Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Browned Off

Labour's in a bit of a pickle isn't it? Languishing behind the Tories in the polls, there was an extra kick in the latest from Ipsos Mori which put the LibDems a single point ahead. Chances are this is a rogue but it underlines the problems the party is in. It's not for nothing why Alan Johnson this morning said Brown had to give the speech of his life at conference today. It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, it has had on the polls.

Of course the speech was nothing of the sort (full text and BBC analysis here) and you could have almost written it in advance. Mix in some welcome but soft social-democratic measures (ten hours of free child care/week, increases for the minimum wage, child benefit and child tax credits); some weak Keynesianism (£1bn fund for innovation in industry), pledges on very limited political reforms (some elements of recall, elected Lords, goodbye to first-pass-the-post), a partial (and already announced) climb down on ID cards, a raft of draconian measures to crack down on feral families and of course state "supervision" of 16-17 year old single mums (dubbed "gulags for slags" by one right wing wag (an alternative take here)). This should play well in the gutter press, the voter reform on liberal-leaning floating voters and the economic measures should firm up the neglected base. Or at least they might if it was anyone but Brown pledging them.

When the remaining Blairite ministers were spitting out their dummies in the run up to the European elections, it was plain they believed there was nothing wrong with the government's overall direction. Rather than squarely confront the political causes of their haemorrhaging support they sought comfort in the belief a new face at the helm would provide a quick fix. For them New Labour was fundamentally sound. It was Gordon who was at fault.

Quite rightly Purnell, Blears and the rest of that odious mob were eviscerated for their treachery. With any luck it will be some time before they return to the front rank of British politics. But they did have a point. Had Brown announced manna was to begin falling from Heaven because of a deal he'd negotiated with the almighty Labour would still face defeat at the next election. Because in politics, as much as we might want to focus on programmes, policies and issues, personalities *do* matter. But not in the way our erstwhile ministers thought.

Brown isn't popular because he's dour, miserable and doesn't play the media game. If this was the case there wouldn't have been the big poll bounce over his handling of the economic crisis last year. No, Brown isn't popular because he's accumulated about his person the lies, the cronyism and cretinism, the venality, and the petty authoritarianism associated with the New Labour project in the popular imagination. His moves last October may have given us a recession rather than a depression, but the electorate knows he let finance run wild with precious few checks right up to the moment the global casino seized up. He might promise a better minimum wage now, but that will do little to erase the memory of the man who clawed back the 10p tax band. You see, when you've been rolling in the shit of establishment politics for as long as Brown has it can never be washed off.

Unfortunately for the Labour party they're lumbered. For all the plots and rumours of plots it will be Brown leading Labour into the next election. The manifesto will be an uninspiring and unpalatable mix of social democracy lite, civil illiberalism and neoliberal cuts. The only thing going for them is at least they're not the Tories, which is only meaningful because Cameron's programme is much, much worse. But it means for socialists we're lumbered too, despite glimmers of hope at the margins of the Labour party and outside it that deserve and will receive left support. But in most of the country the election is between Labour and Tory, Brown vs Cameron. And as much as we don't like it, we cannot afford to ignore it.

Monday, 28 September 2009

New(ish) Blog Round Up

It's been a while since I last did one of these. This isn't to say there haven't been new left blogs coming on stream. If anything loads of new (as in founded at some point this year) have come my way. So without further ado ...

Unite Against Fascism need no introduction to readers of this blog. But now someone's climbed on the bandwagon and given UAF an
unofficial one of their own. If its particular brand of anti-fascism is your bag then it's the blog for you. But if you want to debate you'll have to go elsewhere as comments have not been enabled.

recently noted the founding of the Tower Hamlets Respect blog. This picks up items missed by the national site and is essential reading for anyone interested in what happens in Respect's strongest area.

Time for a quick excursion into the world of Labour party tweeting. Three of Labour's most prolific grass roots twitterers,
Tracy Cheetham, Cllr Tim Cheetham and Grace Fletcher-Hackwood have all embarked on blogging careers. All worth keeping an eye on (especially on Twitter) if you want a snapshot of what's exercising mainstream(ish) Labour members who've stuck it out.

The blog simply known as
David offers a mix of politics and technological news. As the author puts it "in my spare time I enjoy Reading, Computer Games, Music, Watching TV, Films and partaking in activism to try and over throw the capitalist system, the usual sort of stuff." You can follow David on twitter here.

It's time to briefly nip across the pond to see
Nate Uncensored, formerly of American Commie. He writes "You’ll see me commenting on politics, football, pop culture, and generally whatever I feel like bitching about. You’ll also see me writing fiction, poetry, and fratire. You’ll visit my blog one day (probably a weekday) and you’ll see a thoughtful critique of the health care reform debate. You’ll come back another day (probably a weekend) and you’ll see a story about something totally absurd I did with my friends Jack Daniels, Jose Cuervo, Captain Morgan & Co. My motto is that life’s too short to be a pretentious douchebag, so I’ll write whatever springs to mind and you’ll like it or you’ll leave." If only more bloggers followed this fine blogging ethic. You can follow Nate on Twitter here.

Reason and Revolt is also a very new blog. The author, Simon is that rarest of beasts - a blogger who's a member of the Communist Party of Britain and as he says "I would like to encourage other Party members to make the fullest possible use of the technology of the 21st century and start their own blogs (there are dozens belonging to SP cadre, we can't let them win can we?)" Bring it on comrade, there's nothing like a bit of socialist competition!

HC Leftie is one of the SWP's latest recruits in Canterbury. Presumably the party's working the comrade hard already as he hasn't posted for a couple of weeks. This is a shame as his first two posts - on (dead) French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and Goran Therborn on Marxism and Post-Marxism - show a lot of promise. Hopefully he'll be able to fins his muse and get blogging again. You can follow HC Leftie on Twitter here.

Teaching English might not appear to lend itself to politics straight away. Think again. Sara Hannam's
Critical Mass ELT is the second language teaching blog featured on the round up. She says "I sometimes wonder why it is that there isn’t more discussion of some the ways in which the industry works that don’t necessarily benefit the majority of teachers or students. And I use the word industry here to denote a multinational business entity that is primarily there to make make a lot of money for a very small number of people when you look at how many are involved in delivering the lessons or producing the materials, most of whom don’t really make much money at all". Sara helps open up this oft-overlooked sector of education to critical scrutiny. You can follow Sara on Twitter here.

This time it's off across the Irish sea to visit
Socialism or Barbarism!. Clearly an unambiguously revolutionary voice, the author writes "[we are] an Irish blog dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. We offer a rigorous analysis of news stories and political developments. Our ethos is for participation, economic democracy and solidarity". Unfortunately this is another new blog that has stalled of late (no posts for 10 days). Perhaps an influx of new readers will kickstart things again?

Luke, AKA
The Plural Progressive is another new blog that's gone a bit quiet. He promises to "provide a local view from Sussex, Kent and the South East, as well as covering national and international topics. It’s not intended to be non-partisan, but positive and constructive with the wider forces of progress against the forces of reaction." Hopefully he hasn't given up after 11 posts!

Back to the Labour party now for a left wing take from Adam White, a Manchester-based Labour Representation Committee member.
The Day Today promises "thoughts on the fight for the Labour party". As you might suppose posts so far go after New Labour's policies. I would expect as the election nears and the factions line up for the fight for Labour's soul, this will find its echo online. I hope more LRC comrades will be around to amplify its socialist arguments.

Andy again beat me to this one.
Left Foot Forward might not be to the political tastes of most AVPS and Socialist Unity readers, it being squarely in the mainstream of Labour party opinion. But its commitment to "evidence-based blogging" marks it out from (ill-thought) Labour opinion blogs like Luke Akehurst and Tom Harris MP and could prove to be a useful weapon against the Tories in the near future. You can follow Left Foot Forward on Twitter here.

Lastly there's been a mushrooming of Socialist Party-supporting blogs of late. Some appear, live a short existence and then fall back. Others have a bit more longevity to them. Entering the arena we have
And Now for Something Completely Sectarian (by Iain of Leftwing Criminologist fame), Everyone's Favourite Comrade, Grinning in Your Paradise, The Daily Panda, and Cryptnomicon.

As always if there are any new(ish) socialist, communist, feminist, trade unionist, Labour, Green/environmentalist, or anarchist blogs doing the rounds and they haven't been featured already drop me a line and they'll get a plug in the next round up.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Liberal Danger

Nick Clegg's pamphlet had some very interesting things to say about the economy, but are there more nuggets tucked away in The Liberal Moment's pages?

Unsurprisingly Clegg is scathing about the electoral set up in this country (which, if memory serves has, as a model of liberal democracy proven so successful that only ourselves and Barbados have stuck with it). He argues the widespread alienation from politics is partially down to the iniquities and illiberalism of our system. For example like all before it the coming election will be decided by what happens in comparatively few key marginals. In a system that doesn't count votes this can only depress turn out and engagement and widen the gap between parliament and the electorate.

To add insult to injury, centralisation under New Labour has proceeded apace. With the partial exceptions of emasculated devolved bodies in Scotland and Wales power has been concentrated on the hands of central government. Where dispersal has taken place it has fallen to the unelected English regional assemblies and the army of unaccountable quangos.

What follows are measures no socialist would have a problem advocating - a written constitution, caps on funding, and recalls that would force by-elections. All fair enough, but Clegg skirts around the supremely illiberal House of Lords and constitutional monarchy. It seems his liberalism is only prepared to go so far.

The rest of the pamphlet sets out the LibDem's prescriptions for dealing with three other crises - the environmental, the security, and the social. But I want to return to the first part of the pamphlet.

There is this notion of 'progressiveness' that has been bandied about the media a lot recently. Despite being virtually meaningless all the main parties have been scrambling about laying claim to the word - as if the electorate can be hoodwinked by a few nice-sounding phrases. But unlike the Tories, at least progressiveness has some pedigree in liberal thought. For Clegg the core elements of progressive politics are fairness, social mobility, sustainability, civil rights and internationalism. In this regard he believes the LibDems are more progressive than Labour as well. He argues "its starting point is central state activism, its defining characteristic is the hoarding of power at the centre, and its method of delivery is top down government" (p.9). This may have once been necessary about a century ago but the contemporary atomisation of society is compounded globalising processes that have stripped away the sovereignty of states and limited their powers.

For this reason Clegg is not interested in a
rapprochement with Labour. While recognising the two parties belong to the broader progressive tradition, its petty authoritarianism (civil liberties) and warmongering (Afghanistan, Iraq) count for fundamental betrayals of that tradition. But had Labour not made these departures there remain crucial differences. He argues classical liberalism is more than just for putting checks on state power, it is about expanding the sphere of freedom by increasing people's capacities and resources. Collective (i.e. state-backed) action is sometimes necessary to increase freedom but because of liberalism's focus on the individual it is more alive to the dangers than other traditions. Therefore a LibDem government would use the state to counterveil existing concentrations of power and redistribute it because it believes individuals know best. Unlike Labour, liberals do not harbour a distrust of people or think the state knows best. A LibDem government would also shift power upwards to supranational organisations to enable cross border collaboration on issues like finance regulation and climate change.

Where Clegg gets really interesting is what he forecasts for the LibDems. He argues the collectivism underpinning Labour is no longer appropriate to contemporary politics. In an argument reminiscent of
New Times debates of 20 years ago, the world of instantaneous communication and complex identities is alien to Labourism. Their current flailing about could lead to the sorts of splits Labour were able to take advantage of in the Liberals in the 1920s. Where the Liberals were weak then Labour were able to take advantage. Whole swathes of the country became Liberal-free zones. But now the reverse is true. There are 94 local councils without a single Labour councillor, and just as Liberals once banded with Tories to keep Labour out now it is Labour who are entering into alliances of convenience to exclude the LibDems. Furthermore the era of two party politics are over - at the 1951 general election only two per cent voted outside the main two parties. In the 2009 local elections that number had leaped to 40 per cent! Because Labour is so out of step, this is the moment the LibDems can become the dominant progressive party again.

Superficially Clegg's argument appears sound. The LibDems are not that far behind Labour in the polls (see
this one in the Mail on Sunday). The social solidarities that gave rise to Labour are weakened and undergoing a process of recomposition, and Labour is paralysed beyond business-as-usual politics. But does this mean the liberal moment has returned?

Probably not. Clegg's analysis of the LibDem's prospects is handicapped by a faulty philosophical assumption. He writes the dividing line running down the middle of politics is progressivism vs conservatism, and these are rooted in the essentialised and ahistorical human condition. In other words politics and political arguments are driven by ideas. In fact Clegg further clarifies this assumption by refusing to argue a "determinist line" for the fall of the Liberals because "nothing is inevitable in politics". Indeed not, but politics is not a free floating field of action. Parties are expressions of class and class fraction interests. For example it's no accident the Tories are popularly seen as the party of privilege - it's because they are. The Labour party and its counterparts on the continent came into being because workers were excluded from the political process. The only way the Liberals could have avoided being eclipsed by Labour would have to become a workers' party and head them off at the pass. But it was incapable of doing so because of its deep roots in the ruling class and professional middle class. It was not a matter of taking collectivist ideas seriously enough or because of infighting as Clegg thinks. The Liberals had become an object of history whose fate was decided by the actions of others.

The situation now is slightly different - hence the 'probably'. Labour is unravelling and has triangulated a seemingly inevitable electoral defeat. Vast swathes of its base in the working class and the 'progressive' middle class have been turned off by policy agendas inimical to their interests. There is a space here for parties espousing left or left-sounding policies, which helps explain why the liberalism on offer in
The Liberal Moment is of the leftish variety (and why Clegg was daft to promise "savage cuts"). But again the LibDems are constrained by their own base. They could tease over disgruntled labour voters, but they cannot move too far left for fear of alienating the party's right, who compete with the Tories for support in more affluent parts of the country.

Furthermore the left window of opportunity for the LibDems is short. Politics abhors a vacuum. So far the big battalions of the labour movement remain committed to Labour. As long as this remains the case left political space, from the centre to the fringes is tightly circumscribed. Should that become unstuck after the election, either through the move of several unions to found a new organisation and a split with Labour or a vicious internal battle in the party, the LibDems have an opportunity to take ground as it did with the Alliance in the 80s - probably as some of the more Blairite elements depart. If the LibDems respond skillfully and energetically to the situation they could successfully marginalise Labour and other left formations (if they exist by this time) and regain its position at the front rank of British politics. Effectively this will leave the labour movement and the working class without a political voice.

A LibDem triumph would be a disaster for us. The project begun by Blair of exorcising the labour movement's meaningful influence over the political process will be complete.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Branch Meeting: Early Soviet Cinema

At last night's branch meeting of Stoke Socialist Party, Brother R debuted with a look at Soviet cinema and how it developed from its early revolutionary period into the conservative "socialist realist" productions under Stalin. This is a slightly re-edited version of his lead off.

Soviet cinema could be said to have begun in 1919 when Lenin signed the Council for People's Commisars decree, which transferred film and photographic enterprises into state ownership. This was the culmination of the struggle for power in film. In 1917 film workers combined into three professional organisations, all of whom participated in nationalising parts of the film industry prior to Lenin's decree.

In this early phase only large companies were subject to nationalisation, so during the dawning of Soviet cinema state and smaller private companies coexisted. The organisation of film workers helped continue to shape the situation. In 1924 a group of filmmakers led by Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov came together in Moscow to form the Association of Revolutionary Cinematography. The objective of ARC (whose members came to include Vsevolod Pudovkin and Dziga Vertov) was to reinfirce ideological control over the creative process. Branches were formed in practically every studio, and the organisation had its own publications, including the weekly newspaper Kino. In 1929 the organisation adopted a new name with the objective of pursuing "100% proletarian ideological film" as part of the new cultural revolution sweeping through the arts.

It was not long before the aim of concentrating and centralising film production in order to bring the cinema under social and state control led to the idea of establishing a single national film industry. The first step in this direction came with the creation of the film enterprise Goskino in 1922, which was given a monopoly over film distribution, which was taken away by the 13th party congress in 1924. Congress also resolved to reinforce ideological monitoring in filmmaking and did this by appointing 'tested communists' to senior positions in the industry. Sovkino, and similar operations in the republics hadf a full monopoly of distribution, the import and export of films, and gradually took over production functions as well. Although it managed to lose a lot of money in its early years, the Sovkino system survived to the end of the decade without significant alteration and provided the infrastructure for the great Societ films of the late silent period.

Following Lenin's dictum that film was "the most important art", Marxist filmmakers and film theorists of the period rallied to promote communism and revolution through film. The young soviet filmmakers were zealots for that revolution. Idealistic, energetic and committed they struggle to provide filmic solutions for political problems. The two leading filmmakers of this period were Eisenstein and Vertov.

With a background in theatre and design, Eistenstein attempted to translate the lessons of Marx into a singular audience experience. The basic idea informing his theory was conflict. He considered conflict to be the mental and artistic reflection of dialectical materialism, and fashioned his films to reflect this. He developed a theory of montage in which the fashioning of each shot and the joining of shots in editing evoked opposition, contradiction and collision. His belief in the ontological truth of dialectical materialism led him to believe he could forge a revolutionary mentality in his audiences.

Eisenstein mounted his shots and joined them along various formal and thematic conflicting parameters - straight shots juxtaposed to diagonal ones, light/dark shots, and conflicts in the direction and rhythm of motion (right-to-left to left-to-right), camera distance conflicts (long shots to close-ups, etc). Through these juxtapositions of brief shots, which had a physiological effect on viewers, Eisenstein forged emotions and ideas. For him the illusion of continuity and the focus upon individual heroes encourage an anti-revolutionary false consciousness.

His most comprehensive and effective use of the conflict montage can be found in the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin.The scene consists of a dazzling series of conflicting shots and editing that powerfully convey the horror caused by Tsarist troops walking in formation down the Odessa steps while shooting and dispersing a crowd of protesters. Such cinematic attractions over thematic concerns lead the spectator in the direction desired by the director.

Throughout the silent era Eisenstein assumed his aesthetic experimentation could be harmonised with the propaganda dictates of the state. Each of his silent films begins with an epigraph from Lenin and each film depicts a key moment in the myth of Bolshevik ascension.

Eisenstein was a cerebral filmmaker. Many of his later critics in the USSR believed he was too academic and his respect for ideas would supersede his respect for Soviet realism, that his politics were too aesthetic and they were too individualistic.

Vertov's oeuvre was different. He believed only documentary shots of real-life situtations in revolutionary societies can the truth be revealed. He tried to follow Marx and Engels who wrote "the turning of history into world history is not indeed a mere abstract art on the part of the self-consciousness, the world spirit or of any other metaphysical spectre, but a quiet material, empirically verifiable act." For Vertov "we hold the ability to show and elucidate life as it is, considerably higher than the occasionally diverting doll games that people call theatre. Vertov constantly compared the fiction film to witchcraft and drugs since for him fiction was nothing but a reflection of ideologies whose function was to turn the spectator away from his awareness of the real processes of production and from truth. He therefore disliked Eisenstein's fictional recreation of events, and called for the allocation of funds to documentary rather than fictional films. In shooting, Vertov preferred the use of candid cameras in places where his presence would go unnoticed. Only in such a manner can the filmmaker make "the invisible visible, the unclear clear ...; making falsehood into truth."

For Vertov the film apparatus was almost an extension of the cognitive and revelatory power of the human senses. He accepted Marx's argument that following the development of communism the alienated relation between humans and machines would change into a productive and creative interaction in which the human senses are freed and enhanced (hence his habit of superimposing a human eye over camera lenses).

His seminal Man with a Movie Camera aimed to show how Soviet society, despite the persistance of some elements of the old order, was harmoniously and collectively building a new future.

Vertov's objection to working from scripts made it difficult for him to make films after Lenin's death. Vertov's fears of the fictionalisation of social life came to fruition with the rise of officially sanctioned socialist realism under Stalin. The party demanded artists offer didactic, easily understood and optimistic picture of the revolution.

The advent of sound in cinema marked a sea change in Soviet film. The cultural commissars saw the propaganda potential for talking pictures. Silent film in the USSR reached its zenith in 1929 and thereafter yielded its place to its successor.

Although this early silent cinema was greatly admired, party bosses were dissatisfied because they did not meet the requirements of the emerging bureaucratised order. During the 1930s cinema had become part of everyday life, and as the heavy hand of party censorship and interference became felt, variety declined and with it so did audiences. Small wonder - socialist realist films followed a simple formulaic plot. Typically the hero, under the tutelage of a positive character (a party leader) overcomes obstacles, unmasks the villain (who was often a reactionary with an irrational hatred of socialism) and becomes a better (i.e. more class conscious) person.

Unsurprisingly this was a very suspect form of realism. By replacing the genuine cinematic realism of Vertov socialist realism impeded the contemplation of the human condition and exploration/critique of social issues. It was arguably middle brow, formulaic arrt that excluded irony, ambiguity and experimentation.

Within socialist realism a number of genres grew up. Historical spectacles became frequent in the second half of the 1930s as the regime paid increasing attention to rekindling patriotism by appealing to myths of national glory. Films based on the revolution were still produced and each republic had a studio that made at least one film on the establishment of soviet power. The majority of other films produced were set in the present with an overall theme of struggle against saboteurs and traitors, coinciding with the bureaucracy's appetite for denunciations, fake trials and elaborate plots. This changed with the outbreak of war. The internal enemies disappeared from cinema screens and were replaced by foreigners and their agents.

Films about the Great Patriotic War became a stable of the film industry post-1945. It reflects the deep wound the Nazi invasion inflicted on Soviet society, and one which still scars the memories of elderly residents of the former USSR. But it was a trauma the regime was able to skilfully exploit in its propaganda to heighten public anxiety over Western militarism and rally them around the party. The result was WWII films were as ubiquitous in the USSR as Westerns were in the US.

The death of Stalin 1953 was followed by a revival of Soviet film. Many of the old restrictions were lifted and output grew impressively. Directors who had done interesting work in the past returned to experimentation. In a system that politicised every aspect of everyday life, any film depicting the world more or less realistically had subversive potential. Although Soviet cinema never regained the worldwide prestige it enjoyed in the late 20s, film once again provided a positive contribution to cultural life.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Nick Clegg: Closet Socialist?

It is fair to say we on the far left have little time for the Liberal Democrats. There are good reasons for this - and not just because they're an outright bourgeois party. In councils up and down the country (not least in sunny Stoke) they have been happy to follow the mania for cuts, outsourcing and privatisation. Their activists have an especially bad reputation for dirty tricks in local politics. And of course, just this week at the LibDem conference Nick Clegg has said Britain requires savage cuts and something called "progressive austerity" (whatever that is).

In words and deeds the LibDems appear to be the antithesis of what socialists would consider progressive. It is therefore surprising to find Nick Clegg's new pamphlet, The Liberal Moment is quite radical and thought-provoking. In fact, you could almost say Clegg's social liberalism outflanks Jon Cruddas' reaffirmation of Labour's core values from the left. In this post I'll concentrate on what Clegg has to say about economics - the next will be a more rounded overview.

Clegg has enough nous to realise Labour aren't entirely to blame for our economic woes - an argument accepted by everyone but the hard-of-thinking on the right. But the crisis in Britain was exacerbated by what he sees as Labour's illiberal attitude to economics. Forget Tory moans about Brown selling off the gold reserve at the bottom of the market. Far more damaging was his outright refusal to regulate finance for fear of threatening London's status as one of global capital's main casinos. This concentrated too much power in few corporate hands, which in turn was reinforced by the debt-fuelled boom which primarily benefited the South East and distorted the economy toward property and finance (it's telling Clegg chooses not to examine the underlying reasons for debt-dependent growth, i.e. the near freezing of real wages).

The lop-sided economy with its regional disparities had a corrosive effect on government. The concentration of corporate power proceeded alongside the centralisation of government, resulting in synergies unhealthy for politics and economics. Vested interests in the city exerted influence over government and government favoured certain sectors and companies over others. For a while the incestuous relationship with the city kept tax receipts and large donations to party coffers going, but this meant the government had zero material interest in correcting the imbalance.

For Clegg liberalism stands resolutely opposed to this state of affairs. Returning to John Stuart Mill, he argues liberalism stands for the exercise of power against individuals when (and only when) they are or threaten to cause harm to others. Economically speaking liberalism is against monopolies and want to see the dispersal of economic power. Now, if one wants to be Marxist about it (and I do) this idea represents the experience of/realisation monopolies (as outcomes of capitalist competition) aggregate capital in ever greater concentrations. This reaches a point where its interests are at odds with the anarchy of the marketplace. It demands stability and seeks to bend the market to its will through price fixing, collusion and economic planning. These tendencies threaten the law of value, creates new centres of power, squeezes competitors out and distorts labour markets. For socialists this can be read as an example of how capitalism organically prepares the ground for a socialisation of economic life. To retard the process, the tendency to monopoly has to be periodically checked by anti-monopoly laws and government intervention for the health of capital as a whole. This is what liberalism tries to do.

Therefore Clegg argues for more global financial regulation under the auspices of supranational organisations. He believes if a bank is "too big to fail", then by definition it's too big. He would be for the separation of 'normal' and investment banking the de-merging of Lloyds and HBOS and the latter sold off, along with RBS. He also argues more building societies and credit unions are needed (why not mutualise the banks instead of privatising them, a la Cruddas, or keep them state owned to drive the infrastructural spending he thinks Britain also needs?)

Clegg then parks his tanks on old Labour's lawn. Redistributive taxation can disperse concentrations of economic power. He envisages tax cuts for low and middle income earners funded by more taxes on the rich and green taxes on polluting business. This would shift £16bn/year downwards and make inroads into the inequality gap. He also favours more regulation of supermarket monopolies and, crucially for socialists, a move away from the hegemonic shareholder model of ownership in favour of stakeholder ownership and control. These are businesses owned (and managed) by their employees. He argues this unlocks creativity, drives higher productivity, quality, job satisfaction and lower employee turnover. It's what some of us might once have called market socialism. He argues this should be extended to Royal Mail as an alternative to continued state ownership and the privatisation schemes favoured by Labour and the Tories.

From a socialist point of view and despite Clegg's protestations that stakeholder ownership/control is a supremely liberal idea, the realisation of self-management is a step toward socialist objectives. It does not expropriate the bourgeoisie or immediately threaten the law of value but it does devolve economic power and increase the capacities of workers fortunate enough to be employed in these firms. It can weaken the hold a tiny number of super rich individual and institutional shareholders have over the economy and strengthen our class relative to the bourgeoisie. Like the necessity for increased planning by monopoly capital, this can be taken as evidence of socialist forms of organisation incubating in capitalism's womb.

Obviously Clegg is not a socialist. For all Liberal Moment's social liberalism, Clegg's take on economics has little to say about low pay or the minimum wage. There is nothing about rights at work or the role trade unionism can (and should) play in stakeholder ownership. This complete lack of a class dimension is ultimately what makes his economic prescriptions liberal policies. But that said there is no reason why social democrats and socialists shouldn't pinch some of them.

In sum, Clegg's liberalism might try and save capitalism from capitalism, but his solutions amount to arresting one socialising tendency by strengthening another.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Advertising Their Hypocrisy

I recycle religiously. I use public transport all the time. I refuse to use standby buttons. I never jet off to sunnier climes. I try to minimise waste whenever I can. In all I'm the very model of the ecological citizen - most greens would kill for my dainty carbon footprint. And for this reason I'm pissed off at this example of conspicuous waste:
The first video advert inside a print title has been published inside the American magazine Entertainment Weekly. The small screen, built into a cardboard insert, contains an advert for Pepsi Max and trailers for US TV network, CBS. There are also in-built speakers, so the viewer can hear the advert too. "This is an extraordinary way to refresh how we interact with consumers," said Pepsi-Cola's chief marketing officer, Frank Cooper. (Story)
Frank Cooper is an idiot in need of a dictionary. Making a commercial extolling the virtues of Pepsi Max is not interaction. That has to be a two-way thing, duh.

But the waste of this enterprise eclipses Pepsi's moronic newspeak. It might only go out on a print run limited to a few thousand of
Entertainment Weekly's subscribers, but the marketing gurus at Pepsi and CBS will be looking for a repeat once the costs have come down (at $20 per magazine, this doesn't come cheap). The raw materials, the manufacturing capacity, the pollutants and emissions, all for something completely unnecessary and useless.

Where does this leave the
Pepsi Eco Challenge and CBS Cares? You know, their pledges and calls to meet "the challenge of environmental stewardship" and "help protect the environment - our children depend on it"?

Looking like corporate greenwash bollocks, that's what.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Althusser and Social Complexity

Louis Althusser aimed to recast the Marxist method as a rigorously materialist and scientific approach capable of studying the "unforseen" developments within social formations that have post-dated Marx. Althusser went about this reconstruction through a close reading of the classical Marxist texts and a purging of any ideological/metaphysical moments. As Althusser puts it, "an ideology is a system (with its own logic and rigor) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts, depending on the case) endowed with a historical existence and role within a given society … we can say that ideology, as a system of representations, is distinguished from science in that in it the practico-social function is more important that the theoretical function (function as knowledge)" (Althusser 1996 For Marx London: Verson, p.231). That is to say the ‘knowledge function’ is the raison d’etre of science, and the ‘practico-social function’ are ideas that bind individuals to society - regardless of their character. Where Marx's work slipped into ideology it had to be jettisoned to improve Marx's scientific validity.

Althusser’s interrogation of Marx begins with his metaphor of standing Hegel on his feet as am illustration of his method. This implies there is little difference between Marx and Hegel – the only substantial difference is that Marx was a materialist, and Hegel was the culmination of German idealism. The dialectics of the two are practically the same. For Althusser this was erroneous and the persistence of this view has heavily distorted Marxism.

Comparing the Hegelian and Marxist dialectic, particularly with reference to the categories of contradiction and totality, Althusser argued that for Hegel, no matter how complex the appearance of social life, the contradictions constituting the social totality were expressions of the unfolding of Reason throughout history toward an absolute end point. This Hegelian dialectic, replete with
a priori essentialism and teleology was present in ‘materialist’ form in some varieties of Marxism, particularly that of the Second International and the Hegelian Marxist tradition stemming from Lukacs. Althusser argues the 2nd International’s doctrine of the inevitability of socialism merely replaced Reason with the fatalist working out of historical tendencies in the economy. In Lukacs reification and alienation from one’s ‘species being’ was identified with proletarian struggle - which was a secularisation of the struggle to overcome alienation and uniting subject and object at the apex of history. Althusser termed these conceptualisations of history/society ‘simple’, or ‘expressive’ totalities.

Althusser’s alternative is to theorise the
complexity of the social whole. In classical Marxism, capitalism's central antagonism is between the forces and relations of production; labour versus capital. For Althusser, identifying class struggle with the central contradiction is based upon an understanding of the mode of production on which every social formation is based. In the case of capitalism, the pursuit of profit is premised on capital struggling to extract an ever greater economic surplus from the workforce. Therefore the 'effectivity' of the economy throughout the social formation is present to a degree that isn’t the case in other modes of production, such as feudalism. There also exist secondary contradictions, which cannot be immediately reduced to the prime antagonism but are nevertheless stamped by it. These secondary contradictions have their own levels of effectivity that feed back onto the original antagonism, leading Althusser to argue that it nor any other contradiction can never exist in its purity. They are always overdetermined by the impact of multiple effectivities operating throughout the social formation. Any political conjuncture (be it an election, a strike or a revolution) is the condensation of class conflict combined articulated with secondary contradictions. Unlike Foucault’s planar social field of undifferentiated power relations Althusser theorises a hierarchy of effectivity that determines the causal weight of the economic, political and ideological instances at any given moment in a social formation’s existence. In other words, Althusser’s famously cryptic comment that the economy only determines in the ‘last instance’ means the economy conditions the limits of variation of contradictions and developments possible in a social formation. It does not imply a strict determination of the superstructure by the economic base, as post-Marxist critics suggest.

What is also valuable in Althusser’s reconstruction of the Marxist dialectic is the importance he attaches to the uneven nature of all social formations. For example, the US is the most technologically advanced capitalist society in existence and yet this sits side by side with mass evangelical and fundamentalist Christian movements that exercise a great deal of influence over its polity. Aswell as recognising a particular degree of determination present at each level of the social formation, Althusser argues they possess internal modes of operation unique to it. With the rejection of expressive totalities Althusser introduces a notion of complex, or non-linear time. To negatively illustrate this, if linear time was a valid conceptual tool one would be able to perform an ‘essential section’ on any given part of society, revealing the congruence between its stage of development and the unfolding of the Idea/Reason behind social development. Because this is illusory the uneven character of a social formation and the irreducibility of its economic, political, and ideological instances means they can only operate according to their own relatively autonomous time scales:
The specificities of these times and histories is therefore differential, since it is based on the differential relations between the different levels within the whole: the mode and degree of independence of each time and history is therefore necessarily determined by the mode and degree of dependence of each level within the set of articulations as a whole (Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar 1997, Reading Capital. London: Verso, p.100).
For Althusser the Marxist dialectic purged of ideological deformations is complex and rigorously materialist. The causal weight assigned to certain practices dispersed throughout the social formation is the result of ongoing processes within the formation rather than expressions of a pre-social essence, be it Hegel’s Geist or Nietzsche’s will to power. Therefore Althusser’s re-reading of Marx presents what Ollman describes as a philosophy of internal relations. Using Althusser's framework in conjunction with Ollman's defence of dialectics the category of abstraction undergoes change. Its chief features of abstraction of extension, of the level of generality, of vantage point combined with the traditional Marxist understanding of the four-fold character of social relations (identity/difference, interpenetration of opposites, quantity to quality, and contradiction) is sharpened when re-embedded in a theoretical background that has social formations as its object, that recognises the materiality of continuities and discontinuities, is aware of and explains the order of different levels, and is fully faithful to explanatory concerns.

This perspective provides a methodological point of departure that has clear advantages over Foucault’s genealogy. While not wishing to repeat Resch’s criticisms, it cannot be emphasised enough that Foucault’s occupation of the low ground, his absolute refusal to theorise a link between the micro and the macro, and his labelling of any such attempt as irredeemably metaphysical is extremely problematic. It has been demonstrated that explanation need not rest on essentialist foundations. But despite the avowed genealogical aims of
Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality his investigation of the formation of penal and sexual subjects at the micro level illustrates the irreducibility of the techniques concerned, elaborates the unique pace of development particular to each set of practices, and importantly, acknowledges the weight of wider social processes and how the micro-level in turn acts on and transforms these macro movements. For example, we have seen how the bourgeois class body informed early discourses of sexuality, which then acted on the macro management problem of population. Likewise the devices used to construct and manage convict-subjects in penal institutions have facilitated the widespread development of similar technologies in schools, hospitals, the workplace, etc.

If one is to ‘annex’ Foucault’s insights and embed them into the explanatory frame sketched out above, then a symptomatic reading similar to the one performed by Althusser on Marx is necessary. This reading must preserve that which illuminates the micro-foundations of contemporary social formations, explore Foucault’s omissions and silences with an eye to filling in the gaps, and decisively break with the heritage bequeathed by Nietzsche that could hinder the explanatory enterprise. The critique performed by Resch on Foucault sketches out some of the contours of such a reading, whereas Althusser had pre-empted many of Poster’s criticisms in his investigation of Marx. On this basis an alliance between Marx and Foucault – with Althusser as permanent mediator – can be forged, breaking down the wall that has so far divided the two camps and beginning a dialogue that can enrich all social theory.

The whole contents of Toward a Marxian/Foucauldian Encounter can be viewed here.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Stupidest Placard Ever

Just when you thought the American hard right couldn't get more stupid, along comes this. It's hard for nomal folk to understand the moronic thought processes that go into producing such crap.

It's generally recognised the American right are having a collective breakdown of sorts. Small state conservatives were sent into a tailspin by Bush's massive bail out of the banks. Fundamentalist Christian types are divided over Obama's weak nods toward economic justice. And the frothing Coulters, Becks and Limbaughs are outraged to find the world doesn't conform to their spiteful-minded view of it. In the mean time the more extreme the conservatives get, the more they will alienate mainstream Americans.

(Photo H/T Left Foot Forward).

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Fantasy Islands

This was first posted by Mark Featherstone last year on Keele's Sociology and Criminology Blog. Mark's work interrogates the ideological use and abuse of utopias, producing demanding but extremely fruitful contributions that sit within the Marxian tradition of ideology critique (examples here and here). You can follow Soc and Crim on Twitter here.

As a sociologist of
utopias, currently engaged in surveying Zygmunt Bauman’s work on liquidity and globalisation, I was interested to read Oliver Burkeman’s ‘Fantasy Islands’ article in last week’s Guardian. I can only imagine that if Bauman himself had read the article he would have found further evidence of the reality of liquid modernity in Burkeman’s examples of fantastic utopias built to travel the world’s oceans. How else can we interpret tall tales of floating cities but as materialisations of the very trends that Bauman discusses in his work on the global elites who surf through life and try to avoid any contract or relationship that might tie them down for any length of time?

Burkeman’s article tells the story of
the fantastic freedom ship, and of Norman Nixon, the CEO of Freedom Ship Inc, the company which proposes to build this floating city capable of housing 60,000 people. If we bracket out knowledge of Bauman’s old socialist critique of the liquid society for a moment, the obvious utopianism of the freedom ship resides in the way in which it engages with fears of climate change, flooding, and the watery world that may await us in the 21st century. Imagine if climate change caused various global cities, such as New York and London, to flood. For the rich inhabitants of these now no-man’s lands, freedom ship style utopias would offer the perfect escape route. What is more, the inhabitants of these new utopias would never have to worry about further floods, since the point of the freedom ship is that it is water-born. Although this catastrophic scenario cannot fail to put one in mind of various cinematic dystopias, such as Kevin Costner’s Mad Max update Waterworld, it is too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the freedom ship simply trades off mythological fears of biblical floods. On the contrary, the idea of the freedom ship as eco-topia speaks to the very real fear of flood present in the post-Katrina world. In the case of the New Orleans catastrophe what separated the haves from the have nots was the ability to flee to higher ground. Is this not exactly what the freedom ship promises those rich enough to buy a residential unit on board?

Burkeman suggests that this is the case because he relates his discussion of Nixon’s freedom ship to the case of Harvard School students Kiduck Kim and Christian Stayner who proposed a similar solution to possible future flooding of New Orleans.
According to the Harvard Grads, the best way to prevent a future Katrina-style catastrophe would be to transform New Orleans into a floating city. Although we should, of course, support such utopian schemes, regardless of how unlikely they are to ever materialise, we have to wonder who exactly would make it on-board the floating city, since it is unlikely that the new construction would be able to carry the entire population of the landed city, even though that population has decreased by almost 60% since the deluge in August 2005. Again, we approach the other side of the floating eco-topias or fantasy islands Burkeman discusses, which is that these places are also libertarian utopias, where the rich have no social responsibility for the poor, and do not have to bother thinking about their neighbours. Moreover, it is not only that the new eco-topias have no need for taxation, but that they also avoid the messy side effects of leaving the poor to rot which continue to plague landed cities – think rising crime, enormous incarceration rates, and neighbourhoods characterised by fear and insecurity - by simply barring the poor access to the ship in the first place. A world without the poor – the rich man’s dream, even if it is probably the capitalist’s worst nightmare.

But before rightists leap to the conclusion that the new eco-topias could potentially kill two birds with one stone by offering to solve the problem of eco-catastrophe and social dis-order, let us consider Burkeman’s final example,
New Utopia, which resides somewhere in the Caribbean, but has its head office in Florida. According to Burkeman this fantasy islands, ruled over by self-proclaimed aristocrat Prince Lazarus Long, has been investigated by the American Security and Exchange Commission and declared a fraudulent internet scheme set on exploiting those rich and stupid enough to think they can buy their way out of the messy reality of human society.

However, regardless of whether the various fantasy islands Burkeman discusses are fraudulent schemes or honest fantasies, they rely on the naivety of their potential inhabitants in the important respect that it is not possible for anybody to escape responsibility for other people in the age of globalisation where we are all so completely inter-connected. Bauman makes this point in many of his books – the radical inter-relatedness of everybody under conditions of globalisation means that we are all responsible for everybody else and that this enormous responsibility is precisely what generates the fantasy of escape in not only the world’s selfish individuals, but also everybody else who cannot but be responsible for the miseries of the global poor. This is why, even if Burkeman’s utopias become material reality, concrete examples of the selfish individualism Bauman talks about in his books on the liquid society, they will always remain nothing more than fantasy islands.

Monday, 14 September 2009

The End is in Sight!

Last week marked something of a milestone in the interminable struggle with my wretched PhD. For the first time ever a draft of the thesis lies about my hard drive in a very scattered and chaotic form, but at least it exists! All that remains now is to hew something legible out of the 95,000 words or so and get it in before the end of November! Simples.

My remaining plan of writing goes something like this. First job is to return to my four year old MRes dissertation on the contemporary history of British Trotskyism and take a huge axe to it. Out goes the extended theoretical discussion of neoliberalism and how it has affected the labour movement in this country, and in comes a discussion of the distinctive characteristics of Leninism and Trotskyism. This will lead into revised histories of the International Socialists/Socialist Workers' Party and Militant/Socialist Party up to the point of my final interviews (summer 2007 - just before the split in Respect). There will then follow short 700 word anonymised biographies of each of my interviewees.

When that is done I'll return to methods, which at the moment is a stitched-together corpse of a chapter closer to Robert De Niro's Frankenstein's Monster than a seamless discussion of in-depth life history interviews and NVivo. I am hoping most of the discussion there is up to scratch and won't entail a massive rewrite - but it has been two years since I last looked at it!

Then comes the biggie. Starting with the first chapter I systematically work my way through to the entire thesis, responding to my supervisor's suggestions and corrections and making sure all arguments reach their logical conclusions. This will be topped off with a revised conclusion and rewritten introduction and hey presto - a fully coherent first draft! Then it's a matter of getting my supervisor to reread it, revise, rereread, revise and then maybe ... just maybe it will be ready to submit.

I can almost feel the relief and elation bubbling through the quantum foam from two months hence. And after that I suppose I'd better look for a job!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Social Media and Business

About 80 North Staffs business-types and yours truly attended a networking breakfast and seminar on social media last Wednesday in Keele's new ball room. No, it wasn't not a prelude to my selling out (which is a mite presumptuous seeing as I have bugger all to sell) - I went along to see what business and institutions thought about the new media and what they are doing with it. All this is with an eye to its political applications. In this first part I will concentrate on the morning's talk and the discussion. The second post will see if politics has anything to learn from what business is doing.

The morning's three speakers all have a successful track record with social media.
Kevin Holdridge is the MD of Kent House, a firm that specialises in building/managing the online presence of its clients. Linda Jones is a blogger who has managed to make the cross over into print media, and is the head of the PR firm, Passionate Media. Lastly Hannah Hiles is Media and Communications Officer for Keele University and has steered Keele's social media strategy. Rosi Monkman of Keele Science and Business Park presided. The audience was a mix of young and old, of businesses with social media experience and none.

Kevin opened with a
few examples from politics that demonstrated the power of online social networks. But because the phenomenon is new and with dozens of applications coming on stream every week no one really knows how to use them.

To make sense of it all, he proposed classifying social media into three groups - social news sites and blogs (characterised by commenting, rating and sharing); user generated content (YouTube etc.) and social networking (Facebook, Twitter
et al). The last represents a huge potential market. Facebook claims 250 million active users. The business networking site, LinkedIn has 365,000 company and 12 million individual profiles.

Business cannot afford to ignore social media. According to Kevin's figures, some 9/10 consumers trust their peers over marketing. This matters when 25 per cent of search results for the top 20 brands are generated by social networks and that some 34 per cent of bloggers have written opinion pieces on brands. Perhaps sensing a relatively unique marketing opportunity he flagged up Ford's campaign for the US introduction of the Fiesta as a way of making use of the networks. In addition to traditional campaigning, Ford gave 100 bloggers a free car for six months in exchange for regular blog posts about their experience. The net result was a buzz on the campaign and the product, converting the blogs and the networks they are part of into effective publicity multipliers.

For Kevin social media is more than a fancy means of advertising. It lets companies get a snapshot of the market and of what competitors, vendors and (potential) customers are saying. They offer a new means of developing a presence and an identity. Business can communicate and engage while fulfilling traditional customer service functions - sometimes at lower cost. But as with most things, one needs to adopt a strategy that is attuned to the medium. For starters it should be listening and be willing to talk. Don'ts include
not creating large corporate identity that projects a monolithic image to the public. Nor should one lose sight of the people in one's social network, or respond in kind to negative comments or criticisms aimed at your company or product.

In sum business needs to take ownership of what it's doing, determine its goals, focus on the customer experience, understand the new landscape and build a business case for taking part.

Linda began her talk with a well worn business cliche that bears remembering: people buy from people. And some firms are using social media to get their heads around this truism. Linda also blogs at
havealovelytime.com, which is a family-friendly holiday recommendation site run by and for parents. Unsurprisingly some companies have shown an interest and have given writers free holidays in return for a review. One example Linda used was Butlins, who are trying to move away from their traditional red coat image into broader holidaying-at-home markets. Lovelytime's resort review - like the Ford case - gets their new look talked about in the networks who use the site, which again can act as a publicity multiplier at little cost versus traditional "closed" market surveys. There are negatives from Butlins' point of view - it's risky because they're opening their resorts to "commissioned" criticism. On the other hand if they are seen to respond to criticism it lifts their reputation as a listening company. So here you have an illustration of how businesses can interact with social media. By inviting the networks in and engaging with them the result can be invaluable feedback and PR gold.

Her general advice for businesses thinking about social media use was two-fold. First is the development of a proper personality, of giving the firm a human face. This means dumping management-speak and engaging in normal relationships with people. The biggest don't is spamming and hard selling. The second is to remember this is about building and enhancing relationships, not hectoring and lecturing. Time and effort invested in building a community around the company can look impressive to casual viewers, potential clients and customers. Linda concluded the best social media relationships are based on trust and over the long-term they can bring excellent results.

Hannah gave a more nuts and bolts talk about Keele's social media strategy, which can be summed up in her presentation's title: 'You've got a friend'. Social networking allows the university to know what people are saying about it and engage directly but informally with past, present and prospective students.

Keele almost accidentally stumbled into a social media strategy. The official Keele Facebook group was set up in January 2007 after an unofficial alumni group by a postgrad spurred the press department into action.
Keele on Twitter followed not long after as did LinkedIn (which has proven especially useful for tracking alumni) and YouTube.

For Hannah, the internet is now the first port of call for almost every inquiry. But the growth of social networking means the university cannot always control the information searches might turn up. It is essential for Keele to engage in these networks - and the very act of engagement can show the university in a positive light. For example details of Keele's various homes on the web are sent along with the traditional packs sent to prospective students. They can sign up to the Facebook group and speak to current undergrads and members of staff who can introduce them to Keele and answer any questions they may have. It's also helping transform the student experience. Social media is allowing students to make friends
before they set foot on campus.

Using Twitter enables it to have a 'personality'. A lot of universities only use Twitter as a means of disseminating their press releases, but Keele have tried and successfully built a responsive community around the account. What Hannah does is always respond if a message is received and every so often searches Twitter for references to the university. For example, she saw someone had tweeted their dilemma choosing between Keele and two other institutions. A few exchanges were had and later he got in touch to say he decided to apply. Of course Hannah doesn't claim he chose Keele on the basis of a Twitter exchange, but it might have contributed to his decision.

As the other speakers noted, social media lets you see what competitors are doing, it can raise your profile and brand recognition. But the downsides from a media management perspective are as much properties of the medium too. For businesses used to measuring performance in terms of facts and figures there are no real tried and tested ways of assessing the impact of social media. This makes it and difficult to determine how many resources to allocate to it. But what was also crucial for Hannah is patience and persistence - if one's social media architecture lies abandoned or poorly maintained it looks very bad.

Unfortunately there was time for only a few questions. One asked how do you find the appropriate networks? Hannah replied for Twitter that directories like
WeFollow are a good place to begin.

I asked about how they would handle flak and negative comments? I drew a distinction between my political blogging, where it doesn't really matter if one adopts a "robust" approach to criticism, and the need for business and institutional actors to maintain a certain reputation. For Linda, because her work is inseparable from her personalised image she has the same range of freedom to reply if she wished. But all three thought they should be engaged with to find out what the issue was (obviously depending on the nature of the complaint). Nevertheless this sort of feedback is free to access and instantaneous, so it saves money AND time.

Lastly, someone asked how many hours does a social media operation take. The answer was - rightly - how long is a piece of string? Managing social media is very dynamic and varies from day to day. The rule Hannah applies to Keele is as much as it takes - but it can free up time in other areas. For example, in a recent project Lisa was engaged in she did not have to spend time chasing after the press and trying to get them to print a feature - and yet it was still a success.

Some of this stuff will be ABC for politicos already familiar with social media. But there are a number of matters arising which makes things slightly different for politics, as we shall see in the second part.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Women Chainmakers' Festival

Your humble authors ventured out on a day trip to the Black Country Living Museum for the fifth annual festival marking of the women chainmakers' strike of 1910. It was a vitally important victory for the labour movement, which established a trade board that enforced a minimum wage in the chain making industry. Once the principle was established trade boards spread to other industries. It wasn't until Thatcher came in that this important reform was clawed back by the ruling class, which was eventually re-implemented through New Labour's national minimum wage. Because of their victory the take home pay of millions of Britain's most exploited workers improved and strengthened the bargaining position of labour for the best part of a century.

Moving forward to the 99th anniversary celebrated today Brother S and I joined in the festivities (thanks to
North Staffs TUC) on what must have been the nicest day of the year. We took a trip down the pit, checked out the newly-built Workers' Institute building (moved brick-by-brick from Cradley Heath), had some fine fish & chips, went on a march, potted about the main museum building and missed speeches and debates in the Left Field union tent (incidentally, why did Bookmarks stall, 'the official book supplier to the TUC' sell titles only from the SWP and no other political party? Just askin').

It's a miracle I avoided sun burn. There were thousands attending so some will be suffering as I write this.

But it was an excellent day. Already it's acquiring a reputation as the West Midland's answer to the
Tolpuddle Martyrs festival and the Durham Miners' Gala. I hope next year our TUC takes more of us down (there was eight this time) and that visitors' ranks are filled with trade unionists and socialists from across the country. And who knows, perhaps it would be a good time for an overdue leftie twitter/blogger meet up?

Friday, 11 September 2009

Remembering September 11th

The attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the destruction of United Airlines flight 93 on a September morning eight years ago has become a defining moment of our age. Quite apart from those directly affected by the attacks, the globalisation of the media ensured they were experienced by everyone with access to a radio, a television and an internet connection. This has meant we all have our own experience of September 11th, our own stories to tell.

I had just finished an 8-2 shift and was taking a slow walk home when one of my regular customers pulled up. As she was heading in the direction of Hanley she asked me if I fancied a lift and never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I accepted. As she was driving she told me a couple of jets had been hijacked in America. So I phoned forward to home to tell CBC to put News 24 on.

When I got in I wasn't at all prepared for what the telly was showing me. Vast plumes of smoke were streaming out of jagged holes punched in the sides of the Twin Towers. The clipped efficient tones of Jane Hill informed us what had happened, following it up with footage of the second plane striking the south tower of the World Trade Centre. I remember getting online and trying to access news websites on my rusty dial up connection - but there was no chance. BBC, ITN and even Ananova were impossible to load. Shortly after this the BBC broadcast footage of smoke billowing out of the side of the Pentagon.

I can remember we were both stunned. We watched as it all unfolded on TV - the collapse of the towers, Bush being informed, Blair's first statement, speculation about who was responsible. I was able to get onto the UK Left Network and wrote a brief post breaking the news to the list. Perversely, thanks to some of the more cracked elements of the far left having a presence, it was only three hours after my post that the first conspiracy theory did the rounds and some started lauding the attacks as an anti-imperialist action against the USA that should be welcomed.
Nevertheless there was a list consensus the USA and UK would use September 11th as a pretext to erode existing civil liberties and to launch wars against troublesome Middle Eastern regimes. Predictions that have unfortunately come to pass.

As the day wore on into evening and night our TV remained on. I remember hearing unconfirmed reports a fourth jet had been destroyed, that coordinated truck bomb attacks against government targets were feared and lastly, before we headed to bed, news of missile strikes on unspecified positions in Afghanistan.

Over the next few days there were discussions at work and furious debates on the far left about who was responsible, why it was done and what would an appropriate response be. Anti-imperialism and building an anti-war movement were at the forefront.

Looking back at it now, personally speaking the tragedy did not affect me politically beyond bringing into sharp relief some of the arguments I'd been convinced of years previously. Politically and culturally as defining a moment it was, had the attacks not happened I doubt the early 21st century would have been much different. The erosion of civil liberties has been a long term tendency going right back to Thatcher in the 1980s. Afghanistan and Iraq were already in the crosshairs of the Bush presidency. The September 11th attacks acted as a catalyst, speeding up the implementation of existing domestic and foreign policy objectives.

As I said, everyone has a September 11th story. Where were you when you heard about it? What did you do? Has it affected your politics? Let's hear what Completely Sectarian, Everyone's Favourite Comrade, Dave's Part, Enemies of Reason, HarpyMarx, The Daily (Maybe), HC Leftie, Shiraz Socialist, Splintered Sunrise, Stroppyblog and Though Cowards Flinch have to say.