Archive for January, 2013

Nice Guys of the SWP

January 25, 2013

Some of us have been banging on about the misogyny of the left for some time. 2012 was the year it became too apparent to ignore. It became clear during the Assange/Galloway furore that a significant part of the left has no time for feminism, sexual freedom or gender equality, which it regards as irrelevant middle class distractions from the glorious struggle against neoliberal imperialism. This is clear in the SWP’s support for far right Islamic fanatics, and it’s long been my contention that many anaemic middle aged leftwing males would rather like a society where women cover up and do as they are told.

Is it a surprise, then, that when rape allegations are made within the party, SWP members rejected the ‘bourgeois court system’ in favour of a hastily convened tribunal consisting of friends of the defendant (but apparently one of them used to volunteer at a rape crisis centre, which makes it okay)? This is a cult. These people do not believe in the rule of law and it shouldn’t raise any eyebrows that they should try to essentially secede from the UK criminal justice system, and treat a serious criminal matter with a bullshit disputes committee process rightly compared to sharia.

Two objections are generally raised at this point. Members have told me that the complainant explicitly stated she didn’t want to go to the police. Maybe so, and that’s her choice. But we also have a duty to listen to people who know the organisation, and have made the choice to walk out. Tom Walker, experienced SWP journalist, has said that:

It is stated that the accuser did not want to go to the police, as is her absolute right if that was truly her decision. However, knowing the culture of the SWP, I doubt that was a decision she made entirely free from pressure.

Do not underestimate the pressure the SWP can bring to bear on members by telling them to do or not do things for the ultimate cause of the socialist society the party’s members are all fighting for.

Objection two is that these are just allegations. The McAlpine rules apply and you can’t convict Comrade Delta in the kangaroo court of public opinion. True again. But there is going to be no due process in this case because the party has decided that there won’t be. Unless the police make an independent decision to investigate, we’ll never know. Even if Comrade Delta is innocent, the whisper of the political village will follow him to the grave.

All this we know. This story ain’t going away and we have not heard the last of this. There have been further rape allegations and so much insight, argument and commentary that it’s almost impossible to keep up with it (although Jim Jepps does his best). I just want to pick up on something Paul Anderson has touched on: that there has been far too much credit and good faith given to the SWP ‘oppositionists’.

The best known SWP writers in the UK are probably the novelist China Miéville and my old friend Richard Seymour. Neither has quit the party as far as I know. Both of them have written long condemnathon posts at Lenin’s Tomb, and Seymour has set up a new blog, International Socialism, featuring posts from the rank and file. Their denounciations of the SWP leadership are welcome. But these guys have been cadre for years. Why has it taken a leaked committee report for them to speak out?

The SWP has a great talent for hyperbole. One post on Seymour’s blog shrieks that ‘The entire working class has an interest in what happens in the SWP… the SWP remains, for all I’ve said, the best thing the British working class has at its disposal.’ During the crisis, it has fallen back on its reputation. ‘Our record on women’s rights is SECOND TO NONE,’ a paper seller bellowed at me in Manchester. (Second to none? ‘YES’.) This is bullshit, of course. Close examination reveals SWP claims as defenders of feminism to be lies. The initial allegation was followed by the worst kind of Unilad slut-shaming. Laurie Penny writes: ‘not only were friends of the alleged rapist allowed to investigate the complaint, the alleged victims were subject to further harassment. Their drinking habits and former relationships were called into question, and those who stood by them were subject to expulsion and exclusion.’

Clearly there has been a misogynistic canteen culture within the organisation for decades. And Seymour and Mieville only notice this at the moment the leaked report detonated onto the internet? As Omar says in The Wire: ‘Nigger, please.’

Fact is, the SWP can’t come back from this. It is finished. As the Very Public Sociologist put it:

They are the party that lets an alleged rapist off because a committee of his mates gave him a clean bill of health, and no amount of back-pedalling, no ‘democracy commissions’ or truth-and-reconciliation procedures can change that. It’s game over, comrades.

The SWP recruit predominantly from universities and it can’t do that as the SWP after this. The young people coming up now (and by ‘young people’ I don’t mean bloggers in their thirties, I mean people born in 1985-1995) are strongly feminist. Think of a popular young writer or blogger – Laurie Penny,  Helen Lewis, Zoe Stavri, Juliet Jacques, the Vagenda team, Sianushka, the Nat Fantastic – and s/he is likely to come from a passionate feminist position. Big grassroots organisations are increasingly feminist and any far left group simply won’t get the numbers without them. The only remaining power play for a far left activist is to disassociate completely with the SWP and set up as some kind of new party that doesn’t have the SWP’s black past. Maybe I’m being too cynical and Richard Seymour really does have the sisterhood’s best interests at heart. But ask yourself: can you really trust a man who writes that badly?

Penny writes that ‘Many of the UK’s most important thinkers and writers are members, or former members’ of the SWP.’ She could have said that most of them became important writers and thinkers after they left the SWP. Paul Richards nails it, in his indispensable essay on the cult:

They sweep up young, idealistic people, take their idealism and energy, and wring them out like sheets of kitchen towel. They turn people off progressive politics for life. They stand alongside decent-minded people, subvert their campaigns, and drive them into the ground.

The problem with the SWP isn’t that it acts on naive, utopian and impractical politics, it’s that it actively crushes and destroys human creativity, idealism, hopes and dreams.

A very big rock has been lifted up. Whether it’s Savile, Cyril Smith or the WRP, this stuff always comes out eventually. Thank god for the internet. It exposes everything.


Update: The brilliant Zarathustra, of Not So Big Society, has made a Nice Guys of SWP Tumblr:


Breathe Me: Six Feet Under and the American Way of Death

January 21, 2013

keepcalmembalmIf friends are God’s apology for relations, then family is the price we pay for being born. Six Feet Under centres on a family funeral business in suburban Los Angeles. In the very first scene, the patriarch, Nathaniel Fisher, is driving the company hearse and takes his eye off the road to light a cigarette. Immediately he is smashed and killed by an oncoming city bus.

Nathaniel is survived by his brittle and fretful widow, Ruth, his tightly-wound younger son David and his laconic goth daughter, Claire. They are joined by Nathaniel’s older son, Nate Fisher, the favoured brother who was supposed to inherit the family business. Nate had other ideas and ran away at seventeen. Although he never got far in life (when we meet Nate, he’s the assistant manager at a Seattle vegan shop) he is clearly the most well adjusted of the family, and the most immediately likeable. Nate’s a liberal alpha male who runs three miles a day and starts a passionate sexual relationship with a beautiful LA woman within moments of boarding the plane home. The other siblings are clearly envious that Nate had the courage to make a life outside the quiet trade. At the funeral, David confronts him: ‘You got out. The least you could do is stay out.’

But in stories temporary is never temporary and, having resolved to stay only a few days, Nate finds himself drafted into the Fisher and Sons funeral business, and developing a few more complex commitments of his own. The details of the American way of death are fascinating (the embalmer Federico, casually stuffing filler into a head cavity while bitching about his marital problems) and since the funeral home is also the Fisher family home, there are some obvious macabre embarrassments. And there is no shortage of trade. Every episode begins with the death of a Fisher and Sons client, followed by the name, birth and death years, which fade onto the screen in black against white, tombstone-style. The deaths are tragic, funny, brutal, quotidian, and the Fishers never turn a body away. Nate and David bury young, old, white, Hispanic, Jewish, suicides, murderers. One porn star client is electrocuted when the cat knocks the radio into her bath: a high school friend of Nate’s somehow manages to run himself over.

There is plenty of LA kookiness in Six Feet Under, particularly when the Chenowith family are around. Linked with the Fishers through Nate’s girlfriend Brenda, they are a wealthy academic/psychiatric clan, redolent of bipolarity, incest and age-inappropriate affairs, who could have walked straight out of an A M Homes novel. Once you work your way through the boxset, though, Six Feet Under develops the rich complex storytelling of a long book by John Irving or E Annie Proulx. Like Irving, the writers Alan Ball and Lisa Robin are not afraid to kill their darlings, or take you into the dark. There’s an incredible scene where Nate illegally buries his first wife in some distant woods, then shrieks into the night sky. Credits.

The Fishers work with death for a living, and I can’t think of a TV series that gives a stronger sense of the transience of all things. The final season DVD carries the tagline: ‘Everything everyone everywhere ends.’ Everyone we have ever known will die. Everything you love will be carried away. Yet there is a sense that death is sometimes benign, or can be. What is it TS Garp says about the Under Toad, when he himself checks out:

It was yielding, like the warm wrestling mats; it smelled like the sweat of clean boys – and like Helen, the first and last woman Garp had loved. The Under Toad, Garp knew now, could even look like a nurse; a person who is familiar with death and trained to make practical response to pain.

Stephen King puts it more simply: ‘Death is where the pain stops and the good memories begin.’ Death is after all something that anyone and everyone can do. We’re all headed there eventually. It can’t be that fucking bad. And probably David Hume was right that we should fear death no more that we are afraid of the time before we were born (although I’m sure that remark loses a lot of its consolatory power if you have just handed a six-month terminal diagnosis).

None of which excuses us from the duty to live while we are alive. And Six Feet Under explores how people end up failing or shirking that duty. The younger brother, David, was never expected to lead the business but has ended up throwing his entire adult life into it. Even though he has never left home, David has nevertheless drifted further and further away from his family, into a dark and gated interior world. It seems unrealistic, in early 2000s California, that David has reached his thirties without coming out as gay, but his secret is not so much a repressed sexuality than that David is just an intensely private person – he feels exposed, and scrabbling to preserve what autonomy he can. David is haunted first by the ghost of a murdered gay Fisher client, then by a carjacker who takes him on a terrifying journey into the LA night. His developing relationship with the hardheaded cop Keith Charles is beautifully realised, and David’s long road to self acceptance (and his sexuality is the least of that) forms one of the most rewarding aspects of the series.

In a sense the character of Ruth is the most powerful. Well into her fifties at start of series, she married Nathaniel at nineteen, had her first child shortly after and was kept out of college by her sick mother. Family is a joy to her but at the same time Ruth is very conscious that she has had almost no say in how her life has turned out. This manifests itself in a series of autumnal love affairs, plus a raging anxiety about her daughter Claire. It’s only brute chronology that has kept Ruth from living life to the full, but Claire has won time’s lottery and yet Ruth sees her making the same mistakes. It’s when she manages to transcend her own regrets that Ruth becomes alive. At the end of the series, when the family is hit again by terrible grief, Claire has the one piece of good news – she has the opportunity to work in New York and follow her dream of becoming a photographic artist. But the family are in trouble and Claire offers to give up the job and stay with Ruth to help her mother through this latest round of pain. ‘Absolutely not,’ Ruth yells. I’m not sure I didn’t actually stand up and applaud.

In Six Feet Under death doesn’t mean the characters walk offstage. Nathaniel Fisher appears at random moments to give some cynical wisdom to his children. Often a Fisher client will be sitting on the worktop chatting freely while Nate or David run embalming fluid through the corpse. Claire even at one point wanders into the land of the dead, a kind of unseen carnival where people get the chance to forget the mistakes they made in life. Six Feet Under doesn’t have the cold fatalism of Lovecraft or Houellebecq, and no sentimental religious cop out either. The tone is liberal and secular and pragmatic, but we godless also speak with the dead. The series ends with a montage of Claire driving off into the sunset, interspersed with glimpses of how the characters’ lives pan out and end. I challenge you to watch this without getting choked up.


(Image: IMDB. Top: Funeral Sauce)

Writing This Year and Last

January 14, 2013

It’s been a while, so thought I would update on recent essays and criticism.

I finally finished Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton (and Paul Berman has a marvellous long essay critique, if you have the time)

A review of Sarah Dobbs‘s graphic indie novel, Killing Daniel

A piece on Britain’s stupid and counterproductive drug war

I reviewed Carl Packman’s investigation into the payday loan industry, and the novelist Scarlett Thomas‘s brilliant expansive book on creative writing.

All these available at 3:AM where you can also check out the results of the 3:AM Awards 2012.

Milo Yiannopoulos and the Kernel

January 9, 2013

I don’t know a great deal about online magazine The Kernel, apart from that they did a truly dismal hatchet job on Laurie Penny, and that the magazine is currently involved in complex industrial disputes with former employees claiming to be owed thousands for unpaid work. Then, a good source asked if I would consider publishing the following piece. I found the article compelling, and credible, so have shared it below. I cannot name either the author of the article or the person who recommended it to me. Apparently Mr Yiannopoulous is a man you don’t want to cross. But unpaid labour is a red light for me.

The other day, Guido scored a memorable scoop in exposing leading left-wing blogs who were relying on the labour of unpaid interns. The principle that the labourer is worthy of his hire is a good one, which all people of good will should be happy to endorse. The use of unpaid labour in our media, however, is not a problem confined to Left Foot Forward or Political Scrapbook. There are other stories to be told of struggling hacks or young interns being ripped off by unscrupulous media entrepreneurs.

Meet Milo ‘Nero’ Yiannopoulous, who has been making something of a name for himself as a right-wing shock jock and proprietor of The Kernel, a site which purports to be at the cutting edge of tech journalism. Well, the tech start-up scene is full of guys with websites trying to convince gullible investors that their product will be the next Facebook, so it should come as little surprise that tech journalism should have the occasional wide boy.

One interesting thing about Mr Yiannopoulos is that he hasn’t always been Mr Yiannopoulos. He used, not so very long ago, to trade as Milo Andreas Wagner, under which label he published EJ Thribb-style juvenile poetry  and acted as speechwriter to Bianca Jagger, amongst other accomplishments. He has also been known as Milo Hanrahan. There is of course nothing intrinsically wrong with changing one’s name, but for a young man of 28 to have already been through three surnames is a little extravagant. We are unable to confirm rumours that Yiannopoulos will soon be changing his name to Milo Minderbinder.

The same theme of excess runs right through Yiannopoulos’ public life. Again, there is no shame in dropping out of university, but it is remarkable that someone of such tender years should have attended both Manchester and Cambridge without graduating from either. And that’s without going into the multiple companies – Counterknowledge Ltd (dissolved 2 November 2010), Wrong Agency Ltd (dissolved 17 May 2011), Hipster Ventures Ltd (filed for dissolution 26 July 2012)… a whole string of companies with obscure purposes that come to life, then dissolve before actually filing any accounts.

The most interesting of the above is Wrong Agency, which was engaged by the Daily Telegraph to run an ill-fated project called Start-Up 100, aimed at profiling young technology companies. Not only did the project end in acrimony over the eventual winner – more to the point, the April 2011 awards ceremony proved to be an enormous money pit after only three of the promised sponsors materialised. The loss to the Telegraph was substantial – believed to be in excess of £70,000 – and the whole episode led to Yiannopoulos being shown the door in a quite literal sense.

Still, you can’t keep a good man down, and Yiannopoulos has bounced back with The Kernel, a site owned by Sentinel Media Ltd, a company of which Yiannopoulos is founder and sole director. Having had a patchy career in media, more than once parting company with an employer on acrimonious terms, Yiannopoulos has now found a job that he can’t be sacked from. Meanwhile, he has built up his profile as someone who roams social media looking for fights.

Despite launching a self-regarding ‘Trollwatch‘ feature aimed at making the internet safe for, um, Milo Yiannopoulos, our friend has rather a way with vituperation. In fact, the man behind ‘Trollwatch’ is far from shy about voicing strong opinions on individuals, or entire social groups, who fail to please him. He doesn’t like lesbians very much, it seems. Then we might take his view on Jews. Since Yiannopoulos has been keen to do business in Israel’s profitable tech scene, where his reputation hasn’t preceded him, this throwback to his Milo Wagner days could be more than a little embarrassing.

The same style carries over to The Kernel, which for a tech magazine devotes remarkably little time to how tech is impacting on society, and rather a lot of time to monstering various people who have crossed Yiannopoulos. One need only mention the unfortunate Luke Bozier, formerly a good friend of Yiannopoulos who wrote numerous articles for The Kernel, including giving Yiannopoulos the exclusive on his defection from Labour to the Tories. More recently, as readers will be aware, Yiannopoulos took apart his former friend’s private life with what can only be described as salacious glee. And this is only what is openly published on The Kernel. Once you factor in The Nutshell, Yiannopoulos’ legally incautious private email circular, it’s not hard to see why people are scared of criticising Yiannopoulos openly. If you cross him, he will come after you.

Which brings us back to where we began. It should not surprise readers by now that Yiannopoulos has not stayed out of trouble since going into business for himself. In fact, The Kernel has gained notoriety for its chronic inability to pay contributors, some of whom are owed several thousand pounds apiece. Does Yiannopoulos show any contrition? You bet he doesn’t. Below are excerpts from emails that have been widely circulated in tech and media circles, in which Yiannopoulos replies to a former contributor seeking payment:

On Friday, 14 December 2012, Milo Yiannopoulos <> wrote:

You’ve already made yourself permanently unemployable in London with your hysterical, brainless tweeting, by behaving like a common prostitute and after starting a war with me, as perhaps you are now discovering.

On 17 Dec 2012, at 12:39, Milo Yiannopoulos <> wrote:

You’ve not only torpedoed your chances of ever having a career in journalism in London, but you’re rapidly losing my sympathy as well.

The more I hear of your feverish gossiping, the more I’m moved to publish the real story. The shameless, disgusting, drunken sluttishness, about which the entirety of ____ was sniggering on a daily basis. Your reputation on the start-up scene, propagated by your ‘friends’. That *delightful* photograph from the ___ party.

The final sentence there certainly carries an implied threat, and shows Yiannopoulos in full vituperative mode. These extracts are indicative of the sort of emails anyone who Yiannopoulos takes a dislike to can expect to receive.

So there you have a portrait of the ‘pit bull‘ of tech media. If we are going to be naming and shaming media outlets that don’t pay their workers, as Guido rightly suggests, or indeed taking a stand against online bullying, the charming Mr Yiannopoulos seems a good place to start.

Update, by MD: Peter has picked up on this, and adds more detail on Milo’s florid bigotry.

Also: word is that Jason Hesse, former Kernel contributor, has just been awarded £16,000 by an employment tribunal against Sentinel. This debt is apparently for unpaid wages and is legally enforceable.

Another update: Luke Bozier has responded.

Endgame: The Kernel is to close. Milo’s final editor’s blog is here. Also see this earlier piece of Friday March 1 by Charles Arthur, which excerpts the email Yiannopoulos sent to former Kernel staffer Margot Huysman, after she chased him for back wages:

Two other former writers, Margot Huysman and Mic Wright, say they are still waiting for a balance of about £4,000 each to be paid. Yiannopoulos paid each of them about £1,000 at the end of October and, they say, promised further payments each month – but those were not forthcoming. When Huysman complained of the non-payment on Twitter, he sent her emails saying ‘You’ve already made yourself permanently unemployable in London with your hysterical, brainless tweeting, by behaving like a common prostitute and after starting a war with me, as perhaps you are now discovering’ and implying he had a salacious picture of her from a party that he would publish if she persisted in complaining.

Arthur notes that ‘The threat proved baseless; Huysman has since worked at two other major UK publications, including the Sunday Times.’

The Kernel screengrab

(Image: Guardian)

General Plea from a Libertarian

January 5, 2013

Some truly crazy ideas have been bouncing around various Whitehall policy departments. Taken together they give a sense of a general trend.

Back in December we had the welfare card proposal, so that unemployed people couldn’t spend their benefits on cigarettes and alcohol. This week: an idea that fat unemployed people should be ordered to exercise or else lose benefits.

Many people will approve of these ideas, because they would make life difficult for people on benefits. The rationale is ‘You are dependent on the state for your income, so we have a right to dictate how you spend it.’ But there is no way that the government will stop with welfare claimants. Plain packaging, minimum pricing, proposals for legal limits on sugar and fat content will affect working people too. If unemployed people should have a welfare card, why shouldn’t working people get paid in food vouchers? After all, otherwise we would just waste our salaries on Camel Lights, pizzas and red wine. And we are all dependent on the state to some extent. Even Jeremy Clarkson drives on publicly maintained roads.

Under a Tory led austerity government you would at least expect negative freedom. They won’t empower you, or help you out in hard times. You could at least expect them to leave you the fuck alone. But they won’t leave you alone. The Fabian authoritarianism that New Labour brought into public life has not been abandoned: quite the reverse.

So they cut essential services – sickness benefits, debt advice, legal representation, you know, things that people use, stuff that matters – while grasping for more and more control over what people do in their free time.

It is a kind of government by brainstorm or thought camp, where bizarre and silly ideas are implemented with seemingly no thought for the science, the economics or the practical reality of people’s lives.

Of course sometimes we need to be protected from ourselves.

But people also need the freedom to make their own mistakes.


DoH launches new public health poster campaign

Beyond (1): The Fixer’s Tale

January 4, 2013

Happy new year everybody!

Here’s a very long story, set in a concentration camp. At Elohi Gadugi Journal.