Along Came Laurie: Song for Penny Red

I’ve written a 3:AM piece about Laurie Penny, the radical journalist who has just published a book, Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism. The title, ‘Along Came Laurie’, is also my next pitch, a feelgood summer romcom that follows an unlikely romance between an emotionally distant hedge fund manager and an extroverted radical journalist. I believe that the novelist Howard Jacobson may be working on a similar idea; maybe we could collaborate.

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18 Responses to “Along Came Laurie: Song for Penny Red”

  1. Spiritof1976 Says:

    Good review. I agreed with a lot of it – both that Penny does have flaws as a writer, but equally that she doesn’t deserve the kicking she’s been getting from the political bloggerati.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      And not just the blogs, but also broadsheet pundits. You have to ask – why this amount of rage against a talented, but relatively unknown writer on a minor political journal?

  2. Paul Murdoch Says:

    “why this amount of rage against a talented, but relatively unknown writer on a minor political journal?”

    To be fair, plenty of the criticism I’ve seen has been inspired by the “making common cause with the oppressed” factor. I think the fact that she is speaking up for the ‘oppressed’ is admirable; rather, it’s the fact that the ‘oppressed’ don’t ever seem to get to put their point across themselves. Instead we get Oxbridge ‘liberal’ proxies mediating our grievances, often through a prism of relativist, identity-ridden orthodoxy which simply has no currency for the jobless and penniless. Ms Penny, despite ludicrous attempts to demonstrate other wise…

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/apr/30/general-election-unemployment-poverty?INTCMP=SRCH

    never manages to convey the sheer desperation, helplessness and the soul-destroying daily reality of youth unemployment…especially outside the South East.

    They are entering a work environment in which de-skilling and casualisation are seen as morally and socially beneficent; union recognition and notions of class consciousness and solidarity as quaint anachronisms. They are still awaiting the full and brutal outcome of the cuts. Faced with all this, and finding a privately educated, Oxbridge self-publicist supposedly representing your interests must be a little galling.

    What’s more, her understanding of Capitalism seems to have been gained from a 20 minute skimming of Marx for Dummies and most of her supposedly ‘spirited rants’ recall clichéd portrayals of desperate 70s Polytechnic Sociologists trying desperately to look radical and get laid.

    There’s also the Polly Toynbee factor. The fact that once you’ve got your foot in the door as a columnist, the liberal media just accept you for ever…whatever you do and whatever nonsense you produce. (think Bea Campbell) There are probably decades worth of strident economic nonsense to come from Penny, untold rants about the dispossessed she’s never met, mawkish empathy over hardships she can’t even imagine…before she finally gets her own place in Tuscany…then maybe a gardening column or something. I’d say a bit of piss-taking and justifiable accusations of hypocrisy are a price worth paying. I’m sure she does.

    Also..I don’t think she’s very good.

  3. maxdunbar Says:

    But this is just prolier than thou rhetoric, based on ancient tabloid cliches about limousine liberals

  4. Paul Murdoch Says:

    Very possibly there’s a lot to what you say…although it’s wholly understandable when she so adroitly exemplifies every one of those clichés. Although, in stark contrast to many past dilettante middle-class radicals, she hasn’t even bothered herself to get of her arse and undergo the traditional rite of passage: the poverty tourist phase. Even Toybee’s done her little “Down and Out in…” stints.

    Laurie Penny just seems to make it all up or embellish and embroider everyday inconveniences-running out of milk-being a bit skint-having a cold- into a narrative of patriarchal capitalist oppression. She’s a walking talking cliche. Seriously..imagine you’re casting a remake of the Young Ones and you want to make Rick female. It’s a no-brainer.

    …and yet she’s privately schooled..Oxbridge…gets any amount of ‘serious’ work: Newsnight, New Statesman, Guardian. Now how worrying’s that?

  5. maxdunbar Says:

    Not worrying at all, really. The vast majority of journalists and pundits come from this elite background and many of them support leftwing ideas. Still others affect to be the Voice of the People. Yet Penny is singled out, and challenged on that background, rather than her actual arguments.

    Your implication seems to be that people who don’t have working class roots should not be allowed to support working class or leftwing movements. Do you mean that?

  6. Paul Murdoch Says:

    “Your implication seems to be that people who don’t have working class roots should not be allowed to support working class or leftwing movements. Do you mean that?”

    No my implication is that working class people no longer have any realistic means of reaching a position which grants them access to a substantial and established audience; which theorising and Jamie’s Dream School fairy-tales excepted, is pretty much beyond doubt; certainly as far as the liberal media’s concerned. Unpaid internships, Oxbridge biases, the nepotism-patronage-‘media dynasty’ trends have more or less kicked away the step-ladder.

    This, being the case, I’m happy to see anyone in the mainstream willing to tout left-wing causes; but it still galls and so it should. It’s profoundly unsatisfactory at best and at worst- and most likely-damaging and divisive. I really don’t find everything she writes objectionable, and I’ll concede she occasionally hits on a memorable turn of phrase; but I can’t quite see why you’re surprised at the widespread ridicule she inspires. Nor is it to do primarily with her age or sex; except it’s fair to say her age is a crucial factor-I think she perhaps isn’t aware of what a cliché she represents because she missed it the first three or four times around.

    Student protests aside, imagine you emerged from what was shaping up as-and hasn’t yet proved otherwise to me-a wholly apolitical, compliant and incurious generation. Only..you had a genuine social consciousness and an instinctive feeling that the things that pissed you off were somehow ‘hard-wired’ into the political and economic reality. So, you get in a shit load of Pot Noodle, google around for a few weeks, skim through Marx, Trotsky, Gramsci, Bakunin, Anarcho-Syndicalsim, Rosa Luxebourg….click on Images, buy the outfit, recite a few slogans and you’ve got a worldview…so fuckin what? Historical materialism never got a shelf-stacked or a burger flipped any quicker.

    Oh..hang on…you’re Laurie Penny…you’re Oxbridge…you’ve probably-despite your demotic makeover-got mates…got an ‘in’. Result: you work hard, court controversy and get to be a token media leftie; young, female; feisty…which is fine, I suppose

    ..only a) you’re a bit of a joke b) your take on ‘left-wing’ seems oddly bereft of solidarity, commonality, universalism or the primacy of economic equality. Instead, finding meaning in a soup of single-issue and identity themes. c) you continually presume to speak for people of whose everyday reality you have no experience or comprehension…which is bad enough but then you go further by trying to depict their reality through fanciful extrapolation.

  7. maxdunbar Says:

    True, but working class people still can and do make it, the system is not entirely based on ‘who you know’.

    In any case, if you are waiting for the working class to save you from the ConDems you’ll be waiting a long fucking time, because the British working class – as opposed to its European and American equivalents – has been lost for the last twenty years in a blind alley of identity politics and double standards.

  8. Paul Murdoch Says:

    “because the British working class – as opposed to its European and American equivalents – has been lost for the last twenty years in a blind alley of identity politics and double standards.”

    Now this clearly isn’t true. The British working class has proved entirely immune to identity politics; at lest in terms of internalising its premises. The entryists and careerists who coopted and appropriated the working class’s traditional party of choice were, and indeed are, in thrall to the endemic strain of liberal relativism which has suffused civil society and underpins the moral and ethical code of public life and formal social interaction.

    A facility with the norms of this ‘philosophy’ has been essential to virtually anyone wishing to enter and succeed in the public sphere or workplace. To suppose that this means it is actually endorsed or accepted by any sort of majority is quite another matter. It has simply become essential to pay lipservice to some extent simply to gain and retain a job, social housing..even a school or nursery place. I get the distinct impression that it is hugely frustrating for large numbers of working class people because in most contexts, other than the strictly private, personal and limited, it restricts their mode and choice of expression.

    The double standards you mention, I assume, include the issue of immigration. I have heard many people contorting their own language into formless, senseless pap in their efforts to avoid transgressing what they imagine is a cast-iron taboo surrounding discussion of race. Ironically enough, the knee-jerk association of opposition to large scale immigration with latent racism (perhaps even ‘subconscious racism’) best serves and has been widely exploited by those whose own support for open-borders comes from a deeper neo-liberal agenda. Rampant corporate globalisers, enthused by a dream of compliant, flexible, mobile, dependent labour can lay claim to humanitarian and ethical arguments whose force lies not in their inherent logic but in their ability to trump opposing arguments by shutting out debate on the grounds of “yes…but we can’t really talk about that”.

    So, while I can’t deny a degree of double standards nor doubt the racist motive of some who oppose immigration, I’d point out that the working class: are not the only ones operating a double standard; furthermore, liberal relativist orthodoxy, at some point, commits virtually everybody to double-standards in public discourse; with no effective political organisation or discipline, it’s hardly surprising that working-class sentiments often appear raw, incoherent and contradictory. Immigration is one of many issues where this tendency dominates and restricts discussion.

    The most significant factor influencing working-class political participation remains, for better or worse, apathy. We can either trust that the likes of the EDL remain fringe phenomena through a latent tolerance in British society (which indeed I do on a good day) or through a product of ignorance and inertia. Either way the (a)political class and corporate elite can keep making hay.

  9. Paul Murdoch Says:

    “True, but working class people still can and do make it, the system is not entirely based on ‘who you know’.”

    oh yeah..forgot…re the above: I’d suggest that things are getting worse. Can you foresee yourself making a similar statement in 10 or 15 years if things progress in the present manner? Would a Victorian school-master addressing his new class of waifs and urchins and promising them: “Work hard and you can do or become anything you want.”, have been overstating the case a little? Talent can only out in an environment where talent is always the decisive factor; ie. a genuine meritocracy. If you truly believe you’re living in one, and will still be doing so in 10 years time then I applaud your optimism.

  10. maxdunbar Says:

    1) You can recognise the backward social mobility in this country while also acknowledging that we do not live in North Korea. Even in a rigged game, people can and do get on, if they have talent, and hard work. Too often ‘It’s who you know’ is the cry of the jealous inadequate; and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy

    2) All over Europe there have been riots against radical austerity programmes. The world has also been watching Wisconsin where trade unionists are fighting Walker’s antiunion laws. Here in Britain the protests have been led by middle class students rather than people on low incomes who arguably have a lot more to lose. You want to ask yourself why the British working class can no longer protect its own interests

    3) The globalisation of labour rights is probably the most important challenge trade unionists face in the twenty first century. Your opposition to globalisation, and that of UK workers’ movement, is yet another symptom of the parochial closed mindedness that is holding British workers back

  11. Jenny Says:

    Penny also seemed to misrepresent the students occupying universities in November:
    http://zetkin.net/journalism-subjectivity-movement/

  12. Jenny Says:

    Also transgender issues are important too,discrimination is splitting a lot of potential powerful teams apart.

  13. Paul Murdoch Says:

    1)”Even in a rigged game, people can and do get on, if they have talent, and hard work.”

    Ah..the American Dream…the sustaining myth which we keep drumming into our kids. I must admit: it’s exactly what I tell mine. I might be more honest, though, if I likened their situation to a race: a 400m race open to all; only some wear trainers, some can’t afford trainers and run in bare feet and others are forced to wear wellies. Next year the race organisers have decided to fill some wellies with treacle and maybe even make some entrants carry extra weight…but even for this lot, it’s true to say that if they’re fast enough and train really hard they can win.

    So would a disinterested spectator be “a jealous inadequate” for thinking it might be fairer to give everyone a pair of trainers, or is the “jealous inadequate” tag only something we can pin to those who entered the race and didn’t win?

    2)”You want to ask yourself why the British working class can no longer protect its own interests”

    I do…it’s one of the things I have in common with Karl Marx. All you’re really doing here, however, is restating the problem. None the less I would point out..

    a) …the students were protesting a definite set of proposals. Once people know what precisely they are expected to sacrifice, the way the students did, things may change.

    b) It’s 25 years (a full generation) since the defeat of the miners and ever since then union rights have been gradually eroded to the point at which striking has become a logistical, legal and financial nightmare. We have a generation in work with no mass-membership, no culture of industrial action and any notion of solidarity has been eroded by the fissures and divisions inherent in society’s wider identity-obsession.

    c) The working class has no existent political arm. It would have to start and build from nothing. Immediate, organised and coherent action would be a miracle.

    3) Hard to know how to answer this. You’ve chosen the word ‘parochial’…which I think is one of those code words; a shibboleth for all ‘nice progressives’ which is dragged out when they suspect a correspondent might be a touch ‘unreconstructed’ around issues of race or culture; you know..maybe a reasonable person, but possibly getting on a bit..or brought up in rural Devon; anyway, not quite in or of the cultural zeitgeist. So part of me is tempted to say: fuck you.

    However, I’ll treat ‘parochial’ in another sense; that of pursuing self-interest to an exessive degree. And I’ll point out that in this sense, all examples of class solidarity and organisation which have so far existed have had their roots in parochialism. You seem to be implying that what is needed is a set of global employment rights and conditions…and I agree; although you seem to imply that unless or until we have this, the correct response to finding yourself undercut by, say, cheaper, non-union labour is a resigned “c’est la vie”.

    Presumably then, until we have enforceable global terms and conditions, we are to take part in a game of mutual self-immiseration; each of us is to be engaged in a sordid Dutch auction where we progressively drop our living standards until we finally reach a level of debasement which none of our rivals can match.

    Now I’ll let you know, at the expense no doubt of boosting my ‘parochial’ status, that a few years back I arrived at work one Monday morning to find we’d been priced out by a bunch of Polish brickies; willing to work for £30 per day.-if you really wanted to stretch your first point, perhaps you might define working for peanuts as a talent and tell me I just wasn’t good enough; perhaps my bitterness at this turn of events was just the bile of a “jealous inadequate”? I’d love you to suggest what my reaction should have been..

    a) offer to work for £25
    b)point out to them that they were undermining international solidarity and promise them our support were they to return to Poland and fight the conditions which forced them over in the first place
    c)start to wonder whether open-borders were really the answer

    I’ll admit I went with a combination of options b and c. Unfortunately, they just weren’t into b at all. And, of course, if you opt for c, you lay yourself open to accusations of parochialism from soi-disant progressives who inadvertently step in and provide the rationalisation for rapacious, unprincipled building developers to keep slashing pay rates and chuck out existing terms and conditions.

    Incidentally, I can’t think of a labour organisation or a left-wing political grouping* which shares your desire to see us all engage in the race to the bottom your position consists in. In fact your philosophy: debase yourselves and cut your own throats until we can achieve a global utopian solidarity kinda rings a bell somehow.

    *from which category I exclude centrist social-democrats led by one-eyed Scotsmen or a bloodthirsty creeping Jesus devoted to ensuring Thatcher’s legacy.

  14. maxdunbar Says:

    What you’ve done there, is just made the case for a living wage. People get fucked over under unregulated markets, and if you think sending the A8s home and closing our borders is going to stop this kind of exploitation then there’s not much point my trying to explain.

    Surely as an old campaigner you understand that a proven tactic of the boss class is to turn the working class against each other – Polish builders versus English builders, people on benefits versus people who work, people on JSA versus people on incapacity. I’m thinking of Jay Gould: ‘I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half’. Except in this country the working class is killing itself.

    Oh and by ‘parochial’ I mean people who are anti migration, antiwar, and argue against international aid because ‘there’s problems enough at home’. There’s nothing wrong with self interest, but I meet people who say the government should not help out the Japanese after the nukes, or Pakistan after the floods, on the grounds that in Britain we should look after us and our own and forget the rest. This is the dominant mood in the public today – particularly in the working class – and it is as far away from the old international socialist position as it is possible to get.

  15. Paul Murdoch Says:

    Strangely, I don’t exactly disagree with the main thrust of your post; I just sort of take issue with most particulars.

    “What you’ve done there, is just made the case for a living wage.”

    I don’t think I did that. I think the case for a living wage makes itself. Is there, in fact, a case for a wage which sinks below subsistence level?

    I’m happy to agree that unregulated markets eventually fuck people over but I don’t think that regulating markets is the answer. I don’t think markets can be regulated and continue to exist as markets. There has been much talk for instance of regulating the financial markets, especially the bond market. I’m not sure it’s feasible. We might ban Credit Default Swaps, introduce more reduced and less exposed leverage ratios but the scope for new-perhaps even riskier financial products-is huge. What we must do is:

    never bail them out again
    tax them appropriately and proportionately-which will naturally necessitate the closing of tax havens
    ensure that their first priority is no longer to shareholders but to repayment of the money stolen from tax payers

    WE also need labour regulations and a reinstatement of union rights. You see, you seem to think I’m anti-globalisation-which I am in a certain sense-however I’m quite happy to see the free movement of labour provided it isn’t merely a corporate ploy to lever standards of living downwards. I’d have been quite happy-well not exactly happy, but I’d have no grounds for complaint-to have arrived at work and been told: “we’ve got these Polish fellas; turns out they’re just much better at laying bricks than you” as long as they were paid the same rate as me. However, I’d still love to know what you think an appropriate response to being blatantly undercut would be. I’ve put this question to plenty of vaguely left-liberal advocates of open borders and I’m yet to receive a definitive response from any.

    As for the divide and rule aspect of immigration, of identity politics even, I think I’d disagree with the chronological aspect. My particular experience took place once all the groundwork had been put in; the point of such a policy is that it is self-perpetuating, for generations. What I experienced was, rather, the payoff as employers reaped the reward of their ‘struggle’.. The hard work had been done: the miners defeated; the destruction of heavy industry and with its inherent solidarity; union legislation which took away any effective threat or agency; and a cultural climate in which people were cowed into silence by new societal norms which made discussion of immigration a minefield of potential embarrassment and censure.

    Also, I think I know what you meant by parochial. I’m pretty sure Gordon Brown had used ‘parochial’ instead of ‘bigot’ on his trip to Rochdale. It would have saved him a good deal of hassle but those ‘in the know’ would have caught his drift. As for the self-serving mood dominant in society which might justifiably termed bigoted, I’d say that such sentiments fluctuate with the economy. The only way around such cyclical petty-minded bullshit is to counter it through our laws, institutions and tax codes…and if everyone else did the same we’d be back to the universalist positions I’d venture we both want to see. Such a world-wide approach is what I’d class as the acceptable face of globalisation.

  16. Paul Murdoch Says:

    I’m pretty sure Gordon Brown had used ‘parochial’ instead of ‘bigot’ on his trip to Rochdale. It would have saved him a good deal of hassle but those ‘in the know’ would have caught his drift.

    should have read

    I’m pretty sure IF Gordon Brown had used ‘parochial’ instead of ‘bigot’ on his trip to Rochdale, it would have saved him a good deal of hassle but those ‘in the know’ would still have caught his drift.

  17. Jenny Says:

    okay, sorry, one more goon to display and I’ll leave:
    http://qlipoth.blogspot.com/2010/12/laurie-penny-expresses-her-abhorrence.html

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