Monthly Archives: May 2014

Seeing more Seymour

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A review of Richard Seymour, Against Austerity

For those of us whose recent experience of the left is of the splintering of organisations and the breaking up of certain kinds of authority with the result that we are having to learn how to do politics anew, this is an important and necessary book.

Let me start where Seymour is sharpest. Across the political left, from the reformists to revolutionaries, we face a crisis of ambition. A large part of the reason that the governing Lib Dem coalition has remained in office, despite having but a tiny majority, is that are not winning a battle of ideas, and an ideological project which is all about reordering society in the interests of the rich has done better at connecting with millions of voters than any message our side has produced.

In a democracy, parties which repeatedly lose elections, even if they are not elections to Parliament, go into crisis. This is happening to the Liberal Democrats right now. But the Conservatives who dominate the Coalition sense that the momentum is with them, not Labour, and they are probably right.

We are used to a style of political argument where every failure of the trade unions and the Labour Party can be ascribed to a vanishingly small group of leaders, or (on those occasions when these positions are captured temporarily by people from the far left) to the dynamic of leadership itself (the “bureaucracy”).

But reformism is not primarily the product of the 125-year-old decision that the unions should constitute themselves as permanent organisations, and therefore required regional structures, fees, full-timers and, after a twenty year pause, seats in Parliament. In Britain, it is true, the unions came before the Labour Party and their leaders were the original vanguard of Labourism. But this pattern was not repeated in most other countries, where left parties came first and unions second. And their reformists are no more, or less, venal than ours.

Rather, reformism is primarily a product of a wager made intuitively by millions of workers that electing people to Parliament is more likely to result in an improvement in their lives and their friends’ lives than any alternative on offer. It results, in the last resort, not on any class fraction but on the ideas within people’s minds.

Ending the present marginalisation of the left, it follows, requires persuading lots more people that left-wing politics are a credible alternative, credible in these sense of “being held by other people like you” or “being shown to help activists win”.

The failure of the left is not just a failure of its reformist leadership; it is a failure right across the board. No party, no current, no-one publication is doing a good enough job of “making socialists” (as William Morris once put it) in the numbers we need.

Part of the reason the left is not doing better is that far too many of us are trapped in a historical mindset in which we are constantly looking for old symbols to deliver new people, and failing to miss the historic potential of the new.

In a key passage, Seymour criticises the nostalgia of looking back to 1945 for our models, “The Forties were fucking grim. No one but no one wants them back … what is actually involved in any attempt to summon the spirit of 1945 is an attempt to somehow defend the welfare state and social democracy by recreating an era whose chief characteristic is terrifying want, squalor, crushing injustice and early death … It is the symptom of an exhausted Left, unable to relate to the cultural and political sources of radicalism today, where is it the indignado movement, the feminist insurgency, student rebellion or flash-mobbing tax protesters. We need more Occupy Wall Street than Occupy Dresden.”

He is right about 1945, just as he is right by extension about the other traditions on the left which seek to rally us all around different nostalgias, whether for 1900-era Kaustyism, for the unofficial strikes of 1972, or for the 47 Liverpool Labour councillors.

Against Austerity is short book of three chapters. The first chapter, “class”, insists that austerity is not simply revitalised liberal economics, but a conscious strategy for cutting the social wage and assisting the super-rich. It is about re-organising society, through challenging the common sense consensus as to how things can be.

The second chapter, “state”, challenges the common, if naive, assumption that under conditions of neo-liberal ascendancy is being rolled back. Not at all, Seymour insists, rather the state is being used for different things.

The third chapter, “Ideology”, explains how austerity works in terms of securing consent through creating the categories in which consent is constructed. Seymour gives two detailed examples of this process at work. One is the Metropolitan police’s increased use of kettling, which is not so much about managing and containing violence as communicating to onlookers that protest is a dangerous and criminal activity, and making protest itself something with which few outsiders would wish to be associated. The second is the case of Shanene Thorpe, interviewed by Newsnight in May 2012, and challenged over her decision to live alone from her parents, on housing benefit, with a small child. Thorpe felt she had been ambushed and deprived of the chance to explain that she was working full time and her income too low to live without state assistance in London. Seymour presents the episode as a skirmish in the war of the rich to cut both wages and the social wage.

There are times when the book is only an equivocal pleasure. There are one or two passages in which Seymour adopts the persona of an intelligent person who has been given an untrammeled jurisdiction to insult his readers. Yes it is a joke, but it is an annoying one, out of kilter with the project to which he has dedicated two decades of his life.

A focus on how ideas work is necessary only to the extent that it guides people to creative activism. We, on the left, are not too few, nor are we too isolated, to change how millions of people think. We did change the idea, for example, once assiduously pushed by the Daily Star, that “the EDL are a nice bunch of working class people rightly standing up to Islamist excess, even if sometimes they go too far”. And, at the right places, we can have a similar impact on how people think about education policy or the future of health care. If we don’t try, we are in no position to criticise Ed Miliband’s failure to do better.

The strongest political influences on it are the writings of Poulantzas and Althusser. But I am different sort of Marxist, more impressed by people than by ideas. The working class I believe in is a class of people I have met and people I have lived with. Deep in the structuralist Marxist DNA is a notion of life in which ideas are treated to a greater extent as the constituents of reality, than they actually are.

Because the book is, ultimately, more about how ideology works rather than what is happening in politics, it doesn’t make best use of some of its ideas. For example, there is a passage in which Seymour tackles the austerity myths that cuts are needed because national finances had been, for some time, unbalanced. No, he replies, there was no crisis prior to the bailing out of the banks. And he also debunks the idea that excessive national expenditure is directly comparable to excessive expenditure in a single household. No, if a person or a family spend less they have more money to spare, but when an economy is cut, output is also reduced, further reducing the available income. These are good points which would have been memorable if they had been made at page 3 or 23 rather than page 123 of 189.

Seymour leaves his alternative vision to a thirty-page coda at the end of the book. He talks about the way in which campaigns by precarious workers can take them from the margins of working class experience to the core. He describes the need for institutional forms to hold a consciousness of the 99%. He suggests that these may take the form of neither a party nor a union but a social movement. He eulogises the potential of the Occupy movements and of the Quebec protests, neither of which agreed to stay within the limits of parliamentary politics. He calls for a fusion of Social Movement and Community trade unionism. I like many of these ideas in principle, but the proposals come too late in his book, are too broadly sketched, and are inadequately integrated into the critiques of the left and the analysis of ideology that form the book’s bulk.

Yet these criticisms are minor compared to the strengths of the book as a whole. There are very few writers on the far left who try to write engagingly, who try to explain complicated ideas from the academic literature, and who dare to acknowledge the most important political challenges facing the left.

A phrase I hear often among friends is “we need more theory”. Well, if you think you can do better than Seymour, here and now is the time to start.

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Escaping UKIP-land

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Twelve days ago, in anticipation of UKIP’s victory in the European elections, Parliament introduced a first law aimed at appeasing UKIP voters. The Immigration Act 2014 makes it a criminal offence for a landlord to let a property if the tenant lacks the right to live here. It will not be the last legislation intended to prove that our politicians are “listening”, but it may be one of the nastiest. How is a landlord supposed to know that a prospective tenant lacks immigration status: from their accent, from their clothes, from their skin colour?

We have in Britain a ruling class that is already intensely relaxed about racism. Just ask the families of the 140 black or minority ethnic people killed by police officers since 1990, resulting in not a single conviction for murder or manslaughter. Or, look at the Cabinet: twenty-two London residents, chosen without any discernible connection of diligence, morality or talent. A city where just 45% of the population is white produces a leading syndicate in which just one out of 22 members is black, and he was picked, it seems, chiefly to ensure that alongside the many former public school boys turned PR professionals there is at least someone to represent the most vital demographic – bankers.

UKIP are not bad because their Deputy Leader was once a young David Irving fan, nor are they undesirable because Nigel Farage has brought into life something we never had before, a second, still more expressly racist version of the 1990-era Conservative Party.

They are contemptible because the racism which they preach and justify is an obstacle to the one thing that could take us out of the neo-liberal moment which the vast majority of people in Britain, Europe and the world regard as utterly opposed to their interests. Sick of the way in which the public sector was dismantled in order to protect the bankers’ bonuses; angry about the running down of the NHS, state education, and care services? There is a better answer, of course, than racism, it is to let the people who work in the services – the classroom assistants, the canteen staff, and the doctors – run them.

But to get there, we would need a huge increase in our capacity for collective solidarity, and we would need organisations (the trade unions, the tenants associations…) to have vastly more willingness to fight than they have now. And how can we get any of those things, if the 20% of Britain that is non-white is having its very presence here questioned? Racism divides; it does not protect a single white worker, its sole beneficiary is the rich.

We live in a democracy, in which how votes are cast can be just as important as who is elected. One in three voters has just opted for the most racist option open to them. Every other bigot watching will take heart from this.

But if something new did emerge on the left; a campaign which mobilised; a force serious about its anti-UKIP politics, what features would it have?

Part of UKIP’s success has been the ease with which it has manipulated a class of journalists always receptive to the message that the poor are switching rightwards and the sole remaining repositories of virtue are well-meaning university educated professionals (“an MA will save us”). If you stick Nigel Farage on Question Time every week, it’s no mystery that he will start to look as credible as any other politician.

Anti-racists need to occupy this terrain. Use social media, makes ourselves the rapid response unit that the press goes to for an anti-UKIP quote. We should demand to go on Question Time, or Have I Got News For You. We are entitled to: anti-racists are the majority. And if these programmes refuse, we should challenge the editors who give UKIP an easy ride.

We also have to learn to distinguish the forms of communication capable of a mass message, and those (the more intimate) which actually persuade. If we are going to speak to voters against UKIP then we need to shed the idea that by leafleting a half or a quarter of a constituency, or even a street or two, you have persuaded a single anti-UKIP voter. Do it, this is necessary work. But a street in which every door has been knocked and every voter spoken to is worth 10 that have received a general leaflet. No-one should kid themselves they are serious about “stop[ping] the new right-wing populism” unless they have the ambition of organising in Kent, with 2 of UKIP’s 20 target seats, in Essex, and in Rotherham.

We have to win positions in the minds of millions of people. That means that even if we have a short-term goal of winning certain positions on the left (for example, that UKIP cannot be normalised, within the unions or the political left) – that can only be the very first starting point in a much, much longer and more important discussion.

Ultimately, anti-racists can only win, if at the same time we succeed in getting millions of people to identify new solidarities appropriate to an age where only a minority of people are in full-time work, and only a minority of that minority are in unions.

The new face of the working class cannot be a miner or a steelworker; the unions in those industries were smashed years ago. Nor will it be a teacher or a lawyer. Maybe the future face of labour will be a nurse resisting privatisation, or a precarious cinema worker, or a worker in a fast food restaurant or a sports shop. Whoever it is, we have to find the campaigns that can resonate with millions and push them as far as they can go.

Unless we can find a new “we” – against the rich – against the bankers – against austerity – we will be ruled for ever by laws like the Immigration Act 2014 with its barely concealed purpose of protecting those landlords that keep foreigners out of their flats by bringing back the once-familiar signs, “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish”.

And we will be doomed to wake up in due course in a political system in which the political choice is limited to whichever one of David Cameron or Nigel Farage is, this week, the media’s favourite “outsider”.

The Indignado Bolshevik mile race : the results

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The Indignado Bolshevik mile race, run today, saw a distinguished field of revolutionaries, stoners, students and wastrels, run 4 laps of the Parliament Hill track. We were lucky with the weather: after two hours of solid rain, the sky cleared just fifteen minutes before we set off. We were also fortunate to avoid an accident with the steeplchase barriers which a previous group of runners had left on the track for us. We warmed up by watching these adonises pounding around the track, when one, showing off his hurdling technique, managed to wrap his foot in a hurdle, twisting his body, and falling hard on his chin, side and leg. For a whole minute he did not move. He had to be carried off the field of battle but came out some time later to wish us best with our own amateur event. “I’m often asked what it takes to be one of the fastest athletes in Britain”, he told us, his face red and bleeding, “and you’ve just seen it.”

Unburdened by the same pressure, Soren went immediately into the lead, and with an advantage of 50 metres after the first lap (run in 74 seconds) it was clear that the only thing which could stop him from winning was if he had gone off too fast and failed to pace himself property. Further laps in 81, 86, and 83 seconds saw him home first in 5 minutes 24, a clear 28 second and over 100 metres ahead of everyone else.

The real battle was between second and third: after a lap, I was about 25 metres up on Mark Bergfeld, and he continued to shadow me to the bell, which I reached in 4:26 and him in 4:31. We finished in 5:52 and 6:01 respectively.

The greatest improvement from our previous race a year ago was shown by Robin Burrett, who ran the mile in 6:50, a staggering 19 seconds faster than he had run in the much sunnier Trotskyist miler race of 2013.

Battling back from injury, Ian Stone finished the mile in 8:37.

I don’t know if we’ll run it again in this format; for today we say Goodbye Lenin to Mark,  who is back in England in a month’s time only for his final farewell party.

The Killing of Blair Peach

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‘As a campaign meeting, it must have been one of the biggest yet, a hundred National Front supporters, three and a half thousand police and thousands of Asian demonstrators.’ This was the way News at Ten began its report of the clashes in Southall on 23 April 1979, midway through the general election campaign that would end with the victory of Margaret Thatcher. The report contained footage of police officers arresting middle-aged men in turbans, women sitting down in the road and demonstrators with their heads swaddled in bandages. The final images showed around twenty NF supporters, all men, giving Nazi salutes as they went into Southall Town Hall.

Southall was one of the most racially diverse areas in London: in five wards surveyed in 1976, 46 per cent of the population had been born in the New Commonwealth. The National Front’s candidate, John Fairhurst, had stood in nearby Hayes and Harlington in the two 1974 elections. He wasn’t standing in Southall in the hope of securing a high vote, but because the NF thought putting up a candidate there would get them publicity. On 23 April, 2875 police officers were deployed (including 94 on horseback) to protect the NF’s right of assembly, 700 protesters were arrested, 345 of whom would be charged, 97 police officers and 64 members of the public were reported to have been injured, and one demonstrator, Blair Peach, was killed.

On 27 May the following year, an inquest jury reached a verdict in Peach’s case of death by misadventure. But the jurors had not been given access to all the relevant information. Soon after Peach’s death, Commander John Cass, chief of the Metropolitan Police’s Complaints Investigation Bureau, carried out an internal inquiry into the killing. It was a substantial piece of work: Cass was assisted by thirty police officers, the inquiry took 31,000 hours of police time, and, including interview transcripts, the complete report was 2500 pages long. It found that Peach’s killer was one of six police officers, with one clear principal suspect, and that three of the six should be prosecuted for attempting to frustrate the investigation. Counsel for the police and the coroner both had access to the report but went out of their way to conceal its findings from everyone else involved in the inquest.

The Cass Report wouldn’t be published until 2010, a year after Ian Tomlinson died, having wandered into the protests against the G20 summit and been struck on the leg and pushed to the ground by a police officer. Tomlinson’s death encouraged Peach’s family to ask again for the Cass Report to be released. Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, agreed to do so. The inquest into Tomlinson’s death resulted in a verdict of unlawful killing, which made possible the criminal prosecution for manslaughter of PC Simon Harwood. (He was acquitted.) The finding of death by misadventure in Peach’s case made any prosecution impossible, despite there being a strong argument for a second inquest. The High Court can order one, as it did recently on the Hillsborough disaster. Of that case Lord Judge, then lord chief justice, held that ‘it seems to us elementary that the emergence of fresh evidence which may reasonably lead to the conclusion that the substantial truth about how an individual met his death was not revealed at the first inquest, will normally make it both desirable and necessary in the interests of justice for a fresh inquest to be ordered.’ This statement is clearly applicable to Peach’s case….

Regular readers of this blog may enjoy my piece which has gone up on the LRB blog today setting out – in detail – what we know about the death of Blair Peach (killed by the police at an anti-fascist protest Southall in 1979) – how it happened – the officers who were identified as responsible for the killing – and why Commander Cass identified them as his primary suspects. The article can be read in full, here.

The piece is only an extract from a pamphlet, which is due to be published (with additional pieces by Soren Goard,  Richard Harvey, Balwinder Rana and Susan Matthews) by Defend the Right to Protest in June. Details here.

You are invited to: The Indignado Bolshevik Mile Race

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Who: A select team of hand-picked athletes gathered from all corners of the political left

Where: Parliament Hill running track

When: 11am May 24

Among those running will be –

The Dynamiteer. Having escaped from his most recent trial by blowing a whole in a central London courtroom, S. Posadas is tipped to run the mile fueled only by a mix of TNT, RnB and energy drinks

The Revolutionary Tourist. Generally believed to be the inspiration of the Indigando Bolsheviks, Mark Beformistpunk was previously the leader of a student uprising, a Stalinist revival society and a Putin Beauty Salon. He is due to be leaving England shortly to run either a Portuguese peasant uprising or an SPD-funded thinktank in Berlin

The runners’ great rival Charlie Choonicos said, “This is what happens when you invite people onto the board of your SME in Vauxhall. First, they try to take over your place, then they ask the Indignado Bolsheviks to run a five minute mile on your record collection. Soon or later, you have to answer for every good deed you do.”

Running against myself

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watches Five months without a fight among friends have left me running more often than at any time since my eldest son was born. Six months ago, I believed that I was incapable of running more often than three times a week, and it just seemed obvious to me that if I tried to run more often I would inevitably suffer an injury, probably to my achilles tendon. When I ran three days a week I would get injured roughly ever 2-3 weeks or so. Counter-intuitively, five months of running six days a week has resulted in almost no running injuries at all. It is as if I have strengthened the muscles all around, protecting my lower legs where I remain vulnerable.

My running has been more varied than at any time in two decades. Highlights have included morning runs before London awakes and night runs while it sleeps (the night so dark that I could not see the ground beneath my feet); a gentle six miles through the hills and valleys of the Isle of Man with long stretches of the route ascending at an incline of 1:8; coastal paths of gorse descending to unmarked beaches; spring rhododendrons; the view of the city from Hampstead Heath. More of my running has been competitive, with had track sessions on Thursdays (work allowing), a parkrun about every two weeks, an 800 metre race, a track 5k, and a flat 5k around the Serpentine lido – all in just 4 months.

At this point, I know, several of my friends part company with me. Why do you need to run competitively they ask? Isn’t it enough just to enjoy the scenery and to allow your body to relax? If you consider yourself a socialist, then isn’t it a small act of treachery to your political beliefs to seek out races where you are running against people?

A possible defence would be to deny that the running is properly competitive at all, to insist that running clubs are co-operative as much as they are competitive and to insist that I am doing this only to build up my miles. But, in truth, I enjoy running fast. I am built physically for it: my stride is heavy, my best age-related times are for differences just about 400 metres (i.e. where much of the running, as it is for a sprinter, is anaerobic). To consider myself fast, I had to have some sort of comparative yardstick; there is something truly hollow about haring around a disused piece of inner city grassland for lap after lap chasing yourself with no-one to watch and no way to gauge your speed.

Indeed, I do think there is a point at which the competitiveness of sport can tip over and serve as a kind of ideological waymark towards the intensified market competition that we associate with neo-liberalism. Sebastian Coe‘s intense Toryism first shaped the way he ran and was then reinforced by competitive success, hisaccumulated cultural capital was used by New Labour to justify the Olympic bid, and he has used his sporting prowess to build links to and earning favours for Hague, Johnson and Cameron. Coe was always a lesser human being than Ovett, Cram or Elliott, whose attitude towards competition was always more nuanced, and who left the sport early in contrast to Coe, who hung on and on and took everything he could.

There is a chapter in Chumbawamba guitarist Boff Whalley’s brilliant book Running Wild which notes that even in the fell races of the mid-80s, which Whalley half-seriously suggests as a vision of an alternative libertarian future, the scoring rewarded teams which ran individually and did not encourage the faster runners to (for example) drop back and help the slowest runners.

And yet there are different ways to run, even within the same framework. Runners do often hold themselves back for their running comrades;  Ovett was as brilliantly indifferent to the tabloids as Coe was in thrall to them. At any humdrum athletics meeting,  you will find people who are there to give and those who are there to take, people who encourage and take pride in others’ performances and those who are trying to boost themselves.  All the races properly started, all the team brought to their starting destination, most of the infrastructure of any athletics team is maintained by people who are not competing (or not selfishly). Who timed Coe’s great races? Obviously not Coe, Cram or Elliott, or even Ovett.

What I best enjoy about running competitively is the sense of racing myself: there is something definitive about a runner’s time. You know at the end whether you getting faster or slowing. The numbers are as implacable as the figures for BMI or blood pressure, and, just like them, they tell you how far or not you are succeeding in defying the gravity of age.

‘Behind every great fortune, lies a great crime.’

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Review by Merilyn Moos

Originally written almost ten years ago, this prescient thriller considers the power of conglomerates. Its plot surrounds a plan hatched in America by the Greele conglomerate to drain water from Quebec to feed the drought ridden North-West of America.  To do this, land needs to be privately acquired, national and local politicians bought and media attention blocked.  No public or political consultation is acceptable.

Members of the State apparatus work hand in hand with the Greele consortium, greedy for profits and indifferent to the ecological catastrophe they are bringing into existence. Brystyn touches on the issues of separatism – Quebec is chosen by the Greele conglomerate because the Canadian establishment will turn a blind eye. She also fulminates against the process of private conglomerates taking over control of the water supply, a process of privatisation we are all too familiar with here.  The consequent lack of transparency is enforced by both the state and private goons with methods which are violent and scary. Burstyn throws in many other new developments in genetics and microbiology for our delectation and detestation. She terrifies in her description of the power now available to different eavesdropping organisations, ‘legal’ and otherwise.

But a number of Quebecian and American environmentalists get to hear of the plan and give their all in an attempt to stop the plan. The environmentalists are drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds, from professionals, politicians, maverick policemen to computer nerds. As Greele’s control is threatened and he resorts to ever more desperate methods, Brytyn’s shows us how key characters change sides. Brstyn’s also brings out how these environmentalists are defined as eco-terrorists, who can therefore be defined and arrested as a security risk, though the campaigners insist on never using violence of any form. (If there is anybody out there who hasn’t yet come across this sleight of hand whereby those trying to save the planet are accused of trying to destroy it, check out the legal cases brought against members of Plane Stupid and of a number of Camp/s against Climate Change.)

It will not surprise us that this is a thriller which does not have working class heroes or a sense of a wider class struggle!  But it is rare indeed to have such a keen eye turned on the growing water crisis in a popular form.  Large corporations and their ruthless drive for profitability are the unquestionable villains. Sometimes, the characters become stereotyped and occasionally, the book seems to lose its way. But, this is a lively read for those days when you are too exhausted from the class struggle and the battle to save the planet to peruse Das Kapital.