Open up the nicks

An Italian postscript. Here’s a post which originally appeared eighteen months ago (23/11/06) at the recently-revived Sharpener. I think it stands up pretty well: I got the importance of fragmenting the old Christian Democrat bloc, Prodi’s skill in knitting together ex-Christian Democrats and ex-Communists, and the lamentable importance of Clemente Mastella. (Who didn’t even stand in the last election – so it wasn’t all bad news.) What I didn’t anticipate was that the Right might be able to get a majority even after the UDC had moved into the Centre – but then, I didn’t anticipate Veltroni opting for electoral suicide on tactical grounds. These centre-leftists, they’re full of surprises.

The rising prison population isn’t only a British concern; it also makes the news in Italy. However, the comparison with Britain breaks down on at least two counts: firstly, because the size of the prison population is considerably smaller (in both absolute and relative terms); secondly, because the Italian government has taken the novel step of doing something about it. It’s good news for a lot of convicts, or ex-cons as they are now – including some of the crooks who were running Italian politics not that long ago.

In accordance with Catholic social teachings, it’s traditional in Italy for incoming governments to make a gesture of clemency: pardons, amnesties for illegal immigrants, sentence reductions, that kind of thing. The indulto (literally ‘pardon’) passed by the incoming Prodi government, earlier this year, cut sentences across the board. Thousands of prisoners were released as a result, and many more can look forward to an earlier release date. More controversially, several continuing trials have abruptly become rather pointless, as the maximum prison sentence the accused could now face has fallen below the level of the time they have already spent on remand.

As always, the devil is in the details. Should everyone be eligible for a reduced sentence? Sensing a possible outcry, Justice Minister Clemente Mastella stipulated that paedophiles and terrorists would not walk free as a result of his proposals. There was to be no amnesty for folk devils, in other words, only for ordinary decent criminals – like the man who was released midway through a sentence for attempting to kill his wife, and who promptly went home and attacked the poor woman again. (He’s now serving a fresh sentence.) But was that it? Were there no other ’special’ categories of criminal in Italian prisons (or in remand pending re-trial in Italian appeal courts)? What about corrupt politicians, convicted of taking bribes? What about corrupt business leaders, convicted of offering bribes? Shouldn’t those people serve their sentences in full – if only to encourage the others?

Mastella thought not. Di Pietro, on the other hand… but rewind. Think back to 1997, to start with: remember the wave of public revulsion against the extremism, corruption and cluelessness of the Tories; think how any Labour Party promising moderation, competence and integrity could have walked that election. And think of the Blair/Mandelson leadership, and their conviction that Labour would never get elected unless they appealed to the patriotic conservatism of Middle England. There’s a similar tension at work within Romano Prodi’s centre-left coalition. As I wrote back in May, there are three great touchstone issues in contemporary Italian politics. There’s the choice between left/right alternation and the permanent occupation of government by a single party, with a revolving cast of partners. The latter is the old Christian Democrat model, but it’s a model Berlusconi still hopes to revive – and not only Berlusconi. Then there’s the question of Communism, systematically denied political legitimacy for most of the ‘First Republic’ (1948-93). Most actual Italian Communists ended up as ‘Left Democrats’, who are unimpeachably moderate these days – but they’re haunted by the extremist spectres of two minor parties, ‘Italian Communists’ and ‘Communist Refoundation’. Thirdly, and uniquely to Italy (for now), there’s the question of corruption, the question being not “did it happen?” but “does it matter?”. No one seriously denies that the main parties of the First Republic bought and sold seats in Parliament, directorships of state companies and votes by the bagful. On some parts of the Italian political spectrum, this history is regarded as a genuine scandal, which should never happen again and for which more heads should roll. Some parts; not all.

Prodi’s coalition stands for left/right alternation, inclusion of the former Communists and prosecution of political corruption; in these respects it stands in direct opposition to Berlusconi’s coalition. Or rather, parts of Prodi’s coalition stand for left/right alternation, inclusion of the former Communists and prosecution of political corruption. Prodi himself stands for all three policies, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm; most of the parties within his coalition are enthusiasts for one of the three, or two at most. The party with the strongest anti-corruption agenda is ‘Principled Italy’, led by Antonio di Pietro – formerly a magistrate with a leading role in the Tangentopoli investigations which brought down the First Republic. Di Pietro’s role in the current government is Minister for Infrastructure and Transport; the Justice Minister, as we’ve seen, is Clemente Mastella. Mastella is not only a former Christian Democrat but a former ally of Berlusconi; his tiny ‘Union of European Democrats’ has never shown much enthusiasm for any of the three touchstone policies – or for anything much, apart from the career of Clemente Mastella.

Putting Mastella rather than di Pietro in charge of Justice, and thus in a position to frame the indulto proposal, guaranteed a period of open warfare between him and di Pietro (not a Mastella fan at the best of times). At one point di Pietro even announced that he had temporarily resigned from the government, the better to campaign for an anti-corruption amendment; this earned him a rebuke from the Italian President (the highly respectable ex-Communist Giorgio Napolitano), who effectively told him not to be so silly. But it also guaranteed that the indulto would get enough support in Parliament to pass, and that Mastella would stay in the government rather than defecting back to Berlusconi – which, if di Pietro had been given the Justice brief, would have been a real possibility.

And this brings us to the great hidden theme of Second Republic Italian politics: the Christian Democrats. The party ceased to exist over ten years ago, but its forty-year occupation of the ‘centre’ ground lives on in many people’s memories. (The Italian ‘centre’ was oddly named, as it excluded large swathes of uncontroversial left-wing politics but included everyone on the Right who wasn’t actually a neo-Fascist. Nevertheless, many Christian Democrats sincerely believed themselves to be squatting firmly in the centre, stoutly defending Italian democracy against two opposed extremisms – for four solid decades.) Like the Americans and Russians divvying up Nazi rocket scientists, Prodi and Berlusconi each have ‘their’ Christian Democrats: the Right has the optimistically-named ‘Christian Democrats United’, the Left has the bizarrely-named ‘Democracy Is Freedom’ (a.k.a. ‘the Daisy’), plus Mastella.

Prodi and Berlusconi don’t have a great deal in common, to put it mildly. Last summer Prodi was caught by the press driving off on holiday, with his wife in the passenger seat and a few good books and a couple of jars of pasta sauce in the back; it’s hard to imagine Berlusconi replicating a single detail of that picture. What they do share is a pair of nightmares: the nightmare of ‘their’ Christian Democrats defecting to the other side; still worse, the nightmare of both sets of Christian Democrats abandoning their coalitions and rebuilding the ‘centre’. A reunited Christian Democratic party would reverse the Left’s stand on all three touchstone issues. Ironically, it would be no more welcome to Berlusconi, whom it would accept as a junior partner if at all – and without his disreputable right-wing allies.

Both Prodi and Berlusconi talk of forming a single party, welding shut the doors of the coalition and forcing their Christian Democrats to stay in line. Unsurprisingly, neither single-party project is making much progress. The next best outcome (for both leaders) would be for the other side’s Christian Democrats to come over to them; a good third-best would be for the other side’s Christian Democrats to defect and try to rebuild the ‘centre’ unaided, damaging their old partners but doing little harm to their former opponents.

In this game Prodi is faring conspicuously better than Berlusconi. The leftish ex-Christian Democrats of ‘the Daisy’ are resigned, if not positively committed, to an eventual merger with the ‘Left Democrats’; by contrast, Pierferdinando Casini of ‘Christian Democrats United’ periodically makes pointed comments about having his own electorate to represent and not wanting to be a follower of Berlusconi all his life. The dream of rebuilding the centre also seems more likely to damage Berlusconi than Prodi. One ‘centre’ splinter has already flaked off from Casini’s party: Marco Follini, Casini’s predecessor as party leader, now leads a tiny new party called ‘Middle Italy’. The chances are that Follini’s going nowhere, but his defection hasn’t helped Berlusconi.

There’s a certain kind of political operator whose sheer skill compels admiration, even if you aren’t entirely sure whose interests they’re ultimately serving (other than their own). There are an awful lot of operators in Italy – the hothouse factionalism endemic to Italian party politics is a forcing-ground for them. Prodi (who began his political career as a Christian Democrat) is one of the best. His commitment to the anti-corruption touchstone is genuine – he recently named tax evasion as a major problem to be addressed by government, a bold statement for any Italian Prime Minister. But commitments are one thing and strategy is another – and strategy requires the fragmentation of the former Christian Democrats to be maintained (or, if possible, exacerbated). So Mastella needs to be kept inside the tent; so di Pietro’s crusading zeal needs to be left to run into the sand; so bribe-takers and bribe-givers need to be allowed to benefit from the indulto, walking free alongside the ordinary decent thieves and murderers.

It’s frustrating to watch; as with Labour in 1997, you can’t help feeling that there’s so much more the Prodi government could do. But, unlike Labour in 1997, Prodi is walking a tightrope, having been elected by a margin of something like 0.1% of the vote – and it’s worth remembering that unchallenged left/right alternation in government is still little more than a pious aspiration in Italy. The Prodi government needs to be challenged and held to account; the coalition’s priorities are decided through a shifting balance of power and influence among its constituent parts, so there is no shortage of points where external pressure can be applied. But there are reasons for putting at least a critical trust in the Prodi project. Apart from anything else, if it succeeds, Berlusconi will have failed.

All shades of opinion

For the Left, the Italian elections were an avoidable disaster. Unfortunately, they weren’t avoidable by the Left.

Brief history lesson. Western Communist Parties always were contradictory formations, and the Italian Communist Party (PCI) more than most. The official ideology of the party was gradualist: the irreversible socialist transformation of society was to be achieved through a process of incremental reform, implemented by a cross-party alliance of progressive forces, which would be kept on track by pressure from party members and trade unionists. The only problem with this vision was that, in post-war Italy, it was utterly unrealistic. From 1948 on the Christian Democrats were in permanent occupation of the state, and had no interest in allying themselves with ‘extremists’. (Post-war Italy was a textbook case of the relativity of political geography. The Christian Democrats (DC) had allies to the Left and Right of the party (albeit not very far to the Left and Right); the DC were therefore a ‘centre’ party, and any party which they refused to ally with was by definition ‘extreme’. The Communists were routinely described as an ‘anti-system’ party (along with the neo-fascist MSI), essentially on the grounds that the DC didn’t see them as a trustworthy ally.)

In the 1970s, under the pressure of seemingly permanent exclusion from power, the PCI Right started to think in terms of cashing in the party’s sizeable vote for a place at the political table, even if this meant abandoning the project of socialist transformation. The Left of the party, at this time, included some groups of creative and forward-looking socialists, genuinely responsive to the ferment of the late 1960s, alongside groups whose commitment to socialist revolution was (paradoxically) an aspect of their political conservatism. This current – widely, although inaccurately, called Stalinist – had little or no influence on party policy: its ideological commitment to party unity prevented it from organising independently and mandated support for the party leadership, however right-wing. The party was facing three ways at once, in other words. Its most successful leader, Enrico Berlinguer, owed that success to his ability to move Right while talking Left, giving an inspirational gloss of radicalism to a programme of surrender to DC-dominated political normality. It didn’t work for long, either in delivering political results or in keeping the lid on the contradictions within the party.

In 1990 the PCI right and centre succeeded in dumping the word ‘Communist’ and renaming the party ‘Democratic Left’ (PDS); a new party, Partito di Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), was formed out of the left of the party – or rather the lefts, plural. As well as dividing the party’s membership and its vote, the two new parties split the PCI’s ideological heritage: the PDS took the gradualism and the dream of being accepted as a normal, centre-left political party; PRC took the creativity and the openness to new movements, but also the Soviet nostalgia and the belief in party unity. Consequently PRC was considerably less homogeneous than PDS, and contained several distinct tendencies: ‘Stalinist’ nostalgics, libertarian free-thinkers, believers in the old cross-party alliance project, social movement activists, even a few Trotskyists. (Trotskyism was historically very weak in Italy; Maoists and Autonomist Leninists took up the slack.) What PRC and the PDS shared was a belief in alliances – specifically, alliances with forces to the Right of the party; this was seen not just as a necessity for the party to be able to form a government but as a progressive goal in itself.

Initially the split didn’t do either faction any favours. True, they both believed in forming some kind of alliance which would involve forces to their Right – but what that actually meant was quite different as seen from within PRC (proud to claim the title of Communist) and PDS (Old Labour-ish, tired of getting nowhere, sneaking admiration for Tony Blair). The PDS’s alliance project seemed more realisable; indeed, at one stage it looked as if the PDS were going to take the old polarisation of Italian politics – an immovable centre and two ‘anti-system’ extremes – and shift the whole thing to the Left, with the centre being occupied by an alliance between the PDS and the more left-wing ex-Christian Democrats. The permanently excluded Communist extreme would be taken by PRC, while the DC Right joined the MSI on the ‘anti-system’ Right. This design was scuppered primarily by the emergence of Silvio Berlusconi, who pulled off the double trick of appealing to the old Christian Democrat vote (through his own Forza Italia as well as the centre-right UDC) and bringing the ‘anti-system’ Right in from the cold, in the form of the ex-fascists of MSI (now Alleanza Nazionale) and the proto-fascists of the Lega Nord. If Berlusconi were to be prevented from occupying the state in his own right, something similar would have to be done on the Left – which meant, among other things, that the left and centre-left were going to have to pull together.

There have been two governments led by a Left alliance including both PRC and PDS (or its successor party, the slightly broader-based Left Democrats (DS)). Both, perhaps unsurprisingly, have been led by ex-Christian Democrat Romano Prodi, probably Italian politics’ greatest deal-maker since Aldo Moro. Both lasted about two years (1996-8 and 2006-8); and both collapsed when the government lost its majority after internal dissension. In 1998 PRC refused to endorse Prodi’s economic liberalism, leading to three years of unstable slightly-left-of-centre coalitions followed by Berlusconi’s second government in 2001. In 2006 Prodi led the Unione, a formal coalition uniting almost everything to the left of Berlusconi; they won the election with 49.8% of the popular vote, as against the 49.7% won by Berlusconi, Alleanza Nazionale, the UDC and the Lega combined (campaigning as the Casa delle Libertà, ‘House of Freedoms’). The figures were always dicey, particularly in the Senate. This time round, however, the wedge was pulled out not by PRC but by Clemente Mastella, an opportunistic centre-right ex-Christian Democrat whose presence in the Unione was perhaps the ultimate proof of its breadth. Prodi’s government fell when Mastella defected to Berlusconi in 2008, in reaction to being named as a corruption suspect. PRC were nowhere to be seen, having held their collective nose and swallowed everything.

Or rather, nearly everything. The previous year, PRC had already looked the prospect of another 1998 in the face; perhaps it’d be truer to say that Prodi took them by the collar and forced them to look it in the face. In January 2007, a parliamentary motion to increase the number of Italian troops in Afghanistan and double the size of a US military base met serious opposition from the left, despite being elevated into a vote of confidence by the Prodi government. Facing defeat, Prodi called the left’s bluff and resigned. In the ensuing manoeuvres, the PRC group decided against being seen to hand the next election to Berlusconi and fell into line behind Prodi, who graciously consented to pick up where he left off. Old habits of party discipline die hard: only one PRC parliamentarian – senator Franco Turigliatto of the Trotskyist Sinistra Critica current – held out, and was promptly expelled from the party.

However, this was something of a Pyrrhic victory for Prodi: he had succeeded in making PRC look both irresponsibly extreme and unreliable, but not in doing without them. Even an explicit move to the Right, rejecting PRC and embracing the UDC, wouldn’t have done the job. PRC had more seats than UDC, so a centrist Prodi coalition (assuming this was feasible) would have lost its majority on day one – to say nothing of the inevitable loss of smaller left parties like Comunisti Italiani. Prodi needed PRC, but what he needed them to do was keep quiet; it wasn’t a good situation either for the party or for the government. Given the parliamentary arithmetic, the only way this kind of outcome could have been avoided was by avoiding the original confrontation in the first place. The only way that could have been guaranteed would have been for PRC leader Fausto Bertinotti to have gone into the coalition for the 2006 election with a list of non-negotiable policies – but then, how to decide which among the party’s policies were non-negotiable, and what message would that have sent about the rest of them?

By 2008, Prodi had overseen a merger between DS and the main centre-left survivor of the wreck of the Christian Democrats, a party called variously ‘Democracy is Liberty’ or ‘The Daisy’. The new party, emphatically not committed to socialism, went by the name of the Democratic Party (PD); Walter Veltroni, a Communist in the Berlinguer mould, was elected to lead the party. Meanwhile on the Right, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia merged with the post-Fascist Alleanza Nazionale to form something called the Party of the People of Liberty (PdL). The Lega remained a semi-detached ally, while the centre-right UDC – which had contributed 6.8% to the Right’s 49.7% of the vote in 2006 – was cut loose. Veltroni also decided to be selective about alliances, accepting the anti-corruption crusader Antonio di Pietro as an ally but turning Bertinotti away. Instead, PRC formed the Sinistra Arcobaleno (‘Rainbow Left’), an uneasy coalition with the Greens, Comunisti Italiani and a group of DS dissidents who had baulked at joining the PD – although not Sinistra Critica or the Partita Comunista del Lavoro (an earlier split), both of which ran their own micro-campaigns. In 2006 the parties of the Rainbow Left had got just under four million votes and 61 seats. This time round, the coalition got just over one million votes – and, thanks in part to an electoral system described by its own designer as a mess, no seats at all.

Some commentary on the wipe-out of the Rainbow Left has been openly triumphalist. For example, here are some thoughts from Edmondo Berselli in La Repubblica:

To sum up, Rifondazione are out of the contest; so are the Greens, Comunisti Italiani and the group which left DS rather than merge into the Partito Democratico. This is one of the results of Walter Veltroni’s Copernican revolution, which overthrew the old political framework built by Romano Prodi, convinced as he was that the ‘oppositional’ Left needed to be included within the alliance that needed to be built to beat the Right. Meanwhile, it was left to ministers like Finance Minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa to teach the ‘dismal science’ to the utopians and the extremists, to the No Global groups and the anti-capitalists.

However, helping to make the country governable wasn’t all that the radical left felt it was called to achieve. Consequently, being the handmaiden to a technocratic centre-left government wasn’t satisfactory … it was unbearable owing to the finely-tuned social conscience of many of those on the radical left, to the critical edge that was sharpened by personal political involvement, to pacifism and, all in all, owing to the radical left’s inability to put up with compromises, on the economy or on international politics, for very long.

Veltroni exposed the fragility of this left, forcing it to pose the question of representativeness, and put the quality of its political programme to the test, not on the parliamentary benches or through conscientious objection, but in the cruel sport of the electoral arena. In truth, nobody thought that the total liquidation of a political project like Rifondazione was possible; and everyone thought that the oppositional left would find room for the environmentalist niche programme of the Greens, the post-Communist sclerosis of Comunisti Italiani and the unease of the DS dissidents.

Instead of which, the radical Left walked into a sort of electoral booby-trap … While Veltroni attempted a genuinely hegemonic initiative (one which the radical left has often denounced as such), aiming to define the profile of a Left capable of governing, the Rainbow Left was caught in a dramatic impasse. No longer could minor parties reap the benefit of extremist votes by turning them into “useful” votes for a broad and adaptable alliance. The radical left was placed in an impossible situation, which the voters resolved by abandoning the Rainbow Left: for the PD, for the anti-political Di Pietro, for the radical-sounding populism of the Lega Nord. A few people, nostalgic for the hammer and sickle, may have found refuge with Sinistra Critica and the heretic Turigliatto, but many others opted for abstention.

It should be said that the flight from politics, into an ideal rather than an empirical Left, leaves a diffuse but significant element of society deprived of any institutional representation. Bertinotti is retiring; the other leaders are talking about Year Zero, founding conferences, a new beginning. Any conference is worthwhile if it addresses the problem of engaging with the problem of government. The idea of living in a playground of radicalism has been torn apart by the violence of reality. For those who have always liked to talk of ‘objective’ reasons, the ‘balance of forces’ and ‘structural’ problems, the time has come to face up to reality and turn away from the maze of illusions.

This is dreadful stuff, but it’s worth taking seriously for two reasons. One is that it illustrates a widespread perception of PRC, and by extension demonstrates just how bad a position Prodi’s ultimatum had left the party in. As praiseworthy as their “finely-tuned social conscience” might be, at the end of the day the socialists and Communists of PRC had only one choice: they could face up to reality and engage with the problem of government – by bowing the head to Prodi – or they could show themselves to be irresponsible extremists, indulging in a flight from politics into a playground of radicalism. Any colour you like, as long as it’s mild neo-liberalism; there is no alternative. Prodi didn’t only whip PRC into line by holding the threat of Berlusconi over them; he undermined the party’s claim to political legitimacy, echoing his old party’s eternal exclusion of the ‘anti-system’ PCI.

The second reason is the insight this offers into the real reason for the wipe-out. The blame doesn’t really lie with Prodi for posing his ultimatum or Sinistra Critica for giving him the chance; say what you like about Prodi, he did get PRC into government twice (even appointing Bertinotti as leader of the Chamber of Deputies). Even Bertinotti isn’t really to blame, although his leadership does seem to have laid PRC wide open to this kind of attack. The blame for what happened this year lies with the party that set the electoral booby-trap. From an interview with Walter Veltroni:

The new centre-left has been launched beyond any possibility of going back: we’ve created a great reformist party, which has broken with the old alliances and contested the election on its own. But the new centre-left had to deal with the negative image of the old centre-left. For the lower classes, the lasting contribution of the old majority could be summed up as taxes that were too high and parties whose arguments stopped anything being done.

Prodi paid – and we all paid – for the atmosphere of permanent conflict within the coalition, which was paralysed by the culture of negativity. This is why all the old parties of Prodi’s Unione alliance got such bad results. Or rather, all except one: the PD. This is why I can say now that our decision to make a break with the past was the right one: our courage has been rewarded. If we had gone to the polls in the same lineup as in 2006, we would have been swept away by a tsunami from which the centre-left would never have recovered.

Right. But there has been a tsunami all the same – the Rainbow Left no longer exists. And they’re blaming you.

The Rainbow Left’s exclusion from Parliament was an electoral tragedy; it’s not a good result for our democracy. But they are overlooking two errors – and pretending not to see those errors seems to me almost as bad in itself as blaming the PD for their defeat. The first error was to bombard the Prodi government with demands, right from day one … The second error is summed up in the words of Bertinotti, in the PRC’s paper last December, when he wrote “the government’s project has failed” … The Rainbow Left never understood contemporary society. I’ll give you an example: when I launched my campaign on law and order, which I said was neither a right-wing nor a left-wing issue, the extremism of the PRC’s paper was such that they called me a Fascist. And they suffered for that. They suffered for not understanding that tough decisions needed to be made, and that the culture of negativity would have led us to disaster.

So what now? Will you reopen dialogue with what’s now the extra-parliamentary Left?

We’re always available for dialogue. I’ll go further: in Parliament, as a reformist force, we’ll also try to represent the culture of the groups to our Left. But there’s no going back. We’ll talk to them, but we’ll never be the same as them.

“Our courage has been rewarded”, indeed. This is open to challenge on two levels. First, here are some voting figures for 2001, 2006 and 2008, for the Rainbow Left and the five main parties represented in the Italian Parliament: the PD, Di Pietro’s Italia dei Valori, the UDC, the PdL and the Lega Nord. Where parties have merged or split between elections I’ve estimated a figure on the basis of the votes of their predecessors.

2001 2006 2008
Rainbow Left 8.9% 10.2% 3.1%
PD 33.3% 32.5% 33.2%
Italia dei Valori 3.9% 2.3% 4.4%
UDC 3.2% 6.8% 5.6%
PdL 41.5% 36% 37.4%
Lega Nord 3.9% 4.6% 8.3%

Look at the votes for the two main parties, the PD and Berlusconi’s PdL – and look how little they’ve changed. Veltroni’s great reformist party has been rewarded with a share of the vote almost identical to the figure for the party’s predecessors in 2001 – an election won by Berlusconi. Admittedly there’s a rise of 0.7% as compared with the 2006 election – but when you consider that the DS actually won that election (in alliance with PRC), it’s difficult to see what there is to boast about. Unless, of course, that slump in support for the Rainbow Left – with all that followed – was actually the object of the exercise. As Berselli noted, poll data suggests that some of those Rainbow Left voters opted for the PD (which presumably lost votes to the Right at the same time); some went for Di Pietro, or for the populism of the Lega; and a lot stayed at home. And, if we look at the seats gained by parties as well as the vote, we can see that the result not only penalised the Rainbow Left, but positively benefited PD. Here are the proportions of votes and seats won by the main coalitions in 2006 and 2008:

2006 2008
Votes Seats Votes Seats
PD / Unione 49.8% 54.2% 37.5% 38.7%
PdL / CdL 49.7% 44.8% 46.7% 55%
UDC n/a n/a 5.6% 5.8%

The electoral system has been designed to guarantee a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, so it’s not surprising that the winning coalition in both elections is over-represented. And it’s not a surprise to see that the CdL was under-represented in 2006 – those extra seats have got to come from somewhere. But now look at 2008. The PdL is over-represented, but so is the defeated PD. Even the UDC, which you might expect to be suffering from the classic third-party squeeze, is over-represented relative to its vote. But those extra seats have come from somewhere – effectively, they’ve come from the parties who were under-represented to the point of gaining no seats at all. Micro-parties standing in Italian national elections, essentially for propaganda purposes, are nothing new; in 2006 there were 14 parties who stood but gained no seats, taking 3.3% of the vote between them. This time round, there were 23 parties unrepresented in Parliament, and they took 9.6% of the vote between them, of which the Rainbow Left accounted for 3.1%. As well as encouraging potential Rainbow Left voters to vote PD or stay at home, the PD’s refusal of an alliance thus created the conditions for a million Rainbow Left votes to be completely wasted – and for the PD to reap the benefit. Defeat, demobilisation and delegitimation – nice one, Walter.

The worst of it is, there was never really any chance that the PD’s courage in shafting the Left would genuinely be rewarded – rewarded with something useful, like a defeat for Berlusconi. Here are some more voting figures, from the last few elections contested by the PCI before it split. The ‘DC bloc’ figures include the Christian Democrats and all the small parties which were admitted to DC-led coalitions. The ‘PCI’ figures include votes for the Radical Party, a small middle-class leftish party which has merged into the PD.

1976 1979 1983 1987
Far Left 1.5% 1.4% 1.7% 4.2%
PCI 35.5% 33.8% 32.1% 29.2%
DC bloc 56.1% 56.8% 56.4% 57.4%
Far right 6.1% 5.3% 6.8% 5.9%

For the Left to escape from permanent opposition, that >50% DC bloc needed to be split into left, right and centre components, and as much of it as possible had to be drawn into a centre-left alliance. Moreover, this alliance would have to be built very, very carefully if the end result were not simply to be a shift to the Right by the PCI, losing votes on the Left as fast as it gained them on the Right (PCI, 1983: 32.1%; DS, 2006: 32.5%). The DS needed to make a significant move to the Right so as to appeal to left Christian Democrats, but at the same time they needed to keep the Left on side. This impossible balancing act was what Romano Prodi achieved, with the alliance that narrowly won the 2006 election. I’ve got a soft spot for really good machine politicians, and Prodi has shown himself to be one of the best. It’s just a shame that he’s a committed neo-liberal imperialist as well as a tactical genius: his politics tested his own alliance to destruction.

Veltroni, like Prodi, is not a socialist – but, unlike Prodi, he’s a former Communist rather than a former Christian Democrat. Consequently, his attitude to the Left is not tolerant incomprehension but open hostility: he knows what they are, he’s fought them for years and he wants nothing to do with them now. Hence his apparent determination to profit from one half of Prodi’s tactical approach (shoring up the right-PCI vote by merging it with the old left of the DC) while abandoning the other (achieving a majority by keeping the Left on board). You could call this approach a ‘Copernican revolution’; alternatively, you could look at it in the light of the voting figures for the last 10, 30 or 60 years, in which case you’d probably call it quixotic and wildly irresponsible. (The difference between Veltroni and Copernicus is that the world actually does revolve around the sun.)

This brings us to the second and more serious reason for challenging Veltroni’s complacency: the outcome of the elections. Berlusconi is back in power; he’s got a huge majority in the Chamber of Deputies (thanks in part to that electoral system) and a decent majority in the Senate; unlike last time, the relatively moderate UDC is out of the right-wing alliance and out of government; while the relatively terrifying Lega Nord is as close to Berlusconi as before, and numerically stronger than ever. The Lega and Alleanza Nazionale are already fighting like rats in a sack, which is some consolation; however, in the nature of things they’re unlikely to exert a moderating influence on Berlusconi, as the UDC sometimes did. Berlusconi’s even solved the problem of turning his party into something more than a personal vehicle, by merging Forza Italia with Alleanza Nazionale. In short, these results are a disaster for Italy as well as a historic defeat for the Italian Left. And it’s a disaster that could, surely, have been avoided – by Veltroni.

This is a striking example of the ‘realism’ of the centre-left, if it still deserves that name. (We can expect the PD to shift still further to the Right – after all, the UDC got twice the vote of the Rainbow Left, which suggests where the votes can be found. Marco Follini, a former leader of the UDC who is now in the PD, has already put down a marker: “We need to talk about the identity of the PD. If it’s going to be a party of the Left – even a social-democratic party – well, fine, but you can count me out.”) Writers like Berselli, staunch in their support for the ‘realism’ and ‘maturity’ of Veltroni’s party, have excoriated the irresponsible extremism of PRC. Had Bertinotti voted with Turigliatto in 2007, we can be sure that his party would have got the blame for destroying left unity and letting Berlusconi back in. But apparently left unity is a one-way street: Veltroni can dump PRC at will, even if the result of splitting the centre-left in this way is exactly the same as if the split had been initiated by Bertinotti. And apparently ‘realism’ encompasses pitching for an overall majority at the head of a party which has never been known to get as much as 35% of the vote.

Back in the 1970s, Berlinguer came to power within the PCI on the back of a long wave of industrial militancy and local election victories: it seemed that the time had come to capitalise on the PCI’s successes at the national level. What actually happened was that the DC kept the PCI at arm’s length for years on end, while Berlinguer courted respectability by denouncing the irresponsible radicalism and militancy of the Left and the trade unions. Berlinguer never did persuade the DC to admit the PCI to government, but he did irreparable damage to the party – both its vote and its membership rose until about 1976, then declined almost continuously until the split in 1990. You wouldn’t have thought they’d fall for that again.

Cool machine

One from the book of lost posts:

Here are some of Graham Greene’s judgments on Frederick Rolfe (‘Baron Corvo’), a writer who seems to have had a definite fascination for him:

The greatest saints have been men with more than a natural capacity for evil, and the most vicious men have sometimes narrowly avoided sanctity. … Rolfe’s vice was spiritual more than it was carnal: it might be said that he was a pander and a swindler, because he cared for nothing but his faith. He would be a priest or nothing, so nothing it had to be

The difficulty always is to distinguish between possession by a devil and possession by a holy spirit. Saints have starved like Rolfe, and no saint had a more firm belief in his spiritual vocation. He loathed the flesh (making an unnecessary oath to remain twenty years unmarried that he might demonstrate to unbelieving ecclesiastics his vocation for the priesthood) and he loved the spirit.

[Reviewing Hubert’s Arthur (“on the whole … a dull book of small literary merit”)]
Reading his description of St Hugh, ‘the sweet and inerrable canorous voice of the dead’, one has to believe in the genuineness of his nostalgia – for the Catholic Church, for innocence. But at the same time one cannot fail to notice the homosexual and the sadistic element in the lushness and tenderness of his epithets … when he describes Arthur,

the proud gait of the stainless pure secure in himself, wholly perfect in himself, severe with himself as with all, strong in disgust of ill, utterly careless save to keep high, clean, cold, armed, intact, apart, gleaming with candid candour both of heart and of aspect, like a flower, like a maid, like a star,

one recognises the potential sanctity of the man

There’s something very odd going on here. He would be a priest or nothing; he loathed the flesh; but one cannot fail to notice the homosexual and the sadistic element in his lush, languorous evocations of purity and discipline. And, it has to be said, the oddness in these passages isn’t confined to Rolfe. When I look at that parade of epithets heaped on the figure of Arthur – high, clean, cold, armed, intact, apart … like a flower, like a maid, like a star – sanctity isn’t the first thing I think of, or the second. This isn’t a positive embrace of the good or holy, or of anything; it’s an anxious denial of anything low, dirty or warm, tipping over into yearning for the impossible fantasy of making that denial real.

I wondered, reading these passages, if ‘homosexual’ is the key term here. I was amused, as Greene probably intended, by that reference to Rolfe’s ‘unnecessary’ vow to avoid marriage. It reminded me of the old sketch about the scoutmaster’s funeral (“Funny he never married…”) – or, closer to home, of the (Anglican) priest in my mother’s old parish, who was a heavy clubber and a member of a monastic order, which he eventually left on the grounds that the vow of celibacy wasn’t fair to his partner. At the same time, Greene clearly believes at some level in the idea of rejecting the flesh, and seems genuinely troubled by the thought that some men who do so are only really rejecting the female flesh. So Rolfe’s homosexuality doesn’t undermine his vocation for sanctity – still less, as we might think, explain it; rather, the two run side by side, fleshly weakness alongside all the high, clean, cold stuff. What’s missing is the idea that, for Rolfe, the impossibility of an overt sex life might have fed into a general hatred of the world – and sex, and himself. And cue Robert Hanks in the Indie a bit back, covering a programme about a male army officer who had had a sex change:

at another point, discussing her earlier service in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jan talked of a misery so intense that she had volunteered for dangerous missions in the hope of finding an end to it all. This is, by the way, nothing new. A brief acquaintance with military memoirs will make it clear that the armed forces have always relied on having at least a few soldiers so bloody unhappy that they don’t care whether they live or die. Homosexuality used to be a good motivator: Siegfried Sassoon, for example, earned his nickname “Mad Jack” and his Military Cross after the death of a boy he had been in love with (though in his fictionalised Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, the relationship was glossed as a strong friendship). But in these more liberal times, being gay may not make soldiers feel sufficiently cast out from society: perhaps would-be transsexuals are the VCs of the future.

A certain kind of heroism is hard to distinguish from self-loathing. A certain kind of martial virtue, anyway. Rolfe was a sinner, happily for him, but you’ve got to wonder what do you end up with if you take clean, cold, armed, intact etc seriously, and give all this repression and denial its head: who is this guy who’s secure in himself, wholly perfect in himself, severe with himself as with all, strong in disgust of ill? And what kind of uniform is he wearing? Here’s Michael Wood in the LRB, discussing Bertolucci’s the Conformist:

The question of normality gets cleared up by a resort to an old Italian movie myth, also dear to Rossellini and Visconti: homosexual guilt. … Isn’t or wasn’t Marcello a Fascist? This is where the myth kicks in. He was just trying to be straight, that’s what ‘normal’ meant. The myth isn’t homosexual guilt itself, of course, but the suggestion that without homosexual guilt Fascism in Italy would never really have got off the ground, or at least wouldn’t have been interesting. The attraction of the myth is that it plays in two modes, gay and macho. The problem can be the guilt or the homosexuality, but either way no one ever gets over it, and the effects are disastrous.

One recognises the potential sanctity of the man, indeed. I’m quite glad to say that I don’t; I can’t see how denial of the flesh can have anything to do with religion, if by religion we mean a culture or body of beliefs which has something to say to the rest of the world. At its best, or least harmful, it’s fraudulent and misogynistic; at its awful, heartfelt worst it’s power-worship, self-abasement and disgust at the world.

Deny the flesh and you can deny just about anything – and enjoy it. Let me have priests about me who are married.

(Although not necessarily to Hindus.)

Under the mirror

Counting films on TV & video, the last five films I’ve seen (from most recent) are

The Spiderwick Chronicles
Pride and Prejudice
High School Musical 2
High School Musical
Vantage Point

You may sense a theme emerging. Spiderwick is certainly a film I wouldn’t have seen if I weren’t a parent, but as such it was much better than I’d expected (although by the end of it I had seen enough CGI goblins, trolls and boggarts to last me a good long time). The plotting was a bit odd and baggy in places, probably thanks to the film being based on five separate books, but the construction and pacing were terrific – it gripped and didn’t let go. It was also one of the scariest films I’ve seen in some time, with some well-executed horror-movie ‘house under attack’ sequences; what the eight-year-old of the family made of it I’m not sure. By comparison the High School Musicals are fluff, but they’re enjoyable fluff. HSM2 suffers from diminishing returns – and from the inexplicable decision to cut out the “Humuhumunukunukuapua’a” number, which leaves a big hole in the film – but they’re both worth a look if you like musicals. (I’m a sucker for a well-executed musical, and these are.) Nice liberal anti-conformity message, too. And Pride and Prejudice – the only proper grown-up film we’ve seen lately – is wonderful, but not in a costumey way. It’s true to the novel, which is very far from being a costume-drama novel; the performances have that quality David Lynch used to get on Twin Peaks, of actors going just far enough over the top. I never expect to see a better Darcy than Matthew McFadyean; he’s sulky, awkward, odd-looking and a howling snob, all of which makes him a great improvement on (say) the Colin Firth portrayal. Keira Knightley actually gives one of the poorer performances – she doesn’t quite get the length, and sometimes seems like she’s strolled in from another film – but she’s still very watchable, what with being Keira Knightley.

But this post is about Vantage Point, which was something of a personal milestone – the first film I’ve been to with my son that I wouldn’t have minded seeing on my own, or with another adult. (This post began as a comment on The Cedar Lounge Revolution, some time ago now – cheers, WbS.) It’s a high-concept film: there’s an assassination attempt on the President of the US (POTUS, as he’s called throughout the film); we see the 10-15 minutes either side of the shooting from the viewpoint of a TV news team, then see it again from the standpoint of an eye-witness, then another – and another – and another. As each sequence ends we’re shown a montage of the key events we’ve just seen, speeded up and in reverse: rewind the tape and let’s go again. After four of these sequences, each of which reveals a bit more about what’s happened, we rewind once more and then follow events from the standpoint of the terrorist group responsible for the shooting. Or that’s how it seems to begin with; after a while we realise the film’s reverted to standard omniscient-narrator mode, and the second half is shot very much like a conventional thriller. Very much in the style of the Bourne films, in particular, or at least in a style meant to evoke the Bourne films – the action isn’t nearly as brutal, or the hand-held camerawork as jerky. Where the style of the film does score, intermittently, is in evoking the experience of some fairly extreme events. Most of the gunplay is standard-issue bang-you’re-dead stuff, but there’s one catastrophic event that’s followed by some strikingly unhurried shots of the aftermath: you can see the different protagonists sitting up, looking round and obviously thinking What was that? And what the hell do I do now? If the Bourne films redefine heroism by making it look really difficult and really dangerous, this film was more about heroism and post-traumatic stress.

It’s pretty political, for a mainstream action film; to be more precise, it’s a “this is pretty political for a mainstream action film” film. Very self-conscious, very media-studies – and, ultimately, not very political (we learn next to nothing about the terrorist group at the heart of the action). If there’s an overriding mood to the film it’s less radical than paranoid. The way it puts on display anxieties about recorded images, surveillance and the mass media is typical. The first sequence is set in an outside broadcast newsroom, belonging to a US satellite channel modelled on CNN; at the end, the film returns to the satellite channel, closing with a grainy full-screen image of their newsreader. The first-person sequences that make up the first half of the film include some sequences from the character’s viewpoint, but mostly we’re either looking straight at the character or looking over his shoulder. It’s a curious effect: when the first-person character looks around to take in a whole scene, in particular, the giddy looping of a hand-held camera reproduces his head movements – even though the guy himself is in shot. The grammar of these shots effectively writes in the film-maker, saying we are showing you how it looked to him – a point that’s underlined thuddingly by those pause-and-rewind sequences. (He, he, him – all the four eye-witness characters are male.) There were lots of cameras within the film; at one point or another just about everyone was filming, being filmed or both, and much vital evidence was seen being caught on camera. On the other hand, it was clear that we were being shown the view from inside, and nothing was going to get out without heavy official filtering. Before the main action of the film, a reporter on the ground was seen pointing out that lots of people in Europe weren’t too keen on US foreign policy, and being roundly rebuked for going off the script about unity in the face of terror. The foiling of a real (and fiendishly complex) terrorist plot naturally didn’t change this policy; the last line of the film closed the official book on the story, suggesting that most people would never know what had happened.

The focus on camcorders and cameraphones links into a more general unease – or uneasy fascination – with technology. My son wondered if the film would damage the sales of iPhones, which (or something very like them) are used to great effect by the head bomber. At several points I was strongly reminded of the Italian Job, of all things: the terrorists pull off an impossibly complex plot, forestalling and circumventing anti-terrorist counter-measures through ingenuity, co-ordination and some very advanced technology. However, in this film we’re dealing with a terrorist coup carried out by ruthless fanatics rather than a payroll robbery pulled off by a gang of lovable South London incompetents, which makes for a very different mood: you don’t actually want the terrorists to succeed, to put it bluntly. The terrorists’ indomitable ability to stay one step ahead of the forces of law and order feeds right into the film’s pervasive sense of paranoia and helplessness. Whatever we (meaning, roughly, the US Secret Service) do or think of doing, they will know about it already; nothing we can do but keep on keeping on, shoot the bad guys when the opportunity presents itself, and trust to luck to get us out of this thing (it works in this film, anyway). A very American version of heroism, but with a beleaguered, disenchanted post-Cold War edge – as if to say, we don’t know what’s going on, we don’t really believe we’re fighting the good fight any more – but they’re still out to get us, so we’d better just keep fighting.

This links into the more explicit politics of the film: it is specifically the Americans (including, presumably, the main audience for this film) who don’t know what’s going on, and who are feeding the enemy without realising it. After technology, the terrorists’ main weapon is their ability to recruit: half the characters you see turn out either to be members of the terrorist group or to be temporarily complicit with them for various reasons. At the most basic level, the message is that Europe has a plentiful supply of recruits and sympathisers for an anti-American cause – a point most of the Americans were shown as completely failing to understand (that was the significance of the exchange with the more ‘enlightened’ reporter). But of course this point cuts both ways: if the Americans have good reason to be fearful, that also means they have good reason to keep fighting.

Unsurprisingly, the terrorists’ cause is almost completely unspecified – although I can reveal, without giving too much away, that the group is genuine. (At the risk of sounding like Nick Cohen, I was genuinely surprised that the terrorists didn’t turn out to be some kind of CIA/Mossad front; that’s a very available storyline on dramatic grounds alone.) They are shown as motivated by hatred both of the US and of the effects of US foreign policy; their anger feeds on the Americans’ naivety and their conviction that they stand for peace and democracy. Having made any kind of democrat/terrorist opposition problematic, the film gestures towards an alternative polarisation, between those who stand for peace and reconciliation (including the noble and far-sighted POTUS) and those who call for war without end (including both the terrorists and the President’s advisors). (The wise POTUS and his scheming advisors – a very old theme, and not a particularly radical one.) However, a gesture is all it is; whether POTUS stands for peace or war, when push comes to shove he still needs to be saved from the terrorists. More to the point, even if their motivation is understandable (and their grasp of technology is impressive) the terrorists are still evil fanatics who must be defeated; they are, after all, terrorists.

I’m not sure what the multiple-point-of-view gimmick adds up to in the end; all the narratives are ultimately consistent with one another, so the film isn’t making a point about subjectivity. I think it’s about the sense that nobody gets a complete picture of what’s going on, so that no first-person account can really be trusted (including your own). On the other hand, the news media – who are well placed to assemble a composite picture from multiple sources – are so dedicated to producing a coherent and sanitised version of events that their account can be trusted least of all. We’re back with the paranoid mood that makes this film at once more interesting than it looks and less radical than it seems to think it is. Scepticism carried to this level is ultimately rather disempowering: we can’t know what’s going on, they‘re probably one jump ahead anyway, let’s just keep on keeping on and hope we get lucky. What’s taken to be the American view of the world gets roundly criticised in this film; this world definitely isn’t a safe place for American good intentions. But, with the exception of the President’s bellicose advisors, those good intentions are never challenged – indeed, American good intentions ultimately save the day – so we’re left with not much more than a sense of omnipresent threat. The politics this feeds into is ultimately rather nasty – dogged, fearful, critical of what the USA does but willing to do anything to defend what America is, as incarnated in the wise and noble POTUS.

I’m afraid the film is right about one thing – that is about as political as a mainstream action film can get these days. It’s a lot more political than The Spiderwick Chronicles, anyway.

Update 1/4/08: we watched The Last King of Scotland this evening. Simon McBurney’s very good in it, Forest Whitaker’s brilliant and the locations are stunning, but that’s about it. The lead character’s an annoying twerp, the plot’s unbelievable and the action of the film bears almost no resemblance to the book it’s supposedly based on. On balance I’d rather have been watching Vantage Point.

Hang up your net, child

It struck me the other day, after seeing Robyn Hitchcock on Later, that I don’t go out much these days. I was never a really frequent gig-goer, but for many years there were a few people I’d invariably see if they came to Manchester. Robyn was the longest resident in that category; I first saw him in 1980, playing with the Soft Boys at the Great Northern in Cambridge. (The runner-up, for what it’s worth, is Julian Cope – although the first time I saw him was only 20 years ago, at the Haçienda (of all places) in 1987.) More recently there were the Beta Band and GYBE!; more recently still, the Earlies and James Yorkston. I’m older than I was and more hard-up than I have been, but I suspect a lot of it’s down to the general anhedonia of the last couple of years, since my mother died.

Whatever the reason, lately I’ve got into a real habit of not going to gigs. Bands whose gigs I haven’t been to recently include the Shins (twice), King Creosote (twice) and the Deaf School reunion – as well as Robyn Hitchcock. In his case I did at least have a reasonably good excuse for not going; at the time I hadn’t got round to getting either his last album or the one before. After not going to the gig, I took the opportunity to catch up on what he’s been recording lately. I bought Spooked and Olé Tarantula together and listened to them one after the other. They’re both pretty good, but… meh. Hearing them close together I became aware of a certain flatness, a diluted quality to a lot of the writing. A lot of Robyn Hitchcock’s songs always did sound a bit dashed-off, but they used to sound as if they’d been dashed off after waking from a dream (“Furry green atom bowl”, “Victorian squid”), or else dashed off by being played straight onto tape in a trance of concentration (“Love poisoning”, “The ghost ship”). Some of these songs just sound, well, dashed-off (“Everybody needs love”) – or even jammed (“Belltown ramble”). There’s something untroubled about his music lately; a lot of the time he doesn’t sound as if he’s waiting for inspiration of unknown origin to strike, he just sounds like he’s having fun writing songs and playing music.

That appearance on Later reminded me of those albums and indirectly confirmed this impression. Robyn did one song (he only ever seems to get to do one); it was “Sounds great when you’re dead”, accompanied (as it is on record) by skittering, tightly-controlled acoustic guitar and a manically lush piano part. A very fine performance it was too; thanks to the piano part, it’s not a song he plays very often live, and it was great to see it done (particularly that last chorus – Baby, let me assure you…) Apart from anything else, I really got a sense of what that song’s about, which I never really had done in the previous embarrassingly large number of years.

Your mother is a journalist, your father is a creep
They make it in your bedroom when they think you are asleep
The scenes that they’re enacting there beside your little bed
Are never in your consciousness but always in your head

Baby, it might sound dodgy now
But it sounds great when you’re dead

It’s about screwed-up artists, I reckon: your upbringing may have left you with raw emotional wounds, but those very wounds are going to make a poet of you – and think how good that‘ll make you look in a hundred years’ time! Dark, very dark.

The curious thing was how Robyn looked, singing it. Enunciating each syllable, catching the eye of the camera, underlining significant phrases with a sideways look or a twitch of the eyebrow, he looked like someone who’s got something to say, knows people are listening and feels entirely at ease with this situation. Positively cheerful about it, in fact – he looked like a man who enjoyed his work. His facial expressions were somewhere between an upbeat Ronan Keating and a downbeat Rolf Harris. When you took into account the lyrics he was singing – which are funny in a twisted-grin sort of way, but not at all reassuring – the overall effect was distinctly creepy.

It was also a huge change from how I remember him looking, back when he had dark hair. When I saw him with the Soft Boys or the Egyptians he always looked like he had something to tell us, but his manner was nervous, almost haunted; it was as if he suspected there was something essentially shameful or ludicrous about what he was doing, but thought he could get away with it as long as he kept impressing us. (And the earlier the more so. The fluency and rapidity of the between-song patter on the Portland Arms live album is like a hallucinatory version of Just a minute, especially after they screw up “Have a heart, Betty” (“the Modal Minor, the Flattened Tenth, the Squirrel and the Apex”).) By contrast, the other night on Later he looked… well, happy, basically. I guess relocating to America’s been good for him: certainly he’s got a bigger, more regular and more appreciative audience out there than he ever had here. The lower creative temperature of his last few albums could be related to this higher level of acceptance: to put it bluntly, someone who’s got a sneaking suspicion that what they’re doing is absurd is likely to hold their work to higher standards.

What’s really interesting is that the themes and concerns of his work haven’t changed that much. If you set aside a few lightweight numbers, he’s still writing about death, sex, the absence of God and the passage of time, in language that falls somewhere between surrealist poetry and nonsense verse. (Take Basingstoke. Noel Malcolm’s The Origins of English Nonsense finds references to Basingstoke in nonsense poems from the 1630s and 1660s; reviewing the book in the LRB in 1997, Michael Dobson recalled the use of Basingstoke in Ruddigore and commented on “an uncanny kinship between the nonsense writing of different periods”. It’s not a bad tradition to be in.) A wholly healthy Hitchcock – someone who’d wiped the slate of whatever shame or fear it was that used to hang around his neck; someone who was ‘clear’, as the Scientologists put it – would presumably sing nothing but inconsequential stuff like “Belltown ramble” or “English girl”. He certainly wouldn’t do “Sounds great when you’re dead”.

I wouldn’t dream of psychoanalysing Robyn Hitchcock, not least because I’ve never met him[1]. But the impression he’s giving at the moment is of someone who knows there’s enough half-chewed weirdness in his head to last a lifetime, but is quite happy about it. To be more precise, someone who isn’t positively happy about the weirdness itself, but is quite happy to get on with writing and playing and living, and leave it be until its moment comes. In the words of “Red locust frenzy”,

Don’t let the dragon come
And make it worse for you
Don’t let the demon come
Until you want him to

It’s a wise and sensitive thought, although with unsettling overtones. But it’s that sort of attitude – keeping the weirdness in the attic but granting yourself visiting rights – that would make it possible to find a song like “Sounds great when you’re dead” interesting and amusing, rather than alarming or threatening. It sounds like a pretty good way to be. True, the last couple of albums don’t include many songs that rank alongside “Sounds great when you’re dead” (or “Acid bird”, “Railway shoes”, “Queen Elvis”…) but I don’t think it’s a question of an overall lack of edge. The image of dilution is probably the right one: all things being equal, a happier writer with a more supportive audience will tend to write more songs, finish more songs and let more songs get out. In short, if Olé Tarantula is half the album Eye or Respect was, this may just be a sign that Robyn Hitchcock’s in a much better place now than he was then. The earlier albums are the ones with the music that will sound great when he’s dead – but he’s having more fun with it now. You can’t really grudge him that.

[1] I always think of him as ‘Robyn’ & have had to remind myself not to – since, after all, I don’t actually know the guy. I have been buying his records for basically as long as he’s been making them; and I did once eavesdrop on a conversation in a record shop between him and the owner (I remember he told the shop-owner he’d get the point of the cover of Near the Soft Boys[2]); and I did once play on the same bill as him, albeit much further down[3]. But I’ve never met him.

[2] I’ve no idea what this means – unless it’s a Professor Branestawm reference, which I suppose is just about possible.

[3] Off the bottom, in fact. Long story. Another time.

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.

Entire and manifold

Autocomplete blog meme. Simple procedure: type each letter of the alphabet in the address bar (one at a time, obviously) and see which blog comes up first. The result should be a map of your personal blogosphere, or at least those bits of it you’ve visited recently.

I saw this on a blog somewhere years ago – apologies if it was yours. I tried it but didn’t blog the output, because at the time it seemed too obvious; the idea that it might change over time hadn’t occurred to me.

Anyway, here’s my list, excluding any letters for which no blog home pages came up (visits to specific posts don’t count).

A is for Aaronovitch Watch
B is for Blood & Treasure
C is for The Cedar Lounge Revolution
D is for Dave’s Part closely followed by Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived
E is for Eine Kleine Nichtmusik
G is for The Gaping Silence (fortunately)
I is for Idle Words
K is for The Early Days of a Better Nation
L is for Mac Uaid
N is for The Quiet Road
P is for Private Secret Diary
Q is for qwghlm
S is for Socialist Unity, Splintered Sunrise, Stumbling and Mumbling and Smokewriting in that order
V is for The Virtual Stoa
Y is for Alternate Seat of TYR

And I nominate… anyone who wants to put themselves through all that. I have to confess, as an exercise it was rather less interesting than I’d hoped. But it’ll be a good one to revisit in a year or two, if I’m still blogging by then.

Over to you, if you feel like it.

All the peacemakers

Socialist Unity has a notice for what looks like an interesting and important meeting:
Creating the Climate of Fear: Counter-Terrorism and Punishment without Trial

Friday March 14; 6.30-9.00 p.m, London Muslim Centre, 46 Whitechapel Road
Organised by Campaign Against Criminalising Communities, Centre for the Study of Terrorism

It’s a meeting about the proposed Counter-Terrorism Bill (the ’42 days’ bill, although there’s plenty more to object to in there). I’m not familiar with everyone involved, but there are certainly some good speakers on the list and some important issues on the agenda. The first two, for example:

Detention without charge would be extended from 28 days to 42 days
‘Terrorism suspects’ could be detained without charge for six weeks. Before 2000 it was 4 days. Neither government nor police have given any convincing reason why so long is needed. The USA manages with 2 days, even Algeria with 12.

Post-charge questioning of ‘terror suspects’ – presumed guilty?
‘Terror suspects’ could be subjected to further questioning after a criminal charge, even up to the trial date. Saying nothing could count against them at trial. At present, people once charged can refuse to answer till their trial, without this being interpreted as a sign of guilt or deception.

There’s more to this second point than meets the eye; in fact I’d argue that this phrasing (people once charged can refuse to answer) already concedes too much. Traditionally the relationship of the police to the courts has been essentially that of a sorting and delivery service: if there’s not enough evidence for a charge, you let the suspect go; if the evidence is there, then you bring a charge and hand the suspect over to the courts. At this point the police cease to have any interest in that person. There isn’t any question of a suspect once charged ‘refusing to answer’ further questions; by being charged, the suspect has moved on to being a defendant – and defendants are no business of the police. Any delay between the charge being brought and the defendant attending court is just that, a delay – an administrative problem.

Labour counter-terrorist legislation has repeatedly extended the length of time the police are allowed to detain a suspect before releasing him/her or bringing charges; this has been justified on the grounds that the nature of terrorist offences makes it particularly hard to get sufficient evidence. However persuasively this may have been argued by successive Home Secretaries, it is hard to see what makes terrorist offences more intractable than, say, transnational corporate fraud. It’s particularly hard to see why the evidence had become twice as hard to gather in 2006 as it was in 2003, and four times as hard as it was in 2000. (Informative post and alarming graphic here.)

What seems to have happened in practice, behind the ‘evidence-gathering’ justification, is the creation of a new stage in the process, for terrorist suspects: police detention. The introduction of post-charge questioning would entrench and formalise this: if no terrorist charge could be brought after 28 or even 42 days, the police could simply hunt around for evidence of an unrelated offence, charge the suspect with that and then carry on questioning. The scope for abuse – and inadvertent misuse – of this system is only too clear.

Of course, it’s true that powers like this could be a weapon in the war against terrorism – but so could just about any other power, up to and including selective assassination. (Would anyone argue Mossad was not effective in disrupting the PLO?) The point is whether the costs imposed by a power like this would be imposed justly: imposed on the guilty proportionately to their guilt and imposed on the innocent, as far as possible, not at all. To ask this question is to answer it: apart from anything else, it’s not the job of the police to determine guilt or innocence. In practice, we can be sure that some innocent suspects would fall foul of these powers. What’s more of a concern is that, in practice, there would be no way of minimising the proportion of innocents who suffered in this way: to do this would require identifying those who were innocent, which by definition could only be done after they had been passed on to the courts.

The funny thing about these successive increases in the maximum police detention period – in 1974, 2000, 2003 and 2006 – is that they’ve all happened under Labour. Mrs Thatcher wasn’t known for her civil libertarianism or her hostility to the police; all the same, her response to nearly getting killed by the Provisional IRA was to defy the ‘men of violence’ by refusing to implement new counter-terrorist legislation. Somehow that particular brand of defiance seems to have passed Labour by.

To stun an ox

I’ve written a book. The MS has just gone off to the publisher; it’s still got to be checked, copy-edited, re-checked, typeset, proof-read and probably several other stages I’ve forgotten about, and it probably won’t be out much before Christmas. But it’s a book, and it’s been written. By me.

It’s called ‘More work! Less pay!’ Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972-1977. The introduction begins like this:

A long wave of direct action spread across Italy between 1972 and 1977. Factory workers went on strike without union approval, walking out or occupying their workplaces; empty buildings were squatted and converted as ‘social centres’; council tenants withheld the rent; groups of women went on ‘can’t pay? won’t pay!’ shoplifting trips. The streets were also busy, with marches and demonstrations running at around two per week throughout the period.

Sidney Tarrow has analysed an earlier wave of contentious activism in terms of a ‘protest cycle’ or ‘cycle of contention’. Tarrow described how, in the early 1970s, a wave of contentious and disorderly movements spread from the universities to the industrial North of Italy before being neutralised by the Partito Comunista Italiano. The PCI’s qualified endorsement of the movement’s tactics led to the demobilisation of the movement and the achievement, in modified form, of its principal goals, by way of an expansion of the political repertoire endorsed by the PCI. The PCI in this period occupied an ambivalent position, as a supposedly ‘anti-system’ party which nevertheless played a significant role in the Italian political system; this put it in a strong position as a political ‘gatekeeper’. The outcome of the cycle was positive: under pressure from the movements, the PCI pushed back the boundaries of acceptable political activity.

In this book, I argue the late-1970s wave should be seen as a second cycle of contention. The movements of this second cycle include the ‘area of Autonomia’, based in factories and working-class neighbourhoods and active between 1972 and 1977; a wave of activism among young people which gave rise to the ‘proletarian youth movement’ of 1975-6 and the ‘movement of 1977’; and the left-wing terrorist or ‘armed struggle’ milieu. I argue that the outcome of the second cycle, like that of the first, was determined by the interaction between contentious social movements and the PCI. I also suggest that the PCI’s hostile or exclusive engagement with the second cycle of contention had lasting effects for the party as well as for the movements of the cycle. The PCI committed itself to a narrower and more explicitly constitutional range of activities and values; the result was a lasting contraction of the party’s ideological repertoire, and consequently of the repertoire of mainstream politics.

The conclusion ends like this:

Between 1966 and 1980, the PCI played the role of ‘gatekeeper’ to a relatively closed political system, admitting certain innovations to the sphere of political legitimacy and barring others. The movements of the second cycle were confronted by a hostile gatekeeper, which persistently framed their activities in terms which excluded them from political legitimacy. A key manoeuvre, as we have seen, was the evocation of violence: the movements were repeatedly denounced for the use of violence, toleration of violence, tardiness in disowning those who used violence… The ultimate result was the repression of a broad area of social, cultural and intellectual ferment, accompanied by dozens of prison terms and a brief flourishing of openly illegal ‘armed struggle’ activity; the PCI itself also suffered, denying itself a source of much-needed ideological renewal.

The disastrous outcome of the second cycle of contention was not inevitable. Given the relatively closed Italian political system, any disorderly social movement would face some type of engagement with some type of gatekeeper; by the 1970s the gatekeeper for any left-wing movement could only be the PCI. However, the exclusiveness of the PCI’s engagement was not a foregone conclusion until Berlinguer committed the party to the ‘historic compromise’ strategy – if then. The engagement was a missed opportunity which could have been taken.

The same choices could face other gatekeepers in other relatively closed systems. 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. The Italian experience demonstrates that the second of these approaches is not likely to have good results – for the movements or for British society.

The book is dedicated to Nanni Balestrini and the late Primo Moroni, whose work on the period is absolutely indispensable; I mean, by all means start with my book (and Steve Wright’s), but then get some Balestrini – and an Italian dictionary if you need one. The epigraph is from one of Balestrini’s novels:

I said to him I ask myself sometimes now it’s all over I ask myself what did it all mean our whole story all the things we did what did we get from all the things we did he said I don’t believe it matters that it’s all over I believe what matters is that we did what we did and that we think it was the right thing to do that’s the only thing that matters I believe

You won’t see the book for several months, and all things being equal you’re not very likely to see it then: the first print run will be an academic hardback, limiting its potential sales rather severely. But if the hardback run sells out a paperback may be possible – so tell all your friends, especially if they work in a library. It looks like being the first book-length study in English of the autonomist movements of the late 1970s, which should give it a bit of an audience.

Anyway: I’ve written a book. A book, by me, written; written, then edited and re-edited, checked and edited again, and sent off to the publisher today. I’ve celebrated with a bottle of Decadence. Now perhaps I’ll complete that biography of Debord. Or I may just do some of the stuff that’s been piling up while I’ve been working on this book…

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?

Says there’s none

Jamie picks up on a handy new proposal for making use of all those ex-servicemen the Iraq war is eventually going to leave us with:

Ex-servicemen and women should be retrained as teachers to bring military style discipline to tough inner city schools, a think tank has said. The Centre for Policy Studies says ex-soldiers could have a profound effect on discipline and learning.

“This is not merely because ex-servicemen are sure of their own moral authority. They are not intimidated by adrenaline-fuelled adolescents: they have, unlike most teachers, been there before,” it added. It also argued that the perception that these teachers had been in a “macho profession” would be well-received by inner city children. “Whether we like it or not, children from more deprived neighbourhoods often respond to raw physical power,” it added.

Chief of Defence Staff Lord Guthrie said knife crime, drugs and violence were reported daily in the inner cities. … “This will not, of course, solve all the problems of the inner city. But it will help,” he said. “It will provide youths with role models who understand discipline and self-restraint at the time in their lives when they need it most. And it will be a terrific boost for our Armed Services.”

Three different propositions seem to have got jumbled up here: ex-servicemen will help reform the rowdy kids by providing role models who understand discipline and self-restraint; they’ll cow the rowdy kids into submission with their raw physical power; and they’ll lock the place down with their military-style discipline. Presumably number 3 isn’t going to happen – apart from anything else, you don’t need military-style personnel to have military-style discipline, you just need to put someone in authority and give them a free hand. So what we want is role models and raw power – and since they’re not also talking about recruiting monks or doormen, presumably what we want is role models with raw power.

“Look at me, children. Hear the evenness of my voice, watch the precision and economy STOP THAT RIGHT NOW of my movements. Learn from me and you will STOP THAT NOW OR I WILL PERSONALLY RIP YOUR FACE OFF be like me.”

As it happens, when I was eight I had a primary school teacher who used to cane us and shout a lot, often about discipline!. But he wasn’t a former professional soldier, he was just mad. Being eight years old, I just thought this was one of those things – some teachers are nice, some are strict, and some are loud and violent and tell long and complicated stories – but I found out later that the school inspectors had been quite taken aback. They came to the school while I was there, and after they’d gone Mr Thomas didn’t come to teach us any more.

Self-restraint and raw power; discipline and violence. Or, to put it another way, dominance and submission, enforced through the ever-present threat of superior force. It’s a very old form of social organisation (more on that another time) and obviously has a certain atavistic appeal, but it’s hard to see what it’s really good for, anywhere outside the army – which is obviously a special case in terms of what people sign up for. A couple of comments from that BBC story:

Having taught in an exclusion unit in southern England for a number of years, I can attest that many of the exclusions who attended the unit were boys who had suffered violence at the hands of their military fathers who obviously believed that threatening their offspring was the best way to control them. Indeed, whole military families of children were excluded from school. I visited one family of five boys to give home tuition. All were excluded from school for violent and uncontrollable behaviour. Mother was illiterate and sat in on reading lessons. Father tried to maintain discipline with his fists and complained to me that the more he tried to get the boys to behave, the worse they became

Remembering – with fondness – my instructors from Bassingbourn Barracks, they would make mincemeat of the lot of them. But it has to come from within – the army is voluntary, you expect what you will get. School is compulsory…

I remember Mr Price, the headmaster, telling us merrily how Mr Thomas had been taken away by the men in white coats; a bit rich, really, coming from him. And I remember Mr Cook coming to take the class. He was an improvement: he caned us occasionally, but he didn’t shout very much at all and his stories were funnier and made more sense. He always had this slightly harassed air, as if he was trying to live up to something but he wasn’t quite sure what. It must have been quite a tough gig.

On science alone

Like Splinty, I am not inconsiderably annoyed at Private Eye. Oh yes.

In the recent ruckus between Newsnight and the Decent Right thinktank Policy Exchange, the Eye (or at least the enigmatic ‘Ratbiter’) has unaccountably chosen to side with the latter.

Newsnight alleged that Policy Exchange or its researchers had forged the receipts which showed you could buy book spewing out hatred of women, Jews, Christians and moderate Muslims in mosques. The researchers utterly deny any forgery; but the implications of the alleged exposé are explosive: David Cameron’s favourite think-tank was apparently stirring up racial hatred with fraudulent evidence.

Newsnight‘s killer claim was that its hacks had organised forensic tests which proved that receipts Policy Exchange said it had collected from the Muslim Education Centre in High Wycombe were dubious. When Policy Exchange said that the centre was selling such titles as Women Who Deserve to go to Hell – for complaining about their husbands and going along with feminist ideas promoted by Jews and Christians – it couldn’t be believed. The BBC stuck by the accusation even though the Muslim Education Centre cheerily told reporters that the books were indeed on sale.

Similarly Newsnight said receipts from the Al-Muntada Al-Islami Trust in west London were suspicious … If Newsnight‘s allegations were correct, the al-Muntada centre should be the innocent victim of a disgraceful smear. But the most basic checks show that it wasn’t. At the time the Eye was going to press, the al-Muntada online bookshop was offering [two works cited by Policy Exchange]

There’s a very basic logical fallacy in the argument put forward by Policy Exchange and endorsed by the Eye, which hinges on the unstated proposition that for Muslim bookshops to sell the works of (say) Sayyid Qutb really matters. It’s about working backwards up the chain of causation and treating an intermediate (and perhaps optional) link as if it were the starting point. All sorts of misinterpretations can follow from this error: some gang members grew up listening to gangsta rap, for example, but many people who grew up listening to gangsta rap didn’t go on to join gangs and were never at any risk of doing so. In the case of Qutb, as Splinty says:

What Qutb does do, if you’re a young Muslim alienated from the surrounding society, is provide an intellectual framework for you to understand your alienation. Note that this only works if you’re already an alienated Muslim, and that a Qutbist intellectual framework is not remotely necessary for the alienated Muslim to adopt jihadi ideas.

You can get from A to C via B, but you can also go straight from A to C, or go to B without going on to C. What’s most important is starting at A – and you don’t get there from B.

So there’s a strong argument that Policy Exchange and ‘Ratbiter’ don’t have a case even if we take everything they say at face value. But there’s a more fundamental problem. ‘Ratbiter’ doesn’t go into any detail about the alleged faking of the receipts, resorting to the weaselly adjectives ‘dubious’ and ‘suspicious’ and a reference to sciencey-sounding “forensic tests”. Those scientists, they can prove anything, can’t they? Newsnight will have given those receipts to a bunch of boffins in white coats, they’ll have taken a sample and whizzed it round in a centrifuge or something, and just because some liquid ends up turning red instead of blue…

Actually the tests were a bit more basic – and a bit more conclusive. Here‘s Richard Watson of Newsnight (and this has been up since the 14th of December, which presumably was some time before the Eye went to press):

Al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre
the hand-writing on this receipt is very similar – to my eye it looks identical – to the hand-writing on another receipt, said to have been obtained from a mosque in Leyton, 10 miles away [Masjid as-Tawhid]. A registered forensic document examiner concluded that there was “strong evidence” that the two receipts were written by the same person.

Masjid as-Tawhid
The first receipt provided by the researcher was obtained from the bookshop, at 78 Leyton High Road. I did see the carbon copy of this receipt so we know the books were acquired from the bookshop. But both the bookshop manager and the mosque management categorically say they are two separate organisations.

Curiously, we were told that researchers were sent back at a later date to obtain a second receipt on headed paper and that document, printed on an ink-jet printer, introduced the word “mosque” into the receipt for the first time. The address is still given as that of the bookshop. But none of this addresses the worrying fact that the hand-writing on the printed receipt matches that on the receipt from the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, 10 miles away.

[The receipt was] printed on an ink-jet printer. The forensic ESDA tests carried out by the registered document examiner concluded that this receipt was underneath the receipt from the Muslim Education Centre in High Wycombe when this latter one was written out. Once again the mosque management categorically told us that the receipt provided by the researchers was not a genuine document. Even if the books are available online, there are serious questions about the authenticity of this receipt.

You get the idea.

I read quite a lot of research for the purposes of my day job, and I’ve seen results called into question on much weaker grounds than Newsnight had. If you’ve got good reason to believe that the evidence in front of you isn’t genuine – let alone reason to believe that it’s been faked – then you just don’t trust that research, even if it’s telling you that the sky is sometimes dark at night and Monday tends to come after Sunday. If someone else can get similar results by other means, bully for them – let them publish what they’ve got. But that doesn’t somehow retrospectively validate the faked research, as the Eye seems to imagine.

Ultimately it’s a point about the reliability of the researcher as well as the research. If you’ve got evidence that they’re willing to put their thumb on the scales to get the right answer, from that point on you can’t really trust anything they tell you – unless it begins with “I’m sorry I faked those results”, and even then you’ll want to watch them like a hawk. Unfortunately Policy Exchange’s response to Newsnight can be summed up as “we didn’t fake those results, and what does it matter if we did, and besides you’re no better”.

To push the evidence is bad, but it doesn’t make the research completely invalid. To fake the evidence does invalidate the research, but for the researcher it’s survivable. But to fake the evidence and then refuse to admit it, deny that it matters, change the subject and generally try to bluster your way out of it – you’re off the list, I’m afraid.

The fundamental point ‘Ratbiter’ seems to miss is that this applies just as strongly if the results are plausible – and twice as strongly if the results are in line with the audience’s expectations. Picture the scene: they’re telling you what you want to hear, and it seems believable, but you’ve got evidence that they’re willing to lie about it. It’s a setup that rings some very loud alarm bells for me, but apparently it doesn’t at the Eye. Perhaps ‘Ratbiter’ had better stay well away from time-share presentations.

Chemistry class

I think the real problem was that I’d finished the gin a couple of nights before. Obviously gin wouldn’t be a good alternative to vodka, but if it had been there on the shelf it would have reminded me that there were alternatives to vodka, and then I might have thought of using brandy. Which probably wouldn’t have worked as well as vodka, but would certainly have been better than what I did use.

But let’s start at the beginning. I changed schools at the beginning of the third year (year 9 as it is now), with the consequence that I missed a year or eighteen months of Chemistry. By the time I joined, the teacher had got the basics sorted out and was onto the reactivity of the halogens. I remember that because of the way the lessons worked: for the first half of the lesson the teacher would dictate a couple of pages which we would all take down, after which he’d get us to do an experiment demonstrating some aspect of whatever it was. So my first introduction to Chemistry (and for that matter chemistry) consisted of the phrase ‘The Reactivity of the Halogens’. I made sure I spelled it right, if nothing else.

I gave up Chemistry at the end of the third year. By then I’d learnt about Hydrogen having one bond and… er… other elements having more; the building-block aspect of molecules quite appealed to me for a while. But I’d never really found my way around the periodic table – or, more importantly, got any sense of why I might want to. Frankly, I don’t think the reactivity of the halogens was a good place to start.

By the time I left school I was OK on solids and liquids (we’d done them in Physics); I knew about some things being radioactive and most things fortunately not; and I knew that the pH scale measured acidity (or possibly alkalinity) (or is it both?), although this was partly thanks to that Peter Hammill album. Other than that, what I knew about chemical substances was very, very limited. If you were to ask me to name a solvent and a lubricant, for example, and tell you the difference between those types of liquid, I would have been at a loss.

Not now, though; I’ve got it all worked out now. If you’ve got a bit of gunk clogging up a mechanism, a solvent and a lubricant will both get the mechanism working again, but in different ways. The solvent dissolves the bonds that make the dirt stick together and stick to the surface it’s stuck to, so you end up with bits of dirt distributed uncloggily through the solvent. The lubricant leaves the dirt in place, but introduces a low-friction medium between the dirt and the workings, which enables the workings to slide over the dirt without getting stuck. With a solvent, the dirt at worst gets broken down and spread out, at best gets wiped up along with any remaining solvent. With a lubricant, the dirt and the lubricant both stay there, but the mechanism doesn’t care any more.

(Incidentally, I read somewhere that water would be a good lubricant, as long as whatever it was lubricating was cool, water-tight and uncorroding. And water’s obviously a reasonable solvent, as in washing. Is there some sort of scale that goes off either way with water in the middle, like with acids and alkali? Come to think of it, why is it a ‘pH’ scale anyway? It’s not actually something to do with Peter Hammill, is it?)

Anyway, about the brandy. The first time I ever saw someone clean a really dirty LP – at what was then Lashmar’s in Croydon, possibly when I sold them my Saturnalia LP – it was with cotton wool and vodka. I was mightily impressed and started sneaking my parents’ vodka for the purpose. (Not enough for them to notice, unfortunately – it would have made a much better story.) Some time later I discovered that you could buy little red bottles of ethyl alcohol for just this purpose. But if you don’t often play LPs, you don’t often need to clean an LP. So yesterday, when I was mid-way through ripping one of my Talking Heads albums and discovered great patches of encrusted god-knows-what making big crunchy noises, I couldn’t lay hands on my little red bottle.

What to do? We keep vodka in the house, but at the moment it’s quite a nice vodka (it was a present). We’re out of gin (which would be a bit sticky anyway), and for some reason – possibly because of the absence of gin – brandy didn’t occur to me. So I used WD-40.

Much later – after wiping off the excess, wiping off the rest of the excess and wiping off as much of what was left as I could get at, waiting half an hour in the vain hope that it would evaporate, then starting again – I realised that WD-40 is a lubricant rather than a solvent. Consequently it’s been quite happy to sit in the grooves and not go anywhere. It hasn’t even had any effect on the big crunchy patches of encrusted god-knows-what; they are less noticeable, though, as the whole of side 2 now sounds like an archive recording of one of Edison’s earlier cylinders.

Fortunately I was able to get hold of MP3s of the album, so I’ve now got very nearly what I was trying to achieve in the first place (an LP on the shelf and an album on the Mac). And I know – or rather, I’m aware of – slightly more about chemistry than I was aware of knowing before. Or perhaps I should say, I’m slightly more aware of what I don’t know.

Who owns what you do?

Here’s James Mensch, who’s a Canadian professor of Philosophy, writing at openDemocracy:

Those who fear solidarity’s exclusionary tendencies generally focus on the solidarities based on our past, that is, on our inherited situations of race, language, culture, and religion. Those who proclaim its benefits see solidarity in terms of our working with others to achieve common solutions to common problems such as global warming. Here the focus is on what we want to achieve politically, that is, on the future that we seek to collectively realise. Identity in this instance is not a matter of what the past gives us, but is rather provided by our working with others for a common goal. This identity is political rather than natural. … Being a member of a state with its universal rights and political obligations, that is, being a citizen as opposed to a member of a racial or linguistic group is sufficient for this type of identity.

No one, of course, lives completely in the past or the future. Thus, our identities (and corresponding senses of solidarity) are never so neatly defined. Our collective actions are informed by the past. Without it, we have no experiential or moral basis for acting. But they are also determined by the future, that is, by the goals that we want to achieve.

Only by being concrete can we be attentive to multiple solidarities we are actually engaged in. Our different situations of race, language, religion, and cultural preference involve us in differing networks of solidarity. These, unless artificially suppressed, provide a natural system of checks and balances within the solidarity that is based on the past

And here’s Rochenko responding to Mensch:

Once you have acknowledged particularity or diversity, and postulated that their forms provide the ‘checks and balances’ to the possibility of exclusionary violence rooted in past divisions, there is nowhere to go. Mainly because trying to go anywhere else would be too risky: reasoning about the general interest that unites all the particular interests risks doing violence to some of the particulars.

The problem is that refusing to go this extra step towards the idea of a general interest automatically does violence to the particulars: by freezing them as abstract particularities, it denies them a transformative future … Only by attempting to articulate what actually unites particular forms of identity in a political project can they have a future.

Nationalism, as a form of solidarity, is therefore not always regressive. Richard Phillips writes in this month’s issue of Planet magazine … that the resurgence of Scottish and Welsh nationalism can represent not the desire to tear loose from the UK a residuum of ethnic and lingustic identity, but a path towards a new internationalism. … Solidarity is once again an attempt to challenge the social totality, to build a genuinely international community, based on the unhealed divisions within the nation-state, based on the legacy of colonialism, based on the continued triumph of those who have always written history. In the form of the abstract particular (linguistic identity, the legalistic promotion of Welsh etc.), this new nationalism risks becoming another tool by which political elites retain their hold on power, and closing off the future. But national self-determination also generates a new enthusiasm for returning to the basic political question: how do we want to live?

I was pleased to see that last paragraph, as by the time I reached “automatically does violence to the particulars” I was flashing back to a book review I wrote a few years ago that, uncouthly, backed ethnic nationalism over civic ditto. (It was partly a Michael Ignatieff thing; if he’s for it I’m usually against.) And by the time I got to that last sentence I was already thinking, this is why I’m still interested in Welsh nationalism, and why Irish blogs like Splintered and Cedar Lounge seem so important – revolutionary socialism is always partly utopian, but when you’re trying to build a new nation you have to think about how people are actually going to live together. But I guess you’ll have to take my word for that part.

Great minds, anyway. And here’s that review, which appeared in the May 2000 issue of Red Pepper. I was quite surprised with how the argument turned out – not unpleasantly, though.

Edward Mortimer and Robert Fine (eds.), People, nation and state: the meaning of ethnicity and nationalism (I.B. Tauris, £12.95)

In this collection thirteen writers on nationalism, ranging from Michael Ignatieff to Danilo Türk, grapple with the resurgence of the ‘national question’. On the whole they like what they see. Neil MacCormick argues that “individuals may have as one among their most significant contexts some national identity”; therefore “the members of a nation are as such and in principle entitled to effective organs of political self-government.” Nationalism, however, takes symbolic and ‘ethnic’ as well as rational ‘civic’ forms; moreover, not every nationality can have its own state. Hence multiculturalism is a must: “the national identity of a community should be so defined that it includes all its citizens and makes it possible for them to identify with it”, writes Bhikhu Parekh. Civic nationalism stands above and validates the multiple ethnic nationalisms of its citizens. Ultimately this is an ethical programme: Robert Fine quotes Ignatieff envisaging the nation as “a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.”

This consensus hides an unresolved contradiction between ‘ethnic’ and ‘civic’ nationalism. Ignatieff endorses the desire of “the subjugated minority” for a nation state, only to argue that “civic contractualism is the only possible basis for … national solidarity and social cohesion”. Presumably once this is achieved minorities have no need for full-blown ethnic nationalism: if your nation’s governed by the right kind of state, the most you can aim for is civic-minded reformism and the celebration of cultural diversity. There is a whiff of the End of History about this.

Other contributors are more sceptical. Olivier Roy stresses the plural nature of ‘ethnic’ identity, which operates at national, sub-national and supra-national levels: the same person may identify as a French Algerian, a Kabyle, an Arab or a Muslim. Africanist Terence Ranger presents evidence suggesting that ‘ethnicity’ itself is a relatively recent invention. On the other side of the equation, Fine queries the merits of state nationalism: “Civic nationalism offers … an emotive source of political cohesion … But it also engenders faith in the state rather than critical reflection, and a sidelining of social questions”. This recalls MacCormick’s formulation, prompting the question of how national identity relates to such other “significant contexts” as gender, sexual orientation or (whisper it) class.

Notably, Fine is also the only contributor to ask what liberal nationalism has to offer “the homeless pariah who refuses, or is refused, participation in national communities”. Many of the arguments here seem tailored to the more clear-cut ‘national questions’ – Türk’s Slovenia, say, or MacCormick’s Scotland. Harder cases – Kosovar Albanians, the Romani minority of Kosova, Kosovar Romani asylum-seekers in Britain – would require a deeper analysis of culture, rights and power. This might start by treating ‘ethnic’ self-assertion as a positive value rather than a malign throwback, complementing it not with the liberal self-congratulation of ‘civic nationalism’ but with the fundamental humanist demands of democracy and social justice – demands which know no country and have no end.

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.)

The fourth, the fifth

Here’s a new song. I was feeling particularly low the other day, and felt like getting a song out of it. A proper, serious, song is on the way (it’ll be called Come to grief, probably) but this will do to be going on with; I find its sheer callousness quite cheering. Really sad songs are hard – they’re great when they work, but a near miss tends to come out sentimental and well-meaning. If you play it for laughs the target’s a bit broader.

Miserable tonight

I’m going to sit right down and listen to the blues
And if a tree don’t fall on me I’ll live till the will to live I lose
When I woke up this morning I felt quite bright
But I’m going to be miserable tonight

I’m going to sit right down and listen to Nick Drake
Will it be Pink Moon or Bryter Layter – tell me now, which will I take?
Come on Nick, I know you know the way to blue
So help me to be miserable like you

I’m going to sit right down and listen to Leonard Cohen
And if I can find the tune I’ll sing along, although I know it could be heavy goin’*
You don’t really care for music, do you, Len?
But you can make me miserable again

Regrets, you say you’ve had a few,
Well, I’ve had more than you –
Am I right or am I right?
Misfortune has played its part
But failing is quite an art
And it’s an art I’ve mastered
And that’s what’s made me… miserable tonight

I’m going to stand right up and sing till I feel sick
Or until I’ve worn your patience thin – another couple of verses should do the trick
But if you play your part and don’t put up a fight
I can make you miserable too, tonight

I’m going to sit right down and listen to the blues
Then I’ll have a drink and I’ll sing a song, and I’ll probably end up standing by the side of the road with the rain falling on my shoes…
And when I get home and my wife turns off the light
I’ll say, Darling… it was miserable tonight.

*Sorry. It’s the best I could do – you try finding a rhyme for ‘Smiths’.

No king can compare

A post-Christmas meme from Rob.

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags?

Wrapping paper. Bags are for bottles of wine.

2. Real tree or artificial?

We switched to real trees a few years ago. This year was our first dead tree stuck in a bit of wood; it dried out quite a lot over the twelve days, and shed prodigiously when we took it out, but actually stayed greener than last year’s (purportedly) live tree in a tub.

3. When do you put up the tree?

Last weekend but one before Christmas.

4. When do you take the tree down?

January 6th. Obviously.

5. Do you like egg nog?

I think I’ve only had it once. It was OK. Like Rob, I’ll take mulled wine (or Glühwein) any day.

6. Favourite gift received as a child?

Depends what you mean by ‘child’. I’ve got very fond memories of the thing I got one Christmas to go with my Matchbox car track thing whose name I forget no not Hot Wheels… If you put in two D batteries, it would accelerate your cars to enormous speeds, without the need to clip the track on to the side of a table. I was mildly disappointed to see that the dials on the side were painted on, but despite that it was a present and a half (machinery! speed! noise!)

When I was much, much older, I told my parents where they could get Soft Machine’s Third at a 10% discount; since CBS had already cut the price to £2.83 (for a double album), this was quite a bargain. It’s pretty challenging music and I didn’t get it straight away, but that Christmas I really enjoyed not getting it – it had the two great attractions of seeming extremely grown-up and extremely unlike anything my parents would listen to.

7. Do you have a nativity scene?

Yes; it’s plastic and forty or fifty years old. It came from my wife’s mother’s house, when she moved into a home.

8. Hardest person to buy for?

I’ll pass on that one.

9. Easiest person to buy for?

And that one, although it does bring back a memory of when my daughter was quite small. We asked her what she wanted for Christmas; she thought for a while, then said, “A present.”

10. Mail or email Christmas cards?

Physical cards, definitely.

11. Worst Christmas gift you ever received?

Again, I’ll pass on the details, but it was one that made me think I thought they’d know I’m not like that! Closely followed by Do I look like I’m like that? Am I like that?

12. Favorite Christmas movie?

I’m male, I’m married, I’ve got kids, I worked for many years at jobs I didn’t like, so it has to be It’s a wonderful life. Closely followed by Muppet Christmas Carol. This year we also saw Pulp fiction; that was good, too.

13. When do you start shopping for Christmas?

It gets later and later.

14. Have you ever recycled a Christmas present?

Certainly not.

15. Favorite thing to eat/drink at Christmas?

More wine than usual. Posh beer, earlier in the day than usual. I particularly like strong, ‘fruity’ beers at this time of year. I put ‘fruity’ in quotes here because of a beer I saw in a supermarket recently, advertised as made with plums and pudding spices. Not the point at all – your ideal winter beer tastes like Christmas pudding, but also tastes like beer. (See also Orval – my favourite Trappist ale – which somehow tastes exactly like a) marmalade b) very dark plain chocolate and c) beer.)

Cheese straws. Stollen. Lebkuchen. And fruit cake, of course. The runaway winner used to be my mother’s rum cake (a fridge cake, made with (or rather consisting of) sponge fingers, coffee buttercream icing and rum); I must see if I can find the recipe.

16. Clear lights or colored on the tree?

One string of each.

17. Favourite Christmas song?

“In the bleak midwinter”, or “O come all ye faithful” (especially on the day, with the Special Christmas Day Verse – for a moment I can almost believe it again). “I wish it could be Christmas every day” (for a few years in the 1970s, Roy Wood was untouchable) or “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” (the original, sad version). It’s the season for a sentimental pig-out, basically.

18. Travel at Christmas or stay home?

I used to go to my parents’. (For several years the other half and I used to go to our separate parents’; it worked for us.) Then we stayed at home for Christmas and all went to my mother’s for New Year. Then my mother died. So it’s home, these days.

19. Can you name all of Santa’s reindeer?

If there’s anything I hate more than Clement Moore’s ghastly poem it’s that bloody awful song about the stupid bloody reindeer with the luminous nose.

Yes, I can name all nine of them.

20. Angel on the tree top or a star?

We alternate.

21. Open the presents Christmas Eve or morning of Christmas?

Christmas morning – after breakfast, when we’re all together. This was a very big deal when I was a kid (I was one of five); we’d assemble round the dining table, each with a pile of parcels in front of us, and have a kind of diplomatically synchronised unwrapping session. These days it happens on the living-room floor and we let the kids go first, but it’s still a big deal. It’s Christmas, after all.

22. Most annoying thing about this time of year?

I think this year I’d nominate Sainsbury’s Stilton promotion. They bought it in by the ton – with a view to piling high and selling cheap – with the result that what they got was far too young: it was soft, crumbly and clean-tasting instead of solid, waxy and sour. Being young, it also didn’t keep, but went smelly within a fortnight. Bah, supermarkets.

23. Favourite ornament theme or colour?

Not really. We usually buy a new tree ornament every year.

24. Favourite for Christmas dinner?

Well, er, turkey. Followed by Christmas pudding. In flames.

25. What do you want for Christmas this year?

Bit late for that.

28. Shopping…Mall or on-line?

I try to avoid both, although it gets harder every year.

29. Do you decorate outside for Christmas or just inside (or at all?)

Just inside.

There’s a lot of my own childhood in the way I think about Christmas, and a lot of change and loss. Perhaps that’s part of what we do when we celebrate the longest night, in among the crackers and the mince pies (“Absent friends!”). Then Christmas passes, the days grow longer and the year turns.

Old Christmas is past
Twelfth Night is the last
And we bid you Adieu
Great joy to the new

Deep turquoise eyes

I’m sorry to see that Ellis has closed his blog. I’ve enjoyed and admired Ellis’s writing since we were both contributors to Casablanca; I remember he did a piece on the slave trade ostensibly by John Smith, which antedated Tony Benn’s joke at the expense of the Economist by a decade and a half. Unfortunately it also antedated the death of John Smith by a matter of weeks. (To its great credit, Casablanca printed it anyway.)

Anyway, you could be forgiven for thinking that this blog was going the same way, or had already gone; come to that, it would be the obvious conclusion for me to draw myself. Call me Bartleby, but I prefer not to: I’m not closing this blog, and will post again. Admittedly, posting is likely to remain fairly sparse; I’ve been a bit busy lately, and can’t see the situation changing in the next couple of months. But I’ve got something to say about Graham Greene and Corvo, and something slightly less dated about Decent comment on the de Menezes shooting, and something about French supermarkets, and I had this great idea about Bowie’s sax-playing and Kazuo Ishiguro, and I really ought to say something about what I’ve been doing these last few months… Terrors of the earth, I’m telling you. Stand by.

Oh, and a Happy New Year to all my reathe reader of these words. (I’m assuming a solitary reader; I suppose someone could be reading this over your shoulder, in which case the word is ‘readers’.) ¡Hasta luego!

Take or leave us

Apologies for the long silence – and for the post that’s about to follow, which will be of much greater interest to some than others.

Unlike Liam and Andy, I am not now and have never been a member of RESPECT. Like Liam and Andy, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the fallout within RESPECT from George Galloway’s August letter. I think there are some genuinely hopeful developments taking place, in among the backbiting and abuse: a renewed RESPECT could be the socialist-friendly left-of-Labour electoral party England has been crying out for. (Could be – we’re not there yet by any means.)

Here are some of my comments from Andy’s blog. My thoughts on all this have developed over time, but I’ve only edited for clarity, brevity and anonymity.

1st September:

I’ve never liked George Galloway, but I’m pleasantly surprised by the clarity & cogency of this analysis. Yes, it is all about organisational structure, but structure can be very important in deciding what gets done and what doesn’t – and how the membership is involved in those decisions, both before and after they’re made.

You could object that Galloway’s line (and/or my take on it) is naive, inasmuch as there are solid political factors underlying the organisational sclerosis of RESPECT (reasons having to do with the death-grip of the SWP), and he clearly doesn’t address those. I think that would be to underestimate Galloway’s critique (which does after all propose leading roles for Yaqoob and even Thornett). I also think that a lot of the problems with the SWP itself are ultimately organisational – the weird stop/start blend of caution, opportunism and control freakery that the SWP has brought to RESPECT is a culture with quite deep roots in the party itself, and it’s not good for the internal life of the SWP any more than it’s been good for RESPECT. Viewed in this light, I think Galloway’s aim is to stir things up within the SWP, perhaps with the longer-term aim of splitting the party and expelling part of it from the New Model RESPECT. How it pans out will depend on how much discontent there is within the SWP, and how deep the divisions within the leadership run – is anyone sufficiently fed up to want to either break with RESPECT or split the party?

13th September:

There’s something Kremlinological about the lines being drawn – nobody really thinks Galloway is standing up for party democracy, or that the SWP Central Committee wants to eradicate any hint of communalism. As far as I can see the competing lines essentially boil down to “build a weak and diffuse coalition as an element in the SWP’s longer-term socialist programme” and “build a weak and diffuse coalition without preconditions, but in the hope that it will eventually become less weak and diffuse”. The CC line sounds more socialist, but I think in practice it’s less constructive.

22nd September:

I don’t think anyone’s saying “SWP out of RESPECT” – just that the relationship between the two needs to change. If that line prevails and the SWP responds by flouncing out… well, it’ll be a gamble, but I think it’s one worth taking. (Hopefully some of the better SWP/RESPECT comrades would jump the right way.) In any case [if] RESPECT is currently only kept going by the SWP machine, would it really be worth having on that basis?

3rd October:

There’s strong evidence, in some towns at least, that RESPECT has quite consciously targeted Muslim areas. Building on the massive mobilisation against the war isn’t a bad idea, but it depends how it’s done. I’ve seen RESPECT campaign material which focused exclusively on causes of interest to British Muslims. That’s not to say they were causes I wouldn’t support (Iraq, Palestine, anti-racism…) but that the list didn’t include anything calculated to appeal to non-Muslim working-class voters, or for that matter to Muslim voters who saw themselves primarily as working-class.

What does need to be dealt with quite openly is the difference between the type of approach I’m describing and the allegations of ‘personalist and clientelist’ organising. If that’s happened, it’s a disgrace and should be rooted out. But at the moment it’s unclear a lot of the time whether ‘communalism’ refers to this kind of corrupt practice or simply focusing on the Muslim vote – a legitimate approach, albeit one I disagree with on political grounds.

Ultimately I think the approach RESPECT took is a tragically missed opportunity. They could have gone a lot harder at the outset on class perspectives and on potentially divisive issues such as feminism and LGBT; the result would have been a smaller organisation in the early days, perhaps, but a much more coherent one. Instead we get socialist principle wheeled out as a factional weapon within the party, at a time when most of the early successes have been dissipated.

15th October:

Kevin Ovenden and Rob Hoverman expelled for working with Galloway; Nick Wrack expelled for standing for the Organiser post, whose creation Rees & German had agreed to… I can’t see that any of it makes any sense unless the SWP leadership is determined to a) leave RESPECT b) split RESPECT c) wreck RESPECT or d) some combination of the above. These certainly don’t look like the actions of an organisation preparing to operate as a minority current within a broader party – or even preparing to operate within a broader party on terms which might at some point in the future reduce them to a minority current.

There’s a much bigger question than the relative merits of RESPECT and the Labour Left, which is what happens if RESPECT goes under. To put it another way, which is the worse outcome for the Left in England – successful RESPECT or failed RESPECT? I think for the project to fail now would be bad news for all of us. But I think there’s a chance that what comes out of the current crisis will be a more coherent organisation with a clearer identity, not to mention a healthier relationship with the SWP and other groups. I think that possibility and that danger are far more important than anything that can be said about Galloway. (Whom I dislike, distrust and have very little faith in. Makes a good speech, mind.)

23rd October:

even if we take the SWP leadership at their word and assume they have adopted the vision of a more explicitly socialist RESPECT, vision and strategy aren’t the same thing. I believe RESPECT has the potential to become a coherent left-wing electoral party with an active socialist minority, which is rather more than it is now – but I don’t believe it can realise that potential by allowing the SWP leadership to control it. Anyone who wants to see RESPECT thrive and survive should welcome the critique being voiced by Galloway, Yaqoob, Wrack, Francis et al.

24th October:

a lot of the initial policy compromises have evidently been unmade in the course of the last four years, possibly thanks to the influence of principled leftists within RESPECT. The opposition to the SWP leadership within RESPECT isn’t a monolithic bloc, and they certainly don’t all dance to Galloway’s tune. There’s a left and a right within the Galloway/Yaqoob/Francis/Socialist Resistance wing of RESPECT, in other words, and I’m confident that the left will counter any attempt to push the project to the right. At the risk of offering hostages to fortune, RESPECT isn’t over yet; it may just be getting going.

30th October:

It all started, it seems to me, with a power-play by Galloway. If it was implemented unchanged, Galloway’s original proposal would have created a rival to John Rees’s position within RESPECT, with a power base among Galloway’s allies and a focus on electoral success (bearing in mind that we all thought there was an election coming up at the time). As such, the proposal obviously wasn’t welcome to Rees & his allies, and it called for some hard bargaining and careful management. What couldn’t be done was to kick it into touch, because it expressed more than just Galloway’s political self-interest and his belief that a party that stands candidates in elections ought to try and win them. RESPECT hadn’t flourished under the stewardship of Rees & co, and significant groups & individuals within the coalition had some genuine concerns about the way things were going. Galloway’s letter gave a voice to those concerns and put names to some of the people expressing them. It meant that the SWP’s leadership role in RESPECT would never be unchallenged again.

Rees and friends could have bargained and managed the situation; they could have accepted a collegiate leadership; they might well have re-emerged as ‘first among equals’ further down the line. Instead of which they declared war on Galloway – and, by extension, on anyone aligned with him, whether for reasons of principle or convenience.

I said at the time of Hoveman and Ovenden’s expulsions that the SWP leadership’s actions were incomprehensible unless they wanted to leave, split or destroy RESPECT, or some combination of the three. I don’t take any satisfaction in having, apparently, been proved right.

1st November:

for the SWP to pull out of RESPECT tomorrow, taking every dual member with it, would be disastrous for RESPECT. For Linda Smith & her allies to witch-hunt the SWP out of the organisation would be to saw off the branch they’re sitting on; tactically it would be crazy, stupid or sectarian to the point of obsessiveness. I don’t believe they’re any of those things.

So what is going on? I think it’s important to draw two distinctions: between reducing someone’s power and reducing it to nothing; and between long-term and short-term. The first is the difference between Edward Heath’s approach to the Left and the unions and Thatcher’s; the second is the difference between Thatcher and Pinochet. The Smith/Yaqoob/Galloway side of the argument are agreed that the SWP’s formal power within RESPECT needs to be reduced. There are people on that side of the argument (possibly Galloway himself) who believe that in the longer term it should be reduced to nothing. There isn’t anybody, as far as I can tell, who believe that it should be reduced to nothing immediately – that the SWP should be chased out of RESPECT.

The SWP leadership are doubly to blame for the escalation of this dispute, it seems to me: they’ve interpreted a demand for reduction of their power as an all-out threat to their position, then interpreted that as an immediate threat. In the process they’ve created that confrontation. It’s true to say that some, at least, of the SWP leadership’s critics have taken a position of “if you want a fight, you can have it” – and this is regrettable. But when concessions are exploited, well-intentioned criticisms are dismissed unread and challenges are met with strident denunciation and refusal to debate, it does tend to try one’s patience.

(Part of the problem, of course, is that you don’t start a position war with the SWP with much hope of winning – SWP cadre do tend to be very good at this stuff. It’s just not the stuff that’s needed right now.)

Having said all that, it’d be nice to think that the RESPECT which comes out of all this would include some SWP members. (Even now, the RESPECT-loyalists don’t seem to have any political quarrel with the SWP-loyalists – and that goes double for someone like Lavalette, whose work is a model of what RESPECT should be doing.)

2nd November:

I don’t think there’s any mystery around why Linda Smith & her allies don’t want to see the conference go ahead. They’ve stated their reasons – they’ve been comprehensively outmanoeuvred, out-organised and out-mobilised, by both fair means and foul. As a result, the legitimacy of the organisational structures of the coalition itself have been brought into dispute – but, as part of the same process, internal democracy has been boxed off to the point where that dispute can’t take place. In this situation, a pause for thought is the only option – ‘full speed ahead’ equals ’self-destruct’.

With two conferences now scheduled for 17th November, this last comment needs some expansion. By pressing ahead with organising for the planned conference, without addressing any of the issues raised by Smith & Yaqoob, the SWP put the ‘renewal’ camp in an impossible position. Turn up at the conference and they’d almost certainly be outvoted and outmanoeuvred; stay away and they’d lose by default. Worse, organising their own event at a later date would risk organised intervention by SWP partisans. (Before anyone cries paranoia, I’ve been in conferences where the SWP wanted to make sure that a mildly critical point of view got across; it’s not pretty. The ‘single transferable speech’ is one word for the tactic (In response to the last speaker, I’d just like to say that one of the earlier speakers raised a crucial question…)) Holding their own event on the same day was really the only option.

That said, it would be good if a split could be avoided; I was particularly glad to see that Michael Lavalette had been willing to share a platform with Galloway and Yaqoob (Andy has photographic evidence). The game is clearly not over yet. (Although after this post I’ll probably go back to the usual mixture of political philosophy, popular singing groups and miscellaneous geekage.)

Not enough protest songs

Yes, this is a very fine song (and this is a very fine version of it, which I hadn’t seen in 25 years).

You see Robin,
I’ve been searching for the young soul rebels.
I’ve been searching everywhere, I can’t find them anywhere – where have you hidden them?

How we laughed.

The strange thing about “There there, my dear” – and about Searching for the young soul rebels, the album it closes, and about the work of Dexy’s Midnight Runners in all their various incarnations – is that it’s brilliant all the same. It’s embarrassingly earnest in a puppyish teenage way, it’s tiresomely arrogant and pugnacious (also in a puppyish teenage way), and it’s clumsy and awkwardly executed. But it’s brilliant all the same. Searching for the young soul rebels is a wonderful, life-enhancing album – I wouldn’t go quite that far for the other two, although I wouldn’t be without them – and this is a glorious track.

And it’s not just down to that extraordinary Stax sound. The lyrics – if you can find them written down – are… well, they’re embarrassingly earnest and clumsily executed and basically pretty dreadful in several different ways. But they’re brilliant all the same.

Not convinced? Here, because I feel like it, is the annotated “There there, my dear”.

Rrrrr-Robin, hope you don’t mind me writing, it’s just
There’s more than one thing I need to ask you.

After beginning with the old General Johnson trill, Kevin comes in on the wrong beat here – Rob-IN hope YOU don’t MIND – but it’s OK by the end of the first line.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, you’re so anti-fashion – so wear flares
Instead of dressing down all the same

“Why not wear flares?” in the published lyrics. It’s a good question, but I don’t think anyone’s that anti-fashion.

It’s just that looking like that I can express my dissat-
Robin, let me explain,
But you’d never see in a million years

Shame about ‘dissatisfaction’. We’ll see more of Kevin’s ruthless way with line endings later on. Now shush, there’s a good bit coming up.

Keep quoting Cabaret, Berlin, Burroughs,
J.G. Ballard, Duchamp, Beauvoir,
Kerouac, Kierkegaard, Michael Rennie…
And I don’t believe you really like Frank Sinatra.

Seriously, how good is that? The fourth line is one of the all-time great put-downs. (I did once see a copy of Songs for Swinging Lovers lying prominently around in the flat of an irritatingly hip friend, and a Dexy’s poster on the wall. Unfortunately I only thought of the line later.) The other three lines are pretty good, too (Michael Rennie!). A couple of things about that long, ridiculous list are worth noting. One is that, despite the line-cramming that goes on elsewhere, the scansion here is fine; Kevin even has time to fit in a quick ‘brrr!’ between Beauvoir and Kerouac. It obviously wasn’t just dashed off. The other is its odd, self-contradictory quality. Dexy’s first single “Dance stance” uses a similar list as a demonstration of how much they know and you don’t: Never heard about – Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill, Edna O’Brien and Lawrence Sterne… (“It’s as if a gang of punks had taken the Irish Academy of Literature hostage and used the Stax headquarters for barricades”, as this site says (I think).) Here, though, Kevin’s reeling off a list of obscure and pretentious references as a way of criticising someone for using obscure and pretentious references. The song’s playful and self-mocking – almost despite itself – at the same time as being deadly serious.

Robin, you’re always so happy, how the hell?
You’re like a dumb, dumb patriot.
You’re supposed to be so angry, why not fight?
Let me benefit from your rage.

“How the hell do you get your inspiration?” in the published lyrics; also “benefit from your right”, which doesn’t make much sense. I was convinced when the song came out that it was addressed to Ian Page of the (relatively) prominent mod revivalists Secret Affair, mainly I think because of this verse. (Apparently it’s addressed to “NME indie bands”, which makes more sense of the Burroughs Ballard ect ect.)

You know the only way to change things is to shoot men who arrange things

Ah, Baader-Meinhof chic. Takes me back.

Robin, I’d try and explain
But you’d never see in a million years.
Well, you’ve finished your rules, but we don’t know that game,
Robin, I’d listen to your records but your logic’s far

“Far too lame” in the published lyrics, but since Kevin’s tried to get a whole couplet into the space previously occupied by “Robin let me explain” he’s forced to swallow a couple of words before the next line. Which is:

And I’d only waste three valuable minutes of my life with your insincere

“…with your insincerity” in the published lyrics, but Kevin wisely doesn’t attempt that. So we’ve got “And I’d only waste” instead of “But you’d never see”, and instead of “in a million years” we’ve got… um. Fourteen syllables crammed into five. You’ve got to wonder about the thought process that led to keeping ‘valuable’ in there. And respect it, frankly – he’s the one stuck with singing it.

Then we’re into the spoken section:

You see Robin,
I’ve been searching for the young soul rebels.
I’ve been searching everywhere, I can’t find them anywhere – where have you hidden them?
Maybe you should…
Maybe you should welcome the new soul vision!
Welcome the new soul vision!
Welcome the new soul vision!

Of course, he doesn’t mean that ‘maybe’, any more than Andrew Anthony really thinks he may be wrong, but from Kevin you don’t mind the equivocation so much. The obvious induction is that that’s because Kevin’s talking about a nebulous lifestyle statement involving sixties music and woolly hats, whereas Andrew Anthony is talking about matters of great political moment, but I’m not sure that’s it. They’re both ultimately talking about their own beliefs, and putting their own credibility on the line.

In this sense, protest singers aren’t all that different from columnists and other professional opinionators. All of them take the risk of looking like egotists, eccentrics or both – the compensation is that they can win the audience round anyway if their act is good enough. (‘Good enough’ here can mean persuasive enough, new enough, strong enough. Beyond a certain point it can even mean egotistical enough, or eccentric enough; I think this is the tightrope Martin Amis has just fallen off.) And if it’s not, not.

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