Tag Archives: Austerity

Overuse of abstract nouns threatens ‘our way of life’

by Anne Archist

A cyclist has been tackled to the ground by the Olympic ‘Torch Security Team’ (TST to those of us who prefer letters to real words). This follows an old Italian woman trying to touch the torch to bring Italy luck in Euro 2012, two young boys grabbing the torch in Coventry, water-bombs being thrown at the convoy and a protester trying to throw a bucket of water over the torch and more.

In some of these incidents the response of the torch’s minders was fairly reasonable and restrained, while in other cases they and the police massively over-reacted. The response to the cyclist getting too close to the torch is just one example of this; the Leeds bucket protester was arrested and accepted a caution (most likely under threats and intimidation from the police) for an offence under Section 4(presumably 4A) of the Public Order Act as well. For those that don’t know, 4A defines an offence as follows:

A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he—(a)uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or(b)displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.

Presumably the ‘disorderly behaviour’ of throwing a bucket of water over the torch was considered to cause people ‘alarm or distress’ – in which case one wonders how they leave the house in the morning.

I think the handling of the security around the Olympic torch tells us a lot about socially-endemic attitudes towards freedom, the rule of law, protest, and so forth. Particularly, the behaviour of the police (of which the current TST is a part) – and the (lack of) response to that behaviour by authorities such as the Greater London Authority, the British Olympic Association and senior police – illustrates the way that power is wielded in our society.

There will, of course, be endless political-philosophical debates in any modern democratic culture about the appropriate balance between freedom and security, between the rights of the individual to do as they wish and the rights of others not to be adversely affected (or ‘harmed’ in J. S. Mill’s terminology) by them, etc. This is something that even the most strong-minded of us have to accept as a fact of life; we may think that our society is too permissive or too authoritarian, but there is at least an ongoing discursive recognition that this is something that is disputed and over which political battles are, and will continue to be, fought.

What interests me about our attitudes towards freedom and security, however, is illuminated brilliantly by the Olympic torch (if you’ll pardon the pun) – it’s the way in which this discourse of ‘security’ can be misappropriated as an abstraction which is then used repressively by those with power. I should be clear that I’m not talking here about the debate about whether in a particular instance it’s reasonable to view a particular individual or action as a threat to a notion of security that we hold in common , such as how much we should worry about terrorist attacks; whether or not we think that there is a realistic threat of terrorist attack, and whatever we think should or shouldn’t be interpreted as the indicators of such a threat (such as the debate around racial profiling for anti-terrorist purposes), we do at least all roughly acknowledge that should a terrorist bombing of civilians take place, that would be a violation of a type of ‘security’ to which we are all entitled.

What I’m talking about are questions which have nothing to do with risk of death or injury, of integrity of the private home from intruders, etc. These questions can be re-framed as questions of ‘security’, bringing them under one of the most powerful and guarded political categories and lending them the kind of seriousness and concern with which we debate terrorism or armed robbery. Often in political-philosophical debates, categories are constructed, the appropriate reactions and attitudes towards them are determined, and then people try to sneak things which fall outside of a category into it in order to shield it with the legitimacy of real members of that category, and that’s often what happens with the Olympic Games and similar events in general, but the torch is a particularly good and clear example of this.

The TST are “tasked with ensuring the continuity of the Olympic flame”, in the words of the BBC; one member of the team stated that “If anyone of any age threatens the security of the flame or torchbearer, we need to move that threat away quickly”. Note the interesting language in “security of the flame” – what does it mean for a flame to be ‘secure’ or not? The concern is not even stated as being the security of the torch, which one might construe as protecting it from damage theft, perhaps – rather than the more natural ‘torch or torchbearer’, we get the presumably intentional ‘flame or torchbearer’; not only this, but the same police team “protect a mother flame in a lantern during the day, while officers take turns to sleep with it in their rooms overnight”. The concern here is clearly with the continuity of the actual flame, which is considered to have symbolic (political?) importance.

We should really ask ourselves as a society whether we think it is appropriate to employ agents of the state en masse to guard the symbolic continuity of a torch flame, at cost to society, in order to foil attempts to touch, steal or even (God forbid) extinguish the torch. We should consider whether legally backed and endorsed ‘flame bodyguards’ should be able to push, manhandle, tackle and arrest people who threaten the continuity of the flame (particularly considering the bloody thing goes out all the time anyway). What kind of a society are we that we think young people should be tackled from bikes and pinned to the ground for cycling too close to something that they have been taught by their elders to believe is a historic event that they should bear witness to?

Similarly, where do we think the line should be drawn when it comes to the police interfering in our lives? The vast majority of the populace, however cynical or jaded they may (justifiably) feel towards the police force, recognise that some of its functions are necessary or helpful and that some of its employees do their best to serve the community. It is a fact of social life in the UK that the police have the power, in pursuit of these ends (if also in pursuit of less admirable ones or through problematic means) to arrest, to detain, to question, to search, etc; quite rightly, these police powers have limits and conditions governing their use.

Yet we live in a society which is so lax towards its heritage of ‘liberal’ thinking that nobody bats an eyelid when a man is stopped and questioned by police just for wearing a Batman costume and the officers ‘suggest’ that the man should cease his work for the day due to the policing operation surrounding the Olympic torch relay. Surely there comes a point where even the most conformist among us begins to feel that the police have an attitude of casual superiority and consider civilians merely as objects of power to be managed according to a schema convenient for political and policing purposes? This low-level contempt for, and condescension towards, the public is widespread – as those of us who more regularly have contact with the police as objects to be managed (such as urban youth, political campaigners, etc) know all too well. In 2009, officers tasked with torch security caused hospitalising head injuries to a journalist in Vancouver.

This attitude isn’t limited to the police but is displayed at times by others who hold power or work in a disciplinary capacity, such as teachers or politicians. It is often at its worst when dissenters are seen as trying to ‘ruin’ something or as a ‘nuisance’ to other citizens, even in the absence of any real illegality or danger. In 2006, the Italian Interior Minister said that “Law enforcement officials are doing all they can so that [protesters including anti-globalisation groups] can’t provoke more serious damage to the image of our country”. The Prime Minister (which was Berlusconi at the time) declared “zero tolerance” for protesters, stating that the government “may take drastic measures” to prevent the country’s ‘image’ being affected.

Similarly, the theoretical legal relationships that are intended to protect us from abuses are frequently overlooked or circumvented in these kinds of situations. In 2008, Chinese “torch minders” were left to their own devices to bully and harass torchbearers, manhandle and detain members of the public, and generally act like they owned the place – not only in China but also when they toured the world accompanying the torch to other countries (including in London). Various bodies and agencies, including the Greater London Authority and the British Olympic Association, who could have overseen and taken responsibility for their actions simply disavowed any connection to them, and the police left them free to do as they wished despite their complete lack of legal powers outside of their own country.

In every case, “security” is given by way of excuse and explanation. But ‘security’ is a word we associate with bodily safety, with the protection of rights, with freedom from harassment – not a word that we would generally use to refer to stopping a torch from going out or being touched by an Italian restaurateur. When those embedded in systems of power like politicians and police officers tell us that young people must be pushed from bikes and pinned to the floor for the sake of security, what they fear is harm to ‘image’ or ‘message’, not bodies or communities. This shows through in their more candid moments – despite attempts to position the Olympic torch behind a phalanx of vague concerns about security, conjuring up images of Islamic terrorism in this day and age, it should be evident that the supposed symbolism of a shoddy metal torch should not be allowed to substitute for the freedom to get on with our daily business, to take part in the spectacle, or even to protest.

The ‘security’ of the Olympic torch symbolises everything that is wrong with the Olympic Games, not their positive potential. The continuity of the flame should remind us of the attitudes adopted and measures taken to guarantee that continuity – the Olympic torch most closely resembles the torch of the Witchfinder General.

1 Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, History, Uncategorized

New Year, New Labour

by Anne Archist

Labour are trying once again to re-invent themselves; 2012 has already seen a new attitude that amounts to exhuming the short-lived corpse of Blue Labour.

The media identified prior ‘re-launches’ under Miliband’s stewardship in June of last year and November of the year before, not to mention that his election as leader was itself supposed to de-toxify the Labour brand after the Blair-Brown years. Each previous attempt also utilised Maurice ‘The Baron’ Glasman’s “if you can’t beat them, imitate them” logic; this time, though, the leadership’s ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche’ ideology has been dressed up in Beveridge’s old clothes, saved for just such an occasion.

The Baron was disappointed to learn that Jon Crudas had skipped Sunday service.

Blue Labour is enough to make a Marxist miss Brown Labour. At least Gordon ‘Golden’ Brown realised it was “the economy, stupid” and had some tentative ideas what could be done about it – The Baron would rather have us believe that modern society’s inexorable autosarcophagy can be stemmed by getting more bums on pews at St Saviour in the Marshes. Liam Byrne is the whipping-boy tasked with the triumphant fanfair, and is at least an improvement on Glasman. The Baron wrote and said the sorts of things that would make you choke on your bourbon biscuit in shock as you casually perused the Guardian website over a cuppa. Byrne is the kind of character who might make you emit involuntary Marge Simpson impressions, but not cough up crumbs and hot tea over your keyboard.

The big news is that Labour are “reclaiming [Beveridge’s] vision, learning from his political courage, understanding what has gone wrong in recent years as well as what has worked”; they must “become the radical reformers again”. Like a student who forgets to attach their essay to the e-mail, Byrne seems to have all-too-conveniently left out the details. There are hints at what the new approach to welfare policy might be, and some of them aren’t pretty.

Encouragingly, Byrne savages the current system’s treatment of the ill and disabled, and ends on a high note: “Beveridge’s first principles are the right place to begin”. But the warning signs are all there, and we have come to expect no better from ‘triangulated’ Labour: “Beveridge would have wanted determined action from government to get communities working once again, not least to bring down that benefits bill to help pay down the national debt”, “He never saw unearned support as desirable”, so “let’s restore the idea of ‘something for something’”.

Image

Now, as it happens, although Liam Byrne was neither born nor elected in my local area, he was educated here in his adolescence. I would like to think, then, that having experienced a world where around 30% have no qualifications, unemployment has frequently hit 10% or higher (with youth unemployment particularly high and a relatively high number of people never having worked), there is a high measure of overcrowding and 30% live in council housing, Byrne might have some understanding of the problems facing – and generally the lives of – those who rely on the welfare state in some form.

On the other hand, Byrne also sat on the committee that drafted legislation penalising phone usage by drivers, and then got a fine and points on his license for… yep, you guessed it, using a phone while driving. Perhaps, then, it would be too much to expect of him. While paying lip service to the content of Beveridge’s skilful and considered (though still imperfect) report, one gets the impression that Labour are more keen to vicariously cash in on its kudos than to implement its ideas as policy. This impression is all the more forgivable in light of New Labour’s record, and especially given the continued influence that Glasman’s ideas exercise over the party leadership (despite the formal dissolution of the Blue Labour project after the aforementioned ugly comments made by The Baron himself).

It would be a massive coup if Labour could produce something like the Beveridge report these days. Of late, state-commissioned research has been getting more slapdash and significantly shorter, with all of the loss of detail, balance and elucidation that implies; consider the 2010 Browne report into Higher Education, a total wash-out weighing in at only a nominal 60 pages (which is misleadingly high considering that ~5 pages of that are taken up by appendices and references, and the report itself contains more blank space and pictures than your average colouring book). The 1963 Robbins Report into Higher Education, to put that into perspective, had 335 pages. Obviously I’d rather give the number of words since this is a better standard of comparison, but this is difficult for technical reasons and you get the picture at any rate.

Beveridge struggles to find anything of any intellectual merit in the Browne Report.

It’s not just a question of the length of the report and the level of detail and the development of the logic that was possible as a result. It’s also a question of the mind and principles behind the recommendations; the principles were laid out honestly, the best practical application was explained meticulously and with sharp insight. As Liam Byrne points out in his article, the general public responded so positively that there were queues to buy the report. Beveridge strips his subject matter bare and builds his thought process up in a clear and honest way that can be followed by anyone inclined to do so, rather than filling the text with jargon or tacitly presupposing a narrow ideology. If every report were like the Beveridge report, bureaucracy would not be such a bad thing.

Labour have two choices. They could attach a dynamo to Beveridge’s coffin and prove themselves partially useful by forcing him to spin – with a bit of luck they might be able to power a constituency office with the electricity generated. Alternatively, they can take the challenge seriously and commission talented intellects to conduct a wholesale enquiry into the modern benefits system and its intersections with other areas of state and market activity. Taking this route would mean considering not only issues like the incentives provided by child benefits, but also the relationship between wages and benefits in their various forms, the future of social housing stock, the feasibility of full employment (which Beveridge assumed in his report), etc.

While it may not be immediately apparent, these questions are vital to understanding why the benefits system works as it does, and how it might work differently. The level of benefits or the conditions associated with them do supply incentives to act in one way or another, but they do not do so in a vacuum. The consequence of a particular policy (setting a threshold just so, or banning this type of person from receiving that payment) depends hugely upon other social variables that exist alongside the benefits system but are not themselves part of it. Even Byrne’s colleague Diane Abbott made this point effectively when she noted that the housing benefit bill “reflects a conscious political decision by successive governments to subsidise (mostly) private landlords rather than invest in affordable council housing”.

While we’re looking at benefits from different angles, let’s also remember that there are more things in heaven and earth, neoliberal, than are dreamt of in your economics. It shouldn’t be a surprise if someone values 15 hrs of their time more highly than the £15 difference it would make to their income. We should re-evaluate which factors are taken into consideration in determining payments and how – should 2 friends living together get any more or less than 2 partners living together? We should be clear about what sort of behaviours we are incentivising or penalising and why – do we want less children (say, for environmentalist reasons) or more (to counteract the aging population and pay for their parents’ pensions and healthcare, perhaps)?

If a re-examination of the welfare state dodges problems like this then it will have ensured its irrelevance and its inferiority to the original. In fact, it’s tempting to suggest that Miliband might as well just re-publish and re-read the original Beveridge report in its entirety and apply the principles and arguments laid out in it to the contemporary situation, since it’s difficult to imagine the modern Labour party producing or commissioning anything of great positive significance.

Byrne hits the nail on the head when he says that what is needed is radicalism, though I doubt he has the stomach to put this concept into action – healing the malaise of the welfare state may mean rebuilding the entire taxation system from the ground up, ensuring structural full employment, introducing a universal minimum income (like that proposed by the Green Party), or other wholesale changes to basic components of our economy and society. Byrne is all bluster, but calling his bluff could yield real fruit.

1 Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Liberation issues, Political Strategy, Satire, Uncategorized

Which Straw Broke the Camel’s Back?

by Anne Archist

With a title like that, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a philosophical thesis on overdetermination or something of the sort. Actually, I’m just wondering what it was that made the tories finally go absolutely batshit insane. As many of you will know by now, Westminster Council are trying to pass a local bye-law that would ban rough sleeping and the distribution of free food. You might have naively hoped that was as insane as the story got, but you’d be wrong. The story gets that little bit more insane when you realise this is the second time in several years that moves like this have been made. It gets a lot more insane when you realise that the government department responsible (Communities and Local Government, CLG) is backing the policy.

It leaves this dimension of sanity altogether when you read the following quote, from an actual real-life spokesperson for the department: “Local homeless charities and Westminster Council believe that food handouts actually encourage people to sleep rough in central London.” Yes, apparently people are so excited about a polystyrene cup of tomato soup and a ham and cheese sandwich that they’re swapping home comforts for the cold cobbles of our capital. (See that alliteration? Don’t let anyone tell you I can’t write) Of course, there’s only one problem with this theory, which is… OH MY GOD, WHAT THE FUCK, ARE THEY ACTUALLY SERIOUS!?

So with that in mind I’m going to invite great unrest readers to join me in a public campaign. Eric Pickles is the secretary of state for CLG; I therefore promise him as much soup as he can slurp (tories slurp their soup, right?) and as many sandwhiches as he can fit in his right honourable face every night that he sleeps rough in Westminster.

A few ground rules: I will provide the soup and sandwiches, and they will be of my choosing (but I promise they will be tasty); sleeping rough means actually sleeping out all night, not just knocking around until the food arrives then scarpering; sleeping rough also means on the street or a park bench – second homes and travel lodges don’t count; I’m so serious it hurts about this offer, I really will do it if he takes up the challenge and provides proof (I’m sure the news media will be willing to record the event for posterity). Let the games commence.

4 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Uncategorized

The February Theses

by Anne Archist


Newsnight Economics Editor Paul Mason (allegedly a former member of Workers’ Power, though I don’t know if this is true or not) has written 20 theses on the current situation, particularly regarding anti-austerity dissent in Europe and the revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East. He specifically asked for comments and replies on twitter, so I’m here to remind him to be careful what he wishes for…

 

1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future…

Is there? “It all” here refers not only to the student protests in this country, and the wider anti-cuts movement, but also anti-austerity mobilisations elsewhere in Europe and even the rebellions spreading across the Middle East. Can we put all of these down to the “graduate with no future”? I think not – my experience of the anti-cuts movement in this country is that it is largely composed of activists, students and trade unionists. Only some of these students have “no future” (yes, some people who do have secure futures are capable of dissent too!) and only some of them are in higher education.

2. …with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog so they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyrrany [sic].

True to an extent, but it is important to bear in mind the descriptive and potentially momentary nature of this. The fact that people are using the internet a lot doesn’t imply that people ought to rely on it; there is massive potential for these sorts of coordination to be hampered or prevented altogether if it becomes really necessary (apparently the USA are working on an internet kill switch that would allow the president to unplug the country on a whim).

3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.

There’s no reason to assume that truth moves faster than lies through social networks!

4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc… in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected.

Au contraire – membership has risen for Labour and far left groups, and I’ve been in contact with sixth formers keen to learn more about Marxism and Anarchism, for instance.

5. Women very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernised labour markets and higher-education access the “archetypal” protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.

To put this down to the development of modernised markets undermines the hard work that has been done throughout the history of social struggles to improve the lot of women within them. Would “modernised labour markets and higher education access” have ensured the same result without the input of socialist-feminists taking male leaders to task, the active and conscious selection of women as spokespersons for campaigns, the use of women’s caucuses in trade unions, etc? Most groups purposely and self-consciously deal with gender issues within the campaign, and to put the observation of women organisers/etc down to economic factors is to do a political disservice to these groups and to the hard work of women within them. Women had to fight for the position they are now beginning to occupy, and it’s by no means assured or entirely equal!

6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.

Perhaps Mason means something specific by ‘vertical’ hierarchies (are there such things as horizontal hierarchies?), but hierarchies of sorts certainly persist in the face of technology. They may be different kinds of hierarchies (those who have a smartphone vs those who don’t), and they may in fact be even less appealing ones. This is the sort of point made well in the classic pamphlet The Tyranny of Structurelessness. At least a democratic hierarchy allows us to choose and change who is at the top; emergent accidental hierarchies may be decided by factors like income, etc.

7. Memes: “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.” (Wikipedia) – so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly “market tested” and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory (see Richard Dawkins, 1976) seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.

I don’t have anything to add here…

8. They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy – but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you “follow” somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.

Again, though, this idea of ‘networks’ can be dangerous if it leads to the formation of cabals that are unaccountable, personality cults, etc.

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess [sic] – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

People get unhappy when the economy turns to shit – nothing too surprising there.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

I’m not entirely sure what this is about – how is it “compounded”? Maybe I just don’t understand what’s being said here.

11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

But a revolution of poor lawyers produces a social order organised for rich lawyers – the French revolution was an essentially bourgeois revolution, this is no surprise. Unrest in the Middle East, China, etc may lead to a revolution of poor lawyers that throws off political repression and so forth (and this is by no means inevitable). More economically developed, liberal-democratic states are already organised for rich lawyers, however…

12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.

Well, this in itself is making very few claims – in what sense is the intelligentsia predominant? What has the relationship changed from and to? I’m not convinced that the claims it does make are true – the intelligentsia seems to have little to do with anything when it comes to the politics of the street that are emerging.

13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he [sic] old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.

This is a pedantic point, but it’s not a loss of fear if they’re young radicals that weren’t involved in social movements like this before, because they never had occasion to fear in the first place. Taking a day off from protesting (and occupying) is not as easy as it may seem – certainly you won’t get people threatening to break your legs, but you might reasonably expect peer pressure, guilt, and so forth. On the other hand, it may be true that the struggle these days is being fought in a more ‘tactical’ hit-and-run fashion. The question remains whether this is merely a transitory phenomenon or whether we are in a new era of struggle; soon we should be seeing a lot more industrial action, and we’ll see how comfortable people feel from having a day off then…

14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

This isn’t to do with the changed nature of class relations within the movement or anything of the sort. The core activists of most campaigns do tend to overlap, and they always have done historically. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Socialist groups in the 60s in the USA would have had a place in the civil rights/black power struggle, the women’s liberation movement, the unions, community groups, the anti-vietnam protests, etc.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.

This is an interesting observation from an academic point of view, but I doubt as to whether it tells us much about the nature of the movements we’re examining.

16.There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change. Egypt is proving to be a worked example of this: though it is highly likely things will spiral out of control, post Mubarak – as in all the colour revolutons [sic] – the dire warnings of the US right that this will lead to Islamism are a “meme” that has not taken off. In fact you could make an interesting study of how the meme starts, blossoms and fades away over the space of 12 days. To be clear: I am not saying they are wrong – only that the fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt has not been strong enough to swing the US presidency or the media behind Mubarak.

I don’t have anything to add here either.

17. It is – with international pressure and some powerful NGOs – possible to bring down a repressive government without having to spend years in the jungle as a guerilla, or years in the urban underground: instead the oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.

This is romanticising protest aesthetics as if they were a source of political power in themselves – to paraphrase Mason, “they use graffiti” is missing the point of what they use it for. Furthermore, it’s always been possible to bring down a government without spending years in the jungle – “international pressure and some powerful NGOs” is not the way to do it, however. The Russian February Revolution was the work of the women proletarians and the product of bread queues. International pressure generally comes to nought unless it consists of foreign interference; Egyptians don’t want the US to replace Mubarak with a CIA-approved puppet, they want to force him out and decide what follows.

18. People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”. While Foucault could tell Gilles Deleuze: “We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation, and to this day, we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power”,- that’s probably changed.

Again, this is part of the Laurie Penny narrative according to which young people have no truck with old-fashioned notions that social workers and billionaire property tycoons have conflicting class interests. This isn’t representative of the consciousness I encounter in the movement, however.

19. As the algebraic sum of all these factors it feels like the protest “meme” that is sweeping the world – if that premise is indeed true – is profoundly less radical on economics than the one that swept the world in the 1910s and 1920s; they don’t seek a total overturn: they seek a moderation of excesses. However on politics the common theme is the dissolution of centralized power and the demand for “autonomy” and personal freedom in addition to formal democracy and an end to corrupt, family based power-elites.

The task of socialists, of course, will be to reverse this, as it has always been!

20. Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.

Expanded the space of the individual? At this point Mason seems to be getting a little too keen on Foucault. It’s interesting that he mentions CCTV cameras as if they expand the power of protesters; this thesis forgets that for every blog there is now a tank, for every smartphone there is now a wiretap, for every soundsystem there is now a Forward Intelligence Team.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, Political Strategy, Uncategorized

You want me to join your party? Come back when it looks like this.

by Anne Archist

“Well, I tell you what, boy. Ive been knowing you since you were knee-high to a grasshopper, n****r. and I dont know if I like communism and I dont know if I like socialism. But I know that that Breakfast For Children program fees my kids, n****r. And if you put your hands on that Breakfast For Children program, Im gonna come off this can and I’m gonna beat your ass” – Fred Hampton Sr quoting a black mother.

Most people will recognise the name “Black Panther Party” (BPP), even those who aren’t politically engaged. The party has a (perhaps deserved) reputation for troublemaking and violence, revolving largely around a popular early tactic of patrolling the streets to ensure police officers stayed within the bounds of the law in their interactions with black people. These patrols were armed with loaded weapons, though of course this was a much less remarkable phenomenon in 60s California than a rifle-toting militia walking the streets of Brixton would be! The enduring legacy of the Panthers in my mind, however, is their successful demonstration that large-scale social programs could be organised and carried out by self-organising communities (at least under the watchful eye of a revolutionary vanguard).

The BPP published a party “organ” (that’s Marxese for “newspaper”) like most parties – called, unsurprisingly, ‘(The) Black Panther‘. They carried out political activity influenced by a Maoist theory and Black Nationalism, drawing up a famous ‘Ten-Point Program’ of objectives. Black Panthers entered coalitions with other groups and intervened in a wider movement, as might be expected of any Marxist organisation. The party relied on theoretical and official leaders (amusingly often referred to in Parliamentarian terms –  Huey P. Newton was the “defence minister”, while Emory Douglas was the “minister for culture”), committees and a centralised hierarchical structure. They were, despite their relatively separatist racial attitude, a run-of-the-mill Marxist party in the USA.

What makes the Black Panthers special in my mind is that they are the probably the best example of a party that took seriously the concerns of its working-class constituency in their everyday lives and instigated social projects to address them in a way that helped both the community and the party itself (by earning it a sympathetic reputation, increasing recruitment and donation rates, etc). Fred Hampton even went as far as brokering non-aggression deals between Chicago street gangs and diverting them onto a more politically conscious path by welcoming them into the “Rainbow Coalition” that also included Students for a Democratic Society, the BPP themselves, and other leftist-influenced groupings.

Astonishingly the party eventually established more than 45 “survival programs”, among which were the provision of: free breakfasts for schoolchildren, substance rehab, support for draft resisters, buses for those visiting prison inmates, free clothing distribution, educational programs, even their own ambulance and sickle-cell anaemia testing service! Quite how the party afforded to do this is utterly beyond me – I’d be interested if anyone has ideas as to whether they got funding from any major organisations or foreign powers perhaps… David Horowitz suggests that they received government grants, but also that leading members were embezzling funds – if true this makes the financial feat all the more impressive!

I’m reminded of a discussion at the Anarchist Movement Conference about surveying the opinions of local people about what the major local problems are and how they might be addressed, which are the highest priorities, etc. The goal of this is not, of course, to subordinate the activity of organisers to the will of the politically ignorant – we need not assume that if the survey says “immigrants out”, we should u-turn on a policy of migrant solidarity work. The information gives us a better knowledge base, they (I think it was Liberty & Solidarity) said, from which to conduct propaganda, attempt recruitment, initiate projects and so forth; there is still the possibility of interpreting the data through the lens of our own political theory and attempting to change opinions (as well as act on them) accordingly.

So what am I getting at with all this? Look at the left today. Discounting some anarchistic and often single-issue projects like Food Not Bombs, or else mainstream charity work/volunteering undertaken in addition to political work, can we seriously claim that we’re following in this tradition? I think not. Should we be? I think so – there could be plenty of theoretical justifications from Gramsci etc, but the point is essentially two-fold: firstly people need these things and secondly people will respond better to us if we provide these things. Is this just a cynical tactic of manipulation? No – as I said, the fact that people need them is an important consideration as an end in itself. Moreover though, the question is more one of getting publicity and attention, welcoming people into dialogue, showing that our political positions are not made up of furthering some vested interests or suchlike.

Sceptics should begin to understand the essence of leftist politics and the world we are trying to work towards when they see a woman leading evening classes on political theory or a man feeding hungry children before school. Obviously this question is particularly pressing at a time when government programs are being rolled back and so forth – Patrick has discussed this before. Let’s take the initiative and rediscover this tradition that stretches much further back than the Black Panthers (perhaps Edd could be convinced to write about some of their European forebears?), for the sake of our communities.

 

“You see, people get involved in a lot of things thats profitable to them, and weve got to make it less profitable. Weve got to make it less beneficial. Im saying that any program thats brought into our community should be analyzed by the people of that community. It should be analyzed to see that it meets the relevant needs of that community. We dont need no n*****s coming into our community to be having no company to open business for the n*****s.” – Fred Hampton Sr

7 Comments

Filed under History, Liberation issues, Marxism, Political Strategy

Police protests and the 1917 Petrograd mutiny

by Anne Archist

If there’s one thing that revolutionaries of all stripes, but particularly Leninists, love, it’s a situation that’s in some way comparable to 1900-1920s Russia. I’m not exception to this rule – and why should I be? After all, “those who don’t learn the lessons of history”, etc; understanding the past allows us to better get a grasp on the potential of the present and future, and to interpret events in light of historic parallels, to contextualise them as part of a trend, and so on.  It’s for this reason that I find discussions about police or military insubordination interesting.

For those of you that don’t know, there are apparently concerns that the police will now take to the streets against the very same cuts that they have been protecting by beating and locking up anti-cuts protesters. Well, not the very same cuts, because this time it’s their job. It reminds me of a song I love:

“When the day arrives that you become redundant,
Don’t get angry with the boss and call him names.
You must try to be objective get the matter in perspective;
See yourself as a component, just a cog that is defective,
And with fortitude accept the situation…
That the junk-heap is your natural location!”

Nevertheless, slagging the police off is a tangent – sort of. The thing is that although police are workers, they are nevertheless somehow different from other workers.

Why and how is this so? Well, for a start in this country they can’t legally strike. This means that they are put in a very unique situation in two regards: firstly, in that even basic trade union consciousness is bred out of them by superstructural means (“ideology” and the legal system); secondly, the compensation that the state provides for this inconvenience is relatively good pay and conditions, a serious negotiating attitude (rather than the dismissive one taken towards workers in most sectors), and so on. In addition to this, the state exercises a monopoly on police employment in a way that exists in almost no other industry. There are private doctors and nurses, even private soldiers (mercenaries), but no private police (security guards are by no means the same thing). The question of monopoly is not important, but it reinforces the importance of the fact that the state is selective in who it recruits to the police.

It is selective in more-or-less obvious ways (you would expect to have a criminal record check done when you applied, for instance!) but also in less overt forms; consider the fact that the metropolitan police have shifted towards a policy of only hiring those who have cut their teeth as Special Constables. Special Constables have to be able to give up a degree of their spare time for no pay – this automatically biases their intake towards those who are economically secure, youngsters from more well-off backgrounds, those not working multiple jobs or raising children. These are exactly the sort of people who might be expected to have less sympathy for protest movements, industrial action, youth dissent, etc. Various other accusations of a less structural kind have been levelled at the defenders of Law’n’ord’r – that they are psychologically geared up for brutality by being shown violent combat scenes before deployment at peaceful protests, for instance. I won’t hazard a guess at how true these accusations are or anything like that. For the time being, let’s just settle on the idea that the police can’t necessarily be expected to act as other workers would under the circumstances.

If this is the case, will the police protest in solidarity with other workers? The chances are that, initially, this is the furthest thing from their minds – they are probably planning to protest under the rationale that they are needed in order to ‘contain’ and ‘manage’ the protests of others affected by the austerity measures (after all, “my job is so much more important than theirs”…) and therefore to juxtapose themselves to us as our antithesis, our ‘solution’. The question is not so immediate, however. Will there come a time in the near future when the police decide to work in solidarity with other workers? I’m still sceptical, and in order to explain why I’m going to invoke 1917.

In 1905 (yes, a little further back, but it’s just a pit-stop), soldiers opened fire on the people peacefully processing towards the winter palace, who intended to give a petition to the Tsar,  who was then an absolute monarch with complete power (even being idolised as akin to a god, in fact). This spurred on the protest movement and was a defining event in shattering the illusions that the Russian people had in the Tsar; they now looked on him as a despot rather than as the “little father” (in contrast to the “big father” in heaven). Fast-forward 12 years and Russia is swept by a wave of strikes, marches, meetings, etc. Dissent is everywhere. In a matter of days the troops go over to the socialist movement, provoked to mutiny by the Tsar’s orders to once again open fire on a peaceful movement. They become embedded in proletarian structures instead of the military hierarchy; it is significant that the councils formed by the working class were known as the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

It was significant, that is, in two ways. It showed that the soldiers were sufficiently agitated by their experiences to become a real and vital part of the oppositionist claim on state power. So much so, in fact, that Lenin considered them too embedded in the proletarian movement and wrote a short polemic against the soldiers’ over-representation on the soviets. What it also shows, however, is that the soldiers were not considered in and of themselves workers. If they had been, the name would have been redundant, and comparisons between “the soldiers” and “the workers” would have been phrased as “the soldiers” and “other workers”. Admittedly, police and soldiers are not exactly the same, but this reinforces my feeling that the police are not quite the same as other workers in some important sense(s).

Why did the soldiers mutiny? What stirred them up sufficiently to shoot or chase away their officers and go over to ‘enemy’ lines? Or more precisely, what made them do this when they hadn’t in 1905? Well, firstly, the protests were initiated by women, with International Women’s Day famously marking the real beginning of the revolutionary period. This didn’t mesh so well with sexist notions of feminine frailty still widely endorsed by the Russian church (and widely listened to); the soldiers refused to open fire partly because they held to sexist assumptions. Secondly, Russia was fighting in a world war that required almost total mobilisation; the ranks of the troops had been flooded with peasants in particular, only released from complete serfdom within living memory. These troops were probably more likely to be stationed in the garrisons that would have dealt with protest at home, as the regulars would have been needed at the front. Furthermore, the mutinies were not spontaneous – the various revolutionary groups were in contact with soldiers long before they rebelled, with propagandist literature being disseminated as far as the front, according to Bolshevik accounts.

Having understood the conditions behind the mutiny of the soldiers in 1917 and their obedience in 1905, can we conclude that the police will acquire a class perspective and find common cause with other anti-cuts protests? I imagine not. Today’s police show few qualms about beating up not only women but also children. They are not ‘proletarianised’, let alone drawn from a background of serfdom.  They do not see the putting down of revolt as an unnecessary distraction from the serious business of national defence and a hasty exit from a war they never wanted (if anything, some of them seem to enjoy the overtime).

I’m still in two minds, however – while I don’t think the police could possibly develop this perspective and act accordingly spontaneously, there may yet be room to force the occasion. The only possible hope for this would be a jaw-gritted by genuine support from the left that translated into a physical and significant presence. If we can mingle among off-duty officers, converse with them, show ourselves not to be the hooligan nutjobs they probably sincerely believe us to be, and make an approach of solidarity, it may be warmly accepted and eventually returned.

I’m still not enthusiastic about this. I’m more inclined to support the calls that are being made, straight off the bat, to attempt to police the police march. Thousands of students and workers successfully directing and kettling the police would be a sight to behold, and could even go a small way towards dispelling negative perceptions of protesters if well-behaved. We have to ask ourselves seriously about the political ramifications of whatever tactic we choose, however – would attempting to kettle the police simply aggravate policing on future demonstrations, make us look like ‘troublemakers’ in the public eye, and so on? Perhaps. We shouldn’t be tempted to opt for a tactic simply because it looks cool; unrelenting political thought is necessary when making game-changing decisions such as how to react to the kind of unrest in the enemy camp we are beginning to see.

 

5 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Industrial Relations, Political Strategy, Student Issues, Uncategorized

On the eve of the Spending Review

by Edd Mustill

Tomorrow we will find out just how much the government intends to cut over the next four years. No doubt the details will be left to each department to work out; public sector workers will have to live in uncertain fear for a while longer.

We have written before on this blog about how these cuts are about much more than saving money in the short term. They are part of a project for the transformation of society. If carried to their conclusion, they will make the welfare state seem to history like an aberration that last for a few decades.

Ideological cuts

The ideological nature of the cuts is clear. Some, like axing the UK Film Council, simply make no economic sense. Other sectors are being boxed into a corner through cuts. This is happening in Higher Education. The combination of the Browne report’s recommendation for unlimited fees, and the threat of unfathomable cuts to government funding for teaching, has strengthened the minority current in academia that believes a move to an “American model” is now the only way to sustain universities at all.

The transformative, ideological nature of the cuts means that the Keynesian arguments against them are severely limited. Keynesians of various hues argue that increased spending is actually the better way to close the deficit, that cuts will cause unemployment and decrease the government’s tax base, making things financially worse. If the experience of Ireland is anything to go by, they are right. Ireland is facing a double dip recession and a brain drain, after introducing austerity measures earlier than the rest of Europe.

But the government can’t be argued away from its cuts policy on the grounds that it makes no economic sense, because it is not primarily about economics. George Monbiot is right to say that, for neo-liberals, this is an opportunity more than a crisis. There is a window of opportunity for the welfare state to be buried and for the private and “voluntary” sectors to vastly expand.

In any case, members of the ruling class are shielded from their own programme; why worry that the state education system is breaking down when you can afford to send your children to private schools? Why worry about underfunding in the NHS when you can go private? Why worry that the social housing budget is cut in half when you live in Millionaire Mansions?

Nevertheless, within the ruling class there are those who are voicing opposition to harsh austerity packages. Some are undergoing a rapid and suspicious conversion to Keynesian economics, while others are perhaps just worried about the potential political firestorm that these cuts will create.

Within the government itself, tensions have become more apparent within the Liberal Democrat party. The government is still solid at the moment, but it is becoming clear that it is a government that can be forced to make concessions. If it suffers even a couple of short-term climb-downs, the idea that There Is No Alternative will start to break apart. A defeat on any issue will, from the government’s point of view, set a dangerous precedent. This is why, for example, the stakes in student politics are suddenly a lot higher, because fees are a potential wedge issue that could damage the government.

Unions’ response

The Trades Union Congress also saw a bit of a division this year between those, led by Brendan Barber and Dave Prentis, supporting an entirely legalistic strategy and others, like Bob Crow, who warned of civil disobedience. The TUC’s time scale for anti-cuts campaigning is almost unbelievably slow, with a demonstration planned for March next year, by which time many public sector workers may already be staring at redundancy notices.

It remains to be seen how far tactical differences within the trade union movement on how to fight cuts indicate different views on the role of trade unionism generally. Do the more left-wing union leaders want the same old stuff – 24 hour strikes, marches and rallies – but more of it?

Current laws regarding industrial action are so restrictive that, in order to be effective at all, strikers have to be prepared to break them. This will apply to any new ones that might be passed by the coalition government. This can and has worked recently. The Lindsey Oil Refinery strike last year saw not only a victory, but the spectacle of trade union general secretaries pledging money to fund what had begun as an illegal action, and being forced to “officialise” it. This dispute was not only a wildcat strike (illegal), but also provoked sympathy action (also illegal). Workers also used a form of secondary picketing to spread the word to other sites (probably illegal).

There will be opportunities for more militant types of trade unionism to develop. Labour MP John McDonnell is trying to popularise the right to strike with his private members’ bill, and is absolutely right to do so even though the bill will obviously fail. The idea that withdrawing your labour is a right needs to be deeply embedded in the face of a ruling class offensive. A willingness to break unjust laws has characterised successful mass movements from womens’ suffrage to the anti-Poll Tax campaigns. It is something which, for example, sections of the current environmentalist movement take up with enthusiasm.

The Left and the unions

This is a period that, more than any for a long time, requires the Left to develop serious and consistent strategies towards trade unions and industrial struggle. This is something that the National Shop Stewards’ Network is probably best placed to do, rather than setting itself up as another “general” anti-cuts coalition.

Cuts will fall differently in different areas. Their harshness and time scale will vary. They will generally effect workplaces where two, three, or more unions will have members. The importance of union reps’ networks in sustaining and expanding action will grow. They can draw on the traditions of past shop stewards’ movements – not being anti-official for the hell of it, but being in a position to provide leadership as and when the officials won’t. The Lindsey strike was run by a committee of stewards from both unions involved. Recent strikes like the postal dispute have shown that the absence of a rank-and-file movement leaves the direction of the strike in the hands of the leadership, which can stall it or end it entirely.

It is possible that the spending review will not be as bad as some of the leaks that have emerged have suggested. Even so, it will still propose absolutely unprecedented cuts. The general anger will soon find its way into every public sector workplace as the details of the cuts are worked out in the coming weeks and months.

The Left needs to work with trade unionists to provide advice that goes beyond “Follow the French/Greek workers!” and “General Strike Now!” The constraints of the law and the weakness of shop stewards’ organisation are the two biggest obstacles the union movement needs to overcome in order to fight effectively. Building rank-and-file union organisations is a matter of urgency.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Industrial Relations, Political Strategy