Category Archives: pro-situ

Rich as honey dew – 4

Five (mostly) pessimistic points about the Left and antisemitism, part 4. (Covering point 5, and – confusingly – the fifth post in the series overall.)

  1. Everyone knows this is ridiculous
  2. It’s taken on a life of its own
  3. Jews are different
  4. The question of Palestine
  5. The socialism of fools

I’ve got to admit, when I first heard that there were people on the Left circulating anti-semitic conspiracy theories I found it very hard to take seriously. I’ve been interested in conspiracy theory and in unconventional belief systems for thirty-odd years; between the two of them, I could hardly fail to be aware that there are such things as anti-semitic conspiracy theories. But then, there are people out there who think the measurements of the Great Pyramid have cosmic significance, or that the Book of Daniel tells us the date of the Second Coming, or that the Lost Tribes of Israel are in fact the British. (Hebrew: ‘brit’ = ‘covenant’, ‘ish’ = ‘man’. Coincidence?) As for conspiracy theories, people in search of a world-historical criminal mastermind may put the blame on the Elders of Zion or Mossad; equally, they may blame the Masons, the Illuminati, the Annunaki or the late Aristotle Onassis.

What all those more or less delusional theories have in common is that their devotees are patently irrational – sometimes laughably so, sometimes tragically – and that there are very few of them. Hence why I didn’t take the news of anti-semitic conspiracy theorists on the Left very seriously; my reaction was, essentially, you’re always going to get a few nutters. I now think there’s a bit more to it than that, and it’s worth taking a proper look at.

According to a widely-held argument, recently voiced (as we’ve seen) by Jonathan Freedland, conspiracy theory itself is part of the problem. Conspiracy theory is a kind of ‘gateway drug’ to irrational thinking and thence anti-semitism: you start by doubting the official version, you go on to blaming somebody behind the scenes, you end up discovering that it’s you-know-who behind the scenes. This isn’t a hypothetical worry; depressingly large numbers of people have gone down something like this route, and not only the Left – try searching for ‘Rothschild’ on Twitter if you want a bad time. But I wonder if the conspiracy theory is what’s doing the work here. As I wrote a couple of posts ago, it’s not as if no conspiracies have ever taken place, or the official version of history has always been correct; sometimes theorising about conspiracies is a useful and responsible way of doing history.

So what makes a conspiracy theory a bad conspiracy theory? What makes the difference between (e.g.) Dorril and Ramsay’s Smear! and the late Bill Cooper’s Behold a pale horse? Apart from the fact that Behold a pale horse consists largely of wildly implausible, near-psychotic ravings, I mean. But what makes one theory plausible (e.g. “in the mid-70s, elements of the security and intelligence services conspired with groups in and around the Tory Party to smear Harold Wilson as a KGB asset, so as to get him out of office”) and another implausible (“since the 1960s the CIA have been brainwashing mental patients into carrying out mass shootings so as to get gun control legislation passed and disarm the people, thus enabling the New World Order to take power”)? Apart from… OK, I see the problem.

Clearly, there are conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories. Thinking about it a bit more systematically, a full-on, florid Conspiracy! Theory! like Cooper’s – or like the “the Rothschilds ran the Nazis” babble that’s all too easy to find online – has four characteristics:

  • Scepticism – distrust of official information and received opinion
  • Mechanics – interest in how social structures work, including structures whose workings are not apparent
  • Vision – belief in a coherent alternative way of looking at the world and being in the world
  • Blame – tendency to scapegoat individuals or groups

To be a capital-C Conspiracist isn’t just to distrust the official record; it also means having ideas about how things really work (mechanics), about who’s really in charge (blame) and – perhaps the biggest hit of all – what’s really going on (vision). This last element explains why David Icke is so keen to tell us that the Moon is hollow or that Satan is from Saturn (coincidence?), even though neither astronomy nor folk religion has any obvious relevance to politics in any form. It’s not just a way of looking at the world we share that Icke is selling – it’s a whole new world, a ‘red pill’ conversion experience that you can never undo or go back on. (Or not without feeling really embarrassed.)

But if you define conspiracy theory in terms of the full package of capital-C Conspiracism – Scepticism + Mechanics + Vision + Blame – you rapidly run into similar problems to adherents of the canonical definition of terrorism, which requires (a) violence to be used to (b) achieve political ends by (c) causing terror to (d) someone other than the victim. Some terrorist acts fit the whole definition – just as some examples of conspiracy theory fit the whole of that definition – but many don’t. Was every tit-for-tat killing in the Troubles part of an attempt to achieve a broader political goal? Did every IRA volunteer who ever fired at an RUC man or a British squaddie do so as an attempt to terrorise witnesses? Clearly not. What we call ‘terrorism’ is violence with a political motive somewhere in the picture; some of it has short-term political goals; some of it’s designed to make an impact on third parties. You can’t really generalise much more than that, I suspect. Similarly, if I spend my spare time reading all about Jack Ruby and Officer Tippit and Alex or Alick Heindel or possibly Hidell, the chances are that I don’t entirely believe the Warren Report (Scepticism), and that I at least suspect that there were covert machinations of some sort (Mechanics) going on in Dallas that day. I may also believe that the guys who offed Kennedy were part of a century-spanning conspiracy on a global scale, and that I know just who’s behind it – but then again, I may not. In point of fact, most of the authorities on the classic ‘conspiracy’ topics – JFK, MLK, RFK, the October Surprise, Iran/Contra – show very little interest in setting out a new model that explains everything (Vision), let alone uncovering the ‘secret rulers of the world’ (Blame). Scepticism + Mechanics is the usual toolkit – and some good and useful work has been done by people who get by on scepticism alone, and don’t even show much interest in the mechanics of what may or may not have gone on.

So, conspiracy theory properly understood doesn’t get you to the Protocols mentality, or to what I’ve been calling Conspiracism. Conspiracy theory properly understood – the question of who entered into what agreements with whom, contrary to their own overt and official positions – is a branch of political history, no more and no less. Indeed, the two elements of Conspiracism that aren’t part of conspiracy theory – Vision and Blame – can stand on their own: This is how things should be and/or how things really are! And these are the people stopping it and/or hiding it from us! Call it the paranoid style; call it the pogrom mentality; you could even call it “The Screwfly Solution”. Whatever you call it, it’s not conspiracy theory. In fact, the main elements of conspiracy theory – rational scepticism and curiosity about mechanisms – are, ultimately, antithetical to the lurid panoramas and simplistic finger-pointing of the paranoid style. Compare and contrast: on one hand, “Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Oswald was almost certainly related to Ruby’s mob connections, which in turn should be seen in the context of organised crime’s involvement with the Cuban exile community and LBJ’s own suspect business dealings, investigations into which – not coincidentally – stopped soon after November 22nd”; on the other, “the Rothschilds owned Hitler, just like they now own Jeremy Corbyn”. One of these things is very much not like the other. If anything, conspiracy theory is a cure for the paranoid style, or a big part of a cure.

But now I’ve got problems; in fact, I’m coming close to contradicting myself. Didn’t I begin by saying that the primrose path from pukka conspiracy theory (Scepticism + Mechanics) to full-on Conspiracism (Scepticism + Mechanics + Vision + Blame) is one that many people do in fact tread? How can that be, if the paranoid style (Vision + Blame) is so different from, and so inferior to, conspiracy theory proper?

Perhaps there aren’t four elements to Conspiracism but two; perhaps Scepticism and Mechanics aren’t simple antitheses of Vision and Blame, but are involved with them rather more intimately. Perhaps, in other words, Vision is what Scepticism decays into, when the would-be sceptic lacks the application or the patience to keep track of all the “Smith received donations from Jones” and “Jones shared a letterhead with Evans” circumstantial evidence – never mind the suggestive details and the telling omissions, they’re all in it together, that’s what we’re saying, isn’t it? And perhaps you can say something similar about a drift from Mechanics to Blame – you start with a patient and necessarily open-ended grappling with ways in which things, perhaps, are actually getting done, but you end with the trap snapping shut on who is actually getting things done. There is still such a thing as Conspiracism, on this reckoning, but it’s the name we give to the process of drifting, or degenerating, from ‘conspiracy theory’ (characterised by sceptical but open-minded curiosity) to the paranoid style (characterised by grand overviews and declarations of anathema).

We’re getting close to an explanation for why Corbynism in particular may have attracted substantial numbers of people whose thinking is characterised – and marred – by the paranoid style, and to a possible solution. Simply, Corbynism has attracted substantial numbers of people – attracted them into politics and into activism, made them feel that they had a voice worth hearing; specifically, it’s attracted people inclined towards scepticism about official stories and an interest in the mechanics of how the world works. So far, so good; the problems start when, for a minority of those people, resentment and intellectual laziness triumph over the open-minded, generous curiosity of political inquiry – and conspiracy theory – done properly. Let’s be clear, conspiracy theory done properly is hard work with very little short-term reward; discovering that Fred Bloggs was on the boards of a charity that donated to the Conservative Party and a think-tank with links to the Economic League is unlikely to make your name, bring in any money or even give you much of a buzz. Discovering that Bloggs, behind his mild-mannered exterior, was a powerful operator with connections to people in high places – that’s much more fun. Letting Vision prevail over Scepticism and Blame prevail over Mechanics – that’s how conspiracy theory goes bad; it’s also a standing temptation for anyone who likes an intellectual shortcut and wants to let out a bit of rage. Which is to say, for everyone some of the time, as well as for some (a few) people all of the time.

As for the solution, that’s simple: push the sliders back the other way, from the comfortable froth of Vision and Blame back to the hard work and indefinitely-delayed gratification of Scepticism and Mechanics. This is the sense in which we need more conspiracy theory, not less. We also need more free and undominated political discussion – to challenge stereotyping and support sceptical curiosity – and more activism. Jean-Pierre Voyer was right, before he became an ultra-left antisemite (an irony I could have done without):

Whether the subject sinks into madness, practises theory or participates in an uprising … the two poles of daily life – contact with a narrow and separate reality on one hand and spectacular contact with the totality on the other – are simultaneously abolished

Anyone who’s been on a picket line can confirm: there’s an odd sense of lightness and simplicity, which I think is at bottom the sense that “what your life is about” doesn’t have two meanings any more, but one. It’s a profoundly healthy experience. There’s a reason why you see a lot more of the paranoid style on Twitter than you ever do on banners, and it is the obvious one.

I can’t leave this subject without noting that there is more than one political force which has recently activated large numbers of previously passive citizens. Unless Jeremy Corbyn had a particular appeal to people who were likely to be resentful and intellectually lazy, we’d expect to see that there was also more than one political area in which a minority was prone to thinking in the paranoid style. And, of course, this is the case; if we’re quantifying, the Brexit-voting Right is a far greater danger to public discourse than Corbynites could ever be. They, too, feel sceptical towards official accounts and have an interest in the mechanisms whereby things really get done; compared to the Corbynite Left, however, the position from which the Brexit Right starts is far closer towards simplistic Vision and outcasting Blame. Nor do the same corrective mechanisms apply. Brexit politics is something that happens in private life and on social media – the twenty-first century equivalent of shouting at the TV – and very rarely makes it into the public square. Jeremy Corbyn has been repeatedly criticised, not for failing to discourage personal attacks and one-sided fantasies, but for doing so in what are taken to be qualified or double-edged words; but compare the tribunes of the Brexit Right, who have openly and consistently encouraged both of these things, from a far more prominent position. The Left at its very worst – Alan Bull, say – could never pollute the public discourse in the way that Nigel Farage and Paul Dacre already have.

Summing up, then: anti-semitism in the Labour Party is being instrumentalised, and will almost certainly continue to be instrumentalised, by people who want to hang it on the Left. What makes this situation all the more annoying is that it’s an odd sort of problem: if the words “anti-semitism in the Labour Party” are interpreted along the same lines as, say, “racism in the Conservative Party”, we could reasonably say that it wasn’t a problem. (Do Jewish members of the party have trouble getting selected as Labour candidates, or face repeated jocular references to their Jewish background, or have to smile gamely through Jewish jokes at party social events? Huge if true.) A lack of attention to and respect for Jewish identity (or identities) is a real issue in the party, however, partly because of a widespread vulgar-Marxist perception that exploited and oppressed minorities are the only minorities that need respect or solidarity. This needs to be corrected. Related to this, we need to have nothing to do with a knockabout “does this offend you yeah?” approach to Zionism, which parts of the Left have borrowed from parts of the Jewish anti-Zionist Left; we need to be clear that we have no quarrel with Jewish people or Judaism, whether we’re calling for a temporary freeze to settlement building or the replacement of the state of Israel by a secular democracy. Lastly – and least importantly – conspiracy theory in general, and certain very well-worn conspiracist tropes in particular, are becoming an issue in parts of the Corbynite Left. This, though, is because the people involved aren’t doing conspiracy theory properly – or politics, for that matter; and the cure for that is more activism, more discussion, more politics. Which is something that the Corbynite Left, almost uniquely in contemporary politics, is well-equipped to offer.




Our country (3)

THE STORY SO FAR: according to opinion polls, 43% of the British people are currently intending to vote Leave, as against 44% intending to vote Remain. Labour supporters’ contribution to the Leave vote isn’t dominant, but it’s not negligible either – apparently Labour supporters currently split 64%/26% in favour of Remain. Some Labour voters may be voting against the EU on anti-capitalist grounds, but most of the Remain minority appear to have bought one or more of the myths currently floating around: that leaving the EU would lead to increased funding for the NHS, higher wages, more school places, lower rents, etc. On examination, most of these myths rest on hostility to immigrants and the – mistaken – belief that if EU migrants were prevented from coming to the UK there would be “more to go round”.

So: how did we get here?

Part 3: A question of levers

There’s a perfectly respectable justification for working-class racism and xenophobia: people know they’re having a hard time; they see (and are encouraged to see) new people coming in, competing for jobs and scarce resources; but they don’t see (and aren’t encouraged to see) that jobs and resources don’t have to be scarce; they don’t see ‘austerity’ or ‘neo-liberalism’ or ‘a cynical bunch of Tory chancers who care about nothing except extending their own stay in power’. (But before we go any further, let’s not forget that lots of people do see those things; ‘people’ up there doesn’t mean everyone who’s having a hard time. The middle-class Labour vote is pretty chunky, but it’s certainly not big enough to account for that 64% Remain vote.)

This model – the idea that people have genuine grievances, but they articulate them in terms of immigration – is quite widely accepted. The question is, of course, why immigration is the ‘screen’ issue of choice – and not, for instance, alcohol consumption or stray cats or the moral decline of the West. Perhaps what lies behind this question is what makes the argument rhetorically unstable; as we’ve seen, when used it tends to turn into the assertion that nobody should tell working-class people not to complain about immigration, which in turn decays into the assertion that working-class people have good reasons for complaining about immigration. It may be a non-problem (the logic seems to go), used to express real problems that can’t be articulated in their own right, but there must be some good reason why the non-problem of choice is immigration; what might that be? Perhaps it’s not such a non-problem after all? This unargued, half-thought-out logic lends itself to double-counting and equivocation, as in John Harris‘s suggestion – you can hardly call it a statement – that “[f]or many places, the pace of change and the pressures on public services have arguably proved to be too much to cope with”. Walk us through that, John: is it the (actual, measurable) pressures on public services or the (nebulous, subjective) pace of change that’s causing the trouble? He’s not saying. And has it proved too much to cope with? Maybe, maybe not – but arguably it has, do you see?. He couldn’t be any shiftier if he was ‘adumbrating’.

It seems to me that the real reason why migration is the non-problem of choice is – well, there are two reasons. First, because politics has stopped working. The Situationists used to argue that politics only meant anything if it was part of your everyday life, by which they meant the revolutionary transformation of your everyday life. They had a lot of fun at the expense of ‘activists’ – people who take up a political cause as a hobby and turn it into a career – arguing that they were no more radical than any other hobbyist or middle-manager. I think this was half right. I think political activity – even a political career – can be a worthwhile way of making a difference to the world under capitalism; but I do think politics needs to have a footprint in everyday life if it’s to mean anything.

But this means levers. This means that when you vote for a councillor, an MP or an MEP you’re voting for someone who will try to make a difference, and who will have some power to do so. It means that if you’re a member of a political party, you’ll be able to vote on your party’s policies and its local representatives, and your vote will count. In terms of where we are now, it means giving policy-making powers back to the party conference, taking decision-making powers away from mayors and nominated ‘cabinets’ and back into the council chamber, giving councils responsibility for raising their own taxes as well as spending their own money – in short, it means rolling back a whole series of changes which began under Thatcher, accelerated under Blair and have continued under Cameron. Democratic mechanisms have been systematically broken in this country; if democracy means deciding how money is spent locally or what policies your local party candidate stands for, then democracy has largely ceased to exist. And that’s a problem for all of us – a functioning democracy is good for our social health – but most of all for the working class, particularly the most excluded and exploited parts of the class. They need the kind of change that can only be brought about through politics, and they’re now being told that they can’t vote for any change at all – it’s all being decided by somebody else, somewhere else, and it’s probably been decided already.

We urgently need to think about how we can roll these changes back; we need more democracy – more actual, functioning democratic mechanisms – not less. And, as this article points out, we need to make use of the mechanisms that are there; an elected mayor or an elected Police and Crime Commissioner might be less democratic than what it replaces, but you still get a vote; you don’t want to wake up the next morning and realise you haven’t played any part in achieving – or trying to prevent – the result.

Right now, though, it’s not surprising if some people are angry – and it’s not at all surprising if, given the chance to vote for something the Prime Minister doesn’t want, they seize it. But calling it a “working-class revolt”, as Harris does, is woefully misleading. The point isn’t just that this ‘revolt’ is led by some of the working class’s staunchest enemies, as Paul Mason reminds us. More importantly, it’s not actually a revolt. Putting a cross in a box, talking about it a bit on social media, maybe putting a poster in a window – this is participation in the democratic system working as usual, albeit in a weird one-off variant. That’s a good thing, but it isn’t any kind of rebellion – nothing is being taken back, nothing is being built, nothing is being changed. Nothing is even being demanded – there are no working-class demands in the Brexit movement, only working-class endorsements of nationalism, xenophobia and outright lies. I’m deeply dismayed by the failure of commentators like Harris, Toynbee and Mckenzie – or even Mason – to see this and challenge it, without equivocation.

But I said there were two reasons. What’s the second?

Dear Sir or Madam

I’ve always wanted to get into the LRB. I even got excited when Verso used a quote from a review I’d written in their full-page ad in the LRB – a bit fetishistic, I know, but still: my words! in the LRB!.

I haven’t cracked it yet, but I have just had my second post published on the LRB blog; it’s about the Situationists and Occupy. I think it’s quite an interesting read; it was certainly an interesting write, which ended up changing my opinion on Occupy (for the better). Essential reading: Ken Knabb, The Situationists and the Occupation Movements (1968/2011).

And this is me: Taking Down the Tents.

And come to dust

The Belgian radical surrealist journal Les lèvres nues once featured a slogan which I found simultaneously funny, heartbreaking and intensely inspiring:


For someone with my kind of politics, “Remember Liebknecht” would be a great slogan, one to bring a tear to the eye and a clench to the fist; “Avenge Liebknecht”, even. But “Save Liebknecht” is something else – it evokes all those feelings but takes them somewhere else. As if to say, we’re not just going to bring about an irreversible transformation of capitalist relations of production and the everyday life they produce, we’re going to transform the past! The choice of Liebknecht rather than the more obvious Luxemburg is interesting, too – as if to say, we’re going to do a proper job; we’re not just going for the top-rank heroes here. History? The revolution spits in its eye. By the time we get finished, the wind will be blowing into Paradise!

Those crazy surrealist Belgians. But, visiting the British Library the other day, looking at a proof copy of “the Ballad of Reading Gaol”, I found myself feeling something very similar. The thought process went something like, “Oscar Wilde do two years hard labour? Stuff that. No way. We’ll have to do something about that…” And I realised it wasn’t the first time I’d felt the urge – the determination, almost – to change the past; I felt it when I discovered the work of Primo Moroni and realised he’d died the year before (aged 62). For some reason the English folk music scene seems to be particularly rich in might-have-beens, or rather really-shouldn’t-have-beens. OK, Mike Waterson and Johnny Collins both made it to 70 (although that doesn’t seem old these days) but Tony Rose was only 61 when he died, and Tony Capstick didn’t even see 60 – and he’d ditched the folk music twenty years before that. Get Cappo Cleaned Up will be high on the agenda of the post-revolutionary temporal rectification unit (musical branch). Not to mention non-fatal disasters such as Shirley Collins’s dysphonia or Nic Jones’s bloody brick lorry. And then there’s Bellamy:

Peter Bellamy dead by his own hand, in 1991, aged 47? No. Absolutely no way. We’ll definitely have to do something about that.

Earlier today something reminded me of this old post, in which I revealed (or rather discovered) that in some ways I’m more oriented towards the past than the future. The future, obviously, is where things are going to have to get fixed, but at a gut level I feel there are hopeful – vital – possibilities buried in the past, which we need to preserve and can revive. Which is part of why I identified with Moroni – an activist but also a historian and archivist – and why my book’s partly a work of history.

It’s also, perhaps, why the things I spontaneously feel determined to put right are things that never will be. Or not, at least, until the revolutionary conquest of time both past and future. SAVE BELLAMY!

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?

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.

Le retour de la colonne Taafe

The complacent bourgeois academy’s recuperation of the challenge of the Situationist International reached a new height last night, culminating in a feeble attempt to commoditise what must surely appear to the cadres of the reactionary media as the most radical (and hence most marketable) gesture of all, selling it to a jaded public in the debased spectacular guise of entertainment.

To put it another way, the Sits were on Uni: the kind of thing I could never have imagined at the time I started writing my biography of Debord – and here it is happening, and I never even finished the damn thing. (Get me William Morris.) Even more embarrassingly, I missed the first question, which was something of a gimme – I was concentrating on something else at the time, resulting in this:

PAXMAN: “blah blah drone drone… the last edition of its influential journal carrying an analysis of the student riots in Paris in 1968?”
My wife: “You ought to get this one.”
Me [baffled but trying to look knowledgeable]: “Not sure, sounds like it might be Annales…”
STUDENT: “No idea, sorry.”
PAXMAN: “That was the Situationist International.”


For any other pro-situ nostalgics out there, the questions (and answers) were as follows:

PAXMAN: Your bonuses are on a radical philosophy. Firstly for five, which radical group was founded in Coscio d’Arroscia [sic] in northwest Italy in 1957, and was dissolved in 1972, the last edition of its influential journal carrying an analysis of the student riots in Paris in 1968?
STUDENT: No idea, sorry.
PAXMAN: That was the Situationist International. Secondly for five: the 1967 book Society of the Spectacle was by which French political activist who, together with Raoul Venegeim [sic], was one of the principal theorists of the Situationist International?
STUDENT: Don’t know, sorry.
PAXMAN: That was Guy Debord. And finally, the 1953 situationist work Formulary for a new urbanism gave rise to the name of which Manchester institution which operated from 1982 to 1997?
STUDENT: The Militant Tendency.
PAXMAN: No, it’s the Haçienda nightclub.

So that’s the situationists for you: it all started in 1957 or possibly 1953, it was a radical philosophy (ouch!) put forward by a political activist (ouch!) called Debord and someone else with a weird name, and, hey, Madchester. Got to love the answer to question three, too. One of the things that was so powerful about the Sits – and one of the reasons why dreamers like poor old Chtcheglov loom so large in its history – was precisely that they didn’t use words like ‘militant’; not positively, anyway. But I have to admit that “Militant Tendency” would have been a great name for a club night.

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.

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


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.)


Speaking of Albania, there was a sad little item the other day in the Cedar Lounge Revolution‘s continuing series of ‘Left Archive’ posts, viz. Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), Red Patriot, August 1982 (including Communiqué of the Central Committee of the CPI (M-L) on the Occasion of the Party’s 12th Anniversary).

The Albanian connection is that the CPI(M-L) had been Ireland’s main (only?) Mao-line Communist Party, with an international orientation towards two countries – the People’s Republic of China and Enver Hoxha’s Albania. Nixon’s visit to China in 1971 led the relationship to get a bit strained, with the Albanians accusing their ally of revisionist tendencies. The death of the Great Helmsman in 1976, followed by an official visit to Beijing by the arch-revisionist Tito, led to an outright break (Nixon was bad enough, but this…!). In reaction, Albania declared itself the only Marxist-Leninist state in the world and China, understandably, turned off the aid tap. The Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) split in this period, with a pro-Albanian minority forming the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), who we met earlier. (Update 3/7/10 Many thanks to running dog in comments, who pointed out that this is wrong in every particular. The Bainsite RCPB(M-L) (Wikipedia) was founded separately from Reg Birch’s CPB(M-L), initially as the CPE(M-L); the RCPB’s current Web site (yes, they’re still going) translates the name of the party into Welsh, which may explain the name change. The CPB(M-L) in fact went with Albania as well. See also running dog‘s second comment, which came in while I was typing this update(!).) The Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), on the other hand, also went with Albania, although not without having to expel a couple of dissident factions.

According to the poster on Cedar Lounge, the 1982 Red Patriot clarifies the self-perception of CPI(M-L) as it entered the 1980s. Or in other words, as it headed towards oblivion. Hoxha died in 1985, and then there was 1991; the Albanian Party of Labour rebadged itself as something innocuous involving the word ‘Socialist’ and lost power for good. A few years later the EU expanded eastwards and the word ‘Albanian’ started to appear in the press, generally accompanied by the word ‘immigrant’. It struck me that Albania under capitalism was causing more anxiety in Western Europe than it ever had under Communism, and I wrote this song: Continue reading

Taller than him

Or: my life as a biographer.

Rob asked about my reference to writing a biography of Debord. It goes back to the old bastard’s death in 1994. I marked his passing by sending postcards to several people with his dates and the words “Bernard, Bernard, this bloom of youth will not last forever”. More practically, I also wrote to New Left Review asking if they were planning on running something, and if so whether I could write it. (Verso had published translations of the Comments and Panegyric, thanks very largely to Malcolm Imrie; I’d reviewed one and attended the launch for the other, although I never did get my review published.) My letter found its way to Malcolm, who invited me to lunch to talk about it. I duly went to London (in the 1990s half my weekends seem to have been spent between Piccadilly and Euston) with high hopes. The lunch wasn’t sensational – we went to the cheapest Chinese cafe I’ve ever seen, & I paid for myself – but it was productive; by the time I came home I was committed to writing a full-length biography, for Pluto. (Malcolm couldn’t see it working in the Verso list; besides, Pluto was running a series of ‘Modern Masters’-style introductions to modern European thinkers and could use a snappy introduction to Debord.) I put together a rough outline and pitched it to Anne Beech at Pluto; she liked it and we were away. There was some disagreement over the question of an advance; at one point Pluto even sent me their ‘Why we don’t pay advances’ form letter. I eventually persuaded them to pay me an advance anyway (half up front, half on submission of manuscript). I immediately spent the first half on books – a topic which is worth a note in its own right.


I’ve inset this paragraph so that anyone who’s not familiar with Debord can skip it. Seriously, if you don’t know this stuff it’ll just bore you. See you at the next proper paragraph.

After Debord killed himself, his widow Alice Becker-Ho – who changed her name to Debord after his death – devoted herself to getting his work the recognition it deserved. Her efforts have been extraordinarily successful. A 1000-page Oeuvres is now available, along with facsimiles of both his book-form artworks, DVD copies of all his six films, seven volumes of letters (and counting), and complete reprints of the journals Internationale Situationniste and Potlatch. 1995 seems like a very long time ago. The availability of translations wasn’t too bad; things had improved massively since the late 1980s, when there had been nothing out there but Ken Knabb’s Situationist International Anthology, the Black and Red edition of The Society of the Spectacle and the pioneering pamphlet versions of The Veritable Split and the Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition produced by Michel Prigent and Lucy Forsyth. (Fond memories – it was that translation of the Italian preface that turned me on to Debord and, ultimately, to Autonomia.) By the time Debord died, you could also read English renderings of his film scripts, as well as the Comments and Panegyric.

The stuff that hadn’t been translated was harder to get hold of. I remember my first encounter with It’s now essentially a French Amazon, but it started life as an email-based ordering service: you mailed them the author you were interested in, they mailed back a list of books available, you mailed them back to say which ones you wanted, and at some later stage some francs would change hands (I never got that far). But even that wasn’t around in 1995 – which was, after all, pretty early in the history of e-business. I found Gérard Berréby’s Documents rélatifs à la fondation de l’Internationale Situationniste in a second-hand bookshop in London and decided (correctly, as it turned out) that I absolutely had to have it, even at the £45 they were asking for it. A trip to Paris (on work business) enabled me to pick up some stuff from Éditions Allia and Éditions Ivrea, although much of it was rather tangential to Debord’s work (I’m the proud owner of a facsimile reprint of Les lèvres nues and a video of L’anticoncept). I also got hold of a copy of Mirella Bandini’s L’estetico il politico, which is one of the key sources on the early years of the SI; locating the publisher and placing an order was quite an undertaking, particularly since I couldn’t really read or write Italian at the time. (My Italian was a lot better by the time I finished reading it.) A couple of years later I tried the same trick with a library copy of Roberto Ohrt’s Phantom Avantgarde – the other key source on the early years of the SI – but Ohrt’s German put up much more resistance than Bandini’s Italian, despite my having done German ‘O’ Level.

But a lot of the good stuff was still out of print; the reprint of Internationale Situationniste dates from 1997. Two lifesavers were an old copy of the Internationale Situationniste volume that I’d borrowed from Lucy Forsyth and some samizdat copies of Lettrist and Situationist documents that Michel Prigent was selling through Compendium. And how I miss Compendium – especially that gloomy basement, where I found Michel’s ‘Port-folio Situationniste’ along with much else from the pro-situ area, some of it even more obscure (instalments of the Encyclopédie des Nuisances, pamphlets by Annie Lebrun). I miss radical bookshops generally: where do people go these days to find pamphlets by Jacques Camatte and John Moore, or the latest from the CWO or the ICC? I guess the answer is that they don’t need to go anywhere – but then, where do they go if they don’t know they want to find pamphlets by Jacques Camatte and John Moore, or the latest from the CWO or the ICC?

So there I was in 1995, books borrowed and advance spent (that didn’t take long), writing the first English-language biography of Debord. What sticks in my mind now is how easy it was. Chapter 1 began with Debord’s encounter with Isidore Isou’s Lettrists and ended, slightly to my surprise, with his break with Isou eighteen months later (I’d been planning to get a bit further). Chapter 2 covered the ‘Lettrist International’ period (1952-7) and Debord’s intense collaboration with Gil Wolman. Chapter 3 dealt with the foundation of the SI and its ‘artistic’ period, from the expulsion of the Italian artists through the purge of the German artists to the split with the Swedish artists; this was the period of Debord’s intense collaboration with Asger Jorn, but also of his involvement with Socialisme ou Barbarie and the recruitment of Raoul Vaneigem and Attila Kotanyi to the SI. The next period, up to 1967, still intrigues me: this was the period of the Hamburg Theses, when the SI fell back on its French heartland, gave up on art and basically went slightly mad, and yet it culminated in Strasbourg – De la misère en milieu étudiant, Le retour de la colonne Durutti and all. This was also the period in which Debord wrote La société du spectacle – and my Chapter 5 was devoted to analysing the book. Chapter 6 was going to be about 1968; chapter 7 would concentrate on the disintegration of the SI and Debord’s intense collaboration with Gianfranco Sanguinetti; and there would be another couple of chapters on the less busy remainder of Debord’s life, following him into Spain and back to France.

1995 was a busy year: I left a job as a Unix sysadmin and started working as a journalist, and my first child was born (I’d resisted the temptation to call him Guy, although I was planning to dedicate the book jointly to him and to Gil Wolman). Despite these distractions, I made a good start on the book – I’d made it to Cosio d’Arroscia in 1957 by the end of the year. 1996 (when I got Debord as far as 1967) was a pretty good year. In January I spoke at Andrew Hussey and Gavin Bowd’s ghastly but memorable conference at the Haçienda; I remember the lack of heating, Gavin Bowd reading out a statement from Ralph Rumney denouncing both him and Andrew Hussey, Mark E. Smith sitting at the back and heckling Tony Wilson, and Len Bracken reading a statement attacking Greil Marcus which he’d written in French for the benefit of Michèle Bernstein, who wasn’t there (“Le temps n’est pas réversible!”) I also spoke at two other conferences and two seminars, one of them on Brighton beach (I’d gone along to listen to a speaker on Debord, but since he didn’t turn up I ended up filling in). I phoned Ralph Rumney a few times and got a letter from Donald Nicholson-Smith; thanks to Bill Brown I made email contact with Bengt Ericsson, who’d been briefly recruited by J. V. Martin to the SI’s Scandinavian section. Happy days. In 1997 I completed my MA by writing a dissertation on La société du spectacle, a brutally-edited version of which became Chapter 5 of the book. (All the Ducasse had to go, and most of the Hegel.)

After that I hit problems. Following Debord and the SI through the 1960s to the Strasbourg scandal, and even onto the Nanterre campus where he met Henri Lefebvre, was relatively easy; I could have a reasonable level of confidence that I’d seen most of the sources, and feel quite sure there were only a couple of hundred people out there who knew all that I did and more. As soon as the student movement got going at Nanterre – let alone when it reached the Sorbonne – I was out in the open, revisiting ground that had been trodden a hundred times before. As well as the reports in Internationale Situationniste, I had Riesel and Viénet’s Enragés and Situationists in the Occupations Movement and Perlman and Grégoire’s Worker-Student Action Committees, France May ’68: good sources, but not good enough to substitute for a lack of a broader historiographic grounding. To put it bluntly, all I knew about what had actually happened in May ’68 I’d learnt from the Situationists – and even a source as close to their perspective as Fredy Perlman suggested that there were other stories that could be told. I immersed myself in all the literature on the events of May (and June) ’68 that I could find – including several books borrowed from a professor at Salford University who’s since retired to France, one of which I’ve still got. (Geoff, if you’re reading this, drop me a line and I’ll post it back to you.)

The effect of hitting 1968, in short, was to make me stop writing and concentrate on reading. What was worse, for me, was that I reached 1968 in 1997; by this time Alice Debord and Patrick Mosconi were starting to get the posthumous Debord publishing industry into gear. I read the first volume of Debord’s Correspondance (1952-7) and realised with a sinking feeling that I’d only written a history of the works; I’d gone straight from the end of the first issue of Internationale Situationniste to the beginning of the second one, for example, skipping over six months of Debord’s life. And now, there it was. It would all have to be rewritten, some time. Actual biographies of Debord were starting to pile up, too. I read Anselm Jappe’s, both in the original Italian and in the revised French edition (those books were a lot easier to get hold of by now). I didn’t read Len Bracken’s or Andrew Hussey’s English language biographies; I doubt I’d agree with Hussey’s approach (see our LRB correspondence). I’ve been told that Christophe Bourseiller’s biography is pretty much the best of the bunch, but I didn’t read that either. After a while there was just too much to keep up with, or catch up with.

For several years Pluto got back to me periodically to find out whether the book was ready yet; not yet, I said, maybe next year. One year, in a fit of optimism, they even announced it; as a result you can still, apparently, find it. Eventually I came clean and the contract was cancelled.

Someone once asked me what I’d like to write about after I’d finished the Debord biography. I said I’d like to write a biography of Cornelius Cardew. I’m not sure where that came from; I’d never read Stockhausen serves imperialism, never heard anything he’d recorded with AMM, and basically knew no more about Cardew than the next Wire reader. Still don’t.

Still seems like a good idea, though.

Working on the sequel

It is fair to recognize the difficulty and the immensity of the tasks of the revolution that wants to create and maintain a classless society. It can begin easily enough wherever autonomous proletarian assemblies, not recognizing any authority outside themselves or the property of anyone whatsoever, placing their will above all laws and specializations, abolish the separation of individual, the commodity economy and the State. But it will only triumph by imposing itself universally, without leaving a patch of territory to any form of alienated society that still exists. There we will see again an Athens or a Florence that reaches to all the corners of the world, a city from which no one will be rejected and which, having brought down all of its enemies, will at last be able to surrender itself joyously to the true divisions and never-ending confrontations of historical life.

A question about law and communism. (This will be a fairly specialised post, I’ll warn you now.)

The other day I was reading Donald Black’s 1983 paper “Crime as Social Control”. It’s a terrific piece of work, a real complement to the unpacking job done ten or twenty years earlier by writers on the sociology of deviance. Black argues that much of what we see as crime can be understood, ethnographically, as informal means of regulating deviance: many victims of theft, assault and even murder are being punished, in the eyes of the offender, for offences not controlled by the criminal justice system. This doesn’t mean that we should endorse these forms of wild regulation as just; they are quite likely to be unjust in both procedural and distributive (outcome) terms. But to conceive of them as forms of regulation (or ‘social control’ in Black’s preferred terminology) does at least make them more comprehensible – not to mention opening up some interesting questions about legitimate and illegitimate forms of regulation.

So I was nodding along pretty enthusiastically to Black’s paper, but then I was brought up short.

A great deal of the conduct labelled and processed as crime in modern societies resembles the modes of conflict management – described above – that are found in traditional societies which have little or no law (in the sense of governmental social control)

Hold on: “law (in the sense of governmental social control)“? Can that possibly be right?

That’s not the question, although it’s related. The question is: in formal terms, how would communism change the law? Obviously the law would no longer have any call to do certain things; property law would be out of the window for a start, and I imagine that most of the criminal justice system would wither and die in very short order. And no, to the extent that the law represents governmental social control, well, there’d be none of that, for obvious reasons.

But does that dispose of the law? I’m not at all sure that it does.

From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only) endeavour to destroy or subdue one another. And from hence it comes to pass that where an invader hath no more to fear than another man’s single power, if one plant, sow, build, or possess a convenient seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united to dispossess and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.

I’m not bringing in Hobbes as a knockdown argument against communism – that would just be a more sophisticated version of “but people aren’t like that“, the eternal stupid Tory argument against teenage utopianism (not that I’m still bitter or anything). I do think it’s possible to envisage a world in which nobody spent their time endeavouring to destroy or subdue one another. But what I think Hobbes does put his finger on, almost in passing, is scarcity: even if nobody owns anything, there will still be a book you’re reading that I want to read, an artwork I’ve been given that you would have liked on your wall. Most of the time we’ll be able to sort everything out amicably – probably through some of those interminable meetings that communism is going to be so good for – but at some point there will be differences of perspective that can’t be resolved; at some point there will be conflict.

And what do you want to deal with conflict? What you want, it seems to me, is a book that reminds us how we deal with certain kinds of conflict, and somebody who’s good at reading that kind of book. Obviously it can all be opened up – the role of book-reader can rotate, or be open to whoever wants it, or be open to recall; the book can be updated, if we can agree on an update (and if we can agree on the conditions under which an update is applied, and for that matter on the conditions under which a discussion like this can be halted before we end up in a game of Nomic). Perhaps you don’t even need a reader. But you’ve still got a book that embodies elements of the experience of a community, in the form of statements that the community now defers to. You’ve still got law.

If I try to imagine a community without law, in this strong sense, I can only imagine a community without a past: a community whose life was made up as it went along. It sounds like a nice place to visit, but could you really live there?

And I will drink two

Picture a man of 35. He gets up every morning and gets in his car, goes to the office, moves papers around, goes out for lunch, plays poker, moves some more papers around, leaves work, has a couple of drinks, goes home, meets his wife, kisses his children, eats a steak in front of the TV, goes to bed, makes love, goes to sleep. Who reduces a man’s life to such a pitiful series of clichés?
– Raoul Vaneigem, Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage de ceux qui aiment les livres aux titres très longues et tout à fait meaningless, ce qui n’est pas français mais who cares no one’s going to read this far

(He dunnit, by the way.)

I was working in an office when I read that book, and I have to admit that when I got to that passage I thought that sounded like a bloody good day – lunch out! booze! sex! steak! I mean, obviously creating at long last a situation which goes beyond the point of no return – or even a situation that knocks on the point of no return and runs away – would be even more fun, but how often do you get to do that?

So I’ll admit I’m a creature of habit. Saturday evenings, in particular, almost always involve a takeaway and a couple of pints. But pints of what, eh? I’ve been thinking for a while I ought to keep track of the beers I drink, if only to give me a fighting chance of avoiding the Manchester Pale style in future. So, if you’re not interested in reading a beer-spotter’s tasting notes, don’t read on. I’ll be updating this post regularly in future, quite probably on Saturday nights.

(The remainder of this post is now a separate blog.)

And young boys

If not his epitaph – that would be a bit harsh – it was his epithet; the film posters only spelt it out. Ian Curtis: genius. Shaun Ryder: poet. Tony Wilson: twat.

The Evening News recalled this at the front of their tribute, but missed the catch by printing the ‘polite version’: Wilson was nobody’s prat. I don’t want to spend too much time rummaging about in the lexicon of sweary, but it seems to me that a prat is someone who lets you down because of their stupidity or improvidence or, well, general prattishness. A twat is someone who lets you down because of their selfishness – because whatever they’ve got planned is more important than anything you might want. In particular, a twat is someone who prioritises their own plans over you, and expects you to agree.

But what this means is that a twat is actually someone who aims to please – even if their idea of aiming to please is throwing some nonsense of their own at you. Some selfishness goes in disguise, dressing up inadequacy and neediness as a public service – look at me, look at this, it’s just what you want! Twattishness is frankly, openly selfish – look what I’ve got! isn’t it brilliant? – and that makes it oddly generous. If nothing else, a twat will always give you something to talk about – and will always keep coming back. Calling Vini Reilly “the Durutti Column”, so that he could release an album called The return of the Durutti Column. Actually building somewhere called the Hacienda, then spelling it with a cedilla. Those Saville designs, those packages, all the wilful obscurity and mystery (I remember reading on the NME letters page that the colour code on the album sleeve actually reads POWERCORRUPTIRNANDLIES, and I’m not sure what’s sadder – that letter-writer poring over his colour-wheel or me for remembering it after all these years). All those bloody FAC numbers. Indulging Hannett. Losing Hannett. Pouring the label’s finances down the Whitworth Street drain. “Anthony H. Wilson” (what was that about?). Making the money back on the Mondays, then handing it over to them to spend on crack in Barbados. That office (beautiful place, mind you), that bar. Signing the Wendys. Walking away from the wreckage, and resurfacing in a million-pound loft conversion. And then supposedly he was “Mr Manchester” – did anyone call him that, apart from the Evening News? All that North-West regeneration stuff (baggy suits and wavy buildings), and all that nonsense with the flag. I mean, really, what a twat.

He was, always, a bit of a joke – but he was always, partly, in on the joke. Look back at that interview:

Factory has a certain arrogance about it… we have a scattiness – we have a night-club, I think having the Hacienda is significant, which is a pretty crazy and by and large rather stupid thing to do.

The thing about pop music is it can be continuously new. You know, some people are excited by that which is new, some people are excited by that which is going to sell because people have heard it before. By and large we have the problem that we’re excited by stuff that’s new.

My bosses at Granada, some of them are younger than me, they’re grown-ups, they behave like grown-ups. Some people are 22 and are grown-up, more’s the pity for them.

Arrogant, wayward, wilful, childish even, but at the same time always intelligent, reflective, self-aware. (Which prompts the question of why he kept on being so arrogant wayward etc – but that prompts an answer with four letters, beginning with T.) He was a bullshitter, a loudmouth, an egotist and an operator par excellence, and I suspect that having him as a friend was a very mixed blessing, but he knew what he was doing – at least, he seemed to know what he was doing – and he kept on making things happen. I wouldn’t say we’d “grown up together” (I never knew him, and he never grew up), but he’s been part of my imaginative landscape for nearly thirty years. The skyline’s going to look different without him.

Bernard, Bernard, disait-il, cette verte jeunesse ne durera pas toujours: cette heure fatale viendra, qui tranchera toutes les espérances trompeuses par une irrévocable sentence; la vie nous manquera, comme un faux ami, au milieu de nos entreprises. Là tous nos beaux desseins tomberont par terre; là s’évanouiront toutes nos pensées.

“It never vanishes without a trace.”

Tony Wilson, 20/2/1950 – 10/8/2007

melt into men

I heard the news about 8.30 last night; my wife saw it on the BBC Web site. I spent some time looking for hastily-assembled tribute programmes in the schedules – you’d think Granada would have something at least – but nothing. There was a discussion on Newsnight between Stephen Morris, Paul Morley, Peter Saville and Richard Madeley; they gave him a pretty good send-off. (Yes, I did say Richard Madeley.)

I’ll write more about how I feel about the guy later. For now, here’s one I prepared earlier. I interviewed him for the short-lived radical newspaper socialist in 1991. Looking for the text of the interview, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I’ve also got my original transcript – and here it is. I don’t recognise all the references myself at this distance, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff there. I particularly like the distinction between ‘avant-garde’ and ‘experimental’; mostly his borrowings from the Situationists still strike me as random fandom, but this is a coherently Situationist position (nous vivons en enfants perdus nos aventures incomplètes…) The other thing that strikes me now is just how up for it he was – I had a list of for-all-our-socialist-readers questions and another list of never-get-another-chance-to-ask-him-this questions, and he engaged with them all quite happily. We didn’t hang out or socialise, unless you count a brief chat about doing English at Cambridge (we were at the same college, several years apart). It was an interview, it was a job, and he got it done – thoughtfully, intelligently and efficiently. He was an extraordinary guy.

Tell me about Factory.

We’re just a fairly typical – or atypical, in that they’re all quite unique – one of those British independent record labels that came out of punk or post-punk. Many musicians say that they saw the Pistols on stage and thought, ‘God, if they can do it I can do it,’ I think that happened as well to a whole generation of entrepreneurs – or non-entrepreneurs, people who never thought of that but who were brought into it like that. Britain is the correct size to make independent distribution possible, and that possibility of independent distribution was then seized upon by… I mean, the whole thing was a series of accidents… it really began with Rough Trade, who were a very interesting shop in Notting Hill Gate. As I remember they were able, because they were clever, to source some rather rare reggae records, and they discovered by the mid-70s that their ability to source these reggae records meant that there was a demand from other shops around the country, and they set up a rather small distribution system to get these reggae records around, and suddenly as this whole idea of do-it-yourself labels took off in 76/77 the infrastructure was there to build up on. The original independent company was New Hormones, who just brought out a couple of records and that was it, in late ’76. Then there was a second generation of independent record labels – Rabid Records in M’cr, with Jilted John and the rest of it, and John Cooper Clarke; Fast Records in Edinburgh, who were very much an arty independent label, as we’re often seen to be, with the Human League and the Gang of Four, and that was really 77, and then 78, late 78, you get Factory and various others coming along – I suppose Mute as well at that point, Daniel doing his first singles and stuff…

Looking around now there isn’t really a run of indie labels…

Oh, there are. From 81 to 91 there were the big 4, the major indies – Mute, Factory, Rough Trade and 4AD. And every couple of years there’d be a pretender, you know like we’re going to join the ranks – be it, there was Kitchenware at one point, there was Postcard at another point. And they all made whatever mistakes people make and fucked up. In the mid-to-late 80s there was Creation, who made – there’s two mistakes you can make as an indie label, you can sign one of your acts to a major thinking that that will finance the rest of the label, which is committing suicide, or you can take major money and spend it all, and that’s committing suicide, and Alan McGhie did both with Creation and completely fucked himself up but has managed to survive and in fact has been very strong this year. With the ending of Rough Trade as one of the big four labels, I think Creation really stand there now. And if you think that One Little Indian is as good a new competitor as any, and then if you think of the fact that there are several very very active dance independents, then… You see I think a lot of people are confused: a lot of people think the bankruptcy of Rough Trade is something to do with “not everything in the garden is rosy”. Well, not everything in the garden is rosy in the sense that there’s a recession and everyone’s suffering, but the independent labels have never been stronger – particularly the ability to survive the Rough Trade catastrophe.

You get the impression of a kind of gigantism, massive economies of scale in the music business…

There’s five multi-nationals, and the rumour is there’s space for four so everybody’s buying up to be as strong as possible so they’re not number five who goes. There’s gigantism, at the same time there’s also the feeling that small discrete units work – admittedly small discrete units within a bigger set-up, but that’s been quite commonplace for the last two or three years.

Flexible specialisation

Sure. Within the creative departments of most companies small is beautiful. But obviously at the same time there’s buying everybody up and becoming bigger and bigger, and that goes with the multinational trend.

So what’s different about Factory?

What’s different about independent labels is that there is a slightly more intimate relationship between the musicians and the company – not just the musicians, the manager of the musicians who is the essential piece. It should be a very creative relationship because most of the people who founded these independent labels were in some way the managers of groups, and they are companies by and large led by managers of groups or A&R based people, as opposed to a lot of companies these days that are run by lawyers or accountants, which is the kind of people that a lot of the multinationals use to head up their operations. There’s a kind of A&R and group-management feel about the independent labels which does make them different. What makes Factory different other than that… Factory has a certain arrogance about it… we have a scattiness – we have a night-club, I think having the Hacienda is significant, which is a pretty crazy and by and large rather stupid thing to do. And I think we held on to some crazy concepts a lot longer than anybody else. I always think the phrase to use about Factory is a certain wilfulness – there’s a great wilfulness about the company, that it does what it wants to do, which has gone on for a long time.

Part of the arrogant, wilful image – there’s an air of radicalism about Factory’s stuff, yet without ever actually being right-on

Sure. Thank God – it would be awful to be right-on. I don’t know where it comes from – I know where my political or philosophical background comes from that informs it, but… Maybe it’s more just a delight in the real avant-garde, or a delight in things that are new. The thing about pop music is it can be continuously new. You know, some people are excited by that which is new, some people are excited by that which is going to sell because people have heard it before. By and large we have the problem that we’re excited by stuff that’s new.

You say the real avant-garde, but we’re not talking Red Crayola…

No, but I don’t regard that in a way as… That’s one of the great difficulties of definition of avant-garde. “Avant-garde” essentially means to be in the vanguard, or to be the first wave of an assault, and I think we commonly confuse that with “experimental”. Experimental means that you’re doing new things, but there’s no one coming after you because it’s not actually going anywhere. Whereas avant-garde implies that there will be people following you, and that you are simply the first people to put these different things together. I think on occasions, which have been rather boring, we have done experimental stuff. I’m not particularly interested in experimental stuff myself, I don’t think the label is, I think we’re more interested in being avant-garde – i.e. being ahead of your time, but nevertheless a time that will come, as opposed to just experimental doodlings or whatever.

(argument [forgotten] about Cities in the Park, Electronic and Cath Carroll)

I find Electronic quite fascinating, although the whole New Order axis is twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old the fact that they are more contemporary than any of their contemporaries I always think is a great achievement, that’s largely because they go to the Hacienda and were part of the rave culture when it blew two or three years ago. … Our latest signing [the Adventure Babies] are an out and out pop group, international pop group, which is something we’ve never dealt with before – and that’s going down a road that we are not used to.

What do you think of this idea that ‘Manchester’ is dead, that it’s last year’s thing?

Well, I think it’s fantastic really… I kind of believed it – the scene’s over, it’s all these groups that we thought we’d got rid of, all these boring Melody Maker-type guitar groups, oh my God… I then started going out this autumn and my mouth would drop open, I’d look at these wild scenes, admittedly with a new generation but then the old generation were going to get back into it, wild scenes in the Hacienda and in every club in fucking Britain, and then suddenly about three weeks ago I found out what all these groups are selling, the ones that are on the covers of NME and MM, and they’re selling shit – they don’t sell. So suddenly I think, oh my God, how can I have been taken in by these people? I mean, I know that they’re all cretins, I’m taken in by it all again… It’s a complete pile of crap – ‘Manchester’, or Manchester-type music, of the type that was spawned here over the last few years, in its new generation which is hard-core – hard-core, and techno, and post-House dance music dominates the scene, and basically the press has been up its arse as usual for the last nine months. And then when you say that to the press they say yes, well, but we’ve got the right to because we created it – I say you what? They say well, we gave it all that coverage… I say, you gave it all the coverage a year after it started, you tried to ignore it for the first year. You didn’t create it. Don’t try to take credit – it was a wild scene, you just latched on to it and sold a few papers off the back of it. It was a wild scene – I mean, the idea that they now think they in some way created it. They’re just morons.

The scene in its original date was created by members of the Buzzcocks, Howard Devoto, Richard Boon, Pete Shelley, getting the Pistols to play here in ’76. From that moment onward it’s been everybody in the community, everybody, right the way through. It goes on, and at the moment it’s absolutely wild, and it’s kind of wonderful.

How would you compare what’s going on with ’76/’77?

Well now is a second generation, i.e. a second wave of rave culture – rave culture in general how would I compare it… I think very similarly for me personally… It’s a powerful culture, and is one of those moments when the wheels of youth culture turn very strongly. I think there were things that were better about punk, in that there was a… what was better about punk? I don’t know really – it’s just quite as exciting as punk. I don’t think one could separate – and look at ’67 or ’63, they’re all great moments, they all have different fors and againsts, I don’t think you can judge like by like. I was very fond of the scene that created Guns’N’Roses, although it was abhorrent to me – metal/goth/glam/punk – but nevertheless it was clear on the streets, on Sunset, at 11.00 at night on a Thursday / Friday / Saturday in LA, that there was – kids were out there having the time of their lives. At that point, ’85/’86, in Britain they weren’t. Even though that scene never got anywhere – it never spread outside LA, but nevertheless it produced a group in G’N’R who would dominate or whatever… I don’t like to say this one’s better that one’s worse, they are these wonderful moments when the wheels turn.

Even if two years later it’s vanished without a trace.

It never vanishes without a trace. This one was meant to have vanished without a trace and it hasn’t done, it’s going on, it’s stronger, it’s like you find in Europe now rave culture is at its most advanced stage, as it is in America. It’s kind of weird – we’ll see where it gets to. You’ve got to remember in terms of the world music industry punk had absolutely no impact, punk was really an isolated UK phenomenon. For a variety of reasons – the fact that Malcolm chose to do a rather bizarre Pistols tour after which they broke up, the fact that by the time the Clash got to America they’d become a rock’n’roll band and were irrelevant anyway – punk never happened outside the UK. We see it as a major event in pop history but the rest of the world doesn’t. Pop music is a world thing.

What do you think of this argument that there was something transcendentally radical about punk, and about certain significant figures like John Lydon…

I think there’s something transcendentally whatever about every one of those moments… I think Please Please Me was the most political song ever written. Pop music by its very nature, at its best, is threatening. When it doesn’t threaten it’s trash. But the majority of it does, and is a generational thing. I always see the generation in terms of, like the New Testament, it’s the son saying no to the father, and that’s the political act. It doesn’t matter what pile of garbage, be it Anti-Nazi League or Ecstasy communality (and neither of those are garbage, both of those are fabulous political constructions, but nevertheless they’re not necessary to give credence) – all that’s necessary for me to give political credence to pop music is that it is generational, it is a young generation saying no to an older generation. Or that it is just something that defines you as different, that defines you as being separate, which is part of the whole dawn of the idea of teenage, of pop music, of rock’n’roll in the 50s – it defines youth as being different and having different ideas. And since Please Please Me was the first number one single for the Beatles that began that process of uniting a generation I have no difficulty in regarding that as the supreme political moment.

Don’t you feel yourself in a slightly contradictory position in terms of this generational thing? Being a respectable local businessman…

No, I don’t find any conflict… I always feel immature, I always feel when I’m talking to people – sometimes ten years younger than me – that they’re grown-ups and I’m not, so I’ve never had a problem with that. My bosses at Granada, some of them are younger than me, they’re grown-ups, they behave like grown-ups. Some people are 22 and are grown-up, more’s the pity for them.

So, socialism. Do you see yourself as a socialist?

The only definition I can validly use I think is that one believes that a greater rather than a lesser part of one’s income should be consumed by the state and then re-apportioned to the members of the state, from that point of view I’m a socialist, if one takes that as being the central axiom, to believe in that process. From a lot of other points of view God knows, really. I think one of the confusions is that as a child of the late 60s one ran around shouting anarchist and Marxist slogans, without ever coming face to face with the fact that these are two entirely contradictory ideologies. The ideology that most intrigued me was anarchism. The way I look at the last five years, which have shaken everyone from my background I presume, is that whichever International it was that kicked Bakunin out, 1872 or whatever, that was getting rid of individualism, sooner or later individualism which is part of the human being was going to come and kick the Left’s ass – which is what it has just done for the last five, six years. That’s a way that Marxism Today was – I noticed in one of the reviews at the end of Martin’s empire (in fact it was rather silly, it implied the end of Martin’s empire when in fact he’s ended it to start a new empire, I don’t know what the new magazine’s called but it’s very strongly financed) but nevertheless in the review of that it talked about that idea that they shocked everyone by suggesting that Margaret Thatcher was in touch with the Zeitgeist, which she most certainly was in the 80s, she was a creature of her times. Individualism was going to rear its head, and my God it has done. Everyone’s been forced to rethink on the Left I would hope by the events. To me really with that anarchist background, my background being that at University two of my friends were translators of major anarchist works, and I was enthralled, although not understanding totally the stuff – it seems to me to make a lot of sense now that that’s what went wrong.

(Some stuff about Paul Sieveking and John Fullerton [the British pro-situs referred to here] and Raoul Vaneigem)

I’m intrigued by Factory’s use of the Situationist stuff

Just being a fan. Purely fandom, really. And yet you see the way it works – Greil Marcus’s work in the 80s has given a great degree of prominence to this issue, and his involvement in it comes about precisely through our fandom. He spent two years looking at a sticker, when we sent out our first record it had this sticker of the Durutti Column, and he stuck it on his cassette deck, and he tells the story that he spent two years staring at this strange photo of two cowboys talking French to each other, until he finally decided to investigate it. And that investigation took him through this whole period – and without him doing it maybe all these exhibitions wouldn’t have happened and blah blah blah… Just being a fan

(Digression [completely forgotten] about Le retour de la colonne Durutti and Kim Philby)

These are the three great comedians of the twentieth century in Britain, these three upper-class traitors are the great comics – their lives were amusing statements.

How much of an impact has feminism made on Factory?

Good God… it’s a fascinating question… I don’t have an answer to the question, whether that’s a good or a bad thing. I don’t think we’re a very sexist label, it’s never occurred to me that we are – or that we aren’t, really, and maybe that’s – by saying neither a lot nor a little might imply that we haven’t thought about it. I don’t presume to have actually imagined it would impinge on us…

(Digression about Alan Wise, “local promoter and nutter”, and strippers [some of the MCing at the Cities in the Park gig was done by women in their undies; apparently this was Wise’s doing])

I don’t think we would ever, ever, ever, ever deal with things like that. Certainly that’s not within our remit, we are much more, unfortunately, right-on than that – I say unfortunately, I would refer, though, to the opening night of the Hacienda, where our guest of honour who opened it was Bernard Manning. Now whether Bernard Manning made anti-feminine jokes, or made anti-gay jokes, or made anti- whatever, but I was very pleased with that, because it was épater les bourgeoisie. And everybody else too, please – I mean, épater anybody is great as far as I’m concerned, and I’m only too happy to do that. But no, we’d never go in for stuff like that, I have to say.

(Digression about Revenge and “the whole fetishistic artwork thing”)

I would not regard any of that work as sexist personally, within my own remit.

Happy Mondays just recently took a lot of shit…

It’s like being a Nazi these days – I’ve done so many interviews recently, ten years ago every interview was ‘Are your groups Nazis?’, now it’s ‘are your groups homophobic?’, to which my answer is no they’re not. To me the sub-text of that piece was Steven [Wells], that was your typical SWP member who doesn’t actually know what a member of the working class looks like or sounds like, and when he meets them goes into that like and gets fucked up. You should not confuse an artist with their art, and they are working-class kids. The fact that some of their best friends are gay, and they hang out with them… it doesn’t occur to them that you can go ‘Fucking faggots!’, and they’re your best friends, it doesn’t occur to them that there’s a conflict there. But someone reading that will go ‘oh, homophobic…’ and the rest of it, which is a bunch of crap. Maybe for me I don’t mind, because I enjoy that bit when a middle-class socialist meets a member of the working classes and just doesn’t know what’s going on.

Plus there’s this traditional idea that if you’re in a band you’ve got to have this god-like dignity, either that or just be ultra-right-on and know all the answers to everything…

And it’s complete and utter fucking crap. This whole idea goes back to the Romantic poets, when suddenly the idea that the artist was as important as his art and was a star came into vogue. We’ve had it 200 years now, and it’s a complete pile of shit. W.B.Yeats is the greatest poet of the 20th century in my opinion – what he actually personally thought, wearing brown shirts and the rest of that country house shit, the guy was a complete nincompoop. It doesn’t matter – he’s a nincompoop, his art’s fantastic, let’s not confuse the two.

What’s the next big thing?

No idea! Didn’t have any idea last time, it happens and you go Wow, look! You’ve just got to stay open to things – it’s being hospitable to what comes along, being open to it and not wanting to hear what you’ve heard before.

John Peel said once that he thought there’d been three great waves of Manchester bands: Buzzcocks, Joy Division and the Fall; the Smiths, New Order and the Fall; Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and the Fall.

Wonderful way of putting it.

And viewed in that respect Factory’s record looks pretty good.

Sure. I think the real question is whether we’re there for the next round. Now it’s all techno records and stuff – we’re not a 12″-single selling label, we don’t have that structure, we don’t have that way of dealing with it. One of the great challenges for Factory is that we believe in Northside, I think they’re a great group – the rest of the world has decided that this is not the case, we’ll see who’s proved right. We went through a few years when everyone thought the Happy Mondays were a pile of shit – we’ve been there before, we’re there with Northside and the Wendys. Next year we have our pop group the Adventure Babies come on stream, that should be interesting if not exciting. It’s a bit difficult now – there’s going to be a very imitative period in the mid-90s. There is a modality, an ineluctable modality, there is a real wave pattern to this, and after every live generation there comes a dead generation. And there will be a dead generation of teenagers coming along in the mid-90s presumably, tragically. But hopefully we will go on as we have done through the 80s through the 90s, and the real challenge will be in the late 90s when the next alive generation comes up, and throws everything on its head, and brings disparate influences together and uses the technology in such a way – that we’ll be alive to it and we’ll be involved. It was the big question for us in the 80s: by the mid to late 80s when we were being successful with New Order all around the world, the question was when the next revolution comes will we be involved? And sure enough it happened behind our back in the Hacienda, and the Happy Mondays who we couldn’t – we signed them because they clearly had the mark of Cain about them, we had no idea what they were going to do – and there they were, they were the ones putting together these black, Chicago / Detroit rhythms with the white English post-punk sensibility. So you have to see. You can’t be sure it’s going to happen. You can be sure something will happen; whether one’s involved with it or not, that’s a question of luck – and judgment.

Driving aloud

He was writing in 1959 (and he was wrong about the helicopters), but Debord got driving right:

A mistake made by all urban planners is to consider the private car (and its by-products, such as the motorcycle) as essentially a means of transport. In reality, it is the most notable material symbol of the notion of happiness that developed capitalism tends to spread throughout society.

Isolated and in charge, every driver is (in fantasy at least) being driven, being transported; every man his own chauffeur! Every driver is a privileged being, someone superior to everything else in sight. Get these dead bodies off my racetrack! I wonder whether cycling incarnates – or, less ambitiously, symbolises – an alternative notion of happiness. I sense that it could: the obdurate materiality of cycling – the unavoidable contact with the road and the weather, not to mention the effort it takes to get anywhere – suggests a much more physically engaged, and much more egalitarian, vision of travel than driving can ever be. (The same goes for walking and for public transport, pretty much.)

But driving isolates. I feel similarly about wearing headphones in public – which these days I almost never do, train journeys excepted. One of the most uncanny musical experiences I’ve had occurred when I was sitting on a bus with the Gang of Four’s third album on my walkman:

Everybody is in too many pieces
No man’s land surrounds our desires
To crack the shell we mix with others
Some lie in the arms of loversThe city is the place to be
With no money you go crazy
I need an occupation
You have to pay for satisfaction

We live as we dream, alone
To crack the shell we mix with others
Some flirt with fascism
Some lie in the arms of lovers

It was an extraordinary combination: on one hand there was the power of the music – Hugo Burnham’s drumming is mixed really high on that track – and the awful minatory aptness of the lyrics; on the other, there was the awareness that, vast and all-embracing as the sound was for me, nobody else could hear itWe live as we dream, alone – never more so than when listening to music on headphones.

Or listening to music in a car – and when I’m driving, alone, I almost always have music on. (If you’re going to be locked into a dream of mechanical omnipotence, you might as well control the soundtrack.) Some songs work particularly well for me. For short and familiar journeys, a particular kind of lyric can be good. About eighteen years ago I discovered Prefab Sprout’s first album (Swoon) and loved it instantly. What I responded to was the lyrics, and particularly the sense that Paddy McAloon didn’t care whether anyone understood them or not:

Are they happy to see you? No,
You always bring trouble.
Cast a shadow on Mexico –
Denial doesn’t change facts.

Unlike Wire (say) the disjointedness didn’t seem showy or self-indulgent; I felt that he knew perfectly well what he was talking about, and if nobody else got the point, too bad for everybody else. (Prefab Sprout’s subsequent albums have nothing like this wilfully cryptic quality, more’s the pity, although you can hear a bit of it on McAloon’s peculiar solo album I trawl the Megahertz.)

I got something like the same vibe from “To you alone” by the much-lamented Beta Band, which for some time was a fixture for short journeys in town:

She’s like the snow-capped trees in my jigsaw,
Loose at the seams with inferior dreams
She’s like a fool that you meet in the heart store
Hand in the pail and the blacker the veil,
The blacker the veil…

I have no idea what Steve Mason is talking about here, but when you listen to the track he seems to know. And after a few listens they’re great lyrics to sing, talk or mutter along to, half-consciously, while the other half of your consciousness deals with the same old traffic lights and gear-changes.

The other great boon for town driving is the song that makes the experience seem more exciting than it really is (which mostly, after all, it really isn’t). Volume is important here. The Dandy Warhols’ “We used to be friends” works well, particularly if you can time it so that the car is at least in motion when the bass kicks in. Super Furry Animals’ “Ice hockey hair” is also good, particularly for journeys that don’t last much longer than its 6:57 duration.

Motorway driving is another matter – apart from anything else, most of the time there’s no point picking out individual tracks. But I can think of a few recurring situations which have their own ideal soundtrack.

For beautiful but long and unchanging stretches of motorway, particularly where the road curves gently in one direction or the other for miles at a stretch, so that you can watch an evenly-spaced series of vehicles ahead of you passing down the curve like beads on a wire: The Divine Comedy, “Eric the Gardener”. Orchestrated by Joby Talbot, this song is built around a six-note phrase which repeats, unaltered, throughout the song’s 8 minutes and 26 seconds (not counting a patch towards the end where it fades out before coming back in). All this while oceanic strings sweep over you, like nothing so much as that J.G. Ballard short story where somebody has the experience of drowning in the hugely-amplified sound of a kiss. The lyrics are about a metal-detector enthusiast (viz. Eric), and about history, and how history has always got to the world before you:

Dig deep and dig some more
Dig to the planet’s core
Dig till you’ve gone out of your mind
But all you will ever really find
Is Eric the gardener

Chilling and strange, and beautiful – and mesmeric, and very long.

For driving down a stretch of unfamiliar motorway after realising you’ve missed the junction you wanted, not knowing how far it is until the next roundabout but wanting to get there as quickly as possible, in the rain: Ed Kuepper, “Today Wonder”. From the album of the same name – which is a record of some casual and unhurried sessions with guitar and drumkit – “Today Wonder” consists mainly of a medley of Donovan’s “Hey Gyp” and Eric Burdon’s “White Houses”; Burdon has recorded “Hey Gyp”, so I should imagine he came up with the medley first. I don’t know how many chords Ed Kuepper plays in “Today Wonder”, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if the answer was ‘two’; he’s the kind of guitarist who doesn’t seem to play a chord the same way twice. The effect here is of a dense, hypnotically repetitive pattern of strumming, overlaid with a shifting range of augmentations and pulls and, er, other things you can do to jazz up a guitar chord. It’s great – all the more so when combined with the yearning, frustrated and frankly rather pissed-off sound of Kuepper’s vocals:

Gonna buy you a Ford Mustang
Gonna buy you a wedding ring
Gonna buy you a mansion on a hill
If you’ll just give me some of your love
Please give me some of your love

For driving down an unfamiliar motorway in the dark, uncomfortably aware that you don’t know where you are or how to get to where you want to go, but stubbornly convinced that the next junction will give you enough information to tell whether you’re going the right way or not, or failing that the one after next: the Doors, “Break on through”. Or just about anything else by the Doors, within reason. It can be an unforgettable experience. I drove about sixty miles listening to the Doors’ Greatest Hits, once. I was only going from Reading to Bracknell.

For the M25, and in particular for sitting stock still in the second of four lanes, in the sun, completely surrounded by equally stationary traffic, but unable to relax for a second in case the queue started to move again as it had done several minutes ago: Soft Machine, “Facelift”. Or, more generally, the wonderful Hux double CD of [the] Soft Machine’s BBC sessions from 1967 to 1971 – but there’s something about the sheer self-confidence and abrasiveness of “Facelift” that makes it particularly relaxing, somehow.

There’s a fugal, “go away, I’m busy” quality to this and to several of the other tracks I’ve listed here; I’m not sure if that’s what makes them particularly well suited to driving, which is fundamentally a rather strange, alienated experience. I’m not sure whether they assuage or exacerbate it, either. As my use of words like ‘hypnotic’ up there suggests, part of what’s going on here is that the music gives part of your mind something to chew on while the rest concentrates on manoeuvring a large and solid lump of metal at high speed. Perhaps this is a dangerous luxury, and driving in near-silence would induce the driver to devote all of his or her attention to the road. Or perhaps, in the world behind the windscreen, silence just creates more scope for free-association and daydreaming – perhaps the driver with music on is actually less distracted, by virtue of having something to concentrate against.

It’s a strange world, the world we drive in, but it’s a world that can change (and may soon have to). Debord:

The breaking up of the dialectic of the human milieu in favor of cars (the projected motorways in Paris will entail the demolition of thousands of houses and flats although the housing crisis is continually worsening) masks its irrationality under pseudopractical justifications. But it is practically necessary only in the context of a specific social set-up. Those who believe that the particulars of the problem are permanent want in fact to believe in the permanence of the present society.

The answer lies in yesterday

Call me insufferably pretentious, but when I think of the Labour Party I can’t help thinking of the opening of Chtcheglov’s 1953 Formulary for a new urbanism. (Bear with me, there’s some good stuff further down.)

We are bored in the city, we really have to strain to still discover mysteries on the roadside hoardings, the latest state of humour and poetry:

Showerbath of the Patriarchs
Meat Cutting Machines
Notre Dame Zoo
Sports Pharmacy
Martyrs Provisions
Translucent Concrete
Golden Touch Sawmill
Centre for Functional Recuperation
Saint Anne Ambulance
Café Fifth Avenue
Prolonged Volunteers Street
Family Boarding House in the Garden
Hotel of Strangers
Wild Street

And the swimming pool on the Street of Little Girls. And the police station on Rendezvous Street. The medical-surgical clinic and the free placement centre on the Quai des Orfèvres. The artificial flowers on Sun Street. The Castle Cellars Hotel, the Ocean Bar and the Coming and Going Café. The Hotel of the Epoch.

And the strange statue of Dr. Philippe Pinel, benefactor of the insane, in the last evenings of summer. Exploring Paris.

And you, forgotten, your memories ravaged by all the consternations of two hemispheres, stranded in the Red Cellars of Pali-Kao, without music and without geography, no longer setting out for the hacienda where the roots think of the child and where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac. That’s all over. You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist.

The hacienda must be built.

I do like ‘Golden Touch Sawmill’; it’s not quite ‘Lucky Smells‘, but this was (a) 1953 and (b) reality. But anyway:

Maintenant c’est joué. L’hacienda, tu ne la verras pas. Elle n’existe pas. Il faut construire l’hacienda.

Call me insufferably pretentious, but where the Labour Party’s concerned that for me just about says it: maintenant c’est joué. The Labour Party under Kinnock and Smith was still, in some significant and useful respects, the same organisation that it was under Wilson and Gaitskell and Attlee. When radicals like me argued against Labour there was always an unanswerable counter-argument: this is the Labour Party; this is the party of the organised working class in Britain. It’s a big argument, and it got a lot of use. Labour leftists used the Argument to justify staying in the party; entryists used it to justify burrowing away within the party rather than building their own organisations; even Socialist Workers used it, to justify supporting Labour ‘critically’ (or ‘without illusions’ or ‘go on, just once more’ or whatever it was).

Maintenant c’est joué. Firstly, the Labour Party – whatever else it is these days – is not the party of the organised working class. Secondly, the New Labour clique (who are serious about power) have taken steps to prevent it ever becoming that party again. Thirdly, the frankly spectacular New Labour approach to mobilisation, combined with a massive and broadly welcome disaffection with Labour as a party, have left the Labour Party in so weak a state that it wouldn’t be much use to the organised working class, even if they turned up tomorrow asking for their party back. If we want a party of the Left, we’ll have to build it. The actually-existing Labour Party is a distraction at best.

I’ve thought like this for a while, but a debate I was in recently brought home to me again the enduring weight of the Labour Party on the Left – and the increasing deadness of that weight. In a comments thread on Dave‘s excellent blog, I recently got involved in an argument with a Labour Party member. It was something of a dialogue of the deaf; I never really got an answer either to the question “why are you in the Labour Party?” or to “why do you think you’re on the Left?”, and I got the impression my interlocutor’s silence wasn’t down to inadvertence or rudeness. Rather, it seemed that the two questions were at once inseparable and unanswerable:

of course I’m in the Labour Party, I’m on the Left!
of course I’m on the Left, I’m in the Labour Party!

It’s an increasingly meaningless and arbitrary association of ideas, I’d argue, and one which badly needs to be challenged.

Anyway, here’s my half of the conversation (with light edits):

I’m slightly depressed, but mostly surprised, to see someone talking about ‘us’ being in power. Mind you, I didn’t really feel that the Labour Party was in power under Callaghan and Healey (for verily, I am an old fart and do remember the last time Labour won elections).

Parties change, and the Labour Party’s changed more than most. I voted Labour all through the Foot, Kinnock and Smith years; right now I’m actively opposed to Labour and doubt I’ll ever vote for them again.

I used to vote Labour, because I believed in what I thought to be Labour policies and I thought that the Labour leadership in government, kept under pressure by the Labour Party in the country, would implement some of those policies. All that’s gone now. The policies of the leadership are far to the right of anything that has ever gone out under the name of Labour before, even under Ramsay MacDonald. The mood of the party in the country is better, but it’s still more right-wing (and more leadership-friendly) than anything I remember even from the Kinnock/Smith period. In any case, the leadership has systematically dismantled all the structures which enabled the party to hold it to account, and now openly claims the right to make Labour policy on the hoof.

New Labour doesn’t mean socialism, or social democracy, or even the kind of timid while-resources-permit reformism the party had been reduced to by John Smith’s time. New Labour means corporate capitalism, disciplined communities and a tight hold on the reins of power. So, for as long as Labour means New Labour, Labour is not us.

The long-term trouble with Labour is that if you back away from ‘extreme’ left-wing policies for long enough, you end up with something that nobody will actually vote for, because there’s nothing really there. Blair understood this: he offered a break from the Labour leadership’s long history of apology and evasion, all those years of left-wing but not far-left, left-wing but responsible, left-wing but patriotic

Blair isn’t left-wing at all: that’s precisely his strength. He came to power promising something radically different from the previous fifty years of Labour policy, and he’s delivered it in spades. I distrusted him from the off, but he’s gone beyond even my expectations. (Privatisation of the Health Service, by a Labour government – I wouldn’t have believed it even five years ago.)

What I don’t understand is where Labour Party members actually stand these days: setting aside group loyalties, what is it they believe in which the Labour Party can deliver, and only the Labour Party?

[in response to a comment that this is a ‘centre-right’ country]

You can’t say there was massive popular support for New Labour in 1997. Nothing, short of a major split in the party, was going to stop the Tories losing to Labour in 1997. John Smith would have won easily if he’d lived. (Perhaps he wouldn’t have had quite so many ex-Tory votes or quite such a huge majority, but neither of those is necessarily a good thing.)

You can’t say there’s been massive popular support for New Labour since 1997. Guess which election had a larger number of Labour votes – 1979 or 2005?

And you certainly can’t say there’s been massive popular support for New Labour policies. Who knew in 1997 that they were voting for ASBOs and Neighbourhood Wardens? Who knew in 2001 that they were voting for an appointed House of Lords and an invasion of Iraq? Who knew in 2005 that they were voting for NHS privatisation and compulsory ID cards?

I don’t think this is a right-wing country. I do think that submission to authority runs very deep in British society, though: there are a lot of people who want to feel they’re being led by a strong leader, someone who knows what’s best and may even punish them for their own good. And what better proof of strength could a leader have than taking on his or her own party?

I think this last, tangential point may have been the most important one. You could argue that the Blairites haven’t done anything qualitatively new; they’ve simply improved and enhanced a self-destruct mechanism which was built into the Labour Party all along. I’m referring to the eternally recurring confrontation between the Moderate Leader and the Extremist Agitators. Labour is a left-wing party, but it’s not really acceptable to bring a party of the Left inside the institutional tent – at least, not until the leader has proved his party’s moderation by facing down the extremists at the grass roots. Blair has only done what Kinnock and Gaitskell did before him, only at a higher level.

The odd thing is that this anti-democratic manoeuvre – a trial of strength, a proof of mastery by leader over party – seems to have a definite emotional appeal. My interlocutor on Dave’s blog repeatedly harked back to the glory days of Kinnock’s leadership; it turned out that the pinnacle of Kinnock’s achievement, in this person’s eyes, was his confrontation with the Mils.

Shortly after the debate on Dave’s blog had petered out, I started reading Robert Skidelsky’s ghastly biography of Oswald Mosley. (Quite interesting in many ways, I have to say, and I’m sure there’ll be more mosleyblogging in the days to come. Still ghastly, though.) Here’s an excerpt from the original Introduction:

From 1961 onwards I was actively involved in the Labour Party, both at the university level and in the Campaign for Democratic Socialism. It was Hugh Gaitskell’s courage, in face of the bitterest denunciations from his own party, in fighting for what he believed to be right, that really attracted me to Labour politics at the time. To be drawn into politics by the personality of a leader may seem immature. Yet there is a sound reason for it. On the quality of the leadership depends the possibility of action. This truth has never, it seems to me, been adequately grasped by social democratic parties. They spend their lives talking about the world to come; yet saddle themselves for the most part with leaders who are all too obviously content with the world as it is: hence the literature of ‘betrayal’ which pours out in unceasing flood from social democratic pens. Early on in my reading about Mosley I was struck by the dedication of John Strachey’s book Revolution by Reason (1925): ‘To O.M. who may some day do the things of which we dream’. This exactly parallelled my own feelings about Gaitskell, though not about his successor.

(Sorry, Harold.)

What Skidelsky says here, among other things, is that he was drawn to the Labour Party because the leader was at odds with the party. In effect, his loyalty wasn’t to the party but to the leader, and the leader’s faction – since, after all, the quality of the leadership determines the possibility of action.

Politics as the cult of the leader – and the cult of action (a favourite Mosley word). It’s a way of thinking that hollows out the party, and ultimately the government; democracy doesn’t really come into it, either ideologically or structurally. In this perspective the tragedy of the Labour Party is that, although the movement from which it grew represented a strong and coherent challenge to this mentality, the structure of the party itself created opportunities and incentives for new leaders to assert and impose themselves – progressively weakening the party’s democratic values as they did so. The rot set in a long time ago, in other words; by 1997 I suspect it had already gone too far to reverse.

L’hacienda, tu ne la verras pas.

Update 25th July: Today’s dose of Skidelsky fortuitously brought me to this passage:

Although officially the struggle was between socialism and capitalism, Labour and Tory, Mosley interpreted it in personal terms: himself versus the Chamberlains and the press-lords.

(On the same page Skidelsky writes: “With the local Labour newspaper, the Town Crier, and its editor, W.J. Chamberlain, Mosley established excellent relations (fortified by substantial subsidies).” Not all press-lords, then – or all Chamberlains. But anyway…)

This personalisation of the conflict heightened its drama and bound working-class voters to Mosley (and through him to the Labour Party) in a way which more orthodox methods would never have done (or at least so quickly); at the same time it left something of a bitter taste in the mouths of some of the eclipsed, plodding, local Labour officials. … Mosley’s fault to these Labour activists was that he identified the Labour movement with himself, rather than the other way round.

It looks as if one reason why Oswald Mosley never made it as a Labour politician was simply that he was ahead of his time.

When there is no outside

Nick Carr’s hyperbolically-titled The Death of Wikipedia has received a couple of endorsements and some fairly vigorous disagreement, unsurprisingly. I think it’s as much a question of tone as anything else. When Nick reads the line

certain pages with a history of vandalism and other problems may be semi-protected on a pre-emptive, continuous basis.

it clearly sets alarm bells ringing for him, as indeed it does for me (“Ideals always expire in clotted, bureaucratic prose”, Nick comments). Several of his commenters, on the other hand, sincerely fail to see what the big deal might be: it’s only a handful of pages, it’s only semi-protection, it’s not that onerous, it’s part of the continuing development of Wikipedia editing policies, Wikipedia never claimed to be a totally open wiki, there’s no such thing as a totally open wiki anyway…

I think the reactions are as instructive as the original post. No, what Nick’s pointing to isn’t really a qualitative change, let alone the death of anything. But yes, it’s a genuine problem, and a genuine embarrassment to anyone who takes the Wikipedian rhetoric seriously. Wikipedia (“the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”) routinely gets hailed for its openness and its authority, only not both at the same time – indeed, maximising one can always be used to justify limits on the other. As here. But there’s another level to this discussion, which is to do with Wikipedia’s resolution of the openness/authority balancing-act. What happens in practice is that the contributions of active Wikipedians take precedence over both random vandals and passing experts. In effect, both openness and authority are vested in the group.

In some areas this works well enough, but in others it’s a huge problem. I use Wikipedia myself, and occasionally drop in an edit if I see something that’s crying out for correction. Sometimes, though, I see a Wikipedia article that’s just wrong from top to bottom – or rather, an article where verifiable facts and sustainable assertions alternate with errors and misconceptions, or are set in an overall argument which is based on bad assumptions. In short, sometimes I see a Wikipedia article which doesn’t need the odd correction, it needs to be pulled and rewritten. I’m not alone in having this experience: here’s Tom Coates on ‘penis envy’ and Thomas Vander Wal (!) on ‘folksonomy’, as well as me on ‘anomie’.

It’s not just a problem with philosophical concepts, either – I had a similar reaction more recently to the Wikipedia page on the Red Brigades. On the basis of the reading I did for my doctorate, I could rewrite that page from start to finish, leaving in place only a few proper names and one or two of the dates. But writing this kind of thing is hard and time-consuming work – and I’ve got quite enough of that to do already. So it doesn’t get done.

I don’t think this is an insurmountable problem. A while ago I floated a cunning plan for fixing pages like this, using PledgeBank to mobilise external reserves of peer-pressure; it might work, and if only somebody else would actually get it rolling I might even sign up. But I do think it’s a problem, and one that’s inherent to the Wikipedia model.

To reiterate, both openness and authority are vested in the group. Openness: sure, Wikipedia is as open to me as any other registered editor d00d, but in practice the openness of Wikipedia is graduated according to the amount of time you can afford to spend on it. As for authority, I’m not one, but (like Debord) I have read several good books – better books, to be blunt, than those relied on by the author[s] of the current Red Brigades article. But what would that matter unless I was prepared to defend what I wrote against bulk edits by people who disagreed – such as, for example, the author[s] of the current article? On the other hand, if I was prepared to stick it out through the edit wars, what would it matter whether I knew my stuff or not? This isn’t just random bleating. When I first saw that Red Brigades article I couldn’t resist one edit, deleting the completely spurious assertion that the group Prima Linea was a Red Brigades offshoot. When I looked at the page again the next day, my edit had been reverted.

Ultimately Wikipedia isn’t about either openness or authority: it’s about the collective activity of editing Wikipedia and being a Wikipedian. From that, all else follows.

Update 2/6/06 (in response to David, in comments)

There are two obvious problems with the Wikipedia page on the Brigate Rosse, and one that’s larger but more diffuse. The first problem is that it’s written in the present tense; it’s extremely dubious that there’s any continuity between the historic Brigate Rosse and the gang who shot Biagi, let alone that they’re simply, unproblematically the same group. This alone calls for a major rewrite. Secondly, the article is written very much from a police/security-service/conspiracist stance, with a focus on question like whether the BR was assisted by the Czech security services or penetrated by NATO. But this tends to reinforce an image of the BR as a weird alien force which popped up out of nowhere, rather than an extreme but consistent expression of broader social movements (all of which has been documented).

The broader problem – which relates to both of the specific points – goes back to a problem with the amateur-encyclopedia format itself: Wikipedia implicitly asks what a given topic is, which prompts contributors to think of their topic as having a core, essential meaning (I wrote about this last year). The same problem can arise in a ‘proper’ encyclopedia, but there it’s generally mitigated by expertise: somebody who’s spent several years studying the broad Italian armed struggle scene is going to be motivated to relate the BR back to that scene, rather than presenting it as an utterly separate thing. The motivation will be still greater if the expert on the BR has also been asked to contribute articles on Prima Linea, the NAP, etc. This, again, is something that happens (and works, for all concerned) in the kind of restricted conversations that characterise academia, but isn’t incentivised by the Wikipedia conversation – because the Wikipedia conversation doesn’t go anywhere else. Doing Wikipedia is all about doing Wikipedia.

And when I have destroyed you

This is the country where I grew up:

The half-sheet of neatly typed paper is still where it has been for the last 40 years, tucked under the perspex cover of a map table in an underground operations room beneath a nondescript suburb of York.”Thirty minutes after the above occurrence the DC is to check Display A to see if the burst designation has been underlined in Yellow Chinagraph pencil, indicating that the first and/or amended communication has been incorporated in a MIDDD BB message. If not, enquiries are to be initiated to rectify the omission.”

If there had been a failure in the yellow pencil department, that would probably have been because the observers who phoned in reports of nuclear bombs falling on the moors and dales of Yorkshire, and the operators who took the messages in the bunker, were all dead.

“This bunker was designed to contain a full complement of 60 people for up to a fortnight, but it couldn’t have withstood a direct blast or even one reasonably nearby,” said Kevin Booth, curator of the building, whose steel door will soon be thrown open to the curious for the first time. “It’s perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I’m not sure how well it would all have worked.”

It’s all there. There’s the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, coupled with the (well-founded) suspicion that the government’s main priority in responding to this threat would be to ensure that its own bolt-holes were in working order. I was too young for the first Cold War (although I heard great things about the destruction of RSG 6), but in the 1980s Protect and Survive made radicals of us all – and War Plan UK made a lot of us into conspiracy theorists. Then there’s the atmosphere of insanely detailed bureaucracy and jobsworthery (enquiries are to be initiated, indeed) – and that’s coupled with the lingering suspicion that none of it, when push came to shove, would have actually worked.

It was a strange country, Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. I miss it, sometimes.

There’s more on the Holgate bunker here (visiting times) and here (pictures); this page has more about English Heritage’s bunker estate (and there’s a phrase I never expected to write).

Some things remain from that distant post-war landscape. There’s the pottering enthusiasm of bright-eyed antiquarians like Kevin Booth; small-town museums, bookshops and tourist attractions have been staffed by people like him for as long as I can remember, and it’s good to hear that a relic of the Cold War will receive the same kind of care. And there’s understatement – blessed British understatement.

“It’s perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I’m not sure how well it would all have worked.”

I do like that ‘perhaps’.

We are bored in the city

Et la piscine de la rue des Fillettes. Et le commissariat de police de la rue du Rendez-Vous. La clinique médico-chirurgicale et le bureau de placement gratuit du quai des Orfèvres. Les fleurs artificielles de la rue du Soleil. L’hôtel des Caves du Château, le bar de l’Océan et le café du Va et Vient. L’hôtel de l’Epoque.

Et l’étrange statue du Docteur Philippe Pinel, bienfaiteur des aliénés, dans les derniers soirs de l’été. Explorer Paris.

The early situationists, following Chtcheglov‘s lead, turned urban wandering into a form of political/psychological exploration, a group encounter with the city mediated only by alcohol. At a less exalted level, I’ve long been fascinated by the kind of odd urban poetry evoked here, in Manchester as much as Paris, and by the changing articulation of city space: established cities are a slow-motion example of Marx’s dictum about how we make our lives within conditions we have inherited. So it’s easy to see how well this could work:

Socialight lets you put virtual “sticky” notes called StickyShadows anywhere in the real world. Share pictures, notes and more using your cell phone.

But – for all that the site says about restricting access to Groups and Contacts – it’s also easy to see how very badly it could work.

* I leave a note for all my friends at the mall to let them know where I’m hanging out. All my friends in the area see it.
* A woman shows all her close friends the tree under which she had her first kiss.
* An entire neighborhood gets together and documents all the unwanted litter they find in an effort to share ownership of a community problem.
* A food-lover uses Socialight to share her thoughts on the amazing vanilla milkshakes at a new shop.
* The neighborhood historian creates her own walking tour for others to follow.
* A group of friends create their own scavenger hunt.
* A tourist takes place-based notes about stores in a shopping district, only for himself, for a time when he returns to the same city.
* A small business places StickyShadows that its customers would be interested in finding.
* A band promotes an upcoming show by leaving a StickyShadow outside the venue.

It was all going so well (although I did wonder why that entire neighbourhood couldn’t just pick up the litter) right up to the last two. Advertising – yep, that’s just what we all want more of in our urban lives. Lots of nice intrusive advertising.


The worst thing about taking-for-granted that our experiences with the city and each other will be “enriched” by more data, by more information, by making the invisible visible, etc., is that we never have to account for or be accountable to how.

More specifically, there’s a huge difference between enabling conversation and enabling people to be informed – in other words, between talking-with and being-talked-at. Social software is all about conversation – about enabling people to talk together. Moreover, any conversation is defined as much by what it shuts out as what it includes; it’s hard to listen to the people you want to talk with when you’re being talked at. Even setting aside the information-overload potential of all those overlapping groups (do I need to know where so-and-so had her first kiss? do I need to know now?), it’s clear that Socialight is trying to serve two ends which are not only incompatible but opposed – and only one of which pays money. Which is probably why, even though the technology is still in beta, I already feel that using it constructively would be going against the grain.

A night to kill a king


It was also, today, another anniversary: another less famous than once it was. Less famous than it ought to be: it is the anniversary of probably the most significant day in all this country’s history, a day with greater consequences for politics, government and religion than any other.

One day Herr Keuner was asked just what he meant by ‘reversal of perspective’, and he told the following story. Two brothers, who were deeply attached to one another, once adopted a curious practice. They started using pebbles to record the nature of each day’s events, a white stone for each moment of happiness, a black one for any misfortune or chagrin. They soon discovered, on comparing the contents of their jars of pebbles at the end of each day, that one brother collected only white pebbles, the other only black. Intrigued by the remarkable consistency with which they each experienced a similar fate in a quite different way, they resolved to seek the opinion of an old man famed for his wisdom. “You don’t talk about it enough”, said the wise man. “Each of you should seek the causes of your choices and explain them to the other.”

Thenceforward the two brothers followed this advice, and soon found that while the first remained faithful to his white pebbles, and the second to his black ones, in neither of the jars were there now as many pebbles as formerly. Where there had usually been thirty or so, each brother would now collect scarcely more than seven or eight. Before long the wise man had another visit from the two brothers, both looking very downcast. “Not long ago,” began the first brother, “my jar would fill up with pebbles as black as night. I lived in unrelieved despair. I confess that I only went on living out of force of habit. Now, I rarely collect more than eight pebbles in a day. But what these eight symbols of misery represent has become so intolerable that I simply cannot go on living like this.” The other brother told the wise man: “Every day I used to pile up my white pebbles. These days I only get seven or eight, but these exercise such a fascination over me that I cannot recall these moments of happiness without immediately wanting to live them over again, even more intensely than before. As a matter of fact, I long to keep on experiencing them forever, and this desire is a torment to me.” The wise man smiled as he listened. “Excellent, excellent”, he said. “Things are shaping up well. You must persevere. One other thing. From time to time, ask yourselves why this game with the jar and the pebbles arouses so much enthusiasm in you.”

The next time the two brothers visited the wise man, they had this to say: “Well, we asked ourselves the question, as you suggested, but we have no answer. So we asked everyone in the village. You can see how much it has upset them. Whole families sit outside their houses in the evenings arguing about white pebbles and black pebbles. Only the elders and notables refuse to take part in these discussions. They laugh at us, and say that a pebble is a pebble, black or white.” The old man could not conceal his delight at this. “Everything is going as I had foreseen. Don’t worry. Soon the question will no longer arise; it has already lost its importance, and I daresay that one day soon you will have forgotten that you ever concerned yourselves with it.”

Not long thereafter the old man’s predictions were confirmed in the following manner. A great joy seized the people of the village. And as dawn broke after a night full of comings and goings, the first rays of sunlight fell upon the heads of the elders and notables, struck from their bodies and impaled upon the sharp-pointed stakes of a palisade.
– Raoul Vaneigem, Traité de savoir-faire à l’usage des jeunes générations

Charles Stuart, 19/11/1600 – 30/1/1649

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