Friday 29 February 2008

The Beginning of the End?

Prediction in the social sciences is always a fraught enterprise, and especially so for Marxists. As Dave Osler recently quipped, British Trotskyism predicted 12 of the last two recessions. But this time round, gloom and doom predictions of economic crisis might be on the money. The press has been filled with the dire consequences of the US credit crunch and what it's likely to mean for the rest of us. Bourgeois house journals such as The Economist and the Financial Times are well aware the driver of global growth, the conveyor belt of commodities and cheap credit between China and the USA, is not sustainable in the long term. Fear has sewn the seeds of doubt among the ruling class and some are beginning to look beyond neoliberalism.

The close of neoliberalism is the topic of a recent Compass article by Jonathan Rutherford, where he examines Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, by Calota Perez. For Perez there have been five stages of capitalism associated with five key technological revolutions - the age of steam and railways; of steel; of electricity and heavy engineering; of oil, the automobile, and mass production; and finally telecommunications and IT.
The first ‘installation' period of each stage lasting three to four decades begins in a state of economic stagnation and falling profitability. The ‘Age of Information and Telecommunications' began in Britain in the 1970s. As the old model of mass industrial production fell into crisis, new information and communications technologies (ICTs) began to revolutionise the generation, processing and transmission of information, turning it into a fundamental source of productivity. Finance plays a crucial role in developing the economic potential of the new technologies. Credit is essential to break the old industrial trajectories and make radical changes. Alongside the rising power of finance is growing inequality and unemployment caused by attempts at rationalisation and the introduction of the new technologies. Economic growth is uneven and wreaks social havoc.
There follows a second ‘frenzy phase' of the installation period. This is the phase New Labour has presided over. A casino economy takes shape, ramping up speculation and financial bubbles, and creating a super rich elite. Individualism flourishes. There is significant levels of migration from poor to rich areas. New markets are created, some old industries are rejuvenated, others wane and die. The productive sphere is restructured . Growing structural tensions in the system make it unsustainable.
Perez says that the transition from the old order to the new requires two or three turbulent decades, after which a recession or depression marks a turning point. This turning point is a time for rethinking and reconsidering, and leads to the ‘deployment period'. Conditions are ripe for political forces to regulate the financial markets, redistribute wealth, and create institutions of social cohesion. Economic sustainability and a politics of individual well-being become feasible possibilities. Alternatively, political forces supporting the status quo can try and reinstate the selfish individualism of the ‘frenzy phase'. Whatever the outcome, the turning point will define the particular mode of growth over the next two or three decades of the ‘deployment period', when the conditions are favourable for the full flourishing of the new capitalist paradigm.
Rutherford asks whether we're now at the point where neoliberalism is disassembling and something new is on the horizon. On the first point, I would agree neoliberalism has become exhausted. As a macro-level capital accumulation strategy it has been successful in generating profits and driving the development of information technologies. But as David Harvey has illustrated in his short book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, it is socially regressive and decadent. For example growing profits have not been funded by the expansion of the productive forces, but rather by what he calls accumulation by dispossession. The forced enclosures of land, the continued sell off of state-owned assets, the export of jobs, the introduction of markets into public services, and erosion of progressive income tax regimes has redistributed wealth from the poor to the rich. That is to maintain current rates of accumulation and buttress the power of the ruling class, capital has resorted to consuming those very social relations that had sustained it in the near past. By subordinating greater proportions of the social field to market imperatives capital may be undermining its capacity to reliably reproduce itself.

The tide of neoliberalism may just be breaking on its social limits, but it has long been swamping the natural limits of capitalism. Writers such as John Bellamy Foster, Vandana Shiva, Ted Benton, and Derek Wall have noted how the planet's ecology and geology interact with human activity to make possible the existence of capitalist civilisation. But in its amoral pursuit of profit, capital develops the productive forces and pollutes with scant regard to natural systems. Environmental despoliation, generally speaking, is bad news to biological organisms, and therefore is a threat to social organisms too.

All the three main British parties have fully imbibed the common sense of neoliberalism. Initially their response to crisis is likely the creation of new markets - this has certainly been the strategy of the Tories and New Labour up until now. This has framed everything, from solving the "crisis" of the public services to climate change. But there are alternatives. From the debates over carbon emissions a consensus is emerging around the need for international regulatory mechanisms, of a mix between market-based solutions and governmental planning. In other words, a kind of green neo-Keynesianism with more of a global dimension than its post-war manifestation may come to be favoured by capitalist states. Less likely would be a return of social democracy in Britain. As Rutherford notes, this country's dependency on finance and the service economy gives it less room to fall back on hi tech manufacturing as compared with those continental countries who haven't exported their industrial base. But if, in the crisis of declining neoliberalism, class struggle erupts with a greater ferocity than has been the case these last 20 years then British capital could be forced to concede progressive reforms and more state interventionism.

At this stage though there's no sense pretending socialism is on the agenda. The crisis of neoliberalism will present the left with opportunities to organise fresh layers of workers and make the socialist case, and I have every confidence we will manage to do so. But we have to straighten ourselves out now so we're ready for whatever will be thrown up. The recent crisis of the left in Scotland and the splitting of Respect don't exactly inspire confidence in the left's seriousness, but cooperation on the ground and the planned Convention of the Left in September shows the prospect of meaningful and lasting unity isn't dead yet.

Thursday 28 February 2008

The Development of Globalisation Discourse

I remember first coming across 'globalisation' when I was doing my A Levels in the early-mid 90s. Then it was deployed as an overly simple but useful concept identifying the increasing circulation of commodities, capital, ideas, fashions, communications, and culture across the borders of nation states. Fast forward 15 years, globalisation has shed much of its former utility. In a historical blink of an eye it has morphed into the buzzword of our times. It is routinely evoked by neoliberal politicians and business to justify wage freezes, the export of jobs, vocationalisation of education, etc. But also key concepts once commonplace in 1980s academic discourse, such as post-industrialism, postmodernism, post-Fordism, Japanisation, and convergence, are rarely mentioned in their own right any more. The have become subsumed under the ever-broadening globalisation umbrella.

Howard Brick of the University of Washington paid Keele a visit earlier in the week to talk about the development of globalisation discourse in the United States. His presentation looked at its emergence in the social sciences in the 1970s, its transformation hype that reached an apogee by the late 90s, and its recasting in response to the new international realities of the post-9/11 world.

For Brick US intellectual culture has always been caught in the grip between insularity and cosmopolitanism, a contradiction arising from being the great melting pot of nations and the most isolationist of the pre-WWI great powers. The rise to being the hegemon among the capitalist powers, the Vietnam War, the near-simultaneous outbreaks of radical protest across the West, and the breakdown of New Deal Keynesianism set the scene for a greater interpenetration of social relations across the metropolitan countries and the global south. In this early understanding of globalisation states remained key components of the international order (the Cold War focussed the thoughts of international relations specialists).

It is quite ironic that globalisation studies is in part rooted in Marxism when you consider its later use as a foil for neoliberalism. Brick didn't mention them, but theorists such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, and those involved in debates around underdevelopment/world systems theory pioneered the analysis of the transnational circuits of capital by which post-war imperialism retained domination over its former colonies. Marxism also remained in the vanguard of globalisation studies in the 80s. Frederic Jameson and David Harvey blazed a trail in their materialist accounts of 'postmodern' capitalism, while much of the academic left collapsed into irrationalism and superficiality. For Jameson, the 80s culture of artiface and relativity expressed the logics of late capitalism. (This understanding of capitalism was developed by the Fourth International's Ernest Mandel in a celebrated book of the same name. Though ostensibly concerned with explaining the post-war boom, Mandel also noted capitalism would be increasingly dominated by the imperatives of financial markets). For Harvey postmodern capitalism was characterised by time-space compression, the speeding up of the global circuits of capital and production and the acceleration of the experience of time.

Unsurprisingly, the collapse of the soviet-bloc at the end of the decade saw globalisation discourse assume increasingly neoliberal forms. Easily the most influential work of the post-Cold War world was the triumphalist The End of History and The Last Man by Francis Fukuyama. Though he tried to give his argument a sophisticated gloss by dressing it up in Hegelian clothing, the thesis was simple: "Communism" was defeated. Fascism was long dead. All that was left was liberal democratic capitalism. This was the end of history - as a mode of social organisation, not only had capitalism seen off its challengers, it couldn't be improved upon. This world of neoliberal dominance appeared to bare out this thesis. The legitimacy of the United Nations grew; the strengthening/setting up of regional economic blocs like NAFTA, the EU; the reorganisation of GATT as the World Trade Organisation did not meet any kind of global alternative. Multiculturalism, the globalisation if environmental concerns, the rise of the multi-national NGO, and the real arrival of the internet, all held out the promise of a global society transcending the nationalities of old.

The triumphalist discourse had foundered by the end of the decade. For all the hype the ugly face of nationalism came back with a vengeance. Rwanda saw the exterminations of hundreds of thousands. Far right populism broke through into the mainstream of European politics, Yugoslavia was torn apart by nationalisms that had long been bureaucratically repressed, and culminated in 1999 with the bombing of Serbia by NATO forces. But were they a sign of nationalist resurgence, or the violent death spasms of a set of beliefs in historical decline? But also, the late 90s showed another globalisation was possible. One month before the 90s ended the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle was besieged by legions of protestors from all over the world united in their opposition to the baleful effects of global capital.

Once again, it was Marxists who stepped up and offered an alternate theory of globalisation that could make sense of the contradictions. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire offered a view that saw the emergence of a new form of sovereignty incohately making itself felt through growing supranational institutions. These were in competition with existing national sovereignties but the tendency was toward a global society, albeit one where the imperatives of capital predominated. But opposing this was a new stand-in for the proletariat - the 'multitude'. This included but went beyond the workers' movement, bringing together all the constituencies who stood to lose from the coming of the new Empire. They were not anti-globalist, but rather alter-globalist - the multitude by their very opposition to capital and Empire would create the conditions for global communism.

All this changed with September 11th and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Globalisation discourse changed. The triumphalism of capitalist globalisation was consumed by the war on terror hype. Global (Western) civilisation was threatened with an irrational and fanatic foe driven by hatred of its "freedoms" and "way of life". The alter-globalisation movement itself was drawn mainly into anti-war activity and much of its scholarly energy spent on the underpinnings of US dominance. Likewise mainstream globalisation studies had to reckon with a reassertion of state sovereignty. The perceived threat of terror attacks were seized upon by governments to tighten border controls and clamp down on dissent. Far from being out of the picture, states were very much back in. And now the rise of China and India raise the question of inter-state rivalry.

So where are we now? For Brick there's no use pretending globalisation is a coherent phenomena. The global integration of production and distribution is proceeding apace, but very unevenly. For example, when Africa figures in these global circuits it tends to be as a source of raw materials rather than as a market for commodities produced in the West and the East. Indeed, some could argue that regionalisation as opposed to globalisation is taking place. For example, British trade with continental Europe is many degrees higher than with China. Capital, rather than driving development, prefers to migrate to where stable institutions and infrastructures are in place. And the bulk of profits are always repatriated. The increasing willingness of the EU to flex its economic muscle shows just how variegated our globalised world is. But also, the new can coexist quite happily with the old. The House of Saud, for example, can engorge themselves on the fruits of globalised production while the absolutist class relations they rest on keep the oil flowing to Western markets.

A few other points were raised too. Just as one cannot put a plus or minus against globalisation, the anti-imperialist politics of the past must give way to a more subtle understanding of the dynamics of contemporary capitalism. For example, some of the left have rallied to an uncritical defence of the regimes sitting in Tehran and Herare because of their opposition to US/UK imperialism. However, at the same time both governments are pursuing the same neoliberal programmes as their Western opponents. Does solidarity with the "oppressed" mean we have to ignore their appalling records?

The 00s have also shown globalisation does not have to mean the erosion of national sovereignty. Some may have been given away to the local regional bloc (EU, AU) but other capacities have been retained and enchanced. However, where poor/insecure states are concerned never before have they been as prey to the predations of capital and the big powers.

As Brick has shown, Marxism has played a key role in understanding the developments taking place and framing key issues in the globalisation debate. This should not be too much of a surprise - the revolutionary left have always appreciated capitalism as the first truly international mode of production in history. But the reconfiguration of capital, the rise of India and China, regionalism, nationalism, environmental problems, and global opposition movements place a good deal more than analytical difficulties before us. The left's great challenge is to articulate the global socialist alternative that will seriously contest capital for the future of this planet and our species.

Wednesday 27 February 2008


Memes. You either love them or loathe them. They can help keep your blog going when you've got blogger's block, or make it look as though you're trying to get down with the kids. Here at AVPS Brother S and I have little opinion either way. But, when I see the latest meme monster has chewed up much of sociologyblogland, I have no choice but to hop on the bandwagon. My future career could be at stake.

Union Street and Global Sociology have tagged me with this: pick sentences six to eight on page 123 of the nearest book, write them down, and then tag five others with the meme.

Well my nearest book is On Materialism by Sebastiano Timpanaro. Read it and weep:
Generally, its point of departure are real and serious problems in the epistemology of the sciences, related to the need for a re-examination of the very foundations of scientific knowledge. But this epistemological crisis is quickly used in order to reassert an absolute, mythological creativity and freedom belonging to man, and in order to be able to disregard both the real conditioning to which man is subject and the way to overcome it. It then becomes possible to proclaim a completely rhetorical and mystifying subjectivism-voluntarism.

I want to pass this contamination into leftyblogland, so I nominate Jim Jay, Splintered Sunrise, Madam Miaow, Stroppyblog, and Leftwing Criminologist and ask they bow to blogging peer pressure. Alternately, feel free to have a go in the comments box.

Tuesday 26 February 2008

Education Up for Sale, Again

I'm surprised this leak hasn't attracted more comment from leftist bloggers. Isn't the Financial Times the bourgeois paper of choice for "serious" socialists? No matter. The article claims the government is cosying up to big capital (again) by opening the Higher Education sector to even more market pressures. On the back of the "success" of the city academies programme (where business gets a say over the curriculum in exchange for a wad of cash) the government's "confidential blueprint", the Higher Level Skills Strategy, aims to extend cash for courses. Employers will be allowed to determine course content at universities that sign up.

According to the FT the government recognises some universities will fear the running of privately-sponsored courses may impact adversely on the institution's image. But, the FT allege, a good chunk of extra funding earmarked for universities over the next few years has been allocated to this project. Who cares about reputation and standing when business can supply a stream of undergrads who pay a premium fee? Worryingly the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is convinced traditional recruitment straight from sixth forms and colleges is set to decline. As far as the Department is concerned, there is no case for further university expansion to be funded from the public purse, therefore universities should be more accomodating to the requirements of employers and business to attract more recruits. And faithful to this twisted neoliberal vision, academics have no place designing the courses they teach!

If the leak turns out to be accurate (remember, "leaks" are often an informal means of testing the water), then we are looking at a major attack on HE in this country. "Unfashionable" scholarship has long been in the firing line, and life will become more difficult for all non-vocational courses once private capital starts arriving in large quantities. All the humanities, from politically engaged disciplines like sociology, cultural studies, and political economy to the "safety" of literature, philosophy, art, are likely to face attacks for not being commercially viable or "useful". The presence of private money will endanger what is left of academic autonomy. Given the choice between upsetting industry patrons or upholding the freedom of inquiry, how many vice chancellors are going to put principle before cash flow? Not a great number, I'd wager.

The UCU has issued a press release in response here.

Monday 25 February 2008

Touching Base with Managerialism

Ever since I started working at 17, managerialism has been a real bugbear of mine. This is not an animus toward managing people as such. After all management will still be required in the new society, albeit management that reflects the triumph of democratic socialist planning. No, my beef is with managerialism elevated to the level of ideology, of dressing banalities up as profundities, of managerial "concepts" like team building, and axioms such as 'there's no 'i' in team' and 'don't bring me problems, bring me solutions'. Of giving mundane work practices absurd "funky" names, such as calling boring departmental meetings 'fishbones' (something to do with cause and effect analysis, apparently). And of course, the away days management consultants lay on for building trust, developing interpersonal skills, and maximising 'people potential'. If you ask me, I've always looked at these rituals as manufactories for the armies of David Brents that bedevil all large organisations, be they private or public.

So it was out of curiosity that I allowed my name to go forward for a day entitled 'managing working relationships', a course designed to increase assertiveness and effectively manage relations with our PhD supervisors. Once we had all arrived, consumed our green teas and coffees and greeted one another, the moderators, Pete and Crispin, introduced themselves and got us to do a few warm up exercises. They asked us to mill about, say hello, and achieve eye contact. Then - rather bizarrely - we got into pairs and got us to clap, touch, and stamp our feet in sequence. Ice broken we sat in two rows of six and were told to speed date. Sadly, instead of trying to impress potential mates we took turns to answer and ask pre-set questions. The one I was lumbered with was 'what weaknesses do you bring to your working relationships?' The rest were much in the same vein - what strengths do you have, where do you fit in the workplace hierarchy, etc. Having cycled through everyone, the pair with the same questions were invited to brainstorm the most frequently-given responses. Our team duly reported back on low confidence, defensiveness, language issues, being an 'outsider', and disorganisation. But not to worry, afterwards Pete and Crispin told us we have every right to be more confident - us PhDs are among the top 5%, the creme de la creme, etc. We're the elite dammit! I wonder if the same patter's given to gormless management types?

Their acting skills were shown off after the break with a short supervisor/student scene, between a domineering and overbearing professor, and a lad who might as well have had 'tread on me' on his forehead. The good professor berated his student for his general incompetence, and he just sat there and took it all in. Our task was to make suggestions to both of them to improve their working relationship. These generally involved making the prof nicer and more patient, and injecting vast quantities of concrete into the hapless PhD'ers spine. The scene was played through again, but this time we interjected at key points and modified their behaviours. The moral of this exercise? Having scrutinised their relationship can we not turn that gaze back on to our working relationships?

Before the meat of the afternoon, we were treated to the gravy of a managerial trust game. We were paired up and had to "drive" around our partners while their eyes were shut. I think there were a few near misses when I was being driven, but I got my "motor" round the room without incident. Not bad for someone who's failed four driving tests, eh? We were then treated to a bit more assertiveness training. One of us pretended to be a customer service desk-type at a well-known department store, and the other a poor sod whose recently-purchased dinner service had spilled over the pavement outside. Utilising my CWI training, I patiently explained the situation to my partner, but he was having none of it, "what's it got to do with us?" he replied. Obviously the lad had never worked in customer service - when I used to sit behind a desk for a living my lips got sore from all the bums I had to kiss.

The next task challenged us to manage workloads. One was a put upon worker, and the other an office manager who had to parcel out an absent colleague's work. Worryingly I slipped into the managerial role all too well - I wasn't a macho arsehole, but I did want to sit down with my subordinate, offer them a cup of tea, and discuss with them how I could intensify my exploitation of their labour time.

The final big game of the day was a session examining a simplified version of transactional analysis. An offshoot of psychoanalysis, transactional analysis teaches us there are three key modes of being, which we all alternate between: child, parent, and adult. Crispin invited us to define behaviours that characterise each, and asked us to position ourselves along the child-adult-parent spectrum as we considered our relationships. Gratifyingly I didn't move out of the borders of adult, though I tended to move more toward parent at times. (I couldn't help thinking the revolutionary left spends all too much of its time in parent and child, and rarely moves into the adult zone, but I digress). What this exercise enabled us to do was, again, examine the relationships we have with superiors and subordinates, of appreciating what it takes to remain in adult and endeavouring to stay there instead of veering off into child and parent.

All in all, it was a very jolly day. I can't say I got a great deal out of it other than a few laughs and some new chums. Pete and Crispin were excellent moderators and seemed born to do this sort of thing. For what it was, it's faultless. But - and it's a very big but - an appreciation of power was completely missing. In fact, the operation of power relations were masked by the light hearted games and touchy-feely fun. Are you put upon in your workplace? Do you have problems with your superiors? What YOU need is a robust communications strategy. YOU need to work on behaviours, countenance, modes of address ... the emphasis is always on you need to do this, you need to do that. If there's a problem, you have to solve it. If there's a conflict, it's up to you to address it. Systemic power relations are dissolved into patterns of miscommunication and problems of task resolution. None of this should come as a surprise to socialists - power is not comfortable with what it sees in the mirror, it prefers to fight shy of its reflection, which is why so much bourgeois ideology mystifies and obfuscates. Managerialism is a particularly cringeworthy species of this tradition, and deserves exposure as such.

Thursday 21 February 2008

Branch Meeting: Socialist Party Finance

At tonight's branch meeting A spoke about the importance of finance to building the Socialist Party. He started by outlining the various tasks our branch has before it locally. We plan on standing a number of candidates at the local elections. Burslem threatens to reignite at any moment (Royal Mail have gone back on some of the agreements hammered out in the deal), we have comrades involved in the SEMS dispute at Keele, and we're starting to get involved in the campaign against city schools closures. But there's more. Never a week goes by without some local NHS scandal getting covered in the press. At any one time a dispute can flare up seemingly out of the blue. On top of this the branch must continue its regular street activity, contribute toward building the CNWP and NSSN, and get our campaign around young worker union recruitment off the ground. Nationally, the party as whole has to do this and fund its small apparatus, its events and conferences, interventions, and the production of The Socialist, Socialism Today, and various pamphlets and leaflets.

Each of these tasks are important, and they are achieved week in, week out by combining our human and financial resources. Unlike the three main bourgeois parties whose objective is to manage capitalism, our political project is far more ambitious and complex: the socialist transformation of society. Big business has no interest in funding an organisation diametrically opposed to its interests and has the Tories, New Labour, and the LibDems to look out for them. As far as the SP is concerned, they're welcome to their backers. Our party refuses to be beholden to a handful of wealthy individuals - our politics demand we raise resources direct from the working class themselves, for it is our class who has a material interest in seeing the abolition of the exploitation of its labour power. For us, socialism is more than just a nice idea, it is the realisation of the aspirations of working class people everywhere.

The SP has two main income streams - the fighting fund and members' subscriptions. The FF is raised through stalls, paper sales, door to door campaigning, and other forms of street work. As Brother S has previously pointed out, not everyone who comes to a stall is conscious they're making a donation to our party (despite the placards, leaflets, etc. clearly displaying our name) but there are, in Stoke at least, a growing layer of people who return week after week to sign the petitions, have a chat, and take a paper. Money raised this way goes to fund the paper and leaflets. Subs are different. They're a conscious sacrifice made by members and these go toward paying for the apparatus, including the wages of full time activists. Unlike other organisations a full time party worker is not a cushy option for SP members. True, most members would see working full time to promote socialist politics as something of a privilege, but the 'renumeration package', as management-types would call it, is very low indeed. This is not just an effect of being an organisation that can burn through its bank account in no amount time: it helps insulate the party from careerist pressures. Low wages means those who take up full time positions tend to do so because they're dedicated, not because they're looking to enrich themselves.

In terms of raising finance, the SP has a tradition of doing so that is widely admired on the left. For example, during the Miners' Strike Militant raised in excess of £100,000 over the course of the dispute to support their struggle. When the NUM in Wales had its funds sequestrated under the Tories anti-trade union laws, the Militant print shop ensured its leaflets and material continued to be printed. In the aftermath of the 1983-7 struggle in Liverpool, the 47 councillors were surcharged to the tune of £500,000. Militant and the best of the labour movement rallied round and raised that money so no councillor had to face homelessness. In this last year, and under very different circumstances, the SP was nevertheless able to raise £51,000 to pay for a new printer. This was on top of £95,000 fighting fund, £8,000 at congress, and over £20,000 at Socialism 2007. Locally Stoke SP had a record year for the fighting fund, helping the West Midlands region surpass its target. This meant our region qualified for a rebate, which, in theory, we can spend on whatever we wish. For us we used the money to help develop the region's printing capacity.

At the moment the party is campaigning to raise the more money through subs the organisation can function more effectively. For example, one objective is to increase the numbers of full timers. Everyone is well aware that if we had a full timer in every city in the country our ability to influence the course of events would be massively increased, and the shape of the party transformed. There are three ways this can be done. Seeing inactive members more regularly to collect dues and get them on standing orders so subs get paid regularly. Second is to ask members to increase their contributions. And finally, recruit more members.

In the discussion, J and D noted how bourgeois practices of party fund raising is generally done on the back scratching principle, and we can see how this extends to other areas. For example, if the mayor and the city council get their own way and replace Stoke's schools with City Academies, government money will be further greased by private cash from business. In return for their donations of up to £2,000,000, they have a say over the curriculum.

P suggested this should be contrasted with how we raise money. First, relying on small donations from thousands of working class people every week allows for our political independence. In the second place, it keeps us honest. If we don't make ourselves relevant in the court of working class opinion, we'd have a harder time raising funds.

Overall it was useful to remind the branch of the basics of finance and see many more figures I've omitted to mention. Help make sure I'll be writing about far larger sums this time next year by donating here, or, even better, sign up!

Wednesday 20 February 2008

The Radical Cinema of Peter Watkins

Keele MCC heard from John Cook of Glasgow Caledonian University this evening. He spoke on the little-known work of the radical film maker, Peter Watkins. Watkins was part of the amateur film movement that grew up in the mid-late 1950s and found himself taken on at the BBC on the strength of his short film on the Hungary uprising, The Forgotten Faces. Released in 1961 it was, contrary to popular belief, among the very first films - if not the first - to pioneer the documentary-drama style. Rather than being a straight apologia of either side, it showed how revolutions are necessarily very messy, how circumstances can transform the downtrodden and oppressed into people fired by murderous rage. In one key scene, we are shown crowds coming under fire from uniformed snipers. When they surrender the people wreak bloody vengeance by crushing them beneath their heels and boots. As a tribute to Watkins style, when Forgotten Faces was shown to the founding chairman of Granada, Sidney Bernstein, he quipped "if we showed that film, no one would believe our documentaries anymore".

Having secured a position at the BBC he became the centre of controversy in 1965 with The War Game. This film imagined the dropping of a nuclear bomb on Kent and its aftermath. Immediately it was banned and remained so for 20 years. Watkins was convinced this decision was taken on political grounds, and was so disgusted by the experience that he left Britain in 1968, and hasn't worked here since. But the hallmarks of his film making had been established. The docudrama style (also seen in his earlier film, Culloden, which involved scenes where participants of the famous 1746 battle were interviewed by filmmakers), his preference for hand held camera work, and the casting of "ordinary" people, not professional actors, have continued to mark out his oeuvre from the mainstream.

Post-BBC Watkins has continued to make films outside of the conventional production process and on very tight budgets. Typical of this is 1971's Punishment Park. Inspired by the trial of the Chicago Seven, it is set in a future where subversives and hippies jailed for political offences get the chance to have their sentences commuted if they complete a desert wilderness course. All the while they're being pursued by law enforcement as part of their training in tracking, shooting, and apprehending suspects. The clip shown this evening's audience is taken from the trial scene. The defendants are arrayed before a tribunal and time after time the presiding judge disallows pleas and defences guaranteed under the US constitution. Contemporary criticism attacked Watkins for exaggerating the violation of basic democratic rights, but post-Guantanamo these seem rather quaint objections. The film itself was on general release in the states for four days until it was mysteriously dropped, so obviously somewhere the film spoke an uncomfortable truth to power.

Watkins' last major film is La Commune (Paris 1871). Filmed in 1999 the 200-strong cast was populated almost entirely by non-professional actors, and casting was done to type. The roles of the communards were taken by leftists and students, and the counterrevolutionary forces recruited from adverts placed in Le Figaro. Like previous work, in the battle scenes the film crew interview 'communards', who would alternate between acting as a participant and commenting on current affairs. Furthermore Watkins filmed La Commune chronologically so the actors knew what was coming and helped simulate a more authentic feel, albeit one anachronistically juxtaposed to interventions by modern media.

Throughout his presentation Cook compared Watkins to Ken Loach, arguing of the two the former was a more radical film maker. Though Loach is famed for the controversial nature of his subject matter how he makes and presents his work is far more conventional. Furthermore Loach's films are very clearly of the left. However, Watkins is a bit more problematic. He describes himself as a leftist, and a superficial acquaintance with the above films seems to reinforce that. But for Cook, Watkins' work is a comment on polarisation and the politics of hate. In Punishment Park for example, there are multiple scenes of the radicals and agents of the state attacking one another verbally and physically. There is a certain even handedness in their portrayal as reaction gets just as much time to put its case against subversion. The same is the case in La Commune - there are scenes capturing the Versailles troops berating and polemicising against the communards and leftism. In both Watkins manages to make visible the polarisation between the two - to take sides and start shouting (as he does in his role as a cameraman in Punishment Park) is to become seduced by hate. What is needed is some middle ground, a space for dialogue between the two antagonistic camps. Only then can real progress be made.

What to make of this? I don't think Watkins has retreated into the wishy-washy liberalism/populism that tries to be all things to all people. Instead it is a call to the left to realise the views of our opponents are as convincing to them as our politics are to us, that we should not forever hector or starkly oppose our views to theirs but rather take the time to address their concerns and win them over through persuasion. As he puts it, "the ideological left is as flawed as the right - any politics that doesn't take on the views of ordinary people is playing at politics".

Sunday 17 February 2008

Steve Fossett - It's a Conspiracy!

I can't imagine many political blogs will have picked up on this. Especially as the bloggertariat are probably pouring over the nationalisation of Northern Rock right now. Just cast your mind back to early September. Steve Fossett, bourgeois adventurer extraordinaire took off on a routine flight from a private air strip in Nevada, and vanished without a trace.

Befitting a man of his position and wealth, an area the size of Wales was scoured by civilian and private rescuers alike. They didn't find his crash site, but they did discover the wreckage from at least six previous (and uncharted) aviation accidents. But still, they couldn't find anything. It's not too surprising, the Nevada landscape is cracked with canyons of varying size that could easily hide an aircraft from eyes in the sky.

As the searches turned up nothing, Peggy Fossett petitioned to have her husband officially declared dead. A judge agreed, and this was granted on Friday.

The mystery of Fossett's fate has caused a great deal of speculation. Some of this has, how shall we say, taken something of a conspiratorial bent. Take this wonder from Rumour Mill News:

Something just occurred to me....
On Aug. 30th we had the B-52 nuke incident, no one knows for sure if there were 5 or 6 nukes yet.
If there were 6 ONE IS MISSING
On Sept. 3rd, we are being told that a famous man went missing... a highly connected famous man.
for days they have been searching for him.....
This all just hit me when I was watching the news for the first time in about two weeks, and I heard them say that the MILITARY is helping to look for this Fossett guy.
WHAT? The Military????
It was then that it hit me....
You've got to admire the audacious leaps of logic. Here's another, from the freakish realm of Yahoo Answers:

Area 51 is within round trip distance. Steve is a curious aviator, to say the least. Area 51 is an aviator's mystery. Hmmmm.

Add the fact that Steve just disappeared, no trace, no crash scene, and the area has been well searched now.

I'm not talking aliens, but do you think the government could be involved?

Yes, that's right, Steve Fossett thought he'd take a quick trip to Groom Lake but got himself shot down, and the US Air Force are covering up.

I don't know about you, but conspiracy theories ain't what they used to be. For starters, where are the transdimensional lizards?

But we all really know what happened to Steve Fossett. Cast your mind back to September 11th, 2001. No one seriously believes those airliners were piloted by terrorists, they were directed by REMOTE CONTROL, from World Trade Centre Tower Seven. That's why it had to be demolished - TO GET RID OF THE EVIDENCE. But one piece of evidence remained: Steve Fossett. It was Steve Fossett who sat in that control room on that fateful day. Only he had the expertise to pilot a jet into the side of ... a building. HE was the weakest link in the conspiracy, so he HAD TO DISAPPEAR. I don't know if the US government used BLACK HELICOPTERS or the project AURORA craft to bring Fossett in to Area 51, but we won't see him again. Like the folk of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, he has been detained inside Cheyenne Mountain.

I might not have the evidence to prove it, but can you disprove it? Hmmmm?

Saturday 16 February 2008

Thatcherism, Royalty, and Arse Relations

So Life on Mars is back but fast-forwarded to 1981, and renamed Ashes to Ashes. Thatcherism has started to assert itself and London’s docklands is about to be transformed into apartments for brash Essex boys who will make loads of dosh as the City’s financial markets are deregulated under the Big Bang. The suited wide-boys who throw up on the train back to Billericay now enjoy the financial rewards that were once the preserve of the public schoolboy. But one whelk-chewing, brown-ale swigging East End publican is not prepared to lose his boozer to the property developers without a fight, and being a former Desert Rat, wages a lone crusade with a few strategically-placed sticks of dynamite.

This causes some headaches for DI Hunt (Philip Glenister) and his band of Philistines as it is the time of the Royal Wedding between Charles and Diana, the significance of which goes far beyond something that was just going on at the time. Thatcher’s Conservatism was both radical and a throwback to Disraeli’s ‘one nation’ Toryism. Battalions of workers organised in the unions repeatedly went into action in the 1970s, and it had to stop. So Thatcher’s solution was simple - abolish the class distinction. Sell off the council houses at knockdown prices and transform working class tenants into homeowners. Privatise the nationalised industries and offer cut-price shares to the masses. We are all one class now and all thriving in our land of opportunity through hard work and enterprise. There was more than a hint of postmodernism here. The ‘industrial society’ symbolised class war and conflict, while its ‘post-industrial’ successor was the society of the shopper. And what better way to encapsulate this Brave New World than the Royal Wedding where one unified nation celebrates the new order in flag-waving street parties?

But DI Hunt is of the old order. He refers to a drug dealer as corrupting ‘good working class kids’. He has a new assistant in the delectable, time-travelling DI Drake (Keeley Hawes) who he accuses of talking ‘lardy posh bollocks’ and who he nicknames ‘Bollinger Knickers’. Gene Hunt would have been just at home as a full-time union official, doing deals in smoke-filled rooms over a large scotch, keeping the peace but ultimately identifying with the working classes he would claim to represent. And, as a responsible trade unionist, he would give short shrift to the ultra-left, just as the no-nonsense lawman slams his pool-ball into a local leftie’s meat and two veg.

And now I move to the subject of ‘arse stamping’. This is not creative licence on the part of the script writers. There are recorded incidents of female recruits to the Metropolitan Police having the station stamp embossed on their bottoms. DI Drake obligingly goes along with the initiation ritual (performed of course by DI Hunt in front of the lads). The cameraman teases us by taking the shot from the front so I cannot make an academic comparison between the bottoms of and Keeley and Kylie. Anyway, AVPS is a serious blog: we deal in class relations, not arse relations.

Thursday 14 February 2008

Early Spring Clean

I thought it was high time the blogrolls had a good clean. Alas, a number of inactive blogs have been tidied away. So it's a temporary goodbye (I hope!) to Incite, Action Without Theory, Burn the Witches, For a New Left Party, John Angliss, Mike Pearn, SouthPawPunch, Soviet Poster Blog, The Sharp Side, Viva La Vegan, and Caroline Hunt. Should any of you resume blogging, let me know and you'll be re-enrolled.

But luckily blogland is an ever shifting entity, throwing up delights and surprises by the day. And there's always a few stalwarts still banging away at their keyboards. Let the rolls be invigorated by a daring blend of the old and the new! Stepping up to the Blogging Sociologists plate are A Friend's Hypomnema and Rupa Huq. For the Counter-Hegemonies; Bloggerheads, Bob Piper, Chicken Yoghurt, Doctor Vee, Flying Rodent, Matt T, Ministry of Truth, Oscar Reyes, Paul Kingsnorth, Penny Red, Plattitude, and Rachel from North London have settled in. And finally, The Establishment admits Antonia's Blog, Cicero's Songs, Devil's Kitchen, Dizzy Thinks, Harriet Harman, Jo Christie-Smith, Mr Eugenides, and Tim Roll-Pickering. There's a fair few there to keep you going on with.

If you have a blog you think deserves a link let me know. The old Counter-Hegemonies could do with more socialist feminist bloggers (pref Britain/Ireland), more Trots, and more Tankies. No fash or conspiraloons thanks!

Before I hit publish post there's something niggling at me that I'd really like to know. See the category list? Can anyone tell me why it says there are two anti-war posts when in fact four posts carry the tag? Why only 15 for TV when there's 17? And how come Economics shows three when there's five? I'm well stumped.

Tuesday 12 February 2008

Can Carbon Credits Save the Planet?

As part of a series of lectures on climate change, Keele paid host to three speakers last night looking at what can be done. Richard Davies of the Marches Energy Agency charity restated the uncontroversial facts (at least among the majority of climatologists) about global warming. At the moment CO2 stands at around 350 parts per million - this means even if we stop all human-sourced carbon emissions tomorrow the global average temperature will still increase by up to two degrees celsius. Unfortunately if carbon is released at the present rate we will hit 450 parts per million within a generation. That means dangerous and rapid climate change. John Vogler of Keele showed where we're at with international regimes of emission regulation and reduction (Kyoto, Bali). Without going into them, pitiful progress has been made compared with what needs to be done.

Speaking for the Green Party, Emily Heath's presentation on carbon credits was the most interesting for a couple of reasons. Carbon trading is a market-based solution to problems engendered by the market in the first place and so is superficially attractive to Neoliberals and compatible with their doctrine. But at the same time it claims to significantly reduce carbon emissions in a short space of time as well as securing a number of social justice outcomes. A market that benefits the poor and is kind to the planet, while keeping the disciples of Von Hayek and Friedman happy? Is such a thing possible or is it, as Green Male Speaker Derek Wall says, a pile of crap?

Assuming the existence of an international regime of carbon credit markets, in the UK a body would be set up (preferably independent of the state) responsible for regulating and overseeing the market. But its primary function is to calculate a carbon budget for the whole country based on targets stretching 20 years into the future. The "currency" budgeted for are Tradeable Energy Quotas (TEQs), which are equivalent to one kilogram of carbon at ground level. These are rationed out to every adult equally and then "spent" whenever you receive a gas bill, fill up your car, or take a flight. If you do not use all your ration surplus TEQs can be sold on the credit markets to companies, institutions, and individuals who've exceeded their quota. As the years go by the overall TEQ budget decreases in line with emission reduction targets so allowances shrink, TEQs become more scarce and the costs of buying them when one goes over quota becomes more prohibitive. In short, there is a real material incentive to reduce energy consumption.

The winners in this market will initially be the poor. As you go down the socio-economic scale less energy is consumed per head. The disadvantaged will therefore be swimming in surplus TEQs that can be sold on to the rich, who are far more profligate with their energy consumption. For the first time in history, a market will redistribute wealth from the bourgeoisie to the workers. The market will also drive innovation in carbon capture, energy saving and efficiency, and renewable technologies. And the transition to a low carbon economy will drag social attitudes in its wake. Conspicuous consumption will give way to more modest lifestyles. In Heath's vision the country 30 years hence will be a land of retro-fitted houses, micro power generation, and decent public transport. The economies of carbon will force motorists into shared car clubs. Cheap holidays and trips abroad on flights will be very rare indeed and the UK seaside resorts will undergo a renaissance (except for Blackpool's Illuminations of course). Food production will be more localised and commodities from as far a field as China and India will be a thing of the past. And carbon emissions will be severely down on present day levels.

It's not socialism ... but this green capitalism doesn't sound too bad does it? But is it possible? To my mind there are a number of problems. First is the issue of political control. Whether the carbon credit body is independent of government it will face massive pressure from government and business to relax its targets. Capital will always seek a way around the regime. Second, how will TEQs be managed across borders? Because of past emissions by the developed nations will their TEQs be more expensive than those in the global south? Will this open them up to speculation? Third, and more problematic, is the question of transferability. Will TEQs have a limited lifespan, like Tesco club card points? Or will dealers be able to build up stocks of credits while they're still relatively cheap and then used up when they're more expensive? Fourth the rich, being the rich, may have a financial incentive to tone down their lavish lifestyles but they can absorb the extra costs. A culture of resentment could quickly build up - but I'm not complaining if it radicalises masses of people. And to repeat, it isn't socialism. The same exploitation, the same power relationships, the same injustices that have motivated socialists in the past will still be there, and our class will be too. A green capitalism might just be possible, but there's no market-based solution to the coming of its gravediggers.

Sunday 10 February 2008

Defining Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is the creed of 21st century capitalism. The capitalist ideologies that have come before it, be they fascist, conservative, liberal, or social democratic have worked to obscure the reality of class rule behind the state, the nation, democracy, and class collaboration. Neoliberalism does none of this. It is the most naked, most open expression of capital the world has ever seen. It speaks only to business elites and bourgeois politicians, and as such is enthusiastically embraced by them. It informs the ruling class on nearly every social policy question and frames their attitude toward the forces arrayed against them. Neoliberalism is the mindset of our rulers and for this reason it has to be examined and understood by everyone opposed to the vandalism it has unleashed upon our planet.

A very modest step in this direction was taken at a day school hosted by Keele last Thursday. We heard contributions on Thatcher's criminological legacy, managerial power, and workers' rights under New Labour. But the most important was the stunning opening by Phil Mirowski. His paper, 'What neoliberalism means today' presented a wide ranging genealogy of neoliberal thought and its proponents, beginning with Von Hayek's biblical screed, The Road to Serfdom, and ending with Wikipedia. He told a story of how the popularisation of the book enabled Von Hayek to found the Mont Pelerin Society and slowly build up an interlocking network of intellectual and activist/PR cadres distributed across think tanks, campuses, and voluntary organisations. And it was slow, Von Hayek and his acolytes played a long game and their patience paid off. When the post-war consensus hit the buffers in the 70s neoliberalism had accumulated the human capital and connections to step out of the seminar rooms and fancy restaurants and onto the stage of history.

So what is new about neoliberalism? Isn't it all about dusting off Adam Smith's 18th century thinking and using it as a guide for managing contemporary capitalism? For Smith and his disciples in the neo-classical school of economics, buying and selling is rooted in human nature. This is the foundation for the market: it arises from our essence and spontaneously organises production and the distribution of goods. The hidden hand of millions of simultaneous transactions regulates the whole social metabolism, leaving nothing for the state to do except guarantee property rights by upholding the law. The state is passive and reactive. Here lies the first break between Smith and neoliberalism. Neo-classicism met its Waterloo in the great depression. The crisis was triggered and then prolonged by the state's hands-off economic policy: the market would eventually reach a new equilibrium. For neoliberalism this is what the state shouldn't do. Not only should states intervene to make sure markets function correctly (tacitly acknowledging markets are social and not natural phenomena) but they need to create the conditions for new markets to emerge.

This leads to the second break. For the state to perform such a role it needs to tool up. The neoliberals' "small state" is a police and military apparatus armed to the teeth and prepared to spill blood to carry out the programme, a programme not confined to economics: it attacks and remoulds the social fabric, bending it to the needs of capital and the logic of the market.

Third, for Smith the market was only the means of allocating goods. For neoliberalism it is an information processor and "knows" more about the economy than anyone else. This is why they can be interventionist and anti-statist: the state can only secure present markets and create new ones. It cannot act as an actor with the economy itself because it can only be privy to a small fraction of the information that are transmitted through and acted upon in market relationships. Democracy therefore is always a danger as popular pressure can force states to blunder into markets for non-economic ends. And as for socialism, you might as well forget it. But corporations? No problem. They're disciplined by the market.

What about problems? Neoliberals in their more honest moments do not deny that they exist, but the solution to market malfunctions are more markets. For example, capitalism's threatening to burn the planet to a cinder? No problem, just set up a market for carbon trading permits.

We have been living with neoliberalism for 30 years in Britain. It has given us a society where manufacturing has been decimated and sub-contracted overseas. The state is trying to extricate itself from being the primary health, education, and welfare provider. Everywhere property rights have been entrenched and what remains of the commons - state property and the genes in our bodies are sold off and patented. In short, neoliberalism strengthens the power of the ruling class by making the rest of society more and more dependent on the market. Their project is a permanent and irreversible distribution of wealth and power to the capitalist class. But its nemesis, the labour movement, remains. And as long as it does neoliberalism can never fully succeed.

Thursday 7 February 2008

Sociology, Publics, and the Media Spotlight

Long term readers of the blog will know of my interest in the debates around public sociology - my previous contributions are posted here, here, here, and here. On Tuesday evening I attended the latest lecture given as part of the series of presentations held on this topic hosted at Birmingham University. The guest speaker on this occasion was Keith Tester of Portsmouth University. The argument he came to make was simple: if we define public sociology as a sociology reaching out to audiences beyond the discipline, this is only possible if it does so through the media. Drawing on the work of Roger Silverstone and in line with current sociological thinking about the media, "mediated appearance constitutes our worldliness, our capacity to be in the world". In other words for advanced capitalist societies, the media overwhelmingly provides the context for wider social and cultural practices - these are only in the world to the extent they appear in the media. If public sociology is concerned with generating a higher profile, the media is the only game in town for achieving it.

For Silverstone, because the media operates on wide and diverse scales there is what he calls an 'expectation of cosmopolitanism'.This means anyone can be a celebrity, and at any one time there are a cornucopia of voices - the media is a vast great pluralistic entity, which acts both as collective story teller and the repository of shared cultural references. However, Tester argues Silverstone overlooks the elephant in the room. Plurality is a secondary feature to the media's main purpose, which is to turn a profit. Pierre Bourdieu would have put it like this: TV has to attract viewers to satisfy advertisers or justify public funding. TV journalism is subject to the same pressures - news has to be sufficiently engaging to get them all-important ratings. This economic necessity weighs like a nightmare on print media and cultural production in general. Sociology, like all social scientific disciplines, belong to this sphere.

Sociology if it is to be heard in the media has to play by its rules. The problem is, to paraphrase Bourdieu, sociology is a science that likes to cause trouble, or, in the words of Zygmunt Bauman, its "questioning and disrupting the routine may not be to everyone's liking". Despite this, sociology does already occupy a media niche, but has to speak with one of four voices. For Tester, these are;

1) The voice of information - the provider of evidence and data that can be taken up by media actors to further their own position in that field and/or draw attention to a particular aspect of the social field and demand the powers that be take some form of action.
2) The voice of the expert - the 'you'd better listen to us because we are the experts' voice. As sociologists, we're the only ones sufficiently informed and knowledgeable about social dynamics, so listen up!
3) The voice of opinion - the sociologist as a member of the press commentariat or a talking head. Here sociology is poppy and non-academic, it must adhere to media production values so no overlong jargon or complex argumentation please! (As an aside Tester noted what sociologists are asked for their opinions is interesting in itself. Researchers from Manchester, Oxford, and LSE might get a look-in, but does anyone bother with Wolverhampton?)
4) The voice of entertainment - the reduction of sociology to a mere observer and celebrator of freakish and exotic social phenomena, the public spectacle of a discipline doing a Louis Theroux.

So sociology has to pay the price of having its research and arguments distorted by the media in order for it to be public. Is this particularly desirable? Not really. Can sociology then be public by taking an alternative route? Tester supposes one way it could reach non-academic audiences is by engaging with civil society. The problem is civil society is so often invoked that nods toward it are meaningless, in fact Tester questions the extent to which we can speak of it in 21st century Britain. But supposing sociology places itself at the service of civil society groups (parties, unions, NGOs, activist networks, think tanks, pressure groups, etc) we immediately run into a problem: a key concern of these groups is getting their voice heard in the media, which immediately brings us back to the problems sociology needs to avoid.

Tester proposes an alternate strategy, but a controversial one. Sociology could refuse to collaborate with the media environment, as Bourdieu did throughout his career. This abandons the push toward a distinctively public sociology and instead requires we pursue a principled sociology instead. This demands a commitment to critical analysis, the denaturalisation of social relations, and to human creativity and freedom. There is no guarantee such an enterprise will attract a wider public but then is it not the conceit of the intellectual to expect people would want to listen to what we have to say?

Some interesting issue arose during questions. For me there were two key issues that came up related to what I do. The first of these is the depoliticisation of sociology. Without wanting to romanticise the period, if you go back 20 years sociology was very much a politicised discipline. Today, politics is a base to be touched on in the same way you're expected to reference key texts and fashionable theorists. If it animates a researcher's concerns one's prose has to bleached white to eradicate any subtext. As a feature of the field it makes Tester's call for a principled sociology seem utopian, but this has been the case before. If you look at the sociology of the 50s and 60s - particularly Anglo-American studies - the discipline chased a positivistic model of explanation and exposition. The upsurges of the late 60s through to the mid 80s saw the field of power shudder under the impact of masses of people getting involved in politics and protest. Sociology as part of cultural production was suffused with the spirit and concerns of these upheavals. Since the co-option/defeat/disappearance of these movements and the ideological victory of neo-liberalism, politics has once again become the business of elites, and so sociology has lost its edge. It's reasonable to argue that while principled sociology is an option, it will not take off outside of a general upheaval. This isn't to say its pointless - important radical work is taking place now but the time has not yet come for these seeds of the future to mature.

The second point is about how sociologists engage with publics. It is clear present dissemination techniques using the specialist networks of sociology reach very few people. Most of our research is poured into books and articles few people will read (the average figure of four readers per academic journal article was floated in the meeting). What about blogging? Tester does not hold out much hope for it, but it does hold opportunities. If we return to the four voices sociology has to use to speak through the media there is no choice but to alternate between them in order to secure an audience. For example. Iain of Leftwing Criminologist fame recently wrote of his frustrations of posting up an essay and not getting much in the way of response. As commentators pointed out, length was an issue and I would imagine perceived complexity of the subject matter may have been a factor too. So there's no way round it, you have to adapt to survive in the blogging environment. But the crucial difference is the blogger possesses authorial control, they can publish what they like within these parameters. In the case of AVPS this has meant interspersing sociology posts with political musings, or, as is more often the case, politics posts occasionally seasoned by a dash of sociology. On an extremely modest level this blog has introduced my project on Trotskyist life histories, research drawn from a variety of areas via reports on seminars and symposia, and one of the key debates within the field through my interest in public sociology to a non-academic audience. I also hope the reverse has been the case, of bringing the relevance of leftist politics to the small academic readership.

In sum, I would apply Tester's argument to blogging. The role of the blogging sociologist is to act as a sign post to what's going on in the research communities. It's up to their audience whether they follow their directions.

Tuesday 5 February 2008

Socialist Unity Blog

If you happen to nip over to the Socialist Unity blog today, you will see my piece below on genetic determinism has also been posted on to that site. This is because Andy Newman has invited me to join the SU team, and I have accepted. But rest assured there's no intention of closing this blog. Myself and Brother S will continue to place our humble offerings before you as we have been doing for the last year and a bit. The only difference being I will from time to time double post something from here to the other place. This place will continue as home for the more esoteric stuff, like reports on academic gatherings, reflections on research, musings on Socialist Party branch meetings, etc.

To prevent this post from being too short, I've made one new addition to the blogroll this morning. Law and Disorder could be described as a left criminology/jurisprudence blog that has recently returned to life after a long break. I hope many other left blogs that have gone quiet, like For a New Left Party, Action Without Theory, Burn the Witches, Communist Students, International Rooksbyism, and Viva La Vegan (to name a few) follow L&D's lead and return to life soon!

Monday 4 February 2008

Politics is in the Blood ...

...or more accurately in the genes, at least according to the latest edition of New Scientist. The thesis in Jim Giles' article, 'Born that Way' is simple. Politics, according to recent research in genetics, is substantially determined by biology. As John Alford, a political scientist at Rice University, Texas, puts it, "these views are deep-seated and built into out brains. Trying to persuade someone not to be a liberal is like trying to persuade someone not to have brown eyes".

Coming up with biological determinist explanations for human behaviour is nothing new. But what is original are the increasingly intricate and complex "scientific" arguments deployed to make these claims. Suspending judgement for the moment, let's take a look at the research Giles reviews. Beginning with Alford, his determinist arguments seem backed up by plenty of evidence. He asked a sample of 30,000 twins a set of political questions and found identical twins were more likely to give the same answer than non-identical pairs. Therefore the answer to this pattern must lie in genetics, Alford claims.

Given the different timescales biological evolution and politics operate on how can there plausibly be a connection between the two? Frank Sulloway of the University of California at Berkeley says genes shape personality, and certain personality types correlate with political positions. John Jost's overview of 88 studies on political opinion, for example, establishes that if an individual is outgoing and something of a thrill-seeker, they're more likely to be a liberal. Giles also claims the five basic personality traits discerned by psychologists (conscientiousness, openness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism) are highly inheritable from parent to child.

How this genetic programming works is what neuroscientists James Fowler and David Amodio are trying to uncover. Fowler looks at the behaviour of the 5HTT and MAOA genes. These control serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter influencing trust and interaction. For Fowler, the better these genes are at regulating serotonin the more sociable the individual, and the more likely they are to turn out for elections. Amodio's study tested a sample of 40 people. They were required to press a button as soon as a particular letter appeared on a screen. The catch was in one in five cycles a different letter would flash up. The ability to hold back and not press the button was measured and treated as the propensity to deal with conflicting information. He found a correlation between high scores and liberal attitudes.

Giles does make an attempt to address some criticisms. Evan Charney of Duke University, North Carolina suggests a liberal bias to these studies: liberals are open-minded and willing to try new things; conservatives are stuck in a groove and prefer the familiar and the safe. The other problem is if politics are hardwired into our brains, then what's the point in debate? Alford's response is debate is worthwhile because it helps move the goal posts of debate - for example debates over racial, sexual, and LGBT equality have helped redefine the political stakes to the point where equality is tacitly accepted by the mainstream. Giles is less sanguine - his advice to politicos is "come to terms with these differences and you can spend the energy now wasted on persuasion figuring out ways of accommodating both points of view".

What does it say about the arrogance of this new biological determinism when it completely ignores the vast body of sociological literature on political identities, voting behaviour, and political activity? Well, it makes for bad science and flimsy claims for starters. Take for example inheritable personality characteristics, how can genetics be held as probable cause without weighing for socialisation processes? Even on the "strong" grounds of 30,000 twins, could similar political attitudes not also be the result of the specific and in many ways unique socialisation processes identical twins experience? We do not know, because the studies in question simply ignore the possibility. And what about political evolution? Every Marxist knows socialists are made - most of us have experienced the winning of new activists to our politics in the course of struggle and through political argumentation. Indeed, we ourselves may have been won to socialism this way. But the narrow case put by the determinists cannot begin to explain how people change their opinions, how, for instance, activists like myself started off in the conservative camp and ended up where I am today. Then there's the political consequences of this research - Charney may complain about the liberal bias of the studies, but there is something more pernicious going on. What they have done is provide a naturalist basis for centre ground politics, which implies the present day neo-liberal consensus is the norm and that anyone opposed to it, be they on the left or the right, are pathologically different. How convenient this is for the powers that be - they can feel smug and secure in the knowledge their brand of managerial politics is the natural order of things and their critics are driven not by a sense of injustice, but by their genetic make up.

However, one should not simply dismiss this research out of hand because it doesn't fit our politics. I'm not a geneticist. But I am a sociologist and I am convinced social scientific models of socialisation, personality/identity formation, and politicisation offer coherent enough explanations in the absence of genetic determinism. If genes do influence our politics, then it is up to the geneticists and sociobiologists to make the case with reference to existing sociological explanations. If they do not, all they offer is an ideology cobbled together on the basis of a few statistical correlations.