Monday, April 30, 2007


Celtic Crusaders 82 - Swinton 4. Need I say more?

There is one consolation, I didn't go.

I suppose it could be worse. A friend of mine has a season ticket at Manchester City. He has worked out that it has cost him £60 per goal.

Sporting obsessions are strange.


And now Milan ...

Friday, April 27, 2007


Hacking Democracy, my nephew’s documentary about electronic voting machines and the possibility of electoral fraud in the USA is now showing at the ICA in London. The DVD is also released in the USA. Check out the film's web site for more details.

It has picked up reviews too; The Telegraph (scroll down), The Observer (scroll down), The Guardian, Time Out, and Channel 4. There are more.

Catch it if you can. It is an important, gripping documentary.


I have just read Terry Glavin's superb review article on Michael Moore. If anyone wonders about the backhanded compliments of the Guardian review, it is because Simon consciously rejects the self-promoting, flashy and dishonest approach of that type of documentary film. Hacking Democracy honestly puts the subject in the foreground making it compelling viewing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Libertarianism and history

Shuggy has an interesting post on libertarianism, prompted by Chris Dillow's assertion that Marxism and Libertarianism are in agreement on education. It raises several themes but seems to concentrate on what he sees as a tendency towards an atomistic individualism, which his liberal humanism deplores.

I suppose I have an advantage. Unlike Shuggy, I do know a libertarian and he is also an historian, so they do exist. He supervised my PhD. What a great bloke too. Good fun, helpful and excellent company over a beer or several. So my experience is positive and personal. I also have an historical viewpoint and so I decided to respond to Shuggy with this post.

My doctorate is on the history of Anarchist ideas in 19th and early 20th century Britain and I see the meeting place between Marxism and Libertarianism in the origins of both, much more than in any current manifestations. Both emerged from critical responses to early industrialism. They drew on radical liberalism, and both had a class analysis based on the division between the ‘productive and unproductive classes’ - in other words, between owners and workers. Not only that, but they both saw the relationship between workers and their employers as a servile one, a form of modern slavery. The idle lived off the produce of those who actually did the work and, as all wealth was the product of labour, this was an act of robbery with violence.

The main accomplice in this larceny was the State. The State was the agent that protected a legal ‘artificial right of property’, ownership by the ‘unproductive classes’, against the ‘natural right of property’, the right of workers to own the means and products of their own labour. But it was here that a divergence occurred. Marxists and State Socialists felt that this could be resolved through collective ownership by the State if it was, in turn, controlled by the ‘productive classes’, even if the State would eventually wither away to leave a free and property-less society. Anarchists rejected the State and so Anarchist Communists talked of the immediate revolutionary abolition of property as well as the State. However, Individualist Anarchism came to a different conclusion and the origin of Libertarianism is to be found here.

The main tenets of Individualist Anarchism were, firstly, that the ‘natural right of property’ is precisely that and that it can never be alienated. State ownership would rip off the workers in the same way that capitalists would and the relationship would be just as servile. As a result, the Individualists argued that workers had to maintain direct ownership of their labour and their own means of production, both to preserve their independence and to protect their right of property in the products of their work. If the workers were also owners, then systems of equitable exchange were as important as the ownership of the means of production. There were a huge range of notions of exchange from Proudhon’s Mutualism to the widespread ideas of the currency reformers who wished to break the State monopoly of money.

Secondly, this led on to the idea that the real enemy of the people is monopoly. Monopoly was seen as the source of exploitation through rent, interest, profit, taxes, and the wage system, all of which were devices by which monopolists extract the wealth produced by others. Again, the answer the Individualists gave to overcome these evils was not to create a single State monopoly but to develop extensive property rights that effectively abolished monopolistic exploitation of others by an ‘unproductive class’.

The other major factor to bear in mind is that both production and exchange were not seen as the actions of atomistic individuals but as intensely social acts. The market brings people together rather than divides them. However, collaboration has to be voluntary rather than forced, hence the idea of contract replacing law and the argument that exchange has to be just and rooted in social equality.

This is a really sketchy summary of the political economy of Individualist Anarchism and it doesn’t touch on their feminism and social libertarianism, both rooted in hostility to the imposition of male middle class values on women and the working class. One thing is clear though, that even if the roots of many of their assumptions are to be found here, this is not modern Libertarianism.

There are many variants of Libertarianism, but the crucial difference is that the Individualist Anarchists were free-market anti-capitalists. They also opposed the limited liability company and the rise of the corporation. Instead, they favoured forms of universal self-employment. Today, Libertarians have made their peace with capitalism. They share Marx’s sense that capitalism is a hugely progressive force but absolutely reject the idea that it is doomed to collapse due to its internal contradictions. Instead they see it as the only vehicle for creating universal prosperity, a position bolstered by the failure of the Stalinist model. They have, just as Shuggy suggests, ‘surrendered the anarchist position very grudgingly’ apropos the State, but have enthusiastically embraced laissez-faire capitalism.

This is where I depart from some of their arguments. I am quite happy with their social liberalism; co-operation, collaboration, friendship and morality cannot be forced but are the result of voluntary, free and equal relationships. I do not think that one can simply wish away the market as a system of exchange, as Anarchist Communists did, however I think that there is a problem with the relationship between markets and centres of power. For example, the modern corporation is an exemplar of collective power par excellence and the market can be an instrument for the exercise of that power over others where access to the market is unequal. The growth of inequality does more than engender relative deprivation; it marks a profound shift in power. Thus, I would always argue that free enterprise cannot be a force for universal prosperity unless it is balanced by forms of collective action. For example, I can only see the withdrawal of the welfare state under current economic conditions as nothing short of an act of violence against the poor.

It is here that I am in total agreement with Shuggy when he writes, ‘their analysis is for me so heart-breakingly monist’. Absolutely. Take the issue of property. I am an individual property owner, I own my own home (nearly – not long to go on the mortgage). I view this as a positive. However, my house would be bloody useless if it wasn’t for the collective property that surrounds it. Yes, streets. They enable me to go to the state-funded institution that pays me a comfortable living for, amongst other things, teaching courses on Anarchism. Collective and individual property are contingent on each other.

Collective action is necessary for security, it is also necessary to resist oppression, and to counter the potentially overwhelming power of others in many spheres of life. There are intriguing debates about how far that collective action should be through the State or through autonomous organisations but there is no doubting its necessity.

So, although I dislike authoritarianism, I would always view myself as a left libertarian and though I find Individualist Anarchism interesting and neglected, I do not see it as practicable. However, I do find it, and aspects of Libertarianism, insightful and pertinent. This is especially true over the nature of property and exchange and particularly so over the role of the State.

Take one example, State ownership of collective property. Working in Adult Education leads one to have an acute sense of vulnerability to the whims of government funding. Yet the origins of Adult Education lie outside the State, in working class 'self-improvement' associations, Trade Unions, political clubs, churches, universities, the Workers Educational Association and the Mechanics Institutes. It was adopted and funded by government and for a time it flourished. Now the commitment is no longer there as government becomes gripped by a narrower educational philosophy. The result is that the efforts of past generations and the sunk investments that built up Adult Education are being thrown away. The people who matter most, the students, have an acute sense of ownership of their provision, but it is a chimera, they are in reality powerless to prevent its loss. Would it have flourished if it had remained independent? It is hard to say. But it is a question worth asking. One thing is sure, that if staff and students had directly owned the services they used no one could have taken them away. Ownership too is a question of power and needs to be addressed if we are to defend the commons as well as the individual.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Blogging – and Burke?

Oliver Kamm’s reply to criticism about his post on political blogging is unexceptional and I still can’t agree with his conclusions. Whilst some political blogs are the most unmitigated tosh, I have had enormous pleasure from others and have learnt much. Without political blogging, arguably there would be no Euston Manifesto, no Democratiya and none of the other developments that brought an anti-totalitarian left into the mainstream. Anyone is capable of discrimination and choice and those who choose to read rubbish would do so anyway in other media. The only difference with blogging is that it allows an easier entry into the market place. It certainly does not guarantee readership, let alone any appreciable market share.

I think that too much fuss is being made over the blogosphere, which, like any form of communication, can be used for good or ill, and I didn’t think it was worth a post until one revealing statement made me jump. He wrote,

Bloggers ought not to be listened to, but, like any other lobby (my emphasis), politely discounted.

Wow! Any other lobby? Environmental Scientists? The BMA? Trade Unions? There is a superficial attractiveness to this proposition when we have a government that passes power over policy to focus groups in suburban living rooms, but it is hardly a realistic description of a modern pluralist democracy.

However, it suddenly made everything clear. I can now see where he is coming from. Kamm is advocating a Burkeian notion of disinterested representation. And surely his views on political blogging are not far from Burke’s famous statement that, “Learning will be cast into the mire and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude”.

Burke is a more interesting thinker than he is often given credit for, but on this I am with the populist Thomas Spence. His periodical, Pigs’ Meat, was, in some ways, a political blog of its day, so called because it was food for the swinish multitude. This ideological difference would always prevent Kamm and I agreeing. So, all I can say is, “Up the Bloggers!”

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Headline of the day


(From the Wrap, 'Guardian Unlimited's digest of the best of the day's papers'.)

And I just thought I was bored ...

I have never used PowerPoint, now I can feel self-righteous about the fact. The Telegraph reports on a new study,

The study, at the University of New South Wales, branded PowerPoint presentations a disaster and called for them to be scrapped.

Prof John Sweller said there was a scientific explanation for a room full of PowerPoint viewers yawning and looking at their watches after a couple of minutes.

He said: "If you have ever wondered why your eyes start glazing over as you read those dot points on the screen, at the same time words are being spoken, it is because it is difficult to process information if it is coming in the written and spoken form at the same time."

This is a little unfair as I have actually seen it used quite well and creatively but it is rare. Most of the time it is little more than a prop which slows and distracts, rather than enhances what is being said. What is rarer still is to go to a presentation that does not use it; it is now ubiquitous. What would the orators of the past, who relied purely on the power of language, think?

(Just a thought, the Chartists might have liked it. The six points, all nicely bulleted with little graphics with each one, sliding across a big screen on Kersal Moor - perhaps not.)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Going up ...

One of the things I feel intensely irritated about is the constant lazy propaganda designed to support the abolition of automatic promotion and relegation in Rugby League. The gap between the National Leagues and the Super League is a big one, but the obvious answer, to invest in raising the standard in the lower leagues, is often overlooked in favour of freezing the top divisions or operating a franchise system.

According to its advocates, notably Sky's Stevo, this is supposed to increase the quality and intensity of our game and allow for long-term planning, but how reducing the matches in the bottom half of the table to a series of meaningless friendlies is going to help is beyond me. What it would also do is to end the hopes, purpose and long-term planning of the lower league sides, some of them former greats in the history of Rugby League.

And this is where the propaganda comes in. I bristle with indignation, not just as a supporter of a lower league side, but as an empirical historian. One classic argument is that promotion has failed. A typical example is drawn from Neill Morrow's report on Bradford's defeat of Hull KR at the weekend.

"Hull KR's coach Justin Morgan is now in no doubt as to the scale of his task if his team are to avoid the traditional fate of the promoted side: relegation at first attempt".

The "traditional fate"! This is the 12th season of Super League. How many promoted teams have been relegated at the first attempt? TWO; Leigh, who were woefully under prepared when they went up, and Castleford, who should have stayed up last season but relaxed when they looked safe, only to be caught by a resurgent Wakefield and dramatically beaten in the deciding game before the biggest crowd Belle Vue has seen in many a year. What's more, the crowds have stayed on, with Wakefield using that final day thriller to promote the club. If there was no relegation then that would have been a meaningless match in front of a tiny crowd and there would have been nothing to build on. Also, both last year's losing Grand Finalists and Challenge Cup Finalists, Hull and Huddersfield, were sides that had been promoted. Where would they be now without that opportunity?

The theatre of sport lies in the contest on the field – it is that contest that should determine in which division a club plays.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The nightingales arrived last night

But I have to leave tomorrow.

It doesn't get any easier and isn't helped when you meet someone from Salford in a local taverna who is the same age as you, retired four years ago, bought a plot of land and is building a house on it to live here, and looks at least ten years younger than you do. Maybe it is time for a change of lifestyle.

Friday, April 13, 2007

I did indeed eat all the pies

Having just finished a very nice spinach and feta pie for lunch, I turned to my email and in the Wrap (the Guardian's news alert service) is one of those stunning scientific discoveries that tells you what you always knew to be the case anyway. Guess what, some people have a tendency to put on weight and some don't. It really is in our genes.

How long it has taken them to work out the blindingly obvious is unknown, but it is welcome after enduring the mass of body fascist propaganda that being plump is a punishment for your sinful existence. But watch it, old habits die hard, the fascists are still lurking. The Mail indulges in disgusting eugenics - "One day, couples could even choose to have babies free of ‘fat’ genes". – and then chunters on about how all us fatties are going to die horribly and cost the NHS a bomb. But I still like their final statement of the obvious, "The research comes in the wake of the world’s largest study of weight loss, which showed that diets do not work for the vast majority of slimmers - and may even put lives at risk". No doubt this will not stop the wealthy peddlers of diet fads from feeding off the unnecessary guilt of the stout.

The Times is more sober in its assessment.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Πολύ ωραία

Ecstatically watching Manchester United's stunning 7-1 win over Roma in Sakis' taverna, to a Greek commentary with a vaguely indifferent Greek audience, I was struck by a strange thought. I was taken to see my first United match at Easter in 1967 – 40 years ago. 40 years, where have they gone? And Best's goal, at the near post from an acute angle, is still fresh in my mind, whereas countless of others I have witnessed since have faded from view.

Monday, April 09, 2007

I'm bewildered

Oliver Kamm writes,

The blogosphere, in short, is a reliable vehicle for the coagulation of opinion and the poisoning of debate. It is a fact of civic life that is changing how politics is conducted - overwhelmingly for the worse, and with no one accountable for the decline.

So why does he blog?

I am reminded of the Victorian Individualist Anarchist, Henry Seymour, who wrote,

If there are, in this world, any consistent Malthusians, any individuals who really conscientiously believe that there are too many people, let them commit suicide.


Norm, as ever, provides an excellent counter argument

The Resurrection – ten minutes late

It was in Milina anyway. The Papas' timing was out and even though firecrackers were exploding in all the surrounding villages we had to hang on outside the church whilst he raced through the liturgy to declare 'Christus anesti' some ten minutes after midnight. The locals grumbled but soon fireworks, flares and bangers were let off haphazardly and after fifteen minutes of mayhem everyone drifted home, trying to keep their candles alight for good luck.

Even as an atheist outsider it is still possible to share the Sunday celebrations as families and friends gather for feasting

and dancing

Totalitarian aunts

Oliver Kamm plays a neat trick on an affectionate piece by Jeremy Paxman about his partner's 94-year old aunt. By substituting fascism for communism as the aunt's lifelong commitment, she appears in a totally different light. Kamm has a good point to make about how Communists clung to their beliefs, despite historical experience, and of how our perceptions of totalitarianism differ. However, when reading his blog I am sometimes made uncomfortable by his lack of generosity towards those he opposes. There are some that thoroughly deserve his scorn but there are others that seem mistaken rather than malicious and this strikes me as a good example. Kamm continues, "Doubtless some of my readers will see a substantial moral difference between the reality and the thought experiment; I don't". Indeed, and I am one of those readers.

If there is one thing about Fascism, it does at least have a sort of honesty about it. It celebrates a world of struggle, sacrifice and war. It openly worships power, heaps scorn on private pleasure and demands unquestioning loyalty to a totalitarian state. It is full of contemptuous hatred for others and solicits their mass murder. It is an unconcealed picture of violence and misery that would remake the world as a prison.

Communism, on the other hand, offers a world of social equality, peace, harmony and unity. It presented the prospect of an end to racism, class distinction and war. The writer Milan Kundera described the dream as an "idyll for all" and that is why he claimed that it attracted the best of his generation. It was an illusion. The dishonesty of Communism is that it still hid behind that mask of justice even as it perpetrated the crimes of the gulags. Perhaps this is why many still cling to the dream that a new world can be remade through the actions of a Leninist vanguard party and state collectivism (two concepts that I utterly reject) despite the crushing weight of historical evidence to the contrary.

It is hard to lose our dreams when confronted with reality. So, rather than being as Kamm suggests, "a woman of scant imagination at best", the aged aunt is the opposite. She is an example of those whose imagination can overcome all invasions of reality in their desire for a better world.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


Norm tries to be bashful (and fails) about his daughter, Sophie Hannah. He shouldn't. I only discovered her poetry through Normblog and it has become favourite reading for myself and friends. Brag about it Norm, because you will be doing a big favour to those of us who go out and buy her books as a result. She is a fine writer.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Public discontent

Nick Cohen's piece in the Observer last Sunday is a highly pertinent one about unrest in the public sector.

Labour ministers … won't be smiling if they read the best of today's political books. What ought to alarm them is that they are not about the second Iraq war or the selling of peerages, but by the workers in and users of the public services, who ought to be grateful for the extraordinary increase in funding Labour has presided over. Whitehall has managed to combine the insulation from competition that characterises the worst of the public sector with the greed, audit culture and unaccountability that characterises the worst of the private.

It is worth pointing out that the spending increases have only applied in some sectors; my own field of adult education is currently in a state of crisis, outside of those seeking to obtain level 2 skills. However, I think the real issue facing public sector workers is the curious disappearance of democracy, which is in no way compensated for by a spurious notion of 'choice'.

The NHS may be a post-war creation but other services were part of an earlier municipalisation, a proud product of an assertive local government. Local democracies proved to be a potent instrument of social reform. Though imperfect, councils are at least elected and are vulnerable to the disapproval of voters. Look at the situation now. Instead of democratic bodies, we have government targets imposed by a proliferation of appointed and unaccountable quangos. For example, the once great Local Education Authorities are rumps, having lost most of their power in post-16 education to the Learning and Skills Councils.

Not only that, but the latest fashion now seems to be a cult of 'leadership', resulting in an escalating pay gap between management and other public sector workers and less collegial and democratic structures within institutions. Much of the sense of discontent stems from a sense powerlessness by people who once felt their dedication and judgement to be valued and central to the running of their services.

Democracy, in the sense of ownership, control and accountability, should be central to the institutions that are supposed to ensure our collective well-being and security. However, just when it is most needed it has gone missing, displaced by a creeping authoritarianism.

This must seem a terrible whinge from someone privileged enough to be luxuriating in a Greek spring in his second home, but affluence does not always compensate for stress, exhaustion, and frustration amongst those who work in the public sector. Labour was overwhelmingly our party, for it to lose our support would be alarming indeed.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


If there is one thing that reminds me of what an unhealthy sedentary life I lead, feeling constantly tired without any real physical exertion, it is the way my muscles hurt today after lifting and sawing firewood and a bout of heavy weeding of a pathetically small area of garden. Even the simple task of putting a new seat on the Parthenon (unbelievably it's a make of toilet) made the stiff back and arms creak this morning.

How the locals put me to shame. At the age of ninety-six, Eleni from the little cottage next door has now gone to live with her son, but remained independent until she was ninety-five (though she pretended she was only ninety-two). Iannis, a retired quarry worker who now keeps sheep, and his wife Chrysanthi, who gardens and tends goats, chickens and turkeys, never stop even though they are now well into their sixties. They take the fruit from the garden but, in return, there are small kindnesses. This time they had decided there was not enough shade and so I arrived to find that two new fig trees have been planted in just the right spot to cast a shadow on the patio.

Inactivity and privacy at home is not the same. Despite the pain, I feel so well. Sometimes early retirement tempts.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Trap 3

I got the chance to watch the final part of The Trap before I went away and at last I could make out what Curtis was trying to get at. One the one hand it is nice to see something on television that actually dealt with ideas, but on the other, I was also acutely aware of the limitations of the medium. Inevitably, it leads to simplifications, and often misreadings, and this was all too evident throughout the programmes.

Ultimately, though I had areas of agreement, it disappointed. This was partly because the programme again used foreign policy as the ultimate instrument of its critique. My sharp differences with the contemporary political consensus, and New Labour in particular, are with domestic political economy, especially with the alarming growth in inequality, aspects of social policy, which I find cautious, narrow, and authoritarian, and its managerialism, which has helped create a bureaucracy that British culture finds impossible to treat with anything but a deadly earnestness. (Let alone the violence with which Blairites have assaulted the English Language, especially the use of weapons of mass cliché and a serious attempt at verbicide.) However, I have never had a problem with a departure from the hypocrisies and brutalities of a 'realist' foreign policy, but then for the middle classes to focus their fury on that, rather than the inequalities from which they benefit at the margins, is far more comfortable.

There are three areas in which I think The Trap went wrong. The first is the attempt to reduce everything to concepts of liberty. Curtis' concentration on Isaiah Berlin limited his scope on the discussion of liberty, leading to a neglect of more modern writers. It is part of an overall tendency he has to erect straw men. Were any of his theorists as sinisterly influential as he implied? Personally, I am rarely a monist. I dislike reductionism and it is the same with liberty. I do not see two mutually exclusive concepts; instead, I feel that both the positive and negative variants of liberty are contingent on each other. The nature of the society we live in relies on the constant interaction between the two. Whilst I wholeheartedly endorse his concluding remark, "not all attempts to change the world for the better end in tyranny", they will without the presence of negative liberty.

I thought Curtis' point about being drawn into a paradoxical use of authoritarianism to protect negative liberty was silly. What is being attempted is to stop more shattered human corpses littering the London Underground. There is a real threat, as the people of New York, Madrid and Bali can equally attest to, and it has to be addressed. Governments are engaged in a pragmatic calculation on liberties, based on self-defence. But there is more to current politics than liberty, just as there have been more influential way of seeing the world than Game Theory.

This leads to my second objection, by attempting to bring everything back to liberty, he ignores the impact of ideologies, which have a broader intellectual base and show a remarkable persistence through many historical eras. To give just one example, Fanon, whose chapters on violence I read with a sense of revulsion, owes far more to the death cults that Paul Berman has so ably written about in Terror and Liberalism, than positive liberty. To me, Fanon is more Sorel than Sartre. I too cannot share in the romanticisation of violence and the sophistry that seeks to make it intellectually respectable and although I subscribe to just war theory it is only with a deep reluctance. However, I do not see political violence as simply the product of positive liberty. It has deeper and more problematic roots.

Finally, though he is absolutely right to mention the failings of a restricted notion of democracy as a mere method of representation, he is incorrect to see it emerging solely from the idea of negative liberty. He has more of a case with his description of 'neo-liberal' economics, but that too, as an operational ideology, has a number of other sources, not least the rationalisation of self-interest. I feel that a move away from a discussion of liberty towards one of democracy as a form of liberation would have been enormously helpful. Democracy acts as liberation only as an extensive concept.

An extensive form of democracy does not limit itself to simply an arrangement of political institutions; it has to be both a social and economic concept as well. A democratic society is permeated by enlightenment values, social equality and the full acceptance of universal human rights. In economic terms, it requires, for me, both individual independence and property rights, but these are meaningless without collective action to ensure unconditional economic security for all .

Such a concept has carried many names in the past and has spawned a number of variants. One of these was Democratic Socialism; now what has happened to that these days?


It is early spring here, some trees have yet to find their leaves and the weather is still cool. The birdsong is more limited and the nightingales are yet to arrive from Skiathos. However, the blossom is out on most fruit trees, bright yellow broom is starting to invade the roads and the Judas Trees are beginning to burst into an extravagant deep pink. The light is brighter, the air cleaner, and the gardening not too daunting. And, as I write this, outside my window two butterflies have landed on some cherry blossom. The Romantics did have a point.