Tag Archives: Twitter

Is workfare slavery?

Social networking platforms have exploded with howls of outrage over the latest workfare scandal; I would imagine that real-life face-to-face conversations have done the same, but cannot confirm this due to not getting out of the house enough. The specifics of the case are that Tesco were caught advertising night shift positions with a “wage” of “JSA + Expenses” on the Jobcentre Plus website [Edit: Link now dead - presumably the advert has been pulled or expired]. John Harris, who has a good track record on unemployment-related reporting has written a great piece for Comment is Free that really puts this case into its current affairs context. I’m sure I couldn’t do this job better myself. Why bother writing this article then? Well, what I can do is put it into a much broader human-historical and theoretical context. That is, after all, what us Marxian philosophers are supposed to be good at.

Specifically I want to address the question of whether these ‘workfare’ schemes are a form of slavery, or at least reasonably comparable to slavery; many people have been throwing the term around, but some people have suggested that we shouldn’t be doing this. I don’t think it’s unreasonable or inappropriate, and I want to explain why. This article will include some discussion of violence, including sexual violence, and other intensely unpleasant and immoral practices, in case that isn’t obvious already. Also, it’s going to be largely historical lecture/analysis, so the first part might be a bit dry.

What is workfare?

Before anything else, I should outline the concept of ‘workfare’ for those unfamiliar with it. Essentially, it describes policies that enforce mandatory unpaid labour upon unemployed people. Workfare means the withdrawal of benefits if you do not accept the work assigned to you, but nothing more than your usual benefits if you do accept the work. This is the sense in which it is unpaid – you continue to receive the normal welfare payments that you would have been entitled to had you not been offered the work at all, but they are now conditional on performing the work where previously they were a basic entitlement.

In the UK this has been implemented in the form of at least two schemes. One, mandatory work activity, is absolutely compulsory if you want to avoid the withdrawal of your Job Seeker’s Allowance; the other, work experience placements, are technically opt-in (though a lot of pressure may be put on jobseekers to opt in), but cannot then be opted back out of after the first week. Essentially, you cannot decide that a placement is not working for you for any reason, and you must persist or else have your eligibility for benefits withdrawn. The opt-in nature of the placements and the restrictions on opting-out have sometimes gone unexplained to the jobseeker offered a placement.

Mandatory work activity is supposed to be of benefit to the community, and was spun as being charity volunteering and so on, but concerns have been raised about whether this has always been the case. Concerns have also been raised about the gender and race profile of those forced into this scheme, with ethnic minorities making up a larger proportion of those on mandatory work activity than those on optional work experience placements.

North American Black slavery

The type of slavery most people are familiar with is that practised in North America between the 16th and 19th centuries. This was probably one of the most cruel, brutal, violent and horrifying human practices to date. It is, in a sense, morally comparable with genocide – the main (perhaps sole) reason it stopped short of actual mass extermination was the potential for profit. Under these arrangements, white slave-owners could expect to get away with extreme negligence or violence, and this might extend to the point of rape or murder. In many cases sexual violence was used against female slaves by the slave-owners or their relatives, who then carried their children, and so on. It is difficult to overstate the morally revolting nature of this form of slavery and the practices associated with it.

It’s easy to see why people might be sensitive to the usage of the word ‘slavery’ when it brings to mind such a vivid, horrible and extreme image. Regular readers of this blog and people who know me personally will know that I have no particular affection for Trotsky. I will, however, quote him on this occasion as one of the few very good things he said is highly relevant here: “To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be… these are the rules”. Calling workfare ‘slavery’ may well conjure up unpleasant associations and seem like an over-reaction, but this is to let the deeply affective cultural memory of historically located practices eclipse a sober analysis of the social relations at hand. To understand why the diagnosis of workfare as akin to a form of slavery might be entirely accurate, we need to look at other concrete forms of slavery.

Roman slavery

Counter-intuitively, earlier forms of slavery were often less brutal than that we have already looked at. In Rome, for instance, slaves increasingly gained legal protections that allowed them to file complaints if their master mistreated them and protected them from execution without trial. Eventually the voluntary freeing of slaves by their owners became so common that the state attempted to legally regulate it so as to preserve slave stocks. Admittedly freeing did not mean that much in the context of Roman slavery, since even once freed an ex-slave did not become a true citizen, but rather a member of a distinct class of a lower legal status than citizens, and was still subject to (less stringent) labour requirements. Children of former slaves escaped this special class, having full citizenship status (whereas children of current slaves were born into slavery, as in the North American system).

Perhaps most importantly in relation to workfare, Romans practised a form of slavery in which individuals could be owned not by other individuals but by Roman society as a whole. They might be employed as servants to elected officials in the duties of their office, but they might also be accountants or secretaries. A slave of this kind was known as a servus publicus – literally a public servant, a slave of the body politic. Interestingly, it was not only the public servants who were given relatively important and skilled jobs – some privately-held slaves were employed as teachers, doctors, domestic accountants, barbers, etc. One of the reasons for this was that previously educated or skilled people could become enslaved through debt and other methods, so slavery was not merely the preserve of those seen as ‘animalistic’, ‘barbarian’ or ‘sub-human'; slaves may have previously been free citizens of some standing.

Generally speaking we can say that in Roman society, especially in later periods, slavery was a truly class-based cleavage within society. Slaves in the later Roman Empire were recognised as thoroughly human, even if they did occupy an inferior social status. Some were given positions of responsibility and were able to earn recognition for their skilled public servitude. Some had good opportunities to earn their own money, and many achieved manumission through the good will of their owners or the public bodies in which they worked. Domestic slaves, though by no means lavished with luxury, might reasonably expect to live in better conditions than poor free citizens.

All of this paints a very different picture from the previous discussion of North American slavery. If I had to give an explanation for this, I would suggest that slavery in Rome was based on class power in its own right. By contrast, I would propose that the African slave trade and the Black slavery it created in North America was first and foremost a question of race power – slavery was a weapon that presented the content of racial oppression in the form of class oppression. The system of Black slavery has as many parallels in Nazi solutions to ‘The Jewish Question’ as it does in prior historic forms of slavery; it used segregation, demonisation, dehumanisation, brutal violence, and killing by force or overwork or neglect.

Greek slavery

Having considered Roman slavery, let’s take a look at the Greek model (which likely formed a huge influence over the Roman system). Once again the system changed over time, but generally slaves had a greater legal status than in the ‘classic’ case of North American slaves of African origin. Slaves could – at least in certain periods – own property, including land, and some had a status almost equal to citizens. In most Greek cities, a citizen that killed a slave (including their own) could expect to be severely punished, and could even face the death penalty themselves; if someone killed your slave you would not claim for damages due to their status as property, but pursue punishment due to their status as a human. Athenian law protected slaves from being beaten and Athenian culture generally demanded less diffidence and deference from slaves than in other systems, with citizens tolerating argument, etc. In other city-states the treatment of slaves was much harsher and their social and legal position was significantly worse.

Slavery in Sparta was analogous to the later servi publici – rather than being based on individual chattel ownership, the bulk of slaves were state-owned and were assigned to citizens while remaining common property. In keeping with general Spartan ideology, this class of slaves (known as Helots, and distinct from privately-owned slaves) were treated very poorly indeed. There is debate, but generally historians seem to agree that Helots could be killed with impunity at least at a certain time in the year, and that the attitude of Spartan citizens towards Helots was utterly contemptuous at best. On one occasion, the Helots were asked to nominate for manumission those who had best proved their bravery, capability, wits, and so on. 2,000 Helots volunteered themselves and were summarily slaughtered on the grounds that those with that much confidence in themselves were likely to be the most seditious and rebellious.

Similarly to the Roman economy, Greek slaves were not restricted to hard manual labour or domestic service and could practice a craft or profession, though most were employed in agriculture, mining and so on (this also was true of the Roman economy – the accountants and so on may not have been exceedingly rare but they were certainly the minority). They were sometimes forced into arrangements somewhat reminiscent of modern wage-employment, although it would probably be overstating the case to call these arrangements proto-capitalist. On the one hand, slaves could be hired out to other citizens as labourers, generating a profit for the owner. Conversely, some Greek slaves lived independently of their owners as traders, bankers, etc, merely paying a king of ‘tax’ to their owners. Slaves might earn enough to buy their emancipation in this way.

 It’s worth pointing out that as well as the common prohibitions on violence in the form of beating or killing, it was generally illegal to rape a slave (including your own) in Greece. There is an exception to the rule in that some male slaves were forced to work in brothels. Apart from this forced prostitution, the injunction against rape was widespread and in theory was strict, even if it could be broken with relative impunity due to minor punishments in some city states. Conversely, slave women could be raped with impunity in many American States (by White slave-owners or Black slaves or both) not because of minor punishments but because no such offence was even legally recognised. Greek law recognised the slave as having a basic degree of sexual autonomy and raping a slave was legally equivalent to raping a citizen; North American society generally considered Black women to be ‘unrapeable’ – even in the states that technically prohibited it, no jurors would convict a rapist, particularly if he was White and the owner of the slave in question. This even extended as far as child rape in some cases, with the Black rapist of a 10-year-old Black girl being allowed to go free on the grounds that there simply was no offence on the statute books or in common law that could conceivably be brought to bear against him.

Aztec slavery

A final example that’s really alien to our received notion of slavery – the Aztec model. In Aztec society, the children of slaves were born free, and slaves could free themselves in various ways. Firstly there was the traditional route of buying freedom, but there were also options such as proving mistreatment; running away was actually a legally recognised form of emancipation under some circumstances too, typically by taking flight in the market place and fleeing the city walls in order to step on some human poop, which was then presented to a judge as proof of the slave’s full escape. I have no idea why poop equals freedom, but apparently this made sense to Aztecs. Then again, as I understand it, they were constantly worrying about whether the sun was going to come up, so I’m not going to try to get into their mindset on this one.

You could also become a slave in quite unusual ways, such as by trying to prevent the flight of a slave whose owner you were not related to, or by selling yourself into slavery (in which case you were given some time to spend the proceeds and enjoy your freedom before entering servitude. Slaves typically had to give consent to their sale in order to change owners and could marry and own property, including slaves of their own.

Slaves could generally not be sacrificed, though this was reserved as a punishment for those who had been sufficiently unruly, but the legal mechanism protecting them was stringent enough that I find it hard to believe many ever broke it. An owner would have to publicly prove three times, using three different instructions, that a slave was disobedient before they could be sold against their will, and a slave had to be sold in this manner three times before they were fair game for sacrifice; one wonders how many citizens were willing to buy a slave that had already been publicly proven to be disobedient on six occasions to 2 other owners, and therefore how many slaves ever made it to the third such sale. The exception to this was slaves captured as a result of war, who could be taken as prisoners specifically for the purposes of sacrifice.

Aztec seems remarkably merciful for a culture that regularly cut people’s hearts out. Here we have a system of slavery in which you can’t be killed except as punishment for severe disobedience, you can’t be mistreated or else you will be granted your freedom, you can run away to freedom and only your owner will bother to stop you, you can own your own property and have your own family, and you can’t even be sold against your will except as a punishment. This is a totally different type of system to the North American model. Once again, it is a question of class, not caste or race – there is social mobility in the slave class, slaves are significantly protected because of their recognised common humanity, and so on.

Slavery as a generic system

Having looked at several varieties of slavery, we should not understand the term as referring to a concrete historically-situated phenomenon, but rather as a universal/generic term, referring to a set containing various sub-categories.  We might even consider it to include penal hard labour or indentured servitude, but I won’t address these here. Slavery takes significantly different forms in different societies. To draw a comparison between slavery and workfare, therefore, is not to suggest that workfare shares all of the significant features of North American slavery.

Despite the racial imbalance between the two schemes that weighs more heavily in favour of ethnic minority jobseekers being forced into work, workfare – at least in the UK – is clearly not based on race power. It is not fundamentally a system used to segregate and significantly dehumanise in a similar way that Nazi propaganda did to Jews. I don’t think even the most ardent tory would consider the unemployed to be literally sub-human or non-human, or suggest that they were less evolved than those with paid employment, or that they lacked a soul that others had (plenty of people may, of course, think jobseekers don’t have a soul, but this is probably due to them being non-religious rather than to prejudice).

When we compare workfare to forms of slavery found in ancient societies, however, there is a more apt analogy. The position occupied by those on mandatory work activity is similar to that of certain types of slaves, and the basic social relations of slavery may be a useful and appropriate model for understanding workfare in the modern world. Drawing on a few of the features we have noted about specific forms of slavery, we can point out parallels with the servi publici or Helots, with the Greek slaves hired out as labourers by their owners, with the legal protections in place in some slave-holding cultures, and so on.

Parallels between workfare and slavery

A workfare labourer, like a slave, has certain legal rights and protections due to their basic humanity – the right to their own family life, the right to own property, freedom from corporal and capital punishment or other mistreatment, etc. Some of these rights are not available in most slave-holding systems, true. However, they did exist in some systems, so the lack of these freedoms is not a necessary condition for slavery.

A workfare labourer, like a slave, may theoretically be able to escape to freedom (in the form of emigration, for instance) or earn their freedom (by getting a better job somehow or setting up their own business or the like). But most of them will be stuck with no realistic way out due to their material conditions.

A workfare labourer, like a slave, is subordinate to the entity that controls their labour, in this case the state. The state is sovereign and has a monopoly on legitimised force – just as a slave cannot overrule their master or attack their master, the unemployed cannot realistically refuse or challenge the state, they must obey or else face destitution.

A workfare labourer, like a Helot, works at the behest of the state and receives a pittance in return from the state. Like a Helot, the unemployed must be economically obedient to the state in order to receive their means of subsistence.

A workfare labourer, like some Greek slaves, is ‘hired out’ to private firms for the purpose of generating profits for the employer; the benefit to the state is not identical to the benefit to the Greek slave-owner, but it exists. Consider, for instance, the political capital involved in running ‘successful’ workfare schemes, or the increased tax receipts that will follow from the increased profits of the firms involved in the schemes.

Most importantly, we can see a common logic to the structure of workfare and the underling common themes of slavery. The individual in question is forced to provide unpaid labour by an entity with the monopoly of legal power, economic power and legitimised violence in the relationship. The individual in question has little or no autonomy in how their labour is employed (in fact, some Greek or Roman slaves would have had substantially more autonomy in the employment of their labour power than many workfare scheme participants). The individual in question may theoretically be able to accumulate wealth and eventually emancipate themselves in some form, but is realistically unlikely to achieve this. The individual in question need not be performing back-breaking physical labour or domestic service, and they may even land a fairly enjoyable or skilled role, but most people in their position will be working in the bottom rungs of the contemporary economy.

Conclusion

I’m not arguing here that workfare is actually a set of social relations identical to a historical form of slavery or anything that extreme and specific. All I will say is that we can see from the above substantial cause for comparing the position of someone forced to work for free stacking shelves in order to receive a pittance more or less equivalent in value to the material necessities of life with the position of someone forced to work for free sowing seeds in order to receive the material necessities of life. It isn’t unreasonable, when we take a broad and cross-cultural historical view, to compare workfare to slavery.

I don’t think many people drawing the analogy here are genuinely trying to suggest that workfare involves the same power relations and holds the same cultural meaning as Black slavery on the plantations. What they are really saying is that slavery is a basic economic concept – the idea of forced, unpaid labour inflicted on an individual by an entity that stands in a position of extreme dominance over them. The note that historically the term ‘slavery’ has been applied to many other contexts dissimilar to the presumed-paradigm case of North American slavery is not merely to point to a precedent for this usage of the word, but is precisely to reinforce this argument that ‘slavery’ is a fairly universally-recognised and universally-applied concept which is, at bottom, free of ties to any specific historical period or class structure or racial divide.

I may not agree with some of the uses of the term, but I can recognise the political importance of identifying hyper-exploitative social relations or hypo-autonomous working conditions as slavery-like. For instance, the Wages for Housework movement combined the concepts of ‘wage slavery’ and ‘domestic slavery’ in one fell swoop: “slavery to an assembly line is not liberation from slavery to the kitchen sink”. Regardless of whether you agree with them, this was clearly a politically significant development in the women’s liberation movement and the socialist movement. Workfare is clearly not based on a brutal system of white supremacy, where rape and lynching is deemed acceptable and the labourers are deemed sub-human animals. It is, however, a hyper-exploitative system of class power and conflict, where workers find themselves in conditions of diminished autonomy and the general value of labour is driven down.

It is no more distasteful, unacceptable or inaccurate to draw relevant comparisons between workfare and slavery than it is to refer to forced sterilisation as genocide – yes, it is a term that these days is associated more with extermination of the already-living, but technically genocide simply means an attempt to wipe out an ethnic or national group, and this can be enacted by preventing any future generations being born too. Yes, slavery is a term associated with kidnapping people from Africa and whipping, but this is not all it means and is not the only form that it can take. It is important to acknowledge what workfare represents for taxpayers, who are essentially paying the wages of people they aren’t employing (that are often generating profits for other private firms).

It is even more important to acknowledge what workfare means for the working class; it is unacceptable that in the 21st century people will be coerced by the threat of absolute poverty and destitution to work without pay (often for the private gain of others), driving down wages for those already in work and contracting the supply of real jobs available for others seeking work. I will leave it up to the reader to decide if workfare ‘is’ slavery, but I propose that there are certainly striking and unavoidable similarities that merit attention and criticism.

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Diane Abbott and “Black community”

by Anne Archist

In an unexpected turn of events, my writer’s block seems to be getting better, so here’s a post about Diane Abbott’s latest controversy. I should have known that something would have to happen, at some time and place, to compensate for the fact that Diane Abbott actually said something really sensible the other day. I didn’t realise that the balance of the universe would be restored quite so quickly, but there you have it.

So, for the benefit of those who haven’t clicked the second link above, Abbott tweeted that “white people love divide and rule”, in the context of discussing the Stephen Lawrence case and the media coverage of it with some fellow twitter users. This was apparently meant to be a sophisticated comment about the history of race relations and specifically applicable to colonial power structures. To a lot of people it just sound like cracker-hating. This prompted a debate across the blogosphere and all seven seas of social networking (not forgetting that weird domain called Real Life too) as to whether it was possible for Black people to be racist to White people.  I’ll give you my thoughts on that as quickly as possible and then move on to the main point of this post.

Whether you call things aimed at White people ‘racism’ is a question of definitions, and definitions (like dialectics) cannot break bricks – defining and redefining words will never in itself change the reality they refer to (yes, words play a role in constituting ideologies and social norms and so forth, but I mean here that something doesn’t change bad to good just because you use a different word to refer to it). So you can choose to define ‘racism’ as referring only to acts backed up by institutions or systems or sheer weight of number, and you can even try to convince other people to use your definition, but that merely leaves an unresolved question: do other forms of racially-based prejudice, discrimination, hate or violence that don’t count as ‘racism’ under this definition matter?

I’d argue pretty strongly that these things do matter and they are bad – generally speaking they might not be ‘as bad’, perhaps, but they certainly shouldn’t be excused or encouraged. I’d like to hear the reasoning of anyone who thinks that racially-motivated violence, in particular, should be ignored just because it happens to White people – obviously generalisations and stereotypes are not on the same level as attacks, but the principle still stands that it is fundamentally bad for people to be acting on the basis of prejudice or hatred rather than an open mind. Having said that, I d o think the debate around Abbott’s remarks are a storm in a thimble – yes, she said “white people”, which is bound to be interpreted to mean “all white people”, and racialised a generic tactic used by powerful people of all colours. However, she was talking on twitter in the context of a conversation about institutional racism within power structures like the police and referring to colonialism, not tweeting ‘honky’ at unsuspecting members of the public and suggesting that The White Man Is The Devil.

The real problem with what she said, I think, is precisely what she was intending to say, not the poor and controversial phrasing she chose. One Black woman tweeted that she was fed up of the “Black Community” myth – sick of seeing “Black leaders” who didn’t listen to the people they supposedly represented, speaking as if the community was monolithic. Abbott replied that Black people should put up an image of unity to the media and not ‘wash dirty linen in public’ (as she suggested in a #hashtag multiple times).  This is not an argument I expected to hear from a Black feminist woman representing a poor constituency, especially since it was used to dismiss feminists within the Civil Rights movement and Black activists within the feminist movement, not to mention time and time again since (lesbian separatists within the LGBT community, etc).

Abbott defended herself one the grounds that she was talking about “political tactics” while acknowledging that there were cultural differences within the community/ies, but knowing that she once owned the Black feminist reader ‘All the women are White, all the Blacks are men, but some of us are brave‘, it’s difficult to know quite what to think about this advice. Putting Abbott’s mentality into practice most often means the loudest voice in the group winning out and the others being silenced; this is also clearly manifested not only in the history of Black feminism but also in certain modern and historical political parties, etc. Open debate is a good thing, and there is no reason why it cannot be carried out in public. I find it slightly worrying that nobody else seems to be picking up on this point so far.

This isn’t just a question of silencing less powerful or numerous voices and preventing the expression of certain opinions or experiences. The “Black Community” being represented by a single voice with a single viewpoint also makes it easier to stereotype and undermine. The feminist movement has been noticeably impeded by precisely the notion that all feminists think alike – despite more recent attempts to acknowledge diversity of opinion within the feminist movement, the old attitude of “if you don’t agree, keep quiet and we’ll have it out later” seems to have influenced the public imagination a great deal.

This affects ‘recruitment’ into movements – there are quite a few women out there who refuse to call themselves feminists, would go to great lengths to avoid being labelled as feminists, avoid feminist books, etc purely because they didn’t want to be put in the same camp as anti-porn activists or people more concerned with woman CEOs than working class women, etc. It also affects the way that the movement can engage in public discourse, since it is compelled to state single definitive position (often a poorly-thought-out one, because often the people in a position to speak for the whole group are not in a position to know what is happening on the ground, or have more extensive bias or more simplistic or blinkered ideas than a lot of other people who might try to offer a view as part of the community). It probably has other negative consequences that I’ve not mentioned in this article, and the same sort of problems apply within communities.

To suggest that the “Black Community” should, despite its heterogeneous nature, project a single voice in public is to suggest that every other voice within the community should be silenced; being afforded the luxury to speak within your own community on the terms of those with more power is hardly the same as an open exchange of ideas and experiences as part of the wider public  discourse. It suggests, among other things, that Black women should put up and shut up while White women and Black men attempt to speak for them in most cases, and it certainly suggests that minority communities, women, less mainstream political tendencies and so on should be contributing to the debate from the perspective of somebody who is a part of wider society rather than marginalised by it. Let’s wash our dirty misogyny, our dirty racism, our dirty exploitation, our dirty violence in public, where everyone can see it and the perpetrators cannot sweep it under the carpet.

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Dorries tells porkies: Don’t believe everything that you read in Hansard

by Anne Archist

Nadine Dorries has been in the headlines once again over at one of the two places that doesn’t agree with her. The interview is quite a good one, calling her out on various claims and implications she makes beyond the more obvious such as the ‘banana condom’ moment. The problem with Dorries is that her lying seems to be compulsive; one can offer no political explanation of this, it is a trait seemingly unique to Dorries among the current slew of tories that she tells obvious lies on a daily basis. She has even admitted that she fabricates the majority of her blog although she later climbed down a few rungs and suggested that only a third was “fiction”. In either case she is hardly a beacon of transparency and trustworthiness.

I am less concerned by her attempts to mislead the public about where she spends her weekends and more by the complete rubbish that she spews in trying to gain support for legislative measures. You can read a lot of this in the interview, where it generally amounts to vague assertions without any evidence and vast exaggeration or fabrication of scientific research to support arbitrary abstractions (in the face of real scientific research). The particular issue that I want to take on here is one that I haven’t seen covered in the mainstream press – Dorries has misled Parliament, whether consciously or accidentally as a result of grossly inadequate research.

Hansard records Dorries as saying that: “In July 2009, a Sheffield NHS trust released into secondary schools—to children from the age of 11—a pamphlet which told them that sex every day keeps the doctor away,” and repeating “This is a pamphlet going out to 11-year-olds at secondary modern schools in Sheffield.” I have received e-mails from the producers of the pamphlet confirming that it was not distributed to schoolchildren, but was instead sold to professionals such as doctors, social workers, teachers, etc (at a price of £15 for 25, for those who are curious). The pamphlet was written for adults and consistently states that education should be ‘age-appropriate’.

Incidentally, even if it were distributed to schoolchildren, it says “an orgasm a day” (not “sex every day”) and goes on to explicitly suggest sex or masturbation. Dorries’ moral panic seems to have blinded her to the actual context and content of the pamphlet; ironically it also seems to have passed her by that the same NHS trust produces a pamphlet entitled “Nobody’s Choice But Mine” covering exactly the discussions of abstinence and peer pressure that Dorries claims are unavailable to young women. One wonders whether this wouldn’t be the ideal text to use in the abstinence-education she is trying to legally mandate schools to provide…

I can’t know whether Dorries is lying through her teeth or so monumentally incompetent that she is incapable of understanding/remembering simple things like the age of pupils putting condoms on bananas (it’s been suggested that she may have confused ‘seven-year-olds’ with ‘year 7 students’), or who a pamphlet was written for and distributed to, for instance. What we can learn from this is that we should rigorously interrogate the claims made by the government that their policy is evidence-based, or that they have seen certain things with their own eyes. I can’t help but think of the incident where David Cameron claimed to have met a 40-year-old who’d spent 30 years in the Royal Navy… And this is by no means the only example.

Dorries has been asked to withdraw her remarks and apologise for misleading Parliament and the public, but she has yet to reply. Another MP has allegedly instructed staff not to reply to certain constituents after they similarly caught him out – I won’t name anybody as I can’t guarantee the claim, but I can say it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. Can we trust anything MPs say when they routinely misreport facts, fabricate statistics, etc? This isn’t just a question of cynicism and hostility to people who throw numbers around loosely – it’s a fundamental problem for our concept of democracy. Any effective democracy – one which actually reaches the right policies as a result of democratic participation – relies on an educated and informed public; much of the media and many politicians/think-tanks/lobby-groups seem intent on achieving just the opposite.

 

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BBC WTF?

by Edd Mustill

So Mubarak has finally gone. Fantastic stuff.

The BBC News live page currently includes the following update:

1825: President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tweets: “Youth of Iran! Anybody who promises not to protest will receive 1900 Microsoft Points.”

A quick look at the Twitter account in question tells us that “M_Ahmadinejad” is obviously not the Iranian President. Other updates include:

“Great Satans! Check out who is still in power. That’s right, it’s me, The Mahd Dogg.”

“Well, so far so good: still no protesters and no still no gays in Iran. Will keep you posted.”

Please tell me someone at the BBC is having a laugh, and that they don’t think this is really the Iranian President’s Twitter?

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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.

 

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Penny vs Callinicos on socialist papers

by Anne Archist

As has already been discussed on this blog, there has been recent debate over the use of papers by leftist organisations – it wasn’t the main topic of discussion but proved to be a controversial aside that spurned many people to the defensive. I wrote an article criticising the use of publications on the left some time ago (not here); while I think they are important and useful in theory, I also agree that they are behind the times. In the context of the current debate, then, I reworked this article to remove some of the more controversial sections that proved to be opaque or misleading for some readers, and to deal more with the technological opportunities open to use that allow relevancy to be maintained for the 140-character generation. I’ve also dealt with the question of targeting a specific audience and writing for them, maintaining different publications with different roles, etc – this is partly due to the focus of the original article and partly because these sort of questions are inevitably raised when we ask about a possible generation gap, the differing attitudes of existing activists as compared to people ‘outside the movement’, etc.

The status quo

Social movements and political groups generate literature – ‘Organise!’, ‘the Manifesto of the Communist Party’, ‘Steal This Book’, ‘On the Poverty of Student Life’. There is, sadly, a tired formula by which most organisations operate on the left – the regular paper and the less frequent but more substantial magazine and/or journal. There is often substantial crossover in content between these different formats despite their being aimed at different target audiences, and the same issue of the paper may casually throw around words like “dialectical”, yet feel the need to explain who Marx was.

These regular publications will be supplemented by a not-quite-manifesto, and possibly some pamphlets to round off. The statement of purpose will often consist of bland generalisations and be of no use to anyone, though some will break the mould enough to set out a highly detailed programme with no explanation as to the rationale or evidence supporting the proposals, nor any attempt to quantify their effects or costs. Pamphlets are generally abridged classics passed off as original thought or else a thorough collection of (out-of-context) quotes with little or suspect explanation.

But enough of that – presumably if you’ve got here already you know the practices I’m describing without me having to explain them to you. The question is, where do these go wrong, and how do we avoid the same pitfalls?

Next steps?

Obviously I don’t claim to have all the answers – what follows is merely a suggestion of the right directions to head in. I think the left needs to carefully consider the functions (and therefore target audiences) of its publications. If the medium of delivery is chosen, and the content carefully selected and presented, with this in mind then many of the present shortcomings and limitations of leftist publications seem surmountable. We should aim not to bore, confuse, frustrate, patronise, alienate, or mislead our readers. In order to do this, we have to deal with wider issues like the tendency to misrepresent a situation to gain political advantage for a particular group, and so on; but not only this, we also have to address our modes of communication. Differentiating streams of information in terms of their complexity and nature, writing for an audience, being fair in our representation of other interpretations/tendencies/etc – all of these things will help to retain readers, maximise their understanding, and so on.

Not only this, but with effective use of different media (particularly modern technology), the circulation of the text within its target audience can be most effectively increased and costs can be kept down; imagine a paper operating almost entirely via a website, publicising new articles and breaking news via twitter, with downloadable video and audio content recorded on (and playable on) a mobile phone, etc. This is not to say that physically printed material doesn’t have its advantages (such as accessibility without an internet connection) – but a stubborn insistence on the physical paper as a panacea overlooks the social and technological shifts taking place in the social networking age.

Writing for different purposes and audiences

Nothing about the function of a publication or the audience it is intended for dictates or implies a particular medium, a particular relationship to modern technology, etc. Obviously it may make more sense to keep up to date with modern technology for a publication aimed at students; the point I want to make here is simply that a ‘paper’ or ‘magazine’ can be run online and may take different forms even within this – a news site might operate a soundcloud account to upload speeches and interviews, a youtube account to upload videos, etc with all of this content integrated into the site; on the other hand it might focus on text and one or two images for ease of mobile access. I’ll say that again since people often overlook it – when I say ‘paper’, I don’t necessarily mean something that is printed up, produced and sold on a regular basis, and so on; the key factor is the size and nature of its audience, the content and purpose of the text, etc. A twitter feed can be a ‘paper’ inasmuch as it breaks stories, while an actual newspaper may be a ‘journal’ inasmuch as most of the space is devoted to historical articles, theory, debate between factions, etc.

Not all types of publication need to be as frequent as they often are – socialist papers rarely break news, so perhaps it would be better in some cases to provide a monthly or quarterly review of the key news stories of the period, approached from a different angle to the mainstream media, and focus on giving a more thorough treatment to fewer stories. Being frequent and timely in no way makes an accessible political analysis more compelling. Most freely-accessible publications should be as widely circulated as possible, using twitter and facebook to spread ‘hooks’ accompanied by links, etc; an irregular publishing schedule may make the updates unpredictable, but spreading notification of them will help counteract this (and of course many websites allow readers to subscribe for various types of notification via e-mail).

Not everyone has the same level of political sophistication, is equally up-to-date with the news, etc. In some cases we want to write easily-digestible class-conscious political analysis which questions the establishment without sloganeering or throwing around terms like ‘socialist’ in ways that may simply invite/enflame prejudice and alienate people. Paper-sellers often boast about how unperturbed people are by the proud socialist banner on ‘Workers’ Power’ or ‘The Socialist’, but this shows an ignorance of the inherent bias in their information – they will rarely, if ever, speak to the person who crossed the street to avoid them, whereas they will speak to the person who crossed the street to buy a copy! There will undoubtedly be a certain element of ‘lowest common denominator’ language and spin involved in making something accessible to the masses, but I see no reason to think that this dooms us to xenophobic knee-jerk responses and the like, despite their frequency in the mainstream. This type of publication’s circulation may be aided by some degree of research and dialogue with those who actually read it – this is probably true for most publications, in fact, but seems particularly important when it is aimed at an audience that are necessarily less forgiving due to consisting mostly of people outside the movement.

Keeping up with the possibilities

Modern technology is also bridging the gap between ‘online’ and ‘physical’ media, meaning that the very article I’m writing now takes account of a distinction that may become insignificant within just a few years. One good example of this is the increasing availability of smartphones making it easier than ever before to easily access encoded information on the move, transfer files between devices, etc. With the right apps it might take only a few waves or taps to transfer (via Bluetooth) a .pdf of the latest Socialist Worker; in time, carrying around bulky papers and running out during a successful paper sale may be a thing of the past – right now we can get started on minimising it, at least. Similarly, barcode-scanning is relatively quick and easy on modern phones. A two-dimensional QR code or traditional one-dimensional barcode could be printed onto flyers to link to a more extended text, or barcode stickers could be used to promote the homepage of a publication or ‘who we are’ page on a political group’s website (with information on how to join at the bottom, presumably).

Consider the many media used by the BBC and the flexibility with which they are presented: images, video and audio (both self-contained and integrated into text articles); social networking (twitter accounts, facebook page); text articles online (formatted for use on desktop or mobile devices); easily-accessible ‘share’ and ‘print’ functions, update notifications (via RSS feeds, e-mail bulletins, etc), podcasts, message boards, all topped off with accessibility advice for those with visual impairments and so on. If we can do even half of these things while still making it easy to use and attractive to look at, we’ll be doing very well indeed!

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