Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Sheds are Bourgeois Crap

So reckons a character in Lars von Trier's 1998 flick, The Idiots. But he may have had a point. There was a time when the shed was very much a feature of working class life. My family were no different, we had three in our garden: one to keep the bikes and sledges (which was later used as a kennel by the mutt); one for our fridge freezer, and the last was where my dad tried to teach me manly things like nailing together planks of wood and how to skin a rabbit. And there was a fourth shed down the allotment dad and granddad used to keep their garden tools. I never really made the habit of poking around my friends' parents' sheds but I got the impression they were kept for strictly utilitarian purposes too.

But not anymore! According to
BBC Breakfast this morning the economic crisis has seen sheds sell by the ... shed load. But it is clear the report is talking about something very different from the shed where my dad did arcane things with power tools. What the BBC reports is the growing embourgeoisement of sheds.

Apparently, creative and professional types are turning to sheds because they offer particular advantages working indoors cannot. For starters, they're isolated from the rest of the house: they are places where work can proceed undisturbed without the foul intrusion of telephone calls, emails or knocks at the door. Is so doing, the shed-as-refuge threatens to become the de rigeur space where the creative individual mind cuts free of the befuddlement of the social world so it can go about conjuring newness out of nothingness.

These new "sheddies" have a pantheon of patron saints to give the move into the garden something of an intellectual imprimatur. George Bernard Shaw wrote much of his work in a shed that rotated. Philip Pullman of
His Dark Materials fame conceived and wrote his trilogy in a shed (it features in the report and is now the property of illustrator Ted Dewan - Pullman let him have it only on condition it was used for "creative purposes"). And I'm pretty sure Roald Dahl worked in a shed too*.

In his seminal
Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu argues class differences make themselves felt culturally in myriad different ways within and between classes. The most celebrated and obvious example in recent years of distinction playing out has been the appropriation of Burberry by some layers of the working class. For a luxury fashion house, to have its brand associated with the dangerous classes has been nothing short of disastrous as its wealthy consumers have turned to other houses to serve as fashionable markers of privileged taste.

So bourgeois cultural products can "sink" down into the depths of society from its gilded levels, so seemingly neglected cultural artifacts of working class life can make the reverse journey. The fate of Banksy's street art that has seen it rise from the mundane urban landscape of Bristol to the toast of the art world is one example. It would seem the shed is on a similar trajectory - and a necessary one as home offices have become depressingly common and so yesterday.

Fully in line with the logics of distinction, the bourgeois shed differs from its antecedents. This shed is a creative space: any and all associations with manual labour are purged (who needs tools anyway when one can hire in a gardener?) The shed is also a comfortable space where, if necessary, the creative dynamo of the bourgeois mind can relax and free associate behind insulated walls and double glazed windows. And, of course, because sheds are accumulating prestige and status they will increasingly become subject to artistic and architectural fashions. Mark my words, it won't be long before Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen hits TV screens with
How Cred is your Shed?

*Just for the record, I do the bulk of my work in the office, the library, the living room table, the sofa, and the train (standard class). All thoroughly proletarian locations.

Spot the Missing Dictatorship

Dictators and failed states. Say what you like about the most barbarous regimes on the planet, they make good filler for publications with acres of space but no budget beyond covering an internet connection. The latest to go down this route is Foreign Policy magazine, a sort of New Scientist for the Washington Beltway and international relations geeks. Because it is an American publication its outlook is very much representative of the middle ground of US foreign policy debates. So it came as no surprise its June issue's list of the world's worst 23 dictators broadly reflects American geopolitical interests. It was hardly shocking to see the likes of Kim Jong Il, Robert Mugabe, Raul Castro and Hu Jintao getting name checked.

Here's the list compiled by George B.N. Ayittey, president of the Beltway-based Free Africa Foundation:
1. Kim Jong Il (North Korea)
2. Rober Mugabe (Zimbabwe)
3. General Than Shwe (Burma)
4. Omar Hassan Al-Bashir (Sudan)
5. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (Turkmenistan)
6. Isaias Afwerki (Eritrea)
7. Islam Karimov (Uzbekistan)
8. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Iran)
9. Melez Zenawi (Ethiopia)
10. Hu Jintao (China)
11. Muammar Al-Qaddafi (Libya)
12. Bashar Al-Assad (Syria)
13. Idriss Deby (Chad)
14. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (Equitorial Guinea)
15. Hosni Mubarak (Egypt)
16. Yahya Jammeh (Gambia)
17. Hugo Chavez (Venezuela)
18. Blaise Compaore (Burkina Faso)
19. Yoweri Museveni (Uganda)
20. Paul Kagame (Rwanda)
21. Raul Castro (Cuba)
22. Aleksandr Lukashenko (Belarus)
23. Paul Biya (Cameroon)
A couple of quibbles. Strictly speaking, I don't think Ahmadinejad can be described as a dictator. Yes, he's an unpleasant demagogue who's overseen the brutal crushing of dissent after last year's disputed Iranian elections. But real power resides in the theocratic apparatus headed by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khameni. Ahmadinejad's government is merely "democratic" window dressing, not unlike the constitutional set up in Imperial Germany.

I can't say the inclusion of Hugo Chavez in a list of dictators came like a bolt out of the blue. I suppose someone has to be Washington's favourite new Latin American bogeyman now Fidel Castro has retired. Yes, the Bolivarian revolution is manifesting authoritarian features (paraphrasing Engels, there is nothing more authoritarian than a revolution) but facts are stubborn things: Chavez and his movement have won more elections than any serving leader of a liberal democratic government.

But what is interesting is the omission of a barbaric dictatorship vital to US strategic interests. Can anyone identify the regime that wasn't invited to the
Foreign Policy dictators' party?

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Terry Eagleton on Postmodernism

Blogger's block is still tightly gripping my tender flesh, but rather than leave this blog to the deprecations of tumbleweed for another day I thought I'd dig out a few quotes from Terry Eagleton's The Illusions of Postmodernism.

First, on the critique postmodernists and post-structuralists make of left and radical politics:
One of the most moving narratives of modern history is the story of how men and women languishing under various forms of oppression came to acquire, often at great personal cost, the sort of technical knowledge necessary for them to understand their own condition more deeply, and so acquire some of the theoretical armoury essential to change it. It is an insult to inform these men and women that, in the economic metaphor for intellectual life in the USA, they are simply "buying into" the conceptual closures of their masters, or colluding with phallocentrism (p.5)
On the blindness postmodernism has toward capital and capitalism:
It is as though almost every other form of oppressive system - state, media, patriarchy, racism, neo-colonialism - can be readily debated, but not the one which so often sets the long term agenda for all these matters, or is at the very least implicated with them to their roots (p.23)
Of course, if you follow Jean-Francois Lyotard in ruling out systematic social theory one cannot even begin to get to grips with the eternally shifting and conflictual social system that is capitalism.

Lastly, on why (effective) radical politics necessarily resists postmodernism:
Radical politics is necessarily hierarchical in outlook, needing some way of calculating the most effective distribution of its limited energies over a range of issues. It assumes, as does any rational subject, that some issues are more important than others, that some places are preferable starting-points to other places, that some struggles are central to a particular form of life and some are not (p.95).
It's no accident the most enthusiastic proponents of postmodernism I've encountered tend to confine their radical politics to the seminar room. It's not for nothing the German social theorist Jurgen Habermas (by no means a radical firebrand himself) has denounced postmodernism as a strand of conservatism.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Marxism as a Middle Class Ideology

The abstract below circulated on Historical Materialism's announcement's list is interesting. Alberto Martínez Delgado's doctoral thesis, An exploration of the Class Character of the Marxist Conception of Right argues Marxism is not an expression of proletarian experience, interests and aspirations. Instead it speaks to and articulates the outlook of an intermediary class of organisers different to and independent of the working class and the bourgeoisie. Before anyone dismisses Delgado out of hand, there are two points that make it at least worthy of consideration. The experience of Stalinism and national liberation struggles demonstrates how Marxism, or at least bastardised versions of it, were attractive to intelligentsias and other technocratic class fractions: a development Tony Cliff tried to get to grips with via his notion of deflected permanent revolution. Secondly Delgado locates his project within the critical realist tradition, itself an offshoot (often an esoteric one at that) of Marxism. In other words, he is "one of us" and his argument should be treated as coming from within Marxism rather than as a neoconservative or pomo attack from without.

Hopefully I'll find time later in the week to write something more about Delgado's thesis. While middling "organising" layers do secrete their own ideologies I do not think Marxism can be described as one of them. Here's the abstract for readers interested in learning more (it's been slightly altered to improve the standard of translation from the Spanish):
The aim of this thesis is to analyse the hypothesis that Marxism – including its juridical ideas - does not correspond to a proletarian class character. Rather, it offers conclusive signs of being representative of the interests of a new
rising social class in the capitalist society: the socialist class, the managerial class, the cadres class or the organizers class.

This central hypothesis is divided into three hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1 (socio-economic): the evolution of capitalist society engenders from the start a rising social class different from the proletariat: the organizers class; whose social functions justify its aspiration for a new economic, social and juridical structure of the society, and of the State, under its rule.

Hypothesis 2 (socio-ideological): the new emergent social class, in accordance with its own social development generates as its own ideology the Marxist socialist theory, a characteristic ideology of the new social class of the cadres, organizers, managers, or socialist class; especially of its revolutionary sector.

Hypothesis 3 (juridical): the juridical Marxist conception agrees with the interests and with the general ideology of the socialist or cadres class.

The experience of the countries of 'actually existing socialism' is a crucial support for our thesis. However, the thesis does not focus on the generalised historical lessons of the experience, but on their 'official' Marxist ideologies and on sociological and historical data about the cadres social class. This allows for a new hypothesis to emerge to explain contradictions within these societies (until their reversion to capitalism) and inside their official doctrines. This boils down to divisions between the orthodox/revolutionary tendency and the revisionist/reformist one, corresponding to the 'state-centralist' cadres and the 'enterpriselist-decentralist' cadres.

From an epistemological viewpoint, our investigation can be located in the scientific tradition of social inquiry; of trying to achieve a degree of objectivity in our knowledge, best exemplified by critical realism. The materialist approach of Marxism, which focuses on production and social classes, appears dissociated from dialectical thinking. Our materialist view connects the sociological analysis of societies, capitalist and socialist, with the “suspicion hermeneutics” of which is a a good example Marx himself: “... and just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge a revolutionary period by its consciousness, …” (
Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy).

Saturday, 26 June 2010

TV on Saturday January 7th, 1983

While I was sifting through a bunch of boxes that haven't been opened for donkey's years, I came across a fragment of the Nottingham Guardian from January 7th, 1983. Amid the adverts for self-hypnosis, silver mustard pot collections and Chilwell Antiques' Fair my eye caught the day's TV listings. Would you like to see what fare the four channels were offering?
BBC1

09:15 Hold Down a Chord
09:30 Saturday Superstore
12:15 Grandstand
05:25 Rod and Emu's Special
05:55 Jim'll Fix It
06:30 Ice Station Zebra
08:50 Three of a Kind
09:20 News and Sport
09:35 Dynasty
10:25 Best of Carrott's Lib
11:15 Tennis
12:05 Phil Silvers

BBC2
10:10 Open University
11:40 Close Open University
03:00 Trouble Along the Way
06:50 Sight and Sound in Concert
07:30 News and Sport
07:45 Saturday Briefing
08:20 Beindigo Boswell
10:00 World Darts
10:40 News
10:45 The Tenant
12:50 Close

Central (ITV)
09:30 Batman
10:00 Star Fleet [I almost certainly watched this episode]
10:30 The Saturday Show
12:15 World of Sport
05:05 News
05:15 Metal Mickey [I probably caught this as well]
05:45 Chips [and this]
06:40 Punchlines
07:10 David Frost Presents the Fourth Guiness Book of Records
08:10 Detour to Terror
10:00 News and Sport
10:15 Star Soccer
11:15 A Spectacular Night in Paris

Channel Four
01:30 Making the Most Of
02:00 Stella Dallas
03:55 Great Isambard Kingdom Brunel
04:25 Little Boy with a Big Horn
04:35 Password
05:05 Brookside
06:00 News Headlines
09:30 The Lady is a Tramp
10:00 Upstairs Downstairs
11:00 The Avengers
11:55 Death in the City
01:40 Close
Shakespeare once said the past is a foreign country, and L.P. Hartley added "they do things differently there". He wasn't joking. Only four channels and programmes not starting 'til 9:15 in the morning? Even the 24 hour clock was beyond them FFS!

Folk today don't know they're born.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Stoke Central Labour AGM

Not the snappiest of titles ever to have featured on this blog, but it succinctly describes what happened this evening: Stoke Central Constituency Labour Party finally held its long overdue annual general meeting.

Regular readers and those sad enough to follow the permutations of politics in the Potteries will know Labour in Stoke Central hasn't had an easy time of it in recent years. The CLP has been paralysed by a drawn out faction fight that was one part personal, one part political and the final part organisational (more
here and here). This resulted in the administrative suspension of the entire party shortly after your humble scribe joined (pure coincidence, I assure you). When things seemed they couldn't get any worse, sitting MP Mark Fisher stepped down and in came new MP Tristram Hunt after a selection process that can euphemistically be described as "controversial". This was the final straw for many long-serving members, most of whom decamped shortly before the election.

So it was hard to say what tonight's AGM had in store for the members who turned up. There were many faces not present who were at the (unofficial) CLP meeting I had previously attended to give Mark Fisher his send off. But by the same token there were an equal number there tonight who were absent from that preceding meeting. Thankfully, it was business like and friendly. As it was an AGM concerned with the election of officers, politics, properly speaking, were not on the agenda: that was mostly confined to a few remarks by council leader Mohammed Pervez on the new four-way coalition running the city and bits of pieces from Tristram on his parliamentary experiences.

The votes themselves were all uncontested, apart from the chair's position. However one of the candidates was handicapped by his holidaying in Spain and lost out, which is just as well: it's hard to take over the running of a meeting in Stoke from the sun-drenched beaches of the Costa Brava.

Yours truly ran for the position of political education officer. I wrote a very short stump speech in case it was contested, which I reproduce here for those interested in such things:

Rebuilding Labour is more about recruiting members and winning back past supporters: it has to develop the talents we already have as well. Political education in the party has an important part to play in producing new activists, trade unionists, councillors and MPs.

As political officer I will develop a programme of political education that will deepen our understanding of socialist, trade union and Labour values; learn from the considerable experience members of this CLP have; work with Tristram to bring well-known speakers to the city; and work to make accessible to members the sometimes complex and rarefied policy debates taking place in the council chamber, the think tanks and parliament.

What do I bring to this role? I'm passionate about education. I've been teaching at university level for almost eight years, I have recently been awarded a PhD, and I write regularly on political, social and cultural issues. If you allow me to become your political officer this evening I will bring all my skills and experience to the position.
In the end there was no contest so my actual remarks were even briefer and they went down well (no one shouted "he's a Trot! Stop him!")

The AGM took the decision to move from delegate-based meetings to all-members meetings: under the previous leadership this was a major bone of contention and was partly why the CLP was slapped with a suspension.

And that's all there was to it really. I think one member summed it up well when she said this was the first CLP meeting in 20 years which she would be leaving on a high. I get the impression this was more productive and convivial than what had gone before from a number of members. Long may it stay this way.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Tories' Manifesto for Class War

Let's not beat about the bush. Today's "emergency" budget from the Tories and their LibDem lickspittles is nothing less than a manifesto for class war. While the welfare state for the unemployed, the poor and the vulnerable is further dismantled, socialism for the rich is very much alive. There will be plenty of pudding and pie for Georgie Porgie and mates in the form of extending tax relief on the first £5m of capital gains tax, one per cent yearly reductions of corporation tax, small companies get tax reduction, and a bank levy will raise a mammoth £2bn. I guess this is what Osborne and the Tories call spreading the pain.

Meanwhile working class people can look forward to a national insurance increase, an increase in VAT (that frugal-living Tory gentleman Nigel Lawson said earlier on BBC News the poor wouldn't suffer unduly because they'd "still be able to afford food and clothing"), an increase in pension age, a freezing of public sector salaries, a cutting of housing benefit to unemployed people on the dole for more than a year, cuts to housing benefit claimants who live in homes larger than their family warrants (what a bureaucratic nightmare that will be!), cuts in grants to pregnant women, and linking benefits to the consumer price index. Government departments are expected to shoulder cuts of up to 25%, which can't mean anything other than massive job cuts, and come the Autumn Labour turncoat John Hutton will be delivering a review into public sector pensions. No prizes for guessing his recommendations will be regressive.

There is some robbing Peter to pay Paul going on. To try and dress the budget up as an example of "progressive austerity", there have been sops to capital spending projects outside London, a guaranteed link of the basic state pension to earnings, a flat rate wage increase for lowest waged public sector workers, more child tax credit for the poorest and an increase in basic income tax allowance.

So while the pain falls unevenly on the working class, it represents the kind of wealth redistribution the Tories have no problem with. Put simply, it's a case of making the poor pay while the rich make hay.

If we take the perspective of capital in general, this is a dumb budget. Depressing the disposable incomes of the working class and throwing hundreds of thousands on the dole is no recipe for an economic recovery. As any Marxist will tell you, underconsumption is a core component of capitalist crisis.

But this assumes the agents of capital are rational. The state maybe the general committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie, but like New Labour and the Tories under Thatcher and Major, today's ConDems are closely aligned to finance capital. The hard monetarist policies it favours at best extricate it from social responsibilities, and at worse requires it to pay lip service to the Tories' rhetoric of "being all in it together". This is a government that cares little for manufacturing outside of the geopolitically vital "defence" industries, so it's not going to give a fig about those who will bear the brunt of the crisis. Rhetoric about "rebalancing" the economy is so much hot air.

There is only one force with the potential to stop these cuts in their tracks, and that's the labour movement. Unfortunately, despite talk of a summer of strikes and predictions of Greek-like conflagrations we remain historically weak. Of necessity the movement will fight and hundreds of thousands more will be drawn into the labour movement, but there's no use pretending the situation can be resolved by peddling the line that all the working class needs is the "right leadership".

A problem related to the weakness of the labour movement is the legitimacy the ConDems have. The Tories alone polled almost 11 million votes in May compared with Labour's comparatively paltry 8.6 million. All the mainstream parties were offering were variations on the cuts theme. It's an unfortunate but unavoidable fact that many millions of working class people
accept cuts have to take place: this most recent YouGov poll is one among many polls that backs this up. Media churn blaming Labour's "profligacy" and fat cat public sector workers reflect as well as inculcate actually existing mass sentiment. If the labour movement is to win we not only have to mobilise our core constituency of workers and service users facing the chop: we have to mercilessly criticise the ConDem's policy and rhetoric, form a coherent alternative narrative of our own and win over the many millions of working class people who've been hostile or indifferent to the labour movement in the past.

The Tories and LibDems have their coalition. We have to build our own.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Face Lift

Some of you may have noticed a little change hereabouts.

Believe me, it was so tempting to go with orange on purple.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Blogger's Block

I've been hit with a touch of blogger's block lately. When it eventually evaporates readers can look forward to pieces on neoliberalism and regeneration, socialism and regeneration, a few incoherent thoughts on the coming "emergency" budget, another Gramsci piece, a report on next Thursday's AGM of Stoke Central CLP and a toast to People's Korea's triumphant march to the next round of the world cup.

In the mean time, here's an underrated classic choon from 2004:


Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Labour Party Branch Meeting

How many parties hold meetings amid a heady mixture of curry aromas and Careless Whisper? These were the conditions at the balti house Hanley West and Shelton Labour Party met in last night.

The format of Labour branch meetings are different to the Socialist Party meetings once laboriously detailed on this blog (examples
here and here). Whereas the SP's are led by a political discussion on one topic or another with business kept to a minimum, Labour branch is one hundred per cent business: politics is only really dealt with at the margins (they're also a monthly affair as well, which with a monthly CLP means the bulk of members have the opportunity of meeting formally only twice a month).

To give readers a flavour of what happened we discussed the intended pedestrianisation of the heart of Shelton (for outsiders, Shelton is Staffs Uni's student city) as part of the
University Quarter regeneration project. A number of local businesses are concerned it will cut off passing trade and add to the congestion of the two main roads that run parallel to it.

The agenda moved on to new members. Since the opening of the election period ten people have joined the branch, so we looked at how to get them involved. In the SP this was frequently the most frustrating aspect of our work. We always had a healthy number of contacts come through and they would be chased up, but more times than I would care to mention they failed to come to the branch to seal the membership deal (unsurprising really, for people new to politics turning up at a meeting full of people who know each other can be a daunting prospect). I recommended before the next branch we do a bit of door knocking - it will give us an opportunity to know where the new folk are coming from, why they've joined Labour, and introduce some of the branch's faces so turning up at a meeting won't be an entirely strange experience. Further to that the next meeting will immediately move on to a sociable curry at the conclusion of business.

Related to membership matters are the officers' elections at the upcoming meeting of Stoke Central CLP. Branch secretary Brother A made his pitch for the position he's interested in. I also gave a few rambling reasons why I'm running for the CLP's political education officer. The arguments outlined in
this post explaining why political education was essential for SP activists are just as valid for Labour party members. I made it clear I would not be using the position to lecture CLP members for half an hour every month on a hobby horse of my choice: I would use it to bring in outside speakers and encourage members to give their own talks in specially convened meetings. Provided they are sufficiently attractive they could act as recruitment and fundraising tools too.

We then heard a financial report, had a quick discussion about the Co-Op Party, and last of all heard new members have to join the party by September 8th to get a vote in the leadership contest.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Class Formation and Class Politics

The first two set of selections from Gramsci's Prison Notebooks discussed here were concerned with demonstrating how classes exerted their influence through groups of intellectuals. In the fragments grouped together in 'Notes on Italian History' Gramsci is demonstrates how the formation of the Italian state during the 19th century was the story of subordinate classes overcoming the domination of the peninsular by landed aristocracies, petty monarchs, Austria, and agents of the Pope while simultaneously negotiating the consent of the mass of the peasantry and nascent working class. As I'm no scholar of Italian history this contribution to the ongoing series on Gramsci's Selections will confine itself to a few (overly theoretical) points.

Gramsci begins by noting that classes do not enter the stage of history as unified actors: they are the outcome of particular social processes:
The historical unity of the ruling classes is realised in the State, and their history is essentially the history of States and group of States. But it would be wrong to think that this unity is purely juridical and political ... the fundamental historical unity, concretely, results from the organic relations between State or political society and "civil society" (Gramsci 1971, p.52).
Subaltern (i.e. non-ruling) classes belong to civil society: that segment of society not part of the state (in this definition the economy is part of civil society, whereas 'political society' is not). Nevertheless class histories are bound up with the state under whose auspices they developed. For example, it would be impossible to understand the making of the working class in these islands without reference to its relationship with the UK state.

To analyse non-ruling classes Gramsci recommends six methodological criteria:

1. Classes are 'objectively' formed by economic processes from the classes and strata of previous societies. Initially they have a non-conscious 'sociological' existence and to an extent their previous histories are preserved.
2. In their existence, classes have active/passive affiliations with a number of political actors of other classes. Their dealings with these parties influence them, condition political consequences of those interactions and in turn impact on the formation of the class.
3. As well as being influenced by the social weight of subaltern classes, parties and institutions belonging to the ruling class attempt to win control over them by seeking their consent to be ruled.
4. The above produces an organisational response within subaltern classes. The initial group of organisations are formed to press its own claims.
5. The second set of organisations lay claim to the interests of the subaltern class(es) in the prevailing social order.
6. Finally, organisations emerge that assert the integral, independent identity of a class
as a class.

Applied to the formation of the working class in capitalist societies, these criteria can guide the study of the passage it makes from a class in itself to a class for itself (in Gramsci's guarded writing, the latter three criteria refer to the formation of trade unions, social democratic and labour parties, and revolutionary parties). Such an analysis must pay attention to the complex interplay of struggles, institutions, parties, etc.

In the second part of his notes on Italian history; 'The Problem of Political Leadership in the Formation and Development of the Nation and the Modern State in Italy', Gramsci demonstrates how the formation of the Italian bourgeoisie was bound up with the consolidation of their nation state. He begins:
... the supremacy of a social group [class] manifests itself in two ways, as "domination" and as "intellectual and moral leadership". A social group dominates antagonistic groups, which it tends to "liquidate", or to subjugate perhaps even by armed force; it leads kindred and allied groups. A social group can, and indeed must, already exercise "leadership" before winning governmental power (this indeed is one of the principal conditions for the winning of such power); it subsequently becomes dominant when it exercises power, but even if it holds it firmly in its grasp, it must continue to "lead" as well (ibid, pp 57-8).
By making the distinction between coercion and consent, Gramsci argues ruling and rising classes tend to use force for subjugating subaltern classes to its will while exercising 'intellectual and moral leadership' to speak with and bind potential class allies to it. Such leadership is the condition for winning power, but also it must continued to be exercised if a class is to retain its dominant position: class rule that depends on force of arms alone is a brittle thing doomed to early extinction.

This insight into the nature of class rule remains as keen now as it was almost 80 years ago. But as his discussion of the formation of the Italian state shows, a class must have reached a certain level of development before it can exercise intellectual and moral leadership. Looking at the revolutionary wars of Italian unification (the Risorgimento), Gramsci argued the orientation of the bourgeoisie could be summed up by two broad factions. The first was the Moderate Party, which was a 'pure' bourgeois party. Its anchor in Italy's capitalist class meant it was socially homogenous (its members were owners, managers and entrepreneurs - social locations forged by the capitalist relations of production), influential and, because of its class basis, not consistently revolutionary.

The other dominant faction of Risorgimento Italy was the Action Party. The group favoured Italian unification under a single republic and, to varying degrees, were hostile to the political influence wielded by the Vatican. However, its Jacobin pretensions were a symptom of the shallow roots it had in the Italian bourgeoisie. Without the anchor its leadership was unstable and vacillating, which in turn meant it couldn't seek to shore up its base. As such the moments the Action Party had in the Risorgimento were episodic and fleeting. Exacerbating this was its
de facto alliance with the Moderates against Italy's petty states: just as the homogeneity and resources of the Moderates drew in their train intellectuals from other classes, it similarly conditioned the Action Party. If the AP was to play a similar role to its Jacobin counterparts in the French revolution, Gramsci argued it needed to separate from the Moderates and form its own 'national-popular will': it needed to build a base among the peasantry and nascent working class and become something more than the Italian bourgeoisie's arms-length revolutionaries. But it did not produce its own programme and did not go down this route. It meant the Italy what was to eventually emerge was one most in tune with the interests of its bourgeoisie: a constitutional monarchy and limited parliamentary government. But it also meant the exclusion of the working class from the revolutionary process meant it would form its own parties later on: organisations stamped by a high degree of class consciousness and a receptivity to revolutionary socialism.

Gramsci's examination of the Risorgimento period is much richer and detailed than what I've presented here. It recalls Marx's
The Class Struggles in France in his grasp of the intermeshing of personalities, parties, factions and classes in the historical process.

Overall Gramsci's approach to analysing class can be most clearly seen today in the so-called
Neo-Gramscian approach to study class relations at the level of states. But there are objections that can be levelled at Gramsci from within and without the Marxist tradition. The main criticism regards his analytical criteria: that a class, when formed, is on an irreversible path towards greater consciousness. Now some may take this as a teleological argument which was handed down to Gramsci from Hegel by way of Benedetto Croce, but it seems to me this criteria is the theoretical condensation of the concrete experiences of the workers' movement up to the 1930s. At the time Gramsci compiled his thoughts it was reasonable to argue the working class had risen from an amorphous mass and developed the means to become progressively self-aware and that only the brute force of fascism could set back this development in Western Europe. But from the vantage point of the early 21st century with its weaker labour movements and the massive reversals revolutionary socialism has suffered, of course Gramsci's argument appears teleological: the last 30 years has seen very significant retreats to the point where class consciousness, at least in Britain, is at an historic low.

Gramsci cannot be blamed for not anticipating socialism's current malaise. The legacies of the developments he charted are however still with us: the West European working class does retain trade unions, workers parties, and fragments of once mighty revolutionary parties. The logics of class struggle in a capitalist society means sooner or later these will again shape and condition the consciousness of the working class, but hopefully this time with a victorious conclusion.

A list of posts in this series on the
Selections from the Prison Notebooks can be found here.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Our Friends in the North

The England flags are out. Cars are festooned with the cross of St George. It can only mean the four yearly football jamboree of the World Cup is here!

An accident of birth means it would be churlish for me not to wish England well, especially as I've cheered them on in the past. But as an internationalist, anti-imperialist, and a socialist there's only really one team worthy of unconditional but critical (military) support:


Introducing Socialist Party Scotland

This nugget of sectariana came to me via the ever-green Leftist Trainspotters list, THE resource for discerning sectarians:
The Scottish section of the Committee for a Workers’ International – the International Socialists - is changing its name to Socialist Party Scotland.

We have chosen to change our name at this time because we believe that it allows us to have a clearer banner that will help attract the increasing numbers of new young people and workers who are looking for a socialist and Marxist alternative to the crisis ridden capitalist system and the new ConDem coalition of cuts.

Our new name also has the distinct advantage of making a direct link with our sister parties in England, Wales and Ireland who are also known as the Socialist Party.

We already work closely with the Socialist Party in England and Wales through our work in the trade unions like the PCS, where we play a leading role, and in Unison and the CWU among others. We will in the coming months ensure that we use our influence in the trade union movement in Scotland to help build mass opposition to the savage cuts planned by the new Tory-Lib Dem government. We also work closely with our comrades throughout Britain in the Youth Fight For Jobs Campaign.

Most recently during the general election we took part in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition that involved trade union leaders including Bob Crow of the RMT. Four of the ten Scottish TUSC candidates at the general election were members of Socialist Party Scotland. We will be working with other trade unionists and socialists to build on the experience of TUSC in the months ahead.
Tommy Sheridan and Solidarity

In 2006 we were founding members, alongside Tommy Sheridan, of Solidarity – Scotland’s Socialist Movement. Since then we have played a leading role in Solidarity and this will continue. In fact we will, alongside the other socialists within Solidarity, be stepping up our efforts to strengthen Solidarity as we head towards the Scottish parliament elections next year.

Moreover, Socialist Party Scotland would like to take this opportunity to reiterate our 100% backing for Tommy and Gail Sheridan in their forthcoming court battle against the forces of the rich and powerful who are ranged against them. We have and will continue to condemn the scandalous waste of public resources, now totalling at least £2.5 million, squandered by the Crown Office and Lothian and Borders Police in their vendetta against Scotland’s most prominent socialist.

There will be at least one Socialist Party here in Scotland that will be striving to see a defeat for the Murdoch Empire and the enemies of the trade union and socialist movement.

Socialist Party Scotland will continue to be the Scottish section of the Committee for a Workers International, which has parties and groups in 40 countries around the world.
Statement here.

Good luck getting that name registered with the Electoral Commission!

If I was still in the Socialist Party I probably would have supported the rebranding. There may have been a case in the past for Scottish Militant Labour to be formally separate from the rest of the organisation, but from the split in the CWI in 2001 (which left a rump group of loyalists, the International Socialists in Scotland) the logic for maintaining the IS as a separate section of the international became increasingly tenuous; especially as SP branches in England and Wales have a large degree of autonomy anyway.

Then there is the question of positioning -as the statement makes clear in the penultimate sentence's snide sideswipe to the SSP. Presumably the CWI is of the opinion the name is too good to be left in the hand of their erstwhile comrades? Whatever the case it signals the division at the heart of the Scottish far left is still festering quite nicely.

Where does this leave Solidarity? The statement says the CWI remains committed to it - but changing your name to a 'party' doesn't give out the sort of vibes one would expect from a coalition partner. This isn't to say the CWI are looking to dump Solidarity, unlike the SWP. But they are aware if the Sheridans are banged up on perjury charges there seems little point for it to continue in its present form. During the general election for all intents and purposes Solidarity was subsumed by the Scottish TUSC campaign, so this can be viewed as further confirmation that the London-based secretariat view "Scotland's Socialist Movement" as an irrelevance.

Movement Relevancy vs Open Surveillance

I haven't been filled with blogging inspiration lately, probably because my mind has been consumed with writing a paper called 'Movement Relevancy vs Open Surveillance, or, The Problematic Ethics of Social Movement Research'. This is spun out from a major chunk of my PhD, which I'm pleased to say is available for viewing at Keele Uni's library. Here's the abstract:
Bevington and Dixon’s (2005) call to redress the relationship between social movements and social movement research in terms of providing assistance to them over and above academic and professional concerns is an attractive one, and should be seen as part of the recent movement in Anglo-American sociology toward public sociology: a ‘popular’ sociology that speaks to non-academic (but mainly activist) audiences outside the academy. However, regardless of the worthy aims of movement-relevant research, exposing social movements to the ‘open surveillance’ of the sociological gaze raises the possibility of providing useful information to opponents and enemies of that movement. This raises dilemmas that appealing to professional or movement-relevant ethics cannot resolve, as this paper’s interviews with Trotskyist activists testify. Therefore social movement researchers must pay heed to potential conflicts between the production of sociological knowledge and protecting the interests of the social movements they study.
For those not familiar with Bevington and Dixon's paper, 'Movement-relevant Theory: Rethinking Social Movement Scholarship and Activism' (which will probably be nearly everyone), their argument - while certainly moves in the right direction - is symptomatic of the divergence between academia/sociology and any kind of political practice. But there's the legacy of neoliberalism in higher education and the (passing) dominance of postmodernism/poststructuralism for you.

The good news is this paper has had an impact and is oft-cited by the upcoming new generation of social movement researchers. But as my abstract hints and what my paper discusses in more depth is how movement-relevant research is an ethical minefield.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

DPRK Solves World Energy Crisis

From the BBC, here's another triumph for the Juche Idea and the benevolent guidance of the Dear Leader!
North Korea has announced that it has made significant progress towards the development of thermo-nuclear power.

It is a claim that is likely to be met with some scepticism.

Despite hopes that the technology can produce large quantities of cheap, clean energy, no country has so far succeeded in making it work.

North Korea is one of the world's poorest countries and struggles to generate enough electricity for lighting and other basic needs.

The statement, carried by North Korea's official state media, said the country's scientists had succeeded in carrying out nuclear fusion.

Laboratory demonstrations of the process, known to release large amounts of energy, are nothing new.

But the North Koreans appear to be claiming to have gone much further, by building what they describe as a "unique thermo-nuclear reaction device".

The dream of overcoming the huge technical challenges to make nuclear fusion commercially viable has so far eluded scientists in Europe, America and China, but they continue to try because the prize is so great: a cheap and abundant source of energy with little environmental impact.

North Korea's claim that it has completed the fundamental research, putting the technology within its grasp, will be dismissed as highly unlikely unless concrete evidence is produced.

Pyongyang says its latest scientific breakthrough coincides with the birthday of the country's founder, and eternal president Kim Il-sung - not the first time it seems that the laws of nature have been bent in his honour.

According to official biographies, when his son, the current leader Kim Jong-il was born, a new star appeared in the sky.
I wouldn't be surprised if North Korean scientists have been looking at nuclear fusion technology. According to this piece a similar claim was made over 20 years ago, strangely coinciding with the celebration period of the birthday of the Great Leader and Eternal Sun of Mankind, Kim Il Sung. Complete coincidence, of course.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Cameron's Cuts and the Big Society

The Old Beards thought it was always a good idea to capitalise on divisions in the class enemy. Since the Dave 'n' Nick love-in was signed and sealed the Daily Telegraph have had it in for the coalition, providing lefties a bit of cheer. They've brought down one of the LibDem's brightest stars over dodgy rent arrangements. And now they're pouring cold water over Dave's programme.

Cameron's speech
today promised cuts to public sector pensions, wages, jobs and services. He said these "tough decisions" were unavoidable because Labour had left the state's finances in a much worse state than he feared. Unfortunately for Dave this claim is total piffle, as their erstwhile allies point out.

Edmund Conway notes,
the figures nonetheless look horrible of course ... But if anything the picture has actually improved in recent weeks. For one thing, the latest public finances numbers show that Britain’s deficit last year was actually considerably lower than previously calculated. For another, the interest rate on the average 10-year gilt has actually fallen considerably since the eurozone economic crisis took hold. Both of these factors are reasonably encouraging. They support the argument that one has to provide decent, credible plans to cut the deficit, since in Britain’s case that is precisely what the markets are recognising, by charging the Government a lower rate of interest.
He goes on:
So why does Cameron feel it necessary to use scare tactics instead? One presumes it’s because he’s aware of the political difficulty of imposing those cuts. Canada may have done pretty well in cutting its spending, but the process was extremely gruelling. Perhaps Cameron is still haunted by Mervyn King’s reported warning that the austerity that the election-winner would have to impose could make them so unpopular that they would ultimately find themselves ejected from power. But whatever his rationale, he has no excuse for misrepresenting economic reality.
While a smooth operator like Cameron cannot be unaware of the likelihood of a backlash, I feel there's more to Dave's rhetoric than covering the Tories' backs.

Like my friend
Boffy I think when politicians make pronouncements of a more (political-) philosophical character, they shouldn't be dismissed as cynical rationales of their activities (though they do have the effect of justifying them, to themselves as much as anyone else). Instead politicians' beliefs should be approached as a genuinely held set of ideas, even if they are self-serving, overly ideological and completely barking.

As we know, the Tories' great wheeze is the 'Big Society' - a nebulous concept positioned as a response to New Labour's authoritarianism, the "nanny state", and the "broken society". It emphasises the balancing of rights with responsibilities, preserving time worn institutions, rebuilding social solidarities, and scaling back the influence of the state - all in all pretty standard Conservative philosophy with bolt-on extras (though who could have foreseen the Tories
encouraging same-sex civil partnerships?) Since Dave stepped out of the margins of 2005's leadership contest his liberal Toryism hasn't deviated from the Big Society script.

For Dave and co the crisis in public finances is an
opportunity for social engineering. He can dress the cuts up how he likes, but in his heart of hearts the slashing and the burning will cleanse society's soul and make it "Big". Taking an axe to the welfare state will force people out of necessity to build ties of mutual support independent of it. Hiving off benefit assessment and provision to private firms can be spun as the state enabling "society" to look after its most vulnerable members. Making life more difficult for JSA claimants is about the hand up, not the hand out.

So don't let the handwringing fool you. The Tory cuts to come have as much to do with their fundamental beliefs as their perception of economic necessity.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

New Blog Round Up

Another month, another round up of new left and labour movement blogs:

1.
Plot's Plot (SSP)
2.
Spirit Leveller (Labour/Compass) (Twitter)
3.
Left Futures (Labour) (Twitter)
4.
Planeshift's Blog (Unaligned)
5.
Aled-Dilwyn Fisher (Green) (Twitter)
6.
Radical Wales (Unaligned)
7.
Labour Uncut (Labour) (Twitter)
8.
Zetkin.net (Unaligned/socialist feminist)
9.
Ed Miliband For Labour Leader (Labour) (Twitter)
10.
Next on the Left (Unaligned)
11.
Stable and Principled (Unaligned) (Twitter)

Let me know via the comments or email if there are any new left, Labour, feminist, green, etc. etc. blogs you think deserve a plug.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Derrick Bird: Why Men Murder

By all accounts, Derrick Bird - the man on Tuesday who went on a murderous rampage in Cumbria killing 12 and injuring a further 11 - was a normal bloke. Unlike the withdrawn lonesome figure of the "typical" serial killer or mass murderer, Bird appeared to defy the profile. He was well liked and sociable. There are reports of petty squabbles with other cabbies but nothing any different from the arguments that bedevil thousands of other taxi ranks. It's also emerged Bird was in dispute with his twin brother over an inheritance, and that he was being investigated by the Inland Revenue. But again, nothing out of the ordinary.

Looking at
the pattern of victims, it suggests Bird was motivated by score settling. He shot his brother first, followed by the family solicitor and then his fellow taxi drivers, wounding three and killing another. After this the shootings become random and apparently incomprehensible, ending only when Bird turned the gun on himself.

Mass shootings are thankfully very rare in Britain, which makes them all the more shocking when they do occur. Their senseless and random character seem to defy explanation. But as appalling as they are should we just accept that out of six billion people, someone somewhere on the planet will occasionally flip and kill large numbers of people? That seemingly normal men (for it is almost always men) walk among us liable to detonate at any moment is somehow part of the human condition, as libertarian blogger Charlotte Gore
claims?

In the first place, these phenomena are not inexplicable: in their own perverse way they're perfectly logical. In an illuminating discussion on Thursday's
This Week, celebrity psychologist Linda Papadopoulos applied some watered-down Freud to the Cumbria shootings. As a man who perceived himself powerless and hemmed in by his work and financial situation, the murders could be interpreted as Bird reasserting control over his life. First he shoots those he holds responsible for his feelings of powerlessness - his brother, the solicitor, and the cabbies. With the situations "resolved" his psychosis spills over into imposing his will on the world beyond his control. To the outsider gunning down random people makes no sense, but within the terms of Bird's state of mind this was the logical progression. And the final act - Bird's decision to take his life - affirms his control over the situation, underlining it from start to finish.

Similar features can be read off other shootings. Massacres like Columbine and Virginia Tech have been interpreted as particularly grisly ways for Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold and Seung-Hui Cho to achieve celebrity. To an extent this was true - in the videos filmed prior to the shootings Harris and Klebold
fantasised about their own post-massacre biopics. Cho saw himself as a Jesus-like freedom fighter. But this is part of a broader psychopathology of 'taking control' and self-assertion vis an uncaring and indifferent world.

In her brief talk and subsequent discussion, Papadopoulos broadens the question out - why are the perpetrators of mass shootings always men? Women too are subject to the same social processes and psychological states as men, albeit with added gendered oppression on top - but women do not commit these crimes. The reason for this is not men's innate capacity for violence: for Papadopoulos it is rooted in gendered socialisation processes. This should not be reduced to giving boys toy guns and girls dolls to play with: it is about building emotional capacities. Despite being the 21st century and with real progress made on gender issues, hegemonic masculinity still remains structured around strength, leadership, heterosexuality, paternalism, dominance, and reason/rationality. Emotion, or more properly, emotion associated with weakness and vulnerability remain very much the property of hegemonic femininity - if a man is expressive and empathic his sexuality automatically comes into question. For Papadopoulos the perpetuation of hegemonic masculinity leaves many men ill-equipped to handle their emotions. Bottling them up is how a real man handles frustration, disappointment and sadness. Small wonder it's men are more likely to suffer depression, be diagnosed with a mental illness, and commit suicide. Or find violent outlets for the tumult building up inside them. In other words, traditional masculinity does not explain why a man picks up a gun and goes on a killing spree. But it does condition the lives of all men to greater or lesser extents. It provides a frame for interpreting and dealing with (or rather,
not dealing with) emotions, and a guide/ideal showing how real men should handle their problems. It's for reasons rooted in Derrick Bird's psyche that this complex of masculinity and personal life history turned him into a murderer.

It's no accident that Papadopolous's argument is derived from psychoanalysis, which has always stressed the importance of social processes (particularly language) in the constitution of the ego and the unconscious. Nevertheless her account is bounded by focusing on the individual perpetrator and each case is treated as a self-contained tragedy. And this is accepted by conventional sociology. Psychoanalysis does blur the psychology/sociology boundary somewhat, but sociology is generally content with leaving questions like this to the psychologists. Crude caricatures of pop sociology does appear in the mainstream media at times like these to explain mass murders in terms of celebrity (as per the
Time article above) or copycatting news coverage. But sociology can draw attention to something psychologist and other commentators have missed: that murderous rampages have a history, and it is one that is relatively recent.

In the US, the
first mass shooting understood in terms of its use here was in 1966. The first high school shooting was in 1979. In the last two years there have been five such killing sprees. To help explain this the spate of similar killings China is currently reeling from may point toward an answer. The writer of this piece suggests the lack of mental health provision and China's rapid pace of social change are contributing factors to these attacks. Analogous processes in Western countries could also be having a similar effect.

This isn't to glibly "blame society" for what happened in Cumbria on Tuesday. No one is responsible for the shootings but Bird. Nevertheless his actions did not take place in a vacuum. His character was shaped by the complex frames and expectations of masculinity like any other man. And, like everyone else, he was conditioned by what's happened to British society over the last 30 years: a restructuring that has seen deindustrialisation, the decline of established social solidarities (particularly working class solidarity), the dismantling of the post-war settlement and the rise of neoliberal individualism as the cultural dominant. There's no such thing as society. You're all on your own now.

For millions Britain of the 80s, 90s and 00s was and is to live life at the sharp end. Money worries, precarious living, social isolation, alienation and anomie, frustration. The existence of these social pathologies are nothing new but it seems the scale of their cultural influence is of greater than was the case in the post-war period. It's not beyond the realms of possibility the lived presence of these developments in the every day is what for a few individuals, combines with their individual mental states and relationship to masculinity to produce a Derrick Bird or a Michael Ryan. How else to explain their comparatively recent appearance?

Ultimately we can never be absolutely certain why men like Bird take the decision to start killing. But a creative mix of a psychological approach married to a sociological appreciation of the social relations that condition and structure our lives can go some way to approximating a state of mind and explain how it came about.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Timidity of Saint Vince

Vince Cable is a man on a mission. The business secretary has thrown off his gloves and is squaring up to the banks. Is he demanding the reform of investment banking's obscene bonus culture? Will he be bashing heads together to stop them chucking working class folk out of their homes? Nope. Saint Vince is taking a tough line ... on lending. In this piece from the BBC, Vince says he will "redouble efforts" to get banks lending to small and medium-sized firms again. "The current risk aversion by banks in the SME sector will stifle recovery and, if it does, will actually rebound on the banks through bad debt."

His logic is sound: governments of whatever colouration would want the banks to be more supportive of small and medium sized businesses. But for all the talk of a hard line the nice Dr Cable will be
asking banks to amend their lending decisions in line with his policy objective. I guess this was what Charlie Kennedy meant by "tough liberalism". But surely someone of Vince's intellectual calibre cannot be naive to expect them to fall into line on his say so: the previous government's pleas to moderate bankers' bonuses fell on deaf ears, despite being saved by the tax payer and having enjoyed years of light touch regulation before that.

And yet another mechanism is available to Vince. The government owns Northern Rock and holds controlling shares in RBS. It is also a significant minority shareholder in the mammoth Lloyds Banking Group, which owns HBOS. Because of New Labour's embrace of neoliberal dogma even the nationalised Northern Rock was left to its own devices: the thought never occurred to the previous government to use its not inconsiderable leverage to get lending moving again. While the banks owned in part or full by the state do not have a controlling share of the UK loan market, they have enough clout to shape it. If the government used its shareholdings to enforce its will on RBS and Lloyds and directed Northern Rock to commence lending other banks would inevitably follow.

But this is the last thing Vince is likely to do. We might have "new politics" but we're stuck with the "old economics". As a confirmed Orange Booker he's even more wedded to neoliberalism than Brown and Darling and will fight shy of the substantial economic clout the state possesses. He might worry direct action could unsettle already volatile stock and currency markets, but then again they might be encouraged to see the UK banks come out of its credit freeze and start moving the economy again. For instance, Spain's
austerity measures will damage prospects for growth and worsen its deficit, even though the slashing and burning of public services are supposed to bring borrowing down. And its reward for going along with neoliberal commonsense has been a downgrading of its credit rating. The reverse can also be true: markets might see a little bit of firm state intervention as a good thing.

In the meantime, the dithering of Vince and his ConDem friends is keeping hundreds of thousands on the dole.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?

While the left's eyes have been diverted by the stupid brutality of Israel's actions on Monday, which have seriously raised the prospects of a clash with Turkey, in the Far East the world's last Cold War frontier has quickly and worryingly heated up.

On 26th March a South Korean warship mysteriously exploded in its territorial waters and sank with the deaths of 46 crew. The finger of blame pointed to the senile
Stalinist monarchy of the "Democratic" People's "Republic" of Korea who, in its typically hysterical fashion, threatened war if the South pressed ahead with sanctions in response. Its denials have been compromised by a multinational investigation which concluded a North Korean torpedo caused the explosion, backed by the recovery of the device in question by the South's navy.

As far as the North are concerned the South's song and dance is really a provocation, one that follows a long line of others.
This piece argues that the Conservative government elected in 2007 is an "ultra-rightist" formation committed to engineering confrontation and, in the process, clamping down on organisations and cross border institutions that advocate reunification. The North also claims the sinking was caused by the South to bolster the government's chances in regional elections held today. Apparently some 54% of voters have said their vote will be influenced by the North's "provocation".

If one was of a conspiratorial mindset and knew little about the permutations of North-South relations, you would find circumstantial
suggestions that, at most, wouldn't put it past the South's government. The president, Lee Myung-bak, has a reputation for being no stranger to the murkier side of Korean politics. Formerly a high flyer with Hyundai, his 18 year political career has seen him fined for campaign overspends, accused of illegal property speculation, and has been implicated in fraud allegations. Since taking on the presidency Lee has pursued "business facing" policies, including the 'Grand Korean Waterway' - a mega-project that would have deleterious impacts on the environment as well as being of questionable commercial value. And as a good neoliberal his has overseen a round of unpopular privatisations. Nevertheless by the start of this year his approval ratings had recovered from a low of 17% in summer 2008 (on the back of a row over US beef imports) to 52%.

Everyone can agree that Lee is a slippery character. Taking his hard line conservatism, anti-union politics, authoritarianism, and hubris into account one cannot but draw comparisons with Thatcher. But for all this his administration doesn't need to manufacture a clash with the North for electoral expediency's sake.

If one reject's the North's claims and accepts the South's findings, what possible motive could they have for sinking the warship? If this was a shot across Lee's bows in protest against the harder line, it could not have backfired more than storming a ship of aid workers and shooting nine of them dead. There is the possibility of an accidental firing without official sanction - after a lifetime of being pumped full of paranoid propaganda, you can understand how a young officer might have an itchy trigger finger. There's also the small matter of major
joint South-US naval exercises next week, though its difficult to believe the torpedo attack would make deter them from undertaking a major demonstration of sea power.

If it turns out to have come from the higher echelons, it could be an example of the oldest trick in the book.
According to The Economist (admittedly not the most value-free observer of international affairs), there is evidence of a few cracks in the Jucheist monolith. A botched currency reform - ostensibly to manage inflation and curb the influence of private markets - knocked two zeroes of North Korean bank notes and abruptly slashed already precarious living standards. These have been rescinded and the regime has publicly apologised (scapegoating and shooting the minister that oversaw the roll out), but the prospect of a return of mass starvation remains. This most unwelcome of spectres could put the DPRK's legitimacy into question ahead of the centenary of Kim Il Sung's birth. So what better way to try and avert this by uniting the country against perceived external aggression?

There is a tendency among mainstream commentators to portray the North as the most rogue of rogue states. The grotesque personality cult, the toe-curlingly primitive propaganda, the nuclear weapons and massive military all give the appearance of a regime that is as irrational as it is unpredictable. But context is everything. The disfigurement of the North's economy by its 'army-first' policy is rooted in the USSR's reluctance to provide it military aid in the aftermath of the Sino-Soviet split (Kim sided with Mao against Krushchev's de-stalinisation). Whereas the countries of the Warsaw Pact enjoyed Soviet guarantees right up to its dissolution, North Korea did not. Facing its own Cold War frontier with a large South Korean and US military presence (who were armed with nuclear weapons) it struggled to plug the gap itself: it was no coincidence that an obscure reference to the Juche idea in a 1950s article by the Great Leader was dusted off and placed at the heart of DPRK propaganda from the mid-60s on (glossing over the significant
industrial aid it continued receiving from the Russians until the mid-70s). Its moves to build up military capacity to counter that of the US and the South has, in the twisted logics of Cold War geopolitics, been used to justify the US's continued presence, which in turn feeds into the North's armament, and so it goes. Both sides refuse to stand down for fear of attack by the other.

The truth is no one has an interest in war. While the US would like to see a united Korea under its military protection as strategic leverage against China, Obama's administration like all those before it know the price paid in lives, materiel, and funds would be too much for the American public to stomach. It's one thing to take on lightly armed decrepit states and insurgencies: it's quite another to enter a war with the prospect of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons being deployed against US troops. Similarly for the South - even if fighting does not dip south of the demilitarised zone, the 10 million inhabitants of Seoul and the 25 million in surrounding areas are in range of the North's guns. In all likelihood the area up to the DMZ would be comprehensively devastated. And on top of that the South would face the bill of absorbing the North.
The Economist puts the cost for unification at $900bn - it would of course be much higher if the North gets raised to the ground. And of course, the North itself knows it cannot win and hopes a combination of hysterical denunciation, rocket launches and nuclear testing will be enough to keep its enemies at bay. I might not think much of Trotsky's analysis of the USSR, but his insight that the Stalinist bureaucracy wants peaceful coexistence with the big capitalist powers so it can carry on living off the backs of workers and peasants is spot on.

How then do you solve a problem like Korea? You could wait for North Korea to collapse of its own accord - but since the cessation of large scale Soviet aid in the 70s it has proven durable in the face of opposition without and calamity within. The Stalinist monarchy hasn't lasted as long as it has without knowing how to manage dissidence. Its lifespan, discounting war or some crisis beyond the regime's capacity to handle, could still be measured in the decades. Therefore to diffuse the situation, to prevent a flashpoint escalating into war, there has to be moves to comprehensive demilitarisation of the peninsular. As a start the North should re-sign the non-aggression pact it withdrew from with the South last week. In return the South should restart its aid and cross-border cultural exchanges. But none of this can exist independently of US action. Instead of piously calling on the North to disarm while it continues to point nuclear weapons in its direction, if Obama is serious about peace between the Koreas he should sign the non-aggression treaty the North proposed after the USSR's collapse.

With these small steps the road to a real and lasting peace could open - but will they take it?