The tactics of Exit voting

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For any readers missing the argument for a left exit vote in the coming referendum, here’s one I prepared earlier. In the EU’s rush to take austerity positions since 2008, the budget mechanisms of the EU have been reimagined and the Commission and the ECB have become devices for forcing cuts on the poorer European states. It is a condition of continued membership that budgets are submitted to the EU each year and there they are scrutinised to ensure a continuous process of cuts, privatisation and diminished collective bargaining. In Ireland, Greece and Spain, EU policies are leading to a rapid diminution of union bargaining, and if these are the worst affected, the direction of travel is the same all across the continent.

That said, while I can recognise that the left exit position can have a principled basis, it’s problem if anything is that it is too principled. I have yet to encounter a left exit argument which finds a transmission mechanism between the high socialist hopes of those that I hear espousing exit and the vote. Why, I want friends to explain, will an exit vote improve the balance of forces for the left in Britain?

Here, it seems to me are the main areas where the advocates of a conventional Brexit are tactically ahead of their temporary allies among the exit voters of the far left:

The vote is / the vote isn’t a vote for restricted immigration. If you study the polls carefully, I understand it is possible to construct an argument that the EU exit vote isn’t just about immigration. When people are asked to explain why they are voting for exit, they do not always put immigration as their sole or even necessarily their top priority. Now one (relatively weak) response would be that data on voting intentions often has this character: if you study people’s reasons for UKIP voting, say, often people have complex and conflicting reasons for voting the way they do.

More important, is an understanding of how the national exit vote has been planned. The strategists of the exit vote are aware that: i) they have a big lead among the demographics most likely to vote (i.e. over 65s – see graph at top), ii) there is an equally big stay majority among the groups of people least likely to vote (i.e. under 25s), iii) these majorities have different weight. Because over-65s are much more likely to vote (in general and in this case in particular), exit can win without a popular mobilisation, in fact the more that it polarises people the greater the risk that today’s possibly-non-voting stay voters will be converted into tomorrow’s actual stay voters, iv) therefore anything that feels like racism is counterproductive – the UKIP/migration vote is already primed and ready to vote (of all the parties, UKIP supporters report the greatest interest in the referendum and the greatest intention to vote). Raw anti-migrant politics will only produce a reaction in terms of stay voting by the young.

This, I think, explains the way that the exit argument is positioned both in the national media and locally. There is a constant shuffle backwards and forwards between “immigration” and “other” arguments. One day, we are told that the NHS is dying under the weight of prospective immigrants, the next day that migrants are dragging British workers into poverty. Then as soon as these arguments are put, they are withdrawn and replaced with a blancmange of emptiness which is the characteristic mode of the exit argument. It is the same with the local literature: for every letter you find in which exit is presented in terms that would make a BNP voter smile, there are two fliers in which the No campaign avoids text and slogans and limits itself to stating that there is an Exit position, the politics of which are already assumed.

That said, while you can make an honest argument that Exit politics have been “less horribly anti-migrant” than many on the left predicted; you can’t make a compelling case that any significant part of the exit argument in this referendum has been an argument for redistribution, unionisation or socialism.

Who gets to interpret the meaning of a large Exit vote. Imagine a different context: a Labour government is elected, led by Jeremy Corbyn. The government has widespread popular backing and introduces a programme of nationalisations. Some EU institution (the ECJ? – it would only get involved as a result of a legal process starting in the UK, so we are planing already a two-term Labour government) announces that the EU which has previously allowed such nationalisations as Northern Rock now no longer approves of them. Corbyn calls a referendum to leave the EU in order to deepen his reform plans.

Here, I’m not making the obvious point that “this isn’t how we got here” but a (slightly) subtler one. In a democracy, the people who get to interpret a popular vote are the government of the day. Under a Corbyn government the left decides what a vote means, under a Tory government it’s the Tories who choose. A 55-45 exit vote will be interpreted as a the greatest possible popular affirmation of the politics of the Tory right and UKIP in just the same way that a stay vote will be used to bolster Cameron, Osborne and also (although to a lesser extent) Corbyn.

So, while the left exiters might want to interpret a 55-45 vote in “their” favour as an argument for socialism, that’s not how it will be interpreted by the government, and therefore by Parliament in the making of new legislation, or by the members of the main parties. Let alone by trade unionists, migrant workers or the young. (All three of whom have good reasons to fear an exit vote). In all these different constituencies, the dominant interpretation of an exit vote will be a vote for faster neoliberalism, the greater unpicking of reforms, faster privatisation, etc.

Who is actually voting. I’ve alluded to these points already, but to bring them out more clearly. The exit vote corresponds exactly to the demographic of the people who consistently vote for the worst political options in Britain: above all, it is an age vote. In just the same way that Miliband was ahead among the young and lost in every age group above 40, so it is with the exit vote. It is the vote of the old, of UKIP and the worst Tories. Friends on the left shouldn’t tell themselves that you can mobilise the very people in society who are most opposed to you, on their favoured issue, in circumstances they have been preparing for 30 years, with their government is in power and expect anything good to result.

All of this is relevant not merely to how people should vote but what the effect of a large exit vote will be. We live in a society that has for four decades increasingly criminalised migration, and in which non-EU citizens resident in Britain have been denied the vote in the referendum that will decide their future.

It is already the case that such non-EU migration as the UK still allows overwhelmingly comes as a result of EU law. Both EU and non-EU citizens will find it harder to come to Britain in the event of an exit vote and harder to stay. A large exit vote is going to mean an attack on EU migrants – if the left is seen to have voted for that attack we will be in a weaker position to resist it afterwards.

My own view remains that this is a referendum that the left cannot win and that either option will result in further attacks. Yet in the choice between two bad options, one of them is worse.

 

Klopp: on seeing a future that (almost) worked

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The moment at which a sporting event is lifted from the mundane is in that instant when what is at stake is no longer a single match but the possibility of a different social organisation. It was in this spirit that I travelled to Basel on Wednesday, with my friend Gareth Edwards, to explore the rebuke that Liverpool’s manager Jürgen Klopp offers to the accepted way of doing football in England.

The script will be familiar to many readers already. First, in contrast to the usual tactical orthodoxy here which focuses on the position of teams in attack (442, 4321) and assumes that teams form the same shapes in both attack and defence (therefore a 451 will see more of the ball in midfield than a 442 team, etc), Klopp is principally interested in defensive shape, arguing that much of any team’s attacking threat will come about from attacks generated by the fast turnover of possession in the opposition’s half.

Second, to achieve the intended onslaught on the opponent’s game in possession, Klopp promotes attackers and attacking midfielders who are capable of running themselves into the ground.

Third, Klopp’s teams tend to promote young players capable of playing at the requisite intensity. At times, this becomes an open rejection of the English way of doing football, in which a team is assumed to be the exact sum of its individual members, with Sky playing the hero’s part by providing a TV deal in which even the weaker Premiership teams have more purchasing power than almost all European sides save for the national champions of Spain, France, Germany and because English teams are costlier so, by definition, they are better and more successful even when they aren’t. (This is a story which is always unlikely to play well on Merseyside given Rupert Murdoch’s role in both Sky and the Sun)

So, Klopp deliberately made no permanent transfers in the January window, arguing that he would rather see what his predecessor Brendan Rogers’s players were capable of rather than simply buying replacements. If Kloppism means anything it is that a well-coached side should be capable of beating an expensively-assembled one. Neoliberalism take note … it’s not always about the money.

Getting to Basel proved a challenge in itself. Avoiding planes on environmental grounds, we bought tickets on the Eurostar. Then, with less than a week to go till the game, the CGT announced a general rail strike in France. The plane it had to be.

At Zurich, we met airport workers who clapped us on the back and promised they’d be watching that night.  In Basel, we were part of a large crowd that was marched out of the city centre, without transport, through hours of rain. “Is there a bar in the stadium?” I asked one of the guards. He looked to his friend for translation, complaining about my “schwer dialekt”. God knows what he made of actual Scousers.

Those who watched the game will know that many more Liverpool fans travelled and that we dominated around 3/4 of the ground. It felt like a home game and Sevilla are poor travellers (having failed to win all season away from home in the Spanish league). The first 45 minutes saw Liverpool in control and 1-0 ahead having had enough chances to go two or three up.

Liverpool ultimately lost 3-1. There was a twenty-five minute period when Liverpool were overrun in midfield, with the team’s shape lost and without the cover to protect in the area between centre and right midfield (James Milner playing in between these two positions). Sevilla had 4 shots on goal in this period and scored from 3 of them. Klopp solved the main tactical problem by introducing Joe Allen, but by then the team were behind and at no stage in the second half did they have any real period of pressure.

Here, are the lessons, I draw from the game:

  • The mental exhaustion that the team showed is linked to a kind of physical exhaustion. Despite his high-octane style, Klopp, curiously, is not a comfortable “rotater”. For much of the season he avoided playing people from outside his first XI, and he began only when FA cup games coincided with so many injuries that he had no choice at all. Even in the last few games of the season, Klopp has tended to play an A team or a B team with 8-10 changes, rather than constantly shuffling 3-4 players in and out of the first team. I suspect that this will be a feature of Klopp’s Liverpool. IE that in every season, Klopp will have his first choice 11, and you will be able to get a measure of how well the team can be expected to perform from how many of these 11 are available and fully fit (even on Wednesday, Origi and Henderson weren’t able to start, let alone Sakho. Can was returning from injury…). There is, I suppose an availability register – if 9 or more of Klopp’s first team are available and fully fit to start you’d expect them to beat any other team. Once availability drops to say 7.5 (my “score” of how much of the team was available on Wednesday) then a 45 minutes of hell is possible. And if availability was to fall to say, 3 or 4 out of 11 then you might get the sort of season that Klopp suffered in his final year at Dortmund. I’m certainly not wishing any of this, just warning of the possibility…
  • Klopp’s playing style is at its best against teams which try to hold the ball in defence. In the German league, teams tried to escape the Klopp press by playing long balls over Dortmund’s defence. This tactic then travelled to England when Klopp arrived. While, in general, Liverpool did poorly in the league this season with fatigue being a common explanation (Liverpool played 20 more games all season than for example Leicester), tiredness did not express itself evenly. Klopp’s Liverpool did relatively well against the top teams (with wins against City, Chelsea, draws against Arsenal, etc) but suffered against “long ball” teams. Indeed this problem was repeated in the UEFA cup final. In order to cut out the long balls, Liverpool need more height and more physical presence in midfield and defence than the likes of Allen, Milner, Lallana, Lucas and Moreno can provide – and while you can coach skill, you can’t coach presence. The Klopp revolution, when it comes, won’t be pure but will involve at least some key acquisitions.
  • Klopp himself may be the most articulate voice arguing against football’s cash obsession. But that doesn’t mean that the Klopp team is yet capable of performing at the level he wants. If Kloppism was to become a general term to describe the virtues of the cash-underdog, then in this game Sevilla were the underdog (the players having been bought for rather less than Brendan Rogers’ Liverpool) and in the 2015-2016 Premiership Leicester did more for Kloppism than Klopp’s Liverpool achieved.

Finally, as for the fans. It was a privilege to be stood with them and to be part of the crowd. My sense is that even as late as the 86th minute, the supporters still thought a Liverpool victory was possible. We were ahead of the team in the first half, and we sung in the second half as much as the team allowed them to (which wasn’t much at all). Klopp has been criticised by some pundits for trying to rouse the crowd, as well as the players, in the second half. But I won’t criticise him. He has reached, through his own route, the same belief in the link between the crowd and the team that the greatest of Liverpool managers once had.

Hard as the loss was to accept, the future is still Red.

The Arab spring which didn’t end

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Two pleas. One is for a person, the other for a social movement. The person first: Haitham Mohammedain (above). For people who don’t know him, he is a revolutionary and lawyer, the advocate of the Egyptian independent unions, a participant in their struggles against the old corrupt state-run unions and a prominent figure in the country’s Pro Palestinian movement. He was arrested four weeks ago with around 200 others. The fear is that he could be facing a jail sentence of five years for the simple act of demonstrating against the regime. There is a petition for Haitham you can sign here.

Behind Haitham’s arrest there is a much larger story: the protest coalition that toppled President Mubarak in 2011 has not gone away. The issue of the hour is the decision of the ruling generals to sell off large parts of the Sinai to Saudi Arabia. Thousands of people have taken part in demonstrations, and a regime which is also coming under international pressure following its murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni, is now showing greater signs of weakness than at any point since the generals took charge in 2013.

Now the social movement. Just as protest has been renewed in Egypt, much the same has taken place in Syria. There have been demonstrations in over 100 towns and cities following a ceasefire in March with banners saying that “our revolution is still in progress” and this month an uprising by prisoners at Hama.

In the war itself, the Syrian state has been shelling civilians as they received aid, and bombing schools and markets in Aleppo, while its Russian ally has bombed the same city’s hospital.

Although there are good examples of leftists here trying to encourage a discussion of the Syrian revolution, the default position of many on the left in Britain has been to think that there is a trade-off between our ability to promote regime change “here” and the acknowledgment of other people’s crimes “over there”. That we in Britain can only protest against “our” leaders (GB, the US) and not against the other imperialist states (Russia). And therefore that if other global powers are taking part in a genocide, we must be silent. When socialists in Syria tells us that the result is a “denial of solidarity,” we should be listening to them.

Why I don’t buy Socialist Worker

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You weren’t a member, you tell me, in 2013 when the arguments happened. You’ve heard, of course, there was some controversy but you have been told that the people who left were sectarians. That’s true, isn’t it, they had some grievance with the SWP and they used a disagreement about the SWP’s internal procedures as an excuse to leave? Hadn’t they been planning to leave for years? 

In 2010 a man called Martin Smith (“Comrade Delta”) was the National Secretary of the SWP, its day to day leader, the person who employs the other party workers. In July of that year, a 19 year old woman (“Comrade W”) complained that he had mistreated her. She didn’t use the word “rape”, but the people who met her and heard her knew what she was talking about.

From the start, Smith’s supporters (including Weyman Bennett, who worked with him on the SWP’s anti-fascist campaign) put pressure on the women who helped Comrade W, calling one of them a “traitor”, ostracising and dismissing them and forcing them out of the SWP.

The complaint was investigated by Charlie Kimber, who is now the editor of Socialist Worker. He met comrade W, told her that he believed her and that disciplinary action would be taken against Martin Smith. The extent of the punishment was as follows: Smith was demoted from his position as National Secretary but remained in the SWP’s full-time leadership on its Central Committee.

Smith’s demotion was eventually explained to the membership at the SWP’s 2011 conference, where it was introduced by Alex Callinicos who complained about outside forces reporting on internal difficulties within the SWP. He said there was a complaint, he didn’t explain its seriousness and he said that Smith himself had asked to be moved to a different role. The session ended with delegates clapping, stamping their feet in Smith’s defence and shouting, “The workers united will never be defeated.”

In 2012, W, taking at face value the SWP’s recent involvement in anti-rape campaigns, decided to rejoin. She was still traumatised by what had happened, suffering flashbacks and was tearful, and eventually she asked the SWP’s disputes committee (“DC”) to investigate. This time, she did describe what had happened to her in 2010 as rape.

The investigation was loaded: a majority of those investigating were Smith’s friends and appointees. He was given sight of her written statement (which the SWP has always refused to publish). She was not allowed to read his.

A second complainant came forward: at this stage, the DC heard but refused to investigate her complaint.

By a majority, they decided to take no action against him. One person who dissented was the chair of the committee, who found that there probably had been improper sexual conduct – “sexual harassment” – and that Smith’s behaviour was incompatible with membership, or leadership, of a left-wing party.

At the start of 2013, the SWP conference narrowly approved the disputes committee report; from then on large parts of the organisation operated a loyalty test: if you were willing to back Smith, you could remain in the party. if not, you were told to leave. The atmosphere, at its worst, was as hostile as could be. Members of Smith’s personal anti-fascist bodyguard, men in the late 40s, spat in the faces of a woman in her 20s who disagreed with them. Smith’s supporters threatened to beat up another young, male critic. People were silenced, jeered, told to their faces to leave.

The second complaint was eventually heard. It was in writing. It too, has never been published. In careful, painful detail, it described further improper sexual conduct by Smith. This time, and for the first time in the entire scandal, the SWP’s leadership decided that a degree of damage limitation was necessary. A fresh panel was convened and Martin Smith resigned rather than face investigation.

In the SWP, you will be told that Martin Smith was vindicated. He wasn’t. The last panel to investigate his complaint found that there was enough evidence of sexual harassment that if he was to ever seek to rejoin he would have to explain his conduct.

In the SWP, you will be told that the leadership’s critics were a few malcontents, people who were on the verge of leaving the organisation anyway. They weren’t. At least 700 people left, or around a quarter of the SWP’s subs-paying membership. Among those who left were people who had given twenty, thirty, even fifty years of their lives to that organisation. 

In the SWP, you will be told that this incident belongs to history, that the SWP has learnt from its mistakes. It hasn’t, the men and women who attempted to cover up a crime are all still in its leadership.

The friends I want to have, and the friends I don’t

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For people who read this site and have never met me, I thought it might be useful to try to explain some things about me you probably don’t know.

1. I’m Jewish (it’s weird having to be explain this stuff right now, but wait with me while and you’ll understand).

2. I’m not “really” Jewish. By that, I mean that I don’t conform to most people’s idea of what a Jew is. I don’t dress like a Jew, whatever that would mean, and Woody Allen’s not my thing. I only have one Jewish parent. And they were born in 1946. Like a lot of Jewish people in that era – and unlike their counterparts born 20 or 40 years later – that means we didn’t practice any religion at home and I’ve never been in a synagogue.

3. There’s another way that I’m really, really unlike most British Jews: in that my parents were the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Oddly enough, in some ways that’s possibly the most unusual thing about my Jewishness. Many British Jews are second-, third-, fourth-generation British. That means that their immediate family weren’t caught in Eastern Europe. Sure, in the small parts of Britain which Hitler invaded people were taken away and killed, but we’re talking hundreds of people that’s all. (And of course there were many people from Britain who were on holiday, staying with family etc, and were caught up in events they could barely understand). I’m here because as well as being a Jew I’m also a second-generation immigrant.

4. One way my experience is unusual is that, actually, few people survived the Holocaust. Of people who lived in Germany, Austria, Poland, etc – the numbers who got out are small, and the closer that people came to danger the fewer of them there were that escaped. If you don’t know this stuff, read Primo Levi, one of the very few Auschwitz survivors. It will give you a sense of how it was.

5. When I say that my grand-parents were Holocaust survivors, and I compare them to how Holocaust survivors are supposed to be, they were in some ways like and in some ways unlike Holocaust survivors. First, although the large majority of their relatives were killed, they were never that close to dying. They got out, from Austria, in late 1938, leaving behind parents (on both sides) and a sibling. But they in the younger generation were fine.

6. Where my grandparents get more typical is that, having escaped from Austria they (and the generation below) went through something like 40 years of emotional harm. This isn’t something I’m capable of writing about, not directly, but I’m talking the whole range of harm – suicides, mental health diagnoses that struck around for more than a decade, and a whole sense of self-hatred, desire to emulate the powerful, the oppressive, etc etc etc. That’s the thing about harm, it’s sticks around.

7. It’s the “gluey” character of suffering which explains why I am an anti-Zionist. Because if “we” have been suffering for forty years as a result of the harm that the Nazi inflicted, the dispossession, the being forced into camps, exile, the killings … it should be obvious to everyone that “they” (the people who have been disposed since 1945) are going through exactly the same process. And it takes a particular kind of cruelty-mixed-with-stupidity to say that “because the Nazis tried to annihilate the Jews”… “we” … are allowed to dispossess and harm someone else, the Palestinians.

8. I appreciate that my family’s proximity to genocide ought to make me exactly the sort of person that Zionism is supposed to be about. And yet the Zionists – especially the non-Jewish supporters of Zionism – are exactly the friends I don’t want. If someone is the ideological or actual descendant of the people who were blithe to the rise of fascism in Britain, then I don’t want them to tell me that they are on my side now. That goes for the Mail (which didn’t just run one pro-BUF headline but for several months operated as effectively the fascist party’s private press), the Royals with their several fascist salutes, the Tory Party which saw Mussolini and Hitler as people they could do business with. Even the Big Daddy of British conservatism Winston Churchill whose Zionism waxed and waned in direct proportion to his anti-semitism (if you don’t know this stuff, google him). I’m also not so keen on the sudden declarations of friendship which British Jews are getting from the likes of the Labour Right (one of whose MPs was detained in the war as a pro-fascist) and which spent the 1930s very happily demanding the outlawing and imprisonment of the relatively few people in British society who were trying to stop the fascists, mainly who were found (but not only) on the far left.

9. I’m also not keen on the sudden support I seem to be getting from all sorts of self-declared philo-Semites, the Hitchenses, the Burchills, whose support seems to be wholly dependent on the positions on they have already committed to in support of Israel and Israel’s global allies. They have a construct of what Jews are like and it’s not pretty.

10. Finally, while I’m not throwing anyone out: please think this through. I am in a Jewish family and all through my life I have spent time among other Jews. Some agree with me 100%, some 0%, and most, as you’d expect, fall somewhere in between. I argue with them. Sometimes, it’s my friends who are the ones doing the arguing and I’m left bolstering them when they’re doing ok.

But, telling me – repeatedly – that it’s not anti-Semitic to mix up Hitler and Zionists, it’s not anti-Semitic to suggest that the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if the Hitler hadn’t suddenly turned racist (to everyone’s surprise) in 1932 (why 1932?) … you’re just making it harder for me, and for people like me. Please stop now. Its because I want to be able to agree with you – and because I want to be able to argue with the people I dislike – that you, right now, need to raise your game. Thanks.

Originally posted here.

Alexandra Harris, ‘Weatherland’

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Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers & Artists under English Skies. Thames & Hudson, £24.95.

We may like to think that the English weather, cold, damp and unsettled, has been here forever but if so it is strange how long it was there before anyone noticed it. Take the gentle “breeze”, for centuries sailors gave the word a specific meaning: a counter-current of any strength from land to sea. Our contemporary, idea of the gentle breeze Alexandra Harris in her study of English weather writing dates from James Thomson’s weather poem, ‘The Seasons’ (1730). As for clouds, it was only in 1803 that a Quaker chemist Luke Howard proposed the distinction between “Cirrus”, “Cumulus” and “Stratus.” For centuries, the prose and poetry of weather was concerned with other things.

In so far as the Saxons noticed the weather, it was to dwell on the cold: a typical tenth-century poet complained that “Sleet and snow fall and fetter the world / winter howls, then darkness draws on.” Early modern England was fascinated by rain: whether the sweet showers of April in The Canterbury Tales, the thunder that terrified Marlowe’s Tamburlaine or the “cataracts and hurricanoes” that King Lear imagines drenching England’s steeples.

Subtle changes in the climate itself and in our societies have altered the way in which we observe the weather. Harris notes a greater interest in the wind from the seventeenth century. For Milton, weather began with Adam and Eve’s Fall, causing winds that “confound sea, air and shore,” and bring with them further extremes, “cold and heat scarce tolerable.” The wind was the agent of transformation – whether in the form of the return of the Stuart monarchy, or the underlying transition to capitalism – change as destruction.

Two hundred years later, Shelley imagined a wind-powered balloon spreading its message everywhere and “annihilat[ing] slavery forever”. His ‘Ode to the West Wind’ developed the image, portraying the autumn winds as the carriers of revolution. After the defeat of the Chartists, clouds predominated, smoke, fog and pollution.

The characteristic weather of our times, Haris concludes is the flood. She writes of climate change and the end of what we think of as English weather. Her book ends with George Szirtes poem ‘English Apocalypse’ (2001), imagining the burial of land from Lincolnshire to Land’s End, a catastrophe that life itself seems to be set on copying.

First published here.

Han Kang, ‘Human Acts’

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Human Acts is set during and after the Gwangju Uprising of May 1980. Following the death of South Korea’s military ruler Park Chung-hee in 1979 and the seizure of power by another general Chun Doo-hwan, protesters called for the end of military rule. Paratroopers shot at the demonstrators, but the troops were resisted, with increasing numbers of people from across the city joining the demonstrations and the soldiers retreated. For five days the city was held by a Kwangju Commune, with citizen’s committees and a popular militia. South Korea’s army blamed the events on Communists and, with American approval, then retook the city, resulting in a final death toll of between 600 and 2,000 protesters.

The desire to write fiction about events of this scale hits against the limitations of the literary novel as a form. For two centuries, prose fiction has tended be about a certain kind of city-dweller, moneyed, articulate and cynical. In Britain in particular, literary fiction depicts private triumphs or defeats, not the ambitions of an insurgent crowd. The world gives us the War on Terror, the Arab Spring and the revolution in Syria; fiction’s answer is the self-satisfied vacuity of Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005).

[continues here]