Tuesday 30 October 2007

The Perils of Public Sociology

About 40 people turned up to hear Professor Steve Fuller give a talk on the role of the public intellectual, as part of an ongoing series of lectures on public sociology put together by the University of Birmingham's Sociology Department.

Fuller kicked off the discussion by defining his problem. Though many academics fancy themselves as public intellectuals, at best most have a frosty attitude towards those who are. He suggested not many natural scientists are comfortable with Richard Dawkins' media antics, and it seems sociologists are equally unimpressed by the ubiquity of Frank Furedi. Quite ironic when you consider the different kinds of 'public intellectual' roles played by each of sociology's founding fathers and other early key figures - Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Comte, Spencer, Simmel, etc.

Fuller's contention is that sociologists who've played the public intellectual in the recent past have tended not to leave much of a legacy current generations of sociologists and students can make use of. Fitting into this unfortunate slot are post-war writers like C. Wright Mills, Daniel Bell, Raymond Aron, and Alvin Gouldner. Whereas all these sociologists had an impact outside of the academic field, they are seldom discussed today.

Take the example of Raymond Aron. In France, he positioned himself as a kind of anti-Sartre. Whereas Sartre would bang the drum for Marxism, the USSR, and Maoism; Aron defended liberalism and urged support for the USA and NATO in the cold war. One of his chief arguments was that likelihood of nuclear war was an ideological bogey, and used proto-rational choice arguments to demonstrate how neither side had any self-interest in disappearing under a mushroom cloud.

Herein lies the rub for Fuller. Aron may have found fame in his life time as a public intellectual, but his pursuit of this career came at the expense of his sociological legacy. As much of Aron's media output was concerned with making a liberal case for NATO, and given it was this camp who won the cold war, can there be any wider sociological value in returning to these writings? Aron therefore was a victim of his success, and as a result is not highly regarded in the sociological canon. Contrast this with the fate of his student, Pierre Bourdieu. Though by no means an ivory tower academic, Bourdieu refused to play the media celebrity game and instead concentrated his efforts on building and ambitious, innovative, and rigorously materialist sociological research programme. Bourdieu did not have Aron's or Sartre's contemporaneous fame, but his legacy has now become a key theoretical stake in the sociological field.

Therefore for Fuller, a sociologist who is also/aims to be a public intellectual has a choice to make. The tensions between academia and media are such that one cannot straddle the two fields unproblematically. Bourdieu, Giddens, and Habermas may have had an effect on public debate in their respective countries, but this was a byproduct of their academic activities and not due to media appearances.

It is for this reason why Fuller has a problem with the whole public sociology debate. Just as there is conflict between the demands of the media and the demands of academia, there too will be friction between academia on the one hand, and the kinds of advocacy/activist-inspired research work self-defined public sociologists engage in. If sociologists are producing work articulating the standpoints and interests of oppressed and marginalised groupings, however laudable these objectives are, where does that leave sociology? Can it only engage with publics by being the mouthpiece of others? Is there anything distinctively sociological about such work?

If we believe there is a distinctive sociological enterprise that is worth pursuing, an 'independent' sociology requires academic autonomy, which in turn requires an expansion of tenured positions. Unfortunately, the prevalence of short term contracts in the HE sector destroys any incentive for sociologists to try and present their ideas outside of academia, as the acquisition of jobs becomes increasingly bound up with numbers of papers and books published, citation counts, and so on. Any turn to public engagement, let alone a full scale programme of public sociology, can only really be the province of those who've reached the top of the profession. For PhD students, early career academics, and other short-term'ers, riding the academic and the public horses simultaneously is very difficult indeed.

As a socialist and a researcher engaged in what could be called an activist or, to use the academic jargon, a movement-relevant PhD, I'm less pessimistic about the promise and prospects of public sociology in our neoliberal climate. I'd also take issue with his ideas around the independence of sociology as a discipline. The questions asked of Fuller were quite interesting too, but I'll take those questions up in a future post.

Monday 29 October 2007

What Could a New Party Look Like?

You can reasonably argue that the British left has been undergoing a process of recomposition and regrouping since the early 90s. Since then, formations and campaigns have come and gone that have, to some degree or another, brought sections of the left together on a political basis - the Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party, Respect, John4Leader, Socialist Green Unity Coalition, Campaign for a New Workers' Party, etc. And this is nothing to say of the various, smaller attempts at cohering the ultra left, so lovingly documented by the Weekly Worker.

Without spending time picking over the bones to locate the failures or the stillborn character of these initiatives for the moment, you could say there are two - at times complementary, at times contradictory - processes going on. On the one hand, there is the attempt by the left to reach out and rebuild a mass audience for socialist politics through the establishment of a mass workers' party (be that outside of the Labour party, or by somehow steering that body to the left); and on the other, moves to cohere Marxists around a number of revolutionary positions. However, it seems to me very little thought has been given to what any resultant formation is likely to look like.

On the one hand, this is a sensible position to take. Marxists are not Mystic Meg-types, who spend their time staring at the works of the old beards in the hope History will reveal them the future. We can say what we would like to happen, but this isn't the same as saying what is likely to happen. Given the balance of forces at the moment and our collective inability to build something durable and attractive outside of the Labour party that appeals to all socialists, let alone those who have yet to reach socialist conclusions, any new formation is far from likely to tick all the boxes we'd like to see ticked.

It's fair to say there's a broad consensus on the blogging left around democracy, accountability, transparency, participation, and the defence of basic socialist ideas. If anything, this consensus has sharpened as the SWP's attempts to bureaucratically enforce its will on Respect are repeatedly exposed to the full light of day. Quite rightly, socialists inside and outside the dispute are appalled by its mendacity, authoritarianism, and complete inability to work with others on anything approaching an equal footing. So, for many, it's unsurprising that commitment to this way of organising is a litmus test for a new left alternative to Labour.

But as things stand, a left alternative of this character is unlikely to emerge, at least initially. As many have noted, there are increasing numbers of unions outside of the Labour party without a political voice. This looks set to be exacerbated by the recent postal strike - regardless of the eventual outcome of the dispute, it is not likely the membership will accept continued CWU support for a government who has nothing but contempt for postal workers. If these unions do get their heads together and start venturing into the broader political arena, chances are their alternative will be bureaucratic and subordinate to the sectional and administrative interests of those unions. Bob Crow may be a good class fighter, but he wasn't exactly known for his strident opposition to the SLP witch hunt when he was a prominent member. This is not the only problem. Not only will you have the unions wanting to keep a tight grip on their new vehicle, it will inevitably attract those for who treat the labour movement as a career ladder. Remember those hideous right-wingers from your old CLP and union meetings? They're as likely to jump on board a new party as any good socialist. Let there be no illusions - the struggle does not end with the setting up of a new workers' party. In many ways, it's just the beginning.

Of the second process, the process of Marxist regroupment, again a lot of Marxists are rightly holding out for an organisation that puts democracy at the core of its politics. A multi-tendency revolutionary socialist party that allows an open clash of opinions and factions is the only sensible basis on which revolutionaries in Britain today can unite together in one organisation, while simultaneously being rooted in our class. The failure of the smaller, more 'open' groups, such as the AWL, CPGB/Weekly Worker, and the comrades around the Campaign for a Marxist Party to cohere themselves into anything more united, despite the ritual exchange of dozens of polemics, must ultimately lie in their failure to have a common class orientation. Only through joint work over a period will the real basis for a lasting unity be laid.

Dave Osler has recently laid out what he'd like a 'rational Marxist current' to look like. Again, it is to be democratic and open, it is to eschew the kinds of certitude long characteristic of the Trotskyist tradition, aim to renovate and innovate Marxism, and engage with the analyses and insights stemming from other radical, though not nominally Marxist traditions. He concludes that "a modern Marxist grouping needs to be loose, libertarian, and Luxemburgist ... Members may belong to the Labour or Green parties, leftwing parties or no party at all, to whatever extent holding a card facilitates such tasks".

In my opinion, the kind of organisation Dave is holding out for is on a hiding to nothing. In the first place, to what extent would such a libertarian Marxist current be an advance on what we already have? The majority of internet-travelling Marxists in Britain regularly read and debate with each other, be it on blogs, discussion lists and boards, and journals. I would also like to think that every Marxist already pushes their socialist politics as they are doing their own political thing in their groups, unions, campaigns and what have you. In the second place, how could this libertarian Marxist current come together, and stay together? I suppose there is nothing stopping prominent left bloggers plus others convening a conference to explore this and set up a loose network, but in the absence of consistently working side by side, the current could be prised apart by the different concerns and arenas of intervention Marxist activists work in.

If you want an organisation that is consistently democratic, that demands accountability. Then you cannot escape having some notion of discipline, which of course leads back to those dreaded words: democratic centralism. I think it was Sartre who once wrote that Marxism was the inescapable horizon of our times. For Marxists, the same is true of Lenin's contributions on the party question. Revolutionaries shouldn't seek to emulate the Bolsheviks post-1921, or the much-maligned model Lenin argued for in What is to be Done? Our model should be the Bolshevik party that, in the midst of some of the most difficult work socialists can ever face, still managed to operate an open press with open polemic and open factions (some of whom had their own factional press). No one can argue this was not a disciplined party that did not get things done.

If you believe the orthodox Marxist view that the working class has to be organised as a political party in order to achieve its liberation, then I for one cannot think of a party structure more suited to the tasks of socialism in 21st century Britain. This is how a rational Marxist current should look, but as noted earlier, we can say what we would like to happen, but this isn't the same as saying what is likely to happen. Nevertheless, going back to Lenin, back to the experience of the Bolsheviks is an essential part of building what is necessary - a revolutionary working class socialist party.

Sunday 21 October 2007

All Flu'd Up

Oh woe is me, I've contracted the flu, which means a report I was going to write on yesterday's West Midlands cadre school for Socialist Party comrades will have to wait. One thing I do recommend if you've got the flu - do try to avoid doing a stall, especially when it's bloody freezing.

Instead of writing a post, I've been trawling the web for leftist blogs. So AVPS welcomes Complex System of Pipes, For a New Left Party, Histomat, Left Click, Louise Ashworth, Madam Miaow, Rebellion Sucks, Sit Down Man, The Cedar Lounge Revolution, Theft is Good, and Unrepentant Communist to the blog roll. I think that's everyone! If you have a left blog, drop me a line and you'll be added.

On a final surprising note, I was very pleased to see AVPS come in at 23 on Socialist Unity's hot 100 of left blogs. Many thanks to the SU comrades, the bung is in the post.

Friday 19 October 2007

Fascism and the White Working Class

In his report back from last weekend's Socialist Party national committee meeting, brother A noted our friends the British National Party had come out in favour of the postal workers.

In a press release on their website (dated 11th October), the BNP writes

"Postal workers have a good case. They are striking to defend their pension scheme. They are striking because the pay deal of 6.7% over two years is actually a pay cut when you take real inflation into account. They already earn £80 a week below the national average wage! They are striking because Royal Mail is seeking to make unfavourable changes to their terms and conditions to compete with private companies who are cherry-picking the most profitable areas."

It continues;

"The Brown regime is hell-bent on continuing the Blairite policy of liquidating the Common Wealth of this country, wrecking public services by turning them into private profit centres for giant corporations. Inconvenient though the postal strikes are, the postal workers are in the forefront of the battle against doctrinaire privatisation."

If the BNP were half-way serious about their support, then where have they been throughout the strike? For a party who claims to be the authentic voice of the white, British working class; it has been notably absent from picket lines outside sorting offices, MDECs, depots, and post offices.

Of course, this support is purely demagogic. It was only a short while ago the BNP were denouncing the CWU for supporting posties' rights not to deliver their poisonous electoral material. This is the very same BNP who said firefighters "must forego their ambiguous position of using strike action as a means of leverage in pay negotiations" at the height of the FBU's dispute with the government! With friends like these ...

These kinds of opportunistic lurches to the left has a long pedigree in fascist politics. Like all on the far right, the starting point of their politics is the nation or 'the race'. Anything that threatens to sunder the essential unity of that category is a threat that must be dealt with. For example, New Labour are quite happy to dismantle public services and oversee the direct subordination of more and more civil society to the dictates of capital, and the government has had no qualms opening the borders to East European workers. Furthermore the working class as a whole is politically disenfranchised and is expected to forego the few crumbs from the rich's table it could expect in the past. Therefore it appears from this standpoint as if the Blair/Brown regime has time for everyone but the white working class. In BNP 'thought' this section of the working class is excluded precisely because it is the salt-of-the-earth repository of the British nation, and so they tailor their propaganda accordingly. This is not the whole of the BNP story as the fascists can also rely on significant support from sections of the middle class, but this discourse has clearly struck a chord in many working class communities up and down Britain. It helps explain how the BNP can poll very significant results in areas it has never stood in before.

But this strategy can only go so far. It's all very well winning support from white working class voters in periods where it has had the political stuffing knocked out of it, but quite another when it moves into action to prosecute its interests. This is why the BNP are never seen on workers picket lines - the logic of class action cuts against their idea of an indivisible nation/race. It's obvious to anyone who has taken industrial action that workers must stand together, regardless of gender, race, and sexuality in order to win. The BNP's nationalist rubbish tries to deny this by posing a common national interest between worker and boss, and seeking to divide workers by whipping up prejudice and hatred.

Fundamentally, however the BNP wishes to dress up, its "radicalism" is deeply reactionary. The British nation it defends is not the one of rebellion, of the general strike, the miners' strike, and the poll tax struggle; but the Britain of colonial brutality, class privilege, imperial bigotry, and capitalist exploitation. They offer the working class nothing but the whip and the chain.

Wednesday 17 October 2007

The Scramble for Antarctica

For the Morning Star, its Communist Party of Britain, and the remaining detritus of official communism, yesterday was a good day. At long last, New Labour has achieved one of the policy goals beloved of British Road'ers everywhere: Britain is finally exercising an independent foreign policy. Sort of. The BBC has reported the Foreign Office has drawn up plans to prosecute its imperialist claims to the Antarctic sea bed.

You could say this has almost become voguish for the remaining great maritime powers. Over the summer we had Russia's ludicrous stunt of planting a flag on the Arctic sea floor to lay claim to the continental shelf on which northern Siberia rests. In recent days, the melting of sea ice has made the North West Passage navigable by boat, leading Canada to quickly lay claim to the route to head off US designs. Global warming, combined with increasing energy demands means the polar regions and the sea bed will increasingly be the focus of an unseemly scramble.

Looking at the new British claims, the government seeks to extend its sovereignty over a thousand more square miles of sea. But as if to allay objections on environmental grounds, the BBC quotes a spokeswoman as saying "It would be a claim in name only, we wouldn't act because doing any mineral exploitation contravenes the [Antarctic] treaty". How nice of them! She goes on, "it is essentially to safeguard for the future and if [the treaty] is abolished in the future we will have safeguarded our claim to that area". Ah, so at the moment Britain will honour its treaty obligations, but reserves the right in the future to allow Shell and BP in to do the dirty if the treaty falls apart. Small wonder the quoted Greenpeace spokesman replied "When the UK is supposed to be leading the charge on reducing carbon emissions, they are in fact leading the charge half way around the world for a new oil rush".

He's not wrong. Foreign office bureaucrats are preparing for similar claims off western Scotland and around the Falklands and South Georgia.

Capitalist states seeking out and securing real or potential resources is nothing new, nor is the spectre of conflict arising from competing claims. All that is different is the peculiar inhospitality of the environments that are the focus of these efforts. If you look at the political geography of Antarctica, already it is divided up between eight states, with Chile and Argentina contesting the vast majority of British-held territory. But there still remains a fairly sizable chunk of territory approximately the size of France going unclaimed, which no doubt is being eyed by various governments as I write. And as claims are being drawn up, it seems likely studies are being undertaken to determine the feasibility of military bases to protect those holdings. In the blink of an eye, the last wilderness on Earth could be turned into an armed camp.

Because militarisation and environmental despoliation are inseparably bound up with the way capital operates, socialists need to be ever more clearer and more imaginative in getting our message across.

Monday 15 October 2007

Sectarians With Placards?

As anyone who follows the blogland niche the revolutionary left has carved out for itself knows by now, the Socialist Workers' Party has expelled three leading and well known cadre from their organisation. According to the chatter over at Socialist Unity and Liam MacUaid, their "crime" was to take the SWP's Respect turn a little too seriously. It seems when the SWP makes a strategic decision its members shouldn't really throw themselves wholeheartedly into that particular struggle, despite being exhorted to do so by Socialist Worker and Party Notes.

The SU comments box on the expulsions have been overflowing with analysis and speculation, and of course you can expect the Weekly Worker to add much grist to the mill this Thursday. But you needn't be Mystic Meg to have seen this coming. Any attempt at building a broad left alternative that can reach beyond the confines of the sect ghetto must have democracy, accountability and openness at its heart, nor should any of its component parts hide or water down their politics. Unfortunately for the SWP, this is how it's not gone about building Respect, and now their inept leadership are reaping the whirlwind of their folly.

'Lacan's' contribution at SU blog (msg#74) notes "in order to be able to move the SWP membership out, en bloc, the CC needs to act now to delegitimise those people who might act as figureheads for a ’stay-and-fight’ tendency within the SWP". Unfortunately for the SWP their beheading of this opposition is far from neat. Not only have the three expelled comrades in question, Nick Wrack, Kevin Ovenden, and Rob Hoveman 'gone native', but whole swathes of the SWP's activist base has as well. In Birmingham for example, despite the controversy over local candidate selection, Respect has built very real roots among some of the most oppressed sections of our class - and those who put in a good deal of the work are, (often experienced and long-standing) members of the SWP. It would be difficult to believe the SWP could disengage with Respect without tearing apart its organisation in the second city. Similar observations could be made concerning Michael Lavalette in Preston, and would also no doubt apply to the couple of Respect councillors that have since been recruited directly to the SWP.

Whether the SWP stays or goes remains to be seen. But what of the non-SWP component of Respect? Again, the SWP faces a bind. Long gone are the days when irksome critics could be expelled from the organisation and fade into obscurity. Now it is faced with the situation whereby every disciplinary measure, every expulsion, strengthens the hand of Galloway and anyone else who wants Respect to evolve away from the stunted on-off united front "of a special type". But herein lies the problem. It was Galloway who tore down the wallpaper and exposed the cracks, but his critique of the SWP's stewardship - though in many ways correct - are fundamentally about centralising Respect under his and his allies control. All that really unites the group around Galloway and Yaqoob with the pro-democracy independents, and the loose network around Socialist Unity is opposition to the SWP's control-freakery. If you subtract it from the equation, what have you left? Two groups with competing and opposed visions for Respect. Nevertheless, comrades are quite rightly taking the opportunity afforded by the schism to put forward an attractive, democratic alternative.

What does this mean for those of us outside? It reconfirms for all of us who are wary of the SWP that once again its leadership cannot be trusted to work with other socialists in a comradely and cooperative way. Again, it shows its main preoccupation is preserving its organisational, as opposed to political, integrity. This is hardly news for anyone who's been around the left for a while, but it might be a bit much for those SWP comrades left high and dry by the turn away from Respect. That good socialist activists are likely to drop out because of this debacle is something no one on the left should be celebrating.

But what of comrades with no relationship to Respect? What of those of us on the Labour left, the Socialist Party, the 57 varieties, and of no fixed abode? If the SWP turns inwards and goes down a petty, ultra-left 'ourselves alone' road, in the struggles ahead it could play a more counter-productive role than it does at the moment, as more and more of its interventions are subordinated to the need to build 'The Party'. This is a recipe for an annoying headache all round. It is also possible the Stop the War Coalition could come unstuck - don't be too surprised if the October 27 conference sees some SWP/Galloway shadow boxing.

Then there's the question of a new party. If over the next few years more unions start breaking organisationally from Labour and joining those already outside its formal structures, the need for a political voice is ever more starkly posed. Chances are Respect will feed into this process in some way, as will the far left and some of the Labour left, but a question mark hangs over the SWP. They could hinder the process, or stand aloof from it, but judging by Respect's balance sheet, the least likely outcome would be for it to engage constructively.

Tuesday 9 October 2007

Burslem Postal Workers on the March

Last Saturday morning, Brother P and Brother S joined a march in support of striking posties in Burslem in north Staffordshire, which had been organised by the CWU with support and encouragement from Stoke Socialist Party. About 100 marchers assembled outside the sorting office where Party members manned a stall. Around 10.00 am the procession marched off in the autumn sunshine up the hill, banners and placards waving, towards Hanley where a rally had been planned. Passing motorists sounded their horns in solidarity, and CWU pickets enthusiastically leafleted everybody in the vicinity. There was a great atmosphere. It was serious but good-natured, and you could sense that people felt good that they were taking a stand against vicious attacks on their terms and conditions of employment. At about 11.00 we arrived in the centre of Hanley where interested observers joined the crowd.

Jim Cessford, a Unison stalwart, gave the first address, calling for united action across the public sector. Brother Mick, a striking postie, thanked those present for their ‘magnificent support’ and spoke of the problems being faced by union reps at Burslem. The president of North Staffs Trade Council, Jason Hill of the NUT, spoke of the need to form an alliance of public sector trade unionists under the banner of North Staffs TUC. Comrade Judy of Coventry SP said that ‘workers are being hammered whatever their industry’ and that ‘it was a disgrace that the TUC has not called for national strike action’. Andy Day of the National Pensioners’ Convention (which had provided a contingent on the march) explained that attacks on pensions are a disaster for workers in general as companies abandon final salary schemes and take contributions holidays. John Ellis from the PCS spoke of job losses in the civil service and accused the government of ‘destroying a decent welfare society’, and called on CWU members to support the PCS in their expected forthcoming industrial action. A CWU official said he was ‘really proud’ that 96% of CWU members had answered the call for industrial action. Another speaker from the CWU described recent suspensions of union activists across the country as an attempt to ‘soften up the workers’.

Andy Bentley of Stoke Socialist Party reported that the had written to Post Office management informing them that local activists had collected 10,000 signatures protesting at the imminent transfer of Hanley Post Office to WH Smith and offering to deliver the petition. Unsurprisingly, he has received no reply! Andy described the Burslem postal workers as ‘a shining beacon’. Jim Cessford closed the rally saying that the postal workers had struck first, the civil servants were striking second, and that hopefully the local government workers would strike third! Jim predicted that the government could face a Winter of Discontent reminiscent of the 1970s.

Afterwards about half of the march sojourned to Fat Cat's for party-supplied butties and crisps, and listen to our regional secretary, Dave Griffiths, tease out some of the political lessons of the dispute. He demonstrated that only a socialist approach to what's happening at Royal Mail can explain the nature of the attacks on the workforce, and put forward the strategy for defeating them.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

Stoke March to Defend Postal Services

I know it's been a while, but what better way to breathe life back into this blog than with a call to action. If you're in the West Mids, you really should get yourself along to this. Some background to the march can be read here.

March to Defend Postal Services

Saturday 6th October

Assemble 10am at Burslem Delivery Office, Scotia Road, Burslem

March to Rally in Fountain Square, Hanley at 11:30am

No to cuts in our services

Keep the postal service a public service

Support the postal workers fight

Bring your banners and placards!

All Welcome