Sunday, 31 May 2009

Hail the Great Leader!

While sifting around the website of North Korea's Korean Central News Agency for my piece on the situation after the North's second nuclear weapons test, I came across this rather pointless but quaint propaganda gem. Enjoy!

On a spring day of Juche 44 (1955) when the construction of the Phyongnam Irrigation project was near completion President Kim Il Sung had the car stopped on the side of a crop field of a rural village to acquaint himself with the preparations for farming in the Yoldusamcholli plain. There he found an old man absorbed in sowing some seed.

Going up to him, the President asked him gently what he was sowing.

The old man answered it was foxtail millet. Smiling, the President said why didn't he turn the land into a paddy field where water was expected before the rice-transplanting season.

The old man frankly unbosomed himself, saying he would do so, working all night through, if he could see water flowing there, but he was not sure he would see water so soon.

Never minding his words, the President turned to the officials accompanying him and said his words hinted how much he had suffered from the lack of water. Then he told the old man the water would come certainly in more or less half a month and told him to boldly turn the land into a paddy field and make preparations to grow rice.

Deeply touched by the words of the President, the old man said he would not fail to make it a paddy field.

After the President left, the old man kept to his words with confidence.

Irrigation water flowed into the field soon and heavy ears of rice drooped on the stalks in the former foxtail millet plot.

Looking at the stack of rice in the yard, the old man recollected with deep thanks the advice of the President.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

LMHR Memories

As I write, Stoke is playing host to a massive Love Music Hate Racism festival. Among those playing are Get Cape Wear Cape Fly, Pete Doherty and Kelly Rowland. Rumours abound of Robbie Williams and Keith Richards coming in for a guest slot. Some Stoke Socialist Party comrades headed down there earlier to see if a No2EU stall was possible - who knows what reception they got? Also a couple of LMHR photos have hit the web so far (here and here).

Politically speaking I do wonder if LMHR is a useful weapon against the BNP, especially when the Stoke concert comes just five days before polling. Seeing as the anti-fascism on offer will be of the most liberal of kinds I'm not entirely convinced. But anyway, it gives me an excuse to dust off a really old article back from the days when I traded under the Phil Hamilton monicker for the
Weekly Worker. This piece, from September 2003, has the occasional flourish of ultra-left snarking and one or two moments where Peter Manson makes an editorial intervention, but overall its points on hope not hate-style politics remain valid.

Good Music, Crap Politics
The May local elections saw the first British National Party councillor elected in the Potteries. Riding on the back of a general antipathy toward asylum-seekers, the BNP is looking for another victory at the September 18 by-election in Stoke-on-Trent’s Abbey Green ward. The left in the city has reacted to this by leafleting the area under the aegis of the North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (Norscarf - see
Weekly Worker April 3, 2003), and the Socialist Party is going one step further by challenging the fascists with its own candidate.

As part of the campaign against the BNP, Fenton Sixth Form College was host to the travelling Love Music, Hate Racism road show on Sunday September 7. The Anti-Nazi League and the local paper predicted that thousands of people would turn up for the afternoon. In the end the mixture of music, dancing and speeches attracted some 500 or so. Compared with turnouts at other LMHR carnivals elsewhere, this was disappointing - but unsurprising, given the lack of advance publicity and extensive flyposting. Nonetheless, most of the local left was present in the form of Norscarf, trade union,
Socialist Workers Party and SP stalls. Particularly striking was the amount of ‘imported’ comrades both the latter organisations had mobilised, and their general muted presence. Young activists happily handed out liberal-sounding anti-fascist and anti-war leaflets, but you had to actually approach the stalls if you fancied a copy of Socialist Worker.

The sets began around midday. The main stage catered for a variety of tastes, from the rap-funk of Dirty Money to the home-grown ‘baggy punk’ of controversial rockers, Big Cash Prizes. Politics therefore were very much confined to banter between songs. Ben of student band Friends of Ken called for all present to use their vote to drive the BNP out of the council chamber. Unfortunately his advice to under-18s was a meek “Just wait until you’re old enough to vote”. Thankfully socialist rapper Paracat of The Unpeople made up for this. The comrade eloquently raged over the poverty, war and fascism endemic to capitalism, and rapped about the revolutionary action required to over come them.

The halfway point of the day was marked by a series of speeches. The mayor, Mike Wolfe, made a surprisingly good contribution. He argued that racism was based on the lie of racial superiority, and was believed by a lot of people. Wolfe also noted how the hostility toward asylum-seekers cut across racial lines, perhaps reflecting the success of Blair’s project of an ‘inclusive Britishness’. The link between scape-goating and poverty was made, but the mayor’s solution was to try and secure more investment for Stoke. He suggested that, if we could just believe in ourselves, the BNP would not get anywhere: “They’d never beguile us with their lies,” he concluded.

Next was Joan Whalley MP. She continued with the investment theme, pledging to work together with everyone and anyone in parliament to get Stoke regenerated. Deputy council leader and Norscarf president Chris Wood focussed more on the character of the BNP, with the usual fare about “thugs in suits”. The way to combat them was to turn out on September 18 and prevent them from using apathy to get in. Finally a speaker from the Racial Equality Council made the point that music transcends racial boundaries, depending on and celebrating multiculturalism.

Overall the carnival was of some value, despite the relatively low attendance. It was important that a number of leading local bands and DJs made an anti-racist stand by playing the event, going against the tide of general opinion in the city. However, from the communist point of view, the SP missed the opportunity to publicise its candidate, and the left failed to put forward a unified working class answer to the BNP’s ‘radicalism’. It was very much the case of good music, crap politics.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Branch Meeting: Political Discussion

An essential ingredient of any Socialist Party branch is the weekly political discussion. Unlike trade union and mainstream political parties our meetings are organised around a talk on a certain topic. Unfortunately the pace of work in our branch has meant the branch programme fell into neglect for this week only, and so instead we had a session about the role of the political discussion.

Brother A opened with a few observations about the importance of the weekly lead off. It helps build the political understanding of comrades on topical issues as well as introduce and explore other subjects that might be just as important, but don't often get an airing. Crucially political discussions help round members out and prepare us for the sorts of conversations we can have in the course of activity, be it with the general public, trade unionists and other lefts.

P added that you can be thrown any sort of question while you're on stalls. While it's no use pretending to have infallible knowledge on every topic under the sun, some degree of understanding of a particular issue can reflect well on the party. For example, during the bank collapses in autumn last year he had to bat away all kinds of curve ball arguments that claimed it was "manufactured" or that some how immigrants were to blame(!) On one stall he was even asked about the party's attitude to nuclear weapons.

J came in and said lead offs on historical events were opportunities to draw out the key lessons and how they apply to our political practice today. As an example from last year, P talked about the series of cadre schools WestMids SP ran on Trotsky's The History of the Russian Revolution. Even though the events described took place some 90 years ago, Trotsky's description of the vacillating roles the parties played in the revolution find their echo in organisations that represent the interests of the same classes in the present.

Moving on to tips, Brother F said he always tries to add a number of questions on the end of his talks to get the discussion flowing - this is especially useful if the discussion is complex or of a theoretical nature. Sister A added that she's done q fair few where she knew absolutely nothing about the subject beforehand, and it has forced her to learn.

The important thing to remember, replied A, was these are not seminar room discussions. Our discussions are always linked to action.

With that in mind we managed to sort out upcoming topics for the next eight weeks on the Iranian Revolution, European election results, Why The Socialist is vital, Marxism and the state, Art and revolution, Politics of genetic engineering, How to put a leaflet together, and the BNP.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

No2EU Election Broadcast

Featuring Tony Benn!



Not bad at all - certainly head and shoulders above many other election broadcasts I've seen!

Also more No2EU related videos here, here, here, here, and here.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

No to War Against North Korea

The second successful underground test of a nuclear weapon by the grotesque North Korean dynasty has sent shock waves around the globe. Country after country have queued up to offer their condemnation. Even China, the one state that could be described as nearest to being North Korea's ally said it was resolutely opposed to the further testing and encouraged it to return to the disarmament talks (these talks involve China, South Korea, USA, Japan and Russia). Ratcheting the tension up further it has fired two short range missiles off its east coast, which come on top of three other missile tests that also took place on Monday. In response South Korea has announced it's joining a US-led scheme to stop and search cargo vessels suspected of ferrying nuclear technologies - the North has said it would regard a stop and search of its vessels as an act of war.

Without a doubt the North Korean regime is a deeply unpleasant police state ruled by a seriously unbalanced leader and a clique of paranoid militarists. But even here things do not occur in a vacuum. In terms reminiscent of 1930s high Stalinism, the latest communique on the disarmament talks ('Lee Myung Bak group accused of dancing to tune of the US',
here) says
The nuclear test and the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles are the options taken by the DPRK to defend itself from the military threat increased by the imperialist forces for aggression and firmly defend the peace on the peninsula and the security of the nation. The DPRK will bolster up the war deterrent for self-defense in every way along the road already chosen by itself for the peace on the peninsula and the security of the nation no matter how others may speak ill of it as long as the U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its nuclear threat and its lackeys the Lee Myung Bak war-like forces' moves to ignite a war against the north persist. The DPRK cannot take other option than the one mentioned above now that the hostile forces use the six-party talks as a lever for infringing upon the sovereignty of the DPRK, disarming and stifling it.
North Korea has a point. The Cold War may be long consigned to the history books but the militarisation of the Korean peninsula has continued apace since the Soviet Union's collapse. At present (according to Global Security) the US army has 29,000 personnel stationed in the south, with a further 587,000 South Korean troops. This is backed by 2,300 tanks, 790 aircraft and 162 war ships. On the surface these appear outclassed by the North's forces - 1.12 million troops (4.7 million in reserve), 3,500 tanks, 1.500 planes and 420 warships. However, the quality of their hardware is inferior to that available to US-led forces nor is it likely the North's industrial base would be able to adequately resupply its forces during a shooting war. And the leadership know this - hence the premium it has put on developing missile and nuclear technology. The North is also rumoured to possess a cache of chemical and biological weaponry.

The roots of North Korean militarism lie in a mix of Cold War geopolitics and the reluctance of the Soviet Union to provide for its defence or share military technology with the regime after the Sino-Soviet split at the beginning of the 60s - a position confirmed to Kim Il Sung with the USSR's perceived betrayal of Cuba after the Cuban missile crisis. After the USSR collapsed the North attempted to reach some accommodation with the US, proposing a non-aggression pact with the US, which the latter rejected in favour of the six party disarmament talks - all the while maintaining its own forces in the south. For a regime solely concerned with its own survival, with very few friends and faced by the world's only military superpower's desire to see it neutralised, it is easy to understand how the North's geopolitical position helps explain its militarism. Just because you're paranoid does not mean they're
not out to get you.

If war came to the Korean peninsular it would be absolutely devastating and at the very least threaten to drag Japan into what would be, for the North, an unwinnable conflict. If the US was really concerned about turning the militarist tide it would set about withdrawing its troops. Only once its presence has been removed from the South can real progress be made in demilitarising the Koreas and the road opened to a peaceful reunification.

Monday, 25 May 2009

North Staffs No2EU Leaflet

It's been another busy weekend for No2EU supporters in Stoke. Teams have been out leafleting all week and speaking to hundreds of people on city centre stalls. Our boards have been highlighting the issues of MP's expenses and Dave Nellist's pledge to take the average wage should he be elected. Unsurprisingly the response has been very positive.

Brother J spoke to one woman who said she'd already had sent a postal vote in for the BNP, but if she knew what we were about she would have voted for us instead. In penance she took a load of leaflets to dish out around her local working men's club. Understandably most people we spoke to were disgusted and most rightly stated that if "ordinary" people had fiddled expenses they'd either be sacked or face a visit from the fraud squad. Another woman (without prompting) said we could do with more representatives like Dave Nellist, another spoke about her time campaigning for Terry Fields when she was in
Militant in Liverpool. Even one of Stoke's awkward squad, who's always made a point of coming up to previous Socialist Party stalls to either disagree with us or tell us we're wasting our time seemed impressed with the arguments we put forward for No2EU.

Below is the text of one of the local leaflets we've been handing out in North Staffordshire.

All 3 major parties want to privatise Royal Mail

Party:               Supports Postal Privatisation?
Labour                              Yes
Conservative                     Yes
Lib Dem                            Yes
NO2EU                             No!

Vote No2EU for a
public postal service!

On June 4th tell them
NO! by voting for:

No2EU - Yes to Democracy!

Stand up for all workers' rights
The use of exploited foreign workers in Britain is being carried out under EU rules demanding the "free movement of capital, goods, services and labour". EU directives and European Court of Justice decisions are used to attack trade union agreements, the right to strike and workers' pay and conditions.

The Single European Market, created by the Tory government with the Single European Act in 1987 creates a pool of working people to be exploited and treated no better than a commodity. These EU rules allow employers to escape from national collective bargaining and employment legislation and impose lower wages and worse working conditions, creating a race to the bottom.

These EU rules, which no one asked for, have been behind some of the most bitter industrial disputes in recent years, like the Irish ferries dispute, the strike of Gate Gourmet workers at Heathrow, and the Lindsey oil refinery workers' strike. The European Court of Justice has even decreed in the Laval and Viking cases that union agreements that protect workers' conditions contravene the "free movement" of labour in the single market.

The recent protests at Lindsey, supported by workers across Britain, were not against foreign workers or xenophobic. They were simply defending the fundamental right to work under union agreements - a right denied by the EU.

The so-called "free movement" of labour will increasingly undermine wages and working conditions. To ferry workers across Europe to carry out jobs that local workers can be trained to perform is an environmental, economic and social nonsense. If food miles represent an unacceptably large carbon footprint, then 'labour-miles' clocked up for the pursuit of profit is even more damaging.


Keep your PUBLIC services PUBLIC!
The Lisbon Treaty and the EU's privatisation agenda represent a significant threat to our communities and to the services we rely on.

The renamed EU constitution forces governments to hand public services over to private corporations - that means handing fat cats control of the railways, schools, postal services, energy and even social services across Europe.

the commitment to hand over public services to big business in successive EU treaties was the main reason the Conservtaive party originally supported the EU.

Now services suffer and those providing the service face attacks on their pay and conditions as profiteers seek to maximise their profits. Once again the only ones who benefit are big business, the banks and politicians on the make!

The current economic crisis was created by discredited neo-liberal policies, yet under the Lisbon Treaty they become constitutional goals. We should be defending public services in Britain, not allowing bankers and eurocrats to take them over in order to make money for big business in Europe.

On June 4th Vote No2EU - Yes to Democracy to defend public services such as post offices and the NHS. To renationalise our railways and develop manufacturing in Britain.


This little piggy went to Parliament!
MPs currently take home a salary of £64,766. However on top of this generous amount our elected representatives are further enriching themselves playing the property market with our money!

Here are just a few highlights. MPs from all three major parties are involved:

Elliot Morley (Labour) - Claimed £16,000 for a mortgage he had already paid off! Total claimed last year: £145,373 (+ £64.766 in salary)

Andrew MacKay and Julie Kirkbride (Conservative) Husband & wife MPs - Used his second home allowance to claim more than £1,000/month in mortgage payments on their joint flat near Westminster. She used her expense allowance to claim over £900/month for the mortgage on their family home near her constituency. Joint claimed last year - £283,404 + £129,532 in salary)

Andrew George (Lib Dem) - Claimed £847/month for a riverside flat in London used by his daughter. Total claimed last year - £170,367 + £64,766 in salary

The BNP are no better. For years leader Nick Griffin has been using BNP funds as his personal piggy bank. After helping himself to members' donations to build an extension to his Mid-Wales farmhouse Griffin was forced to sack the then BNP treasurer Mike Newland over the affair. Griffin can't wait to get his racist snout in the massive EU trough, don't give him the chance!

No2EU - An Honest Choice!
When No2EU candidate
Dave Nellist was a Labour MP ('83-'92) he took only the wage of a skilled factory worker (40% of what he could have earned), which is less than half of what other MPs took for themselves. The rest he donated back to the labour movement and charities.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Alice Mahon Backs No2EU

Press Release:

Alice Mahon, the former
Labour MP who resigned last month from the Labour Party after 50 years membership, will speak at her first public meeting since leaving the party in Birmingham on Tuesday, May 26th, in support of the No2EU campaign in the Euro elections.

Mrs Mahon, 71, was the Member of Parliament for Halifax from 1987 to 2005.

She joins a number of former Labour figures backing the anti-EU coalition - including the former leader of East Sussex Council Labour Group, Prof Dave Hill, former deputy Labour leader of Carlisle Council, John Metcalfe, and former election agent for Peter Shore MP, John Rowe, who are all candidates for No2EU on June 4th.

The former Labour MP for Coventry, Dave Nellist, is the lead candidate for the trade union backed campaign in the West Midlands.

Mrs Mahon in her resignation letter said she could no longer be a member of a party "that at leadership level has betrayed many of the principles that inspired me as a teenager to join". Her letter, sent to former colleagues in her Halifax constituency, was sharply critical of Labour's failure to deliver a promised referendum on the EU "Lisbon Treaty".

"If that Treaty is ratified", she wrote, "we can say goodbye to any publicly owned services...... we will be handing over to private corporations, social services, education, transport and postal services. Even the NHS will be up for grabs".

Ms Mahon will be joined at the election rally on Tuesday, May 26th, 7.30pm at the Carrs Lane Church Centre, Birmingham by Brian Denny, national officer of the
RMT trade union, and West Midlands No2EU candidates Cllr Dave Nellist, and Joanne Stevenson, the General Secretary of the Young Communist League.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Utopian Bodies

At the regular Keele sociology seminar on Tuesday, Mark Featherstone presented a condensed version of a book chapter looking at utopian bodies. Mark has written extensively for the burgeoning field of utopian studies, which has proven to be an insightful and interesting branch of ideology critique. Utopian thinking and utopian politics has a long pedigree in Western thought stretching right back to the ancient Greeks. This history has seen all manner of weird utopias proposed but they all share two key principles. Utopias are spatially and temporally closed to the outside world, and internally they are socially identical, which is enforced by overt regulation or an implicit ideology. Furthermore utopias come in two flavours: the conservative (i.e. rigidly hierarchical) or egalitarian.

There is a further assumption undergirding utopian thought. As perfect communities utopias rest upon an orderly person with their orderly personalities. In pre-modern utopias this was part of Aristotle's great chain of being, of uniting the micro with the macro scales in one essential unity, which is exemplified by DaVinci's sketch of the Vitruvian Man (pictured). However this cosmic unity (which was carried over into mediaeval thought) started breaking down with the advent of modern thought. Rather than one vast ribbon tying all the elements of creation together, science, philosophy and sociology disassembled social phenomena and demonstrated how it was constituted out of the social relations obtaining between people. This argument can be observed most forcefully in
Emile Durkheim's sociology, and particularly his The Division of Labour in Society. Durkheim was not the first to use the body/organism metaphor to describe society, but (along with Marx) he was a pioneer of theorising the consequences of the growing division of labour, a process leading to greater social differentiation, a decomposition of 'traditional' relationships and the formation of new norms and values. However the rate of breakdown can and does outpace the speed of recomposition, leading to outbreaks of anomie.

Contemporaneously Freud's development of psychoanalysis undid the essential unity of personhood and offered an explanation of ordered and disordered bodies. Personalities were not coherent wholes, they were made up of the chaotic and impulsive id, the tyrannical ideal personhood of the superego and the mediating element, the ego. Later on
Jacques Lacan reinterpreted these core Freudian concepts - the id became 'the real', the feeling, the phenomenology of one's body that cannot be communicated. The ego was translated into the imaginary, combining the functions of ego and superego and presenting a representational sense of self-image. Therefore the id and real denote the unrepresented (and unrepresentable) while ego and the imaginary refer to (internal/external) representations of the unified self.

This is where utopianism comes back in - the ego and the imaginary represents a utopian body form shaped by the ideologies, discourses, hegemonies and technologies of the body circulating around society. In the West this has always involved a privileging of order of disorder, male over female bodies and the ideal body beautiful as opposed to the real lived body that breakdowns and dies ('excremental bodies', as Foucault put it). To show up the persistence of utopian bodies Mark turned to their treatment in ancient Greece (and their representations today), the New Testament, the French Revolution, Soviet, Nazi and the contemporary capitalist body.

Beginning with the Greeks, Plato's
Phaedo describes the death of Socrates, which emphasises the transient nature of the flesh and the transcendental soul. But the more familiar image of the classical body is handed down to us from the Polykleitos sculptures - the Doryphoros, Discophoros and Diadumenos and which more recently has resurfaced in 300. In this images the Greek body is always upright - it is a phallic body but is denuded of sexuality thanks to the diminutive nature of their genitals. Instead the phallus is transferred to the utopian (male) body, and is distinct from the feminised depictions of Dionysus, women and slaves.

Similar themes appear in
The New Testament. Mark's reading of Corinthians has distinct parallels with the Phaedo. The body is to be disciplined by the soul to ensure, upon death, communion with the mystical (utopian) body of Christ. Here the soul is the source and guarantor of purity and self-identity whereas the body is both corruptible and corrupting - hence the reason for eschewing the flesh altogether.

The utopian body of the French revolution drew on all these themes. It was incorruptible, upright, virtuous and selflessly dedicated to the revolutionary public. Common imagery of the time depicted Hercules locked in combat with the Hydra - Hercules' utopian body condenses revolutionary value, the Hydra symbolises the multi-headed aristocratic conspiracy. The enemies of the revolution were variously portrayed as feminine, as animals, and as feminised animals promiscuously engaged in sex.

The imagery of the USSR under high Stalinism incorporated these themes. The explosion of new art in the early soviet republic (for example, El Lissitzky's
New Man) conceived humanity as an abstraction, rejecting the constraints of lived bodies. It was the art appropriate to an industrial utopia in which mechanism exists as a possibility. But as the power of the bureaucracy consolidated its hold over post-revolutionary Russia, these artistic sensibilities became married to the new technocratic order. The body as abstraction became the body as motor, the robot worker unencumbered by fleshy limits, the worker that founds its propagandistic expression in the figure of Stakhanov and the Stakhanovite movement. The flipside of the Stakhanovite body was 'Oblomovism' - the decadent, indolent, work shy and idle bodies that were said to represent a cultural threat to socialist construction. The corrective mechanism was the gulag.

If Soviet utopian bodies were geared around work, Nazi bodies were all about combat. For example, the neo-classicism of Arno Breker's
sculptures emphasise the martial qualities of the (male) utopian body. The conservative German writer, Ernst Junger chimed with prevailing Nazi hegemony by writing about near-painless superhuman soldiers that in many ways prefigured Terminator cyborgs. This celebration of hyper-masculinity and glorification of war was the Nazi and conservative response to a perceived masculine crisis of the Weimar years, both in terms of a flourishing cultural liberalism and the emasculation of the Fatherland at the hands of the allied powers. These utopian bodies were actively differentiated from the feminine and the decadent, corrupting bodies of the homosexual and Jew.

Post 1945 liberal democratic political culture embraced human rights and explicitly committed itself to saving excremental bodies. This however is undermined at every turn by the relentless exploitation of workers' bodies by capital and the hegemonic status of the body as worker, consumer and marketing device. The contemporary utopian body is ageless, flawless, cybernetic and networked. The excremental body of now is not eliminated, but is to be pitied (recipients of charity, impoverished workers overseas) or condemned (chavs, the overweight).

The most interesting point fleshed out in the discussion was the place of gender. All of Mark's examples are conspicuously male bodies - are there female utopian bodies? Does utopian thinking demand they are disciplined in similarly gendered ways? Mark replied these representations tended to fall into either 'mother' or 'loose', but required more thorough investigation both in and of themselves and their interaction with male utopian bodies. For example, how does this play out in pornographic culture? Does it uphold the utopian body? Another interesting point was on the depiction of utopian bodies throughout history - they are a-relational. They stand alone because the utopian body fights shy of contagion - individuals relating to one another, especially outside sanctified structures, run the risk of degeneration. Hence the proliferation of cultural organisations under the 20th century's totalitarianisms.

Returning to gender, on reflection there is an important point that comes to mind. Utopian studies offer a interesting angle to begin a sociology of the body throughout the ages, but the gendering of women as an undesirable other to the male utopian body is a theme long explored and critiqued by feminists. For example, is utopian studies really saying anything new when it talks about the marginal status of female bodies in ancient Greece and Nazi Germany?

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Socialist Party on the Expenses Crisis

I have been meaning to blog on this issue all week. After all, it's not every day mainstream politics plunges into a mammoth legitimation crisis and brings forth something of a constitutional conundrum. Thankfully The Socialist this week has a rather good editorial which I reproduce here that lets me off having to write anything original. Please note the demands it makes in relation to how the Socialist Party would like to see parliament restructured.

In The Great Stink of 1858 the Houses of Parliament hung lime-soaked sheets at the windows to disguise the stench of untreated sewage rising from the Thames. In the Great Stink of 2009 no such solution is available - for the stink comes from inside.

The endless revelations about MPs' expenses have left the population disgusted and furious. Money was claimed for every imaginable frippery - from getting the moat cleaned to paying domestic servants, from massage chairs to buying champagne flutes and eighteen piece dinner sets. Outright fraud was officially sanctioned, or at least tacitly encouraged, with the Fees Office apparently telling MPs that it was fine to claim on mortgage debt that had already been repaid.

MPs tried to defend themselves by suggesting that it was their 'low' pay - £64,766 per year - which justified their excessive expenses! To the 90% of people who earn less than £40,000 a year this sounds obscene.

Against the background of a devastating economic recession - with millions facing unemployment and the gap between rich and poor wider than it was under Margaret Thatcher - the MPs' expenses scandal has brought to the surface all of the accumulated anger, particularly of the working class. One BBC poll revealed, unsurprisingly, that 73% of the less skilled sections of the working class (social class DE) thought that MPs named and shamed in the newspapers over their expense claims should be forced to stand down from parliament, compared with 51% from social class AB.
Westminster Bubble
Floating in their privileged Westminster bubble, MPs were completely detached from the reality of working class people's lives, feelings and opinions. Now a blast of the hot fury of the working class has left them quaking. As Diane Abbott MP put it: "The public ... want to see dead MPs hanging from lamp-posts".

The fury is heightened because of the contrast between New Labour's increase in repressive laws, and the MPs on the fiddle being able to walk away with no more than a slap on the wrist. In its twelve years in office New Labour has introduced 3,600 new laws. Ordinary people are hemmed in by endless petty bureaucracy from draconian parking fines, to hefty surcharges for being late paying your council tax, or the law coming down on you like a tonne of bricks if you claim slightly more benefit than you are strictly entitled to. 'I was too busy' is not an excuse which the courts or the councils accept.

All three establishment parties are now desperately looking for a way to appease 'the mob'. For the first time since 1695, parliament's Speaker, Michael Martin has been forced from office. This is blatant hypocrisy. The Speaker is in it up to his neck - but so are Cameron, Clegg, Brown and many other ministers and MPs. They hope that sacrificing the Speaker might save the rest of their sorry skins.

There is talk in the
Labour Party of disciplining some MPs for 'bringing the party into disrepute'. Ironically, this was the charge used to expel socialist MPs Dave Nellist and Terry Fields in the 1990s. Their 'crime' was standing up in the interests of the working class, including only taking the average workers' wage. Their expulsion marked a qualitative step towards Labour becoming the party it is today, a party that stands in the interests of big business, and as Helena Kennedy QC said in The Guardian, where MPs "rubbed shoulders with the banking classes and bought into the culture of greed."

Even if a handful of the worst offenders are expelled from the Labour Party, it will still be 'too little too late'. This crisis is going to rumble on. The Labour Party is suffering most - some opinion polls suggest it could even come fourth in the European Elections - behind
UKIP. Desperate to cling to power, Brown will try to avoid calling a general election before next May, but he could be forced to. However, all three establishment parties have been undermined, as has British 'parliamentary democracy' itself. This is a profound crisis for British capitalism. Confidence in the institutions through which it rules is at an historic low.

There is a comparison to be drawn with 'mani pulite', the 'clean hands' scandal in Italy in the early 1990s. As a result of the unveiling of the all-pervading corruption in Italian politics, the whole electoral system was changed. All four of the parties in government when the crisis broke were destroyed by it, and have since disappeared.

In Britain today the leaders of all three establishment parties fear that they could face a similar fate.

If a mass workers' party existed in Britain today, with elected representatives living on the average wage of a worker, it would be able to act to channel the wave of anger that is breaking over the capitalist parties and use it to push forward workers' interests.

Such a party would need to raise democratic demands, including:
No MP to receive more than the average wage of a skilled worker.
Abolish the House of Lords.
MPs to be re-elected every two years.
The introduction of proportional representation.


This crisis has revealed the contempt in which the capitalist politicians are held. Thirty years of neo-liberal policies - ceaseless attacks raining down on public services and the living conditions of the working class - have profoundly undermined and hollowed out the social base of all three capitalist parties. With New Labour now being a completely capitalist party, only the faintest echo remains of the old working class loyalty it once had. The
Tories are ahead in the opinion polls, but this is based on revulsion at New Labour's policies and not enthusiasm for those of the Tories. If the Tories are elected in the next general election, an attempt to carry out their programme - of even more brutal attacks on the working class than Labour has carried out - will face a revolt from the working class and large sections of the middle class. Their electoral support could quickly implode.

In the European elections on 4 June it is clear that, while many will stay at home in disgust, a large number of those who vote will be aiming to punish the establishment parties. Fearing where a protest vote will go, the capitalist media has consciously promoted the right wing populist party UKIP as the protest vote of choice, despite it having had an MEP jailed for corruption! The far-right racist British National Party has also received widespread coverage in the media. Their portrayal of the BNP as the 'bogeyman' of politics may encourage a section of working class people - furious with all MPs - to vote BNP.

The
Green Party, with two MEPs, is also gaining a greater profile, with 11% in one opinion poll. The Greens are seen as standing on the left, but in reality in the European Parliament the European Greens have supported privatisation - including the Postal Services Directive, which is the law under which Royal Mail is being part-privatised.

However, there is a pro-working class slate standing in the European elections.
No2EU - Yes to Democracy, has been initiated by the transport workers' union, the RMT, and is supported by some of the most militant trade unionists in Britain today. Its candidates include leaders of the Lindsey strike, the Visteon car plant occupations, and Rob Williams - victimised convenor of Linamar car component plant. Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist, who for nine years was a workers' MP on a worker's wage, is heading the list in the West Midlands.

No2EU - Yes to Democracy stands against privatisation and in defence of workers' rights and public services. If elected, its MEPs will not take a penny from the EU gravy train. No2EU offers an alternative in the European elections. It also represents the beginning of creating a workers' alternative to the corrupt capitalist parties.

In the next general election Dave Nellist and other Socialist Party members will be standing on the basis of becoming 'a workers' MP on a worker's wage'. The Socialist Party will encourage other trade unionists and community campaigners to do the same.

Monday, 18 May 2009

George Osborne Comes to Keele

It's not everyday you have the second most senior Tory in the land turn up at your university to launch the Conservative's West Midland's European election manifesto. Being a curious chap and always looking for blog filler, I thought I'd go along and see what George Osborne had to say for himself.

The shadow chancellor didn't leave a favourable first impression. It was bad enough being one of the few lefties in a room chock full of Carlton Club wannabes (one
Conservative Future young hopeful was overheard advocating the abolition of parliament "because it's stupid") and having to submit questions in advance, but making us wait an extra 20 minutes when Osborne had been in the building for a while doesn't impress. But still, I'm sure what followed warmed the cockles of those ice-cold Conservative hearts. 

George Osborne suddenly appeared and gave us a dose of the populist spiel we can expect from the Tories between now and June 4th. I think my verbatim notes for the opening section of the speech says it all:
Vote change on June 4th. Signed pledge to clean up European politics. Pledge to bring real change. Every candidate to sign this pledge. Change is needed more than ever. Can understand anger. Apology. Commit to change, broaden change.
Heavy duty stuff. 

At least Osborne eventually brought a little bit of politics to bear. Harking back to the collapse of the Soviet bloc, he said he followed a new Europe take shape after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The European Union that emerged was, in his opinion, "too regulatory, too introverted, too centralising", but there were positives too. For Osborne part of its positive agenda is an enlargement that deepens liberal democratic values and reduces conflict between member states, offers a transnational platform for dealing with climate change, and a million other worthy arguments trotted out in defence of the EU. Osborne added that he didn't want to see votes wasted on fringe parties that "offer no vision, disappear between European elections and have abused the system." Who could he possibly have in mind?

We then hit the questions. I wasn't too surprised mine wasn't chosen (As a trade unionist, why should I vote Conservative? Do trade unions have anything to fear from a Tory government?), which is a shame as those that got past the gatekeeper didn't tax him too much. He was asked whether he supported Turkey's accession to the EU (yes), was committed to a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty (absolutely), the high and low points of the previous Tory government's foreign policy (in short - loads of highs, lows - grudging acceptance of fault over the Balkan wars, but no mention of Rwanda), and if the Tories would commit to keeping the cap on tuition fees. Unfortunately on this one, the only hard and fast position of Osborne was the calling for a "debate" on the subject.

And that was it. As the excitable CF rabble jostled to have their photos taken with "the next chancellor of the exchequer" we slipped out the door just behind Osborne's very desperate-looking entourage of MEPs and party workers. So there we have it. As press launches go it was smooth and slick and gave the semblance of engagement. It might even tempt some young Tories away from their wine and cheese evenings for some leafleting.

One last observation - carrying the "vote blue, go green" logo on your party-owned 4x4s is not the smartest of moves.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Gastric Bands and the Body Beautiful

A couple of weeks ago I attended a paper by Samantha Murray of Macquarie University, Sydney. Her piece, 'Gastric Banding and the Trans-En Abled Body', looked at the cultural anxieties surrounding weight gain and obesity and the discourse that justifies medical solutions to "the epidemic". Sam's arguments were interspersed with reflections on her own experience as someone who has had a gastric band fitted.

Sam started with a short description of the cultural framing of obesity. Everyone is aware of the discourse of bodily aesthetics that informs the vast dieting industry. For women shedding those pounds it is about acquiring a desirable body. For men the emphasis is on shedding the feminine flesh and becoming masculine. The medicalisation of obesity feeds on this and in turn gives it legitimacy. Obesity is coded as an infectious public health hazard, and in extreme cases requires medical intervention to normalise fat bodies. In Australia the favoured method is gastric banding, a procedure that has become increasingly popular in Britain and the US thanks to high profile patients like Sharon Osbourne and Fern Britton (a detailed description of gastric banding can be found
here). Gastric banding is able to effect rapid weight loss and convey an appearance of a healthy and normal body. It is also an operation that is theoretically reversible, but one that is ethically dubious - as we shall see.

Prior to her surgery Sam herself had suffered with a series of pathologies that, in the opinion of her doctors, were caused by and in turn reinforced excessive weight gain. She however was unconvinced by this medicalisation of he weight. But after going through all the familiar weight loss plans without much progress they persuaded her on the grounds of health (she suffered a great deal of pain and exhaustion) to have a band implanted, which went ahead in October 2005. Over the following six months she lost 40kg and has continued to lose weight. So from the medical point of view, a success But one thing Sam wasn't prepared for were the psychological effects of a rapidly shrinking body. She spoke about seeing people in the street who made a point of congratulating her about the weight loss, and the difficulty of transitioning to strict new eating habits.

Turning to what she accurately dubs 'medico-moral' discourse, the normative and the medical work together to produce an anxiety about the body. They contrive to conceptualise fatness as something that exists beyond individual control and is used to code bodies as morally weak, completely ignoring the diverse literature on the complex psychological causes of obesity and emerging evidence pointing to the role of genetics. This takes place against a backdrop where fat exists as the last acceptable prejudice, and one that has provoked the development of
fat acceptance movements. These not only lobby for the rights of fat people (for example, in favour of recognising obesity as a disability) but have contributed to the questioning of the normative body - a questioning reinforced by Sam's experience.

Banding is positioned by medico-moral discourse as an unproblematic technology that can enhance and preserve aesthetic appeal. It is sold as an operation that can be performed through keyhole surgery (no scars!) and can be manipulated post-operatively as the patient adjusts to life with the band. All the before and after
imagery imply a seamless and linear transition from a fat to a slimmer body, but conspicuously fail to mention the after effects. Sam experienced gall stones (leading to the removal of her gall bladder), a scarred oesophagus (thanks to repeated acid reflux), chest pains, vomiting, and hair loss due to depleted nutrient levels. Despite the marketing of banding as a route to good health, in Sam's case a slimmer body has not meant a healthier one.

On top of this comes a new diet regimen. For four weeks after the operation one's diet consists solely of fluids and purees before moving on to small and soft foods. Because the passage to the stomach is restricted eating has to be carefully paced between and during meals. Therefore the tyranny of the diet returns with renewed vengeance, on pain of frequent and potentially embarrassing trips to the bathroom. If that wasn't bad enough only foods with little nutritional benefit can easily get through the band - medical instruction more or less advises against healthy eating! This however is ignored by medico-moral discourse which prefers to code patients' "lapses" into bad diets as a manifestation of their uncontrollable food addiction.

Taken together this calls into question monolithic notions of health and what constitutes a healthy body. If we accept fat bodies are disabled (if not physically, then at least socially), and that gastric banding is marketed as a strategy for "enabling" them, for Sam we have reached the advent of a 'trans-enabled' body. Far from overcoming disablement gastric banding encourages the internalisation of disability. Successful procedures present a normative body to the world which is coded as 'healthy' while behind the facade, bariatric enabling calls its disabling opposite into being. Sam for example may have suffered a set of medical problems that have disappeared as her weight loss has got underway, but in their place have come other ailments. Furthermore medical practitioners prefer to close their eyes to the complicated consequences of their procedure. They will remove a band if it has damaged the stomach or has produced other serious complications, but it is nigh on impossible for a surgeon to remove one simply because the patient wants the operation reversed. Having spoken to large numbers of fellow patients, Sam is not aware of one reversal of this type. This itself is unsurprising seeing as it's tantamount to practitioners admitting to failure.

Therefore, despite the promise of being liberated from the fat, gastric banding imposes its own set of social constrictions.

New Left Blog Round-Up

I've been deluged with new left blogs this last month so I'll have to hold some over for next time. It's good to see more comrades taking up the cudgels and making their voices known.

Here's May's selection:

The
Angry Mob Blog is another addition to the growing band of leftwing blogs dedicated to pricking the pomposity of everyone's favourite middle class hate rag, the Daily Mail. You can follow the author on twitter here.

Communist Realism looks like a potentially interesting blog dealing with the interface between radical thought and academia. Unfortunately the blog hasn't been updated for a month (the last item dealing with the death of Ian Tomlinson). Hopefully a sudden flurry of visitors will encourage the author to persevere.

Left Luggage is subtitled 'the socialist strategy site'. And as you would expect there's a heavy emphasis on strategic issues. As the comrades put it in their 'about us' section, it "has been formed by a small, independent group of community organisers and trade union shop-stewards in the UK. This blog is an attempt to initiate a discussion within the British Left around strategic issues, including questioning some of our most fundamental organising principles. We believe addressing these issues is imperative if the Left is to become a significant political force in the near future."

Jewbonics is the blog of Max Ajl, an activist and writer hailing from Brooklyn, New York. Among his interests are agriculture, Latin American (particularly the Bolivarian revolution), US politics and Israel/Palestine, You can follow Max here.

The (relatively) newly-constituted NUJ Left have taken to running a
blog carrying union news. As they put it "NUJ Left is an inclusive coalition of activists in the NUJ who work together to improve conditions for members and advance socialist principles within the union, the labour movement and society at large. We are not affiliated to any political party and membership is open to all members of the NUJ and its staff." Unfortunately the blog has been quiet for almost a month - hopefully it will resume again shortly.

The Digger positions their blog firmly on the libertarian left. "We reject the slavish devotion to capitalism, corporate greed, the support of the modern opiate of consumerism and the maintenance of the modern empire of the global free market. We also reject that the only alternative to this is an equally oppressive statist culture that denies the essential liberty of the individual, of families and of communities."

Left Outside is the project of the eponymous author. "This Blog was started because I felt alienated from the mainstream political discourse, rather than turn to apathy I had to take some action, hence Left Outside. That name also points to my two other big inspirations for writing, Socialism and the Environment. I hope that this Blog can a source of inspiration and a starting point for debate."

The Proletarian Tide is authored by Christie Malry, "one of them bloody trots" and the blog promises to be a mix of "socialism, humour, literature, films, music and randomness."

World Is My Country aspires to be a blogging community as an antidote to the spread of moral relativism online. "We hope to join our voices to the tumult of public debate to provide some sensibility, to look beyond the headlines, to avoid the simple populist conclusions and provide a little humour along the way." You can follow Jeeves, the blog's primary author here.

It's always pleasing when I can plug a
Socialist Party comrade who's got into blogging. The latest one to do so is Andrew Walton - check out what he has to say about MP's expenses, the NHS and the No2EU campaign.

A couple of other mentions are in order, this time hailing from the
Labour-loyal centre left. The first is Stilettoed Socialist from Bevanite Ellie. She says "in a blogopshere dominated by right wing, angry men, I feel a certain responsibility to counteract or merely dilute their poison with a different viewpoint." The second is Frank Owen's Paintbrush, "the primary repository of the ire, bile and bellyaching of an embittered and dangerous posse of whinging, overprivileged leftists."

If you have a new left blog or know of a newcomer that hasn't had a mention yet, please let me know in time for the next round of plugs in approximately a month's time!

Friday, 15 May 2009

The Sun Manipulates a Poll

Some interesting polling data has just been released on the UK Polling Report blog. It's best to let the results of this YouGov poll for our friends at The Sun speak for themselves:
Moving to the European voting intentions, the topline figures with changes from before the expenses expose began are CON 28%(-9), LAB 19%(-3), UKIP 19%(+12!) - the Sun report does not provide the Liberal Democrat or Green figures, but the BNP remain at 4%, unchanged from a week ago. It appears that UKIP - despite their MEPs own problems with fraud and expenses, have been the overwhelming victors from the expenses row.
Interesting figures I'm sure everyone will agree.

But while the poll is suggestive of the anti-politics mood, it is perhaps telling
The Sun chooses only to highlight the surge in support for UKIP, the anti-EU vehicle of choice for the populist right. In total their reporting describes 70% of voting intentions, leaving a massive 30% going unsaid. Given how UK Polling's analysis is at pains to show how Labour and Conservatives have taken a hit thanks to the MPs' expenses scandal, one assumes the LibDems are not the overwhelming beneficiaries of the remaining percentage.

I'm not daft enough to think
The Sun are covering up a surge for No2EU or one of the other minor platforms standing in this election. But they could well be sitting on a significant turn to the Green Party. Why they choose to give UKIP the lion's share of the publicity is obvious: Murdoch and Wade would rather a party in line with the paper's populist politics pick up the protest vote than a centre left party. Maybe they think ignoring the Greens will see support for them melt away?

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

No2EU Calls For Anti-Sleaze Protest Vote

Latest No2EU press release:

No2EU – Yes to Democracy sends out call for protest vote over MP’s and EU sleaze on June 4th

Britain’s newest political grouping, No2EU-Yes to Democracy, today sent out a message to voters disgusted by the trail of sleaze from Westminster to Strasbourg – if you want to punish the political elite don’t get sucked in by the fascists and the far right, support the only organisation standing nationally on June 4th that opposes the political gravy train and which supports workers rights, public services and social justice.

No2EU-Yes to Democracy is led by
RMT general Secretary Bob Crow who is topping the organisations slate in London. It is running candidates on June 4th in every region of the UK except Northern Ireland.

Amongst the No2EU slate is former Labour MP Dave Nellist who is standing in the West Midlands. As an MP Dave was well known for taking only the average workers wage and for donating the rest to campaigns and charity.

"The growing evidence of widespread 'creative' claims for expenses by MPs of all parties illustrates how rotten our political system has become. And the potential for making money on the side is even greater with MEPs' expenses than Westminster", Mr. Nellist said today.

"Someone claiming benefit who 'worked the system' like MPs appear to do would be interviewed under caution and almost certainly prosecuted. A failure by an unemployed family to declare a change of circumstances to the authorities can count as fraud, and be subject to the full force of the law. The difference is, of course, that MPs make the law - and it really is, one law for the rich and one for the poor".

Bob Crow, No2EU Convenor and RMT general secretary, added:

“We have seen today that while MP’s and MEP’s have been lining their pockets at the tax payers expense there has been a massive increase in unemployment and the minimum wage, under pressure from the bosses, has been increased by a pathetic 7 pence an hour. It’s no wonder people are so angry with the political elite.

“No2EU-Yes to Democracy wants people to use that anger and pass it over to us in a protest vote on June 4th that will rock the rotten establishment all the way from Westminster to Strasbourg.”

ENDS

Further information:
Geoff Martin 07818 513 435
Brian Denny 07903 376 303

NOTE : No2EU-Yes to Democracy
London Rally
Monday 1st June 2009 – 6.30PM
With Bob Crow, Dave Nellist, John Hendy QC and Janice Goodrich PCS
Friends Meeting House
Euston Road, London NW1

Monday, 11 May 2009

A Nation Weeps

I'm devastated Peter Andre and Katie Price/Jordan have split up. Before I go to bed tonight I'll light a candle in memory of their tragically short marriage and hope they find solace pouring out their pain to a succession of OK!, Hello, Heat and News of the World interviewers.

No2EU Campaigning in Stoke

The No2EU campaign here in Stoke has taken on some flesh this last week. At Thursday night's branch meeting of Stoke Socialist Party, Brother C talked about his experience on the first No2EU stall that took place last weekend. He said the experience was very different from being on a normal SP stall. For starters people approaching the stall tended to be more politically engaged, though not always in the way we socialists would like! Given how the campaign's only recently come together it was unsurprising a bit of confusion greeted the name. He and Brother N spoke to some anti-EU people who were preparing to vote for UKIP or the BNP and found the best way of talking to them was to strongly contest anti-immigrant sentiment by putting forward straightforward class arguments. They also found it extremely useful to counterpose the present bosses' Europe with an alternative workers' Europe, which successfully forced the more nationalist-inclined voters to think a bit more deeply about the basis of right-wing euroscepticism. Brother C did warn we have to be sharp on this and not give reactionary opposition to the EU a free pass.

Then on Friday evening we had a No2EU public launch/campaign meeting. We were fortunate enough to have Jo Stevenson of the Young Communist League and Dave Nellist of Coventry SP come and address the meeting (yours truly did the chairing honours). Jo's speech opened with an attack on the BNP - she rightly pointed out the opportunities this election afforded them as well as the fakery of their left-sounding policies. She then moved on to some of the criticisms of No2EU, which aim to paint it as some sort of nationalist formation. She took hold of the 'little Englander' label and said the labour movement is - but only in the sense it along with its counterparts across Europe fight measures coming through the EU that attack our living standards and undermine national collective bargaining agreements. She then moved on to give Unite's March for Jobs in Birmingham next Saturday a mention as an example of concentrating our forces against attacks on our class, from wherever they come.

In his contribution Dave looked at how progressive disillusionment with the mainstream parties has fed into an increasing vote share in the European elections for parties with no Westminster representation, and these votes can go all sorts of ways. Where the BNP are concerned theirs is mostly a protest vote - hard core racists only form a small minority of their support. But there is a problem if they become the favoured repository of protest votes - it can become solidified (as we've found in parts of Stoke). Also we should not forget that wherever the BNP vote goes up, the number of racially motivated attacks does too. Therefore part of No2EU's objectives is disrupting this support. Dave also went on to talk about the lack of democracy at the heart of the EU, it being a creature grown incrementally out of a series of treaties and how in his 30+ years of political activity he hasn't seen any slate of candidates as solid as this one. The main problem he saw with No2EU is that it should have been up and running over a year ago.

During the discussion, Brother N came in on the soft left's love-in with the EU, seeing as the British government has avoided social democratic crumbs that have fallen from the commission's table. But this is not the core of what the EU is about. P replied there is an internationalism of sorts among the bosses, but it's an internationalism of convenience - what unites them is a desire to keep our class down, which is why it's keen on the free movement of labour. For us, our internationalism comes from below and is about uniting our class across borders. Brother C of the Communist Party added that to call the RMT leadership nationalist is utter rubbish given its role organising workers of many nationalities on the London underground. Brother F spoke of the difference between working in care for the public and private sectors, highlighting that the British government as well as the EU are still obsessed with privatisation.

It then came to sorting out activities, which included a stall and leaflet drops in throughout the week, and of course the No2EU intervention at next weekend's demo in Birmingham. Thus Saturday morning found a team of SP'ers, a CP comrade and an indie hitting Hanley high street. Our comrades did a mixture of SP and No2EU, while the others banged out No2EU leaflets like there was no tomorrow. We had a No2EU board up but managed to attract no negative comments - though I did speak to a "card carrying Tory" who refused to sign our petition. Another plus was the No2EU slogan appeared to really catch the eye - very few leaflets went into bags and pockets without a good look. Also I managed to win a Workers' Power supporter to voting for the coalition too, which was strangely gratifying.

But with less than a month to go there's still much to do. If you want to get involved drop me a line.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Countdown to Eurovision

The annual outbreak of nationalist musical chauvinism is imminent! Yes, 2009's Eurovision Song Contest will be hitting our screens next weekend with the usual mix of the kitsch, the crap, and the obscure. This year Jade Ewen's flying the flag for this sceptered isle. Alas like most UK entries of the recent past it is insipid and dull but for all Eurovision-loving patriots it's a case of our entry, right or wrong.

Having previewed all 42 entries it seems bland is a recurring theme this year. There are no outright pisstakes like Ireland's
Dustin the Turkey or Spain's Rodolfo Chikilikuatre's utterly dire Baila el Chiki Chiki. The nearest we come to it is the Czech Republic's offering, Gipsy.cz's Aven Romale. For some reason the guy comes across to me as the bastard offspring of Eminem and Sparks - and not in a good way.

There's something of a 50s motif going on with the
Belgian and German entries - but in all likelihood plucky little Belgium will capture votes with its mix of cheese and nostalgia. Ireland have gone for Sinead Mulvey and Black Daisy with Et Cetera. Best described as a mix of The Go-Gos and Hepburn, but with a dashing of extra twee, it might go down okay with emo-type yoofs. The Belarus entry, Eyes That Never Lie with the beautiful Peter Elfimov is a nice slice of 1980s European sub-poodle rock. Visually the most outstanding video award goes to Bosnia's Regina and their Bistra Voda - the red flags, the iconography, the uniforms - it's enough to melt my iron-hard bolshevik heart.

But for me there's only one stand out song in this competition, and it's the Finns with Waldo's People and
Lose Control. What can I say? Crappy eurodisco gets me every time:



Will it win?

Eurovision fans will recall Terry Wogan's decision to resign live on air last year and he blamed the Medvedev-Putin-Gazprom axis for ruining this once fine competition. It was the opinion of our Tel and not a few other commentators that Russia will forever now hoover up the votes of East European states on pain of having the gas turned off. The great powers of Eurovision - the UK, Spain, France and Germany are now also-rans doomed to fight shy of glory for at least a generation. As it turns out this argument is completely absurd. Facts are the East European music business takes Eurovision far more seriously than we do in the UK. In 2008 we entered Andy Abrahams, who was a complete unknown to the British, never mind international public. Russia's winning entry was from Dima Bilan, who happens to be one of the country's top international artists with a fan base across Eastern Europe - and Russia is not alone in this. So why should we be surprised East Europeans vote for each other when their entries have name recognition across the region? Wouldn't we in Britain be more inclined to vote for the French if Vanessa Paradis was singing their entry?

Anyway, we'll see how it plays next Saturday. No doubt I'll be exhausted from Unite's
March for Jobs but I'm sure energy can be mustered for some live tweeting and what not.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Feminist Theory and Identity Politics

As part of a series of papers on identity and sociology given on Wednesday I went along to a talk on feminist theory given by Lois McNay. Her paper was an intervention into debates around identity and post-identity politics. To briefly summarise the context of McNay's paper, academic feminism has been caught up with the problems of political subjectivity for the last couple of decades. Just as Marxism has had its post-Marxist critics who've argued for the dissolution of the working class as the "privileged" subject of socialist politics, a parallel movement inside feminism has contested and argued over the agent of women's liberation. Is it all women? Or is it the repository of women further disadvantaged by class, race and sexuality? Compounded by a widening gap between feminist theory and activity, this questioning has helped discredit the idea of 'woman' as a universalist subject capable of speaking for all women and a preoccupation with theorising women's multiple identities. The result has been a  celebration of differences and (an occasional) exploration of grounds where feminist activists from these constituencies can enter into temporary coalitions with one another. Politically this has meant the womens' movement of the 60s and 70s has fragmented and become supplanted by an identity politics over fixated on representational issues (see Judith Grant's Fundamental Feminism for a good (if dated) overview).

McNay argument was feminism is moving into an era of post-identity politics, which is stepping away from issues of difference and is grappling again with the problem of agency. For example feminists such as
Wendy Brown have attacked feminism's postmodern identity turn as a masochism that mawkishly revels in the oppressions specific to that group. The problem for Brown is the absence of political imagination - a preoccupation with theorising gender identity neglects Hannah Arendt's understanding of politics as autonomous, world creating, and concerned with the radically new. In short, while feminists have been obsessing about identity they forgot liberation and freedom.

But for McNay this journey beyond identity politics and embracing agency is being theorised at a very abstract level. The tendency among theorists is to treat the problem discursively - that is a matter of knowledge and cultural (sign) production independent of the lived material existence of women rather than a practical political issue. Or, to translate it into Marxist language, they are approaching the possibility of politics in an idealist as opposed to materialist fashion. However, other proponents of post-identity feminism have identified further problems.

Linda Zerilli in her Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom argues that not only are debates around agency overly discursive, they remain focused on issues of subjectivity, which is precisely the same ground gone over by identity politics. But also the discussion can become trapped within reinterpretations of the rules of gender and, in spite the aims of the argument, end up propping up the hegemonic terms of what constitutes gender. Instead feminists should work towards Arendt's understanding of politics of remaking the world and embrace its open-ended promise.

For McNay, this is a non-starter. By rejecting subjectivity all together all that's left is utopianism. Political agency is only possible if there are agents capable of acting politically! As such Zerilli's nod toward agency can only be a gesture. McNay however has her own way of addressing the question. She does not want to write these debates off - instead McNay suggests the way of bridging theory and practice is by turning to
Pierre Bourdieu's notion of habitus, which offers a sophisticated means of understanding how social relations and power are embodied without positioning subjectivity and agency as an effect of structure.

There were two things that struck me about McNay's talk. I couldn't help thinking that if this is an accurate snapshot of feminist theory, it's in a place similar to where it was before the women's movement fragmented and was partly absorbed by academia. What differs now is a more nuanced understanding of the problems of subjectivity and political agency. However, even though McNay's use of Bourdieu offers a way of reestablishing the connection between (academic) feminism and actually existing feminist politics the former remains esoteric and divorced from the day to day concerns of the latter. The women's movement in Britain isn't what it used to be, but there are plenty of women (and men!) who identify with the feminist label working in a variety of political arenas. Some may follow the academic debates but few would say their activity is guided by it. But ultimately a way has to be found of building and sustaining an enriching dialectic between the two, otherwise theory will remain an academic language game played by and only accessible to an elite of professorial feminists.