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Nineteen Ten and all that

by Edd Mustill

I just caught up with a couple of programmes on BBC iplayer looking at politics in 1910. This was a year which produced what would now be called a hung Parliament, a dream for politically commentators who love things to happen on convenient anniversaries. Two elections saw the Liberals and Conservatives win almost equal numbers of seats, and left the Liberals reliant on Irish Nationalist and Labour votes to rule.

One of the BBC shows, Peers versus People, was done in the style of a mock election night broadcast and gave an overview of the constitutional crisis of that year. The Liberals were trying to break the power of the House of Lords, where the Tories, surprisingly enough, had an inbuilt majority. Leading Liberal David Lloyd George apparently remarked that “a fully equipped Duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts (battleships).” They were threatening to pack the Lords with Liberal peers to get these reforms through, something that the new king, George V, secretly agreed to in between the two elections.

The other programme was Sunder Katwala’s lecture “Political lessons from 1910.” Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, focuses on these two elections, which resulted in Liberal-led governments and narrow defeat for the Conservatives. Katwala, in true Fabian spirit, is talking about lessons that can be learned by the political elite, rather than the working class. For him, the much-vaunted “progressive alliance” of Labour and Liberals was the only way to stop the Tories. One hundred years later, Clegg’s subservience to a Tory government should have killed any idea that there is such a natural alliance, but many in the Labour Party, not restricted to Fabians, still seem to cling to it.

These programmes focus exclusively on high politics and Westminster machinations, but the year 1910 also saw the beginnings of the period of labour militancy known as the Great Unrest, from which this blog takes its name. By the Autumn of the year the South Wales miners’ strike which is widely seen as the opening chapter of the unrest was under way, and the famous Tonypandy Riot occurred just a month before the December election.

The links between the constitutional crisis and rising industrial militancy, if there were any, have not really been examined. Sometimes Marxist and other left-wing history ignores high politics. The unrest is explained in terms of declining real wages in the first decade of the century, and the spread of syndicalist ideas. Both these are objectively true, but it is impossible to believe that Lloyd George’s anti-Lords campaign did not have an effect on workers’ consciousness.

Perhaps the political deadlock seemed to show that the Labour Party would only ever be a junior partner to the Liberals, and so contributed to the growth of what might now be called anti-politics among working men and women, most of whom still could not even vote anyway. Even the Independent Labour Party had come close enough to disaffiliation from the Labour Party for Ramsay MacDonald and Kier Hardie to resign from the national council in protest in 1909.

By 1911, voices within the ILP were calling for more socialist policies, put forward by some of the left-wing leaders in what became known as the Green Manifesto. Some, like independent MP Victor Grayson, were calling for a new explicitly socialist party to be founded. The new British Socialist Party was a bit of a damp squib, but that’s a story for another post. A left alternative to Labour was, of course, finally brought about by the establishment of a Communist Party in 1920. For those interested, the Weekly Worker is currently running a series on this.

Katwala did make a couple of good points. Firstly, that the Liberal campaign against the peers arguably came closer to “class warfare” than anything the Parliamentary Labour Party managed since. Because of the class hatred prevalent at the time, it was possible for Lloyd George to use the language he did, but if it represented any class struggle it was that of the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy. Secondly, that next year will see the centenary of the Parliament Act which curtailed the Lords’ powers, but that the question of reform is not settled. It makes you hope we won’t have to wait another century to be rid of the anachronism of an unelected upper house.

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by Edd Mustill

Casting a socialist eye over the Top 40 singles chart isn’t often done and may seem fruitless to some people, but something has been bugging me recently. There’s a lot of tracks in the charts right now, and not all of them bad, by So-and-So ft. Someone else. They range from B.o.B. ft. Hayley Williams (not bad), though Katy Perry ft. Snoop Dogg (awful), to Professor Green ft. Lily Allen (inexplicable).

Mostly they sound like two people singing bits of two different songs alternately. What I’d like to know is, are these genuinely experimental artistic collaborations, or the result of industry machinations to keep two currently-famous performers in the public eye for a bit longer? Or is the truth somewhere in the middle? This has been on my mind, for some reason, since the Gaga-Beyonce Telephone alliance.

Has someone in the music industry decided that bands just aren’t where it’s at? Maybe my sixth-form self is just pining for the return of three guitars and a drum-kit to the charts. Or any anti-recession, angry, state-of-the-nation stuff that we can all nod glumly along to. I’m not inclined to Pack Up my troubles in my old kit bag, whatever Eliza Doolittle thinks.


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Recession Lifestyle Telly

by Edd Mustill

It seems that the serious documentaries about how naughty bankers have got us in an economic mess have given way, perhaps inevitably, to Recession Lifestyle Telly. Channel 4 seems to have embraced RLT with gusto, currently showing Undercover Boss and The Fairy Jobmother.

Undercover Boss does what it says on the tin. An executive steps down and secretly samples life on the shop floor of their own company. The first episode followed David Clarke, CEO of Best Western hotels, doing various menial hotel jobs.

Best Western doesn’t own hotels, it just brands them and brings them under a common name, provided they meet certain standards and pass inspections. So perhaps the executives shouldn’t be as surprised as they are, when they realise that none of the workers give a damn about their company despite a TV advertising campaign that cost them £1 million.

The incredibly low wages that have become the norm in the service sector are made apparent. A head housekeepers earning just above minimum wage, groundsman on £6 per hour, and a chef working hours of overtime for nothing extra, all make appearances. There is, needless to say, no mention of unions, recognition agreements or collective bargaining. Clarke tells us hows It’s Really Made Him Think and then unmasks himself to each person he’s worked with, giving them a small luxury gift like a family holiday.

The Fairy Jobmother follows Hayley Taylor, who we are reliably informed is an “employment expert,” although exactly what this means is never made known to us. Perhaps, like a character from Lost, elements of her past and profession will be revealed as episodes go on. Or perhaps she’ll continue to invade people’s homes with her musings on the poverty trap – “this system makes it easy for them,” “I see myself as a satellite navigation system,” – until all of Britain is back to work. It’s too early to say.

The Jobmother helps a young Middlesborough couple look for work with mixed success, against a backdrop of shots of the mothballed Redcar plant and the transporter bridge. The message is that finding work is all about confidence. Confidence and lowering your expectations. Do work experience for free, overcome your aversion to agency work, be prepared to do anything from tea-making to cupboard-fitting.

Both shows have an essentially philanthropic outlook. If only every CEO became humbled by the everyday tasks of his workforce, and if only the Jobmother visited another one and a half million households, perhaps we wouldn’t be in this mess much longer.

We can expect more of this sort of TV in the coming months, perhaps replacing the plethora of irritating property shows that characterised the boom years. Soon we might be pining for Location, Location, Location.

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Summer Reading, happened so fast.

by nineteensixtyseven

As anyone who has experienced an arts degree well knows, reading for pleasure or personal intellectual fulfilment outside the parameters of one’s course is is faced with several barriers.  There is, of course, the temporal barrier; time is a precious commodity for anyone undergoing the rigours of the essay cycle and who wishes also to have any semblance of a well-balanced social existence.  Then there is a spatial barrier; initially I travelled to university by boat and car so space was not so much of an issue but subsequently I have had to rely on the restrictive dictates of budget airlines and have even resorted to posting books to myself in a cardboard box.  Finally, there is the monetary barrier which presents itself as a consequence of me not having any regular source of income.  Nevertheless, I relish the summer months as a time to catch up on some personal reading.  As I am not alone in this, I thought it would be useful to list some of the books which have caught my attention over recent weeks and readers should feel free to recommend their own.

The first thing I read this summer was ‘Results and Prospects’ by Leon Trotsky.  One of the earliest expositions of the theory of the Permanent Revolution, this short work combines a theoretical and historical analysis which, in my mind, has stood the test of time, at least in its broad contours.  Trotsky wrote this pamphlet in 1906 whilst in prison, having been incarcerated for his role in the revolution of the previous year.  Borrowing a phrase which first appeared in Marx’s vocabularly in 1850, Trotsky wrote:

“”The permanent revolution, in the sense which Marx attached to this concept, means a revolution which makes no compromise with any single form of class rule, which does not stop at the democratic stage, which goes over to socialist measures and to war against reaction from without; that is, a revolution whose every successive stage is rooted in the preceding one and which can end only in complete liquidation.”

Marx used the phrase after the failure of the revolutions of 1848, a failure most catastrophically demonstrated in Germany.  A rising of the German masses- peasantry, artisans and the nascent proletariat- in March of that year did not advance beyond the democratic stage towards social revolution and, as such, led to the temporary installation of the German bourgeoisie in a position of state power.  However, the experience of revolution was so frightening to bourgeoisie that when the reactionary absolutists regrouped over the summer, the majority of the Liberals sided with absolutism rather than the radical movements and never again had recourse to revolutionary methods.  For the historian, Trotsky’s chapter ‘1789-1848-1905′ attempts to set his theory in a broader historical context, as I tried to do, and is well worth a read.

In Trotsky’s view, therefore, when the bourgeoisie is unable to carry out the tasks of overthrowing pre-bourgeois social systems and regimes, only the proletariat and the peasantry are up to the job.  This was most spectacularly proved to be the case in Russia where bourgeois democracy never seriously looked like a likely reality; in the negative, the failure of the Chinese Communist Party- hesitantly following Stalin – to maintain independence from Chang Kai Shek’s Kuoumintang led to the tragic massacre of Chinese communists in 1927.

The second book worth mentioning is Edmund Wilson’s ‘To The Finland Station.’  Wilson, an American literary critic writing in the first half of the 20th century, produced this masterpiece in 1940.  The book is essentially a panorama of  the Left, and starts with the great French historian of the Revolution, Jules Michelet, before tracing the degeneration of the bourgeoisie’s revolutionary spirit from Hippolyte Taine through to Anatole France, and then following the contemporaneous development of Marxism, from Marx and Engels via Lenin to Leon Trotsky.  Wilson is not a Marxist, and as such has some sobering yet constructive criticism of Marxist political philosophy.  His chapter on the Dialectic is particularly challenging, alleging quite plausibly that in some incarnations the presence of dialectics in Marx’s dialectical materialism is an unwelcome hangover from the process of philosophical gymnastics which led Marxism from Hegelian German Idealism via Feuerbachian materialism to its current state.

Thirdly, Marshall Berman’s book ‘Adventures in Marxism’ is a fascinating little collection of essays from a writer who has a well-earned reputation as a leading theorist of modernity.  Although his famous essay ‘All That Is Solid Melts Into Air’ from the book of that name compromises a large section in the middle of this work, it was of interest to me more for the breadth of its commentary and coverage of other areas.  For instance, it was through this book that I learned of Edmund Wilson’s book and the first chapter contains a touching personal account of how the author discovered Marx.  It also contains some interesting perspectives on art criticism, especially in the essays on Walter Benjamin and Meyer Schapiro.  Berman represents a very open and pluralist position, in marked contrast to some of the smaller sects in the United States, to the extent that I am not sure whether he is involved in any particular political party or movement.  His writing is positive, optimistic and combines clarity with a fantastic prose style.  Highly recommended.

In keeping with the focus on Trotsky, I recently finished the second volume of Isaac Deutscher’s amazing biography of the man himself.  Deutscher’s book, ‘The Prophet Unarmed’ , gives a fascinating glimpse into the grim and Machiavellian power-struggles which seized the upper echelons of the Bolshevik party after, and even before, the death of Lenin in 1924.  The sinister machinations of Stalin at times defy belief, being restrained neither by scruple nor any moral system known to man.  Almost as unbelievable, however, is the tactical naivety of Trotsky, arising perhaps from a certain aloofness and a refusal to believe that Stalin, ‘the grey blur’, could succeed in the factional struggle until it was too late.  Compounding this sad state of affairs was the opportunism of Kamenev and Zinoviev, and the complete blindness of Bukharin to the true nature of Stalin until the Left Opposition was safely scattered across the world.  Deutscher combines a warm sympathy for Trotsky with an admirable objectivity in assessing the man’s foibles and errors.  On the strength of this fantastic volume, I look forward to reading the rest of the collection.

Finally, I am in the process of reading David Harvey’s ‘The Enigma of Capital.’  Harvey trained as a geographer at Cambridge and before long established himself as one of the most original and eloquent Marxist theorists of the late twentieth- and twenty-first- century.  In this new work he returns to Marx to elucidate some of the fundamental systemic reason for the current crisis of capitalism.  Harvey has been teaching Marx’s ‘Capital’ for decades and uses his intimate understanding of Marxian economics to provide an original critique of the dominant economic system.  Building upon his analysis of neoliberalism, he argues that the current crisis has little to do with a lack or excess of regulation, nor an abnormal outbreak of greed, nor any of the other dominant interpretations we are so used to reading in the pages of respectable newspapers.  Rather, the destruction of the power of labour by capital over the last three decades depressed real wages in the interests of boosting profitability to such an extent that increasing consumption rested on an unstable foundation of massive indebtedness.  This explains, too, the runaway expansion of finance and fictitious capital with which we all know so much about since 2008.

At the centre of his thesis is the contention that capitalism never really solves its crises but moves them around, spatially and temporally, leading to a new level of crisis; the crisis of profitability led to the crisis of effective demand as wages were repressed, which in turn led to the the current crisis of finance which is as we speak being converted into a crisis of sovereign debt.  This innovative analysis contains a geographical component as it analyses the barriers to capital accumulation and the uneven effect of the crisis on a variety of communities and countries.  For an deeper understanding of the current crisis you may look no further than here.

So, these are the books I have been reading lately.  Feel free to disagree with my interpretations of them and to add your own summer reading below!

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