Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Sexism in the UK

There are a few of quick notes about the UN's Rashida Manjoo's claim that the UK is endemically sexist and that is is worse here than "other places".

Firstly, it's a bit of a shock, if I'm honest. I've written a fair few things about gender and sexism, and of course I'm aware of and appreciate the work feminist comrades have done tackling 'everyday' sexism. That said, while much still needs to be done I didn't for one moment think that the UK's sexism problem was worse than other developed nations. Okay, leaving out Nordic countries, is the UK worse than Italy, France, and the USA? If it is then things are grimmer than I thought.

Secondly, You can see the hordes of - mainly men - loudly proclaiming that the UK hasn't got a problem and that this feminazi can bugger off. As we know, satirising political discourse is a tough job. But there might be others, from the liberal centre and centre right of the spectrum, who might be a bit more moderate in their tone but just as adamant with their scepticism. Of course, they have every right to be. But curiously there is a tendency for these kinds of people to normally fete the word of the UN as if it's gospel. UN says x country has human rights abuses? They'll go with that. UN says y regime has committed war crime? No problemo. And yet when a UN envoy reports on this country, all of a sudden its special status slips and its findings disputed. 'UN says sexism in the UK is a problem' is something they don't want to hear. Well, they can't have it both ways. Either they have a problem they refuse to acknowledge, or that the UN is fallible and might be wrong when it provides fig leaves to Western military adventures overseas.

Thirdly, that the government have blocked Manjoo from accessing Yarlswood Detention Centre to investigate the conditions refugees are being held in is nothing short of a national scandal. The Home Office know they can because treatment of asylum seekers is unlikely to make political waves, unfortunately. But in the words of every apologist for the surveillance state, if you haven't got anything to hide then there is nothing to worry about.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Ukraine: A Thought Experiment

1. You run an authoritarian regime in a vast country beset with economic problems, corruption, and ethnically-based insurgencies.

2. The nation on your doorstep - which formerly used to be an integral part of the multinational state ran from your capital for 70 years - has been intriguing with your long-term opponents in the international arena. Former client states and allies are now under the umbrella of their transnational military alliance and supra-national political project. There is ample evidence they were materially supporting opposition social movements in said neighbouring state.

3. After a mass insurgency, the friendly government of that country conclude an agreement with opposition forces. The very next day the administration is overthrown and replaced by a coalition ranging from the centre right to the fascistic. At least one of these organisations claims historic links to nationalist movements who rose up against your predecessor as it fought for its very right to exist. Furthermore, foreign dignitaries and emissaries flood into the revolutionary capital, get pictured meeting new ministers and touring the barricades.

4. This is a massive foreign policy disaster. But large numbers of your citizens are also resident in the country, particularly in the south and east, closest to your borders. This is part a legacy of forced population transfers in an earlier period, and part internal migration within the departed multinational state.

5. One province, heavily dominated by your citizens and who, in turn, fear that the new regime - particularly the blood-curdling rhetoric of its fascist wing - might bring misfortune down onto their heads unofficially secede and petition for protection from your country. Coincidentally large numbers of troops were in the area and they march in, sparking off an international crisis.

6. Over the next fortnight a great deal of hypocritical cant is spoken at UN meetings. In the international press, your opponents' destabilisation of your neighbour is lauded as democratic, and striking a blow for freedom. There is little to no memory of their pushing their sphere of influence eastward, of threatening to set up missile defence systems all along your borders. You meanwhile have acted out of compassion. You had no choice but to move to protect your people and prevent bloodshed before it began.

7. The population of the break away province vote to join your country. It matters not that the plebiscite had irregularities - the sentiments of all the people appearing in your broadcaster's reports are real enough. Formal annexation takes place.

8. The revolution in the west of the country has stirred up concerns in other provinces where your nationality has an outright majority. Simply stepping with "protection" here would be a step too far.

9. Groupings pledging allegiance to your country take to the streets in a number of eastern towns and cities. Some of these do involve agents provocateurs, but in most cases it's like casting a match into tinder. Mostly the protests have been ineffectual, amateurish and easily put down by the usurpers in the west. But over this weekend a series of loyal militias have taken over key local government buildings in several cities, one proclaiming itself an independent people's republic. The coup government, with their backers, say they're going to mobilise the military and put these uprisings down. While there is little sign of that army yet, events on the ground might force you to send the 40,000 strong protection force you've massed on the borders in to calm the situation down. Your enemies are forcing your hand, so what do you do?

I don't have special insight into the minds of Russia's strategic thinkers, but from Western and Russian media reports this narrative - a mixture of realpolitik and ideological rendering of one's own geopolitical interests - is a model that fits what has been happening on Putin's part so far. I'm sure in the huddled map rooms of NATO, Whitehall and the State Department this sort of thought-building is commonplace. Unfortunately, the media and political coverage falls far short - there's no appreciation of nuance, let alone thought given to how our governments' actions are interpreted.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Desireless - Voyage Voyage

Constituency meeting this evening rules out substantive blogging. So wrap your ears around this, an excellent ditty only connoisseurs of French 80s pop are likely to have encountered.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

A Defence of the SWP

Another day, another SWP table gets turned over by self-described autonomist avengers. As the SWP are slowly starting to learn, actions have consequences. You can't expect your activists to behave in the most disgusting way possible towards survivors of alleged sexual abuse and shrug it off.

Believe me, I was tempted to frame these actions in terms of the 'SWP had it coming'. As much as anyone else, I followed the SWP's implosion with a mixture of amazement and revulsion. But there are limits, and our trot-troubling "comrades" have trampled over them. Let's time to be blunt. The spate of violent acts by self-appointed vigilantes toward the SWP are ridiculous, stupid and narcissistic.

First things first, violence inside the labour movement is not on. You can dispute whether the SWP are a part of the movement or not, but I think it's quite clear they are. They organise in the trade unions, contribute to a variety of causes, and propagandise their idea of socialism. They are annoying, destructive and fast-becoming even more irrelevant, but part of our movement they remain. The labour movement isn't a sect with a set of principles one must sign up to upon joining - it's a movement of working people who collectively come together to prosecute their shared interests. As it reflects working people in general, it has all kinds in its ranks - including some who are far worse than the SWP. Yes, the SWP have repeatedly crossed a red line, and quite rightly are getting shunned by student organisations and other trade union activists.

So what exactly does attacking the SWP achieve? Are they going to get the message? Or, as is more likely, will it reinforce their siege mentality, compressing the bonds between SWP members even tighter, helping ensure that future abuse allegations are repressed in the name of party unity? And how is this "direct action" perceived by the wider world? How do you think SWP stalls getting set upon at labour movement events will be viewed by "outsiders"? Might it elicit some sympathy?

Ultimately, quite apart from this violence within the labour movement is a no because it depends on collectivism, of pulling together despite our differences. The actions of our vigilante mobs care nothing for this, of the fact that sometimes "normal" trade unionists have to collaborate with SWP activists in workplace activity, branch organisation and collective action. It's a self-indulgent attitude.

One shouldn't be surprised. I've talked about revolutionary identity politics and narcissism before. Because all variants of anarchism fetishise the individual (hence why their organisations break apart when but buffeted by a political breeze), they are especially susceptible to cults of indulgent hyper-activism, radical verbiage, show-boaty risk-taking, and putting performance before efficacy. Just like the SWP at its most ultra-left, in fact. Of course, not all anarchists so sin, but our Liverpudlian class warriors and their Sussex comrades certainly fell out of that mold.

They claim to be kicking against rape apologism, and object to the "trigger" potential the SWP's presence has on their campuses. Two quick things. Firstly, in the real world very few people have heard of the SWP nor their disgraceful behaviour. Secondly, balancing all probabilities out, witnessing violent confrontation is more likely to be a trigger than a few Trots shaking a can. Just stop and think. For someone who's survived abuse of some kind, are a succession of violent assaults on SWP stalls going to make them feel safer on campus? No, of course they bloody won't.

It's that sheer lack of thought that exposes our vigilantes as idiots full of their own indulgence. Yet what does this matter when you set it against the exhilaration of being mildly transgressive, of a simulacrum of the anarchist violence they've read about in Class War's Decade of Disorder. They display their trophies of a successful action on Facebook pages and blogs knowing there will never be any comeback, that the SWP will never call the police on them. It is radical identity work at play, a contrived and limited action in which there are no costs incurred for revolution points gained.

Our anarchist chums might be sincerely motivated by a vision of an alternative society, but attacking the SWP is a substitute for the hard graft of fighting for one.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Peaches Geldof and Celebrity

Like most people, I never knew Peaches Geldof. She was always someone who lurked on the outer edges of my consciousness, bobbing up and down among a pantheon of minor celebrities. I knew her, but paid her little mind. And yet, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this, when her death was announced yesterday it threw me a bit. Like millions of others I took to social media to announce it, usurping and filling in for the news media organisations who were tens of seconds behind. But there are a never-ending procession of deaths of young women every single day. Each life ends, potential gone, families and friends bereft. Yet only the very tragic or the properly victim-ised warrant widespread coverage and sympathy. Why is this the case, and what does her death and the weird reaction of hard-as-nails media cynics say about celebrity culture?

We've been here before. In a participatory and heavily mediated culture, we have the collapsing of all kinds of distances and the telescoping of others. As celebrity has become even more ubiquitous, the option is there - and it's readily taken - for people to form simulated relationships with celebrities of their choice. Whether one is a self-described superfan or is moderately interested in the doings/work of a particular star there is a one-way, "inauthentic" relationship. Despite never meeting them, seeing them, or getting a reply on Twitter off them they can become as meaningful to someone as a real, flesh-and-blood friendship can be. Sometimes even more so. Zygmunt Bauman, the diagnostician of what he likes to call 'liquid modernity' nevertheless observes that for all their inauthenticity, relationships of this stripe can reproduce the agonies and ecstasies just as well. The relation one might have with a certain celebrity might be more real than real, more human than human. It's a strange coming together of supplicant and replicant, of a real person "meeting" a simulated person through the intermediaries of multiple media technologies.

The inauthenticity of celebrity can be felt keenly on an individual level. But celebrity is a collective phenomena in its production, execution and reception. The image, the aura is absolutely an effect achieved through marketing a projection. A whole interlinked (some might say indissociable) political economy stands behind them, a veritable culture industry as a couple of Frankfurt profs once put it. Focusing on reception, celebrity addresses itself to individuals but it is always shared too. We may live in a bewildering blurring world where, superficially, each of us are highly individuated without much in common, but celebrity continually bubbles up. It is so in your face that it cannot but force an opinion up your throat. Of the leading lights of the day, they are focal points and battlegrounds from the playground to the workplace to the home to the cafe to the pub. Sport also acts in exactly the same way. Disassociation is incredibly hard to achieve - even to dismiss it and effect uninterest is, nevertheless, a form of engagement with it. Hence what celebrity (and sport) does is contribute to a diffuse, fleeting and constantly remade/rewritten sense of community.

Therefore, as well as a very real trauma for her family, Peaches Geldof's passing is a moment. Those who had some form of personal investment in her, or as someone who grew up watching her occasional forays into television and journalism will have felt it quite keenly. For others who didn't but are nevertheless heavily invested in our culture of screens and networks - and chance is you are by virtue of reading this - it was cause for pause and, in some cases, public lamentation on the social media platform of choice. It simulated the sense of living in a real community (ironically, best typified by another simulation - Coronation Street) and hearing that a neighbour from round the corner or a couple of streets over had died. People like me weren't thrown because we are brainwashed to love celebrities. We were because it was an unanticipated event within the everyday life of mediated folk living mediated, simulated lives. And for those who are more deeply affected by Peaches' death, their pain is no less real.

There is something else that has shown up as well, a convention of more recent providence. The figure of the celebrity may do all these things, but it is a precarious life. The toast of the town one day can be just toast the next. They are built up to be laid low. They fulfil the twin role of aspirational role model and lightning rod of scurrilous gossip and criticism. They are an interpenetrating opposite of reverence and irreverence. Time was when a celebrity died the papers dredged up all kinds of stories, safe in the knowledge that the deceased cannot sue for defamation. Now it seems the terms are reversed. In life Peaches Geldof was vilified as a wannabe, a celebrity aristocrat, a woman famous for being famous - she was a celebrity whose celebrity was a simulacrum of celebrity, much like other famous children of famous people. There was a sense she meant well but was cosseted by her upbringing, and that her brushes with drugs, bad boys and exotic religions were snapshots of a very public pursuit of authenticity. And then, with her sad passing, commentariats who'd have thought nothing of trashing her in their columns and paid-for blogs a few days ago were effusive and gushing with praise. We say much the same thing with Bob Crow as well. Perhaps it's right and just that this should be the case, that the death of someone in the public eye should be pause for reflection - their lives a cause for appreciation, and perhaps a space for reverence to return.

Maybe so, but then again if we treat our dead better than our living, what does that say about our society?

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Why Spitting Image Won't Be Coming Back

Ah, Spitting Image. It was a reet larf. Norman Tebbit. The Chicken Song. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turds. For large numbers of young(ish) people of a certain vintage, Spitting Image was our first exposure to satire and alternative comedy. And for older folk of whatever political stripe it lampooned our ridiculous ruling clique of politicians and royals. It was irreverent, biting and (occasionally) funny. They certainly don't make them like that any more, nor are they likely to ever again. Yes, as the 30th anniversary of the first transmission has been and gone there are very good reasons why Spitting Image won't be coming back.

There's the practical question of costs. Back in the day it cost £5,000 for every puppet. Adjusting for inflation and the fact they were all handcrafted with dedicated molds, it's reasonable to assume costs have risen. And since then, overall, ITV's audiences have fallen. Would our latex chums reverse that trend? Highly doubtful. Secondly, apart from nostalgic old farts like, um, me, who would watch it? People don't like politics. The Thick Of It only pulled down about two million viewers. Satire in the form of rubbery puppets could well be so much old hat.

But there's something swimming among the flows and hidden currents of the cultural murk. Our society is a strange beast. Whatever label you stick on it - postmodern, liquid modern, late modern, late capitalist - it's a massive, kicking heap of swirling antagonism and contradiction. Marx was the first to note that capitalism tore down the old and constantly made and remade the world in its image. It has thrown untold hundreds of millions off the land and made them dependent on their ability to sell their labour power to an employer. Capital has successively thrown those millions together in massive enterprises and economic sectors, and works to individuate, disaggregate and atomise simultaneously constantly. This churn is replicated in everyday life in a shifting, slippy culture and a diffuse sense of unfixity, anxiety and fear. Unsurprisingly (pl)attitudes that offer some sort of anchor are dredged up and find fresh audiences, particularly among those who came of age under a different political economy. It's why older people are more likely to be scared of immigration. It's why the 50+ find UKIP so alluring.

What has this got to do with our plastic pals and Sunday night television? Stay with me. The post-war period was never a golden age. In many ways it was a less kinder time to live in. But it afforded many millions of people a stable sense of place and station. The idea you could live the school gates on a Friday and walk in to a job on the Monday morning was true enough. But in the 1960s three parallel and intertwined forces gathered momentum - frustrated youth cultures kicking against the status quo, the libertarian impulse of counterculture, and the solidification of consumerism. For different reasons founded on different dynamics these gave rise to a rebirth of the individual, of the self as sovereign. Fired already by the combustive engine-workings of commodified culture, and the turbo-charge given it in the 1980s saw old hierarchies, old values were obliterated. The reverence that prevailing power structures had depended on in a previous time now served the opposite function. Satday morning kids' cartoons hang plot twists on heroes' abilities to reverse the polarity, and so it happened here. Magnets for reverence upended their poles and attracted to them irreverence.

Spitting Image was part of this movement. Starting a few short weeks before the the Miners' Strike - the strike that changed everything - politicians, celebrities, royals, all were sent up mercilessly. The satire worked because it played with reverence/irreverence. On the conventional level there was the standard satirical observations of, in the case of the politicians, showing them up to be self-serving and stupid and, for the royals, clueless but normal. And then there was the caricaturist's pen made latex, of the puppetry that was often sharply observed and utterly devastating. Diminutive David Steel against David Owen. Kenneth Baker the slug. Grey John Major. A rather serpentine Peter Mandelson. Part of the show's undoubted appeal was how grotesque a facsimile could be. It's why I started watching it when I was still in junior school.

But as with all things, the tide ebbed. Spitting Image and the alternative comedy movement of which it was part once broke mighty boulders and washed away coastlines. By the time of its 1996 cancellation, it could barely toss about a few sea-worn pebbles. What was once the cutting edge of alternative comedy became passé. Irreverence stopped being biting because it and its twin, cynicism, was the cultural grammar of our time. And so it has remained. Royalty, bizarrely (sadly) has calcified a new reverent shell to curl up in, but they are very much the exception. Institutions are profaned. Celebrities are here today, gone tomorrow, and politicians, if anything, are even more craven, stupid and out-of-touch than their latex depictions had them. In times when 'aspiration nation' is a political slogan, the Conservative Party tries to place itself as the party for workers by lopping a penny of a pint and reducing tax on bingo, and when a minister manages to keep his job and his seat after "erroneously" claiming taxpayer subsidies for heating his stables, you know satire is dead.

Spitting Image worked because it came along on the cusp of social change. Old hierarchies and deference still had just enough purchase in people's perceptions of social life for them to be excellent comedy fodder. But now, the show would be a fish out of water, a puppet without a string - or a hand up its tradesman's. If it came back it would be a poor replica of what really goes on. Irreverence is dead because it is embedded in the everyday. And with no niche for it, there is no chance and ITV company, Channel 5, Sky, Dave or some other bobbins of a cable channel will bring it back. For those of you with a nostalgic need there's always YouTube. But in some cases, as in this, the past can never be anything but the past.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Walter Benjamin's Theses on Writing

Lazy night again. So this is borrowed from here.

THE WRITER’S TECHNIQUE IN THIRTEEN THESES

1. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.

2. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.

3. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.

4. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.

5. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.

6. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.

7. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.

8. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.

9. Nulla dies sine linea ['No day without a line'] — but there may well be weeks.

10. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.

11. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.

12. Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.

13. The work is the death mask of its conception.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

On Laundry

Best paper I've seen since attending a research seminar on the materiality and meaning of mantelpieces. This from the November edition of the International Journal of Cultural Studies.

Hanging out at home: Laundry as a thread and texture of everyday life
Laundry, one of the most mundane but most fundamental everyday life activities, has received little attention in cultural studies of everyday life. In contrast it has attracted the analytical attention of sociologists of everyday practices and social relations, and energy and health researchers. Here we suggest that an approach which attends to theoretical turns towards phenomenology, spatiality and materiality can offer a new interpretation of the significance and implications of laundry in everyday life. Drawing on research in 20 UK households, we focus on the example of indoor laundry drying to interpret laundry through a theory of place and materiality. We suggest that such an approach offers new understandings of how home is made and has implications for how cultural studies research into everyday life might be engaged in applied research relating to climate change and the environment.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

What is Len McCluskey Trying to Achieve?

Every so often Len McCluskey fires off an article or press release saying that if Labour isn't left enough, then there will be x, y, z consequences where union funding is concerned. This time, if Labour doesn't break from austerity and doesn't win next year, then Unite might withdraw its support. So what is Unite's general secretary playing at? There's a couple of dribbles of gravy I want to mop up before tackling the meaty real issue.

First things first, we don't know what Labour's 'austerity lite' is going to look like. Ed Balls has made the usual noises about "tough choices", and is not making any promises about what cuts - if any - will be reversed. Furthermore, Labour is right now carrying out a zero-based budgeting exercise. Quite rightly, every penny of public spending should be justified. Where waste and duplication occurs, as it does to a ridiculous degree in marketised public services, it should be got shot of. So there is austerity and there is austerity. There's the austerity of kicking the poor and taking money directly out of the economy, as the Tories and LibDems have done; and the austerity of spending carefully so money isn't squandered on socially and economically useless schemes. I'm sure Len and most people, including the "no cuts!" brigade would have little problem with the latter.

Second, this happens with such regularity it's a pantomime, nay a simulation of political argy-bargy. Truth be told an occasional public ticking off of Ed Miliband by Len serves the interests of both men. Len burnishes his street cred as a lefty, working class trade union leader. He shows his members that he's fighting their corner in the party, trying to keep it honest, attempting to steer the party to the kind of programme he thinks can win the election next year. And for Ed it shows up the absurdity of the Tory attacks against him. Far from being in Unite's pocket, every time Len takes to the airwaves he shows how baseless that accusation is. Not that it matters to ordinary voters outside the Westminster bubble anyway.

But truth be told, as a Unite and Labour member I'm bored with Len's sniping. Fine, criticise away. It's not as if he isn't in a position to change Labour's direction of travel. Remember how the Blairite rump panicked when Len pledged to recruit thousands of Unite members directly to the party? That didn't happen. Sure, Unite funds research and more or less has its own think tank but in my experience does not engage or encourage its rank-and-file to get involved in Labour, despite being official policy. What Len's public rebukes do is cover for an absence of a serious orientation. Perhaps Len should stop listening to the anti-Labour, Putin-loving people surrounding him and come up with a strategy that deepens Unite's commitment to the party at the same time as influencing it. Because if Unite do walk away after 2015, it won't be because Labour didn't listen to Len - it's because he didn't seriously try to make himself heard.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Farewell Frankie Knuckles

I was hoping it was a cruel April Fool's joke when I saw it on Twitter this morning. Unfortunately, no. I am gutted that Frankie Knuckles - a man weighing in at just 59 years of age - has been cruelly snatched away. For the non-dance people who frequent these parts, to house music he was the Beatles, Black Sabbath and ABBA combined, except more important than that. He arguably invented the genre that paved the way for the world domination of dance music. It's an awful, awful shame that Frankie has died so young. 

What better way to remember his immortal legacy by chewing your way through his library of singles and remixes? The little ditty below is his 1996 remix of the boring Toni Braxton ballad, Unbreak My Heart. In his hands it went from dreary to one of the best house tracks of the 1990s.

So long, Frankie.