Archive for the ‘Political’ Category

Luxemburg’s Cat

April 16, 2017

Professional book reviewers, particularly recently, often attempt to bring a current affairs element into whatever new title they’re reviewing. You see phrases like ‘a disturbing portrait of a world that seems not entirely confined to the realm of fiction,’ ‘dramatic scenes that would not look out of place in the pages of today’s newspapers,’ ‘a warning of a nightmarish scenario that today seems all too possible’ – try looking for this yourself, you’ll see that I’m right as often as I’m wrong. Frequently these stabs at universalism seem inane and half hearted. But the general effect is achieved – the title under review now looks ‘timely’ and ‘relevant’.

I’ve used this rhetoric myself of course, and reading the correspondence of Rosa Luxemburg I cannot escape the cliché. There is something about Luxemburg that always feels here, that feels now, and it’s not entirely because of the politics – violent and confused as they were in Luxemburg’s time. I should say I only have a very broad understanding of events in Europe between 1891-1919, and came to Luxemburg’s letters expecting to lose myself in the activist forest of revolution, denunciations, theory and composite resolutions.

But the letters turned out to be a striking and addictive read. Great political thinkers are not always great writers (try Gramsci’s stuff if you don’t believe me) but reading Luxemburg is to be consistently blown away by her forensic intelligence and her clarity of expression and thought. She was tough, and faced with equanimity her frequent prison sentences for political non-offences. She had no time for ideological fools in the male dominated activist left (‘And with such people we’re supposed to turn the world upside down?’) and was not afraid to speak up. Enduring a Social Democratic meeting in an ‘obscure tavern on the corner of Menzel and Becker Streets’ she reports that ‘Karolus cleared his throat and began to lecture on the subject of value and exchange value… in such a unpopularised way that I was absolutely amazed. And so it went for about an hour. The poor things struggled desperately against yawning and falling asleep. Then a discussion began, I intervened, and immediately everything became quite lively.’

Not that there’s nothing to argue with here. Time and again Luxemburg affirms her faith in ‘the objective logic of history, which tirelessly carries out its work of clarification and differentiation.’ This leads her into lapses of ‘don’t rock the boat’ revolutionary conformism: during the early Leninist terror of 1918 she admits that ‘One would like to give the Bolsheviks a terrible tongue-lashing, but of course considerations do not allow that.’ Luxemburg implores a friend in April 1917 that ‘Don’t you realise it’s our own cause that is winning out triumphantly there, that World History in person is fighting her battles there and dancing the carmagnole, drunk with joy?’ As it turned out, History was dancing the mortata.

Is it an insult to dwell on Luxemburg the person? I don’t think so. A huge part of the correspondence is by nature on her relationships with others – her friendships and love affairs are at least as complicated as was the political situation at that time. She was clearly the kind of woman it’s easy to fall in love with – and she wrote the best ‘btw you’re dumped’ signoff ever, dismissing one crestfallen fellow with ‘Now you are free as a bird, and may you be happy. Principaccia no longer stands in your way. Fare thee well, and may the nightingales of the Appenine Hills sing to you and the wide-horned oxen of the Caucasus greet you.’

We see so much of Luxemberg domestically: arranging flowers, painting, playing with her cat (an intermittent delight in the letters: ‘Mimi is a scoundrel. She leaped at me from the floor and tried to bite me’) and complaining about the laxity of her domestic servants (perhaps forgetting on such occasions the role service workers had to play in the Women’s Question and the struggle of the proletariat). Even in prison she keeps herself occupied by making friends with the birds and wasps that fly in and out of the exercise yard, and cultivates little gardens on whatever patches of green space are available to her. Had she been born in 1971 instead of 1871, she’d likely be organising book groups, writing NS columns, instagramming the Trump demos and bitching about Waitrose substitutions.

Luxemburg can make you laugh at such moments. She travelled widely, and saw with fresh eyes the little quirks and discordancies of an unfamiliar landscape. She enjoys visiting the Italian Riviera, but its soundscape drives her crazy: ‘Frogs – I can put up with them. But such frogs, such a far-reaching, self-satisfied, blown-up croaking, as if the frog was the number one and absolutely most important being!… Second: the bells. I appreciate and love church bells. But this ringing every quarter of an hour, and such a light-minded, silly, childish ding-dong-ding – ding-ding-dong, which can make a person quite idiotic.’ When Lenin visits her in 1911, her cat attacks him: ‘when he tried to approach her she whacked him with a paw and snarled like a tiger.’ (Go, Mimi!)

What comes through the most, though, is Luxemburg’s force of life and joy at being alive, and this is what makes her timely and relevant, over the distance of a century or so. From a letter in 1916:

To be a human being is the main thing, above all else. And that means: to be firm and clear and cheerful, yes, cheerful in spite of everything and anything, because howling is the business of the weak. To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life ‘on the great scales of fate’ if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud. Oh, I don’t know any recipe that can be written down on how to make a human being, I only know that a person is one, and you too always used to know when we walked together through the fields of Südende for hours at a time and the red glow of evening lay upon the stalks of grain. The world is so beautiful, with all its horrors […]

Break the Fourth Wall

March 4, 2017

Every year when winter nights roll in a church near my home organises a carol concert on the local park. Everybody in the area goes. We sing carols. Friendly people hand out mince pies. We live high up and the park slopes onto a view of city and countryside that is beautiful in the way only a Yorkshire night can be. At the end there’s a fireworks display. The church has been doing this for twenty years. It’s free.

Last year the vicar made a brief speech at the concert, in which he drew on the political events of 2016. It wasn’t exactly the Sermon on the Mount. It was just the vicar talking about Trump and Brexit and how scary it all was and how worrying that our country had become so divided. I didn’t follow the whole thread but, judging from the Facebook area chat page, it seemed that the man had gone too far. People complained: how dare the vicar bring politics into a community event, how dare he take it upon himself, and all of this. As an atheist I can’t say I have a dog in the fight, but I did think, isn’t it the priest’s job to sermonise?

This week the author Susan Hill cancelled a signing at a bookshop because, it seems:

I do not expect this bookshop, wherever it is, city or market town, to have posters and a Twitter feed and a Facebook page telling me it is so against what the President of the United States stands for/believes/is/is doing that it is stocking only books devoted to those writers who oppose him too, and what is more, will give them away free. Needless to say, the opposite is also true. You will not find Donald Trump’s autobiography here, or anything by those authors known to support/admire/have voted for him.

[…]

This is a form of censorship and, of all places, a bookshop (like a library) should never ever indulge in that.

[…]

All of this leads to an explanation of why I have cancelled a scheduled appearance to discuss my new novel at a bookshop. They have put their own political and personal views about the USA and its President before their business, their customers and what a bookshop is and must, more than any other sort of shop or business, be about.

Danuta Kean has a good piece about the minor controversy this provoked, and the bookshop has itself responded here.

In turn, this reminded me of the row that erupted when Hamilton cast members interrupted their musical to deliver a brief speech to Vice President Mike Pence, sitting in the audience that night. You can read it here. One of the actors, Javier Muñoz, is openly gay and HIV positive and maybe the cast thought that breaking the fourth wall would provoke a reasonable debate about what the next four years might be like. Not a bit of it though. Trump moaned on Twitter about the cast’s ‘terrible behaviour’ and demanded apologies. Others followed his lead.

There appears to be a consensus, that Trump and Susan Hill and my fellow carol singers have tapped into: that this is a failure of decorum, and that politics should be left to politicians.

I’m not so sure. Of course elected representatives have to be careful what they say, and try to represent all shades of opinion within their community (although this duty seems to have lapsed following the events of 2016). Private citizens should have no such obligation. If you run a bookshop or a theatre or another commercial business, you’re not seeking anyone’s vote. You run the business how you see fit. And as an individual you don’t have a duty to represent anyone but yourself.

Don’t misunderstand me. Diplomacy is a great thing in human relations. Many volatile situations, which might otherwise escalate into violence, can be resolved with listening skills, and carefulness in stance and tone. But when it comes to politics, the idea that everyone should be diplomats is a counsel of despair.

Take FT columnist Janan Ganesh on the Women’s March. I used to have a lot of time for Ganesh. But even he has retreated into centrist chin-stroking. Ganesh complained that marchers prioritised ‘the cultural over the material. Their ultimate objection to EU exit is its tinge of nativism. Their main quarrel with Mr Trump is his attitude to women and minorities’ – as if nativism, racism and misogyny had no real impact: as if these forces don’t wreck lives, and not just those of women and minorities. The march was not going to convince ‘the marginal voter, the person who backed populists in 2016 but with some qualms’ – as if any serious person said it had to. This is quietism as virtue signalling – and it is condescending. Ganesh writes: ‘The marginal voter was doing some hamper management over the weekend. The marginal voter has never been on a march and might be unnerved by zealous multitudes.’ Oh I don’t know. Perhaps some of those marginal voters looked up from their laundry at the TV news.

My point is that politics is increasingly not diplomatic. If you’re not one of the 52% (or a 52 percenter who didn’t vote for what the government says you voted for) then you might as well not exist as long as Westminster is concerned. Populism is a club. Only the right people get to be The People. Others are sick of having nothing to vote for. I didn’t go on the January march but I heard from others who did, and what I heard was a weary exasperation at having to be polite and diplomatic for so long – to opponents that will never reciprocate the same courtesy. P J O’Rourke said that ‘there’s always a tinge of self seeking in making sure things are fair. Don’t you go trying to get one up on me.’

It’s worth mentioning that when the crowd booed him at Hamilton, Mike Pence said ‘I nudged my kids and reminded them that’s what freedom sounds like.’ He’s not wrong.

A Political Marriage

January 19, 2017

thegoodwifeThere’s a moment in the documentary film Weiner, which accompanies hapless politician Anthony Weiner as he runs for mayor of New York. Weiner had to resign from Congress in 2011 after he had been caught sending intimate photographs of himself to a Twitter follower. At first the 2013 mayoral race feels like a fresh start. Weiner has restored his marriage, he has a new baby, and recent good press, he is a smart man, a good communicator: he develops rapport with the electorate easily, and New Yorkers seem to forgive his old indiscretions. But his campaign falters when it is revealed that Weiner has sent similar explicit messages to another woman (using the alias ‘Carlos Danger’) as late as April 2013. The candidate battles on despite mounting derision, hostility, disastrous public appearances and even Weiner’s internet flirt contact trying to ambush him at the count. At one point Weiner is filming a campaign promo in their apartment, while his wife, the political strategist Huma Abedin, sits on the balcony, in casual clothes, munching on a pizza slice. Off screen, someone asks if she’s appearing in the promo. Abedin barks: ‘Do I look camera ready?’

For all the talk of post feminism, it can feel like a woman’s most important function in politics is to stand by. Hillary Clinton – a woman who came within inches of leading the free world – famously ‘stood by’ her husband, during the Lewinsky scandal and subsequent attempt impeachment. It used to be, in this country, after some dope was caught rifling his parliamentary researcher, there would be a very awkward photoshoot featuring the politician in question surrounded by his nervous, edgy-looking wife and children, in a display of choreographed fealty. The parodist Craig Brown, in his brilliant epistolary comedy The Hounding of John Thomas, features a gentleman’s club made up exclusively of former parliamentarians, disgraced by offences public and private – and the club has its own spin-off, the ‘Standing-Bys’ which consists of wives who have agreed to stand by their men. If the wife of a serving politician seeks a divorce – it still feels like a shock. What the makers of Weiner had captured, in that shot of Abedin, was a real human moment – when the façade slips for just a moment, and you can see the exhaustion and the exasperation and the fury.

Set against real life scandals, the premise of The Good Wife seems rather tame. We first meet Alicia Florrick at a press conference, ‘standing by’ her husband Peter, the Chicago State’s Attorney. Peter has had to resign after a tape surfaces of him banging a callgirl: serious corruption charges follow. With Peter stuck in prison on a ten year sentence, Alicia must re enter the world of work after thirteen years as a full time suburban housewife and mother. She joins a city law firm and is soon sucked into the cutthroat world of Illinois politics, crime and law. Meanwhile, Peter gets his conviction overturned and is soon back in the political game, rising to become state governor. Alicia has to balance her own ambitions, desires and selfhood against Peter’s career and her teenage children.

It sounds tepid when I write it down, but the show is addictive, not least because of how deftly Alicia’s character is written and acted. Alicia agonises over the moral course of action in a compromised world, but never comes off as a prig or a goody goody. She’s someone who naturally plays by the rules, but she demonstrates wit, desire, independence, a fierce intelligence, eloquence and – particularly when her children are threatened – a cold and penetrating fury. Her marriage never really recovers from Peter’s infidelities, but because it’s a political marriage, she must continue to stand by her husband, in public at least – while in private, Alicia pursues her own affairs and independence: her true relationship with Peter encompasses affection, contempt, separation, shared memories and a terse détente.

Two amazing Alicia moments come to mind. At one point, she is at an official dinner with her husband, and a camera crew. The discussion turns to religion. After Peter spiels out the expected platitudes, Alicia is asked her opinion. She turns to the camera, gives a delicious smile, and says sweetly: ‘I’m an atheist.’

Later, she’s on a campaign bus during Peter’s doomed presidential bid. Leaning on a village shopfront, dog-tired and in wraparound sunglasses, she confesses to the campaign manager a moment of regret:

I think if I could go back to Georgetown right now, back in Law 101, seat 35L – that was my seat – I would have said yes… there was a young man in love with me.

These are off script moments in a partnership that is, in significant part, carefully spun. The Good Wife avoids the cliché of the evil spin doctor and instead gives us Eli Gold, a master political PR man who nevertheless has a great deal of warmth, humour and morality (and is consistently outfoxed by his millennial hipster daughter). Yet even Eli – played by the marvellous Alan Cumming – ends up trying to use his skills in places they don’t quite belong. Alicia’s adolescent children handle the public eye with more fortitude. But again there’s a sense that women are there only to stand by in the public eye – even in Obama’s America. Liberal grandee Diane Lockhart is constantly let down by the blueblood Democratic establishment: first, she loses a potential judgeship, then a Supreme Court nomination. Alicia’s own bid for political office is shot down after the Democratic machine realises that Alicia means it when she says she will speak truth to power.

The Good Wife is a crime show in its way and it strikes me that even in the best crime shows women tend to be somewhat sidelined – Carmela Soprano stood by Tony despite his crimes, and Skyler White became a hate figure for Breaking Bad fans precisely because she could see through Walt and challenge him, and because she insisted on taking an active role in his business. Political marriages in real life seem ultimately linked to criminal justice. Bill Clinton ran on a tough-on-crime programme, expanded the prison estate, ramped up the drug war, endorsed three-strike laws and created new capital offences. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s study of mass incarceration – particularly of African-Americans – Alexander writes that ‘Clinton – more than any other president – created the current racial undercaste.’ It’s all too possible that some of the people locked up under the Bill Clinton administration would have voted for Hillary in 2016, had they not been executed, incarcerated or otherwise deprived of their ballot rights under felony voting laws.

As Padraig Reidy points out, 2016 has been a year not for partnerships or marriage but for a certain kind of aggressive toxic masculinity. The winners at the end of history turn out to be Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Nigel Farage – ‘the movement of the golf-club revolutionary, the simultaneously triumphant and self-pitying, the irrational and trite dressed up as ‘common sense’.’ 1970s feminists said that the personal was political. In the future the political may well become personal – more personal than any of us would like.

God, I Love This War

January 1, 2017

amandapalmerPopular musician Amanda Palmer has got into trouble for her optimism about the Trump presidency. The Guardian has her saying that ‘being an optimist … there is this part of me – especially having studied Weimar Germany extensively – I’m like, ‘This is our moment.’ Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again. We’re all going to crawl down staircases into basements and speakeasies and make amazing satirically political art.’

People have pointed out that things don’t look optimistic for women and minorities in America and basement art is unlikely to alleviate their problems. Zoe Stavri on Twitter said that ‘art didn’t stop the Nazis in Weimar Germany and punk didn’t stop the rise of neoliberalism’ and another tweeter imagined ‘Amanda Palmer at a funeral, comforting a grieving widow, gently whispering ‘but think about all the spoken word poetry you will write.”

It’s not just Palmer who sees global disaster as opportunity in some way. Emine Saner at the Guardian includes, in her ‘reasons to be cheerful’ list, that ‘the demo could go mainstream. It’s not just in the US – cities around the world will hold solidarity protests. Demonstrations will be held in the UK, including in London, Birmingham and Leeds.’ Hurrah! Hours of fun making placards, and then we can mill around Parliament Square until Boris scares us off with his second hand German water cannon.

And the late Christopher Hitchens said that when he saw the towers fall on 9/11, he had ‘a feeling of exhilaration. Here we are then, I was thinking, in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose.’ Disaster as exhilaration.

I see that all these viewpoints are objectionable in some way. People don’t need or want the opportunity to protest. People want to live their personal dramas without any disasters happening. And many people don’t want to be involved in politics at all.

So I understand the objections – that perception of disaster as an opportunity to make art and protests, has to come from a position of privilege and security.

And yet.

I’ll be forever indebted to Amanda Palmer for writing The Art of Asking, an awesome book about reciprocality and the interconnectedness of people and things. It helped me a great deal on a psychological level and I suspect it may be one of the few books that can actually make you a better person.

That is not the main reason I defend her, though. I prefer a call of arms to the constant wailing and rending of garments about how bad a year 2016 was. If you’re a political liberal, sure, 2016 was bad. But many of us had good times, and others went through traumas of no real global relevance. It is in 2017 that I think things will start to get messy – Trump takes office in 2017, and in our own country I think the Brexit brain drain, volkisch ugliness and economic problems will start to make themselves felt. I fear it will be Weimar, without the burlesque.

And so I understand a little of what Hitchens said, about ‘a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate.’ One US election and a referendum vote don’t have the same worldwide significance as September 11 2001. But life will get harder, particularly if you have the wrong opinion or the wrong kind of visa papers. You can feel the alignments coalesce: authoritarianism, censoriousness and wilful stupidity ranged against everything that makes civilisation fun and free.

So, er, what can one do? One problem is that our idea of protest is so riddled with egocentrism and cognitive dissonance. It rests on assumptions derived from a long period of relative stability that may well be coming to a close. Privileged white people can spend all day RTing Russia Today columns and believe that they are making a positive difference to the world. The far left is just as culpable as the far right for the mess we are in.

Vasily Grossman said that history wasn’t a battle between good and evil but ‘a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness.’ People can work through activist channels but (as a cautious defender of the art of asking) I think that random individual actions matter too. I met plenty of people last year who drove to Calais with donated food and goods. They didn’t do this because they were ‘virtue signalling’, they did it because that’s what human beings are wired up to do.

Kindness will survive authoritarianism. There are many things we can do. Support journalists, subscribe to real media, give up some of your time, write, read, argue, and listen twice as much as you talk.

I’m thinking of these wonderful paras from Missouri journalist Sarah Kendzior:

My heart breaks for the United States of America. It breaks for those who think they are my enemies as much as it does for my friends. You still have your freedom, so use it. There are many groups organizing for both resistance and subsistence, but we are heading into dark times, and you need to be your own light. Do not accept brutality and cruelty as normal even if it is sanctioned. Protect the vulnerable and encourage the afraid. If you are brave, stand up for others. If you cannot be brave – and it is often hard to be brave – be kind.

But most of all, never lose sight of who you are and what you value. If you find yourself doing something that feels questionable or wrong a few months or years from now, find that essay you wrote on who you are and read it. Ask if that version of yourself would have done the same thing.

I heard a fantastic reading of this whole essay, by a speaker at the Hyde Park Book Club at their Open Letters night. It was a fine night and it made me feel hope. Not quite exhilaration, but some hope.

Laughter of the Elves

November 30, 2016

brexitPublishing can move fast when the stakes are high. Just a few months after the terse, fractured summer of 2016, a tranche of shiny books appear commemorating the Brexit vote of June 23 – the culmination of what was the nastiest political campaign in my lifetime, probably the worst since the ‘nigger for a neighbour’ days of the 1960s. Now writers and analysts have begun to bang out lengthy titles in which they try to make sense of it all. Ian Dunt’s Brexit book is the only one I have read and I suspect it is the only such book anyone will need.

Dunt begins with a worst case scenario. He sketches out a possible future where Britain has fallen out of the European Union with no reputation, no trade deal, passport deal, single market access, or customs union. Dunt is a knowledgeable, thoughtful fellow, with an aptitude for stats and mechanisms, and Brexit true believers have an easy answer for his kind. Warnings from worried economists can be dismissed as ‘Project Fear’. Press the Brexiters further, and you’ll come away with the impression that trade agreements and all that stuff isn’t worth a piss in the wind.

‘For many Leave voters, money was less important than sovereignty,’ Dunt writes. After all, doesn’t globalisation hurt people, and diminish the intangible goods of life? What about tradition, patriotism, sense of place? ‘I would prefer not to be better off and have a country that didn’t go to 75 million,’ said Nigel Farage in 2015. ‘Some things matter more than money, and I think the shape of our communities and the sense of contentment living in the country matters more.’ It’s almost as if the anti globalist movement Farage leads has evolved beyond mere rational wants and into a higher plane of English spiritualism.

Neoliberalism has racked up plenty of casualties but in Farage’s critique isn’t there a certain complacent perspective: the perspective of a class and a generation that has never really known scarcity, that is a little too used to its own security and to things working as they should? Point is, the need for material things and functioning markets can’t just be wished away. How would we cope in Dunt’s nightmare scenario: lorries bottlenecked at entry ports, meat and fish rotting in warehouses, firms closing down, foodstuffs disappearing from the UK’s supermarkets and medicines from our pharmacies?

Dunt is the best writer on the complexities of the EU. With bold, sure strokes he cuts through the crap and actually explains something. Like so much else, Europe has become hyper politicised: ‘the failure to assess it as a working organisation rather than a demonic fantasy means the ministers in charge of Brexit are struggling to construct a credible negotiating strategy.’ We get a reasonable deal from the EU as it is: ‘a well-meaning but internally contradictory experiment in transnational political organisation.’

Negotiating such a deal after we’ve walked out will be difficult. We’ll be negotiating with the entire EU, and also with the WTO as failsafe. We will need crack negotiators in ‘difficult, very boring areas and the people who specialise in them tend to have done so for their entire career,’ Dunt writes. ‘You can’t just pluck a smart young thing from the civil service and train them in a few weeks. They’ll be eaten alive in negotiations.’ We will be running around like Apprentice candidates trying to sell junk prototypes to antique shops on the Portobello Road.

We could potentially make Brexit work, Dunt says. But on our current course, we will hit a ‘Project Fear’ type Brexit, because people in government have so little grasp on what they want and how to get it. Boris and Liam Fox are obviously ridiculous: Gove dashed his reputation as a serious conservative intellectual on the summer referendum. Far more disturbing is Dunt’s exposure of Theresa May. She’s seen as a safe pair of hands in tough times. Yet rather than keep Eurocrats on the back foot, trying to guess what we were going to do, May announced her Article 50 date ‘seemingly as an afterthought’ – and, with that, blew what little leverage she had. As Dunt says: ‘May’s decision to give away the date and then petition for talks outside Article 50 was equivalent to a gunman throwing down his weapon and demanding the enemy surrender.’

You get the feeling that the main Brexit figures aren’t motivated by rational self interest so much as a giggling nihilism. David Cameron famously said of Michael Gove that ‘he is basically a bit of a Maoist – he believes that the world makes progress through a process of creative destruction’. There’s a little far left revolutionary craziness there, also something like the weaponised attention seeking of the alt right – and it is, again I think, something that comes from long periods of prosperity and safety.

When I last wrote about Vote Leave, I quoted the classic Fitzgerald line, about Tom and Daisy Buchanan: ‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’ But maybe a less glamorous literary allusion fits better. Terry Pratchett’s fantasy novel Lords and Ladies has a conservative rural community invaded by psychotic killer elves. The good witch Nanny Ogg finds that her cottage has been trashed and ruined by the invaders.

‘Why’d they do it?’ her companion asks.

‘Oh, they’d smash the world if they thought it’d make a pretty noise,’ Nanny says offhand.

For such a chilling book, Dunt ends with some positive thoughts. A good Brexit is possible, he says, but only if we revive ‘British values… calm debate, instinctive scepticism, practical judgement and moderation.’ Unfortunately, Dunt doesn’t need to add that these values have been abandoned in the process so far, and there is no sign of common sense returning.

Railways in Hiding

November 28, 2016

undergroundrailroadThrough Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower cycle is threaded a picaresque tale that begins when Father Callahan, failed priest and alcoholic, gets on a Greyhound coach leaving a doomed Maine town called Jerusalem’s Lot. Running from vampires, and also from his own failure, he crosses ‘a great, possibly endless, confluence of worlds. They are all America, but they are all different.’ The variants of America are small – there are different faces on the banknotes, different letterheads on the newspaper, and ‘maybe there’s another version of New Jersey where the town on the other side of the Hudson is Leeman or Leighman or Lee Bluffs or Lee Palisades or Leghorn village.’ And yet the thrill’s in the wandering: ‘There are highways which lead through all of them, and he can see them.’

It seems frivolous to compare Colson Whitehead‘s Underground Railroad with any supernatural novel. But despite the grim intro to his America, the plantation Georgia from the slave’s perspective, reeking with heat, sweat, whippings, rapes and executions, there is a similar sense of adventure, of possibilities and the luminous. Runaway slave Cora escapes from the vicious Randall homestead through what turns out to be a literal underground railroad: steam trains, running through a network of subterranean tunnels from one state to another. This surreal development in no way jars the reader following Whitehead’s terse narrative of indentured horrors: you just don’t see the join. As Alex Preston wrote: ‘And here is the spark that ignites the novel. For Whitehead has taken that historical metaphor – the network of abolitionists who helped ferry slaves out of the south – and made it into a glistening, steampunk reality.’ Whenever Cora asks who built the railroad, a laconic engineer replies: who builds everything in this country?

‘If you want to see what this nation is all about,’ rail agent Lumbly explains, ‘you have to ride the rails.’ Cora rides the rails all over the US, and finds in every state she visits, a new America, differing in gradations. South Carolina’s benign and orderly world, nominally liberal, conceals a frightening Edwardian eugenicism. Tennessee appears to be engulfed in yellow fever and a rampaging forest fire – caused, apparently, by a household spark, some casual carelessness decimating city-sized acreage. In the Indiana free zone, successful escapees debate the future of the race: Booker T Washington’s conservative incrementalism fights the revolutionary fire of du Bois. North Carolina has solved the ‘race problem’ by simply banning all persons of colour from its state, importing European migrants to do the gruntwork. Yet the North Carolinans are still morbidly afraid of black people, staging gallows and passion-plays in acts of propitiation to keep ‘the other’ away. As Lumbly also says, every state is different – but everywhere Cora visits is either a slave state, or vulnerable to slave-catchers and local racists. The contradiction in the founder myth – freedom, but not for you – is inescapable, the warp in the heart of the American dream.

Hot on Cora’s trail is the road agent Ridgeway, a swaggering Simon Legree of a slave-chaser, and perhaps the O’Brien of the antebellum South. He thinks himself a philosopher-king of predators, even employing a secretary (a man of colour) to notarise his thoughts. ‘Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavour – if you can keep it, it is yours,’ Ridgeway believes. ‘Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.’ The story doesn’t let you go for a moment, and you are sorry when the book comes to an end.

One thing we learned this year is that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are fragile things. Underground Railroad has the feel of a nineteenth-century novel, but perhaps that’s not what Whitehead is getting at. Perhaps he is trying to give us a vision of our future.

Endureland

November 9, 2016

Everybody knows why Donald Trump won the US presidential election. Now that it’s happening, everybody knows. You have maybe heard it all night from analysts and talking heads. You will keep on hearing it, from politicians, from think tank people, from newspaper columnists, on your social media. You’d be amazed how many people have the answer.

Let me summarise the root cause argument for you. Trump will assume the Presidency of the free world (I write this as the man himself gives his acceptance speech) Britain voted to leave the EU, and the Tories won the last general election. Big, unexpected defeats for liberals, and down to one thing: a revolt from the white working class that has been screwed over by free markets and free movement.

The argument writes itself. Since 1979, the progressive Atlantic parties (the American Democrats, and the Labour Party in this country) separated themselves from the working class that they originated to represent. Clinton Democrats and New Labour embraced a more aggressive form of capitalism, involving more privatisations, more migrant labour, and a further shift from manufacturing to service based economics. Culturally, and certainly in this country, Labour introduced more identity-based politics, which bemused the working class left that tended to prioritise trade union rights over the rainbow coalition. The white working class, in Britain and in America, grew tired of crap jobs,  social stratification and political correctness and delivered a resounding ‘Fuck you’ to the establishment. Result? Goodbye, Europe: hello, Mr President Trump.

There’s obvious truth in the argument, and I do think that the left and liberals need to acknowledge some responsibility for this complete fucking train wreck that we are waking up to. I’m thinking less of the beard strokers and more of the career activists who demonstrated against ‘neoliberalism’ and foreign intervention. Well, we have a President who’s sent the markets haywire, and who takes care to accommodate murderous foreign powers. To paraphrase Margaret Atwood: we have that kind of culture now. It’s not quite what you wanted, but it’s a start…

And yet: as the policy wonks and beard-strokers deliver the rehearsed argument, is there not a undertone of complacency in their voices? Can it really be so simple? Is there not a sleight-of-hand being played here somewhere? And are you sure that you’re not being fooled again?

Here’s the problem. The political science professors and the Labour grandees and the columnists have a point. We might well be better off outside the EU. We should certainly be able to have sovereignty over our own laws, and unravel the crap parts of EU law from our system. Identity politics is often silly. We should be able to make and sell stuff in our own countries.

Fair enough, all good, but what I don’t get is the zero sum nature of these arguments. It’s not enough for ‘the left behind’ to succeed – others must be hurt. These few months since the referendum have been an obvious example. June 24 was a fantastic opportunity to draft our written constitution, our Bill of Rights, to redress institutional wrongs that have screwed all of us, for centuries.

And what do we get? Nothing, except yet another crackdown on net migration. A British Prime Minister – someone who represents the greatest country in the world – travelling from country to country, and telling people ‘Please don’t visit Great Britain.’ It would be funny, if it wasn’t so fucking tragic.

(Oh, and we’re not getting workers on company boards, nor will we reform unpaid internships – how’s that blue-collar revolution working out for ya?)

This isn’t just rhetoric. People get hurt. The EU nationals who find themselves passed around like so many bags of candy. The victims of racist assaults, in the wake of June 24. Every man, woman and child made to feel less British because they have a different colour skin or imperfect English or an unusual name.

Trump is of course the master of ‘others must suffer’ zero sum politics. Mexicans, Muslims, assertive women, African-Americans – there appears no end to the man’s hatreds. Politicians used to win by careful strategies that appealed to as many voters as possible. Trump pulled his victory from a jukebox of resentments. We have seen the normalisation of outright bigotry, and white supremacism, during this campaign (if you don’t believe me, I can recommend the work of the St Louis journalist Sarah Kendzior, a fearless chronicler of alt-right craziness).

And this takes us into a different world. Put simply, it doesn’t matter that we have Equality Acts and diversity training and identity politics if enough people decide these things don’t matter. The brilliant journalist Chris Deerin said that: ‘civilisation is a more fragile thing than we often care to understand.’ And he’s not wrong.

It’s pointless to make predictions, ultimately pointless in this instance because of the number of catastrophic scenarios that will make talk of political theory laughably irrelevant, but I think the following scenario will play out. There will be a lot of tedious anti-Americanism, and looking-down upon the working class, in Britain and in America. Implications will be made that democracy is hardly worth the candle if it keeps throwing up a Trump or a Brexit. The moral legitimacy of the American idea, and of democracy in general, will be undermined.

Trump might satisfy some of his base (as Tory Brexit will satisfy to some extent the ‘left behind’ in this country) but nothing will ever satisfy the true believers, because while we can do more to stimulate domestic industry and control immigration we cannot reverse time or socially engineer a lost country. There will be more bitterness, more resentment, more backlash, which Trump and Nigel will not be able to blame on the ‘establishment’ because by then they will be the establishment. And civilisation will get that little bit more fragile.

Obviously I don’t have the answers, but I will say this. Zero sum politics doesn’t work. The white working class Trump talks about deserve the best (and I’ve yet to meet a working class person who wouldn’t be insulted by the idea that they would fall for a blatant scam artist like Trump or Farage, or Jeremy Corbyn for that matter). People who feel hard done by because of immigration deserve their say and our support: but what about immigrants themselves, or EU nationals, or those of us who support free movement or merely don’t have a problem with it: aren’t we citizens too? We must accept that times and societies and countries change. Tradition and sense of place isn’t corroded by that change, on the contrary, it’s for the sake of tradition and the texture of our lives that we must stand up for difference, for the cosmopolitan, for what is creative and otherworldly and compassionate in us. This isn’t over.

americaendures

Shoulder your duds dear son, and I will mine, and let us/hasten forth,
Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.

– Whitman

‘Song of Myself’

The New Nasty Party

October 30, 2016

daverichLet’s try a thought experiment. A series of public controversies highlight racism against BAME people in the Conservative Party. A public inquiry is called, chaired by a well known conservative activist, who begins her investigations by joining the Conservative Party. The terms of reference make clear that the inquiry is not focused wholly on racism against black people, but into racism against black people ‘and other forms of racism’. The report while condemning use of epithets such as ‘nigger’ or ‘paki’ and acknowledging ‘unhappy incidents’ in the past (perhaps the Monday Club went too far… all that ‘Hang Mandela’ stuff… regrettable) maintains that the Conservative Party ‘is not overrun’ with racism against black people. At the launch of this report, a Black British Conservative MP is racially abused while the party leader stands by and does nothing. The activist chairing this inquiry is then awarded a peerage by the party leader, and later appointed Attorney General.

Imagine being a voter of BAME origin – or just someone concerned by racism – and watching all this. Would you feel that the inquiry report was credible and fair? Would you feel comfortable being involved in the Conservative Party: attending its meetings, delivering its leaflets, giving up energy and time to get it reelected? Would the Conservative Party feel like a safe place for you?

Would you vote for them again?

You have likely already guessed that I’m talking about the Chakrabarti report into anti-Semitism. My analogy with anti-BAME racism isn’t an entry into the open barter of victimhood, because of course both forms of racism are poisonous nonsense. Rather it’s to illustrate a point made by trade unionist Dave Prentis – that Labour is now the new nasty party. Some people will deny there’s even a problem, but to list all the ‘unhappy incidents’ is way beyond the scope of a blog post… which is why Dave Rich has written an excellent book on the subject. (I would also recommend the Home Affairs select committee inquiry report into anti-Semitism in the UK, particularly chapter 6, which examines a range of anti-Semitic incidents within the Labour Party, and the failure to address these by either Chakrabarti or the party leadership.)

Smart people saw this coming, years before Jeremy Corbyn became party leader. Journalists like Nick Cohen, Greg Palast and Oliver Kamm, academics like Alan Johnson, and the Harry’s Place and other blog writers, warned of dark undercurrents on the left. They were told that anti-Semitism and other such craziness was a marginal issue, that one shouldn’t focus on tiny political sects, which could never have an impact on mainstream politics. Well, Mr Corbyn is a living, walking rebuttal of that critique. As despairing Eustonite Damian Counsell put it: the straw men are in charge now, and everything’s on fire.

How did we get here exactly? Rich explains that in the 1960s ‘some on the left gave up on the revolutionary potential of the Western working class and looked overseas for radical inspiration. By this way of thinking, the bloc of post-colonial states (and the national liberation movements that were fighting for decolonisation elsewhere) held the promise that the part of the world then known as the Third World might supplant the Western proletariat as the global engine for revolutionary change.’

Put simply? It’s easier, if you’re a first world academic or public sector leftist, to project revolutionary hope onto distant peoples like the Palestinians: insurrection by outsource or proxy, rather than trying to convince the working class and minorities in your own country… who might argue back. It’s a long story (try as he might, Rich can’t help but lose us sometimes in the left’s wilderness of mirrors) but you can trace the current tolerance for Islamism back to the ramblings of tenured postmodernists.

In this ideology, Israel isn’t a lifeboat state and multicultural democracy but an outpost of Western colonialism, Zionist not a national liberation movement but international conspiracy. (The more sinister reading, of course, flips this around so that Britain and America are just imperial outposts of Tel Aviv.) The Jewish people don’t need recognition as oppressed minority or noble victims, because they have protective imperial apparatus on which to draw. Rich has then SWP activist John Rees explain that: ‘There are some religions that are overwhelmingly held by the poor and excluded and there are some religions that back up the establishment, the rich and the powerful.’ Guess which ethnic minority falls on the wrong side of the line here.

Perhaps the saddest and most sordid development here is the weaponisation of the Holocaust against Jewish people. Rich discusses Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children: ‘Whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument over the play’s alleged anti-Semitism, everybody agreed on its main theme: that the psychological trauma of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism was playing out via Israeli violence and oppression towards the Palestinians.’ The Holocaust wasn’t a unique historical atrocity, but a schoolyard morality tale from which the Jews had, regrettably, failed to draw the correct lessons – a crappy piece of poetry, that activists recite in piping voices as they wag their fingers in the faces of Britain’s Jews.

Here’s a conundrum: how is it that professional activists, who have spent their lives campaigning against racism, ended up recycling racist tropes and targeting minorities? Dave Rich understands that ‘It is precisely because people on the left act as anti-fascists and anti-racists that they have such a problem recognising modern anti-Semitism.’ Activist sense of moral superiority defeats hope of self awareness: they are blinded by their own perceived virtue, and the left’s proud tradition of anti racism. The protests become shriller as this tradition recedes into memory, increasingly supplanted by ‘the left’s proud tradition of making life uncomfortable for Jews’. As Grossman writes in Life and Fate: ‘it was the revolutionary cause itself that freed people from morality in the name of morality’.

‘Ever since I was a child, I had been haunted by a passion for the absolute,’ says the SS narrator in Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. ‘And if this radicalism was the radicalism of the abyss, and if the absolute turned out to be absolute evil, one still had to follow them to the end, with eyes wide open – of that at least I was utterly convinced.’ Dave Rich ends his brilliant book with a hope that the British left can rebuild its relationship with British Jews. But I’m not so sure. To repeat a famous line, the abyss tends to stare back at you until you fall right into it.

I, Max Dunbar

October 27, 2016

idanielblake-jpgHere’s a question I’ve been pondering. Can you review a film you’ve never seen? Also: can you review a review of a film you’ve never seen? This is what I’m wondering as I read reviews of I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s film about people on benefits. Liberals tend to like the movie. Or I think they like it. Lynn Enright, for the Pool, writes that, ‘My whole face was wet with crying. I tried to be discreet, but my body was shuddering as sobs clattered through it. I allowed the film to simply do its work on me, reducing me to tears, stoking a great sadness and sense of naïve uselessness.’ Jack Monroe, in the Guardian, had a similar reaction: ‘The woman beside me, a stranger, squeezed my forearm as I choked on guttural, involuntary sobs. I’m sorry, I whispered, sloping out to punch a wall in the corridor and cry into the blinding, unaware streets of west London. I looked mad. I am mad.’

Would I see this film based on this testimony? No. Undergoing such paroxysm of emotion does not appeal to me. I would rather open another bottle of red and watch The Good Wife until around 2020. I also admit to my preconceptions about Ken Loach as a celebrity activist and Jeremy Corbyn supporter and suspect that he’d rather lecture his audience than tell a story. I mean if you want to do a polemical welfare film then great, love it, but why not simply make a documentary, travel the UK talking to claimants, and cut out the fictional middleman? It would probably still win the Palme D’Or, probably still trigger outbursts of expressive emotion in liberal audiences – it would probably be a good piece of work.

As is, Loach’s film is not universally loved. Camilla Long tweeted (her review’s behind Times paywall) ‘Underwhelmed by I, Daniel Blake. Preachy and poorly made. A povvo safari for middle class people.’ Toby Young has a critical piece at the Mail – he’s not as witty as the fabulous Camilla Long so the article drags. Young complains that Ken Loach ‘has an absurdly romantic view of benefit claimants. Daniel is a model citizen. At no point do we see him drinking smoking, gambling, or even watching television.’ The point apparently being made is that Loach portrays claimants as being overly ‘deserving’ – when statistics prove, to Young’s satisfaction, that plenty of them are actually ‘undeserving’: he claims that a million people came off ESA prior to the introduction of work capacity tests and a further million were declared fit for work. Therefore: ‘the vast majority should never have been receiving disability benefit.’ QED!

I could argue this out for the rest of the day. I won’t do because I don’t want to get into the aggressive bitterness that characterises so much of the welfare debate (take a look at Long’s mentions if you don’t believe me) and nor do I want to spend hours going through the intricacies of UK benefits systems (you don’t want to know about applicable amounts and non-dependant charges and mandatory reconsiderations and discretionary housing payments, you really don’t). I also don’t want to repeat the horror stories about possible benefit related deaths (there are examples on the Ekklesia blog, which also challenges some of Young’s statistical claims).

I speak from experience here because for some years I worked in advocacy/public sector style jobs trying to help people out with their housing, benefits and many other issues. I loved this work, I was good at it, I would have done it for life, but unfortunately over the last six months my own mental health problems caught up with me. Eventually I just got tired of the panic attacks, the depressions, the sleeplessness and I walked. The day David Cameron resigned as prime minister, I was on the couch, my head buzzing with an increase of medication, and I felt nothing. It wasn’t a significant moment.

What pushed me over the edge? It certainly wasn’t the fault of my employers, good people who tried their best. I think the bureaucracy got me, that plus all the suffering I’ve seen, most of it completely avoidable. Result – unemployed and back in therapy. I have a birthday coming up. I’ll be 35. I’m not complaining, I’m a natural survivor, I am also lucky to have support from my partner and others, I am sure I will be back out there and earning again soon. However in my darker moments I think about all the people with long term mental health conditions I know, talented and disciplined men and women who ended up totally marginalised for life. Is that going to happen to me? I hope and believe not but who knows?

Welfare in the UK doesn’t work. Claimants aren’t winning – they get messed around with sanctions, crap placements and form filling, all of which takes time and energy away from the jobsearch. Frontline DWP staff aren’t winning – they have no discretion, they have to deal with claimants presenting complex life issues, and they take a lot of shit from claimants. The public is not winning, because more and more public money is wasted on job centres, Work Coaches, civil servants, the crap Universal Jobmatch system, tribunals, appeals, and the wider social costs of a dysfunctional welfare system. Even private contractors aren’t winning, because they incur reputational damage as focus for public dissatisfaction with the DWP. Even the politicians aren’t winning, because the economic crisis Brexit will bring makes political dreams of a pure free market Singapore state or noble workers united in physical labour look laughably naïve.

The Loach critique I enjoyed most was by Mark Littlewood, director of libertarian IEA thinktank. For Littlewood, Loach’s welfare state ‘does not get the money to where it is needed and is policed by people who are obsessed about their own status and what the rules are but not actually concerned about poverty.’ Littlewood praised the film as ‘an interesting analysis of the colossal failures of state bureaucracy and how that dehumanises both the providers of that service and the people on the receiving end.’ Maybe he was being contrarian, but I think Littlewood strikes a chord: UK welfare combines cruel Dickensian capitalism with all the sclerotic incompetence of the socialist command economy.

Benefits have been politicised to such an extent that we forget how simple it all is. In the best of all possible worlds, some people will be out of work. Either we help them out or we don’t. If we do want to help, let’s do it properly. If we can’t give people the training and health treatment they need, if we can’t make workplaces accessible to those with health problems and disabilities, if we can’t give frontline workers the power to make smart decisions, if we can’t give people autonomy and the control over their own lives, if we can’t help people to help themselves – then we might as well dismantle the welfare reform apparatus altogether and replace it with some kind of base income.

This is Vasily Grossman, writing about Chekhov:

Chekhov said, let’s put God – and all these grand progressive ideas – to one side. Let’s begin with man; let’s be kind and attentive to the individual man – whether he’s a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin Islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual – or we’ll never get anywhere.

He’s thinking about the Soviet Union. But I think we should remember Grossman’s words in free countries as well.

Deal Orr No Deal

September 11, 2016

Deborah Orr’s column yesterday has got a bit of a slagging. Which is to an extent unfair, because she comes up with an original angle on a complex problem: are zero hours contracts really a universal bad thing?

Orr makes a number of points that normally I’d be sympathetic with. I agree that the economy is changing, and the ‘job for life’ ain’t guaranteed any more. I agree that the left tends to regard pre-Thatcher employment as a lost kingdom, and ignores the difficult, repetitive and hazardous nature of manual careers. I agree that the grind of full time work is not for everyone. And the rebel in me still regards the prospect of decades in the same workplace with a kind of horror.

Orr balances the boring old unionist jobs for life culture, with sunny assertions on the happy go lucky world of the gig economy: ‘it’s also true that many people like being their own boss, and just don’t recognise the binary struggle between bosses and workers as relevant to their lives. They like being both.’ Zero hours contracts ‘are mostly taken up by women, and two thirds of people on zero-hours contracts say they don’t want more hours than they have already.’

Is there a little scripture left out of this sermon? I think there is. Here are what to my mind are the problems with zero hours jobs:

1) They are generally crap jobs. I never heard of, say, a zero hours barrister or a piecework advertising executive. But there are plenty of zero hours cab drivers, care workers and pizza deliverers. High powered professionals can get flexibility within their role at their level but the Deliveroo/Uber guys seem to have to deal with all the petty pressures and sanctions of permanent employment. If you are a zero hours worker then your phone tells you what to do.

Which brings us to:

2) Zero hours jobs are not that modern. Zero hours workers report lack of sick pay, leave entitlements, no insurance for when they get knocked over delivering takeaway food all over the city. For the FT, Sarah O’Connor went out and spoke to zero hours drivers and found them struggling under arbitrary rules and on-call systems. As a Deliveroo courier told her: ‘They are treating you like an employee, so how can they say it’s self-employment?’ Rather than writing about new ways of working, O’Connor ended up writing about Taylorism in the nineteenth century. Zero hours jobs could potentially be great flexible jobs if they were reformed, but as it actually exists at the moment the gig economy is just Taylorism with smartphones.

3) People tend to prefer secure employment. As Chris Dillow has said, most people do not have portfolio careers. Most people prefer a regular job with regular pay, particularly if you are young and have a family. That’s not everyone’s situation, but the workplace is set up that way (and it took a lot of hard work to get there) because families stand to lose the most when capitalism goes wrong.

4) Forget your tax credits. It’s also very difficult to claim in work benefits on zero hours contracts because the benefit system is set up to pay people in permanent jobs with regular pay. In a truly scary recent piece by John Harris he argues that the world of work is fragmenting so fast that more and more of us will have to be reliant on benefits in the future even if we have a working income. This would be a perfect storm and I am not convinced that Universal Credit will resolve it.

5) It tends to be a generational thing. When I started work I started out in temp jobs. You could be dumped back on the employment line at a moment’s notice (and I was). For young people coming up, with little experience, the zero hours job will be the only job available – yet another way in which the latest generation loses out in Britain.

So, as I say, I understand Orr’s point that a life in service to one employer is boring. But job security for most people is a bare minimum requirement in life and we are nowhere near being able to guarantee it.

As Gene used to say at Harry’s Place: for most people the problem with capitalism is that it’s not boring enough.