Category Archives: Me; running

Against the Law: published today


I’m posting this on the day my new book is published. I thought it might help to explain who the book is for and why I wrote it.

The book advocates for a world without law.

When you first suggest that idea, it seems ridiculous. Of course we need laws, don’t we? And now, of all times, with governments taking away human rights, laughing at the idea of asylum for refugees, coming up with ever more draconian anti-protest laws – isn’t this exactly the moment to be standing up for people’s rights?

For those who want to focus on the present, don’t worry, the book does a lot of that. I write in the book (as I’ve been doing in the press for the past few weeks) about the authoritarian side of populism and the benign laws it smashes, as well as the malign ones it creates.

What I try to show in my book is that, in the conditions of the past 40 years, we have come to rely on the law at just the same time that we’ve felt less power in our lives. In the workplace, for example, a structure of individualised employment law took root at the same time as the passing of anti-union laws. Workers were prevented from striking, and workers were rewarded for bringing their complaints in the tribunal. This two-step dance did not make workplaces better or reduce managerial power. In the 1960s, when unions were strong and laws were weak, employees who were dismissed would often appeal that decision to their managers. Around one in four employees who were dismissed was able to get that decision reversed. Move on a generation and under our present-day system of employment tribunals fewer than 1 in 1000 unfair dismissal claims leads to a worker’s reinstatement.  

If you have been a union rep then you will know how casework has drained activist time, and reinforced dynamics of self-policing within the unions. In talking in employment law, I don’t mean to extract it from other areas of law: the same processes of complexity and legal overreach have been going on housing law, family law, etc etc.

The most exciting of left-wing traditions imagine a world in which there is no state because the unequal relationships which a state seeks to mediate and protect have themselves gone away – in which there are no discrimination laws because there is no racism and no sexism. Or, in relation to the destruction of the environment, there is no bureaucracy of business regulations, because there is no longer “business” in the sense we understand it now, as a series of wealthy individuals hoarding resources for the sake of their descendants to the 50th generation into the future, with a complex regime of laws protecting them from being sued when those plutocrats take decisions which burn the forests and poison the seas.

If you can hold in mind that vision of the future, even as you look with open eyes at the world around us, then slogans such as “Save the Human Rights Act,” or “Defend judicial review,” can no longer be sufficient. Merely to save what we have now, you need to think beyond it.

They might involve certain expansions to the state: environmental courts to expropriate the polluters. But what I’m arguing for is, in general, the increasing power of social movements outside the law.

Faced with the crisis around us, I insist on optimism. It is in moments when you can see structures of law being dismantled, and they cease to seem permanent, fixed and unchanging, that you can start to imagine a different kind of legal system, one that corresponds to what people really need.

Against the Law is published by Repeater today.

I blame the school


It’s only in Johnson’s final hours that the nice people whose comment pieces dominate the Guardian (let alone the Times, or the Telegraph) have noticed that he is the same serial liar and thief that he was when he first came to public attention, for offering to help an old school friend crack the ribs of a journalist. Who would have guessed that all those columns insisting that the public should vote for anyone except Jeremy Corbyn would have left us with the Prime Minister tied to the mast of our own latter-day Raft of the Medusa. Who, indeed?

Here, though, I want to focus on Johnson’s education – his Eton education – and ask what he picked up at that school, home as it has been to 20 of our prime ministers, and two of the last three. After all, the parents spend their small fortune on fees and expenses, c£20,000 p/a in the first years when I was there in 1986-1991, and around four times as much these days. What they’re paying for is a training. So what exactly are the boys taught?

Let’s begin in October 2019, and a letter read out by Rory Stewart. Two months earlier, Johnson had won the Conservative leadership contest, making himself prime minister, and defeating rivals including Stewart. The latter’s days in politics were running out; as leader of the party Johnson was able to deselect him as a Conservative MP. Before he left the stage, Stewart gave one last effort at embarrassing Johnson by reading out a letter sent home to Johnson’s parents by his housemaster in his final year:

“Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of the School for next half): I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

Stewart felt confident his audience would see the point for themselves; Johnson was a bad sort, indifferent to the rules which bound those in authority. As he had behaved when he was a prefect, so he would as Prime Minister.

You will further note that in this self-description, Eton College (as expressed by the teacher, the custodian of its values) is supposedly against Johnson. He isn’t the type that the school is seeking to produce. What then is the ideal Etonian, to which Johnson is the shadow?

Seen from its champions’ perspective, the ideal which Eton absorbs is the English upper-class ideal of the gentleman amateur. The school tells new pupils that they should aspire to be intelligent, hard-working and self-disciplined and that they should be incredibly ambitions. Crucially, they should be capable of concealing the public show of that ambition so that if they do arrive in power this will seem to be at just the same time both the most natural thing in the world (reflecting their innate talent) and the most extraordinary surprise, so that the recipient of power will be unassuming and modest.

Eton doesn’t just absorb that ideal passively, it is one of the institutions which teaches and spreads it, so that it becomes the norm for all our systems of government. Why, for example, are the education ministers never teachers? It is because of the same, destructive culture going back to the days of the British empire of the senior civil whose deep ignorance of the fields they administer is supposedly the guarantee of their objectivity.

Reflect on this ideal mixture of gravitas and humility and compare it to the most prominent Old Etonians you have seen: Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Were either of them this combination of talented, ambitious and modest? Ambitious, they were, but not one iota of the rest.

The fallacy is that you can teach people at the same time to be both privileged and gracious. When it is the very experience of knowing that the way is being eased for you which drives away the humility.

Beneath all of this, there are certain other myths which are equally ridiculous. There are around 750,000 people aged 18 in Britain at any time. Just 250 of them, or one in every 3,000, are pupils at Eton College. Saying that of those 250 boys, probably 1-2 in every year will end at some point in the Cabinet – means that 1 in every 3,000 people hoards the chance to make the decisions and 2,999 out of 3,000 are excluded.

The chief qualification for getting into Eton is that your parents are capable of paying for you to stay there. These days it’s equivalent to a one-off payment of around £400,000. Saying that people should get fast-tracked to these life opportunities just because they are rich is as obscene as saying that someone should be a poet because their parents were; or that purely on account of their wealth they should be made King or Queen and lord it over all of us.

Eton College is not a difficult school to get into. Many of its pupils are products of schools for those aged 7-12 which are little more than exam factories. It produces very few people who are both humble and talented. What it does produce, in vast number, is people who have been told since an early age that they will end up in positions of power. And because that’s what will happen, so it must reflect some virtue in them. In other words it teaches people to be like David Cameron (shallow and privileged) and it takes people to be like Boris Johnson (shallow and privileged and desperately vain).

I was at Eton in the same cohort as Rory Stewart, and in every class there was half a dozen David Cameron, and in every class there were 2-3 Boris Johnsons. Not Johnson himself, not exactly. He was something like 8-9 years older than me (as there are only 5 years of pupils at Eton at any on time), and we didn’t so much as overlap. And yet he was a constant presence: there in the autumn half-terms, joking with the younger boys at the summer Fourth of June parties. Even after his formal schooling had ended, he kept on coming back year after year, as if he knew he had left something behind there, something that he would never get back – whether the mirage of talent, a route towards advancement, or the availabilty of contacts. He needed the school, he idolised it, long after he’d left.

As for me, in my five years, I tried everything I could to tear the place down, brick by brick, like Samson’s temple. One day, I like to think I’ll go back – or someone like me – but this time, there will be whole crowds waiting, and hammers at the ready. So long as it stands, we’ll never have a true democracy.

Should he stay? For the moment, he should…


Three weeks ago, I wanted Boris Johnson to lose his no-confidence vote. I was dizzy with the thought that the awful, stuck, unmoving barrier of our political system might yet buckle, and through it our frustrated hopes might yet burst like the glorious phantom of Shelley’s poem “to illumine our tempestuous day.” Now however that Johnson was won that vote, and seeing what happened on Friday, I hope he stays. I hope his will-to-power becomes his own torment. I know what happens to Prime Minister once they have outlived their moment of popular support. They cling. They destroy their own legacy.

Thatcher won 55% of the vote in the first ballot of a leadership contest in 1990, she did not make it to the second round. Theresa May won her non confidence vote in December 2018 by 200 votes to 117, she resigned 6 months later. Tony Blair called the 2005 election promising to quit before the end of his third term. He resigned in spring 2007. In each of these cases, politicians fought against their removal, but struggled pointlessly. Everyone watching knew perfectly well that they would have to leave – and soon.

It is in this final Act of a premiership that its meaning is fixed. Theresa May could not legislate Brexit. Thatcher had to go because she had become a megalomaniac, the we of “We have become a grandmother”. She had forfeited that previous instinct for survival and her ability to play a long game in favour of the champers-and-cocaine hubris of the poll tax.

The scale of Johnsons defeat in the Tiverton and Wakefield by-elections shows that Conservatives will no longer vote for him, that middle of the road voters will pick the Lib Dems, and that a Labour voting base antagonised by Starmer will nevertheless hold together long enough to evict Johnson from office. Of the two votes, Tiverton was far the more important. The Conservatives had a 24,000 majority in 2019; to lose a seat that safe is to be back in the mid-1990s, in the same territory as the 2019 European elections, where the party won less than 9% of the vote. This is right-wing voters wanting their party to suffer, and to change before they will vote for it again.

Labour’s idea of how to bring Johnson down is to repeat what sounds like a compelling message, and one to which no rational being could object. Boris Johnson must leave because he was our king, our law maker, and he would not abide by his own rule. He shamed the law, and so long as he remains in power the state can never be well again.

The supposed genius of this message is that it is one that any Conservative might accept. And therefore one that moderate, right-wing voters can internalise, and that the Conservative press can share and amplify. Repeat and rinse. Repeat, until he leaves.

At its end of this argument is a very cautious solution: replace Boris Johnson with Liz Truss or Rishi Sunk or whoever else, and the state is repaired. Nothing significant needs to change. In relation to the great crises of the day, Covid, climate change – everything can and should stay the same. Ending politics at that point leaves unchallenged Johnson’s riposte, that he and his allies got the big calls right. When of course he did nothing of the sort: his indolence caused tens of thousands of people to die under Covid and his apathy, as the world burns, threatens thousands or millions more. This way of understanding politics makes no one a socialist. Nor does it equip any single voter with a reason to switch from voting Conservative once Johnson’s replacement has been appointed.

There is another way, however, in which the argument could go. Assume, for a moment, that I am right and most voters have now given up on him.

If Johnson remains in place until the last conceivable point at which a palace coup would leave a new leader with a fair chance of winning a general election afterwards (in other words, until somewhere between October 2023 and May 2024), then every time he appears on our shared screens it will be in this context of universal hostility. Every partisan measure, from Rwanda, to weights and measures, to the imagined return of grammar schools… will feel like a desperate ploy of an unpopular populist regime.

The longer Johnson remains in office, now that the people have had enough of him, the more damage he could do to the causes with which he is associated. Why is Johnson a liar? Because of the school he attended, and whose value he embodies.

This is the story for which the left needs to find an audience. Why has he introduced corruption on a massive scale, as over the Covid contracts? Because this is how the Conservatives always reward the rich. What do we need instead of Johnson? Everything gone – Johnson’s class, his generation, his media allies. Everyone tainted by him. All of them.

The Supreme Court hasn’t changed


It was Paul Buhle who set me thinking about Louis Boudin (above), lawyer, first generation American Communist, ancestor of two generation of US leftists, and author of Government by Judiciary (1923), which is a sustained polemics against the US Supreme Court and one worth revisiting this week above all.

By the time he wrote the book, Boudin had been a practising lawyer for a quarter of a century. He had been other things too: a trade unionist, a delegate to the International Socialist Congress, and had run on seven occasions for elected judicial office with the backing of the Socialist Party of America.

Over two volume and more than 1000 pages, Boudin pursues the argument that the Supreme Court is the greatest force within American public life guaranteeing the dominance of conservative groups – even when a large majority of people reject their opinions.

“Our judges,” he wrote, “declare unconstitutional what they consider unwise or unjust or inexpedient – being guided almost exclusively by their philosophical, political, social and economic beliefs, and little or not by constitutional texts” (v1: 23)

One reason Boudin is able to sustain this argument over 150 years of American history from 1776 is that, as a lawyer, he had access to many of the celebrated decisions of the Supreme Court, and was able to show that the hegemony of the Supreme Court over the other institutions of American life was not obvious from anything written in the Constitution and therefore had to be created late and retrospectively and by defeating rival understandings.

It was not until 1895 (i.e. more than a century after the Court was founded), that its justices began speaking of bills passed by Congress as “unconstitutional”, meaning that not just that they did not bind the court, but that they could not bind either the President or Congress (v1:99).

That innovation, he argued, abrogated to the Court a power it did not have in the Constitution. One comparison was with the older pre-independence and common laws courts from whose practice the US Supreme Court supposedly derived. Faced with legislation they judged irrational, those Courts might strike it down, but they could not legislate on behalf of the legislature. All they could do was return the question, as it were, to elected lawmakers, to make a proper and lawful statute.

The US model created a system of “Judicial Power,” Boudin wrote, in which the Court was not merely the highest power of the US Constitution. It was in practice the only power.

American was, in consequence, a personal dictatorship with the composition of power determined not by who won elections but by “the physical vigor” of the persons who held senior judicial office (v1: 379 – and this was written a century before the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg).

Key to Boudin’s argument were the decisions of the Court in upholding slavery, resisting the Republic during the Civil War and later in sabotaging Reconstruction, i.e. the attempts to transform the US South and root out the dominance of racial power.

From Lincoln’s perspective, the Civil War had required him to disregard the Court, and to ignore such landmark cases as Dred Scott v Sandford (1857) with its finding that people of African descent, whether slaves or free, could not enjoy the privileges of the Constitution (v2: 69).

As for Reconstruction, that was supposedly embodied in the 14th amendment, by which Congress prevented states from passing (for example) voter restriction laws to disenfrachise black voters. In the Slaughterhouse cases (1878) the Court effectively rewrote that Amendment to the point where it did not exist at all (v2: 114).

Government by the Supreme Court, Boudini wrote, meant “Government by a few Conservative men” (v2: 531).

And his book written in 1923 ends with a warning of where the Court would go next: towards the unremitting “exaltation of property at the expense of liberty”.

Obviously much has changed in the century since Boudin’s book was written, the Court has both lifted certain rights up (the 2nd Amendment) and cast others down (eg the 14th again and always) but what hasn’t changed is this. In a country where conservatives are preparing to wield unprecedented cruelty against their opponents – the judges will never be a reliable shield against authoritarian power. Rather they will be its reliable servant.

I have not written any of the above in order to make people passive or despondent, quite the reverse. One of the things Boudin shows is that elected officials (Jackson, Lincoln…) were able to defeat the Supreme Court where they and their supporters mobilised. The most celebrated example came in 1937, after Boudin’s book was published, when Rossevelt grew exasperated with a series of conservative decisions by the court.

The U.S. Constitution does not define the Supreme Court’s size, and Roosevelt threatened to pass a Judicial Procedures Reform Bill which would have enabled him to appoint a new justice for each judge over the age of 70 who did not retire. Conservatives accused him of court-stacking, but such was the pressure on the Court, that it ceased to obstruct new Deal legislation.

The only thing which prevents Democrats and their allies today from cutting the Supreme Court down to size, in other words, is simply the moderation in their own heards, their cowardice and invocation of the law even where the law is hostile to them.

It is that spirit which we need after Rowe v Wade, an honest understanding of the role played by the Supreme Court, and a willingness to go beyond legalism – in Britain as well as the US.

(For more on the Boudins as a radical family see these pieces on Kathy and Chesa Boudin).

(Or, for more on the relationship between politics and the law, see my new book, ‘Against the Law,’ which is published by Repeater on 12 July.)

Why the left should demand fewer laws


Every reader of this piece will be familiar with a certain argument for neoliberal government. By the end of the 1970s, we were told, laws governing welfare, employment, housing, etc. had grown out of control. Ever since then, politicians on the right and centre-left of politics have been trying to reduce them back down to their right size. Reducing the law and therefore the state is said to be an ethical decision, since it serves to remove the power of unelected bureaucrats, lawyers and judges and gives people control over their lives.

That way of justifying right-wing politics may be very old; it has not gone away. Anyone who has followed the news since Boris Johnson became prime minister will have noticed how at twelve-week intervals our government republishes a press release promising a ‘bonfire’ of workplace or environmental or EU laws, to take place somewhere in the near but not too near future, and how loyally this intention is always reported as news.

Yet if the law is always just about to be reduced to size, what is extraordinary is that there is never any less of it. Every year around 14,000 pages of new legislation are added to the statute book including both primary legislation (meaning Acts of Parliament), and secondary legislation (such as Statutory Instruments, in other words, supposedly non-controversial laws made by ministers). This is double the volume of legislation of 40 years ago. Tony Blair’s government passed 382 Acts passed between 1997 and 2007; the 2010-5 coalition government created 1,785 new criminal offences, Boris Johnson made 425 Covid Regulations between March 2020 and April 2021. The list goes on and on.

What I want to do in this piece is to propose some explanations of why, contrary to neoliberal promise, such law is never diminished but only in fact grows.

‘Neoliberalism,’ writes George Monbiot, ‘sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency.’ For Naomi Klein, neoliberal economics imagines ‘the market’ as an ideal rather than a reality: a world in which needs are always satisfied in the end. Any disturbance is blamed on a human failure to match up to the ideal. Therefore, the solution is always the same: ‘a stricter and more complete application of the fundamentals.’

Therelationship between neoliberal theorists and politicians has changed over time. So, between 1979 and 1990, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, she met Hayek and Friedman, and they corresponded with her. But by 1997, when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, Hayek was dead and Friedman old. Blair met Thatcher, not long after taking office, and was determined to be seen as governing in linewith her politics. But he was also, at different times, eager to appear a social democrat, a moderniser, an enthusiast for public education or the new knowledge economy, and many other things besides.

Yet the reason why it is worth seeing this period as a whole as one of neoliberal rather than, say, ‘right-wing’ government is that on the surface political competition continued, and centre-left parties have been just as dazzled by the vision of a society of small shareholders, and just as committed as their right-wing counterparts to policies of cuts and privatisation.

Hayek and Friedman were not legal theorists, but a coherent idea of the law emerges from their work. Competition, they argued, would produce a harmonious society. Their emphasis on market solutions is at the heart of neoliberal support for increased law. When the values of market-based systems for, let us say, the pricing of water or of rail are explained to the public, it is very often said that the market is superior to the state because it finds an equilibrium between supply and demand by itself and without needing state aid. But what is supposed to emerge without difficulty never does. A judge is always required.

Neoliberal politicians depend on the law to constitute market relationships. Friedman conceded the point, writing in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom that every market must have rules and someone in a position of authority (a judge) to enforce them: ‘The existence of a free market does not of course eliminate the need for government. On the contrary, government is essential both as a forum for determining ‘the rules of the game’ and as an umpire to interpret and enforce the rules decided on.’

Anyone who has ever tried to read a practitioner’s guide to environmental law will have seen how this works in practice. You can convey the totality of all our shared ecological laws in a single volume with little more than 1000 pages of text. But, of all the things that a non-lawyer might expect to find in that book—guides to expropriating polluting industries, punishments for the worst offenders to the warming of the planet—none are there. What we have instead is a vast amount of detailed regulation, laws for the circumstances under which plastics can be made, rule concerning who is allowed to sell a plastic bag and at what price. The managers of polluting businesses are faced with a choice: they can choose to follow government regulation, or if the price of such obedience would mean that competitors acquire a relative advantage over them, they can choose to ignore it, nothing that the fines are derisory, and that the state will no more challenge their power than will it jail tax evaders, etc.

Neoliberal governments depend on the law to facilitate their advance. They need laws to create market relationships, but the actors in these markets behave in different ways to how the neoliberals promised. Getting private bodies to deliver services rather than the state is supposed to drive down prices. But in the reality of privatisation, massive subsidy is needed to maintain a privatised rail network. The state becomes a giant piggy-bank, as we saw under Covid, for those businesses who are most brazen at exploring their contacts in government

Law has often grown as part of a conscious project of creating right-wing voters. The classic example is the introduction of ‘right to buy’. The Housing Act 1980 gave council tenants an option to purchase their home at a discount of up to sixty percent compared to the market rate. The scheme privatised a significant part of the welfare state, and succeeded because the funds were found to finance it on terms so advantageous that opposition would be limited to a hostile minority of tenants who were committed to public ownership. Everyone else would take what amounted to a huge bribe.

Since the policy was introduced, a market in houses has increased the price of accommodation. Ex-council homes are bought in order to be sold; some landlords have been able to build housing empires of hundreds of properties—hence the conditions of scarcity and high rents which characterise the UK housing market.

This proliferation of laws since 1979 represents a political ideology that understood itself, in its first decade, to be engaged in the task of regime change. It was hostile to the previous settlement and sought to overturn it. Whenever committed people have taken power and sought to entrench their values in contrast to what went before, they have tended to do so by introducing a new ‘constitutional’ settlement which future generations would be required to accept. In the UK, measures like the Right to Buy and balloting rules for strikes are now widely treated as inviolable, the boundary line between rational government and a return to the chaos of the last days of the 1974-9 Labour government. Without these laws, the story goes, the dead would go unburied, the rubbish would again pile uncollected in our streets.

This reality, in which laws have expanded at exactly the same time that the social power of most people has diminished. undermines the common-sense idea that because the Right is always talking about reducing the state, the Left should therefore call for its expansion.

In terms of the legal system, the workers’ movements and allied causes could instead call for fewer laws, and better ones. Rather than repeatedly immersing ourselves in the state, we should be distancing ourselves from it – using it tactically and sceptically, if at all.

Of course, any radical theory should not be interested only in how much law there is, but also in how the law is shrunk: if you were to abolish all housing law tomorrow while preserving everything else the same, for example, all tenants would not find themselves secure in their homes. Rather, they would be subject to the whims of their landlords who would be free to evict them at will. The same is true of employment law.

The slogan of cutting the law back down to size does not becomes a radical programme unless it is demanded by a social movement of workers or the poor.

But this does not change the essential point, that the movement of the poor and the oppressed are at their most impressive and creative when they depend on people organising themselves, rather than using the law to negotiate a better relationship with power.

We need stronger movements, and we get them when people mobilise outside the law.

Rather than swallowing neoliberal falsehoods about shrinking state power, we need to do away with laws that entrench capital’s power at everyone else’s expense.

This is a taster for my new book, ‘Against the Law,’ which is published by Repeater on 12 July.

More society; fewer laws


What’s the right amount of law? Most people reading this, I suspect, will be convinced it’s the wrong question to ask. We are all taught to assume that the law is one of those things of which you can never have too much, like science, or art, or laughter.

There’s a reason why science is expected to keep on growing forever, which is that you never know what it’s going to be used for. Things end up fitting together in ways that the people who discovered them could never have imagined. The more knowledge, the better.

But law is not, in this sense, knowledge. If you want a better analogy, it is something like architecture or computer code; it is rules to be used a purpose. One of the oldest laws in England were the sixth-century decrees of King Aethelberht of Kent This, for example, is a candidate to be one of the oldest known laws of England, “If a person kills someone, let him pay an ordinary person-price, 100 shillings”.

The rule assumes a victim and a perpetrator, and around both of them armed families. A perpetrator has killed a victim; the victim’s family must be avenged. The king fixed sume to be paid and which the victims are supposed to accept to in order to avoid what would otherwise be a cycle of retribution, with murder requiring murder without end.

            The point of that law was to keep the civil peace. In drafting it, King Aethelberht needed to get the content of the law right. It mattered that the compensation was set at 100 shillings (five pounds) and not 10 shillings or 10,000. Make the payment too high and no-one would pay it and victims’ families would have no choice but to seek revenge. But if the compensation was too low, then feelings of resentment would smoulder. Compensation would be paid, and the victim’s families would throw it back in the faces of their oppressors. King Aethelberht’s was justified and necessary if, and only if, it saved lives.

            These days, the main problem of the law is that there is too much of it. There is a social contract between ruler and ruled. The ruler expects you to follow some basic rule. If you breach it, you can be punished. The victim of your rule-breaking might sue you (in the civil courts) or the state might litigate on their behalf (criminal law).

The problem with having too much law is that its abundance degrades this contract. A person can be punished for doing something which they neither knew, nor had any reason to know, was wrong. The popular cliché says that ignorance of the law is no defence. That’s true, but in the right circumstances, couldn’t it at least be mitigation?

Which of the following would you read right immediately through on receipt: a) your employment contract, b) your tenancy contract with your landlord, c) the terms and conditions of your travel insurance? And tell me now which minimum statutory terms are supposedly implied into each of those contracts, but were ignored by the drafter in your own case.

All of us are bound, in other words, by a complex set of rules, of which most of us are ignorant most of the time. How then, can any of us meaningfully engage in a democracy, when the main parties are standing on programmes of legislative change. If you don’t know what the law is, how can you evaluate the programme each party is offering you?

*This is not an argument for diminishing democracy*, but for thinking about how we improve it. We have in power a generation of charlatans who will lie repeatedly about what they do. Take for example, Boris Johnson’s promise that his government will carry out a bonfire of workplace and environmental laws. At the last count, our servile press had reported that news story 9 times in the 3 years since he became leader of his party, each time treating it as a major development, honouring it with the papers’ front page. If you don’t want to be left gaping at the news, if you don’t want your friends to be in that position, we need both much more education about what the law is and – at a certain point – its simplification: fewer laws that do better at addressing such life-or-death issues as climate change.

            The inevitable consequences of our over-abundance of law include: the existence of a specialist set of people (lawyers) who are expected to know the law when most people don’t. Law is costly, a fact about which radicals have been complaining for centuries.

            In 1649, the year of King Charles’ execution, one Leveller John Warr, complained that “When the poor and oppressed want right, they meet with law, which (as [it] is managed) is their greater wrong … [T]he web of the law entertains the small flies and dismisseth the great.” He went on, “Why is our law a meander of intricacies, where a man must have contrary winds before he can arrive at his desired port?” The point I am inviting readers to consider, is that no matter how bad John Warr thought things were in 1649 they are much worse today; and that the gap between the purpose of laws and people’s general understanding of them has widened, to the point where it is no longer a river (“a meander”) but as wide as the sea.

            Other metaphors are available. Senior Judges have called immigration law “abstruse”, “an impenetrable jungle,” or have likened the law to a “shanty town” (these are their words not mine: any reader should rage against the colonial subtext to them). Even the judge say there is too much law. And yet, every year, the complexity of immigration law grows.

One way to think about politics in Britain, America and Europe is to imagine that the left and the right have chosen to separate themselves along, of all weird and unexpected lines, a division between people who want more or less law. On the right, politicians who tell their audience that they will shrink the law and, in doing so, make the people happier. “We” will take back control. Better that we spent our own income, rather than have the state tax each of us and fritter the money away on harmful workplace and environmental laws.

Just one drawback with this wretched misunderstanding of politics is that the right never in fact delivers on the promise of fewer rules. A promise which helped to unite the Conservatives and Lib-Dem coalition was the pledge to reverse New Labour’s expansion of the criminal law. In office, the coalition legislated for 1,785 new criminal offences in five years. Or, if you want a more recent example of uncontrolled law-making think of the 425 Covid Regulations made by Boris Johnson’s government between March 2020 and April 2021. It was the greatest volume of extra-parliamentary law-making in the peacetime history of Britain.

If we see this process from the left, the wager of the future of what was once the workers’ movement on a politics which can imagine no greater hero than the policeman or the prison guard, suffers drawbacks of its own. The simplest one is that many people’s attitude towards the law is rightly antagonistic. Think for example of the crowd which formed in Glasgow in May 2021, when people realised that an immigration raid was taking place and a began chanting “These are our neighbours, let them go.” You might imagine a left made up of people who see themselves as “Mr Rules”. Or you might imagine a left constituted of the sorts of people who could be in the Glasgow crowd. It would require a politician of greater talent than anyone to be found on the frontbench of the Labour Party to satisfy both.

For much of the past five years, it has felt as if Britain is being fast-tracked to becoming one of those countries that we refer to euphemistically as a “managed democracy”, with a tame media and purged public institutions, like a mid-Atlantic Hungary. Preventing that fate requires an opposition culture with roots deep in civil society. It is right to feel outrage that, during Covid, our leaders insisted on making public safety rules which they had no belief in following themselves. The idea of a caste of leaders demanding sacrifices from the little people, while making no sacrifices themselves – that offends in the context of Covid, just as it offends when the families of the rich are permitted to raid the state for fake PPE contracts.

Somehow, we need to create a system where two, admittedly contradictory, things take place at once. The law should be tighter in its embrace of the rich, the powerful and the politicians. And, it needs to be looser in relation to the rule-breaking of the poor.

What socialists need to remember is that the true offence is not exactly breaking the rules. Rather it is the refusal to follow those minimum social norms which hold a *society* together. During Covid, hundreds of thousands died; but it could have been many more. What stopped those greater deaths was not the rules, but rather the understanding that the person who would catch Covid felt pain, just like you. It is that sense of basic solidarity which deserves protecting, not the rules which were only ever a means to an end.

This is a taster for my book, Against the Law: Why Justice Requires Fewer Laws and a Smaller State, which is published by Repeater on 12 July and available for pre-order now.

Eleanor Marx’s England


I have been reading these letters printed in the Russian left press and written by Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling.

Most friends will know the name Eleanor Marx as Karl’s daughter, a leading participant in the New Unionism struggles of the 1880 and 90s, mentor to the dockers’ leader WIll Thorne, executive member of the gas workers’ union, and a key link between the Socialist International and activists in Britain. Aveling was her partner, a secularist and then socialist, and one of the most regular platform speakers for various of the left groups of the time (including the SDF, the Socialist League and the ILP). Notoriously, he ended their fifteen year relationship, making a threat to her – its exact nature remains unknown but has been the subject of intense speculation – in response to which Eleanor died by suicide.

Her death was the most extraordinary comingling of the personal and the political. You see in one scandal, the first disillusionment of nascent social democracy, activists dealing with the phenomena of male violence, scandal, despair… Just to give one detail of it: the London-based socialist who made it his mission to expose Aveling was Edward Bernstein, who had already published the first of his “revisionist” articles which serve as a retrospective justification for the rightward shift of German social democracy, and serve as a distant paternal ancestor to New Labour, Starmer etc – in opposition to Aveling who is almost the epitome of the jaded revolutionary socialist prolonging his career when he would have served his ideals so much better by silence.

And in this context you have to remind yourself – beneath the politics, the squabbling and the egos, was something so much important – Aveling’s cruelty.

She was the greatest revolutionary of her age and – her partner betrayed her.

(There is a good biography of Eleanor Marx by Chushichi Tsuzuki, a superb biography of her by Yonne Kapp, and she is discussed at length in major essays by the likes of Sheila Rowbotham).

Anyway, this collection brings together seven long articles the couple wrote in 1895 – three years before Marx’s death.

They write about politics in London, the school board election, local government, new ideas in novels (Thomas Hardy) and drama, women writers, the stumbling efforts of the socialists to be heard. For people who care about early British socialist politics, the story of the left in London, this is essential reading.

Even for those who don’t, there’s so much of interest here. Reflecting the personalities of the two authors the prose is alternatively vivid and detailed, the stories of people resisting poverty; and it is pedantic, vague and opinionated.

The book explains why in Britain we hold our May Day march on a Saturday rather than the first of the month. Just as the day was taking off at the same time, in Europe, the US, and here – a generation of trade unionists worried about demanding too much, and the socialists who had the job of arguing back at them (ie. Aveling) did so with his characteristic strident, sectarian tone. That’s why the argument was lost. It’s all in here, the hopes of that generation and their defeats.

I tried to read it lightly, for the tone, for the laughter beneath a cloudy sky, for those passages which explain. Because that’s what Eleanor did – right up until the end.

How to unmake a fascist: the life of Ray Hill


The news of the death of Ray Hill (1939-2022), one time-fascist, later Searchlight mole, has left me thinking about ex-fascists, and how few see the journey through.

Among the failures, we can include Ewald Althans, one of the leaders of the Rostock riots in 1992, who was interviewed for television a documentary in 1993, supposedly to prove his determination to leave fascism behind, but in fact used the platform to deny the Holocaust, as a result of which he was convicted and jailed; Tommy Robinson, who quit the EDL in 2013, and briefly worker with the anti-extremism campaign Quilliam, only to re-join the far right and organise in 2018 the largest right-wing street protests Britain has ever seen; or Matthew Heimbach one of the organisers of the Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville in 2017, who claimed in spring 2021 to have renounced fascism, only to boast weeks later that he was proposing to relaunch his Traditionalist Workers Party.

But, in the case of Ray Hill, we find someone who had been a a leading fascist – only to admit he was wrong, and to see through the journey of undoing the harm he’d caused

A young man living in Leicester in the early 1960s, Hill was attracted to anti-immigration politics. He joined first the Racial Preservation Society, and then the British Movement. Between 1969 and 1979, Hill lived in South Africa, where he found himself slowly antagonised by the dominant values of apartheid and its radical insistence on the separation of black and white. A South African National Front had been founded and Hill was one of its leaders, but started passing information about it to local Jewish groups. He returned to England, met with researchers from the anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight, and agreed with their backing to join the British Movement. There, he encouraged a faction fight against the party leader Michael McLaughlin. Posing as a more serious Nazi than McLaughlin, the latter responded by expelling him. Hill then sued for readmission. McLaughlin tried to defeat him by pre-emptively closing down the organisation. Ray Hill waited 6 months before outing himself as an infiltrator.

The reason that Hill provides an interesting study in forgiveness is that he had not just been a mere rank-and-file follower of fascism, but an active National Socialist, election agent for Colin Jordan when he stood for Parliament in 1969 and won 4 percent of the vote, and Chairman of the National Front in South Africa, before rejecting its politics.

In 1988, Hill published a memoir, The Other Face of Terror. By far the most important anti-fascist voice mentioned in the text is Searchlight, who are mentioned on 50 of the book’s 315 pages. That magazine was founded in 1975, by two socialists Maurice Ludmer and Gerry Gable. Ludmer was the President of Birmingham Trades Council, of Jewish heritage and a former Communist, who in 1961 who had helped to found the Co-ordinating Committee Against Racial Discrimination (CCARD) which worked together with the Indian Workers; Association in opposing immigration controls and far right activity. Later, Ludmer was a member of the steering committee of the Anti-Nazi League. Gable was also Jewish, and had also been in the Young Communist League. In 1962 he became intelligence director of the Jewish and anti-fascist campaign, the 62 group, after which his politics best reflect that campaign itself, in which former Communists, people whose main political attachment was to Zionism, and pure anti-fascists mingled on equal terms.

Hill’s decision to leave England for South Africa was occasioned by an incident when he and other supporters of the British Movement had been in a Leicester café where they were spotted by anti-fascist students. A row broke out and the proprietor took the side of the students. Hill punched him on the nose, and was charged with assault and actual bodily harm. He and his wife then fled the country. Later, when he returned to England, he negotiated a deal under which the more serious charge was dropped, he pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence. At a time of his life (i.e. 1980) when he was trying to reintegrate himself into far-right circles, his friends in nationalist circles assumed that the café owner must have been Jewish and that this was yet another instance of bad Jews harassing innocent racists. Hill played up to their fantasies, until the rumour became one in which he had launched a vicious, unprompted attack on a Jewish bystander, a story which did him no harm in posing as the incorrigible Nazi his new career as a mole required him to be.

In South Africa in 1979, at the height of his career as chairman of that country’s National Front, Hill watched with growing unease as his comrades leafleted the mixed district of Hillbrow in Johannesburg. Under apartheid, this had been classified a white suburb, but few whites actually wanted to live there, and a growing number of Indian families had moved in. The Front repeatedly leafleted the district, blaming “money-grabbing Zionist landlords” for the change. After one leafleting campaign, the apartheid police felt a need to take action, and began evicting Indian residents from their homes. Hill saw a family, thrown out of a house, their few possession tied up in baskets. He wanted to speak to them and apologise but could not. Ashamed by what he and his comrades had done, Hill approached “a couple of Jewish chaps,” who he had met previously at the Alberton races. They introduced on to “a leading figure in the Jewish community in Johannesburg”, to whom he passed lists of NF members, and plans for rallies, paving the way for his subsequent work as a mole in England.

In England, Hill’s contacts were initially with a man “Derek” working in Searchlight’s Birmingham office, with whom Hill shared a drink. By early 1981, Gable had replaced Derek as Hill’s main Searchlight contact. Witnessing racist attacks, Hill passed on the details of the perpetrators to the police, leaked to the press plans for a bomb attack on the Notting Hill Carnival, and gathered intelligence on secret Nazi gatherings.

His memoir is presented strictly through Hill’s eyes. We get only a relatively vague sense of how he seemed to those anti-fascists who were tasked with monitoring him. For Derek, we are told, the focus was on what Hill could do to help anti-fascists. Derek asked him what he thought of various fascists here, what would be the consequences of their success, how far he agreed with the Searchlight approach. Hill was promising to break all contacts with British politics; it was Derek, he explains, who encouraged him to become more active. Hill was treated not as a repentant fascist seeking redemption, but more like the sort of young friendly contact who makes an initial approach to an anti-fascist campaign. A handler was allocated to him, bit by bit he was turned into an identifier and an anti-fascist activist. There appears to have been no great awkwardness at the through of recruiting a leader of the far right; rather the question was approached practically – the act of intelligence gathering compelled anti-fascists to open up lines of dialogue to their wavering enemies.

“Think it over,” Derek said, “Why don’t you give me a call in a few days?”

Hill was being asked to submerge himself back into a milieu in which he would witness acts of violence, and should expect the threat of physical harm, whenever he was finally unmasked as an infiltrator, and yet his answer is a study in understatement: “You haven’t left me a lot of choice, have you?” Hill replied.


For anyone interested in the politice of this, check out Shane Burley’s recent piece on fascist exes in the US (…/status/1524494474537103361); or the obit of Ray Hill now up on the Searchlight website here ( My thanks to Graeme Atkinson for informing me about Ray’s passing.

Against the Law – out in July


I wanted to let readers of my blog know about this book of mine which is coming out in July.

Understanding the main political projects of our times, and their plans to expand or shrink the law, is the first step towards achieving greater equality and averting climate disaster. Since 2016, Britain has been ruled by populists, who promise to expand democracy and shrink the law by taking back power from the European Union. Yet what these populists have actually done in power is institute a vast increase in new laws, made by ministers and not Parliament, regulating every aspect of our lives. This move of promising less law while actually expanding it, has been characteristic of our lives for forty years, ever since the neoliberal counter-revolution. Every year, new criminal offences are created; new regulations are introduced.

Renton’s book dares us to imagine a world in which workers are winning, and ecocide treated with the urgency that it deserves. These changes can only come about, he argues, if the movements of the oppressed choose to disengage from the law.

Owen Hatherley: “Renton is one of the most consistently interesting and imaginative political writers in Britain today, and this eloquent attack on the repressive legalism common to populists and neoliberals alike is one of his best yet.”

Liz Davies: “Renton’s experience as a barrister and historian shines through in a learned, and eminently readable, account of the structure of law and the daily business of the Courts.”

Grietje Baars: “Meticulously researched and convincingly argued, Renton urges us to quit seeking liberation through legislation, instead wield our collective power for change.”

Paul O’Connell: “A cogent, compelling argument that the pursuit of justice requires breaking with the hegemony of law.”

Shanice McBean: “All police and prison abolitionists should read this book… it is a timely and sharp intervention, reminding us that laws are not only oppressively enforced but are themselves be a tool of control.”

Copies can be ordered from Amazon, Hive, or from the publishers.

If readers would like a taster, I’ve published pieces reflecting the themes of the book with Open Democracy, the Ecologist and Labour Hub – with more to follow

If you’d like me to speak at your tenants’ union or union branch, just ask.

The Detoxification of French fascism


In advance of the French election on Sunday I thought I’d share again, an extract from my 2019 book, The New Authoritarians, in which I do my best to explain this moment we’re living through and the consistent electoral success of people and parties which position themselves in a space between fascism and Conservatism. After Sunday, we will be told that le Pen represents something different and new and this explains the willingness of millions of people to vote for her. Whereas, what I’m trying to show is that her seeming moderation is just the latest stage of a process of repackaging which has been going on for nearly 60 years.

To make sense of today’s Rassemblement National, it is necessary to recall that it emerged from a far-right milieu, part of which was fascist. It began through a process of partial and managed detoxification, which long precedes its current leadership.

A key text was Dominique Venner’s pamphlet Pour une critique positive, written in 1963 by a former French soldier who had taken part in various activities of the French far right, including a 1956 attack on headquarters of the French Communist Party and had been a member of the group Jeune Nation, which was banned in 1958 for involvement in terrorist acts. JN merged with a successor group, the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète, which too was banned and Venner was prosecuted and jailed. Writing from prison, Venner attempted to reorient the far right away from clandestine activities towards possible growth, during what was most likely to be a long period in which the ideas of nationalism were doomed to remain marginal. To grow again, Venner argued, fascism would need to ‘educate its supporters’. The far right, he complained, lived in a permanent atmosphere of dreams, with its supporters reading spy novels, memoirs from participants in the war years or the secret services. He insisted that nationalists needed to maintain their vision of the complete reconstruction of society but argued that this required a lengthy period of preparation. A fascist seizure of power, he insisted, would face numerous obstacles, including that fact that the inhabitants of Europe were much richer than they had ever been and disinclined to accept military rule. What the far right needed, Venner argued, were ‘a hierarchical body of cadres’ working in the tradition of National Socialism. These cadres should see their role as persuasive. Venner urged his supporters to join farmers’ federations and students’ unions, recruit teachers and engineers. The far right faced a long battle of battles, he argued a conflict ‘without glory or panache’.

Dominque Venner’s pamphlet was taken up by others on the right, including François Duprat, the Toulouse organiser of Jeune Nation, and later a member of the fascist party Ordre Nouveau. It was Duprat who persuaded ON to set up the Front National in 1972 after which he was, in effect, the FN’s deputy leader under Le Pen until Duprat’s death in 1978. He praised Venner, likening his pamphlet to Lenin’s What is to be Done? in terms of its influence on his generation of nationalists.

The idea of a Front National was proposed by Duprat at the June 1972 congress of Ordre Nouveau. ‘The final goal of the organisation remains the capture of power by revolutionary action,’ Duprat argued, ‘however this moment has not yet come’. Drawing on Hitler’s National Socialists as well as the recent success of the Italian MSI, Duprat insisted that it was possible to be both electoral and revolutionary. The turn towards electoralism was based on a gamble that the political situation was not going to remain as unfavourably to the right forever; in five national elections from 1967 to 1978, no far right candidate won more than one percent of the vote.

The formation of the Front National was itself a detoxification measure, aimed at uniting the non-fascist right behind Ordre Nouveau. Various well-known figures on the right were invited to join, notably Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was a member of ON but was associated in the public mind with ‘patriotic’ far-right politics rather than with fascism. Above all Le Pen was known for the 1965 campaign for the Presidency by Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, which Le Pen had organised, and whose central demand had been the maintenance of Algeria as a French colony.

That said, detoxification was never supposed to go too far. Initial recruits to the Front included Victor Barthélémy, who became the FN’s Administrative Secretary and was a former General Secretary of Jacques Doriot’s fascist Parti Populaire Français. Barthélémy had recruited a French unit of the Wehrmacht and later worked for the PPF in Mussolini’s Salò Republic. The formation of the FN was not intended to be more than a temporary moderation; Dominque Venner continued to call for the murder of racial enemies while Duprat published Holocaust Denial literature including British fascist Richard Verrall’s Did Six Million Really Die?

Jean-Marie Le Pen’s role within the FN was to popularise ideas developed by others and to win publicity for the group. At times, his method was a right-wing contrarianism, saying something unspeakable so that the FN would be attacked and he could accuse his opponents of hypocrisy. All he was saying out loud, he argued, is what ordinary people were thinking in secret. One example of this approach came in 1984, between the breakthrough at Dreux and the European election results, when Le Pen told a broadcaster that France was not a brothel for six million immigrants.

 At other times, Jean-Marie Le Pen defended Vichy or fascism in Germany. In these cases, his role appears to have been to remind FN supporters that their party was not interested in just being popular, it was loyal to the fascist tradition. These comments, including his promise in 1983 to ‘bring together the fasces of our national forces so that the voice of France is heard,’ his 1988 reference to the Socialists’ (Jewish) minister of the public service Michel Durafour as ‘Durafour-crématoire,’ or Le Pen’s frequent use of the term ‘six million’ in multiple contexts seemingly unrelated to the Holocaust, make most sense if they are seen not as the needling of his opponents but instead the continuation of an old idea of the Front going back to the days of Venner and Duprat. They were an insistence that the FN was still a party of revolutionary nationalists. They were intended to radicalise the supporters of the Front, training them in a fascist world-view and converting them from voters into cadres.

The word dédiabolisation was first used at an FN summer school in 1989, by figures around Bruno Mégret, who emerged at the end of the decade as a rival to Jean-Marie Le Pen within the FN. Mégret had left the Gaullist RPR to join the Front National in 1982 and became Le Pen’s Deputy. His role within the organisation was as a bridge to centre-right voters, telling an interviewer from Le Monde in May 1998, ‘Many of the Gaullist values in 1940 at the time of the RPR and after 1962 are perennial values which, today, are embodied by the FN: the independence of France, the greatness of our country, the refusal of a regime dominated by political parties.’ Mégret’s criticism of Le Pen was that by positioning the Front as a party which was in continuity with Vichy and the German occupation rather than the Resistance, he was preventing a coalition with Gaullists, the party’s most direct route to power.

Those arguments have recurred over the past five years, with Le Pen’s daughter’s Marine much making the same arguments, but with much greater success. The success of Marine Le Pen has come in part from moderating the FN’s approach towards groups with were seen by her father as the Front’s implacable enemies, including some of France’s Jews, while at the same time adopting a more hostile message in relation to her party’s main enemies, Arabs and Muslims. Instead of proposing the repatriation of immigrants and their children, it spoke of ‘national preference’. In other words, it argues that employment, social services, housing and pensions should be reserved for French citizens who would live alongside others and be given a permanent structural advantage over them…

Obviously, the above stops at about the last Presidential election in 2017. I could have included more material from the same book in which I argue that Macron’s war on social movements (trade unions, students, any expression of moderate Islamic opinion) would pave the way for further growth on the right. It seemed obvious to me that Le Pen would stand for the Presidential elections again, and do better this time than she had in 2017. I haven’t bothered reshare that here because such analyses have been almost universal on the anglophone left. They, in turn, shape how we think about this election – with dread at the prospect of a Le Pen victory, with little more hope should Macron hold her off this time. With each liberal success, with each insistence that everyone else must come behind Macron, with no pretence that he will govern any better next time, the odds shift ever further in Le Pen’s favour.

If any readers want to read further on, you may find the following useful in terms of explaining how Le Pen’s success has come about and what risks it poses:

Ugo Palheta for Historical Materialism arguing that Le Pen’s trajectory remains fascist and that Macron is in any way preparing the way for her through the fascisation of the state

A reply by me pointing out that the classical Marxist theories of fascism saw it as a movement emerging outside the state and willing to use violence on a mass scale, and arguing that Le Pen’s rejection of violence, make it hard to see here as still (in that sense) fascist

The historian Daniel Gordon crediting Le Pen’s success to the social turn in her rhetoric, as well as the candidacy of Zemmour who made her seem moderate by comparison

Sebastian Budgen on the success of the far left candidate Mélenchon’s in winning young and urban voters in the first round

Owen Jones on Macron’s attempt to woo far-right voters and what Macron will do if he wins.