did not, however, attract many fellow travellers. He secured only 906 votes, barely denting the majority of the incumbent Labour MP, Keith Hill. It is expected, however, that Tucker can rely on many more votes in the forthcoming RMT election than he secured in Streatham.

The effective takeover of the RMT by Alliance supporters such as Crow and Tucker worries the TUC high command. In a private briefing note they have recorded that he has “been associated with around 30 strikes in his ten years in office” and he “believes strike action raises the class-consciousness of the rank and file.” The TUC fears that “if an extreme left team are elected the result will be more chaos on the railways.” Success for the Alliance in the RMT elections would, on the basis of its activists’ pronouncements, lead to more politically motivated disruption. It would also mark the raising of the hard Left’s flag over a major British institution. There is a red warning signal flashing on Britain’s rail network. And no ministerial hand is reaching for the brake.

Socialist Alliance, eh? Those were the days. But anyway… In some ways this is standard right-wing froth: note the entire paragraph about the relatively insignificant Red Action (you do realise they actually support the IRA?) and another about the totally insignificant SLP (Scargill, you know he really is a Communist?). What stands out is the level of detail, in those paragraphs and elsewhere. I mean, that’s some serious leftist trainspotting; I didn’t even know that about the ISL being affiliated to the SA. (The ISL is of course the British section of the Lambertist LIT, and – as Gove says – not to be confused with the ISG, which was the British section of the Fourth International.) Also note the tone: he knew who he hated, did Gove, and he hated every single one of them (or should I say ‘us’): he wanted there to be no doubt that he loathed the entire Left, from the Bennites leftwards. Which, ironically, rather undermines the effect of all that research (or all those briefings), once you start to put it all together: it’s not at all clear to me in what sense the harmless old Stalin Society was more “hard-line” than the anti-Leninist Red Action, for instance. But this infodump wasn’t really put on display for analytical purposes. We point, we jeer, we demand that Something is Done, without troubling too much about the detail (what exactly was a “ministerial hand” supposed to do about the menace of Stalino-Trotskyite railway chaos – arrest Bob Crow and put him on trial for subversion?). Then we turn the page, feeling worldly-wise and pleasantly outraged. Job done.

But, sadly, there’s nothing in there about the “skilful manipulation of the media”, or about the dastardly leftist comedy plot. So if anyone out there is in a position to leaf through the Times for the month of January 2002, hilarity awaits – along with insight into Michael Gove’s mental processes, although perhaps that’s less of an incentive.

In the mean time, consider this (paywalled) from Robert Hanks’s review in the current LRB of a new biography of Dennis Wheatley:

Wheatley suffered from a sickly adoration of the rich and well-born, and a contrasting suspicion of the masses and any political system that allowed them any influence. … In 1955, proposing the motion at the Oxford Union ‘that equality is in theory a pestilential heresy and in practice a pitiful illusion,’ Wheatley argued that extra votes should be given to those of ‘superior mentality’. He was sure that he would come under that heading.

[after marrying] he continued the life of conscious hedonism, dressing and dining beyond his means, chasing (at times his technique seems to have verged on stalking) women, at one point installing a mistress in a flat. He built up an expensive collection of books, mainly erotica and modern first editions

His first published work, The Forbidden Territory (1933), was an immediate hit … A thriller set in Soviet Russia, it introduced Wheatley’s ‘Four Musketeers’: the wealthy, worldly-wise Duke de Richleau, a monarchist exile from France, and his young friends Simon Aron, a brilliant Jewish banker, Rex Van Ryn, a brash, genial American multimillionaire, and the comparatively colourless Englishman Richard Eaton, supposedly a self-portrait. The plot (a hunt for tsarist treasure, a Bolshevik scheme for world domination – plus a bit of romance) is a helter-skelter mess … the action is, as one critic observed, ‘essentially Ruritanian’, and Wheatley’s prose, overwrought and under-punctuated, barely readable.

You get the general idea. Wheatley was a dreadful man – an arrogant, snobbish, libertine mediocrity – who turned out really dreadful books (“Duke de Richleau“? would an editor who could spell have been too much to ask for?) However, he was good at marketing (before he ran the family firm into the ground, apparently, he was “something of a pioneer of wine bullshit”). And, while he was a man of fixed and rather strange ideas, his prejudices were entirely compatible with the maintenance of the status quo, which never hurts. So perhaps it’s not too surprising that Wheatley still seems to have at least one fan:

one journalist wrote that Wheatley ‘of all people, deserves to come back from the dead and win a new following of thrill-starved souls in thrall to his dark magic’. That was Michael Gove; the idea that a man who admires Wheatley is now in charge of the nation’s schools is more genuinely terrifying than anything Wheatley ever wrote.

Heave a sigh

How long do you leave a blog before you stop reading it, or take it out of your RSS feed? I currently follow 29 blogs; some (e.g.) I’m willing to leave for weeks or months between posts, because when they do post I know it’ll be worth reading. (A new post from Luke would be appreciated, though.)

But I’m saying goodbye to Splintered Sunrise. The blog hasn’t been updated since September the 2nd, and it seems unlikely that it will be now. As you who read this may well already know, something a bit odd happened to Splinty’s blog a few months before it shut down. Like most of his regular commenters, I saw Splinty firstly as a socialist blogger and secondly as a good source on what was going on in Ireland; his occasional polemics against the National Secular Society were just some of the padding that came with the package, of no more significance than his appalling taste in music or his occasional lapses into Cyrillic. Besides, I am myself the son of a preacher man (well, a lay reader man), and I didn’t have much of a problem with the occasional argument to the effect of “these militant secularists don’t understand how religious people think”. Some time around mid-year, this type of argument started to dominate Splinty’s blog; at the same time, there was a shift in the claims being made. We began to read posts that could be summed up as “these unbelievers don’t understand how Catholics think”, which had me squirming a little – and then “these so-called liberals don’t understand how true Catholics think”, which had me looking for the exit. And then, suddenly, silence fell. My immediate assumption was that Splinty had realised that he was espousing two radically different bodies of ideas – or, at least, that he was talking to two radically different audiences – and had retired, in a certain amount of bemusement, to work out how to reconcile them. This theory got a bit of a knock from the discovery that Splinty had resurfaced on the one-line Web, where he continues to post like the proverbial bandit – and never gets the opportunity to set out his views at length, or gets challenged to justify them in detail. So I guess that’s a happy ending of sorts.

I’m also going to stop checking on Rob Knox’s intermittent but frequently brilliant blog Law and Disorder (even the URL is an education). Rob’s last post on that blog reads, in part: “So, anyway, I have made a New Year’s resolution to try and post much more frequently, we’ll see if this actually comes about”. It’s dated 18th January 2010. I look forward to reading the book on international law that he will indubitably end up writing.

On the other hand, I am going to start reading Between the Hammer and the Anvil (which I currently catch up on every couple of weeks, very much the way I read XKCD) and Bad Conscience (which I read when it’s linked from Stumbling and Mumbling, i.e. quite often).

Finally, does anyone know what’s happened to Liam Mac Uaid’s blog? It’s currently coming up as “deleted”, which is surprising and a bit alarming. I’m hoping it will resurface in another form before too long (sectarian joke about relaunching with new name and slightly larger membership goes here).

Hang your freedom higher

The situationists … don’t talk of a real utopia but an abstract utopia. Do they really think that, one fine morning or one decisive evening, people will turn to one another and say “That’s enough! Enough work and boredom! Let’s make an end of it!” and that they’ll embark on an endless festival, on creating situations? Maybe it did happen once, at daybreak on the 18th of March 1871, but that conjuncture won’t come round again.
- Henri Lefebvre, October 1967

Although I’ve written about activism, I’m not an activist; I tried it for a few years, in my late 20s and early 30s, but after a while I wanted my evenings and weekends back. I joined the 24th November demo in Manchester, although I legged it when it looked as if we were going to get kettled; I missed yesterday’s altogether (I was at a seminar on student activism, ironically enough) and I haven’t been to the Roscoe occupation.

So I’m seeing the current movement from a distance, and I may be getting it wrong in any number of ways. But, from what I’ve read, it seems like this could be the start of something big. This, from OxfordCambridge, is absolutely exemplary in terms of tactical, organisational and ideological innovation:

On Sunday, occupying students will host a General Assembly for all those who have been inspired by their action against the cuts and the ConDem government. “It is clear that the cuts we are facing go far beyond the student movement and so should the resistance. This large general meeting aims to address the question: “what next?” By bringing together school, sixth form, and university students, academics, workers, trade unionists, pensioners, anti-cuts and community groups we will help to build the movement in Cambridge and beyond.”

The Cambridge occupation has now ended, but occupations continue at Bristol, Leeds, Nottingham, Newcastle and of course Manchester; in London there are occupations at KCL, UCL, the LSE and SOAS. (This is not an exhaustive list.) There are thousands of angry, inspired and well-informed people out there, who have made a serious commitment to this movement; for a lot of them the occupations are providing some great experiences, enabling them to get to know themselves and what they’re capable of.

There is depth of feeling and attention to detail, along with the inevitable earnestness; reasoned debates take place over coffee – they’d bought a machine since continual café runs had eaten into the kitty – and stale sandwiches donated from a staff meeting. They look cleanish though tired and cold – the heating got turned off on Sunday night and today is Wednesday – but they’ve learned to get round things: a shower and a night at home every few days, a few hours’ work on their essays before bed, a break for a lecture and to pass out flyers. It’s like a ‘really big sleepover’, one student tells me; another says that it’s almost become a way of life. They talk of the dance-off they’d had with the Oxford Radcliffe Camera occupation via Skype, of the ‘fun’ they’re having. They didn’t know each other before and now they’re a community.

If the fees bill gets passed today, I think we can be confident that a lot of them will fight on. And in the unlikely event that it falls… I think we can be confident that a lot of them will fight on.

One outcome which I think we can rule out is quick and effective repression of the movement. This is largely because the government is unpopular and disunited; the kind of tactically heavy-handed and legally ingenious treatment the miners got in 1984-5 was only feasible because the government was united in the belief that it was cracking down on the Enemy Within, and an awful lot of ordinary people backed them in that. But we should also give the movement some credit for the way it’s responded to the police attention it has received. There’s a learning experience going on out there:

The Metropolitan Police seems to be on a mission to prove to everyone under the age of 25 that the Marxists are right and the bourgeois state is fundamentally repressive. Last week they gave a bunch of fifteen year olds mild hypothermia and severe anxiety as part of this project.

As we all know a big turning point in every revolutionary’s life is that moment when they learn to really hate cops. The youth are learning. Watch this little video of the student protests on November 30th from The Gabber to see how they dodge the cops’ kettling tactic.

(Do watch it – it’s inspiring and sometimes hilarious.)

Did I mention my book? It’s been fascinating – and heartening – to see the tactical creativity, the ideological openness and the defiant playfulness of the 1970s movements which I wrote about reappearing in this one. Another interesting parallel is the sense that the established revolutionary groups are being sidelined – or, at least, are having to learn how to follow as well as lead:

Here is an expletive riddled account by someone who was at a recent student organised event.

“We were invited guests of the most radical activists in town. They had a very good structure worked out, announced at the start of the meeting. 1 hour of ‘open mic’ on what cuts are affecting your workplace, community, sector or whatever, and what fightback is occurring (if any). 20 mins tea break. 2 hours of strategizing about where next – first in relation to education and then the wider cuts.

|Of course, it only works if people respect the agenda set. And then the f**king deatheaters started with their boring set speeches. Do they not get it? This is not a rabble that needs rousing – they are already more f**king aroused than the constitutional revolutionaries, whose main objective is to win this vote, or that position. Egomaniacs sucking the air and life out of the room.

“The students were too f**king civil – very good at reclaiming space from the establishment but haven’t figured out how to defend their space from sectarians. All they could do was politely remind people to stay on topic.”

You can see why she is furious. If ever there was a moment when the vanguard is running behind the popular mood insisting on its right to lead it is now. Pretending that your small group is the only leaders a movement needs is downright delusional. This could just be one of those occasions when the best thing to do is to let the movement run free and develop its own momentum.

Wise words mate. (“Deatheaters”!)

The other sure sign that the movement is starting to get somewhere is that attempts are being made to separate the “extremists” (those who are revolutionary, violent, criminal, beyond the pale of civilised politics) from the “moderates” (those who are willing to denounce the extremists). Sayeeda Warsi’s attempt to hang the ‘extremist’ label on John McDonnell deserved to be laughed out of court, but sadly – and only too predictably – wasn’t:

While it would be great if Ed Miliband came out explicitly for the occupations, in much the same way the NUS leadership has been shamed into doing, he is unlikely to do so because of the gravitational pull received practice and Labour’s contradictory location exerts on him. Given the choice of supporting students, winning tens of thousands of radical new adherents to Labour, and placing the party firmly on the side of opposition to the cuts; and the prevarication of politics as usual, he will plump for the latter every time.

I would argue that Labour’s “contradictory position” isn’t just that of the party of organised labour within a capitalist democracy, which is what Phil has in mind here. Labour is also, like the Italian Communist Party in the 1970s, occupying the role of “gatekeeper” in a relatively closed political system. The party is the arbiter of the leftward limit of what’s politically thinkable, and maintains that position by either denouncing or appropriating innovations from the broader Left. The fact that under Ed Miliband the ratio of appropriation to denunciation is likely to rise above zero doesn’t change that context, or its constraining effects: placing the party firmly on the side of opposition to the cuts would simply be politically impossible.

Rather more disappointing was the failure of a leading Green to get it:

The Green Party’s Jenny Jones who is also a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority … opted to issue a scabbing statement saying:

“In my 40 year experience of going to protests, the violent people aren’t real protestors at all. They are criminals who use the cover of a demo to do as much damage as they can. Real protestors want to make their point and get good headlines for their cause.”

a fault line is going to start running through every trade union, students’ union, political party, Christmas party and football team as the struggle heats up. It’ll be around trivial stuff like vandalism but underneath it will be a choice about whether you’re on the side of the fighters or the capitulators. Jenny Jones won’t be the last to jump the wrong way.

I think this is exactly right, except that it won’t be – at least, it won’t purport to be – about trivial stuff like vandalism: it’ll be done through accusations that protestors were being violent, or threatening to be violent… or tolerating other people’s violence… or tolerating other people’s threats of violence… or failing to denounce other people’s violence… or failing to denounce other people’s tolerance of threats of violence… and on it will go, if the protestors let it. I wasn’t entirely enamoured of Clare Solomon’s tactics when she was grilled on Newsnight, but she clearly recognised the importance of not walking into a trap when it’s been laid for you – which, sadly, is more than you can say for Aaron Porter. When people get angry they often damage property and break laws. Damaging property and breaking the law is generally a bad thing, but getting angry is sometimes entirely appropriate: an angry demonstration does not turn into a criminal demonstration if some of its participants commit offences, and nor is the movement behind the demo tainted by those individuals’ actions. (Nor should it necessarily back them to the hilt, on the other hand. I agree with Mary Beard, up to a point – being punished for breaking a law which you set out to break cannot reasonably be called unjust. That said, I think what she misses is that no law is ever applied with absolute uniformity. There is always a broader context which determines whether the law will be applied in particular cases; in this case the protests against the law, and the claim that the law was broken in a just cause, are part of that context.)

A couple of quotes from my book seem relevant here. (SPOILERS: they’re the last sentences of the last chapter proper and the methodological appendix, respectively. But it’s even better if you read the whole thing.) My book, incidentally, has sold 248 copies in the UK; considering that it has an rrp of £60, and is presumably only being bought by libraries and the odd eccentric millionaire, I think this is pretty good going. The hardback edition is only 400, and if we can sell that out a paperback should be on the cards; so if it’s not in a library near you, why not request that they buy a copy? It’s starting to acquire a certain amount of contemporary relevance.

In Britain, where the electoral system excludes social movements from the national political system, the Labour Party remains the principal Left gatekeeper. Faced with a disorderly and uncontainable rival to its left, Labour would have the same options as the PCI. An inclusive engagement would require the party quietly to appropriate and absorb the demands and tactics of the new movement, while publicly denouncing its leadership as irresponsible extremists. An exclusive engagement, in contrast, would involve denunciations of violence, escalating demands for dissociation and emphatic assertions of the party’s own commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Thirty years on, the Italian political system and the remains of the Italian Left still demonstrate how disastrous the effects of this approach could be.

in political systems which remain relatively impermeable, we should be alert to the power of the labelling mechanisms deployed by gatekeeper parties, in particular in the conditions of a negative engagement. We should be particularly wary of attempts to draw an authoritative dividing line between the ‘moderate’ and the ‘extremist’ elements of a social movement. A resolution passed by a national meeting of the ‘movement of 1977’ in April of that year concluded: ‘The movement does not carry out excommunications and does not accept the criminalisation of any of its elements.’ Neither should we.

One puzzle about this movement is where it came from: nationwide university occupations don’t come out of a blue sky, do they? One answer would be to refer back to poor old Lefebvre and say that sometimes they do just that. I think also there’s a combative mood that’s been building for a while, smouldering just below the surface. Ironically, it’s been fostered – or at least permitted to continue – by the fact that Labour were in office for so long. New Labour were certainly an authoritarian and pro-business government, but the two elements weren’t combined (as they had been under Thatcher) in a war on “militant left-wingers” and “union bully-boys”. New Labour’s authoritarianism mostly took aim at much softer targets – Islamism and “anti-social behaviour” – in a kind of punitive reinforcement of the social exclusion already suffered by marginalised groups. The result was that a generation forgot the lessons that were drummed into us under Thatcher: “pickets” meant “thugs”, “militants” meant “loonies”, “mass meeting” meant “mob rule”. In short, the taboos against collective action quietly faded away. Lindsey was an early – and impressive – sign of the kind of action that had become thinkable again. At the same time, and for similar reasons, radical ideas began to have a bit more purchase: the language isn’t always the same, but the ideas still work. A speaker at yesterday’s seminar suggested that “neo-liberalism” is becoming a master-frame for the current wave of activists: neo-liberalism gave us Iraq and Afghanistan, neo-liberalism gives us public spending cuts and now neo-liberalism wants to give us massively increased tuition fees. Neo-liberalism, nein danke. Those two taboos – against leftist thinking and against collective action – were the product of years of Thatcherite Kulturkampf, beginning in the mid-70s; it would take years to reinstate them, and it would take a stronger and more united government than this one to do it.

The other question is, of course, where it goes next. If precedent is anything to go by – and if that statement from Cambridge is at all typical – the next step will be to link up with workers in struggle; the next but one, to link up with workers who aren’t in struggle yet. We shall see. I don’t think today’s vote in Parliament will be the end, or even the beginning of the end – but it may be the end of the beginning.

Back by Christmas

Well, this is interesting.

There were two council by-elections yesterday. One was in Croxteth (not to be confused with Toxteth), a ward of Liverpool City Council, which currently has a small Labour majority; the other was in Wednesbury (famed for its reasonableness), a ward of Sandwell MBC, which has a large Labour majority. In Croxteth two seats were contested, one of which had been held by Labour and one by a Liberal Democrat. The Wednesbury vacancy was caused by the retirement of a Tory councillor; the May election result was very close, so there were hopes that Labour would take it.

Here are the results for the main parties (May 2010 and % change in brackets).

Croxteth (two seats)

Labour 1447 (3307; +4.3%)
Labour 1424
Lib Dem 611 (1711; -6.5%)
Lib Dem 479
Soc Lab 135 (244; +0.2%)
BNP 117
Soc Lab 70
Green 63 (78; no change)
UKIP 50
English Democrats 35
English Democrats 33
Conservative 31 (271; -3.5%)
Conservative 29
UKIP 19

There doesn’t seem to be much of a bedrock Conservative vote in Croxteth. The Lib Dem result at first sight doesn’t look too bad – they got 24% of the vote in an eight-way fight (admittedly trailing Labour’s 63.2% rather substantially), meaning that they’ve only lost 20% of the vote they had in May. But bear in mind that there were two seats up for election, one of which was actually held by a Lib Dem, and this result looks a bit more striking.

The picture in Wednesbury is a bit more straightforward:

Labour 1322 (1938; +25.2%)
Conservative 643 (1989; -8.4%)
National Front 76 (BNP 615; -8.5%)
Lib Dem 45 (534; -8.3%)

Get in! The Tory vote has slumped to 30% – a substantial bedrock, but bear in mind this has been a safe Tory seat until fairly recently. The Lib Dem vote has melted like ice in the sun; the same goes for what was a worryingly strong showing by the fash. Labour’s share of the vote is 63.4% – slightly higher than in Croxteth. And this was a safe Tory seat.

Swing away from Coalition parties, swing back to Labour. All highly predictable, surely – is this really worth writing about? I think it is, for three reasons. Firstly, it’s a big swing; that Wednesbury North result, in particular, reminds me of nothing so much as the early days of the SDP. People aren’t just protesting against the Tories – abstention does that just as well; they’re going big on Labour. (And not, apparently, on the far Right. Mind you, I’m not sure how reassured we should be by the collapse of the BNP vote in Wednesbury; there will certainly have been intra-fash sectarian factors involved. I have to say, the implosion of the BNP couldn’t have happened at a better time.)

The second thing that makes this interesting is, precisely, the contrast between the SDP in 1981-2 and Labour now. They had: well-known, well-liked and well-respected leaders (and Bill Rogers); a massive advertising campaign; guarded sympathy from most of the Tory press, and the unswerving and enthusiastic loyalty of the Guardian; and, at least initially, a genuine groundswell of activism at the grassroots. It wasn’t exactly the Tea Party in its intensity – more of a coffee morning – but it was there; I remember that one of my mother’s friends at church asked her if she’d joined yet. The way the party kept winning by-elections against all-comers was a bit of a shock at the time – a friend said that it looked as if they were going to “break the mould” of British politics by replacing it with a one-party state – but in retrospect it’s not all that surprising: with all of that going for them, how couldn’t they win?

By contrast, Labour in 2010 have got Ed Miliband, and, er. I’ve got no more idea what Miliband’s Labour is going to stand for than I did the day he was elected: something Brownite? something a bit Old Labour-ish? is he going to let the Blairites run the show? does he want the Blairites to run the show? We really don’t know, and that kind of uncertainty is (or ought to be) electoral poison – more of a vote-loser than a definite commitment to just about anything. Combine that with the complete absence of all the other factors that played into the SDP’s support, and 60% votes are really not what we’d expect at all. (Yes, I know council elections are different, but they’re not that different.)

The third and most surprising feature of these votes is that nothing’s happened yet. We’ve had the Comprehensive Spending Review, we know that the government wants to put us (or someone we know) out of work, but they haven’t done it yet – they haven’t had a chance. This is still very much the Phoney War. I can only think that what we’re seeing now is basically buyer’s remorse: lots of people who voted Lib Dem, and (interestingly) quite a lot who voted Tory, have taken a look at what they’re going to get and decided they don’t actually fancy it after all. People who used their vote in May to “send a message” to the Labour Party are doing it again, this time to send a message saying “oops, sorry, can you come back?”

I don’t think this necessarily tells us much about where the real anger will go when things start going properly bad; an awful lot will depend on what direction Labour finally settle on. But these results suggest to me that there’s a strong movement of opposition to the Coalition there to be built, if anyone’s prepared to build it. And I wonder if the odds are starting to lengthen on the Coalition lasting the full five years. Interesting times ahead.

Musicians are cowards

Arcade Fire, or rather the popularity and critical esteem of Arcade Fire, mystify me. I mean, they’ve got that big, soaring, early-Springsteen-ish thing going on, but… well, is that it? The other day I looked at some of their performances – well, a couple: I watched this performance from Jonathan Ross’s programme, then I watched one of the Glastonbury performances, and then I just got tired. (Nice to see a hurdy-gurdy on stage, I’ve got to admit, although playing it in heels was surely a bad idea.) Partly I wanted to stop before I was tempted, even out of morbid curiosity, to click on the link that said

Arcade Fire & U2 – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Ugh.

A couple of years ago I wrote a parody of the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. I sang it at a local folk club a while ago, and found myself introducing it with a version of one of Tom Lehrer’s lines – “And if you get the urge to sing along, would you please repress it.” I got the laugh, but that phrasing stuck in my mind afterwards. One of the great things about singing with other people is precisely that you don’t repress the urge: you let rip. It’s easy to assume that there’s something regressive or infantile about this. Certainly it feels as if there’s something sophisticated and adult about sitting in silence and not joining in, but the reverse isn’t necessarily the case. What you’re singing when you let rip isn’t necessarily “la la la”, or “no nay never” for that matter; it can be

With my hump along, jump along,
There drives my lad along:
Pretty, Sparkle, Berry!
Goodluck, Speedwell, Cherry!
We are the lads that can follow the plough,
We are the lads that can follow the plough.

(The tune is equally fiddly.) To be part of a roomful of people singing that is an accomplishment, and takes a bit of practice, but when you get there it’s deeply satisfying – in a way that’s not at all repressed. (We are not the lads that can follow the plough, clearly, but I don’t think this is much of a score against folk music; the crowd at a Queen gig was not in fact going to rock anyone, after all.)

What’s this got to do with Arcade Fire? I believe that rock music is deeply involved with the kind of repression I’ve referred to: it challenges it, but in a very compromised and uncertain way. In other words, a lot of rock music has an anxious quality which isn’t contradicted by, but goes hand in hand with, a certain kind of soaring exultation: Can we (and you in the audience) break down our self-imposed expectations and make a hell of a lot of noise together? No we can’t… no we can’t… but right now you and me We Can! Hell Yeah Yes We Can!… and rest. And repeat. If you can wrap it all around some vague transformative rhetoric – Can we make the world a better place? No we can’t… but right now We Can! – then so much the better.

There’s something deeply spectacular about this, in the sense of grafting a sense of active – and rebellious – participation on to a state of passive spectatorship which is never really challenged. This, I think, is the real fraudulence of presenting Bono or Chris Martin as a political figure: their entire career rests on acting out the impression that repressions are being triumphantly overcome, in a performance which by its very design challenges nothing in the outside world. To take this as a basis on which to mount some sort of rhetorical challenge to real oppression and real injustice is deeply confused, and self-deceiving on the part of everyone concerned: it’s as if Peter Falk and Telly Savalas were holding press conferences demanding better crime detection.

That U2 collaboration tells its own story; it seems to me that the sound of Arcade Fire is very much the sound of imagined triumph over imagined repression, in a style that goes back to “Born to Run” and beyond (even in 1975 I remember thinking that this Springsteen person sounded awfully old-fashioned). Arcade Fire really remind me of someone else entirely, though. I mean, look at them: there’s about twelve of them on stage, most of them playing un-rockish instruments, several of them female, and they make a lot of use of choral vocals and drones. And their album art looks a bit eccentric and home-made, and their songs seem to encapsulate unsettled states of mind, with a vague radical edge. And they’re from Canada. Specifically, French-speaking Canada. More specifically, Montreal. In short, what Arcade Fire really made me think was that there was a market for something like Godspeed You Black Emperor!/A Silver Mt. Zion* – something a bit like that, only upbeat, marketable, radio-friendly: a Lloyd Cole to their Orange Juice, a Kasabian to their Primal Scream.

What’s interesting here is that GYBE!/ASMZ never do that repression/release/exultation thing: the sound they make is loud, challenging and exhilarating, but there’s nothing apologetic or anxious about it, and no sense that We’re Changing The World Right Now! It’s just a great big sound, and it’ll sweep you away. The music’s powerful in an honest, unpretentious way – something that GYBE!’s ‘post-rock’ shares with equally uncompromising forms of music like thrash, or most kinds of dance music. But even so, there’s a lingering sense that the music is there to overcome your resistance: listeners are envisaged as those willingly repressed audience members, holding it together and not letting down their guard, with a lot of the pleasure coming from an almost masochistic submission to the overwhelming power of the music. As I get more involved with folk music – and, probably not unrelatedly, as I get older – this seems like going a rather long way round: wouldn’t it be simpler just to drop your guard, willingly and cheerfully, and take the risk of looking a bit stupid for the greater good of unself-conscious pleasure?

To put it another way, is there anything in the world better than what these people are doing? Take a look at this. We’re still in Montreal, the instruments are not rock and it’s a big group (23 people including two dancers), but you could never mistake them for GYBE! – let alone Arcade Fire.

Anyone who doesn’t smile during that clip deserves to have Laughing Len quoted at them – “You don’t really care for music, do you?” Music you’re actually making, with or without a clogger in a white mini-skirt calling the tunes: there is nothing like it. (And, as that clip illustrates, it actually does change the world.)

*I love them dearly, but there is no way I’m going to follow them through every twist and turn of The Re-Naming Of Thee Bandes. GYBE! and ASMZ to me they will always be. (And let’s face it, you’re not going to think I’m talking about anyone else.)

Of a city like the sky

I’ve written another paper. This one falls into the category of “developed out of the thesis”, and indeed “complementing the book”. I’ve done a couple of conference papers like that, but up to now I’ve fought shy of doing one for publication; I think I’ve vaguely felt that conference papers count as adverts for the book or free samples, whereas a published paper covering similar ground would be cheating. Excessively scrupulous, I think. Apart from anything else, this paper has the great merit of stating the argument plainly – it is there in the book, but my writing style back then was a bit less forthright. (As for the thesis, it essentially manoeuvres great ramparts of evidence into a kind of logical labyrinth and then steps back and mutters to itself, now look at the path you’ve been forced to take! “Unassuming Edwards”, they used to call me, or would have if they’d noticed.)

It’s nearly done, anyway – all over bar the editing – and if anyone wants to look at a draft they’d be quite welcome. Title, abstract, bibliography:

“Rejecting all adventurism”: The Italian Communist Party and the movements of 1972-9

The history of the Italian Communist Party in the 1960s and 1970s was marked by the party’s engagement with a succession of radical competitors. Following the work of Sidney Tarrow, this paper argues that the party benefited from its engagement with the “cycle of contention” which centred on the Hot Autumn of 1969. However, a second cycle can also be identified, running from 1972 to 1979 and fuelled by ‘autonomist’ readings of Marxism. The paper identifies conjunctural and organisational reasons for the contrast between the party’s engagement with the first cycle of contention and its hostile engagement with this second group of movements. It argues that this hostile engagement was a major contributory factor to the subsequent decline of the party, as well as the suppression of the movements – and the subsequent growth of “armed struggle” groups.

Continue reading

Everything you stand for

In itself, there’s nothing unusual about someone being left wing when young and becoming more right wing as they get older. What’s strange about the RCP, though, is the way the group seems to have moved together

From Jenny Turner’s terrific piece on the Institute of Ideas and its siblings and precursors.

What’s particularly good about this article, apart from its length and thoroughness, is its open-endedness: the title is “Who are they?”, and this question – like the related question “what are they doing?” – is never really answered other than descriptively. Turner’s conclusion gestures towards the idea that the ex-RCP network might be keeping its powder dry for the coming upsurge in class struggle, but her heart isn’t really in it. More typical is her remark that “it isn’t clear what the Continuity RCP is after, except that someone, somewhere, really likes setting things up”.

I seem to have jumped the gun on anecdotes involving the RCP, but don’t worry, I’ve got more. One more, at least. In 1993 or thereabouts, I was in London on an assertiveness training course. I was on my way back to my hotel when a Living Marxism seller made the mistake of approaching me. Usually I would just walk straight past, but that night I said No, thankyou!, quite loudly and distinctly. I was feeling rather pleased with myself when the guy called after me, “Why not?”. I stopped and spun round. Why not? Because you’re a bunch of fucking fascists, that’s why not! (This language is of course aggressive rather than assertive, and is not recommended in a workplace scenario; the poor guy would have been well within his rights if he’d told me that he had an issue with the way I addressed him. He didn’t, though.)

They do consistently tend to rouse strong feelings, the RCP – never more so than in that period, when Bosnia had substantial parts of the Left feeling fairly aggrieved with one another. But “fascists”? Not really. It would have been true to say that I felt an absolute enmity towards the RCP, more than I did towards Labour or even the Tories – or anyone else except the fash – but that’s not quite the same thing. Turner again:

‘RCP members were the first to imitate neo-Nazis and deny the existence of a Serb concentration camp in Bosnia,’ Nick Cohen wrote in 2006. Neo-Nazis? Really? ‘Living Marxism’s attempts to rewrite the history of the camps,’ Ed Vulliamy wrote in 2000, ‘was motivated by the fact that in their heart of hearts, these people applauded those camps.’ How could he possibly know that?

It’s a point that needed making. They’re not fascists; in many ways they’re quite recognisable revolutionary socialists. The contrarianism, and the dogged rationalism that backs it up, aren’t at all unusual – back in the eighties any socialist worth their salt could explain at some length how it was that the Labour Party were the real class enemy, the British Army in the North of Ireland were the real terrorists, or whatever. Also very familiar is the stultifying fakery that comes of combining front work with cadre organisation:

These days, IoI bods look like delegates at a Unison conference, or the seekers who gather at Landmark seminars and the Alpha Course. The ones who make the speeches are mostly white and in their thirties and forties (the volunteers on the cameras and boom-mikes are younger and more diverse). They’re more relaxed than they used to be, less aggressive and overtly controlling, but they still have a habit of sitting on panels together, pretending they don’t already know each other, and they still dominate meetings with tedious, well-rehearsed spontaneous interventions.

I’ve noticed something similar from SWP members, some of whom seem to have taken a vow never to mention the party itself – even when the conversation turns to Martin Smith (of Unite Against Fascism), Weyman Bennett (of Love Music Hate Racism) or Marxism 2010 (“great speakers, great workshops, have you thought of going?”).

What’s not clear is why the RCP have ended up staking out this weird business-friendly anti-green smug-libertarian corner – or, for that matter, why they went quite so heavily for the pro-Serb (or anti-anti-Serb) cause in the 90s. I don’t believe they’re provocateurs in any straightforward sense, but their psychological makeup does seem to include a love of the wind-up – a sense that getting a reaction is an end in itself.

The magazine’s Bosnia coverage had a very odd tone, cold and flippant and a bit sarcastic. The July 1992 edition had Serbia on the cover, described as the ‘WHITE NIGGERS’ of the New World Order. ‘The world’s media have invented a veritable Holocaust in Bosnia,’ Furedi wrote, under his own name, a couple of months later. ‘It is surely only a matter of time before gas chambers are discovered in the car park of the Agriculture Ministry in Belgrade.’ LM was perhaps trying to counteract the ‘very one-sided, anti-Serb’ gushiness it objected to in ‘the liberal media’ but the effect is not cool, disciplined, objective – it’s just mean.

Put it another way. Suppose you were accused of denying that a prison camp known to be a place where people were brutalised and murdered was really as bad as all that. You probably wouldn’t set up a libel defence campaign and advertise it with a picture of the barbed wire that caused all the trouble in the first place. You probably wouldn’t call it ‘Off the Fence’.

Their more recent angles – denying global warming, denouncing anti-racism – are perhaps a milder form of the same kind of shock tactics; they’re certainly aimed at shocking the same kind of people. It’s not, to put it mildly, the way political groups generally make propaganda. It’s more like a particularly dedicated satirist, trying to identify the few kindred souls who get it by setting out to offend almost – but not quite – everyone in the audience.

So what is it all about? Back in 2003, Jamie suggested that this might be what you get if you keep the vanguard role going (with its contrarian and rationalist presumptions) but quietly lose the revolutionary politics that gave it its point:

Their oppositionism has been the one constant thing about them. Yet it does seem to have led over the years to a kind of surreptitious hankering after nihilism, expressed at one level by their eager apologetics for genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda and on another by their inability to avoid mechanical sneering at any social or political phenomena. In theory, they are apparently in favour of confident humanity making choices. A glance at Spiked tells you that they can find nothing good to say about the choices humans make. The whole site reads like the effusions of the snottiest 14 year old in the grammar school playground. This is apparently where vanguardism for its own sake leads.

Or perhaps they run campaigns and hold conferences and issue press releases because it’s what they’re used to doing – someone, somewhere, really likes setting things up – and their pro-corporate evolution is just a kind of tropism towards a guaranteed source of funding.

Anyway, read the article. Jamie’s post about it is also well worth a look, particularly the comments thread.

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