Thursday, March 27, 2008
I have finally had the chance to read Andrew Anthony's The Fall-Out. It is the subject of a long and very generous review in Democratiya by Simon Cottee, which provides a fair summary of its contents. However, Cottee tries to place the book in a genre that he calls "left apostasy", coupled with an odd categorisation of other writers, notably Christopher Hitchens. I think that this is mistaken. Anthony's book covers little new ground that has not been explored in more detail by others, such as Nick Cohen and Paul Berman, but, like them, it is no act of apostasy. Instead it is written from the heart of a left commitment and is an angry denunciation of the apostasy of others. His analysis comes from a realisation that part of the left 'script', learnt by every new recruit, was simplistic - and sometimes actually wrong - and that, critically, the events around 9/11 combined with unthinking left assumptions to produce the ultimate betrayal; a vociferous support for fascism and totalitarianism.
Anthony's book is about a personal journey and does not have a wide analytical compass. It is lucid and gripping and, at times, I cringed at the remembrance of some of the awful positions that I took in the past. Rather than try and describe the contents I would like to pick up on three aspects that concerned me.
The first is that Anthony suggests that the cause of the alignment with Islamism is liberal guilt. This is the theme running through his book and I think that it is wrong. Guilt is an interesting emotion. It comes straight from our conscience. It can be misused as an instrument of control by those powerful enough to make us feel guilty about innocent acts (Catholic upbringing anyone?). Most of all, though it can generate a peevish defensiveness, it is intensely introspective and brings contrition and anxiety. Is this a description of the Galloways of this world? Is it heck! The emotion we are really talking about is self-righteousness.
Self-righteousness is at the heart of the struggle within the left between moral Puritanism, often the preserve of the 'respectable' social reformer, and the hedonism of the social libertarian. And Anthony isn't above a bit of it himself. The only time he uses a personal epithet is in his demolition of the unpleasant Michael Moore and guess what it is? Yep; "fat"! More importantly, self-righteousness is a part of the creation of a self-identity that 'fights' for something worthy, often with 'courage', and usually against the powers that be (especially ones that are less likely to fight back – Anthony also rightly emphasises the motivation of cowardice). The self-righteous have a big problem with admitting error and grasping that the world they 'struggle' against may not be as bad as the horrific nightmare that inhabits the minds of those who turn to arbitrary mass murder for political ends.
Secondly, Anthony describes himself as having become a 'liberal'. In this book he gives us a truncated view of liberalism. Liberalism consists of three facets; indivisible rights and liberties, forms of democratic governance and a liberal political economy. One of the intriguing aspects of much recent writing about the 'liberal left' is that it strongly reasserts liberal rights and the defence of existing democracies, however flawed. It has less to say on political economy and the sharp inequalities that are NOT the 'root causes' of terrorism, but ARE of hunger, misery, environmental collapse and human despair. It is a telling omission.
And this brings me to my third point. Anthony describes Marxism as inevitably totalitarian. Now I do not describe myself as a Marxist, but people I respect, and who are considerably better read in Marx than I am, do so and, as a result, I am uneasy at such a glib dismissal. This also chimes with the one line (apart from his backhanded compliment to Anarchism – but then not many people understand Anarchism) in Nick Cohen's What's Left that troubled me, his statement that socialism is dead. Instead, what this whole debate seems to me to be about is a reappraisal and re-invention of socialism.
This really moves us on from Anthony's book but it is worth consideration here. The most vital debates are not happening in the Universities, and certainly not in the comments pages of the Guardian, but in the modern mirror of the pamphlets and independent newspapers of the first wave of 19th Century socialism; the blogosphere.
There are plenty of blogs that reflect the orthodox left lunacy and ones that use seductively more 'reasonable' language to reach similar conclusions. However, there are two other broad categories of sites that can be found. Firstly, there are those that are firmly anti-totalitarian but have little or no critique of domestic politics. They have made their peace with the establishment and the legacy of Thatcherism. However dramatic their declarations of human rights, they are Tom Paines abroad but Edmund Burkes at home. Whilst the finely tuned English ear is quick to pick up the contented cadences of the privilege of class.
As for the other, it is a, sometimes fractious, cacophony. There are humanist Marxists, left libertarians, social democrats, Old Labour diehards, those who would combine Marx with Mill, querulous liberals, and others who place human emancipation at the centre of an ecological understanding of the diversity of the natural world. It is where I feel most at home and where the more interesting, and idiosyncratic, writing is taking place.
What will emerge is unclear, but socialism, in the broadest sense of the term as an emancipatory, egalitarian social movement, is alive, well and thinking. Come and join in.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Leaving aside his omission of the contribution of Harriet Taylor to Mill's ideas and his neglect of 19th Century feminism, it is simply not true that demands for female suffrage had to wait until the birth of the Women's Social and Political Union. In fact, the WSPU was a split from the larger and older non-militant National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. The roots of the NUWSS lay in the rejection of Mill's amendment to the 1867 Reform Bill, which would have given women the vote on the same basis of men. The first women's suffrage rally was held in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1868 and London followed a year later. The WSPU were a feature of the end game, not the birth of the campaign. The prime mover, Lydia Becker, deserves better.
This is not merely an academic dispute about history. Published works reflect more than a writer's idiosyncrasy. They are a product of their times and I would be surprised if Hirsi Ali did not have her supporters, whether secret or open.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
The lack of broadband reduces my contact with my favourite blogs and so my world shrinks further into the parochialism of the Greek village. Today it was Argalasti market and a plant sale in Lafkos. Previously, it was the big news about someone leaving his job and moving to Promiri. Then there is Iannis giving us eggs, Chrisanthi feeding her goats, and Stavroula (no teeth, gum boots and dubious personal hygene) coming to the gate to tell us about goats in our garden, our insecure wood pile and then to weep over her 'broken heart' - she tragically lost her son - and the pain in her leg. All this matters; the rest fades.
Now I am reading Andrew Anthony and have Christopher Hitchens lined up next, so perhaps my world will grow larger again. Though, for the time being, small is intoxicatingly beautiful.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Monday, March 17, 2008
More worryingly, after the fires of last summer, this has been another dry winter, the second in succession.
Then there are the power cuts and uncollected rubbish as a multitude of strikes are taking place over changes to municipal workers' pensions with a general strike due on Wednesday.
And finally, arriving in this country the one thing that strikes you is the smoking. No huddled smokers outside buildings; everyone lights up wherever they are. And even if the concept of smoke-free areas is growing, non-smokers are thoughtfully provided with an ashtray.
Friday, March 14, 2008
One of the later paragraphs was interesting.
Although we are clear that it is right, as far as public funding is concerned, for the Government to prioritise 'formal' education to enable people to increase their skills and gain better jobs, with first time students coming first for public funding, informal adult learning also has a vital role in shaping our country.
In other words, the government has abandoned the idea of a universal adult education service. Instead they are only prepared to fund a first chance education system "to enable people to increase their skills and get better jobs" - not to develop as human beings, not for social and therapeutic needs, not to empower themselves and their communities, not to tackle the inequalities of an increasingly rigid class system; just to get a better job. What a limited vision of something so potentially limitless.
The mention of informal learning is important. There must be some anxiety at the loss of one million four hundred thousand students from adult education in a little over two years. Phew! It is OK, the proles are learning from the TV and the Internet so we don't have to fund it. And just in case let's have a consultation so we can shape it. Cheeky gits. If you ain't going to fund it you have no right to try and control it. It is time to reinvent the auto-didact and self-help tradition. Whilst the freedom that brings from increasingly stifling bureaucracy is liberating, I worry that, however worthy institutions like the U3A are, they are also socially exclusive.
I find it all very depressing that a system that has been developed over generations is being dismantled, but I don't know for whom to weep most; adult education or the Labour Party.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Sunday, March 09, 2008
Coincidentally, Freens and I are currently reading the same book, David Kynaston's Austerity Britain. He has picked up on an eye-catching quote, which I spotted too, in a section on the National Trust. This is the subject of one of his latest posts. He uses it to illustrate one of the themes of the book that the Labour Government of 1945-51 was not as radical as frequently portrayed (Kynaston also makes the point that neither were the people) and that the National Trust was more about the preservation of the aristocracy than the placing of national heritage into public hands. He uses this striking quote,
The gem of the meeting in October 1946 came from Sir Robert Abdy who remarked that 'the public could not of course be admitted to the house because they smelt.' This stunned his fellow committee members who were probably in complete agreement with him but realised that this was a surefire way of removing a publicly-subsidised roof from over their heads.
Freens' post reflects the influence on him of Peter Kropotkin. There has been a growing interest in Kropotkin recently as Greens, when they finally got around to realising that there was nothing really new about Green politics, began to identify Kropotkin as a precursor and a sort of 'gentle' hippy. Not so Freens who, partially inspired by the behaviour of the landed classes in their Highlands playground, has bought into the other, less often celebrated, side of Kropotkin; the revolutionary communist and believer in the expropriation of private property. And this informs his scorn.
For a contrast I turned to Ben Pimlott's biography of the then Labour Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, one of the best political biographies I have read. Pimlott quotes Dalton's pride in the NT, which he described as "Practical Socialism in action". Dalton wrote that, "It has behind it a fine record of public service and commands a widespread public goodwill. A Labour Government should give it every encouragement greatly to extend its activities". This Dalton tried to do through the establishment of a National Land Fund as a way of using death duties to attack the concentration of land ownership.
There we have it; an interesting contrast of interpretation between two social democratic historians - the National Trust as practical socialism or a system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy. Freens makes it clear what side he is on; he will be missed.
Thursday, March 06, 2008
I find the link with relativism tenuous, to say the least, however, this is not the only problematic feature of his argument. It seems to me that he equivocates between three distinct positions.
The first is borne on his tide of despair at the attitude of the SWP to the crisis in Bosnia. Here he rejects the doctrinal rigidity that resulted in a refusal to face the reality of the struggle for national self-determination against aggressive Serb nationalism and later spawned the "red-brown alliance" of the Stop the War Coalition. I fully agree, but this is a reflection more of the inanities of the SWP than being a necessary consequence of a class analysis.
The second is fully in tune with other types of radicalism. This amounts to a rejection of the idea of the centrality of the industrial working class as the sole, specific agent of historical change. You will find it in some strands of Anarchism. For example, thinkers such as Patrick Geddes and Murray Bookchin favoured local and global peoples' action instead of class-based movements and parties. On the surface, it would seem that Hoare is writing in support of this perspective. However, Geddes and Bookchin were genuine radicals seeking fundamental change to the material and cultural structures of society, whereas Hoare argues that the role of the left is to act to promote a range of universal principles "that apply to the whole of humanity" rather than to promote a single group, a more nebulous and limited ambition.
This isn't where he started though. He began his post by being critical of an aspect of Nick Cohen and Andrew Anthony's analysis that one of the factors that has led the liberal left into its current pickle is that it has divorced itself from the working class. This is an odd target. What Cohen and Anthony are arguing is that the left is indeed indulging in class politics; it is just that it is the wrong class. They suggest that, rather than represent the interests of the working class, the liberal left have completely abandoned them, embraced the 'virtues' of inequality and justified their elite status through the comforting idea of 'meritocracy', all the while neglecting working class concerns in the smug pursuit of a communalist politics that does not threaten to raise their taxes.
And here comes the crunch. How are universal principles to be exercised in an unequal world? How are human rights to be fully realised without economic security, or, in many parts of the the world, basic subsistence? In a conflict of interest between the privileges of the few and the rights of the many, whose side are you on?
To abandon pragmatic judgement of where people's interests may lie in favour of a rigid historicism is clearly foolhardy. But surely the left's concern is with the exploited, the outcast and the oppressed. Its support lies with whoever would be their liberators. A left that fails to stand with the oppressed against their oppressors is not worthy of the name. And, whether he likes it or not, this is a class analysis.
(Ta Will - again)
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
It seems to me perfectly natural that the Proms should attract a narrow section of society. I'd be worried if anything other than a narrow section of society didn't find the Proms to be a load of shite.
This is one of the joys of blogging. In a bad mood? Hit the keyboard and give your irritations to the whole world. It might seem self indulgent, but, for a reader afflicted with a similar case of anomie, it can be wonderfully affirming. I was thoroughly fed up this morning until I read this.
OK, there are kind words about this blog in there, and that always helps, but there are few things as glorious on the Internet as a seriously pissed off Shuggy, especially when you are feeling precisely the same way. Thanks, and carry on ranting.
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
I have a dream. I don't want to be a teacher or management consultant like so many of our brightest and best. I want to be the alcohol tsar. Move over night club visiting, cocktail swigging, Dr Ziggy Macdonald. I will offer something new by appointing a nationwide, historically themed alcohol team to inspire Britain's boozers. I have already decided who the alcohol lenin will be.
Monday, March 03, 2008
But then turn to the comments for really smug moral superiority such as this by a "svelte 11 stone" person - "At some point they chose to eat the pies, at some point they should choose to stop"; but then he (and I bet it is a he) thinks that "losing weight and keeping it off isn't hard". Then there is this from another "the rising cost of food ... will act as the stick that ensures the obese can't afford to keep stuffing their faces". There are some honourable outbursts of sanity but they are in the minority.
I shouldn't look at it, I really shouldn't. Pass me another pie - no pass me all of them.
Sunday, March 02, 2008
I really felt for Madeleine White when I read her piece in Guardian Weekend about being obese. Anyone of us fatties knows exactly what she went through with her description of job interviews and visits to the doctors, the sheer difficulty in being taken seriously and the chronic lack of self-confidence due to living "in a society that excludes on the basis of body fat". I understand too her sense of triumph at weight loss. I did the same in my twenties and held the weight off for nearly ten years, but it was hard. The confidence I gained then is the basis of me not giving a toss that the weight is back, but does not mitigate the anger.
The sad thing is that she hasn't escaped this modern morality play. She still blames herself. "Obesity is not the result of a lack of information or self-control; it stems from not valuing sufficiently yourself and the food you eat". Since she has had to take up a rigorous diet, run 15 miles a week and undergo radical gastric surgery to reach and maintain a weight that others keep to effortlessly, she might one day realise that the main reason for her size was physiological.
In the second article, Andrew Anthony detects a middle class liberal distaste for the white working classes running through next week's season of programmes on BBC2. It's a patchy piece, but he finishes with a devastating observation. In discussing working class racism he sees a distinct generational shift in attitudes, as shown by the children of 'Dave', an ageing white racist whose daughters have black partners.
Yet in Dave's story, we see, even if he can't, the hidden success of multicultural Britain. Not the tolerance and respect for separatism as preached by archbishops and playwrights, but the messy, difficult and tense business of living and loving together.
It's the children of people such as Dave who live cheek by jowl with new arrivals and adapt to rapid change. They are the ones who really embrace people from other countries and cultures by forming relationships and raising children together.
And then comes the killer blow,
Meanwhile, the liberal arts community, for all its eloquence in anti-racism, is far more inclined to retreat to private schools and affluent enclaves, the better to maintain a homogenous culture while pronouncing on the benefits of diversity.
Ouch! And let's not forget, amongst their many sins, the working classes are seen to be too fat.
Saturday, March 01, 2008
These minutes make HEFCE's unease apparent and it is clear that the government is totally isolated. All informed opinion, apart from one right-wing loon, is vehemently opposed. The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are having nothing to do with such nonsense; it is only the English that will have to put up with it. Nothing deters them though. They are determined to sail towards the iceberg and when it hits they will no doubt talk up the vital importance of mass drowning to a fairer society.
Why do this? Why do they persist? I suppose much is tied in with the games political parties and the media play. All I can say is that a government that persists in error in order to convey an image of strength is, in fact, weak. It is one that has abandoned wisdom in favour of macho posturing.