Friday, December 31, 2010
...Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart's-clarion! Away grief's gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world's wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
“Uncanny” posted by Richard Seymour
"...the plaited locks bore an uncanny resemblance to the alien-like monster from the film The Predator."
Meanwhile, in a galaxy not too far away, a racist gun-toting member of the aristocracy (jolly hockey-sticks division), and best fwend of future princess Kate Middleton, explains to Facebook friends how to handle real life alien-like monsters: “Just had a two-hour shooting lesson. She will now be using this skill on the top of East London high rises to help with the UK's illegal immigrant problem.” Subsequently: “Just had a call from the old bill demanding I go in as someone has reported me for apparently making racist comments... hahaha... using my new found gun skills to control the UK's illegal immigrant population is not what I call racist.”
Everyone is agreed then. Lesson one of the new international racial order is that murdering a bunch of foreigners isn’t racist any more (see passim). Glad we got that cleared up.
The workers, united posted by Richard Seymour
We need unity. This is obvious, but it becomes controversial when concrete proposals are made. To build unity, you cannot accept that someone else's job is expendable or that someone else's rights should be lost. Unity requires solidarity – whether for students, pensioners, welfare recipients, or for public or private sector workers. I do not want to see a pick'n'mix approach to our opposition to the cuts, between "good" cuts and "bad" ones. This position is backed up with an economic case, published in our pamphlet, There is an Alternative.
That is essential. Don't try to buy credibility (with who? the media? the established parties?) by declaring someone else's jobs, livelihoods, and services, expendible. To buy into a 'credible' cuts agenda, or worse, 'progressive austerity', not only concedes unnecessary territory, it risks dividing the potentially broad movement against the cuts. This is simplicity itself, but apparently needs saying.
Thursday, December 30, 2010
The vapidity of a parliamentary political landscape where capitalism is not seriously in question on any quarter, despite its worst crisis in generations, can perhaps be gauged by the way parties rush to associate themselves and their project with some brand or other. While the Tories' preferred business model is Easyjet, Labour's pre-election campaigning touted the idea of a 'John Lewis state'. Labour likes the John Lewis partnership idea as it offers a half-way house to privatization. When postal workers defeated the government and Royal Mail management over efforts to introduce privatization in 2007, their response was to take steps toward turning the mail into a John Lewis-style business. The John Lewis model is not only loved by Labour, it is gushed over by centre-left think-tanks and journalists. Not that David Cameron has any problem with John Lewis, having appointed its managing director to a team of business advisers who will instruct the government on the changing needs of British capitalism. John Lewis-style businesses have sought to profit from the Tories' privatization drive in the health service. Take Circle Health, for example - a partnership, but more than 50% owned by city institutional investors.
Indeed, what some call 'shared capitalism', where employees have share options and thus get a cut of profits, is quite a normal phenomenon in advanced capitalist economies, and many businesses argue that it improves productivity. John Lewis was founded in 1929 as an experiment in "industrial democracy", though studies of the organisation have tended to find that its democratic organs are at best "efficient consultative mechanisms" rather than genuine decision-making bodies. Internal surveys have found, contrary to the gushing of bourgeois journalists, that staff satisfaction with the company's supposed democracy has been at rock bottom for years. A recent review within the organisation sought to address this dissatisfaction by means of some internal reforms, but it obviously didn't turn it into a radically democratic workers' cooperative. The pay structure within John Lewis sees workers get a share of profits. But, like any capitalist enterprise, profit sharing is not distributed equally. In the case of John Lewis, profit is distributed according to pay scale, so management and executives get a much larger share of profits than any individual staff member. Like any capitalist enterprise, John Lewis is a hierarchy with sharp pay differentials, with the lion's share going to those who run the organisation. Like any capitalist enterprise, John Lewis engages in ruthless business practises which see it engaged in conflict with workers. Yet, it also doesn't recognise independent trade unions.
It would be a shame if protest movements succumbed to this tendency. On which note, the next UK Uncut event, called 'The Feeling is Mutual', is a celebration of businesses like John Lewis and the Cooperative Bank. UK Uncut maintains that turning the Royal Mail into a John Lewis-style partnership would be a good alternative to privatization. [NOTE: See the comments below this post for clarification/disclaimer on this]. To explain, UK Uncut has been centrally involved in organising a number of high street retail occupations, raising the question of why the rich get away with tax avoidance while the poor suffer from cuts. I think these protests have been wonderful. I am, however, less convinced by this latest move. In fact, it's rather disappointing.
I wonder if the Daily Mail can help with this? Stupid question, you might think, but they identify one of the key spokespeople of UK Uncut as one very buff 'bodybuilding fanatic' named Aaron Peters. Who he? He has been interned at (not employed by, as his Facebook information misleadingly maintains) by the Blairite think-tank Demos, and the Young Foundation, currently directed by Tony Blair's former top advisor Geoff Mulgan. Peters is no longer a Labour Party member, having recently left the party ostensibly over Ed Miliband's decision to hire a Times journalist as a spin doctor, though more basically because he supported David Miliband as party leader, whom he describes as a "class act", a "first class politician" and so on. As a supporter of trade unionists, he believes that trade unions - the largest democratic institutions in Britain - are "irrelevant". As a supporter of the student movement, he is an opponent of free education. As an activist, he champions the "dissent entrepreneur" (vomit), and advocates 'networks' and leaderless resistance in opposition to hierarchical models of political action like, well, the Stop the War Coalition - there's an interesting commentary on such ideas from UCL occupiers here.
I don't know if Peters' curious brand of politics is typical of the leaderless leaders who organise UK Uncuts. But it would explain why UK Uncut is now attempting to corral anti-cuts activists into cheering on fairly mundane high street retail outlets as a plausible alternative to privatization and cuts. It would also explain how devotees of non-hierarchical, horizontal, leaderless networks became champions of traditionally hierarchical, coercive, profit-driven business enterprise. My advice to activists - don't go and abase yourself before the Coop and JLP. You have much better things to do with your time.
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
There was, in Slovenia, around a year ago, a big problem with a Roma (Gipsy) family which camped close to a small town. When a man was killed in the camp, the people in the town started to protest against the Roma, demanding that they be moved from the camp (which they occupied illegally) to another location, organizing vigilante groups, etc. As expected, all liberals condemned them as racists, locating racism into this isolated small village, while none of the liberals, living comfortably in the big cities, had any everyday contact with the Roma (except for meeting their representatives in front of the TV cameras when they supported them). When the TV interviewed the “racists” from the town, they were clearly seen to be a group of people frightened by the constant fighting and shooting in the Roma camp, by the constant theft of animals from their farms, and by other forms of small harassments from the Roma. It is all too easy to say (as the liberals did) that the Roma way of life is (also) a consequence of the centuries of their exclusion and mistreatment, that the people in the nearby town should also open themselves more to the Roma, etc. – nobody clearly answered the local “racists” what they should concretely do to solve the very real problems the Roma camp evidently was for them.
This was actually a response to a pogrom which observers compared to Kristallnacht. If the police hadn't driven the gypsies out, the racist mob would have done so with fire and blades. But Zizek has no hesitation about regurgitating the classic anti-gypsy propaganda (they're anti-social, they cause trouble, they basically bring it on themselves), championing of the racist mob and its 'legitimate concerns', counterposing the decent locals to snooty metropolitan elites, channelling the resentment of the 'little man' while slandering the little man's victims. Richard Littlejohn wishes he could get away with this level of barbarism.
The Birkbeck talk concerns the use of violence and as such raised some cheers when Zizek applauded 'student violence'. In fact, much of it is concerned with Zizek's arguments on race and multiculturalism, and specifically with vindicating his stance against anti-racist left-wing critics. He refers, for example, to the controversy surrounding a recent article, which he says earned him hate mail. He complains that after the controversy no one wanted to publish his second article, a defence of the notion of 'leitkultur' against bourgeois liberalism, but insists that his position has nothing to do with right-wing anti-immigrant populism. Rather, the 'leitkultur' he wishes to defend is a common space quite different from that supported by the right-wing. These people, he says, tried to rid Europe of its Jewish population, so have no right to talk about Judeo-Christian civilization. I don't know if he's right to attribute this argument to Habermas, but the critique of the Nazis that says that they are traitors to Judeo-Christian civilization is probably not one that can be appropriated for the Left.
Zizek goes on to refer to the article cited above, which he describes with a series of artful euphemisms, before going on to describe his raciological education at the hands of his au pair. He explains that she was a social worker who had worked with Roma - "incidentally, they slightly prefer to be called gyspsies" - and: "She told me this that, of course, don't idealise them, at a certain level it is of course true, they are living in illegal camps, they are living off stolen cars, they, definitely it is true, she confirmed this for me, steal from the fields, and so on and so on." Armed with the authority of his babysitter, he thus provides the armed would-be murderers with a pretext and then proceeds to try to displace the blame for this state-fuelled pogromism onto, not the capitalist class as such, but metropolitan liberal elites. He tells the tale of a big open village in Ljubljana where rich liberals live, and describes their horrified reaction when it was suggested that the Roma move there. This proves for him that it's "very nice" to be anti-racist and tolerant toward gypsies when you have no contact with them.
"This is the limit of this liberal multiculturalism ... that's the tragedy of multiculturalism, how the whole space is constructed with a clear class dimension. It's always upper middle class or at least middle class who are blaming ordinary redneck guys for being racist, for enjoying their privilege ... The moment I mention this class dimension, I become a proto-fascist right-winger or whatever or whatever. No, I mean, again, the problem when you fight racism, it's the same as the Israeli settlers, don't focus on the poor guys, focus on the real culprits". To explain this reference, Zizek has previously argued against a boycott of Israeli settlements on the grounds that the settlers are poor Eastern European immigrants who are forced into settlements by the Israeli state. He goes on that yes, of course, the liberals are right about the racism of the poor, but "imagine a modest guy in that village, his son comes home beaten often, not too often, but there is this fear, occasional fights with Roma children, things are stolen from the field and so on and so on, there even was a murder in that gypsy settlement and what was offered to these people? Nothing, just culpabilising them."
I don't claim that Zizek is a fascist, or a "proto-fascist", for all that he seems anxious to provoke such reactions by, you know, championing racist mobs and vilifying gypsies. But in the UK, as you may have noticed, we have a "big problem" with gypsy travellers, immigrants, Muslims, etc - or rather, with the racist reaction to them. And the argument from the xenophobes and far right is almost identical to Zizek's: if the liberal elite love the gypsies and Muslims and immigrants so much, let them live with them. Similarly, his anecdotal demagogic style of discussing the issue of Roma is absolutely typical of the far right in Britain. Ironically, however, it is very liberal bourgeoisie that Zizek pretends to abhor that he sounds most like. It is the privileged liberal neo-Powellites, with their condescending chatter about the 'white working class', onto whom they can project their own malicious racist fantasies, and who then claim that anti-racism is a snooty, middle class ideology, that Zizek is channelling. It is their caricature of class, their pseudo-iconoclasm, their banalities, and their insulting rationalisations that he is imitating. In a sense, Zizek, the radical firebrand contrarian, is a bourgeois, conformist, national liberal at heart.
Simon Hewitt alludes to the value of inhabiting a tradition, as part of any anticapitalist project. This shouldn't be controversial. Human beings cannot really exist outside of tradition, though capitalism constantly tries to acculturate them into doing so. In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher draws on Frederic Jameson to riff on 'postmodern temporality'. This is a condition where "realities and identities are upgraded like software", such that any "settled sense of self" becomes impossible, such that historical memory and tradition is sacrificed to constant novelty, to "the vertiginous 'continuous present'" characteristic of late capitalism. He quotes from Jameson's 'The Antinomies of Postmodernity', the same essay in which the famous and often misremembered quotation appears: "It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations." This 'perhaps' is misleading, as the argument leads directly into Jameson's arguments concerning late capitalist celerity and its effects on the political imaginary. Fisher's sample is worth quoting:
"The paradox from which we must set forth is the equivalence between an unparalleled rate of change on all the levels of social life and an unparalleled standardization of everything - feelings along with consumer goods, language along with built space - that would seem incompatible with such mutability... What then dawns is the realization that no society has ever been as standarized as this one, and that the stream of human, social and historical temporality has never flowed quite so homogenously. ... What we now begin to feel, therefore - and what begins to emerge as some deeper and more fundamental constitution of postmodernity itself, at least in its temporal dimension - is henceforth, where everything now submits to the perpetual change of fashion and media image, that nothing can change any longer."
No wonder that in this situation, it is "easier to grasp the progressive value of conservative or residual modes of resistance to the new thing" than to evaluate "ostensibly left-liberal positions" which "often prove to be indistinguishable from the structural requirements of the system itself". Novelty, 'reform', 'progress', constant newness are bywords for planned obsolescence, for capitalist destruction of the welfare state, education, healthcare, and so on. But Jameson may be succumbing to the cult of novelty himself here, since what he describes as an aspect of late capitalism, of postmodern temporality, is only an aspect of capitalist ideology as such. Capitalism has always venerated its constant reinvention of the wheel, as it were, while celebrating a maudlin fabrication that it calls 'tradition', the purpose of which is to blot out real, living traditions.
The relative strength of the ruling class and its dominant institutions with respect to the working class and its oppositional institutions means that there is all the more pressure brought to bear on the labour movement and the left to adopt vacuous discourses of 'modernity' (and its reliable discursive partner, 'realism'). It constantly seeks to depict the language and institutions of the Left as worse than wrong, but actually uncool, out of fashion, anachronistic. Naturally, this gives rise to the illusion that we can or should seek to jettison those embarrassing encumbrances of old - narrow 19th century notions like classes, parties and ideologies, but obviously not money, markets, credit, capital, interest, etc. But we go along with this at our peril. It is part of our subjection. Part of the means of ensuring that there will be no change.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
David Cameron's Tea Party posted by Richard Seymour
My latest article on the Tories' cuts agenda is in the next issue of Radical Philosophy, just released. It comes as one of a number of articles on austerity, including William I Robinson on 'The Global Capital Leviathan' and Robin Blackburn on 'Alternatives to Austerity. The issue isn't online yet, but it'll be worth looking up if you can get a hard copy. Here's a sneak preview:
While ‘Tea Party’ rebels agitate for the return of ‘Austrian’ principles in the US, the Conservative Party under David Cameron is actually implementing these principles in the UK. Without prefacing their agenda with the hysterical red-baiting characteristic of the ‘Tea Party’, the Tories argue that their spending reductions are not ideologically driven but are necessary because of New Labour’s fiscal profligacy. ... In fact, the Tories are radically reinventing British capitalism and the state’s role in it, taking it further along neoliberal lines, eviscerating the last unionised bastions of British society, gradually privatizing outposts of collectivism, and redistributing wealth and power from the working class to the rich.
The student protests blew open the question of resisting the Tories' austerity agenda, so it is natural that the tactics deployed therein should be the subject of inquiry. How was it done, what can we learn from it, and how can we repeat its successes under changing circumstances? Especially as the authorities adapt and tool up to cope with the current protests - a process that might thankfully be impeded a little bit by Liberty suing the cops over the kettling of children.
In this vein, Laurie Penny's recent articles, following on from her reporting of the student protests, have highlighted what she takes to be the novelty of the protests and thus the increasing irrelevance of "the old left" with its "traditional hierarchies" and "strategic factionalism". It's a pity that this came with condescending swipes about my party, the SWP. As one Twitter sage put it, writing on CiF about how awful those Trots are may not be as revolutionary as Laurie thinks it is. I don't intend to get bogged down in that subject, however, as I don't think this is fundamentally about the SWP. It's about the secular decline of mainstream institutions of the Left, most notably the Labour Party - it was Labour's offer to be the 'voice' of students that inspired Penny's disdain. The fall-out from that decline, and how we respond to it, is the issue. It's also a shame that Laurie has indulged in this tendency to speak as if she does so on behalf of a whole "generation" of protesters. I'm not accusing Laurie of actually believing this - it's a journalistic cliche, a USP. But it's also bloody annoying - worse, it plays into a destructive myth of inter-generational conflict. (There's a critique of this sort of cliche here). Still, if the aim was to provoke a conversation, it has certainly done that - see here, here, here and here, for example. In addition to the blogs, Alex Callinicos of the SWP responded here.
The SWP's newspaper, Socialist Worker, is totemic of a broader set of issues that Laurie raises. Thus, she says: "Stunningly, the paper is still being peddled at every demonstration to young cyber-activists for whom the very concept of a newspaper is almost as outdated as the notion of ideological unity as a basis for action." Setting aside all defensiveness, let's concede that the far left has been rather slower than its competitors to embrace the internet and harness its latent promise. In fact, as far as the UK goes, fascists were actually quicker to see the opportunity than most others. Even so, the traditional use of paper sales in high streets, at protests and at workplaces is now complemented by the full repertoire of websites, Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo and Youtube, as well as blogs and various link-sharing devices. So this is only incidentally about technology, and more fundamentally about the forms of organisation that they engender.
The substance of Laurie's argument is that the student movement works best by following anarchic, leaderless principles, by emphasising spontaneity and unity in action over specific grievances, and by de-emphasising grand narratives. The old left can be useful inasmuch as it participates in this mode of organising, but obstructive when it cleaves to older, hierarchical methods, based on "deference" to the decisions of a conference or a collective leadership. The issue of the print newspaper is raised as a symptom of this wider question. A political party which communicates by selling newspapers isn't engaging in the kind of open-ended dialogue that is facilitated by social media, for example. Instead, working within a closed ideological terrain, it produces a univocal message devised for one way communication. By means of this imposition, it seeks to "control" the resistance. This is a hierarchical way of organising drawn from a pre-internet paradigm.
But, says Laurie, the means of oppression have been "deregulated". Thatcher, Reagan, Blair et al undercut traditional working class forms of organisation by decentralising and deregulating capitalism, while keeping the working class atomised and divided into traditional communities of mutual suspicion. Overcoming this means "deregulating" the resistance, making it anarchic and "inclusive". In a word, the paper and its embedded principle of leadership should be - is being - superceded by cybernetics, the wiki, and its embedded principle of spontaneous, leaderless, non-hierarchical engagement. This is nothing less than a complete "re-imagining" of the Left.
This is a sweeping, dramatic set of claims, but it glosses over some important facts and problems. Worse, I fear that, for all the limitations of the 'old left', the call to 'deregulate' resistance may be more of a symptom of neoliberalism than a solution to the problems it poses. Among the facts that are glossed over is the role of leading cadres of experienced activists in bringing direction to the movement. The Daily Mail, the Tories and the police have a tendency to reduce such protests to nefarious 'ringleaders', and such ideas form the basis of 'intelligence-led' policing which is resulting in raids and young people being intimidated by coppers. So it's important not to reduce the movement to a few tightly knit groups of revolutionaries, 'professional demonstrators' and 'troublemakers'. But the fact that leadership doesn't work that way doesn't mean that there has been no leadership. Left-wingers, student union members and trade unionists from various political backgrounds, including the far left, have put their repertoire of knowledge and experience at the service of the students movement. This knowledge was accumulated as a result of their affiliations and unglamorous groundwork in the trade unions, past protests, leafletting and even high street paper sales. Without this, the recent occupations and protests would have been the poorer.
Still, even setting this to one side, with the student protests we have had a situation where the first nationally significant response to the Tories' cuts came from students, especially the poorest students - from the 'banlieues' of Britain as Paul Mason put it. They were not necessarily affiliated to political parties, or to the National Union of Students, or to any trade unions. Due to the weakness of the labour movement and the Left, they were largely not called to action by leafleting campaigns or billboard advertisements. Rather, they relied on Facebook groups and social media to coordinate their actions. Insofar as tens of thousands of people are willing to spontaneously sign up for protests and turn out, this is all very well. But what if that ceases to be the case? What if, as could happen very quickly, large numbers of people stop showing up, out of fear of police intimidation, out of frustration with diminishing returns, or out of demoralisation? Then the hard work will once more fall to that small number of committed activists who are embedded in existing structures - trade unions, socialist parties, Labour, student unions.
I think it is a weakness, rather than a strength, if an atomised populace without the support of large institutions becomes overly dependent on social media. The neoliberal solution to capitalism's problems could not have been imposed if the institutions of the labour movement and the organised left had not first been hammered by a combination of concerted employers' offensives and especially a centralised state apparatus. The fruit of that ruling class offensive, the erosion of trade unionism, left-wing community organisation and parties, is one reason why it has fallen to small groups (often drawn from the far left, by the way) using social media to coordinate protest dates etc., while the role of the mass of protesters has been merely to turn up and join in. Far from actively participating in the organising of these events, the majority have actually been excluded by their dependence on social media. The means of their inclusion must now be the subject of urgent negotiation and collaboration.
This raises hard problems. One of Laurie's objections is to grand ideologies. As she puts it, it doesn't matter if you're a socialist, a Blairite, a liberal, an anarchist, etc. What matters is whether you're ready to be be on the frontline, in the struggle. That's fine as long as the only issue is, how do we stop this cut, this fee rise, this 'reform'? As long as it's something as simple as that, then unity in action is assured. But as soon as things become more complicated, as soon as we have to think about whether we need unity with firefighters, tube workers, immigrant groups, etc., and as soon as the issue of more far-reaching social change comes up, there are going to be real, obstinate differences of principle which emerge. Then decisions have to be made. Can we still work together, and if so on what basis? Can we suppress certain differences to achieve a common goal? At what stage does the suppression of real differences become counter-productive, or even unprincipled? If these matters are to be resolved democratically, then we can't avoid traditional means of organising.
And here, it is worth defending the old hierarchies to some extent. Hierarchy, as Terry Eagleton once pointed out in his polemic against 'postmodernism', is not identical with elitism. It is, as much as anything else, an ordering of priorities and tasks, a division of labour, which is indispensable for radical political organisation. This is not to say that there hasn't been elitism on the Left. This isn't to say that all the old hierarchies are defensible. Sexism, racism and imperialism have been among the flaws of large parts of the European Left in the 20th Century, and I would be the last to claim that these have been completely overcome despite the civilizing effects that past struggles have had. But there is nothing about hierarchy per se that is objectionable. On the other hand, there is such a thing as the tyranny of structurelessness. In the absence of hierarchies structuring priorities, ordering tasks, and giving democratic expression to political differences, there is a danger that the sole structuring principle is that 'might makes right'. That is, whoever is best organised, has the most resources and is best equipped to usurp the cultural capital of protest can end up effectively dictating terms and taking it over, without being accountable to anyone. And if others don't like it, well, they know what they can do - precisely nothing. As slow and cumbersome as the formal structures of trade unionism and party conferences can be, they also have the advantage of that in principle elected officials can be fired, leaders deposed, policies overturned, misbehaviour investigated, and so on.
Lastly, and speaking from experience, I would like to assure Laurie that the role of newspapers is not quite what she thinks it is. Parties don't sell papers expecting that the dissemination of ideas in hard copy will by itself change the world. The newspaper is there when the internet isn't. The newspaper is a way of overcoming atomisation, giving complete strangers the occasion to stop and talk to one another about political ideas. You stand in a street, or in a workplace, asking people to stop and buy a copy of the newspaper not so that they will take it home and passively absorbe its contents, but so that a minority will stop and talk to you about what's wrong with the world and where we can go from here. It's a way of building up a network of real life relationships in a way that the internet can't yet replicate, much less replace. Those networks, built up through unglamorous daily toil, are the rock on which much larger movements are built. And that's only possible because of durable party and trade union hierarchies which have survived the locust years and come out ready for a fight.
Saturday, December 25, 2010
Thursday, December 23, 2010
The SSP was once the envy of the radical left. A thriving model of socialist unity in action. It was based significantly, perhaps too significantly, on the personal credentials of Tommy Sheridan, whose inspiring lead in resistance to the Poll Tax first gave him the stature he subsequently enjoyed. It was natural that when the tabloid press came after the SSP, they would focus on Sheridan. And as they could not attack him for his politics - or at least if they did it would make little difference - they tried to attack him over his personal life, his sexual conduct. Sheridan's response was to initiate libel proceedings. I think most of his defenders consider that this was a crazy thing to have done - the bourgeois courts are a risky terrain for socialists, in which the odds are almost always stacked against you. Nonetheless, he won the support of the majority of the party for his position, which was that the attack on Sheridan was an attack on the party. But the SSP executive panicked, forced him to resign as national convenor and indicated that they would not support him in his libel case.
As it transpired, not only did they not give him broad backing, they agreed to testify for News of the World. In justification, they claimed that Tommy Sheridan had no right to sue for libel because the allegations were true. They argued that he had no right to expect them to lie for him, and that he was putting his ego and his reputation ahead of the fortunes of the socialist left. But, even assuming that every word of the News of the World's claims were true (an assumption which I am only prepared to entertain for the sake of argument), and even if you believed that Sheridan's libel prosecution was a mistake, to actively assist the News of the World in court was not only unnecessary but self-destructive. It meant that, as witnesses on oath, they had an interest in seeing Sheridan lose and the Murdoch press win. It was always clear that a large part of the Left would consider this unforgiveable behaviour, a form of political scabbing, and that such actions would tear the hitherto united and growing socialist left in twain (twain at the very least). It is also now known, as a result of this perjury trial, that in addition to testifying for Murdoch, leading SSP member Alan McCombes secretly went to the Sunday Herald with a 'sworn affidavit' three days after Sheridan was deposed as party convenor, stating that if Sheridan had not resigned they would have "put certain information into the public domain which would have forced him to resign". This wasn't just comrades put in a difficult position. From the second the anti-Sheridan faction coagulated in the SSP executive, it pursued its quarry ruthlessly - a point that becomes more clear as time goes on.
When Sheridan won his libel case, the News of the World was out for blood. But the anti-Sheridan faction in the SSP was also overwrought. They immediately went on the offensive. In the wake of the case, numerous leading SSP members suddenly publicised their view that sexism had been rife in the SSP - though they had apparently failed to act on this belief until then. A former SSP activist wrote in The Guardian that the issue was about gender rather than class, and that Sheridan's victory was a victory for machismo. She alleged that Sheridan had used misogynistic language about SSP members, describing them as a "cabal of women". This misrepresented, perhaps intentionally, an open letter from Sheridan to members of the SSP which used the phrase "cabal of comrades". But it contributed to a political mythology, which is still propagated to this day, and which casts Sheridan as a misogynist.
And this has remained an important part of the SSP's rationalisations for their methods. The current issue of Scottish Socialist Youth, for example, revels in Sheridan's conviction and depicts him as a "mad shagger", and the sex clubs he allegedly visited as tantamount to brothels - thus he is characterised as a macho prick, availing himself of (what some would see as) some of the worst forms of female oppression. Just one point about this. If it is indeed the case that Sheridan's alleged actions mark him out as a chauvinist, then it is time for SSP members and apologists to stop pretending that the allegations against him were solely to do with personal morality and thus not at all to do with the politics of the SSP. By their own account, the allegations were definitely political, and definitely damaging to the SSP.
But this sort of narrative re-framing would be no more than natural behaviour among people who had allowed personal bitterness to overtake their political judgment and made quite a few angry opponents of former supporters in the process. At this point, with News of the World beaten, Sheridan and his supporters took it as a good time to vacate the remnants of the once great and now greatly reduced SSP. What then happened defies belief. Members of the SSP conspired to instigate a perjury prosecution, by bringing materials to the police and the media (for a considerable sum of money, naturally) that would incriminate Sheridan.
George McNeilage either recorded a private conversation and sold it to News of the World for £200,000, or he participated in a fake intended to implicate Sheridan in perjury, and sold it to News of the World for £200,000. Then Barbara Scott produced a handwritten minute of unusual detail, which many members of the executive of the time don't recall seeing before, from a meeting which purportedly proved that Sheridan lied, and marched down to the local constabulary of the Lothian and Borders police with that minute. The invocation of principle in a case like this can be dangerous. But I like to think that I know an issue of principle when I see it, and I think on principle it is aborrent and reprehensible to make yourself a police informant or sell a former comrade to the newspapers, even for the sake of something as important as a factional vendetta.
A prosecution was initiated. Once again, leading SSP members bore witness, but this time for the prosecution. Of 42 prosecution witnesses, 24 were SSP members, 16 from the original executive. Were it not for this footage, those minutes, and that testimony, Tommy Sheridan would be a free man. Were it not for a this extraordinary factionalism, the News of the World and Lothian and Borders police could not have hounded and persecuted Sheridan and his wife. He is now expected to go to prison.
This is a setback, as I said. Anyone who believes otherwise is not living in the real world. But Scotland also saw one of the biggest protests against the cuts after the comprehensive spending review. It is going to be at the forefront of resistance to Tory austerity. And if the major electoral vehicle for the Scottish radical left now lies in tatters, its former star now heading to jail, there will be ample opportunity to rebuild the Left. And in that future Left, I do see a role for Tommy Sheridan.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Not as sold posted by Richard Seymour
Now Britain's austerity programme may face similar problems. Despite all the 'quantitative easing', which was never going to overcome the problems posed by austerity, and despite slashing spending at record levels, the public sector borrowing requirement has continued to rise. The Tories, with the assistance of their unlovely Liberal props, are determined to keep to their targets of reducing the deficit, which they intend to achieve solely by cutting, and have only more quantitative easing to fall back on. Growth is unlikely to rescue the situation, because even the CBI, which supports the cuts, doesn't expect growth to be higher than 0.2% in the first quarter of 2011. The trading deficit has increased, which means that the manufacturing sector certainly isn't able to take advantage of the weak pound to pick up the slack in the economy. If growth remains stagnant, or if we enter another slump, then Treasury revenues will fall further, and borrowing will have to rise further. If borrowing continues to rise despite previous and current cuts, then the logic of the government's position leads them to further cuts. So, we could be on our way to a second emergency budget - Ireland style.
Still, though global ruling classes have always been divided on the details of this strategy, and have every reason to worry about years of stagnation and low profits, the major voices of capital such as the IMF have not ceased to demand further austerity, privatization and deregulation. And the OECD yesterday demanded that Spain should try to overcome its difficulties by such neoliberal measures. There is, in my opinion, a very simple reason for this. The only plausible alternative to neoliberalism is to attack the wealth and power of the rich - to kill off the rentier, nationalise the banks and convert them into public utilities, redistribute wealth to support demand, engage in mass public housing projects (no more bonanzas from property speculation), and to strengthen the bargaining power of labour to support incomes and demands in the future. This is simply not something the CBI or the British Chambers of Commerce would ever be interested in, even if the alternative was to pull up the drawbridges and allow the economy to tank for a generation. The austerity agenda is thus not just a gamble on squeezing another few years of growth out of the neoliberal accumulation model, but a defensive project against the Left.
The only thing that will make them think twice is if the resultant labour insurgencies prove to be so powerful, and empowering for the constituencies that neoliberalism has previously smashed, that they risk the re-emergence of an anticapitalist pole of attraction. Then they'll be forced to negotiate terms. "Right," said Thucydides, "as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must". If we cannot yet defeat the ruling classes, let us at least aspire to be their equal in power.
The Assange allegations posted by Richard Seymour
At the same time, however, there's just as long a history of rape victims being smeared, and rape allegations not being taken seriously. To dismiss these allegations, or to diminish their seriousness, is to risk opposing justice for rape victims. To impute dubious motives to the women alleging rape - for instance by claiming, which seems unlikely in the circumstances, that they are participants in a 'honeytrap' operation - risks blaming the victims. And if you do that in this case, you set a precedent for how you treat future cases.
The allegations are serious. In one instance, Assange is alleged to have tried to have sex with one of the alleged victims without a condom on, was rebuffed, and went to sleep. When the woman awoke, the allegation goes, he was already having sex with her without the condom on. Having thus penetrated her without her consent, he is said to have assured her that he did not have HIV and she did not tell him to stop. The defence against such charges could only be that he didn't do it. But Keith Olbermann, for example, made the foolish claim that "the term 'rape' in Sweden includes consensual sex without a condom". Those belabouring him for this nonsensical falsehood have yet to induce a retraction from him.
More worryingly, in this debate, Naomi Wolf astonishingly characterises the claims as inconsequential, stating that even the alleged events amount to wholly consensual sex on the grounds that once the woman woke up, she and Assange consulted and continued to have sex. Jaclyn Friedman rightly retorts that this isn't 'consent' in any recognisable sense. You can't start fucking someone while they're sleeping and then take a lack of explicit protest upon awakening as consent; it might represent fear, or any number of possible factors. There are, of course, complex arrangements and unspoken communications between long-term couples, and not all consent is explicitly verbalised. But the point is that there is consent, in one way or another. If someone says they didn't consent, there is a problem. And if the allegations were true, then the allegation would be one of rape, not of consensual sex. I have never had much time for Wolf's particular brand of entrepreneurial feminism, her shilling for right-wing Democrats like Bill Clinton and Al Gore, or her alarmist (now ridiculous) putsch-auguring in 2008. Her concern about freedom of information, torture and the rise of authoritarian militarism in the US seems genuine enough. But it is a real shame that in her determination to defend Assange, who is in real danger of extradition to America (thence to a legal black hole) if he is handed over to the Swedish authorities, she has made herself an accomplice of patriarchy.
In an even more alarming example, the radical US magazine Counterpunch has published an article co-written by a notorious antisemite and Holocaust denier who prefers to be called 'Israel Shamir', which imputed the rape allegations to a CIA plant, and called for the protection of Assange from "castrating feminists". Shamir claims to represent Wikileaks in Russia, though he was outed by Searchlight magazine as an ex-pat Swedish neo-Nazi named Joran Jermas some years ago. Not everyone knows who Shamir is, but if Wikileaks doesn't have the sense to check him out, I would expect that Counterpunch should. Still, if they can tolerate a clown like Gilad Atzmon, opening the magazine up to a closeted neo-Nazi to spew misogyny may not be a big step. And if so, that reflects a wider degeneration of Alexander Cockburn's political judgment, which has also manifested itself in some quite kooky output about global warming.
I don't raise these examples with any relish. And I would much rather the conversation was about the content of Wikileaks' exposures, and what they tell us. The politics of Wikileaks, which in Assange's case appear to be pro-market Libertarianism, are also worth thinking about. But instead of looking at that, we've been lured into an argument wherein the defenders of Wikileaks are tearing at one another's throats over these rape allegations. This is all the more absurd because it's completely unnecessary. It's obvious that there has to be an investigation of these claims, that Assange must answer questions and give evidence in circumstances that guarantee his safety, and that the attempts by the US government to thwart the Wikileaks project through intimidation - by mistreating Bradley Manning and targeting Assange - have to be resisted. The casual dismissal of rape claims doesn't help that. And all of this is patently obvious.
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Friday, December 17, 2010
The evidence that class motivates voting behaviour is actually very robust. Robert Anderson and Anthony Heath's study of class and voting in the UK between 1964 and 1997 looked in vain for real evidence of what psephologists call 'electoral dealignment'. Using their 7-grade 'social class' model (which is not unproblematic), they found the following correlation:
You can see the trend. The Tories' most ardent supporters are consistently among the petit-bourgeosie and the 'upper salariat' (which includes managers, professionals and administrators in large companies). Labour's core support is among manual workers, both skilled and unskilled. As I've pointed out before, this also holds for all general elections held since 1997. But this correlation would require further interrogation before it becomes an explanation.
For example, right-wing Labourites tend to insist that the working class core of Labour's vote is, though economically left-wing, socially conservative. This is their explanation for how voters in former Labour heartlands defect to the BNP - it's a socially conservative revolt of the 'white working class'. Thus, from their perspective, it is both necessary and true to the proletarian cause to spread racism and hatred toward immigrants and minorities. If this claim were accurate, the consistency with which the core working class vote has stayed with Labour through thick and thin, refusing the serenading of the Tories, and the fact that the BNP's inroads into working class communities are principally achieved by winning over former Tory voters, would present a real mystery. But it is not accurate. As other critical work has shown, social conservatism and liberalism have less to do with class than with cultural capital, ie education. Socially progressive attitudes are not an attribute of the rich, but of the educated; reactionary attitudes are not an attribute of the poor, but of the uneducated or poorly educated. This is why, for example, Cameron has had to adopt a more socially liberal facade. He can't win by wooing the know-nothing bigots of the petit-bourgeoisie. The Tories want to win back the sorts of professionals and skilled workers who have been to university and simply aren't up for deference and social authoritarianism.
Arguments for the demise of the relevance of class are hardly new. Throughout the postwar era, we were continually told that class was, in different ways, increasingly obsolete. Anthony Crosland argued from the Labour Right that the division between the management and ownership of capital meant that a direct conflict between workers and owners no longer existed. Instead, a new managerial class had taken over, and society was going to become a lot more stable as a consequence. In fact, Crosland was regurgitating the conclusions of American rightist political economy (Daniel Bell, James Burnham) and sociology (Talcott Parsons).
Communist Party member Sam Aaronovitch's terse polemic, The Ruling Class, was one of the better ripostes to that argument. Unfortunately, the salient points of Aaronovitch's later career would include the Alternative Economic Strategy (failure), Eurocommunism (failure) and a son called David (erm...). Subsequent research on class, for example by John Scott, also helped demolished this ideologeme. Even so, and all throughout the height of class conflict in the 1970s and 1980s, the Tories consistently argued that class was no longer relevant in the new meritocratic order. Thatcher, as a good Hayekian, argued that 'class' was a communist concept, and that to even talk of 'classlessness' was to concede the terrain in advance. In the same period, the emergence of But the argument that class was over really took off between the defeat of the miners and the collapse of the USSR, when Labour, the trade unions and the right-wing of the Communist Party were united in cognisance of the 'new times' and the need for a 'new realism'. It was in this period of reaction that the arguments for 'electoral dealignment' first came to the fore.
The new orthodoxy had it that class was losing its ability to produce solidaristic communities united in political struggles, due to the prolonged experience of relative affluence. As a consequence, class was being replaced by other, structural but non-class factors such as private vs public sector employment, wage earners vs the unemployed, home ownership vs renting, car ownership vs public transport users, and other sources of sectional or individual interest. At the same time, even those structural interests were giving way to 'issues' - voters now preferred to act as consumers, choosing parties based on issue preferences.
Marshall et al's Social Class in Modern Britain (1989) was a riposte to such arguments by way of an extended study of 'class consciousness' and its effects on political behaviour. It concluded that class remained the single most important structural factor in determining ideological conflict in Britain. But although it was far from alone in its findings, such studies tended to be buried under an avalanche of vulgar, triumphalist declarations that all conceptions of class - marxist, weberian, pluralist, etc. - were superfluous historical detritus. At its most sophisticated, this theory was expressed by Terry Clark and Seymour Lipset (1991), whose conclusions precipitated a surfeit of literature expanding on, and generally approving, the idea that social class has declined in relevance since WWII. On the conventional Alford Index, it was assumed that working class voters would side with leftist parties and middle class voters rightist ones, and it was on the perceived decline of 'class voting' on that index that Lipset and Clark staked their case.
There have always been dissidents. In the UK, Geoffrey Evans has always maintained a sceptical defence of the relevance of 'social class', though not from a marxist perspective. His studies of voting, ideological conflict and class in the UK have been consistently inconvenient for those of the Blairite persuasion who would like to see class interred with the USSR. Psephologists like Anthony Heath have similarly argued that while the relative size of different 'social classes' may have altered, the relationship between social class and political attitudes remains firm. Others pointed out that the 'decline of class' thesis depended on crude measurements based on manual vs non-manual workers - the 'cultural/status' model of class which I've criticised elsewhere. And, as I've previously mentioned, the great unwashed generally seemed unconvinced by the decline of class, with supermajorities registering support for the view that there is a class war going on in this country.
But the pollsters whom the pundits listen to still want to cleave to orthodoxy, even when it manifestly fails to predict or explain real world political developments. This is one reason why the Miliband leadership has its occasional moments of interest. As much as he doesn't want to talk about the 'working class' in front of the capitalist media, instead restorting to euphemisms about the 'squeezed middle', his leadership pitch was explicitly based on asserting the centrality of reviving the working class base of Labour's coalition, and thus was a tacit recognition that the post-class ideology of the Third Way was moribund. And as the movement against the cuts springs into life, that opens up a space for all sorts of critical perspectives.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
EDL turns on students posted by Richard Seymour
[I]n a speech to EDL supporters in Peterborough on 11 December, EDL leader “Tommy Robinson” – a former BNP member whose real name is Stephen Yaxley Lennon – issued a threat to student demonstrators.
His speech alternated attempts to whip up anti-Muslim hatred with attacks on the thousands of school and college students who have protested against fees and education cuts over the past weeks. He threatened:
The next time the students want to protest in our capital, the English Defence League will be there.
In terms that will come as news to millions of working class school and university students, he claimed:
You had students living off their dads’ f***ing bank cards who have never lived a normal way in their life. They do not understand what it is to be a working class member of this community.
And in a single scattergun blast, he lashed out at students, Unite Against Fascism and “communist scum”. His speech followed streams of hate directed at students on the EDL’s forums.
The EDL has so far been an organisation that united violent rightists, racists and outright Nazis in a common cause against British Muslims. But in the recent past, it has started to denounce trade unionists and disrupt left-wing political meetings, and with this shift is becoming much more like a traditional far right street organisation, though not yet one with sufficient cadres to actually control the streets anywhere. Unite Against Fascism argues that the EDL is doing this because the fascist core is trying to ideologically harden its membership and supporters. This makes sense in terms of who and what the EDL are. In my ISJ piece, I argued that the Nazi strategy in the EDL was analogous to past strategies of fascist paramilitarism:
What appears to be happening is that the organisational and “intellectual” spine of the organisation is being supplied by organised Nazis while the foot-soldiers are recruited from among football casuals and other violent right wing, but non-Nazi, groups. This is not the first time that such a tactic has been pursued. The National Front used to infiltrate and mobilise skinhead and football hooligan groups during the 1970s in order to attack the left and ethnic minorities. It is also analogous to the general tendency by fascist organisations to use paramilitaries, comprising many who are not ideologically committed fascists, both as weapons against opponents and as socialising institutions that can help produce a disciplined fascist cadre.76 This is one reason why it is a mistake to simply dismiss the EDL as thugs who can be dealt with by police as a public order issue.
I see that the BNP has declared that its strategy for the future will be much more oriented toward street activity, as its 2010 general election failure has made the electoralist approach resoundingly unpopular with the membership. Again, this would be congruent with a strategy of hardening the political support of the organisation. But there may be more to the EDL's turn than pressure from the fascist hardcore. I think there will be an element of competition and antagonism between different factions in the EDL - its schismatic nature was made clear when Paul Ray and Tommy Robinson were issuing Youtube threats to one another. And perhaps the aim is to make the EDL a broader rightist political movement than the BNP can be. Perhaps, as the cuts take hold, and the anti-cuts coalition emerges, the EDL may be trying to position itself at the helm of militant reaction, waving the flag and sticking up for authority when the traditional parties of the right don't seem able to do so. However that turns out, it is vital that as the EDL broadens its targets, the coalition organised against the EDL and like-minded groups broadens commensurately. If the EDL want to have a go at students, organised workers and the left, rather than just beating up Asian women and smashing up shops, they'll find themselves rapidly outnumbered and outgunned.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Imaginationland posted by Richard Seymour
Imagine it was North Korea, says China. Imagine it was Iran or Zimbabwe or Burma. Among scenes of 'violence', with police lashing out at protesters landing one in hospital with a serious brain injury, there is some shocking footage:
The scene: a mass demonstration in Tehran/Harare/Rangoon/Pyongyang/&c. The police are filmed shoving a 20-yr-old demonstrator with cerebral palsy from her/his wheelchair & dragging her/him across the pavement, to the horror of onlookers. Footage of this event is sneaked out & publicised. Accordingly, Iranian/Zimbabwean/Burmese/North Korean/&c state broadcasters cannot ignore it. Forced to report it, they stress, however, that there ‘is a suggestion’ that said demonstrator was ‘rolling towards the police’.
Oh yes, imagine. Hold your breath. Make a wish. Count to three. And enter a world of pure imagination. And now imagine if the chief of police in the capital city of any of those countries, having claimed that the protesters were fortunate not to have been shot dead, announced that it was planning to ban all marches against the government on the spurious pretext of ‘violence’ by protesters. Imagine this isn’t the normal response of capitalist states to dissent outside of anomalously stable periods of class compromise. Imagine that the already impoverished political democracy is about to take a nasty turn to the methods of the police state. Imagine… imagine… imagine…
No confidence. posted by Richard Seymour
These are obviously no small matters, and not the sort of thing over which one should remain obediently silent in the guise of 'unity'. To take one example, colluding with the government to identify cuts involved the NUS leadership recommending cuts grants and loans to poorer students as an alternative to fee rises. That is actively undermining the chances of the poorest students whom we are in the business of trying to support. Or take the decision of the NUS executive to organise a separate protest away from the main march on 9th December, and the refusal to organise for the main demonstration. NUS support could have guaranteed an even bigger turnout, providing resources and institutional clout. But instead it sought to undermine the protest. Or, backtracking on his promises to support the occupations. The occupiers are taking the lead in a movement to defend students, but their position is all too often precarious. They need legal support when they're threatened with eviction, back-up when they're arguing with university management, and so on. The NUS is capable of providing that sort of support, but declines to do so despite Porter's promises. Such dishonest, 'dithering', 'spineless', and undermining behaviour does not deserve to be called 'leadership'. So Porter should not be the NUS leader. We need a leadership that will throw its considerable resources and clout behind the mainstream of the student movement.
More broadly speaking, the strategy of the NUS leadership for more than a decade has been a complete failure. Let's recall the context. New Labour was unwilling to fund the expansion of higher education out of general taxation, because it was unwilling to raise taxes on the higher incomes, on profits and on other unearned sources of income such as capital gains and inheritance. This was a question of political will, as the total funding required to pay for the system's expansion over 20 years amounted to only £2bn, which sum could easily have been found. Nonetheless, New Labour retained the taxation model established by Thatcher, and thus had to find other ways to fund long-term public sector expansion. It relied on its faith in market delivery mechanisms, thus bringing in PFI schemes in health, education and transport (though these actually cost far more in the long run than standard public sector projects). In the education sector, it picked up a civil service policy of introducing fees, and replacing maintenance grants with loans.
The 'progressive' sell behind the fees was that they would be means tested, and only repaid by graduates on income. Further reforms were accompanied by an insistence that universities expand their repertoire of bursaries, so that working class students could get up to £4,000 a year if they were seen as being promising enough. However, as Ed Miliband has pointed out, it is actually regressive in the sense that more interest accumulates to those lower down the income scale, who thus tend to take longer to pay off their loans. It is also regressive in the sense that those paying off the loans on the lower end of the income scale will be paying more as a proportion of their total income than those on higher incomes. This is the quality that makes the highly unpopular VAT regressive, and which made the poll tax politically suicidal. And of course the bursaries system introduces a deliberate element of divisiveness, exclusivity and elitism into higher education funding, as only a minority can ultimately 'merit' that funding. It is socially engineering elitism, about which more in a moment.
There is an obvious progressive way to pay for higher education, and that's to tax higher incomes. And the level of increased taxation required to do so would have been negligible. So, to repeat, this was a question of political will, and specifically of the desire of most of the political establishment, as well as the managerial caste within the higher education establishment, to move in a more pro-market, neoliberal direction. Contrast with Scotland, where the fees system was eroded for years, replaced with a graduate endowment scheme, and finally abolished in 2008.
In 1998 legislation, fees were initially set at £1000 per annum, with the promise that they would not be increased. Then legislation was passed in 2004 to produce a 'variable' fees system, wherein fees could increase to £3000 per annum. The cap has subsequently been raised to £3225. In practise, most universities have charged the maximum. Vice Chancellors of universities adored this system of fees. Why wouldn't they? As the system became more marketised, their salaries increased commensurately, and all the horrible funding dilemmas that come with waiting for a reluctant central government to pay up disappeared. The tuition fees system has paid for a dramatic expansion of higher education - though in fact, the introduction of variable fees coincided with a decline in the numbers of school leavers entering higher education, first as a proportion of the total, then in absolute terms. So that, for example, in 2005-6, the number of students entering higher education fell by 15,000. Pressure from the managers of leading universities, notably the Russell Group, led to calls for a review of funding to increase fees even further.
The Browne review, written by a BP boss with no experience of the education sector, was initiated by Labour for this purpose. Its recommendations are the basis of the current reforms, which scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance for A Level students and treble the fees cap to £9,000. That will just be the start. Just as with previous reforms, the new system will incentivise Vice Chancellors to demand the right to charge higher fees. Fees will have to rise in most universities to at least £8000 a year just to maintain them at their current position, and a coming study will show that most universities intend to charge the maximum. If they want to expand, as well as covering the costs of the bloated managerial, PR and advertising departments that have already taken root in the neoliberalised higher education sector, and which will now expand dramatically, they will have to insist on more 'investment' which means higher fees.
Allow to insist once more that these reforms have nothing to do with fiscal imperatives. They reflect political priorities and convictions, which are simply assumed to be the common sense, and their products retailed as necessity - an example of what Mark Fisher calls "capitalist realism". These founding convictions are profoundly elitist, and are worth looking at. In the past, the education system was much more openly segregated at the secondary level, and the university system was reserved for a very small minority of people - 6%. But the higher education system has been compelled to expand to meet the demands of a changing capitalism. For British capitalism to be competitive in the global economy, it demands a more skilled workforce. A more skilled workforce increases productivity and adds more value, and thus potentially more surplus value and more profit. However, this was to be bought on the cheap, as funding per student dropped by 36% between 1989 and 1997. Thatcher had tried to deal with this by rapidly marketising the system, and abolishing maintenance grants - thus, education would not longer be a public good, guaranteed by the state, but a commodity traded between students and universities. The first successful abridgment of the maintenance grant came into being with the Education (Student Loans) Act of 1990, which introduced 'top up' loans to make up for the shortfall of grant funding. This was part of a wider series of reforms, taking schools and further education colleges out of Local Education Authority control, thus replacing democratic control with quango-based funding system, and introducing competition between different institutions for funding. New Labour took this logic to a new level.
But expansion also constantly conflicted with the other remit of the education system, which is to divide people into superiors and inferiors. It was a mainstay of Thatcherism that we should "let our children grow tall, and some taller than others if they have the ability to do so" - the 'meritocratic' justification for inequality. But if too many children should grow tall, that is taken is evidence of failure. We have constantly heard over the last decade or so that more kids getting A B and C grades, more getting A Levels, and more going to university, means that 'standards' must be falling. The employers constantly complained that this was making recruitment harder, because they couldn't distinguish between a surfeit of students getting top marks. The Association of Graduate Recruiters, which represents 750 top employers on this issue, is calling for an end to the target of 50% university attendance for this reason, while supporting the fees. They conclude that the government's measures constitute "the best way to drive up standards in higher education". The British Chambers of Commerce and the CBI have long articulated the same position.
In fact, standards constantly increase. If you'll accept a physical analogy, with all its pitfalls, just look through the records for 100 yard sprints, or one mile runs through the last century. You'll see that the time it has taken people to run these distances has constantly diminished. The distances didn't get shorter, ie standards didn't fall to enable more people to run the distance in a shorter time. Ability improved as technique, training and resources improved. The fact that intelligence is not a fixed quality like physical strength or endurance, means that is far easier for knowledge and skills, even those narrow testable forms of learning that examiners focus on, to improve rapidly over a period of time.
Smaller family sizes, better nutrition and a more secure environment meant that for children in advanced capitalist societies, potential for learning increased. On the negative side, more constant exposure to the sorts of competitive testing that serves examiners well, would tend to improve exam results without necessarily developing one's critical intelligence. Still, the evidence suggests that standards have increased and that this is the predictable result of long-term social developments, not of any ruse. It makes sense that as this process takes place, there would be some degree of equalisation in outcomes as more people get the higher grades that were previously reserved for the top 10%. As Danny Dorling writes, in his seminal Injustice, the evidence shows that "people are remarkably equal in ability". You have to work to produce social divisions, which means constructing and measuring intelligence in such a way as to produce the sought after bell curve effect.
The current reforms advance the trend of marketisation in higher education, but are also partially about redividing the educated to reproduce the old elitism. First, the major beneficiaries of these changes will be the 'ivy league' institutions. The Browne reforms are specifically designed to advance 'competition' within universities so that some will inevitably fail to attract funding and students. Thus we'll have a two-tiered, or multi-tiered system, and an elite will be created within the university system. Second, it makes higher education a much more welcoming opportunity for the rich than for the poor, having already deprived working class kids of the financial support needed to take the intermediary step between secondary school and higher education, that being A Levels. Third, it introduces a certain amount of segregation, making certain that those of the working class who do opt for higher education will be compelled to select a subject designed to maximise value and improve their returns, which will probably mean a 'STEM' subject, while the wealthy will continue to choose subjects that motivate them, and that engage their intelligence, at leisure. If you turn higher education into a commodity, whereby you have to calculate whether your degree is worth incurring £40,000 of debt for, that means you have to be sure to pick a subject that guarantees the most remuneration in a situation where the premium on a degree is falling rapidly, not necessarily the one that is best. There is more, but the cumulative result of all this will be to confirm the richest, who perform best in such systems, in their belief that they are uniquely, supremely talented, and the majority of the working class that they lack the intelligence and motivation required to get to the top.
This is a form of social engineering, deliberately producing elitism for the benefit of capital, supported by a prejudice that this is natural, efficient, and will ultimately benefit the majority by harnessing and rewarding the talents of the minority. If it is allowed to continue, then it will sustain a much more savagely unequal social order built on wealth for the few and austerity for the many. To respond as if this was anything other than a class conscious attack on the life chances of the majority, part of a wider attack that aims to obliterate a fifth of the vital public sector, is to miss the point. To connive in 'fiscal' solutions, as if that was the problem, or to lobby as if it was a question of evidence and perceptions, is delinquent.
Throughout this abysmal process, the NUS has systematically declined to inflict any serious political cost on the government. It has relied on a low key method of lobbying, interspersed by occasional demonstrations. It committed a number of MPs to support for its position prior to the last election, but this hasn't stopped the juggernaut, much less reversed previous damage. The tendency has been to accept the reforms once implemented, and engage in muted damage limitation. If anything, the only real countervailing pressure to the reforms was the limited wave of occupations and protests that forced university Vice Chancellors to oppose top-up fees, or prevented some reforms based on commercial logic, such as the merger between Imperial College and UCL.
The problem is that Porter, and people like him, are trained in a different way of doing politics from over a decade of failure. They came up in a period where neoliberalism dominated and shaped all politics. The assumptions of neoliberalism are embedded in the NUS leadership's way of doing things. We are told that markets work and militancy doesn't; that politics is about consumer choice and thus public relations and the media are paramount; that politicians respond to special interests, and thus lobbying and conniving is the way to make them listen; that elitism is both natural and efficient, and that the idea of a socialised, egalitarian system of free education is 'utopian'. And it's patently obvious from their actions that NUS officials have completely internalised all of these assumptions.
So, it's not just Aaron Porter as a president that is being rejected here. Students from across the spectrum are rejecting a way of doing things that has only led us to this miserable nadir. The NUS as the national organ that represents students must reflect this, or it becomes irrelevant. Given Porter's previous apology for 'spineless dithering', which I venture might have been an early attempt to save his skin, it's fair to say that he understands this. I also think it's a specific form of neoliberal politics that is being rejected. The students' slogans say it all: history is not over, there is an alternative. This protest movement stands as a self-conscious negation of neoliberal orthodoxy and the new forms of elitism and hierarchy that it has produced. It is a declaration of no confidence in the system, in the established parliamentary parties, and in the authorities. Given how little time there is to make an impact on this issue, we urgently need to establish a new set of protocols for student activism, and that needs to be reflected in the NUS. Hence, no confidence in fees, no confidence in the government, and no confidence in the police means no confidence in Aaron Porter's leadership.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Shameless posted by Richard Seymour
Monday, December 13, 2010
Agents provocateurs posted by Richard SeymourInteresting. Press TV reports the presence of potential agents provocateurs at the Day X protest on 9th December 2010:
Police attack on disabled man posted by Richard Seymour
But look what happens when you let London's finest thugs off the leash. Here, they turf Jody Macintyre out of his wheelchair, throwing him onto the road, and drag him along until horrified students intervene on his behalf:
Update: Here is the BBC's version of the same story. Brace yourself: