Sunday, 22 October 2017

Oxbridge and the Reproduction of the Ruling Class






















It's one of the great ironies of contemporary capitalism. The early 21st century gives off the impression of living in an age of rapid change, and that is true in some aspects. But in others, particularly relating to matters of class and economics, things are a deal more static. Not only is there a strong tendency toward stagnation, but our supposedly dynamic system is seizing up. The standard of living is flatlining and increasingly financed on the never-never, social mobility is down and the upper echelons of society are seeing the privileged and well-heeled pensioned off and replaced by ... the privileged and well-heeled. That's why the news of Oxbridge getting even narrower came as zero surprise.

According to the research, the top two income groups grew their share of successful applicants from 79% to 81%. Shock horror the Home Counties received more offers of a place than the entirety of northern England - some 2,812 vs 2,619, and despite not insignificant sums both universities spend on widening participation. This isn't the result of some crude conspiracy to keep out northerners and people from modest income brackets but a consequence of the relationship between inequality and educational attainment, a subject well studied and a link between the two generally accepted. Of course, in case the hard-of-thinking might be reading this, noting the impact of inequality on formal qualifications isn't to say working class kids don't do well and don't get sent up to Oxbridge, but it does mean the odds are stacked against them and are therefore less likely to.

Attending an Oxbridge college does offer tremendous opportunities. The programme of study is more intensive than that offered at virtually any other institution (Oxford alone is in receipt of £800m from the government alone per year, which helps pay for all those tutors). It requires students to deepen the kinds of analytical and presentation skills as standard that one finds among exceptional and auto-didactic students elsewhere, and allows for the cultivation of unmatched quantities of cultural and social capital. Cultural in that aptitudes acquired endows one with a habitus, or a set of conscious and unconscious dispositions that are advantageous when encountering the mores and expectations of the rarefied and privileged fields that cluster atop our society. And social because of the networks. Not only is an Oxbridge graduate more likely to know and be tied to people from privileged backgrounds, those linkages are passports to useful contacts and powerful jobs. They form part of the stretchy social glue that sees our establishment politics and, in some cases, our radical politics dominated by people who attended the same colleges doing the same degree programmes. This is why Oxbridge supplies almost a third of MPs, an overwhelming number of national journalists, increasing numbers of media personalities, senior civil servants, top lawyers, and, of course, the top managerial staff of British business.

If Oxbridge plays a pivotal role in the social and cultural reproduction of the ruling class and those who support it, then why the panic about thinning participation? Why do the runners and the riders of this story care so long as elites are turned out uninterruptedly? Partly, the huge stress on social mobility rhetoric from Blair onwards represents a set of strategies by the state to substitute its activities for the slowing up of social mobility. Post-war Keynesianism wasn't a golden age, but it did redistribute opportunity (and depress inequality) thanks to the expansion of clerical and managerial work in the state owned industries. The huge growth of further and higher education, as well as an extension of the state bureaucracy worked as transmission belts. The unleashing of the market was met by a seizing up of the mechanism. In an age of dog-eat-dog and privatised self-reliance, those who start out with advantage are always likely to do better. So while, for instance, a working class youngster is more likely to attend university in 2017 than 1997 or 1977 the opportunities beyond that exist in limited numbers except if you went to one of the elite institutions. The end of social mobility is a problem because the more our elites draw from a narrow segment of the population, the less they look like everyone else and that raises problems of legitimacy. You only have to look at our politicians and the general antipathy towards them to know why this matters.

Should the left add its voices to this critique of Oxbridge and the need for them to open up? Absolutely not. The problem isn't that the two universities are too selective, it's their being vectors of ruling class dominance. They are but the apex of a system riddled with class demarcation and snobbery, both in terms of institutional rankings and irrelevant disciplinary hierarchies - something the government's ludicrous market in higher education only reinforces. The answer isn't the abolition of Oxbridge, but in taking on and destroying these circuits of class. A flattening of entry criteria is part of the process, but the real key is massive investment along the lines of Labour's proposed life long education service, one that allows all institutions the resources to provide the intensive experience Oxbridge offers. Not only does this widen opportunity and the availability, and has the added bonus of cutting against the Conservative Party, it disrupts the established strategies of ruling class reproduction. What's not to like?

Friday, 20 October 2017

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Fisking Mark Wallace Fisking Young Labour

























What is the point of fisking? They were all the rage back in the halcyon days of the UK Left Network. The point-by-point rebuttal of another contribution largely fell out of use with the passing of first age of political blogging. Yet nostalgia freaks occasionally enjoy giving the form a dusting down. Mark Wallace of Conservative Home is the latest to wheel one out, taking objection as he does to the anti-imperialism/anti-NATO statement agreed by Young Labour's conference last weekend. He says "Impressively, it is stuffed to the brim with ahistorical nonsense – basing its pitch on what appears at best to be a total misunderstanding of British and world history." Bold claims. Let's see how his fisk goes by subjecting his fisk to a fisk. YoungLab are in bold and Mark is in italics. Seat belts ready?

Since at least the mid-nineteenth century, the relationship between ‘the West’ and the rest of the world has been one defined by imperialism

At least the mid-nineteenth century’? If you’re going to cast yourself as an anti-imperialist, at least appreciate the true length of the history of imperialism.

How very dare Young Labour. Because they haven't condemned the Romans for occupying Gaul nor criticised the Spanish sacking of South America, how can these preposterous people possibly call themselves anti-imperialists? Amateurs.

Mark isn't a stupid man, but like most Tories he can't help but be disingenuous. He knows there's a world of difference between the imperialism of slaver societies, absolutist regimes and the imperialism of 19th century colonialism. In his more honest moments he might recognise the hierarchy of nations that dominate the world (the Tories' desire to crawl up the United States' backside, in spite of its idiot president, shows they do), and acknowledge this dominance is wielded in ways some might find problematic, even if he doesn't. And though he disagrees with their analysis, he might accept there is a collection of scholarly work that traces the lineage of these relationships from the War on Terror back through the Cold War, the World Wars and to the pulse of imperial plunder and annexation that establishes a line of evolutionary continuity between them. What continuity might that be? The forcible integration of peoples and territories into the world market to the benefit of the leading powers.

… the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was formed, in order to enshrine the dominance of American interests.

Or to protect the free, democratic nations of Western Europe from a very real threat of invasion or destruction by the Soviet Union. The Young Labour version of these events is straight out of Stalin’s lines-to-take – and a huge, shameful misrepresentation of the decision of the Attlee Labour Government to join NATO in the first place.

Is this supposed to be a refutation? The United States weren't persuaded of the necessity of rebuilding Western Europe and guaranteeing its security out of charitable or avuncular concerns, but because it believed it was in its interests to do so. It's why it overthrew the liberal democratic (and anti-communist!) government of Jacobo √Ārbenz in Guatemala and backed the absolutist monarchy of the Shah of Iran until his overthrow. As Henry Kissinger famously observed, "America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests". America's wars and police actions sometimes enforce economic objectives, and at other times are designed to shock and awe would-be opponents and challengers, and as the US favours confronting weak regimes it gives others an impetus to try and match them.

Second, there was never any threat from the USSR in the immediate aftermath of the war. As this analysis by the RAND corporation - a nest of pro-Soviet apology if there ever was one - makes clear, Western intelligence on the Soviet military was poor. While it concedes the American and British armies demobilised very quickly, it also notes many opposing units and divisions in the East had an existence that didn't extend beyond Stalin's filing cabinet. Nor did Western accounts recognise troop quality. It was only in the latter stages of the war after force of numbers had ground Nazi Germany down that the Red Army could be considered better fed and equipped than the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS. After the devastation visited on Eastern Europe and the resources thrown into reconstruction and acquiring a bomb, your average Soviet soldier was still more likely to suffer worse rations, be barracked in worse accommodation and handle dud equipment than Western forces. This matters, as the huge number of Soviet war dead vis a vis that inflicted on Germany brutally demonstrates.

Third, who's talking about Attlee? Seeing as Young Labour don't mention the 1945 government and focuses on America's role in NATO, it's a clumsy and desperate aside to suggest a "shameful misrepresentation" when there is no representation at all.

Between 1945 and 2000, American imperialism bombed at least 27 countries, assassinated or attempted to assassinate thirty world leaders and tried to overthrow forty governments

I’m not sure ‘American imperialism’ is a person or state, but assuming the author means ‘America’, which exact actions are included in this list? To reach ’27 countries’, the list would have to include: the 1995 campaign to prevent Serbian forces in Bosnia, which had just committed the Srebrenica massacre, from carrying out further atrocities; missile strikes against Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan in 1998; and bombing Iraqi forces which had invaded Kuwait in 1991. Are Young Labour of the opinion that these actions should not have taken place?

As misdirection and whataboutery goes, this lunge is as clumsy as Mark's use of the semi-colon. He knows there are grisly skeletons knocking about the State Department's closet, like the aforementioned Guatemala. And, thanks to a recent document dump, America's collusion in the murder of 500,000 Indonesians. The one thing that unites these barbarities with the 90s heroism against targets barely able to fire back are interests. If Bush senior and Bill Clinton were in the business of smiting evils, where was the intervention against the sinking of Rwanda into depraved slaughter? That's right, from the State Department's point of view US interests were unaffected, so they stayed away and wrung their hands. I also have no doubt Young Labour would have opposed the actions listed because they have a more advanced understanding of the dynamics and drivers of American military action while Mark's analysis owes more to Autobots vs Decepticons then anything considered and thoughtful.

‘Such episodes include the wars of aggression in Korea in the 1950s …’

Sorry, what? The Korean War was sparked by the North, under Kim Il-Sung, invading the South. It wasn’t a ‘war of aggression’ on the part of the US, or the wider West. Nor was it a NATO action – the defence was mounted by the United Nations. If we hadn’t defended South Korea, then the whole Korean peninsula would now be a hellhole, not just the northern half. Does Young Labour wish that South Korea did not exist as a free and sovereign nation?

And we're off to disingenuous territory again. Young Labour know the Korean War had nothing to do with NATO. Which is why their point three submits that America has bombed "at least 27 countries", to which they follow up "Such episodes [emphasis mine] includes wars of aggression in Korea in the 1950s ...". If you can't argue honestly, it's not worth arguing at all - especially when your half arsed deception is easily exposed. But on the question of Korea itself, while I would accept that describing the American-led UN intervention as an act of aggression is suspect, nevertheless the utter devastation visited upon the north by the US Air Force set the pattern for the shock and awe that was to follow in Vietnam and Iraq. More bombs were dropped on North Korea than the entirety of Europe during the Second World War. The North's claims that only two buildings in Pyongyang made it through the conflict unscathed sound, for once, credible. Also, Mark can chalk up ignorance about the political economy and social development of North Korea as another thing about which he knows little. The country is obviously a hellhole, and a lot of this has to do with its response to abandonment by the USSR and having to maintain its own Cold War frontier itself. The division of Korea has distorted its development. Had the country united under a Stalinist regime it's unlikely to have assumed the absurd proportions of the Kim monarchy and would probably be a lot like contemporary China. Being able to suggest credible scenarios on the basis of analysing social trends and dynamics is a wonderful thing.

The collapse of Communism post-1989 rendered any real logical justification for NATO moot, since the European glacial states no longer needed defence ...

Try telling that to NATO member states in Eastern Europe like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, who feel a very real need for defence against a certain neighbour which has carried out cyber- and real-world attacks against their institutions and citizens.

I knew this would get wheeled out. The West's relations with Russia after the Cold War and fall of the Soviet Union could have been very different. Putin is certainly no friend of leftwing politics. He is a Great Russian chauvinist in the same vein as dear old Uncle Joe, sans the gratuitous brutality but capable of matching him for cynicism and ruthlessness. Yet Putin, like any leader, didn't simply pop out of nowhere. He hasn't stayed atop Russian politics by violence and ballot rigging alone - there is genuine popular support, even if it is fraying and under increasing challenge. Nevertheless, Putin's appeal lies in restoring national pride and prestige to a great power fallen on hard times, and here he has the West - particularly NATO and the State Department - to thank for his aggrieved, Russia-is-hard-done-to narrative. There is a prolonged and running dispute over the assurances given to the USSR during the negotiation over a reunited Germany about whether NATO would expand Westwards. The Russians say the West ruled out an expansion of membership after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and various Western diplomats say no such assurances were given. Alas, the documentary evidence bears the Russians out. From Russia's point of view, running troll farms, buzzing NATO aircraft and piling into the Ukraine conflict are entirely legitimate responses to what they see as aggressive moves by powers that didn't keep to their word. Perhaps if the West had kept to its promises, we might not even have Putin running the show and Russia could have turned out an altogether happier place.

…the European glacial states…

Isn’t that a peculiar phrase? In fact, a Google search reveals this motion is the only time the precise term ‘European glacial states’ has ever been used online. It seems to be an auto-correct of ‘glacis states’, ie the Eastern European states used by the Soviet Union as a defensive rampart or buffer zone. Indeed, it would be more common in English to use the words buffer zone, or Warsaw Pact countries, or former Communist countries – ‘glacis states’ is the preferred name in Trotskyist terminology.

As a former Trot who was variously involved in Trottery for 15 years, I've never encountered this term. Rather it appears to be an academic term used by a small number of scholars discussing the USSR's East European satellites. Why make the claim, then? I can only suppose Mark is trying to discredit YL by implying they're a bunch of Trots. If anything, the politics of the YL statement sounds very official communism-y, but that's for another time.

In order to regain an ideological justification, NATO member-states, including the UK, pursued a policy of wars of aggression against predominantly Muslim countries, first in Afghanistan ...

Yes, that’s why we invaded Afghanistan. Nothing to do with 9/11 at all. Also, why has the author leapt from ‘the collapse of Communism post-1989’ to Afghanistan in 2001? Given the author’s apparent interest in the history of NATO operations, why has he missed off the campaign to protect Bosnian civilians from Serbian war crimes, or the campaign to protect Kosovo from similar atrocities?

Why has Young Labour leaped from discussing Eastern European to Afghanistan? Well, if you read the original statement it's pretty obvious. YL is claiming the end of the Cold War robbed NATO of its justification, and suddenly, post September 11th, it had a raison d'etre again. Either Mark has temporarily misplaced his capacity to follow an argument that builds on preceding claims (YL's paragraphs are numbered for a reason) or bad faith got the better of him. I'll leave it up to the reader to judge.

... then in Iraq.

Which wasn’t a NATO war. Remember Bush putting together the ‘coalition of the willing’ for that precise reason? NATO’s presence in Iraq dated from 2004, as a training mission after the invasion. Is Young Labour of the opinion that once the Iraq War had taken place, there shouldn’t have been an effort to retrain the Iraqi police and military in the hope of stabilising the situation?

Mark's lost the ability to read as well. Young Labour here says NATO member states (italicised for Mark's benefit) were determined to give the alliance a lick of ideological paint. The only way the YL statement is wrong is if the US and Britain weren't NATO members, or the US and Britain didn't attack Iraq.

These wars did nothing to make the citizens of Western countries safer; instead they fuelled Islamophobia at home and intense resentment abroad.

We can argue forever about the security impact of Afghanistan and Iraq – though it seems unlikely that leaving Al Qaeda free to operate in Afghanistan unimpeded even after 9/11 would have made us any safer either. More generally, it is a fallacious argument that the reason for the Islamist threat to the West is foreign policy, when in reality it is grounded in a fundamental opposition to our existence and way of life. Furthermore, if the author is concerned about ‘intense resentment abroad’, what does he think the reaction would have been if the West had sat on its hands and done nothing to defend muslim civilians in Bosnia and Kosovo?

Why is it a fallacious argument? In the 1980s Islamism was variously encouraged by the West, and America in particular. They enabled the creation of an international brotherhood of fundamentalists who, after the collapse of the USSR in Afghanistan, then turned their sights on Western interests. Then with the series of wars in the Middle East, the aiding and abetting of Israel's murderous assaults on Gaza, the blockade and invasion of Iraq, too many drone strikes to count that have killed innocent civilians, and the wave of Islamophobia in the West itself, you might start understanding that the growth of Islamist terrorism is linked to grievances and resides in a dialectical relationship to the policies and actions of Western states. A couple of weeks ago Mark nodded through a piece on how the Spanish state is fuelling and exacerbating nationalist grievances in Catalonia by its stupid heavy handedness. He therefore understands how actions and reactions interplay and can escalate situations. Except, it seems, when the topic of Islamism is to hand.

Today Donald Trump stands astride NATO ...

What does ‘stands astride NATO’ even mean? Trump is famously a sceptic and critic of NATO – placing him closer to Young Labour’s position than to that of the alliance.

If Mark had bothered quoting the rest of the paragraph, he'd know attention is being drawn to the fact an idiot and a narcissist has the world's most powerful military at his fingertips. Rather than be concerned about this situation Mark would presumably like us to cosy on up to Donald Trump in the manner of his dear leader.

Jeremy Corbyn is a long-time opponent of imperialism and aggressive wars.

Unless they’re imperialist or aggressive wars prosecuted by people who dislike the West, of course. This point appears to be the actual purpose of the motion – they’d have done better not to have bothered writing the rest of it.

If there is any such evidence of this "support" we would have heard about it by now. But there is none. Since becoming leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn has continued to comment on conflicts around the globe and has consistently argued for negotiated settlements in Syria, in Israel and Palestine, to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims, to the crisis in Venezuela and many more besides. In the same two years what has Mark's party done? While denouncing Corbyn for chumming up with Venezuela, the Tories have sold them actual weapons. As they've attacked Jeremy for giving succour to Islamist radicals, they've been caught apologising for and receiving gifts from the most disgusting fundamentalist regime of them all. And so it goes.

There you have it, a fisking thinking it reflects the historical record but is a stream-of-consciousness mess of misdirection, woolly and wishful positions, whataboutery, bad faith and a demonstrable inability to comprehend basic English. Remember, Mark is supposed to be one of the smart Tories. If this is all their brightest can manage, they're further up shit creek than I thought.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Altermodernity and the Common















While we're discussing the future and seeing as Michael Hardt is in the big smoke discussing his latest collaboration with Toni Negri, I want to come back to the Empire trilogy for a look at what they have to say about it. After all, their perspective is fundamentally hopeful as it notes the emergence of immaterial labour as the strategic source of surplus value makes transparent the exploitative foundation of profit and, objectively speaking, tilts the balance of power away from capital and to the growing mass of socialised/networked workers. There are countervailing tendencies, of course, and it's tough to maintain an optimistic cast of mind in a gloomy age such as ours, but there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. The translation of Corbynism into a mass force is one of them, the cut through of Bernie Sanders in the citadel of global capitalism another.

Like Marx before them, Hardt and Negri's theory of communism is rooted in class struggle, albeit one that assumes newer, different forms. While developing Marx's concept what they also share is an appreciation of how the new society is rooted in the realities of the present. The whole 'socialism/communism is fine in theory but rubbish in practice' objection is ignorant of Marx and Engels's own arguments against grand blueprints. In Marxism, the promise of a world after capitalism is latent not just because we have the technical wherewithal to produce enough for everyone, everywhere, but because its reproduction depends increasingly on planning - both in terms of meeting market signals and clearing up after the mess for-profit production tends to make - and because the increasing socialisation of labour and the dense webs of interdependency characterising it renders capital ever more superfluous. Marx knew well capital's tendency to become a fetter on the productive forces it unleashed, and nothing sums that up better than Theresa May's Britain with its appallingly low productivity and its cutting up and dividing low waged, low skilled labour intensive jobs and calling it job creation.

For Hardt and Negri, the new terrain of class struggle is the common. The move to immaterial labour makes the languages we use, the knowledge we create, the ideas we think up, the information we generate, the symbols we craft, the relations we forge and the identities we become the key vector for wealth generation and therefore capture by capital. This is the very stuff of social life: the social production of people, networks, and communities. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the front line of the class struggle is the battle for the human soul. That means so-called identity politics are as important to the struggle against capital as the more traditional forms of class struggle. The social and the economic are entirely fused, which means capital is everywhere but also so are its points of vulnerability. Class struggle now assumes a swarm-like aspect of autonomous struggles, all rooted in the common, all fighting commercial invasion and capture/appropriation of their wealth, our commonwealth. As Hardt and Negri put it, the "Multitude is thus a concept of applied parallelism, able to group together the specificity of altermodern struggles, which are characterised by relations of autonomy, equality and interdependencies among vast multiplicities of singularities" (Commonwealth 2009, p.111).

A politics based on the common, a society becoming conscious of itself as an interconnected substance obviously breaks with capitalism. It has laid the ground work for a global commons, and now the job is done. Humanity is increasingly able to take its own destiny in hand without the anarchic tyrannies of the market. What is slow emerging is what Hardt and Negri call the altermodern, or altermodernity, a position that explicitly identifies with "the now" but promises an alternative to it. Effectively, it is a simultaneous a break with and a preservation of modern civilisation, or modernity, and therefore opposed to the various anti-modernities, postmodernisms, and reflexive/unfinished modernities of mainstream social theory. It is also at odds with, gasp, socialism.

While Marx and Engels, and arguably Lenin did not identify socialism with state ownership, Labourism certainly has. In the received tradition of the party, the route to the good life is not through collective and democratic organisation of the people that make our movement, but through representation. Our job is to elect people to Parliament who'll pilot progressive legislation through the House. Socialism here is taking industry out of private ownership and centralising it through economies of scale under the leadership of a cadre of managers. From this point of view there was little qualitative difference between state property in a liberal democracy and state property in a Stalinist dictatorship; it was merely a question of degree. It also meant Labour were disarmed by Thatcher's populist attack on bloated nationalised industry and its inefficiencies, but that's for another time. For Hardt and Negri, statist ownership is at odds with common ownership. Whether you were part of the social factory of post-war Britain or the (authoritarian) state factory of the post-war USSR, workers were kept down and held back, their aspirations frustrated and sublimated, their bodies and brains exploited for the benefit of others. Further, they gone on to argue one of the contributing factors to the USSR's collapse was its inability to foster the dynamism of the common, which was present but largely smothered and heavily policed by its overweening party/state. One reason for China's success is that a less hands on authoritarianism has allowed for the emergence of a policed and surveilled common, but one in permanent antagonistic tension with the fused dictatorship of capital and the party. The common, even under dictatorships, is always producing new relations and becoming the basis of something else. It cannot but resist and work around the brutal rigidity of authoritarianism.

If we understand modernity as class rule in advanced societies, then the modernities theorised by Beck, Giddens and Habermas properly belong to the same intellectual tradition. For Beck, by way of a quick precis, his work was based around the suggestion that class as the main antagonism had been usurped by a proliferation of risk. This ranged from the likelihood of nuclear war and environmental disasters to the small-scale risks invading everyday life. Politics was increasingly a matter of managing risk, and our mode of being oriented to identifying, preparing and mitigating them. Anthony Giddens largely agreed and gave it his own spin in his sketching out of the 'Third Way'. Based on his earlier arguments around reflexive modernisation, the advanced societies had developed tools, media and institutions of such sophistication that, theoretically, these can be turned on ourselves and to monitor the collective behaviour of societies and intervene to address risks and persistent social problems. For Jurgen Habermas, the modern is indissociable from the intellectual and artistic flowering attending the Enlightenment. The blows struck then for science and reason remain as latent potentials in the modern and are yet to be realised, hence his regarding modernity as an "unfinished project". Despite Giddens' forays into 'life politics' (i.e. postmodernised identity politics, albeit without the overtone of atomistic conflict), Beck's concern with individualism and Habermas and his theory of communicative action, these are effectively social democratic theories, statist theories overly concerned with institutional responses to new challenges. The agent of liberation is not the multitude but the dour lander bureaucrat, and the coiffured Labour politician with a photogenic grin. They do not challenge the logics of the times but swims with them.

The altermodern then is composed of three lines of struggle - the realisation of the constitutive power of the common against the sovereign power (even in its representative forms), what Hardt and Negri call 'absolute democracy'. Then there is the legacy bequeathed by the workers' movement and its elaboration by Marxism, warts and all. And lastly, not really touched on here but theorised across the Empire trilogy, the struggles against colonialism and racialised rule. All these have and continue to feed into the melting pot of a common growing aware of its collective intellect and the shared basis of its interests. Parallelism is more than an ethic of resistance, but the condition for the flows of solidarity and interdependency between the singularities (i.e. identity locations) of the multitude.

As we have seen previously, the hegemonic position occupied by the socialised worker means there are no longer any hegemonic positions. Everyone is networked, and there is no one sector of social production in which capital is uniquely strategically vulnerable. Opportunities open and close, and depend on the state of the opposing class, the organisation and understanding of the workers. The end of hegemony in this sense means a new place for the intellectual in the coming complex of the altermodern. Their role is not as a cadre of activist priests who keep the revealed truths to themselves, a la sundry vanguards of old but perform the standard role of critique, of following the example of Marx and Engels and translating the experiences of movements into concepts that demystify the social world, that work with others to realise new norms and develop the institutions of our collective, constituent power. This is an intellectual who is not above or separate from the common but are part of it, are completely inside of it and sees their contributions merge with others in building the altermodernity to come.

Corbynism is our tear in the fabric of capital, a moment through which millions have poured and are becoming something much more exciting and dangerous than "socialism fans". The end of capitalism is talked about, socialism is talked about, and communism in its new fully automated luxury/space guise is abroad. It's possible because class struggle has picked up, and occasioning it is a huge outpouring of creativity and thinking. And the most exciting thing? We're only at the beginning of this time of awakening.

Image source

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Corbynism and the White Heat of Technology



















What do the Tories offer? Putting aside the squabbling and the Brexit meltdown, there isn't a great deal. At the beginning of her blighted reign Theresa May promised a rosy picture of a one nation Britain in which everyone had their place and everyone got on. This was 50s Toryism respun, a kindlier, industrious society (except for immigrants and recipients of social security) where racism became a bad memory and the proceeds of wealth were shared more fairly. Accused of channelling her inner Ed Miliband, this was thin gruel. But coming after six years of Dave who, in many ways, appeared to be the continuity of Blair/Brown and who, in their turn, left the Thatcherite settlement untouched, May's Toryism seemed fresh. Her initial success and thumping poll leads weren't just down to making a hard Brexit her own. Believe it or not, she represented change and got the plaudits for it.

18 months is an eternity in politics, especially when instability hits and events accelerate. Now it is Jeremy Corbyn who is the change candidate and Labour the vehicle for rethinking politics and trying something new. Therefore his speech at the Co-op Party's conference presented an opportunity to consolidate this position, and he did not disappoint. Our Jez grabbed the headlines by conceding Philip Hammond's charge that Labour was a threat to his economic model. Too right, but the populist flourish wasn't the main point. What was is the vision of the future as a better place in which people are not just better off because of sound policies, but the application of technology to enhance our lives.

It being the Co-operative conference, it was entirely right to float ideas from Labour's Alternative Models of Ownership report. Singling out the new wave of parasites enabling then feeding off the so-called gig economy, he raises the prospects of using digital architectures to facilitate cooperative businesses that can displace and out-compete the Ubers and the Deliveroos. As we have seen, because their business models can only operate by cornering markets there is a very clear public interest such monopolies are broken up or cooperatised. Indeed, he is broadly in favour of extending cooperative business - not least because the standard share holder model of ownership leads to wealth concentration and, in Britain's case, the present investment strike and the consequent tumbling productivity figures.

More importantly, in moving on to robotics and automation Jez suggested their use cannot be inseparable from increasing workers' control. Indeed, when we consider the dire warnings of an employment apocalypse thanks to the possible obsolescence of thousands of job roles, the surest way of avoiding that is ensuring workers have input and control over the design and implementation of new technologies. You can bet if the next wave of automation happens under the Tories, people are just going to be left to rot. Even more exciting, Jeremy also raises the prospect of using more technology to reduce the working week, the first time a leader of a mainstream political party has broken with the ruling orthodoxy that work should be the be-all and end-all. A taboo subject, nevertheless this dream has deep roots in the Labour Party and labour movement. While the party of labour, it has a proud history of reducing the amount of time we have to spend renting our bodies and brains to make a living. I'm sure it was accidentally on purpose this understanding of what our movement should be about was buried during peak market fundamentalism.

Obviously, this is just a speech, but it is a statement of intent. It shows how Corbynism is about fusing the old promise of high technology with a more just, democratic way of doing things; of taking the cutting edge of innovation out of the hands of the wealth takers and putting it at the disposal of the wealth makers, to paraphrase one of Jeremy's asides. Slowly the shape of a Labourist future for the 21st century is emerging, the trick is to make sure this speaks to the interests of those already won over to Labour and those, for a number of reasons, who cling to the Tories. Here we do have an historic opportunity to redefine politics around these objectives as the Tories are weak, are out of ideas, and their material advantages are eroding. There is much to be done but for once, and for perhaps the first time during my life time, socialism can go on the offensive.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Harvey Weinstein and "Sex Addiction"



















As one sexual predator shuffles off to earn the disdain of history, so another fills his space in the celebrity firmament. The explosion of allegations around heavyweight film producer Harvey Weinstein are simultaneously not shocking and shocking. Popular culture is well used to the legend of the casting couch, but the excruciating details of the harassment and attacks - some exposed by The New Yorker - are appalling. Here we have the not-at-all surprising story of a powerful man using his wealth and film industry influence to abuse women, enforce a pall of silence about his disgusting behaviour and, where necessary, pay off survivors. The weight of testimony puts the truth of the allegations beyond all reasonable doubt, as does Weinstein's behaviour since the story broke. He denies his decades of abuse and yet bleats about deserving a second chance and how he needs help. In short, his incoherence damns him.

To try and salvage something of his ruined reputation, Weinstein is engaging in that classic of abuser behaviour: denial. He has reportedly flown to an exclusive but discreet rehabilitation centre for sufferers of sex addiction. This is the rationale getting peddled to the press by the few lackeys he has left and, of course, it's complete bollocks. Whether the condition exists or not is a matter for debate. I lean toward the sceptical, but we know addictive behaviours are commonplace and physical and psychological dependencies are capable of being formed around all sorts of things. Yet to treat Weinstein's claims his abuse results from a pathologically uncontrollable libido is like granting "affluenza" and Drapetomania (treating slaves' desires to be free as a mental illness) the legitimacy of medical conditions. Weinstein is in no sense a sufferer and a victim, he is the perpetrator of a long-running series of sexual assaults. He used power to trap and attack the bodies of others.

Understanding gender is impossible without appreciating how sexuality and power is fused together. Masculinity in its hegemonic forms are coded by the positioning of women, which ranges across a spectrum of inferiority from barely human objects to second class citizens. Being a man, performing as a man, having self-worth as a man is inseparable from a heterosexual imaginary shot through with normative assumptions and expectations about the relations between genders. As the dominant gender (still), so it is men's outlooks that are naturalised and unquestioned. It's their desires that are sacrosanct, their power to define and characterise women that is accepted as the truth of gender, and, as a consequence, their violence and abuse that is covered for, explained away and, in some cases, flattered and encouraged.

The poisonous, traditional hegemonic masculinities are probably in long-term decline, but they live on in every dick pic, every fist raised against a woman, every sexual assault. Every denial of sexist and sexual violence. Weinstein isn't ill, he is entirely typical of another spectrum, this time a continuum of behaviour of men who take standard masculinity to heart, and one that takes in the full variety of misogyny. He is entirely responsible for the crimes he's accused of and deserves everything coming to him, which is hardly fair restitution for the women who bear the psychological scars of his attacks. His sex addiction self-diagnosis is designed to blur and bury his abuse of power, a ruse to try and naturalise his appalling conduct. The problem then is more than the individual. The ultimate culprit is faceless and disparate to the point where it always has a face and is therefore known to every woman. The enemy is the web of patriarchal relations responsible for the gendered disparity of power, its perpetuation, and the stunted, entitled men it turns out. Struggling to drive out poisonous masculinities would certainly make a difference, but the only way to root out patriarchy and make sure future Weinsteins are headed off before they develop demands something more than a kinder, gentler masculinity. We need to work toward the abolition of gender as a meaningful social location.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Can the Tories Detoxify?





















The first step to dealing with a problem is admitting you have one. Amidst the divisions and despair of Tory party conference, and after that speech, precious few Tories are willing to concede they do have a problem. I mean, how else are we to take their plans to freeze tuition fees and bung mega cash into Help To Buy other than signs of structural denial? Yet there are a small number of MPs who've grasped the gravity of the situation, and one of them is "blue collar Tory" and self-styled friend of the trade unions, Robert Halfon.

He starts his assessment where, funnily enough, Theresa May began hers way back in 2002 with a recognition the party is tarnished and out of touch with the majority of people. He says, "I am always amazed when I hear of those talking abstractly about the merits of capitalism, totally removed from the lives of most of our fellow countrymen and women ... Going on about Venezuelan socialism may delight Conservatives in the Westminster village but it means little to most ordinary voters ... Every time the Conservatives engage in old-fashioned opposition attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, all we do is advance their cause." Ouch. There is also a groping toward an understanding of why people have flooded into Labour, though this is stuck on the level of ideas (romantic and noble identification with the underdog) than an appreciation of the role interests have played in the rejuvenation of the party. And on the young, well, their abysmal support here is "nothing short of a calamity".

These are words that should focus the minds of smart Tories, the sprinkling for whom decadence hasn't yet meant blindness beyond the next opinion poll and Daily Mail editorial. But there is precious little evidence of movement for internal Tory party reform and political repositioning. When you look over the non-entities squabbling over Number 10 there isn't a single one of them that can sort the party out. At the most perhaps a wee jump in the polls is likely by virtue of not being Theresa May, but swapping one leader out for another cannot solve their problems.

Here Halfon is on the right tracks for where the Tories need to go if they are to stand a chance of dominating the 21st century as surely they did the preceding hundred years. Instead of getting misty-eyed over St Margaret, they need to go back even further to the Tory governments of 1951-1964. Here, unfortunately, their party showed its chameleon-like ability to adapt to the times. Labour forged a new post-war settlement and laid the groundwork for a more stable and equitable capitalism than the ruin of the 1930s, but we forget now what became the post-war consensus was consolidated under Tory rule. Yes, there were plenty of horrible things about them then but nevertheless there was enough of an appreciation of speaking to and being seen to serve workers' interests. Instead of frustrating aspirations from below, which is pretty much the story of the Dave and May governments, the Tories worked hard to co-opt them and subsequently shape them. A lesson, it seems, not lost on Halfon and a handful of other Tories like Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston, and Ruth Davidson.

The problem the Tories have is this route is closed to them. A quick chop and change cannot undo the sectional inertia driving the party. The election underlined their dependence on ageing voters and declining occupational sectors, and as their record has persistently antagonised pretty much all constituencies outside of this grouping, it would take something pretty drastic for the rising class of networked/socialised workers to break for the Tories in their millions. That 'something drastic' would have to be a substantive reboot as a technocratic and relatively innocuous centre right party on the model of Angela Merkel's CDU (minus the export of economic violence a la Germany's relationship with Greece). Tearing out the fangs and ripping out the claws that have made life miserable for millions of people is the only way they can detoxify and get younger, antipathetic voters to give them another look. Doing so, however, would require Tory bloodletting on a scale that would dwarf its current difficulties and those John Major had with his "bastards". Yet they either do this, or they surrender to a future playing second fiddle in Britain's electoral politics. What's it going to be?

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Journalistic Privilege and Bias





















Writing toward the end of the 1980s, the late Zygmunt Bauman tried to capture the essence of the economic, social and cultural changes grouped under the heading 'postmodernism'. For Bauman, part of the growing concern with these issues was thanks to a shift in the role of intellectuals. In the post war interregnum between the dog-eat-dog of the 1930s and its comeback at the heels of Thatcher and Reagan, their role had shifted from legislators who captained industry and steered society through the input of expertise to interpreters, a stratum who use their knowledge and skills to offer analyses and advice but whose leadership function was variously displaced by dogmatic governments, the authoritarianism of markets, and irreverence (and incredulity) on the part of the many.

Fast forward to our post-postmodern times with its rude return of class and the polarisation of politics, part of the story is a repositioning of the interpreter role. Or, to be more accurate, its erosion. The populist attack on elites coupled with the stress on the individual as the ultimate arbiter of authority has dragged the expert down further. Never mind the knowledge and experience they might possess, they're running dogs of elite interests that work against the people and can be dismissed and traduced with impunity.

We should bear this context in mind as we discuss the recent round of panicked debate about journalism and the legitimacy thereof. For example, Roy Greenslade - former number two at The Sun - lays fake news and the wide distrust of the media partially at the media's own door. He argues the press's habit of mixing comment with reportage became the model for journalism in the age of the internet and the gradual crowding out of fact by opinion. In the pages of the same paper, John Harris attacks this tendency by demarcating a line between reporter and activist. Blurring the two is dangerous for the same reasons outlined by Greenslade. Advocacy and ideology trump reporting, comment and polemic neglects holding the powerful to account. The ethic of impartiality, balance, and journalism-from-a-distance is something well worth holding on to, which cannot be managed if partisanship is explicit from the outset. And our friends Breitbart and The Canary are singled out as villains of the piece.

It's very easy to take apart these positions, particularly those offered by John, and betrays an unreflective appreciation of the exalted role occupied by journalism. Yes, really. While academics, particularly social science academics, retreated from the public sphere the journalist by and large became the de facto public intellectual. Leading politicians lived in terror of the unfavourable editorial and hacks of various stripes were promoted on political programming as favoured interpreters of current affairs. Despite the coming of fake news and the associated panics, this remains the case. Journalists by far are the most commonly featured occupational category on Question Time after politicians, they are the go to for complex issues on Newsnight, and it's books by journalists that get the heaviest promotion when it comes to state-of-the-nation diagnoses. As privileged interpreters of the scene, their slot is threatened foremost by the decoupling of political commentary from dedicated political commentators and the consequent rise of new challengers from outside. Particularly, the rise of hyper partisan sites condense their anxieties. Poorly written and semi-conspiranoid they may occasionally be, The Canary and friends nevertheless have an intuitive understanding of events and movements which, time after time, established journalists do not, cannot, and prove uninterested in understanding. They haunt many a commentator with the spectre of their future irrelevance, particularly those whose politics cluster around the dead centre while the cutting edge of social thought lies elsewhere.

None of this invalidates the points our venerable journos make in and of themselves, though the separation between analysis and partisanship is ridiculous and unsustainable. Especially when plenty of writerly outlets manage to combine both - just like this place, for example. Yet it does behoove our leading commentators to spend some time reflecting on their position, the interests they have in the preservation of a particular kind of journalism, and how this gives them a privileged and partial view of the world.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Conservative Party's Stable Instability






















The more things change the more they stay the same. As per the last few weekends the Sunday press is full of speculation about the Prime Minister's future. Briefing lies cheek by jowl with counter-briefing, reports of back bench disgruntlement is met by professions of contrived (some might say fulsome) loyalty. In this week after the worst speech ever, the factional temperature shot up to feverish levels. Grant Shapps claimed to have the names of 30 Tory MPs who wanted Theresa May to step aside, and then there was that WhatsApp group whose contents were conveniently leaked. Among the "loyalists" revealed was one Boris Johnson, though it's difficult to see anyone taking his fealty in good faith.

In latest developments, we've had John Major plunging in on his white charger. According to the Mail on Sunday, the Tories need to keep it together lest "poisonous Marxists" take control. May's critics are "entirely self-absorbed" he said, singling no one out in particular (but we all know who he means). Speaking of which, Johnson said anyone up for a leadership contest now are "nutters". You've got to give it to the foreign secretary, he certainly has a facility for language. But, oh dear, here comes Andrea Leadsom again.

As a founder of Labour for Leadsom, I cannot hide my delight to learn she's on manoeuvres. According to The Mirror, The Dread is proving a stealthy chancer and her moves have yet to be picked up by the Whip's Office. Apparently, turning up at Grenfell Tower in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and making clear on more than one occasion that she wants it, one might suggest their radar could do with an overhaul. But the truth of the matter is the chaos in the party is such that rank outsiders, as well as the downright rank, all fancy their chances. Yet, despite everything, nothing at all has changed.

Here's the rub. Everyone knows the snap general election was a massive blunder, and at any other time such a poor result would have meant Theresa May was for the chopping block. Yet these are not ordinary times. We have a polarising electorate that isn't likely to shift much this side of Brexit. Many millions of voters are clinging to the Tories, regardless of shenanigans. Partly because Brexit is a repository of their fantasies, perceived interests and insecurities, and because the rising Labour Party and all it represents stands in for their terror of the new, only something that can obviously be spun as a betrayal of Brexit is going to shift them. The problem is the tighter the Tory grip on this bedrock of support, the greater the toxicity accumulating about their party vis a vis other constituencies. Furthermore, the Tory coalition is in long-term decline both in terms of age and the occupational categories they dip into. There is little chance of an infusion of new blood to reinvigorate the decrepit party.

Meanwhile, sitting atop this slow slope downwards are the interests the Tories represent. One of the successes of New Labour was, for a time, its breaking of a large section of British capital from the Conservatives. For their part the Tories under Dave and Osborne were only able to remake themselves as a sectional party of capital, one attuned to the finance capital that flowed through the City, as well as the most backward, least competitive and labour intensive sectors. After the referendum and the assumption of office by Theresa May, for a brief interregnum it looked like these sections were no longer dominant as her one nation programme held out the promise of a more rounded and thought-out approach to the collective interests of capital, a la Labour's 2015 manifesto. While she was strong she could manage the misgivings and point at the alternative. She could indulge the temptation to gamble high stakes on little wins, just like her predecessor. The no deal is better than a bad deal idiocies for upticks in the polls, and the snap election itself were such. Yet as soon as her authority was shattered, so the coalition of capital in her train also fragmented with Brexit at the epicentre of growing tensions. It's no accident the political question our cast of pretenders only really differ on is the future relationship with the European Union.

Unfortunately for the Tories, there is not one dominant force or set of interests among them. The sorts of interests Dave courted and championed perceived themselves to be largely independent from the EU. As we're seeing, some are getting a rude awakening. Ditto for the factions of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. Therefore we have the absurd situation of the weakest Prime Minister of my life time is being allowed to go on because the succession would be bloody, and no one really wants Number 10 right now. Except perhaps the present Leader of the Commons, and Jeremy Corbyn. Therefore the situation is unchanged. For all the gnashing of teeth and awful headlines, the alignments in the Chamber and in the country gives May space to carry on limping on, as per early this summer.

What we are seeing is the new normal for the Tories. If May stays, nothing changes. If May goes, nothing changes. The fractiousness is locked in. The instability is, ironically, the stable condition, and there isn't going to be a resolution until Britain steps out of the EU. And it's not entirely impossible the political storm that follows might blow the Tory party apart.