Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Detoxifying the Liberal Democrats

Speaking of the LibDems, what are we to make of the party's about-turn on the bedroom tax? Whole-hearted penance or are more cynical motives at work? I'm sure readers won't be shocked if the truth lies closer to the latter pole than the former, but it begs the question. With up to two-thirds of the Parliamentary party looking to have an abrupt career change after May next year, what kind of strategy should the LibDems pursue to avoid outright catastrophe?

If there is one thing they can take from the coming disaster, next year's results are likely to be "trough LibDem". It cannot get much worse. The problem is that the brick wall is coming, the collision is inevitable - but there are things that can be done to ease off on the accelerator. And signalling opposition to the hated bedroom tax is just one of those late-in-the-day things. To detoxify they need to put clear water between themselves and a Tory party whose nastiness is matched only by their determination to drag Britain down the plug hole.

As anyone who's sought therapy will tell you, saying you're going to change is easy. Carrying it through is something else. Courtesy of Labour, the bedroom tax is to be the subject of another Commons vote in the autumn. Here's the chance for the LibDems to act according to their conscience. Will they?

It has all the makings of a political crisis. For the Tories the bedroom tax is a point of principle: they believe it's popular (it isn't, and opposition is hardening) and will fight tooth and nail to retain it as part of their Dickensian assault on the poor. So Clegg has a choice: to take the coalition to the wire and potentially break it, or take the first significant step to detoxification. For let there not be any doubt. Just as breaking manifesto promises on tuition fees did the LibDems, so a heroic stand, of putting principles before eight months longer in ministerial seats could help them turn that corner, and make a deal with Labour a wee bit less unpalatable should the electorate gift Westminster a hung Parliament again.

From here flows further political opportunities. The lead up to the election introduces a new dynamic into the mix and one so-called professional commentators still haven't picked up on. That is two parties will be scrapping over their record in government. Already, of the coalition the LibDem narrative is one of tempering the Tory party's worst impulses, of trading acquiescence to bad things as the price of some "good things". The LibDems here would point to the Pupil Premium, raising of the tax thresholds for the lowest paid, and, yes, the fact students don't have to pay exorbitant fees up front. The backdoor privatisation of the NHS, the work capability assessment debacle, cutting tax for the very richest - the LibDems are rather less keen to be associated with these. However, punting that message between now and next May is easier for the depleted activist pool to deliver if there is demonstrable evidence of change behind it.

There is a clear party interest in pursuing this course, yet I expect Clegg will order his troops to abstain and/or stay away from the Commons. Partly because voting against it makes the parliamentary party look like hypocrites, partly because - actually - some LibDem ministers have relished their time in government and are willing to stay there as long as possible for any price, partly because of the Westminster parlour game - do the LibDems want to be seen falling behind a Labour "stunt"? And lastly, there's Nick's self-interests too. If by the skin of his teeth he hands on in Sheffield Hallam, what future awaits? A return to opposition or coalition with Labour limits his prospects somewhat (Tim Farron or an unlikely comeback from Charles Kennedy put pays to that). However, another coalition or confidence and supply arrangement with the Tories might keep him safe.

So then LibDems, what's it to be? The short sharp shock of breaking the coalition over the bedroom tax, or an absolute pummelling later on?

David Ward and Hypocritical Bullshit

Is this what anti-Semitism really looks like?

"Ich bin ein Palestinian", a channeling of liberal hero JFK. And the other, though clumsily expressed, can only be construed as anti-semitic by those who would paint all criticism of Israel as such. And here are some of those construals:

This is so much bullshit, but there is a lesson here.

If you are in the public eye and want to cast an unwelcome light on the criminal activities of the Israeli government, it's not a great idea to lay yourself open to attack by appearing to condone rocket attacks or suicide bombings.

As the member for Bradford East has made clear, raising awareness was precisely his intention. Instead, his clumsiness has allowed the hypocritical lie machine to frame opposition as racist, allowing the targeting and bombing of innocent civilians a free pass instead of putting this gang of war apologists on the spot.

Monday, 21 July 2014

War and Sociology

Sociology is a wonderful thing. As the discipline that busies itself with the analysis of social relations you can find it burrowing into everything. It's like the internet. If you can imagine it, sociology's already had a look. Yet some things tend to get looked at more than others. One of these, according to Hans Joas is war. What is it good for? Not ground-breaking leaps in theory and technique, it would seem. War is as extreme a social phenomenon you can envisage. It is the outbreak of sustained collective violence under the direction of a state or semi-state institution against another collective that is or has the potential to be similarly mobilised. War is officially sanctioned violence and, as such, can pass over into episodes of wanton murder and criminality. Joas' argument, however, is that sociology has had comparatively little to say about war. Collective violence within states, yes: riots, political violence, police violence. But war between states? Not so much.

Hold on a minute. Those with a passing acquaintance with classical sociological theory might say "Joas could have a point with the likes of Durkheim and Parsons. The former through the increasing mutual dependency and integration of societies via the division of labour, the latter with the wide acceptance of the normative basis of social order, but what about conflict approaches?" What about them indeed. You could be forgiven for thinking that conflict between social groups, as per Weber-influenced conflict theory; or class struggle and the competitive pursuit of markets as with Marxism might root the causes of war in the 'external' displacement of this violence. The problem is the former does not explain why war exists. The latter, how peace is possible and why warfare is the exception, not the rule of advanced societies.

Joas 2000 book, War and Modernity looks at why contemporary social theory and sociology generally has had problems thinking about and explaining war, and this is partly dues to the lingering influence of liberalism. As a philosophy of freedom, liberalism has long-acknowledged problems recognising systemic inequalities and social conflict because, classically, it limits itself to questions of right and politics solely in relation to public life. I'm not going to elaborate further (done it already, at length, except to note I broadly agree with Joas on liberalism's impact on the social sciences. On the one hand, there is an economic 'tradition' stemming from Adam Smith, a line of argument that believes boosting trade between nations incentivises cross-border relationships, draws societies closer together and renders war increasingly obsolete. The second is the republican (constitutional) tradition stemming from Kant: the notion that as republics (and constitutional monarchies) place sovereignty in the hands of the people, they are less likely to endorse war because they are liable to pay its blood price. War, where it occurs, is a throwback; an eruption of irrationality or backward attitudes. Provided economics and republics could carry on with their civilising mission, there's no reason why war cannot be "outgrown". Joas argues that these assumptions can be discerned in Durkheim and functionalism/systems theory, but infects Marxism as well. For all its formal distancing (and rubbishing) of liberalism, the liberal assumption of order without conflict is transposed onto the socialist future.

Despite casting a long, peaceable shadow on sociological theorising Joas notes liberalism has tooled-up skeletons rattling in the historical closet. The flipside of "peaceful" trade was the theft of land and resources by gunboat and bayonet. The universalism of republican government excused civilising missions and the reduction of colonial subjects to beings unworthy of rights.

That's the heritage. But it's only been allowed to persist in sociology because of the circumstances of its founding. Sociology was institutionalised as an accepted academic discipline in the two decades prior to the First World War. Its homes in Germany, France and the USA were characterised by relatively cohesive societies with a stable state apparatus, the rule of law, and the development of relatively well-integrated national economies. All three were involved in colonial adventures and, in the USA's case, war with Spain. However their participation did not cause social dislocation nor call for a concerted national effort in the way a long-running conflict would, let alone a world war. Sociology then reflected the social reality of the day. War didn't impinge on everyday, run-of-the-mill social relationships (at least at first remove anyway) hence sociology barely touched upon it.

All that is understandable prior to the Great War, but since? Western societies have been profoundly affected by the experiences of global war. Since 1945 European colonial empires have disappeared, and, in the American and British contexts, post-colonial conflict, Vietnam, the Gulf War and the "humanitarian interventions" in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have upped the cultural and political costs of war in the absence of social dislocation at home - perhaps best illustrated regarding current attitudes toward Syria and Ukraine/Russia. Yet over this period, in each and every sociological tradition war is either ignored or regarded as a minority interest. You're more likely to find sociologists writing about virtual wars than actual conflicts. The faddy sociologies of globalisation that emerged in the late 80s were more or less retreads of Adam Smith's arguments. Postmodernism's identity politics sat very much in the Kantian republican tradition, of overcoming social conflict by the recognition of difference and valorisation of the many ways to be human. Of course, this is possible because advanced capitalist countries are largely safe from bombings and military incursions. Yet it still cannot explain why, now that war "elsewhere" fills the news feeds nearly every day, sociology turns a blind eye to it.

The problem is conceptual and theoretical. The big claim of sociology is its attempt to try and explain the world, to lay bare the processes and dynamics underpinning collective behaviour that make social life possible. It's about patterns, order, and great sweeps of social movement over time and across territories. It doesn't like, and is largely allergic to contingency. It has had a great deal of trouble reconciling the theorisation of abstract structures drawn from the observation of collective behaviour with the fact human beings are free-willed, choice-making animals. The tension between structure and agency all too-often dissolves into one side disappearing agency, the other structure. It's the tyranny of the structure vs the tyranny of structurelessness. Yet all social behaviour, all rituals are a blend of mutual conditioning, of dialectical interplay and interdependence - as ably demonstrated in their own ways by Bourdieu and Giddens. The question of war, however, is especially problematic because it is a large-scale set of social processes with structural underpinnings, and yet are radically contingent in a way that can have utterly profound implications for the societies involved. That means it's difficult to pin down a chain of causation in the outbreak of conflicts, because there is no such iron will to war.

As it's the centenary year, look at the causes of the First World War. Who's responsible? Britain declaring war on Germany? The French honouring their obligations to Russia? The Russians declaring for Serbia? The Germans backing Austro-Hungary against Serbia? Serbia for training and funding the Black Hand? Gavrilo Princip's assassination of the Archduke? Or the Archduke's driver for taking a wrong turn? Historians have argued about the efficacy of each of these, and much else besides. Each of these, while building on the preceding set of decisions, were contingent. They were conditioned by the division of Europe into two grand military alliances, and these itself were an outcome of the age of high imperialism, of the division of the world between established and upstart great powers. This context however did not cause the First World War. There was no inexorable inevitability about 1914. The decision-makers all acted rationally according to their perceptions and social knowledge, leading to outcomes that probabilistically increased the likelihood of war, but they had choice within the context of their social universe. They were not passive agents of inter-imperialist rivalries. Rather, war was an outcome of the contingencies the nature of those rivalries threw up.

Let's take a less symmetrical situation: Israel's shelling, bombing and now ground invasion of Gaza. Oppositional analysis of the nature of Israeli society variously emphasise it being a settler state, a land-grabbing state, a project to create a mono-ethnic Jewish state. As colonial in origin, the role of the military in society and willingness to deploy violence against Palestinians is a systemic, structural property of that society. However, those who subscribe to this analysis protest and demonstrate against Israel's actions in defiance of their analysis. Demanding that it stop its attacks on Gaza recognises that there is room for contingency here, that the Israeli government does have a choice. Indeed it does. Israeli society is in a perpetual state of military preparedness. Its politics are so distorted by its continuing commitment to occupying the West Bank and desire to contain Gaza that, internally, there are domestic political incentives for politicians to indulge racist and warmongering rhetoric. Probabilistically, these set of social relations are more likely to lead to war than any other advanced capitalist society, and that is without the specific (and contingent) circumstances of 'normal' Palestinian unrest, peace talks, and Hamas rockets. Decisions matter.

There is no such thing as determination, causation and necessity in sociology: only probabilities. And these probabilities are constantly shifting, moving, bending with the simultaneous weight of interests, conflicts, and contingent social actions. The problem with integrating this into sociological theorising is it's too messy, too banal and, in the case of war and the causes of war, far too close to the domain of International Relations. What's more it's an approach that cannot be spelt out in the abstract, except for some basic methodological rules of thumb. The play of pattern and contingency, of structure and agency can only be realised in close empirical study. Perhaps this unwillingness to read events as opposed to canonised texts is the real root of sociology's aversion of things war-related.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Dark Globe - Break My World

The disco's ringing out with melancholy beats tonight. Break My World is 10 years old, but its video has that haunting, contemporary quality that presents as timeless whenever thousands are perishing under a hail of bombs and shells.

Friday, 18 July 2014

On the "Obsession" with Israel and Palestine

I think James Bloodsworth has been unfair locating the opposition to Israel's bombing and invasion of Gaza in the matrix of revolutionary identity politics. Yes, in the fractured universe of British radicalism the Israel/Palestine conflict is an occasion for position-taking, and, as with nearly all positions assumed, be it war in the Middle East, the attitude to Labour, or whether capitalism has been restored in China, they are a locus for identity work. However, it is a mistake to say this determines opposition to Israel. Their "obsession" derives neither from freaks of character nor unacknowledged anti-semitism: it's because mainstream politics recognises, treats and privileges the Israel/Palestine conflict as a strategic priority in ways other persistent conflicts are not. It matters to the left because official society says it matters.

Think about it for a moment. At Labour conference this September there will be, as every year, a huge queue lining up outside the Labour Friends of Palestine meeting. If you go from there to the Labour Friends of Israel gathering, it will be as easily packed. It's worth noting as well that respective memberships do not divide along "tradtional" left/right lines. Likewise, if it's only a matter of lefty identity politics, why are some 80% of Tory MPs members of Conservative Friends of Israel? Like Labour, the LibDems have friendly societies that support either side. The conflict is an issue that goes right to the heart of politics. Why?

Peter Oborne (linked above) is right to mention the deep and abiding links between the Tories and early 20th century proponents of Zionism, but these are as rooted in the Labour Party too. There is a legacy of war guilt hanging over mainstream politics too. Allied governments closed their borders to Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. They also knew about the death camps, but chose not to say anything until they were liberated. And they had the capacity to disrupt Hitler's murder factories, but for whatever reason decided not to. There is a historical debt, and supporting the Jewish state is, for some, the contemporary equivalent of 'never again'. The moral case for Israel, drawing as it does from the historical experience of systematic genocide is the wellspring for moral opposition to it as well. Being walled off, subsisting in open air prisons, having land and water resources stolen, demolishing Palestinian property and launching military assaults as collective punishment, if these were the policies of any other state - particularly perceived enemies - its actions would be thoroughly criticised and condemned. As a state founded by victims of industrialised killing, to see successive Israeli governments dole out ethnic cleansing is as awful an irony that can be conceived.

On no other foreign policy issue does historical debt and double standards feature so prominently. Yet it is far from all. The eternal place Israel/Palestine occupies in the political imagination is all about geopolitical interests. The Middle East's oil reserves are the key lynchpin of the global order organised around the international hegemony of a (declining) US, and for Europe the Suez Canal remains an arterial shipping route. The great game of maintaining regimes friendly to perpetuating the status quo is the core concern for the State Department and Whitehall. It's so ingrained in political common sense that few, if anyone, finds the official concern for what happens there and the West's right to intervene diplomatically or militarily, strange. For instance, few would bat an eyelid if Britain proposed to sponsor talks aiming at ending the current round of violence in Israel/Palestine, Syria or Iraq. But if Brazil or China were to, that's weird if not vaguely threatening. Similarly, geopolitically Israel is an ally of US and British interests. The very existence of Israel has presented a destabilising face to the Arab dictatorships and absolutist monarchies. In foreign policy terms, Israel has proven itself to be a convenient meat shield behind which American interests can hide. The wars against Israel, the deep antipathy felt toward it across the region, often times Israel has proven a useful scapegoat by authoritarian rulers who, if anything, are greater supplicants of US interests. Is it also worth noting Israel is a ready market for armaments?

There are good reasons, and there are real reasons. The third axis of interest lies with the political effects supporters of Israel and Palestine have here in Britain. On the one hand, Israel spends big money promoting its right to existence, of making allies and friendships, of organising tours and establishing relationships between organisations here and organisations there (Labour Friends of Israel, for instance, is directly linked with the Labor Party of Israel). Politicians of all parties cultivate wealthy, Jewish backers for funds - a cultivation helped by their membership of the appropriate friendship organisation. And so on. Just so there is no misunderstanding, there is nothing especially "shadowy" or sinister about this, as anti-semitic conspiracy-mongers maintain. All states use whatever means they can to lobby for their interests. Consider the numerous Anglo-Soviet friendship committees of the Cold War, or the gaggle of transatlantic societies promoting America's bountiful virtues. Guess what, Britain does exactly the same thing overseas too. Israel have a finely-tuned PR and lobbying machine that has served successive governments well. It has helped create a political-material advantage in being seen to be a friend.

No such advantage accrues to Palestinians. Except the antipathy toward Israel transfers from Arab lands to Muslim populations here. Accounts of life under siege, land-grabbing, casual brutality, humiliation, and murder have long travelled from mainstream mosque to mainstream mosque as Palestinian speakers work the circuit. The tragedy of the Palestinians cleaves deep into British Muslim identities, whether Arabian or not. The oppression suffered by co-religionists is something all Muslims can rally around. It underwrites the experience of racism and Islamophobia in the West, is an in-your-face reminder that as far as the powers-that-be are concerned, the lives of Palestinians count for less than Israelis. This too impacts on our politics, consistently assisting the politicisation of Muslim kids (if not Islam as a religion), and integrates Muslim communities into the pro-Palestinian sections of the labour and/or anti-war movements. How many British Muslim supporters of Israel have you met?

So no. The centrality of the Israel/Palestinian conflict is not a quirk of political culture, or an indifference to horrible things happening elsewhere. It has deep cultural and material roots spanning across communities, politics, government departments, and perceived geopolitical interests. That is why it is well-covered, written on, and furiously argued over. It has a unique place because it has a unique place. What-abouting will not do. To make the situation mundane is to work toward a positive, peaceful solution.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Why Was the Malaysian Airliner Shot Down?

What a barbaric week. The appalling suffering inflicted on the open air prison that is Gaza, of which more another time. Then there has been a ratcheting up of the conflict in Ukraine as the government offensive grinds down and routs its pro-Russian breakaways. Now, it's taken an altogether darker turn: the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger jet with the deaths of some 300 people over the skies of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic. Amid the tragedy is the pinning of blame. The Ukraine government say they didn't do it, and lack the capability. Russia do have the means, but not the motive and claim it's nothing to do with them. And there are the rebels themselves, who are also playing the denial game.

Najib Razik, the Malaysian prime minister has called for an immediate investigation. And as the passenger manifest is likely to reveal many people from many nations, the pressure for a thorough probe will be irresistible.

Facts have to be established. But already, there has been this:

The statement, from a Colonel Igor Strelkov of the DPR, according to The Interpreter, translates as:
In the area of Torez, we have just shot down an AN-26 airplane, it is scattered about somewhere by the Progress coal mine.

We warned them - don't fly 'in our sky.'

Here is a video confirmation of the latest 'bird drop.'

The bird fell beyond the pit refuse heap, it did not damage the residential sector.

Civilians were not hurt.

There is also information about a second downed airplane, apparently an SU.
It's unclear whether Strelkov was referring to the earlier shooting down of two Ukraine air force combat craft, or the passenger jet. Either way, the statement has since been deleted.

It is difficult to shoot down a jet cruising at an altitude of 10,000 metres. Despite the denials, Ukraine has the fighter craft capability of doing so. And Russia are supplying the separatists with military hardware. Neither side benefits from this tragedy, and in all likelihood it was an awful, awful case of mistaken identity.

Yet what is deeply worrying is why passenger jets were still flying over a warzone that had seen action in the air. Incompetence or commercial expediency? The families of the victims need to know not who is responsible for the death of their loved ones, but how and why they were allowed to be put in harm's way.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Shuffling Toward Defeat

"What a weird cabinet reshuffle", muses Dan Hodges. "Massacre of the moderates!" shouts Labour. Yes, really. "Brutal ministerial cull" says The Mirror. On and on it goes. Yes, some Tory careers have limped unlamented into the night, including some big hitters. But the story is of ruthlessness and verve, of Dave slicing through his government and leaving behind him a pile of quivering limbs. Dan can barely hide his admiration. This is the audacity of a PM at the top of his game. Au contraire, this reshuffle is symptomatic of weakness and a belief that the Tories are looking down the barrel of electoral defeat.

Dave's reshuffle had to be audacious and far-reaching . These last four years have seen him consistently exposed as a weak, hapless ditherer who's soft on the city and craven before the Tory Taliban of his own back benches. Yet it is also a triumph of media management that all of Dave's failings are projected onto his opponent. Nevertheless, after the failed gamble of the Juncker stunt the PM needed to look in command again. So why not reshuffle everything, especially when his government - with the shameful connivance of the LibDems and my own party's front bench - are pushing "emergency" internet surveillance powers through the house?

What the reshuffle says above all is that Dave believes he's going to lose next May. Think about how the "sacking" of Michael Gove unfolded over the course of the day. What started off as a shock has revealed itself to be something else entirely. First, Dave insists that his moving Gove to chief whip is neither a sacking nor demotion. And then Gove himself, rather indiscreetly, implied on C4 News this evening that he had a say over his own move and that of other ministers. It's all a bit Grimsby Docks if you ask me. Or not, if you follow your nose. Dave is thinking about his legacy and, moreover, the succession. He wants to bequeath a Tory party without anti-women, anti-black, anti-gay hang-ups (ironic, seeing as three gay ministers got the push today) to a modernising leader such as he. Who could this be? Forget Theresa May and Boris Johnson, Dave's keeping the seat warm for George Osborne.

Gove's unseemly public spat with May over the Birmingham schools 'Trojan Horse' "scandal" was transparent manoeuvring on behalf of Osborne. With his appointment as chief whip, Dave could not have handed the chancellor's future campaign manager a more powerful position. Gove now has carte blanche to canvass the parliamentary party, to find out all the little scandals and dark secrets, to whisper promises of elevation here and threats of exposure there, to establish what the state of play for the post-2015 Tories is likely to be, and relentlessly promote the scheme and stature of his bestest buddy.

Sure, Dave knows Gove costs votes so moving him from education comes with a dose of cynical electoral calculation. But he wasn't parked in the chief whip's office to keep him out of the way. Dave placed him there to oversee the succession and ensure continuity, and just like his damaging ideological experiments with children's education, it's a task Gove will pursue with relish.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Foucault, Discipline and Work

Chances are you've seen this. In what looks like summer kite-flying to me, the Tories have floated the idea that people who receive Employment Support Allowance for mental health problems should undergo treatment on pain of losing social security payments. Forcing medication on people, piling unnecessary stress on existing illness ... there's a special category of stupid for the cretin who came up with that. It's as vicious as it is ridiculous, yet has that ring of plausibility to it. You just know they will implement it if this government is given a new lease of life. Still think there's no difference between the Tories and Labour?

Such a policy sits within the horizon of our political imaginations. The Tories are responsible for thinking it up, for bringing it to the table. Yet underpinning it are a whole set of shared assumptions. You see, life in 21st century Britain isn't all about consumption. The trendy cultural theorists and marketing gurus have sold you a pup. Allow me to be woefully unoriginal: it's all about work. You know it, I know it. If you're on the dole, you're scum basically. Unemployment is never a matter of economics, it has nothing to do with a lack of jobs. It's an individual tragedy, nay, an individual failing. If you haven't got a job it's because there's something up with you. There's a flaw, a malaise, an indiscipline, an absence of competence that speaks the truth of your character. You're not merely unemployed. You're unemployable. From this flows all manner of policy assumptions that most readers will know well: criteria for qualification, compulsory job-seeking activities, CV enhancement "opportunities", continual physicals, work-for-dole schemes. You could spend all night picking through one petty rule after another. Think about the culture too. The press routinely denounce the unemployed and expose benefit fraudsters. And look at their depiction on TV. Shameless might be fictional, but the unworthy, dangerous poor cluttering up Benefits Street and Jeremy Kyle aren't. Even worse, it's the sweat of your brow that's keeping these people in Google Glasses and Super Hi-Def roll-up TVs.

This we know. It's one of history's ironic chuckles that addressing working people explicitly as workers has proven most effective keeping us divided, atomised, and at war with ourselves. Some might pretend class doesn't count, but those 'some' aren't those who articulate, repeat, and benefit from peddling hate towards our most vulnerable people. The question then, is why. Typically, at least among left accounts it's located in capital's largely successful struggle to subordinate an ever greater share of social life to its imperatives. In the British context specifically it is heavily conditioned by the strategic defeats inflicted on organised labour in the 1980s, defeats that have left a legacy more abiding than the lip gloss, big hair and luminescent socks one typically associates with that decade. Technological change at work, deindustrialisation, in-your-face consumerism were all intertwined, conditioned and conditioning of struggle and their aftershocks. A history of culture, a history of work, a history of class, a history of capital, a history of politics since 1979 is partial, biased and wrong if it fights shy of appreciating the whole context of that period.

As a general rule, with slightly different emphases and terms, that's accepted across the left. There's your reason for the popular acceptance of scrounger discourse. However, it's a bit of a leap to say antipathy toward White Dee is a direct result of a disadvantageous class peace coupled with media brainwashing. What's missing is an intervening level of analysis, a realm of theoretical magnification that demonstrates how the general and the particular fit together the way that they do. We need to zoom right in and look at the microphysics of power, of the small, barely perceptible and sneaky ways power positions, flows and circulates through and around individual human beings. Michel Foucault is just the fella to help us out.

Foucault's body of work is the most useful and challenging to have come out of the French post-structuralist scene. Among his most lasting and substantive contributions is his critique of political theory and formulation of a new method of understanding power. You can find more on sex and power here, and some stuff on the relationship between Foucault and Marx. That's why Foucault here is getting the Noddy treatment.

Unlike traditional conceptions of power, where it is something to be wielded, to be imposed and imposing, as the capacity to force one will on another and compel them to do things, Foucault opposes this "negative" understanding with a positive, or productive reading of how it works. The difference between the two is starkly illustrated in the opening pages of his Discipline and Punish. The first example is a graphic description of the 1757 torture and drawing and quartering of one Robert-François Damiens, a criminal condemned to a grisly end for the attempted murder of Louis XV. Foucault juxtaposes this with a daily schedule taken from the Mettray penal colony less than a century later. This specifies a rigid timetable of activities, when inmates should be in their cells, etc. For Foucault, these typify the shift power in early modern France had undergone. In the first, it speaks of a situation where power is deposited in the body of the sovereign - the monarch. Therefore Damiens' fate is to be ripped apart, for vengeance to be violently and publicly wreaked upon it so that the sovereign's (social) body is recuperated by a display of his power. Reading the scene demonstrates how power works, that it is the prerogative and property of the sovereign, that his person is pre-eminent before all others. The second is suggestive of an entirely different operation of power. Here, the society, the social body is sovereign, that each individual carries with them a particulate of that sovereignty. And to recuperate its body, rather than obliterate those who offend against it society is concerned with punishing and disciplining its convicts, of rehabilitating them so they can be re-absorbed into the social body as productive, law-abiding citizens.

Here, in his early work on madness and subsequent treatment of sexuality, his interest is in how power "makes" subjects. The prison is the place where political technologies of the body came together and were refined. To rehabilitate criminals a variety of means were introduced and repeated. The regimentation of the day, the emphasis on prison labour, drills, the possibility of perpetual surveillance, these technologies aimed to discipline the criminal body, to create a docile but productive subjectivity through the routine and observation. For the authorities, it was an opportunity to experiment with new techniques, to develop panoptic architecture for incarceration . Hence, at one level of remove, it required the prisoner to collude, to adapt to the regimen as if it was their common sense, to submit. This for Foucault is key to his microphysics of productive power - it flows relationally, positions people, manipulates bodies, creates souls.

Foucault isn't Michael Howard though. He knew prison didn't work. After all, where there's power there's always resistance. But on paper, these techniques of the body, these political technologies were extremely attractive to anyone who had to manage groups of people. From emerging nation states and their population management problematic, to schools, workplaces, hospitals, barracks, disciplinary power was embraced. It inscribed itself on the internal lay out of class rooms, workshops, offices, wards, and was elaborated wherever there was a problem to be "managed". Or, to put it in Foucauldian terms, the will to management articulated the problem, such as sexuality. Think about it, think how authority, the possibility of surveillance, and self-surveillance club together to inculcate specific organisational subjectivities across a range of institutions and walks of life. The diffuse capillaries of power would like you to love Big Brother, but acting as if you do will suffice.

Having elaborated a 'genealogy' of power, Foucault's impact has been a profound across the social and human sciences. Yet, before his premature death, he also noted that disciplinary power was becoming old hat itself - the disciplinary society was making way for the surveillance society. Here, the political technologies of the body that were explicitly elaborated in the 19th century had more or less become the popular common sense, that the possibility of surveillance, panopticism, was a diffuse property inscribed in the very fabric of everyday social relations, and that we as subjects in this surveillance society would not only accept it as the norm but gleefully participate in it. Social media and the desire to be visible is as pure a surveillance technology can be.

This brings us back to the why, to the fit between macro-level social transformation and the outpouring of work-centric discourse. The institutional set up of the post-war settlement, on one level, tried to reconcile the ultimately irreconcilable. The economy/society relation was overtly mediated and managed by the state. Running sectors of the economy to maintain full employment and the health of British capital rested upon compromises between organised labour and business. The latter, for its own part, was organised and disciplined by commercial imperatives and preservation of private ownership. The former was organised and disciplined by the relatively tight-knit working class community, its self-organisation and discipline in the workplace and, to a degree, a certain level of cultural homogeneity. Going to work to earn a wage was not a matter of laying yourself at management's disposal. For the strategic sections of the working class, discipline at work was conditioned primarily by the everyday, bread and butter politics of employees as a collective. Just as there the need for a legislatively-mandated minimum wage was regarded superfluous (and in some cases, harmful to working people) because wage levels were determined by free collective bargaining, so the problem of work discipline did not exist. The post-war period was no golden age by any means, but neither was there an idea, let alone a panic, around supposed cultures of social security dependency and worklessness. The working class, effectively, regulated itself. The political technologies of the workplace was about maintaining workers as a collective bargaining chip, not for management's convenience.

You might be able to see what I'm driving at. Thatcher's offensive in the 1980s shattered the attempted institutionalisation of class struggle. Privatisation, closures, mass unemployment, even selling off council houses, this weakened labour vis capital, but it also wrecked the means and the technologies by which the working class disciplined and prepared itself as workers. Therefore the explosion in scrounger discourse that emerged in the 80s wasn't only a cynical Tory ploy to demonise the millions they made unemployed, it's the top-down assumption of responsibility to cultivate an alternative worker subjectivity because the working class could no longer do so. And as the weakness of the labour movement has persisted, so has the overly and overtly discursive inculcation of that subjectivity. Education has been subtly remodelled away from learning and knowledge to "skills". HE is explicitly marketed in terms of "employability". Political discourse in its more "positive" moments is premised on "hard-working people" and their "aspirations". In the surveillance society, these discursive moves have been thoroughly internalised - scrounger horror stories fall on fertile ground while the long-term unemployed, the disabled, all those who do not work run the risk of exposure and ostracism, and the stress of trying to justify themselves. "I worked all my life until ...".

In sum, scrounger rhetoric is part and parcel of a disciplinary technology appropriate to the surveillance society, a society which destroyed the institutional capacity of its working class to constitute itself as such independently of capital, and now anxiously but vindictively tries to ensure worker drones with aptitude, discipline and drive are produced and reproduced. It might appear that this inculcation occurs from a position of strength. Yet among the barely-concealed angst and ceaseless moral panic, you might find a flicker of recognition, a fear, that this state of affairs is far from permanent.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Comment Awards 2014: Vote Solid

Since Twitter killed the comments box star, a lot of fine blogging traditions have been forgotten. Memes like this one used to circulate around blogs, driving traffic through tagging and plentiful linky-love. There used to be lovely blog carnivals showcasing writing from your compadres and comrades. These were excellent for community-building and discovering smart bloggers you may otherwise have missed. And yes, one much-missed tradition was the annual battle of the blogs. Each year, roughly coinciding with the onset of silly season Iain Dale/Total Politics would run their top 100 political blogs poll. Bloggers of all political stripes and none would solicit votes and, in one or two cases, manipulate them so they get a decent position. Under the old name, this place did okay - it would have even been a top ten Labour blog in 2010 has the minion in charge bothered to recognise me in that category. I'm not bitter.

It was a bit of fun. Yet the annual poll was more than that too. Remember, this was before established media outlets starting gobbling up (primarily London-based) bloggers for their comment platforms. So it was a chance to get noticed, to stand out from the crowd, to get some kudos and a possibility the press equivalent of A&R offering a trial run in a "proper" newspaper. It was a big(ish) deal, and has been put out to pasture since 2011. Thankfully, some blog awards are deader than others.

Passing me by last year, Editorial Intelligence sponsor their own awards "for the industry to commend and support the best of UK comment journalism." Great stuff. And look at the categories, there's one for that oft-overlooked beastie: the independent blogger.

So I'm going to ask you, the reader, for a big favour. I want you to nominate me or, rather, this blog. I've self-nominated under the independent category. But it's fair to say I'd tick the politics, cultural, and media boxes too. What you need to do is hit up the nominations page, follow the instructions and submit your three favourite pieces by me from the last year. And that's it. Sure, a panel of judges are the real gatekeepers here but the more nominations a blog gets the more seriously they'll look at it.

Cheers for that. Now, for the footy.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Saturday Interview: Jim Jepps

Imitation, nay, outright plagiarism is the highest form of flattery. In this spirit find below the first in a regular Saturday feature carrying on the fine tradition established by the late Norman Geras. Eagle-eyed readers might spot a resemblance/"adaptation" of some of Norm's questions. So, from now on look forward to the low down from activists, bloggers, political types and other cool cats. And we kick off the series with ...

Jim Jepps is a political activist in Camden, London. He's written for a variety of publications and is involved in the The North London Star, launched this week. You can follow Jim on Twitter here.

- Why did you blog?

I first started blogging (at the Daily (Maybe)) just to see if I could write something everyday to improve my writing. I didn't tell anyone I was doing it but somehow people discovered me and I was too shy to stop. These days, when I blog, I do it for the discipline. If I'm going to crunch numbers or vent about new government proposals I want to do it properly, which I simply would not do if it was just for me or a rant on facebook.

- What was your best blogging experience?

Whenever I think of a joke that makes me laugh. I'm not sure I care if anyone else finds it funny, as long as I get to tell it that's fine.

- What would be your main blogging advice to a novice blogger?

Don't think too much, just get on and do it. Oh, and be nice to people.

- Is blogging different now from when you started?

When I started blogging it was pretty new, people didn't really know what blogging was and you still had articles and even books on 'how to blog'. That's long gone. Personally I think political blogging, in terms of the 'citizen commenter' has pretty much been killed off by the mainstream media co-opting the form. There are a few hardy souls left but the political blogosphere feels like it's deflating. Where there may well still be space to grow are group blogs (masquerading as magazines) and hyper-local blogs filling the space that local papers used to live in.

- Why do you tweet?

It's quick and easy, but I'm not obsessed by it. The form of 140 characters is good practice for writing headlines, or one liners, but I'm a fan of long form and original content and they tend to hang out in different venues.

- Who are your intellectual heroes?

Jean-Paul Satre. Naturally. And Keith Flett, I envy his facility with the one sentence letter to the editor.

- What are you reading at the moment?

I'm reading Woody Guthrie's autobiography Bound for Glory for pleasure and Richard Seymour's Austerity for not quite as much pleasure.

- What was the last film you saw?

World War Z. It has some nice moments but it's essentialy an empty movie, sadly.

- What is the best novel you've ever read?

I don't know. But I really enjoyed Walter Mosley's Blue Light.

- Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

There have been a few. I was against Proportional Representation, now I'm for it. I used to think Trotsky was pretty cool, but now I'm not so sure. I wrestle internally on drug legalisation but have so far managed to hide my doubts in the public sphere.

- How many political organisations have you been a member of?

Define political organisations. I joined the Labour Party, but never did anything. I joined the SWP and Socialist Alliance, but escaped after eight years. I was a member of the Greens (for six years I think), and currently I'm free-range. The consistent thread has been that I've never been that tribal about party affiliation and membership of any organisation is just a means to an end. I distrust party loyalists or people who've been in the same party for more than two decades.

It seems to me that it's easier to have consistent politics if you don't tie yourself too tightly to a manifesto or the needs of an organisation. But perhaps I just never found a party that was a good fit for me.

- What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to disseminate?


- What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to combat?

Political dogmatism. I'm very unhappy with the way that people can get used up and spat out in politics, we need to learn to be more open to those we disagree with and take care of our fellow human beings. Someone saying something you don't like is not a license to beast them.

- Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major and lasting influence on how you think about the world?

Bukharin's ABC of Communism. I'm a big fan of the dialectic. Sad but true.

- Who are your political heroes?

I'm keen on iconoclasts. Germaine Greer back in the day, or Sylvia Pankhurst who managed to get on the wrong side of almost every movement she was ever involved in. Mind you I also like radical pragmatists so Bob Crow and, yes, Nikolai Bukharin also deserve a mention.

- How about political villains?

I don't like to demonise people. Stalin was pretty bad. So's Nick Clegg. Don't make me choose between the two.

- What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

Tackling the toxic rhetoric on immigration.

- If you could affect one major policy change, what would it be?

I'd like to see real investment in tackling climate change. A mass programme of home insulation to reduce the amount of energy we're using, renewable energy research to improve the quality of 'green energy' and rail infrastructure investment across the nation. It's a scandal that we're pouring billions into High Speed Rail connecting to London when whole sections of the network aren't even electrified yet.

- What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

The ecological crisis threatens our food production, extreme weather events and even the future of antibiotics. That's pretty big.

- What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Make it meaningful, if you can. Don't worry about being happy.

- What is your favourite song?

One song? Sydney Carter's The Crow on the Cradle (sung here by Pete Seager).

- What do you consider the most important personal quality?


- What personal fault do you most dislike?

In myself, bearing a grudge. In others, cruelty.

- What, if anything, do you worry about?

Money. Always money.

- What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Love your friends and family, they won't be there forever.

- What do you like doing in your spare time?

Coffee with a friend is my favourite thing. Two friends is ok, and once you get to three it's abominable.

- What is your most treasured possession?

I have a pair of trousers I'm very pleased with but, to be honest, I'm not very attached to things.

- Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Coca Cola. Sorry.

- What talent would you most like to have?

I'd love to be able to play the guitar. I'm just too lazy to learn.

- If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true, what would you wish for?

I'm not sure. Something sexual probably.

- How, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

I'd probably set up a left-wing magazine that refused to affiliate to any party or groupescule. Vanity publishing at its worst!

- If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

I'd have Michael Moorcock, Ursula Le Guin and China Mieville, then sit back and listen.

- Socialism: will you live to see it?

We won't have a socialist government in Britain in my lifetime but every week I see acts of socialism, defiance and love.