Saturday, 31 July 2010

Ed Miliband Visits Stoke

Ed Miliband flew into The Potteries this afternoon for a question and answer session this afternoon organised by Stoke North Labour Party. About a hundred members turned up to listen to his views on everything from gender balance in the shadow cabinet to Cameron's diplomatic gaffe on Pakistan. But was he any good? Was he convincing?

His stump speech was framed in terms of the familiar nostrums. He ably ticked all the boxes: politics can make a difference ... politics should be about more than management ... Labour needs to listen more ... the leadership election provides us with a blank page ... etc.

Ed said Labour did some things in government we should be proud of, but it didn't do enough. On the economy, he believed the party came too late to the idea of having an industrial policy. The experience of government had taught them markets alone cannot be left to create jobs because it never will in sufficient quantities, therefore the state has the responsibility to fill this gap. He also knew millions of working class people were turned off from Labour because of its chummy relationship with business. Ed acknowledged this was a less a relationship and more a case of business's lording it over the party. In a New Labourish rehtorical flourish, he said if workers can expect fairness not favours from Labour, then it should be the same for business.

Warming to his theme, he thought New Labour was an overreaction to the 1980s. The managerial style, the centralised leadership under Blair and Brown, it was all top down. The new leadership must learn to listen to its members to avoid the heavy handed mistakes of the
ancien regime. This means a proper party conference with serious debate, members' input into policy making, and the inculcation of a sense that members have influence on the party's direction. Part and parcel of this is rebuilding of the trade union movement. He said he was proud to be nominated by so many unions, but thought it was a real tragedy not enough people were in them. If he was voted leader he would work with the rest of the labour movement to make them more relevant.

The meeting then moved to questions. I won't bore readers with the ins and outs of every query, but will stick to the main points.

On the coalition, he said when the Tories are in government, they behave as if they own the place. When Labour are in, they feel like squatters. But the situation now is different to the 80s. Back then Labour were relatively powerless to stop the Tories. But because Cameron governs in coalition, the LibDems are particularly vulnerable. Our job is to make them feel like an endangered species. They've got to feel as if deposing Nick Clegg is the only way to save themselves from electoral oblivion. If we are successful in keeping up this pressure, the coalition will fall.

On parliamentary selection (obviously a controversial issue in Stoke), because it demotivates members and can drive them out of the party, he was asked if he would give an undertaking to stop the imposition of candidates by the central party? Ed replied the impositions happened because the 'special rule' period had been applied for longer than usual. To avoid this happening again, CLPs need to select their candidates earlier. If MPs are going to step down, they owe their CLPs the courtesy to give them plenty of time to organise a selection process.

On the deficit, the questioner felt the Tories had enjoyed a free ride at the despatch box and they were using the debt to railroad though an ideologically-driven cuts agenda. Ed replied that when the Tories have completed their spending review in the autumn we have to be ready with an alternative to their draconian cuts. We have to challenge them on their rewrite of history: this was a crisis of the banking sector and not the public sector.

On foreign policy, though he avoided direct discussion of Iraq, Ed said that under Blair New Labour mistook the alliance with the USA as the need to agree with Bush's on everything. Britain needs to disagree with America when necessary, and also be more willing to criticise Israel for its actions (in fact, he went as far to say Britain and the EU should not upgrade its relations with Israel (whatever that means) until it has made real progress on Gaza).

As a trade unionist I was particularly interested to hear his opinions on workplace rights. I got the impression from elsewhere that Ed more or less supported the status quo. If he did hold this position, then he's recently moved on it. He believed all industrial legislation needs to be reviewed: he thought the labyrinthine rules on strike ballots were utterly absurd. He was also for union access to workplaces as of right, a strengthening of rules on unfair dismissal and redundancy, and get away from how the rest of the world views Britain: as a country that hires and fires in cavalier fashion.

Lastly, Trotskyist readers of a certain pedigree might be interested to learn Ed was fully in favour of Young Labour having more independence and the right to take its own positions on things. This is necessary if we are to build a culture where the party can trust itself, and a movement fully in touch with the concerns and struggles outside of parliament.

This meeting pleasantly surprised me. In contrast to gloomy comment on other blogs, I thought Ed Miliband's stall was solidly labourist. For example, whereas Ed Balls combines a Keynesian orientation to the economy with a near-Powellite view on immigration, Ed Miliband eloquently argued that immigration was a lightning rod for discontent. An economic programme that places jobs and house building at the core of a coherent industrial strategy would undermine the antipathy large sections of Labour voters feel toward immigrant workers. Sure, it's not the solidly socialist programme some demand as the condition for taking out Labour membership, but it's a clear social democratic break with the Third Way/neoliberal claptrap that went before.

Speaking to various folk afterwards, more than a few members said it reaffirmed their decisions to back Ed. It's fair to say he picked up some converts too. Speaking to a local leading trade unionist, he said if Ed Miliband won his (sizable) branch would join the party
en masse. Of course, they should join now to help make sure he does. And again, the atmosphere was convivial, friendly, and there was plenty of time after for socialising.

Whether one supports him or not, if Ed Miliband wins the leadership contest Labour will be a more interesting, more gratifying place to be. Why not
come aboard?

Friday, 30 July 2010

Friday Business

No time for a proper post tonight, so just a couple of things.

First up, nearly everyone who follows British politics will have heard about the brouhaha concerning the blocked Sheffield Forgemasters loan from the treasury, and Nick Clegg's despicable role in doing nothing about it. And, as Jimmy Cricket liked to say, there's more. According to
this Tribune piece the Tories were told in no uncertain terms by a Sheffield-based donor to veto the Forgemasters loan. What was that, a wealthy businessman dictated a course of action to a Tory government, and the LibDem leader just sucked it up? Surely not. As Denis MacShane says in his piece, had something like this happened on Labour's watch the press would have been all over it. And its true. Remember Bernie Ecclestone? The Hinduja brothers?

Seeing as everyone else has been doing reminders ... don't forget to vote for your favourite left blogger from Stoke-on-Trent in the annual
Total Politics beauty contest. Polling closes midnight tomorrow!

1. You must vote for your ten favourite blogs and ranks them from 1 (your favourite) to 10 (your tenth favourite).
2. Your votes must be ranked from 1 to 10. Any votes which do not have rankings will not be counted.
3. You MUST include at least FIVE blogs in your list, but please list ten if you can. If you include fewer than five, your vote will not count.
4. Email your vote to toptenblogs@totalpolitics.com
5. Only vote once.
6. Only blogs based in the UK, run by UK residents or based on UK politics are eligible. No blog will be excluded from voting.
7. Anonymous votes left in the comments will not count. You must give a name
8. All votes must be received by midnight on 31 July 2010. Any votes received after that date will not count.

While you're at it, give the
worst blogs poll your votes too. At the moment right wing blogs are racing out in front!

Lastly, when did
this happen?


I'm talking about the phenomena of nursery graduations. Sounds like something southern softies or yanks would be into, but no, apparently it's a worldwide thing practiced even by pre-schoolers in Stoke! I blame ZaNuLieBore.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Worst of All Worlds

Nick Robinson's Five Days That Changed Britain was not the revelation-fest BBC trailers led us to believe. Predictably, it turned out to be a mix of banalities and stories that have been around the media block. I don't know what readers thought, but I was almost knocked out my chair to discover Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown "didn't get on". And my jaw hit the floor when it was revealed David Cameron thought Clegg was someone he could do business with.

Okay, I'm being a bit facetious. But I did come away with the impression the real story of the post-election negotiations between Labour, the Tories and LibDems is yet to be told.


For the LibDems, ultimately a deal with Labour couldn't be done because of Gordon: the real reason, it turned out, had more to do with Clegg's volte-face over spending cuts. The official ConDem narrative claims the LibDems changed their minds once they saw the books. In fact, as Clegg says in his interview, he had changed his mind because of the Eurozone's sovereign debt crisis. Curiously, he couldn't bring himself to mention this while the campaigning was in full swing, making his attacks on the Tories particularly hypocritical.

I was of the view the best we could have hoped for in the election, given Labour's standing in the polls, was a coalition with the LibDems. That didn't preclude Labour fighting to win. In fact, given the balance of political forces, every single vote would have strengthened its hand in any negotiated settlement. Neither was it a result I desired. But it was a sober assessment eventually borne out by the election results. So what
did come as a genuine surprise was how little prepared the Labour leadership were. In his interview, Peter Mandelson said Cameron's public offer to the LibDems was met with genuine bemusement and scepticism by Brown and the rest of his team (the Dark Lord had already divined a coalition between the two was more than possible, of course). If this is true, if they did expect the LibDems to spur the Tories' advances, why weren't the leadership already preparing for serious negotiations? Asking Ed Balls and Mandelson about their first meeting with the LibDems, their admission that there was no briefing document or even a discussion beforehand damns Brown's team as criminally complacent.

It seems the prospect of a deal was more or less fluffed by Labour before negotiations begun. But it was not all the Brownites' fault. At the second formal meeting between the two parties, the LibDems dropped Clegg's cuts bombshell, a position all wings of Labour would have found unacceptable. In truth, while the voters on May 6th didn't know it (nor, for that matter, the vast majority of LibDems), the yellow party's policies were already in alignment with the Tories.

A rather softer portrait of the Tories emerges from the documentary. Apparently Cameron had originally decided to go for a minority government if the Conservatives had won over 300 seats but were short of a majority. But then, we're told he woke up on the Friday morning thinking "a coalition [with the LibDems] seemed the right thing to do." In other words, the coalition began life as a whim. This explanation of its origins were reinforced by William Hague's contribution - he said apart from some idle musing before the election, no one thought about forming a coalition. I know the Tories are not-so-affectionately known as the Stupid Party, but surely there was some hard political calculation going on.

Returning to the LibDems, Clegg, David Lyons,
et al. all emphasised how accommodating they found the Conservatives. Reporting on conversations with his party's negotiators, Paddy Ashdown said they were amazed at the speed Tories were conceding key points on their brief. He paraphrased their positions as "Would you like this? We've been trying to get rid of this for some time." More evidence Cameron calculated a tie-up with the LibDems would marginalise the moonbats on the hard Tory right. What I'd like to know is just what they conceded (apart from the AV referendum) considering the coalition's programme is barely distinguishable from the Tory manifesto.

We know the rest. The Tories and LibDems tied the knot and their grotesque offspring weren't slow to materialise. They have set about dismantling what remains of the welfare state. The cold dead hands of neoliberal dogma is driving economic policy. And Nick Clegg is overseeing the sorts of constitutional gerrymandering he would have roundly denounced in the past. Of course, the Tories were always going to do this. But as Andrew Adonis points out in his interview, the LibDems
chose to align themselves with a right wing agenda. So much for social liberalism.

One thing Ashdown says in
Five Days That Changed Britain stands out. On the hung parliament result, he said "The electorate had invented an excruciating instrument of torture for the LibDems." Going by the policies they are now promoting, you could say they're returning the favour.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Economic Vandalism and the UK Film Council

When the Tories said they were building a bonfire of the quangos they weren't kidding. That a number of health-related bodies were axed in Monday's cull was disappointing but not surprising. In their ideologically-driven cuts agenda if you haven't got a (narrowly-defined) economic value then you're fair game, regardless of the social value you possess.

Which makes the abolition of the UK Film Council an even more curious decision. This particular move will save the treasury a whopping £15m/year, and was probably chosen because "it's the arts" and apart from liberal/luvvie-types, no one will give a toss. But this is a stupid decision from the standpoint of building on the economic recovery AND securing tax receipts.

Since the UK Film Council was set up in 2000, some £160m of government money has been invested in film production. This money has been unevenly spread across approximately 900 pictures, which, according to the UKFC has generated £700m in worldwide box office receipts.

Of course, the total number of receipts cannot be considered the return on the government's outlay. The UKFC oversees the distribution of lottery money too, and it is very rare to find a film funded solely by this and tax monies. To borrow a phrase from other areas of government, UKFC-funded films are public/private partnerships to varying degrees.

So permit me this small *unscientific* exercise to illustrate the kinds of damage the coalition government's short sightedness is about to inflict.

Suppose all 900 films received an equal slice of public money. Of the £160m, each receives approximately £177,778 as a subsidy. If we treat this as capital, from the state's point of view profit is defined by the increased tax returns over and above the initial outlay.

The table below lists a dozen well-known films that have received UKFC financial backing of some sort, with their budgets, worldwide box office takings, and gross profits:


This yields a total gross of £185.87m

Calculating the tax payable on this is a difficult business. The government taxes the companies that own the films, not the individual pictures themselves. Cinemas take a slice on ticket sales too. But for illustrative reasons I will suppose each film is equivalent to a discrete firm taxable at the 28% Corporation Tax rate.

Applying that rate to total gross profits gives us £52.04m that goes to the treasury. That works out as an average of £4.34m per film, or a return of £24 for every pound of taxpayers' money the UKFC invested (assuming the subsidy is constant).

There's more. Let us estimate the wage bill of these films account for 70% of their budget. Their total budget was £57.02m, of which £39.91m was expended as wages. Assuming all staff were basic income tax rate payers (which, of course they're not, but some actors and production staff are foreign nationals and/or not domiciled in Britain, they do not pay tax on earnings here - it serves as a rough equaliser), a further £7.98m makes its way back to the treasury.

That's £60m tax off just 12 films. And that's without counting the multiplier effects all this economic activity has had in terms of supply chain, VAT take, cast and crew's spending, etc.

Nor does it account for future multipliers. Take Keira Knightley, for example. Bend it Like Beckham catapulted her into the A-List and helped her become a big box office draw. Not only does the treasury benefit from the large fees she's able to command, but also the cut it gets from the stardust she's sprinkled on monsters like Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and Love Actually. Her case shows the return on the UKFC's initial Bend It investment will pay dividends for as long as Keira makes films, and beyond. The same is true of other actors, directors, crews and studios whose pictures have received tax payers' assistance, whether they meet the short-term criteria of returning a profit to the treasury or not. As their reputations are built, so is their bankable value and with it their taxable pay. And returning to the short term, even if all the other 888 UKFC-funded films were commercial failures they too had their multiplier effects by virtue of their economic activity.

This may be an unscientific experiment, but it illustrates how the government's decision to scrap the UKFC is not just an act of artistic philistinism. It's a case of economic vandalism too.


NB All figures are taken from Box Office Mojo and individual wikipedia pages. Where the only available figures have been given in dollars, they were converted to sterling using the exchange rate pertaining at the time.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Violence Against Women in Sin City

Always one to move with the times, I've recently got round to watching 2005's big screen adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City. There's little point recapitulating the plot(s) of the six vignettes that make up the film, seeing as Wikipedia's already done it. But there are a few things I'd like to say about the violence.

Um, there's lots of it. The movie is stunning to look at, even when heads explode, limbs are hacked off, and a particularly vicious serial killer is castrated. As this
hostile review points out, the violence is as copious as it is sadistic. One is tempted to say it's supposed to be. Frank Miller's graphic novels are a roid rage homage to 30s and 40s pulp crime fiction. It is a ménage à trois of redemptive violence, 1940s hyperreality, and a misogynistic/reductive view of women. Robert Rodriguez excuses his utterly faithful portrayal out of a desire to remain true to Miller's originals. For him Sin City was not so much an adaptation, more a translation. In other words, the artistic equivalent of "I wus only following orders, Guv".

And, as you might expect, the gendering of
Sin City's violence is deeply problematic. You might argue it doesn't matter, that the film is a blow for equal opportunities as men and women alike are threatened, tortured and butchered. But the misogynistic devil's in the detail. Not only does the film begin and end with the murders of women, all the violence directed at them during the two hours inbetween is tied to sexuality.

Exhibit A: Goldie (Jaime King) shares a night of passion with Marv (Mickey Rourke). There are breast shots aplenty. Marv wakes up to find she's been murdered in a bid to fit him up.

Exhibit B: After escaping the police, Marv hooks up with his probation officer, Lucille (Carla Gugino). Not only does she parade around her flat in her knickers, we are told she's gay. Later Marv winds up in a serial killer's dungeon with a naked Lucille, and shortly after she gets machine gunned.

Exhibit C: It's revealed the serial killer, Kevin (Elijah Wood!), and his mentor, Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer), ate the remains of the prostitutes Kevin had killed.

Exhibit D: An evening with Dwight (Clive Owen) (where it is strongly implied they had sex) sees Shellie (Brittany Murphy) getting a post-coital slapping by her ex-boyfriend Jackie Boy (Benicio del Toro).

Exhibit E: Leader of the prostitute-controlled Old Town, Gail (Rosario Dawson) is captured and tortured by the Mob, who want to clear the women's co-op out and return it to the bad old days of pimps and violence. For good measure Dwight gives his on-off lover a slap too.

Exhibit F: Nancy (Jessica Alba) who was saved by Hartigan (Bruce Willis) in the second vignette from the clutches of a serial killer grows up to be an erotic dancer. Her would-be rapist tracks her down and starts torturing her before Hartigan saves the day again.

The linkage between sex and violence toward women is reinforced when you consider the three female characters who do not suffer physical attack. The 11 year old Nancy is abducted and threatened, but is saved. Miho (Devon Aoki) is one of the few prostitutes who wears clothes, and serves as their samurai enforcer in several slick but bloody scenes (of course, a Japanese woman
must be proficient in martial arts). And lastly, Becky, the youngest and most child-like of the prostitutes (who, again, wears clothes) turns her back on her sisters and betrays Old Town to the Mob. She escapes the ensuing shoot out and having left prostitution behind, the final scene sees her share a lift with the assassin from the first scene. In contrast to the overt violence of the rest of the film, his method of killing has already been established as gentle, almost romantic.

The portrayal of women in this film doesn't send the most empowering of messages: if you're a woman and you have sex, male violence is sure to follow.

In a decade stamped by neoliberalism, big advances in biological/genetic sciences, and the mainstreaming of pornographic aesthetics, tropes and "
world views", the body in culture has been objectified and reified an order of magnitude greater than the exploitation flicks of the 70s and 80s. This is a dehumanised body that's managed and dissected. It's a body for public displays of graphic sex and violence. And it's the sort of hegemonic body likely to remain at the heart of our culture for quite some time to come.

Therefore,
Sin City might be zeitgeisty. It may swim with the cultural stream. And the box office takings (plus imminent sequel) suggest there's a ready audience for it. But none of this excuses its positioning of female sexuality as the source of male violence. Sin City's neither edgy or clever. It's a misogynist's wet dream.

Monday, 26 July 2010

New Left Group (Sort of) Launched

Yes, another one. This report comes from the indefatigable Pete McLaren, truly a hero of socialist labour if his involvement in scores of failed far left unity projects are anything to go by. Personally I think initiatives of this sort are a diversion from the main task of the day, but I recognise there are comrades who will never accept the perspective that Labour remains the political centre of gravity for the organised working class. But I do wish comrades all the best as a strong and united far left might help pull Labour in a leftward direction.

Unfortunately, going from this report there are few reasons to be optimistic. Some might be thankful the larger groups - the SP and SWP - stayed away for fear of being taken over and/or annexed to their own political objectives. But if you're in the business of building a nation-wide left alternative, you cannot do it without the activists and resources they bring to the table. Another point is the attendance. I suppose it is an advance to have some community campaigns on board, even if they are led by old left time-servers. But the impression you get from Pete's report is the new Network is but a shell of an organisation unlikely to make any inroads over the coming years.

This report was first posted to the Indie SA discussion list.


Report from the national meeting of progressive, community and socialist parties July 24th, Rugby

1. Welcome, introductions, and election of chair and minute taker
In attendance: Coventry And Warwickshire Socialist Alliance; Tyne & Wear Left Unity; Rugby Red Green Alliance; Socialist Alliance; Alliance for Green Socialism; Kidderminster Independent Community Health Concern; Epping Forrest; Wellingborough Independent Socialists; Wigan Community Action; CPGB; Green Left; Convention of the Left; Socialist Resistance - and a number of observers, making a total of 33 people present.

Pete McLaren opened the meeting welcoming everyone on behalf of Rugby Red Green Alliance, and asked those present to introduce themselves. He suggested Nick Long chaired, and that he took notes and compiled a report - this was agreed

After that process, Nick Long took the chair and described how this meeting had arisen. He accepted that the varying groups would have different perspectives. He was against there being any 'top down' committee. The main agenda was to share experiences and network, whilst hearing about what was going on around the country in terms of campaigning.

2. Apologies – DLP; ISL; AWL; tUSP; Bermondsey Socialist Society; Brighton TUSC; Bracknell Socialists; Workers Power. Messages of support were circulated.

3. Reports from each local group/party and national organisation
Each group/organization had 3 minutes to explain their role and outline their priorities/interests. These are summarised below:

Tyner and Wear - Many different groups involved, - a bottom upwards approach, fighting for socialism. The demise of the Labour Party means there is a need for a progressive banner. The problem of electoral clashes was highlighted but the group is wary of structures. The Northern Public Sector Alliance has been launched to fight the cuts.

Wigan - Local election results were positive, with a 13% average in Wigan for the left. We need a broad, pluralist, democratic, bottom upwards movement and an end to sectarianism. Nothing should be imposed.

Kidderminster - Started as a single issue party to defend their local hospital but now called Independent Community and Health Concern with seven councilors on Wyre Forest and control of Stourport Council. They had an independent MP for two parliamentary terms until this year. Their members have a wide range of political views.

Wellingborough - Started four years ago. One of their key objectives is to change the age, gender and ethnic mix of political organisations. They work with other progressive local organisations such as Hope not Hate, and are trying to re-invigorate their local TUC. They had a TUSC candidate in the General Election.

Manchester/Convention of the Left - The Convention of the Left had been established to show that there was an alternative to Labour. It had the support of the Labour Left, the CPB, Respect, the Green Party, the Green Left and a number of Socialist organisations. The CoL had organised a number of events around this year's Labour Party Conference. They were calling for bottom upwards unity to fight the cuts and they wanted an end to the 'sticking flags in the sand' mentality of the Left.

Leeds/Alliance for Green Socialism - The AGS is committed to Socialism and Environmentalism. It has 60 members in Leeds and a number of other branches. It is involved in a wide range of campaigns including elections. It wants to co-operate with other locally based groups.

Coventry and Warwickshire Socialist Alliance - Members were already campaigning against local cuts, including the closure of three fire stations in Warwickshire.

The Green Left - The Green Left had influence within the Green Party. Caroline Lucas had been elected against the trend, with her Socialist credentials. The Green Party should have been formally invited to the meeting. It was important to hold local discussions to avoid clashes. The Green Left was also active in opposing cuts.

CPGB - A national organisation, campaigning for a united Left party, based on Marxism, and were in favour of any step towards that. We need an organisation to unite the '57 varieties' and we need our own media. People need to be willing to be in the minority within a new movement, which needs to be pluralist. We need to build co-operatives and anti-cuts campaigns with a trade union orientation.

Lewisham People Before Profit - The organisation included a number of campaigning groups, all fighting against profiteers. They polled over 14,000 votes across Lewisham in May, although Labour support cut across theirs. Since the elections they had focused on fighting against the cuts and there was a general need for more trade union involvement.

Socialist Resistance - Described themselves as an eco-socialist group, which works inside Respect. Respect did generally well in the general election, averaging 13%. They were interested in any moves towards Left unity. They were in favour of a broad democratic anti-capitalist party.

Socialist Alliance - The SA endorsed today's meeting, days after it had been first suggested, because the SA has always stood for Left unity. It launched the Socialist Green Unity Coalition in 2005 to avoid election clashes and the Left Unity Liaison Committee in 2008 which now involves 15 different Left and Green Left organisations. It is a founder member of the CNWP and supported No2EU and TUSC as potential unity projects. The SA sees today's meeting as part of the process of building a new Left alternative/ party with a federal structure.

Epping Forest - Described as a community activist group. Stressed the need to swap ideas and develop local networks into a national one. They had worked hard against the BNP.

A number of observers made comments. A member of Socialist Resistance described their work in Birmingham against Academies. A member of Tyne & Wear Left Unity suggested we find ways carefully of presenting bids to area committees of the Co-op. It was suggested we set up a website and blog. A member of the SA outlined how some campaigns, including those against Immigration controls, could not just be local. The fight against the BNP had had some success In London. Wellingborough TUSC candidate Paul Crofts thought that the Socialist Party had become less sectarian, and hoped other socialist groups would follow. We needed a new Left party like Die Linke, he added.

4. Discussion on the establishment of a national network for all local/regional/national organisations, including a working title and the election of functional officers
Nick Long, in the Chair, suggested the establishment of a national network committee with one representative from each organisation. We need to hold the line for people who have broken from Labour. We need something tentative loose and federal - a network which will be there for the mushrooming community based anti cuts groups. The following points were made in the discussion:

* Local groups could take it in turn to organize and host meetings.

* We should have an organising committee and use a website and Facebook.

* We need to establish a purpose for coming together - it could be support and facilitation.

* We need to be as broadly based as possible.

* The network needs to enable and empower.

* The focus should be on fighting the cuts, with a national conference.

* The title needs to be positive.

* We need to be doing more than just opposing cuts, as important as that is.

* We should wait until later in the year to decide a title and elect officers.

* We need to avoid a rigid structure.

* We must be open and inclusive with defined aims.

* It would be inappropriate to have a title at this stage.

* We do need to ensure we meet again - we do need to elect people to ensure that happens.

A number of possible titles for the Network were suggested.

The following proposals were agreed:

* That the ‘People before Profit Network’ would be the interim title – agreed overwhelmingly with three votes against and three abstentions.

* That Nick Long (Lewisham PbP) and Pete McLaren (SA) continue as acting Convenors and arrange the date and venue of the next meeting.

* To set up a Web Site/Facebook site – David Manasse (TWLU) volunteered to set this up.

Pete McLaren 25/07/10

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Toward a Sociology of Elite Policy Formation

One thing you'd be hard pressed to find in social science literature is the sociology of policy formation. There's plenty of material on power and the state, but there's no direct observation of political or business elites and how they make decisions. Thursday's talk at Keele's environmental politics summer school by Mike Jacobs, Gordon Brown's former special advisor on the environment, goes a little way toward plugging that gap.

His talk, titled 'The Political Economy of Government Policy Making: The View from the Inside' was a fascinating glimpse into how government operates outside the public view, and demonstrated the extent to which how incomplete present theorising about policy formation is. Traditional views in social and political theory on the state either positions it as an appendage of capital (Marxism) or the expression of successful interest groups (liberalism). Where the state is granted a certain level of autonomy against the rest of the society (however that is conceptualised), agency is usually attributed to institutions competing within the overall structure. This leaves a significant silence over the agency of the politicians: do they have no influence over the state at all? Going from his own experience, Mike said he and his colleagues certainly felt pressure but their will didn't feel anything other than free.

Using Labour's environmental/climate change policy shift from 2005 on, Mike constructs the beginnings of a model that can help explain governmental action while escaping the incomplete picture painted by existing approaches.

Before 2005-6, he claimed Labour's battery of green policies were anaemic. But then there was a discernible shift. Whatever criticisms can be made of the measures the government adopted it marked a change in how seriously it took the issue.

This new package included the 2008 Climate Change Act, which was the first piece of legislation of the sort in the world. It set a target of 80% carbon emissions reduction by 2050. As a means of achieving this, it set into motion a five-yearly system of carbon budgets. The first, which was formulated in April 2009 set a 34% emissions reduction target on 2008 figures by 2020. The target is enforced by law and requires government takes the lead. For example, each department has its own budget.

Other policies Labour initiated were an ambitious nine-fold increase in the generating capacity of renewables, accounting for 18% of total energy generation by 2020; a ban on new coal-fired power stations without carbon capture and storage (there are subsidies available - but this is far from an
unproblematic technology); subsidised cavity wall and loft insulation for the poor (with energy companies picking up the tab); an effort to commericalise electric cars; a low carbon industrial strategy; reform of the energy supply market; and the creation of a national green investment bank. The good news from a green point of view is the coalition government are committed to these policies too.

The big problem storing up political trouble for the future, and therefore any widespread (tacit) support is the market reform. Paying for this strategy doesn't come cheap and it could see energy prices rise by about 20% by 2015 - just in time for the scheduled election!

So how and why did Labour break with what went before, especially as the normal operation of government is characterised by what Mike called 'cautious incrementalism'? This requires an understanding of the government's psychological frame of action. Its chief characteristic, he argued, is the studied avoidance of punishment. Punishment is defined by the point at which criticism reaches a nodal point and becomes damaging, resulting in a loss of support. The 10p tax fiasco of a couple of years back is one such example. Governments do expect an everyday barrage of criticism but as long as it doesn't latch onto an issue and persistently push it damage is avoided. Mike suggests therefore that governments seek out a 'normal operating sphere' not of reward, but of non-punishment. Hence governments' preference for operating cautiously. Hence governments' tendency to compromise on policies it wishes to introduce.

This psychological sphere of non-punishment is constrained/enabled by three sectors. The first is public, or, more properly, media opinion. While rejecting hypodermic models of media consumption, nevertheless the public at large pay little attention to policy debates and everyday government business. What information they do possess comes from (and, therefore, is framed by) the media. Hence politicians' pandering to the press pack and treatment of it as if they accurately reflect public thinking. The second is the ever-present shadow cast by business. Not only is it felt via the media, business often makes direct representations to government. And third, there is the circumscribed but real sphere of politicians' agency. So how did this complex of factors convert Labour to a more radical green policy agenda?

In the public/media opinion factor, there were four developments. First, the accumulation of scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change filtered through the liberal media and, crucially, the BBC. This built upon a public awareness already softened up by years of activity by the Green Party and environmentalist NGOs. Second, the NGOs presented a green policy agenda with concrete sets of proposals government could easily adapt. Third, as part of Cameron's campaign to detoxify the Tory brand in the wake of the 2005 defeat, he accepted the climate change agenda wholesale. Suddenly the Tories were taking NGOs seriously. This in turn created a pressure for the government to out-green the Tories, leading to a collapse of opposition to tackling climate change in mainstream politics. And lastly, by 2010 there was a significant constituency of voters who took green politics seriously. Downing Street strategists estimated there were 25-30 seats where this would make a crucial difference.

For business, a sufficient segment of capital has developed green commercial interests. The low carbon economy, the need to replace a third of Britain's energy generation capacity by 2020, and carbon trading all offer new market opportunities. The conversion of the CBI to green capitalism didn't hurt either. Second the famous
Stern Report (commissioned by Mike at the government's behest) used the kind of economic language easily digestible by business. To illustrate, while business is largely blind to quality of life arguments and perspectives that argue the inherent value of biodiversity, it has o problem understanding that spending one per cent of GDP now will save an estimated 5-20% of GDP dealing with the effects of climate change later on.

Lastly, in the realm of political will, first there was a political pressure from other EU member states. The adoption of emissions targets across the bloc followed the lead of the EU's four big powers. As a result of its activism around the issue, Britain played a leading role in this thereby further locking in green policy at home. Second a new generation of politicians behind the green agenda were acquiring ministerial portfolios. Particularly key were the actions in office of the Miliband brothers. They were able to drive policy because the above constellation of forces favoured an abandonment of business-as-usual cautious incrementalism.

From this Mike drew number of conclusions. Given the present day balance of forces, a business case was absolutely crucial to securing a shifting of policy gears. Second, state activism was equally important. Capital is far from being intrinsically green and therefore requires incentives and compulsions with the force of law to behave in the desired fashion. Thirdly, public/media opinion has been partly driven by government action. Fourthly, the discourse employed by all key actors was (comparatively) easy for a lay audience to understand and was sufficiently convincing enough to marginalise the various species of climate change denialism. Fifth, these coalesced together to create even more room for government, i.e. it was able to widen the sphere of non-punishment by simultaneously tilting to the
zeitgeist *and* pushing the envelope.

As well as providing a fascinating account of Labour's environmentalism, it opens the way for a sophisticated theorisation of government action. Not just because it's jolly well interesting from a sociological point of view, but also it's
useful to know for anyone committed to progressive social change. The framework offered here can assist socialists and others in how we formulate strategy, particularly where struggles involve placing demands on the state. As the above political economy of state psychology demonstrates, absolutely key is to making sure government action happens (or doesn't happen) is to impinge on its perceived sphere of non-punishment.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Feminist Superhero of the 1980s

The 80s: the decade that almost cost us the ozone layer. But there were some great things about it: the ZX Spectrum, the mainstreaming of gay subculture, the raising of the Mary Rose ... and the golden age of kids' TV.

Okay, I am biased. My formative years belong to the 80s. But there seemed to be something about the must-watch telly of the day. Advances in computer technology brought us
Knightmare. A jobbing Peter Jones of Manfred Mann fronted Beat the Teacher. And bestriding the decade like a cartoon colossus was The Mysterious Cities of Gold, perhaps the finest animated series children's TV has ever seen.

But there was another trope that got a lot of airing. As the USA and Soviet Union duked it out on the frontlines of the Cold War, a ridiculous number of Manichean cartoons were churned out of American studios. He-Man vs Skeletor. Autobots vs Decepticons. Thundercats vs Mutants. MASK vs VENOM. Good grief, even Teddy Ruxpin, the Care Bears and Rainbow Brite had to thwart their own set of baddies in every episode.

This was an innocent time. There was evil out there, but at least you knew who your enemies were. But it was also a hyper-masculine time. It was the blokes saving the world/Third Earth/Cybertron/Eternia with their might-is-right philosophy. By whatever means the baddie was eventually overcome, it rested on a solid foundation of guns and swordplay.

But still, one woman slipped through the net. She refused to play by their rules. Sure, her show had the odd dodgy subtext, but for 16 episodes it was her rescuing the men and saving us from megalomaniacs and aliens. Step forward Jessica Drew, AKA Spider-Woman!

This sister really did do it for herself - and truth, justice and the American Way. With the web weaving and venom blast, this was a torch she carried alone until Buffy spearheaded California's global cultural offensive at the dawn of the 21st century. So as a tribute to Spider-Woman, unsung feminist icon and standard bearer for kick ass women in boys' own TV, here she is defending London from an invasion of alien pyramids.




Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Living in Labour







Jim of The Daily (Maybe) fame has sent me a series of questions about being a socialist in the Labour party. As there are readers who've only just joined or are thinking of joining the party I thought I would share my answers.


a) Do you feel there's space for you to make an individual contribution?

It depends what you mean by contribution. In terms of an activist contribution, then yes. Our CLP has effectively been run down over a period of years and has recently undergone a split. So there is plenty of space for people with an activist conception of politics to get stuck in. If by contribution you mean being listened to and taken seriously by other, longer standing members then the answer to that is yes as well. I haven't hidden my politics from anyone. People know until recently I was active with the Socialist Party, and some have proven curious about how we organised things there and how that experience can be applied here.

To be honest, any half decent ward branch and CLP should be able to accommodate the experience and energies of those who cut their teeth in the far left and/or other radical political traditions.


b) Do you feel there's space to influence your local branch from the left?

Yes, and in a modest way I already have done. The bottom line for any socialist not involved in one of 57 varieties of party-building is to spread socialist politics the best they can and encourage "normal workers" to get involved in political activity.

At our annual general meeting just over a month ago I was elected the CLP's political education officer. Some might see this as an opportunity to lecture the membership on their hobby horses once a month, but I don't. I outline what I think can be done in the role
here. The first thing I did as PEO was to organise a monthly political discussion in my ward branch on a topic of members' choice (readers familiar with the SP and SWP will know the deal). The first discussion? 'Is socialism out of date?' In addition to this, I put together a monthly report every CLP member gets to see. This is an opportunity to plug a few hobby horses and introduce members to decent political writing they may have otherwise missed. But I am balanced and draw attention to pieces from all wings of the labour movement.

I've also been elected the trade union liaison officer. I intend to use this position to encourage the sizeable number of local affiliated union branches to send representatives to our meetings and encourage them to become more involved in the political process. While it is true the upper echelons of the party have treated unions with barely-concealed contempt since Blair captured the leadership in 1994, the failure of unions to not properly use the thousands of links they have with party organisations did nothing to strengthen their hand when it came to confrontations with the previous government and local authorities. A politicised trade union movement active inside the party it founded is the best way of insuring the sorts of neoliberal excesses we saw in the Blair/Brown years are avoided in future.


c) Is there an active membership to engage with?

Yes, there is. In the SP you had the inactive members, the comrades who'd infrequently attend meetings, and those who would attend and do the bulk of the work. There's a similar pattern to local Labour membership, though as you would expect the numbers are bigger for all three categories. My CLP's new executive has an activist conception of politics and are looking at ways of encouraging the bulk of the membership to become more involved in party work. Part of the PEO role is making this point of view part of the CLP's common sense too. During the election we spoke to people who'd never been canvassed by Labour activists before, despite Stoke Central being a stronghold since the year dot. That, frankly, is a scandalous situation and one we're still in the process of rectifying.

d) Do you feel membership is affecting your own political positions?

No I don't. But I cannot give a solid guarantee this will always be the case. It's a basic truism of Marxism that social being conditions consciousness. You only have to look at the numerous examples of militants who've entered Labour and come out the other end with knighthoods and gongs to prove this. It wasn't because they lacked sufficient will power or didn't have enough Bolshevik iron in their souls: it was years of commitment to electoral politics around ever narrower definitions of 'what is possible' that did the job. Now I'm in the Labour party and know I will be constantly exposed to the same processes I cannot say, hand on heart, it will have no effect on me. But at least in my case there are things about my political activity that can shield me from this. First there is my existing politics - 17 years of professing Marxist views in circumstances one could hardly describe as "germane" do not pass quickly. Second, among my closest comrades are a group of ex-SP'ers who've come to similar conclusions about Labour as I have. Third, I write left wing political stuff on an (almost) daily basis and mainly read the blogs of like-minded folk. Fourth, I do work outside the Labour party too. And lastly, I am conscious of the "moderating" influence Labour politics has had on others and could have on me.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Socialism and the Big Society

The Tories do not have the monopoly on the Big Society. They've parked their tanks on a lawn claimed by their greatest enemy. This tradition, the one this blog stands in, would like to see the state not only shrink, but dissolve. It wants the market economy to give way to democratisation and planning, enabling the gearing of production around need and not profit. The new society will see the bulk of the population participate in civic life and enjoy opportunities for developing their talents and interests in ways capitalism can never dream of, or accept. All of this is rests upon an organised, voluntary and conscious association of society's members. Socialism, to call this set up by its proper name, is the ultimate in Big Society thinking. And it's not just a nice idea: it's a potential future the development of capitalism has made possible.

This is a million miles away from Dave's vision of the Big Society. You can read his big speech
here.

As conservatism goes there's very little new on offer. The Big Society is a blend of old One Nation Toryism (chillaxed with multiculturalism and LGBT folk), and a bootstraps philosophy that covers for the Thatcherite vandalism about to be inflicted on public services. Quite how dog-eat-dog cuts encourage philanthropy and "social action" is not really explained, beyond a vague notion of the state(!) helping people to help people.

At its core is the usual Tory obsessions with the small state. As is always the case, the shrinking of the state is about divesting the social responsibilities that have been won from it over decades of struggle. They never dismantle the apparatus of corporate welfare, such as the
Export Credit Guarantee Department. The secret services and the military mysteriously escape the conservative quest for the small state too. Attacking the socially useful is in, getting rid of the socially useless is out.

Burying deeper into this political vapourware, one finds a simplistic distinction between the state and civil society. On the one side is the state, and on the other there is everything else. The state can do productive things, but can only be used sparingly: it has an inherently deadening effect on the operation of market economies. It can lead to unreasonable expectations on the part of the electorate. If the state is rolled back, civil society can organise itself and, according to the blind virtue of the hidden hand, the greatest good for the greatest number will be achieved automatically, utilitarian-style! Small wonder Tories find corporate power unproblematic: they are but expressions of natural, self-organising processes. Their reality as amoral, rapacious, and dictatorial bureaucracies stuffing unpaid surplus labour into their insatiable maws flies under their radar. It's not that Tories are unusually cruel - though plenty of them are - it's that they cannot see things from the perspective of the class whose labour makes their existence possible.

There's little point critiquing Dave point by point. Reality will do a much better job of showing up the Big Society's contradictions and limitations than polemically raking his Big Idea over hot coals. It wont be long before Dave's BS ideology is interred in the faddish grave yard. A freshly dug plot has been reserved right next to the Third Way and Libertarian Paternalism.

In short, socialism is the *real* Big Society. Accept no pale blue imitations.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Speaking and Listening in Political Theory

Not the most exciting of titles ever to have appeared on this blog, but Andy Dobson's paper, 'Democracy and Nature: Speaking and Listening' (delivered at Keele's Environmental Politics Summer School) addressed a fundamental absence in political philosophy and democratic theory. For all the stresses on deliberation, dialogue, consensus-building and the like the focus has (pace Derrida) traditionally been on speaking and speech, about getting one's ideas and arguments across to an audience. Andy arrived at this lack by way of a journey through green political thinking.

Andy's paper began with a quotation from
Aristotle. A key foundation stone of his political philosophy is the distinction between humans and animals. He argued the difference lies not in gregariousness, or the ability to feel pleasure or pain but in the capacity for reasoned speech. This is what makes politics possible and exclusionary: without it participation is immediately ruled out. On this basis Andy suggested progressive politics (a slippery phrase if there ever was one) could be defined as the struggle for the right to speak and be heard. This receives support from an Aristotelian perspective: seeing as politics is premised on reasoned speech, excluding anyone from participation on other grounds is supremely irrational.

This definition is problematic for environmental politics because, under Aristotle's definition, the subjects of green politics lack the facility of speech. Future generations cannot speak yet, though as reasoned beings-to-be it is possible to represent their interests in the present. But the rest is 'dumb nature': it can never speak.

Nevertheless there have been efforts to extend the range of politics. For example, animal rights philosopher
Peter Singer and others participate in the Great Ape Project. This tries to argue that excluding the rest of the great ape family from politics altogether is inconsistent. They may be incapable of reasoned speech and therefore human politics, but their sapience is such that they should be afforded certain protections that sees them removed from the sphere of property to personhood. In Spain for example, the government's environmental committee granted great apes certain rights in 2008.

This project of course is limited: it only extends to certain related species who bear obvious resemblances to us. Other species who are as equally sapient but different - such as whales and dolphins - are excluded from the project. Therefore how can the rest of nature be brought into political theory?

For Andy, the work of French philosopher of science,
Bruno Latour can be of use here. In his influential The Politics of Nature (2004) he argued the intermeshing of social and the natural world means we cannot but help be involved in 'political ecology'. Therefore we should, epistemologically speaking, treat politics and nature as a single, unified case. In his book, Latour argues we can make a metaphorical distinction between the house of nature and the house of humans. The former possesses certainty and objectivity and is therefore a realm of 'authority'. In contrast, the latter is an abode of doubt, uncertainty and value judgement. Nature lacks speech but has authority. Humans have speech but lack authority, and so it's unsurprising so much political theory has put a barrier between the two.

As far as Latour is concerned this has led to a situation where some environmentalists have constructed a political theory that
ignores politics. The human/nature dichotomy is collapsed entirely into nature's authority: it is the ultimate legislator of human existence, therefore we have no choice but to curb economic growth, deindustrialise, etc. etc. The question of the kind of politics appropriate to this project is left hanging, hence the diversity of viewpoints that accept the premise of nature's unimpeachable authority, from anarcho-primitivism to eco-dictatorship.

This is a dead end for Latour, as are the interminable debates over what bits of dumb nature should be included in politics. If we start from his premise that politics and nature are intertwined and accept that the outcome of various postmodern/post-structuralist debates has been to philosophically problematise statements of fact, the politics appropriate to this is not one based on speech but on uncertainty. This 'new collective' moves away from subjects to propositions, from people who can speak to things that need to be taken into account. To use a current example, the concern with
the decline of Bees and other pollinating insects is a political problem in that it impacts on agri-business, food supply, raises questions about pollution and climate change, etc. It is a political problem, even though the apparent subjects - insects - cannot speak.

Andy argued this view breaks with Aristotle. Using his terms, Latour's new collective endows everything with the capacity to "speak". Non-humans have become beings of concern that provoke discussion and political action. But because they lack speech in the Aristotelian sense, they can only become political propositions if we
listen. This however is far from straightforward because, as a category of political thought, listening has been virtually ignored. For all the ink spilt on shared speech, mutual recognition, toleration and collaboration listening is, at best, only implied. By way of a demonstration, searching for speech in democratic theory returns millions of links off tens of thousands of articles. Doing the same for listening yielded just three. This means there's an absence in urgent need of working on.

By way of exploring a listening category, Andy briefly drew on two pieces. The first was the absence in
Iris Marion Young's 2002 book, Inclusion and Democracy. Considering the title, it does not consider how deficiencies in the capacity to listen reduces the quality of democracy. This isn't the flipside of Aristotle - that some people lack the ability of political listening - instead it is an effect of power. As John Dryzek argues in his book, Deliberative Democracy and Beyond (2000), the refusal to listen is a property of the privileged and therefore an exercise of their power.

I found Andy's paper fascinating, but there are two points I would like to make - the first on humanity/nature and the second on listening. Latour's replacement of the society/nature divide by a messy but unified collective subject isn't really new. The seeds of conceiving the intertwining of the two are present in Marx, as amply demonstrated by John Bellamy Foster's investigation,
Marx's Ecology (2000). The relationship human society has with nature is akin to a dialectical interpenetration of opposites. It is not analogous to a transaction between two discrete independent entities. What historical materialism describes is human history's gradual estrangement and alienation from nature. As the productive forces have grown we are less immediately abound by the vagaries of natural necessity . The problem is this human-nature 'metabolism' is unregulated: from the standpoint of capitalism as a social formation it is only dimly aware its operation undermines the natural supports that make it possible. Protecting the long-term interests of the beings that animate the system is low down on the list of priorities.

Of course, this isn't to say Marxism has applied Marx's insights systematically. Academics and other political opponents can get away with writing nonsense about Marx's 'Prometheanism' because Marxists themselves have often gone along with technocratic understandings of (economic) development - not helped by Marx's occasional lapses into phraseology that endorses this view. But sometimes you have to use Marx against Marx to extract the historical materialist kernel from the hyperbolic shell.

On listening, it seems to me this property is present but repressed in social democratic/labourist and socialist politics. In his concluding remarks, Andy suggested feminist and green politics are predisposed to listening because of their concern with identifying and exploring conflicts marginalised and ignored by mainstream political thinking. At least where the current
rhetoric of Labour is concerned, the emphasis is on listening. But the listening it has in mind is that consistent with the previous 13 years in government. It is rather the *appearance* of listening. For example, for all the hand wringing about the so-called core vote, at least three of the leadership candidates thinks reconnecting with the working class base means bashing benefit claimants and immigrants. This is not hearing: it's telling people what the candidates think they want to hear, which perfectly sums up the New Labour attitude to listening. It is an example of what Dryzek argues above. This wilful hard-of-hearing extends to the party organisation too. The gutting of member-led democracy in the party from the late 80s on has seen a decomposition of what political science calls the linkage function, the idea members and the party organisation keep political elites aware of what's going on 'on the ground' by feeding up information, policy ideas and feedback. This isn't surprising: Labour and social democratic traditions, for all their positives over conservative and liberal traditions, are fundamentally paternalist. From the outset, listening (at best) is about representing working class interests within the system. It is not listening aimed at making workers politically active themselves.

Marxist political thought is (theoretically) different. Regardless of whether you see yourself as some sort of Leninist or not, if Marxism is about encouraging the working class to organise in its own interests for the winning of political power. Such a project is premised on listening. i.e. If Marxists do not listen to the working class, how can it ever be won over to socialist politics? There seems to me to be two ways in which the Marxist tradition has dealt with listening. The first is with reference to the revolutionary organisation. In Lukacs's
History and Class Consciousness essay on the party ('Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation' (my commentary here), while the individual is subject to party discipline the health of the organisation is absolutely dependent on the free flow of critical discussion. Without it the formulation of tactics and strategy is impossible. In other words, the communist leadership has to listen to its members: listening is crucial for the linkage function to operate. A similar albeit less democratic point was made by Mao in relation to the 'mass line'. Here the party listens to the masses. The information is relayed upwards to cadre and leaders who, on this basis, formulate the line which is then transmitted back down and is agitated for among the masses. Here listening is absolutely crucial to the party becoming a concretisation of the masses' interests.

Then there is Gramsci. Hegemony is absolutely key to the bourgeoisie's rule. While it is, in the classical sense, guaranteed by the "armed bodies of men" organised by (and synonymous with) the capitalist state their rule is sustained by systems of cross class alliances who have been won over not just thanks to material privileges, but also (and interrelatedly) on the basis of consent. The assimilation of the outlook of these classes and class fractions to the common sense of capital is only possible because their historic bloc listens to their aspirations and demands. If this is not met it can result into a section splitting away and forming a sectional political party, or can be more serious and call the whole basis of their collective will into question. For Gramsci the job of the modern prince - the revolutionary socialist party - is to construct a counter hegemony. Everywhere this means winning the working class over to its political programme, which is a process of consent-building that cannot proceed on any other base than listening to the class. But elsewhere where the working class do not comprise the overwhelming majority of the populace its own historic bloc of allied classes has to be forged. Such class alliances are premised on not only organising among the other classes but listening to them and finding room for their expression in the counter-hegemonic bloc. The relationship between the workers and the peasantry in Russia was, for instance, the condition of the Bolshevik's success in 1917 and the subsequent civil war. And it was the break down of this relationship - the refusal of the bureaucratising leadership to listen - that contributed to the crises of the 1920s.

So while listening is present in Marxist political thought, there has been a tendency for it to be buried by the stress on what constitutes the correct political leadership.

In sum, following Latour's lead Andy is right that green politics (or, for that matter, any radical politics) must treat the human and the natural world as a continuum, and that this calls for a certain recasting of political theory in terms of listening. I agree. But while there may only be pregnant implications in mainstream democratic philosophy in this direction, I argue that of the 'old' traditions listening reaches its clearest, albeit slightly suppressed expression in Marxist thinking about politics.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Raoul Moat and Class Pride

As if the world needs one, it's time for another Raoul Moat post. Since his expiration on a rain soaked bank in the early hours of Saturday morning, the surreal media circus surrounding Moat's pursuit and stand off will not let him rest. Moat the man is dead, but his ghost is very much abroad. You can't move for tabloid tales about his failed relationships, his separation from his kids, and how he had developed paranoid tendencies. Every aspect of his life has been picked over, chewed up and spat out as lurid copy. Editorials rhapsodise about his misogyny and condemn him for his actions, but gleefully perform necromantic rites over his sad and wasted life to feed the insatiable demand for more, a demand they cynically contrived in the first place for ratings and paper sales. But when people outside the Fleet Street bubble take the media's lead and voice positive things about Moat on the internet, bewilderment strikes followed by hypocritical denunciation.

And so it is with the defunct Facebook page, 'RIP Raoul Moat you Legend'. I'm sure everyone's familiar with the story by now. A page expressing sympathy for Moat appears. It attracts some 35,000 people who "like this". Some of them pay tribute. Cue media shit storm. This prompted an intervention by Dave who rang up Facebook to voice his displeasure. He then was quoted by the media saying he couldn't understand why anyone would sympathise with a "callous murderer". Well Dave, it's the same reason why many Tories got the hump over General Augusto Pinochet's arrest in 2000 while the rest of population looked on bemused. B
ecause it's a *class thing*.

I'm not about to argue Raoul Moat is some sort of working class hero. He was a misogynistic social inadequate whose inability to deal with a lifetime's accumulation of disappointment and failure saw him lash out violently. True, there are suggestions of psychological problems and drug abuse but no one is saying he was mad or didn't realise what he was doing. While questions must be asked about the extent to which the authorities suspected Moat was dangerous, and whether the three shootings could have been avoided by early interventions, Moat was still conscious of his actions. He set out in the early hours of a week last Saturday with the intention to kill.

How the hunt for Moat was framed during his week on the run was crucial for him going viral as a glamorous outlaw. We were told Moat had sent a long letter to the police that said "The public need not fear me but the police should as I won't stop till I'm dead." This was a serous media management
faux pas because it opened the door to allowing the portrayal of Moat to assume a folky aspect. Rather than being a manhunt for a dangerous killer, coverage of the operation degenerated into a Smokey and the Bandit-style farce. With a Facebook following, Twitter spoofs and a range of T-Shirts feeding off the frenzy it was only a matter of time before the half-sympathetic media profiles of Moat elicited support from some quarters. And no, this time it wasn't bleeding heart liberals: it came from a small layer of the white working class.

For the people who joined the Facebook tribute pages and left flowers outside Moat's house, the sentiments expressed in his letters and recordings condense a confused but widespread consciousness common among the more deprived sections of our class. It's a barely coherent sense of dislocation, frustration, and despair that impotently kicks against 'official' society. It is the social reservoir from which the BNP and EDL fish, that gave us Kerry Katona and Jade Goody. They are the dangerous class that keep politicians awake at night, repulse the arbiters of good taste, and earn the ire of ever-so-superior middle class columnists. It doesn't matter that Moat killed someone. He had been abandoned by society and left to rot like so many others, and for a brief moment he was the lightning rod for lumpen anger and defiance. He is their
Taxi Driver, the man who couldn't take any more.

The sympathy for Moat does seem perverse, but it is rooted in that section of the working class the rest of society loves to bash. The publicity around Siobhan O'Dowd's Facebook group is an unwelcome reminder of the social refuse British capitalism produces generation after generation. But that this strata exists without prospects or hope is the real perversion, not some daft commentary on the internet.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Consumer Culture and Postmodernism

This post began life as a book review I wrote as part of a Masters course nearly nine years ago. The book it deals with, Mike Featherstone's Consumer Culture and Postmodernism (1991) is a staple of many an undergraduate reading list and a second edition was brought out in 2006 (Featherstone's preface to the new edition can be read here as a PDF). So while it is dated, thousands of students read it every year.

If I was reviewing this book today I would definitely be more critical and expand the brief concluding paragraph. You can't disagree with Featherstone's new preface that the postmodern moment has since been displaced by other theoretical fashions, but in my opinion the legacy it has left still casts a sizable idealist pall over contemporary social theory. This has done little to help its profile (in as much as it has one) and therefore has further pushed social theory into the gilded ghettoes of academia. I would also avoid the serious misinterpretation of Jean Baudrillard's critique of Marxism (but my marker didn't notice it - in fact it got a big tick, which indicates he didn't understand the self-described "intellectual terrorist" either). And a pigs ear is made of explaining Bourdieu. The review also neglects all mention of consumerism - instead it is collapsed into postmodernism and therefore does not capture Featherstone's contributions to the sociology of consumer culture. Lastly the review tries ever so hard to appear au fait with the fashionable prose of the day, so there are moments where I can't help sounding like a pseud.

Despite this, I think it does a good job of describing what a cadre of British academics thought postmodernism was. So I hope this will be of use to those encountering postmodernism for the first time and are stumped by the unreadability of much of the literature.

...

Consumer Culture and Postmodernism is a collection of papers published between 1983-90 looking at the intimate relationship between culture and postmodernism. They range from what is meant by 'the postmodern' and its relationship with the city, religion, and the market. Taken together they are united by a three-fold problematic: what is meant by culture, what postmodernism is, and how do we go about constructing a sociology of the postmodern. In this review we will review the arguments Featherstone fields with respect to each of these. I will argue he goes some way to advance the projected sociology of postmodernism but leaves crucial questions highlighted by postmodern social theory unanswered.

Beginning with culture, if we follow
Lash (1990) and argue that modernity was about the differentiation of spheres, disciplines, institutions and other forms of social practice, by way of contrast postmodernity is characterised by a 'de-differentiation' (i.e. the collapse of modern distinctions), then the definition Featherstone operates with throughout the book is characteristically postmodern. He argues that an adequate concept of postmodern culture should be considered as a melding of definitions: of culture traditionally understood in an artistic/aesthetic sense and culture understood anthropologically (the signs and symbols of everyday life). In so doing Featherstone follows Baudrillard's (1975) critique of Marxism, which emphasised the cultural conditions in which material production takes place against the view that relegated culture to an epiphenomenon of the economic base. This criticism is repeated by Featherstone against Jameson (1991) as his Postmodernism tended to pose an immediate link between 'late capitalism' and postmodern culture.

Having cut culture free from reductionist models, Featherstone proceeds to the second face of the problematic: what postmodernism is. For the sake of brevity, there are five broad features to his detailed discussion.

Firstly is the postmodern assault on art. Postmodernism attacks the artificial cultural distance perpetrated by the artistic establishment by denying its separation of 'high art' against other aesthetic forms. Postmodernism thereby destabilises the symbolic hierarchies underpinning it, collapsing the distinction between high and mass culture. An Old Master is as comfortable in an advertising campaign as corporate logos.

Secondly, postmodernism has developed its own aesthetic, one characterised by immediacy and depthlessness. Drawing on
Lyotard (1979) and Lash, discursive regimes of signification have been increasingly displaced by ensembles premised on the figural. The word is giving way to the image.

Third, drawing on Lyotard again, postmodernism is sceptical toward any theoretical attempt at constructing rock-solid epistemological foundations. For Lyotard, the postmodern opposes the universalist metanarratives that dominated philosophy and social theory up to the 1970s and instead privileges the contingent, the local, the specific, and marginalised ways of knowing.

Fourth, building on the collapse of high/mass cultural distinctions and the increasing gravity of the figural, everyday culture is transformed into a conglomerate of images, lacking coherency and linear time. This is a fusion of symptoms
diagnosed by Baudrillard and Jameson. All that exists is a simulation of the real - the 'hyperreal' (Baudrillard), a condition that permits the fragmenting of time into a disjointed series of eternal presents (Jameson). With the loss of the referent, all attempts at coherent narratives are doomed, in their own terms, to failure.

Lastly, with the emphasis firmly on aesthetics, the image and the figural, postmodernism can be said to be complicit with the aestheticisation of everyday life (the sheer quantity of signs in culture, the supernova of art reconfigures life). In this postmodern world, experience (of the aesthetic kind) have become the favoured forms of knowledge.

If these five features outlined by Featherstone offer a crude but adequate snapshot of what the postmodern is, then how did it come about? This is the question any sociology of postmodernism must answer. For Featherstone, the best starting place is the framework provided by
Bourdieu (1979). Bourdieu argued culture can be conceived as an immense collection of overlapping fieds, each one focused around particular interests and involved with the production of its own set of cultural goods. By tracing an individual's membership of fields, Bourdieu argues we can read off a particular lifestyle, which in turn maps onto certain occupational categories. To use an example of Bourdieu's cited by Featherstone, people enjoying access to high rates of economic capital are likely to move in fields where Golf playing, second homes, travel, etc. are exalted. Likewise those with large amounts of cultural capital tend to value 'life experiences', avant-garde art, etc. Those possessing little of either capital tend to favour the products and experiences offered by mass culture. Featherstone however is keen to point out that this example fails to do justice to the social complexities involved, but nevertheless it does have the merit of stating that taste (a crucial component of the postmodern consumer) is not a free floating signifier detached from class.

Using Bourdieu, Featherstone stresses the need for the sociology of postmodernism to pay heed to the symbolic economies of fields, and how they transmit signs and messages, circulate information to the field-specific publics, and how this impacts and conditions these audiences. Within this political economy of symbols and fields, the figure of the intellectual is a crucially important moment for pinpointing the origins of the postmodern:
To understand postmodernism ... we need to approach it on a number of levels. Firstly, it involves changes in the artistic intellectual and academic fields manifest in the competitive struggles in particular fields over the canon. Secondly, it involves changes in the broader cultural sphere in terms of the modes of production, circulation, and dissemination of symbolic goods which can be understood in terms of changes in the power-balances and interdependencies between groups and class fractions on inter- and intra-societal levels. Thirdly, it involves changes in everyday practices and experiences of different groups who as a result of the first and the second set of changes start to use regimes of signification in different ways and develop new means of orientation and identity structures (Featherstone 1991, pp. 62-3)
In the schema used by Featherstone, intellectuals are symbolic specialists engaged in the production of signs. But they do not stand outside of the fields that make up the cultural: the debates, struggles, and discussions between 'inside', and 'inside' and 'outside' intellectuals help shape the production of signs. In Featherstone's account, the emergence of postmodernism in intellectual and academic circles in the 1960s was a discourse formulated by a group of 'outsiders' struggling intellectually and artistically against the establishment. Owing to a number of factors (significantly, the increasing numbers in higher education) these 'outsiders' eventually succeeded in becoming symbolic specialists themselves, thus the theories and aesthetics they carried with them were inscribed on the signs they produce.

The prevalence of postmodern culture cannot be attributed solely to the position intellectuals occupy in symbolic production. Here the 'new petit-bourgeoisie' (or new cultural intermediaries) are of key importance. For Bourdieu, the habitus of this growing class fraction makes them the perfect heralds of postmodernism. As a grouping that does not hold enough capital of either kind to be considered bourgeois, and yet is relatively advantaged
vis the working class, the strata struggles to be more than it is. In the attempt to accumulate economic and cultural capital, the new cultural intermediaries are forced to adopt a learning approach to life, or, a class ethic of (individual) self-improvement. For Featherstone, this makes it the ideal consumer, for in the pursuit of the trappings of cultural capital they become the prime audience for the lifestyle symbols of the intellectuals, which in turn they promote and disseminate via the relatively privileged cultural positions their occupations give them access to.

Featherstone's sketch of the symbolic economy and the place of intellectuals and cultural intermediaries within it form only one level of abstraction in the proposed sociology of postmodernism. As we have already seen, Jameson was criticised for failing to take into account the mediation of (struggles around) symbolic production placed between the late capitalist structure and the postmodern superstructure. With this in mind, Featherstone concludes that increasing circulation of capita, commodities, information, labour and the growth of transnational economic agencies have the potential to generate new cultural spaces that exist in the interstices between national cultures. There's also the growing possibility of a more compressed global culture marked by the fluidity of national identities and new opportunities for cosmopolitan tolerances and mutual respect. Aware however of the dialectic of contemporary capitalism, his remarks are qualified by noting these are not foregone conclusions.

As a contribution to the sociology of postmodernism,
Consumer Culture and Postmodernism synthesises insights from Bourdieu, Baudrillard, Lyotard and Jameson that could drive a renewed research agenda. However, there remains a potential lacunae in Featherstone and others who've accepted the claim that we live in postmodern times. If Lyotard's claim that metanarrativity has collapsed and we're having to construct a new paradigm out of the wreckage of 'modern' sociology, is postmodernism itself a new metanarrative, or a knowledge specific to the position of a particular kind of intellectual?