Saturday 30 August 2008

Sarah Palin: No Feminist

Meet John McCain's choice for a running mate in this November's presidential elections. Considering his position, there was probably nothing more he could have done to steal Barack Obama's thunder in the week the Democrats met for their presidential jamboree, than pick Sarah Palin (pictured). She's (comparatively) unknown and ... she's a woman! And what a surprise! The Republicans have started to milk it already, including Palin herself. In her acceptance speech (flanked by a very uncomfortable-looking McCain), Palin said "it was rightly noted in Denver this week that Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America. But it turns out the women of America aren't finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all." Pass me the sick bucket.

However, if McCain was hoping the choice of Palin was going to scoop up disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters, he has probably miscalculated. Ann Friedman of Feministing has this to say:
She's super anti-choice. The forced-pregnancy crowd is thrilled today! (She recently had her fifth child, who has Down's syndrome.) She's against marriage equality and supports a federal gay-marriage ban, but has made sure to note that she "has gay friends." Though she has signed on to same-sex partner benefits. She believes schools should teach creationism. She's also pretty terrible on environmental issues, and is a huge advocate of drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
I can't see too many Clinton supporters warming to these politics, regardless of how much they feel "betrayed" by Obama. Woman or no, Palin is a hard right ideologue of the worst kind. She is to feminism what Fox News is to balanced journalism, and is therefore an enemy to progressive people everywhere.

Friday 29 August 2008

Post-materialism and Class

As any socialist involved in labour movement politics will tell you, things haven't been too peachy these last 25 years. The awareness of socialist ideas are at an all-time low and total trade union membership continues to decline . A number of arguments have been put forward to explain this unfortunate political reality. For example, some locate the malaise in the strategic defeats our movement suffered at the hands of Thatcher's Tories in the 1980s. And others might suggest increasingly privatised and individuated lifestyles has left little purchase for a politics founded on collectivist principles. There are others too. One of which has had little impact outside of academia but can certainly give pause for thought.

Coming out of political science, the work of Ronald Inglehart has proven to be an influential argument in academic circles about the effects of a fundamental culture shift in advanced industrial societies. His position is this: there has been a marked decline in so-called materialist politics and a complimentary rise in 'post-materialism'. Or, to put it more crudely, the popular take up of bread and butter politics has given way to quality of life issues (which refer to lifestylist, environmentalist, and race/gender/LGBT issues). Inglehart bases his argument on two hypotheses.

1) Post-war capitalism in the West and Japan guaranteed a greater degree of economic security for a greater proportion of the population than had ever been the case. As Inglehart puts it “economic factors tend to play a decisive role under conditions of economic scarcity; but as scarcity diminishes, other factors shape society to an increasing degree” (1987, p.1289). These "other factors" are post-materialist issues and concerns.

2) In line with increasing levels of prosperity, Inglehart argued each generational birth cohort is born and socialised into a context where increasing numbers of people have only ever experienced economic security. Because of this newer generations will retain a certain predisposition to a post-materialist outlook throughout life (accepting the argument that early childhood experiences are the most psychologically important), and therefore as older cohorts die and are replaced by the birth of the new; and provided economic security remains, a respective spread and decline of post-materialist and materialist values is set in motion. Inglehart observes “differences between the formative socialisation of young Europeans and their elders were leading young birth cohorts to value relatively high levels of freedom and self-expression … [therefore] future intergenerational population replacement would bring about a shift toward new value properties” (Abramson and Inglehart 1995, p.1).

The relationship between cohorts and adherence to post-materialist values is not one of continuous and linear growth, but assumes a fluctuating upward tendency that is at times halted and temporarily reversed by economic slowdown and recession.

This is all very well, but what proof exists for this broad brush of an argument? Inglehart’s measurement of value change is based on surveys designed to gauge a respondent’s receptivity to material and/or post-material values. The sample is asked the set of questions and according to their answers are divided into 'materialists', 'mixed', and 'post-materialists'. Ignoring those of mixed views, he subtracts the number of materialists from post-materialists to yield a ‘percentage difference index’ (PDI) that can be measured and compared over time. For example the following data from his 1995 book, Value Change in Global Perspective, demonstrates an overall positive PDI trend, which, he argues reflects the growing saliency of post-materialist concerns.


PDI scores for Britain 1970-1 – 1993

Total %
Sample Size
PDI Score

This long-term development in Britain is shared by other advanced capitalist societies and has allowed Inglehart to make a number of assumptions about contemporary Western politics. He argues those who score highly on his percentage difference index (i.e. post-materialists) are more likely to participate in conventional mainstream politics, approve of "non-conventional" political activity (demonstrations, direct action, etc.), and tend to support left-wing parties in elections more frequently than their materialist counterparts. There is also the emergence of the "new" political family of Green parties and movements, who, in Inglehart's opinion, were unlikely to have emerged without the cultural changes that gave rise to a post-materialist world view.

If we accept the value of the argument it would nevertheless be a mistake to reduce the emergence of environmentalist parties and movements (along with others similarly concerned with quality of life issues) to just cultural shifts. Culture and cultural developments do not happen in a vacuum. They are tightly-bound to economic and political processes. There have to be other roots to post-materialism's saliency besides rising affluence. One school of thought contributes to understanding is as an outcome of the (old) social democratic state’s contradictory management of a capitalist economy. John F. Sitton summed it up thus:

The commodity form of value is what distinguishes the capitalist mode of production from other modes. If the system is to maintain its identity as capitalist, accumulation must continue through exchange relations, as opposed to forced labour or state command of production. The state must therefore find a way to “recommodify” capital and labour so that the paralysis is overcome without breaking the principle of exchange (Sitton 1996, p.112).
In the context of welfare capitalism Claus Offe has argued that state intervention assumes allocative and productive forms. The former refers to the ‘normal’ state functions of tax utilisation and the use of resources already under its control. The productive functions, on the other hand, are where the state attempts to recommodify labour and capital. Here the state, as a capitalist state, is compelled to intervene when the costs and risks associated with capitalist competition cannot increase productivity further. It therefore attempts to ‘jumpstart’ the system by baring the cost of providing new inputs, stimulating markets, regulating labour, and opening new avenues of capital accumulation which strengthens trends towards the universalisation of the commodity form, which is a property the Keynesian state shares with its neoliberal successor.

This kind of interventionism is problematic for the formation of class identity and consciousness. For Offe this has led to a number of developments: individual achievement, prosperity, and even social deprivation appear to be de-coupled from class position. The interest group orientation of state intervention is mirrored in the fragmentary character of electoral politics. And the development of white-collar ‘service employment’ has generated a significant dislocation in the unified experience of the working class. These processes condense to displace the salience of identity centred on the workplace, undermining the appeal and scope of collective class politics.

These same processes have meant a multiplication of the points of social conflict in Western societies (though not necessarily their intensity). Whereas Marx argued the trajectory and fate of capitalism would be decided by the contest between bourgeois and proletarian, recent developments of contradictory processes appear to call more diffuse political actors into existence who are opposed to aspects of the system rather than capitalism in its totality. For Offe new social movements arise from these apparently "non-class" cleavages and adopt identities that appear independent of class position. The peace movement is cited as an example, noting how it would not exist without the state’s “Keynesian” consumption of armaments. Secondly, though many NSMs are not consciously anti-capitalist, the implementation of their political demands may sit uneasily with capitalism, and could therefore generate more areas of tension in the future.

In sum the class compromises that made possible the post-war boom ultimately corroded the political economic base of the social democratic state by providing secure conditions for post-material value and culture change, and facilitating struggles that eschew a class identity. Therefore it is possible that if Keynesian welfarism had persisted, the decline in the efficacy of class and labour movement organisations would have continued. But in Britain’s case, it is arguable this process accelerated under the impact of largely successful elite attempts to move away from the politics of compromise in favour of a new settlement primarily beneficial to big business.

If we accept these arguments, it does not mean socialists should go the whole hog and abandon class. As Inglehart acknowledges 'materialist' (i.e. class) issues can become more salient when capitalism is confronted by crisis, but also it demands we have to be a bit more imaginative when it comes to political strategy.

Thursday 28 August 2008

Where Were You When ...

At the moment I'm caught between writing some PhD and mulling over the next post on History and Class Consciousness (previous here and here). Then Jim had to go and tempt me with the latest meme doing the rounds. After flapjacks, memes are probably the closest thing I have to a vice, so "where were you when ..."

Princess Diana Died - 31st August, 1997

Sleeping. I remember waking up at about quarter to nine and hearing the TV on downstairs, which was a rarity at my parents on a Sunday morning. I knew something was up. I went downstairs, watched the TV a bit and then went and did something more interesting, so overwhelmed with indifference was I. But as the days went by I got angrier and angrier as the media and government contrived to shut as much of Britain down to enforce North Korean-style mourning for our departed Queen of Hearts.

Margaret Thatcher's Resignation - 22nd November, 1990

I debated for days in the lead up to it with my Kinnockite sparring partner (hello Kirsty if you're reading!) about whether there should be an election or not. In those days I was a Tory you see, and quite fancied Heseltine over Thatcher. Anyway, the news came to us in my third year woodwork (sorry, Craft, Design and Technology) class. Mr. Needham produced a radio from somewhere so we could hear the historic occasion as we were sawing and hammering our planks of wood.

Attack on the Twin Towers - 11th September, 2001

I was walking home from my shift at a well-known supermarket in Newcastle-U-Lyme, when one of the regular visitors to my till pulled up and offered me a lift. She had the radio on and said there'd been some hijackings. I rang home and told Cat to put the TV on - something was afoot. I managed to get in just after the second plane hit, and spent the rest of the day glued simultaneously to News 24 and the internet. I remember you couldn't get on the BBC or Ananova (remember that?), but comrades near to computers managed to get a running commentary going on the UKLN. I think it's hard to convey the stunning effect it had.

England's World Cup Semi-Final - 4th July, 1990

I was at home with my family for this. We were never big footy fans, but we did always watch the World Cup. I can remember feeling a touch disappointed and not wanting to hear World in Motion again :(

President Kennedy's Assassination - 22nd November, 1963

Conspiring with the lizards.

I can't be bothered to tag anyone, but feel free to fill the comments with your memories of these watershed moments.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Solidarity with Harry's Place

Never in a million years did I think such a title would appear on this blog, especially considering the "history" me and "Harry" had way, way back in the early years of the UK Left Network. But now I feel compelled to stand with Harry's Place.


HP is under attack - and not for the first time. The (hopefully) temporary stand-in while HP is off the air takes up the story:
Harry's Place may be removed (or rather have it's DNS disabled) after a 'complaint' to the company that our domain name is registered with. We assume after threats were made on the weekend that this 'complaint' originates from Jenna Delich or her supporters. Though we have not yet seen the complaint submitted, we assume it runs along the lines that pointing out that Ms Delich linked to the website of a known neo-Nazi figure and former Ku Klux Klan leader is defamatory. This is extraordinary since Ms Delich has not denied that she circulated links to David Dukes website. There would be no point since the evidence is in the public domain. Nevertheless, a malicious complaint has been made to the company hosting our DNS.
More background is available courtesy of Modernity Blog here, here and here.

Personally, I have very little time for the politics peddled on HP. Warmed over social democracy plus humanitarian imperialism plus trenchant Zionism do not suit my radical palate. But they have as much right to push their rubbish politics as any other blogger, regardless of how distasteful they can be at times. So down with the complaints, the writs and the threats of court action, and away with those of censorious intent. If you're stupid enough to make the kind of mistake Jenna Delich did, then you should take the blowback on the chin, not scrabble around for a lawyer's letter.

In the immortal words of the HP masthead: "Liberty, if it means anything, is the right to tell people what they don't want to hear".

Political Sociology Vs Political Science

When you're engaged with research on small political parties, such as the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers' Party, concepts drawn from political science can be a hindrance. According to S.L. Fisher's 1980 paper, 'The Decline-of-Parties Thesis and the Role of Minor Parties', research in small parties tends to be neglected because researchers are more likely to be attracted to parties about which information is more readily available. Undoubtedly this observation does carry weight with regards to the media coverage large parties enjoy and the sheer weight of past academic research that has been carried out on them. This is reinforced by an assumption that small sized parties with small electoral bases mean a negligible impact on government policy.

Take Giovanni Sartori's seminal Parties and Party Systems as an example. In his discussion of what parties should and should not be counted as part of a party system, Sartori rules out those parties unable to secure parliamentary representation. All that really matters are the relative strengths of parties, measured by the number of seats they hold. But even crossing this representation threshold is not enough: party system actors are counted only if they possess enough seats to have ‘coalition’ or ‘blackmail’ potential. Coalition corresponds to parties who have formed a government in the past, participated in a governing coalition, and/or is perceived by other parties as a potential coalition partner. Blackmail potential on the other hand covers all other parties who retain substantial representation while refusing to participate in government (usually on ideological grounds). Lijphart (1999) suggests that while Sartori is useful for determining the significance of parties in a system his classification is blind to the number of parties present within it. An alternative measure proposed by Blondel (1968) looks both at the numbers of parties present in the parliamentary system plus their size. To illustrate, using the present UK Parliament, ten parties currently have representation - but only two are significant in terms of government participation. The Liberal Democrats and their historical antecedents have since the early 1920s only had occasional blackmail potential in exceptional circumstances, such as significant backbench rebellions or during periods of minority government. The same applies for the loyalist parties of Northern Ireland and the SNP.

The problem with this political science approach rests on the conceptualisation of significance. By bringing the analytical focus to bear on small parties the assumptions underlying significance become visible and begin to unravel. What is clear is that significance, regardless of measure, is narrowly conceived in terms of a party’s relationship to office. By extension the privileged field of analysis is parliamentary activity, which is taken to be synonymous with the party system as a whole. In turn this serves to reinforce the hegemonic view that politics in parliamentary democracies is properly the business of vote gathering. The view of politics as something that occurs outside sanctioned elected bodies is simultaneously ignored/suppressed. Parliamentary politics is the unmarked term. It is the assumed norm.

Significance acts as a conceptual gatekeeper. But by diligently performing its duties of defining, measuring, and excluding parties, by upholding and policing the party system concept, it paradoxically undermines its explanatory efficacy. In fact there are a number of ways parties invisible to the significance criteria can have impacts on party systems. Herzog (1987) argues small parties assist in the articulation of new political norms, that such parties are guinea pigs for new ideas. (The oft-cited example in this context is the impact Green parties have had on the mainstream policy agenda, despite their lack of “significance” in terms of the UK Westminster party system). As Carty (1997) observes small parties can “set in motion a set of responses from other parties that [transform a] country’s competitive politics” (p.97). Similarly (though writing about parties who tend to fulfill significance criteria) Capoccia (2002) and Abedi (2004) argue anti-system parties can affect a system’s legitimacy and stability, and its functioning by pushing it in a polarising direction.

For example, despite being micro-parties of no relevance under the significance criteria, both the SWP and SP have had at one time or another an impact on the party system. The SWP played a leading organisational role in the anti-Iraq War movement by helping mobilise a constituency that it later benefited from electorally via Respect. Thanks to its efforts for keeping it a live issue it can be argued that it (inadvertently) assisted the growth of the Liberal Democrat’s parliamentary support (4,814,321 votes and 52 seats at the 2001 election to 2005’s 5,981,874 votes and 62 seats). Similarly in its Militant heyday the SP had three MPs sitting as Labour members, and its role as the organisational backbone of the Anti-Poll Tax Federation was a significant contributing factor to the resignation of Margaret Thatcher and the declining electoral fortunes of the Conservatives in the 1990s.

What this suggests is the necessity for a conceptual reworking of both significance and party system to put them on a sociological footing, so the impacts of very small parties and/or social movements can be properly theorised.

Sunday 24 August 2008

Bloggy Links

It's the bank holiday weekend, my brain doesn't want to work, and leftyblogland is reclining in its comfy red armchair - the perfect opportunity to put out a post drawing attention to recent changes in the old blogroll. For eagle-eyed watchers of the AVPS list o' links, I have two questions. First, have you not got a life? Second, can you spot who the new kids on the block are? If not, here they are for you in glorious technicolor: ACME Politics, Adopted Domain, Benjamin Solah, Bevan Foundation, Bird of Paradox, Devizes Melting Pot, Don Paskini, Feministing, Get There Steppin', Life is a Question, Musin' and Confusin', Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, Some Roses Are Red, The Bead Shop, The LEFT Alternative, and TransGriot.

There are a couple of blogs that deserve an additional mention. First is The Commune. This blog is the latest project from David Broder of, erm, David Broder fame. In a move that didn't surprise seasoned sect watchers, he has left the AWL over the recent would-it-be-wrong-to-condemn-Israel-if-they-attacked-Iran debate. The whole story is played out at Shiraz Socialist here. If you want my opinion (and you're going to get it seeing this is my blog) it shows some on the left have still got a lot of growing up to do (loyalty pledges FFS!)

The second blog I want to mention is Red Star Solidarity. A while ago I put a blog by a Solidarity comrade on my most wanted and at last one has turned up. So please do visit and add him to your blogrolls.

I can't well disappear while I've still got verbal diarrhoea, so a couple of more bloggy mentions are in order. Dave Osler has got all consultative with his audience and has asked them for feedback. So if you've ever had the desire to denounce him as a reformist ex-trot renegade from revolutionary Marxism, now's your chance. Also the next Carnival of Socialism is imminent over at The Daily (Maybe). If you have a left blog there's no reason why you shouldn't volunteer for an upcoming carnival, so what are you waiting for?

Friday 22 August 2008

Branch Meeting: The Other Europe

At last night's branch meeting, we were treated to the debut lead off from C, a very recent recruit to the massed ranks of Stoke Socialist Party.

Continuing with the Europe theme of
last week's meeting, he chose to spoke about the perception of the "other Europe" east of the Oder. He noted that Eastern Europe has suffered centuries of cultural denigration in the West and how the usual stock response to blame Russia and 'asiatic despotism' for its underdevelopment obscures the role the West played in maintaining this state of affairs. For example, many an 18th century travelogue by Western travellers marvelled at the backwardness and ignorance in the East as their circles in the West were embracing Enlightenment ideas. But this was a one-sided appreciation of the situation. In actual fact, as industrial capitalism was starting to develop in the West it became increasingly dependent on the East for grain. Therefore, Western development was brought at the price of Eastern underdevelopment: the local ruling class had an interest in keeping the peasantry indentured within feudal relations of production. The rise of capitalism, at least initially, was accompanied by a strengthening of Eastern feudalism.

In some ways this was reinforced by the iron curtain. Though for a brief period after the Russian Revolution, the East symbolised a new, muscular modernity, the disintegration of the Eastern bloc over 1989-91 saw it reduced to a handful of basket cases clamouring for Western aid. As some countries moved toward the European Union, it became clear they would be admitted at a price: the dismantling of their economies and restructuring along neoliberal lines, and a programme of reforms to meet a minimum standard of liberal democracy. The ascension of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary and the Baltic Republics in 2004 may, on the surface, signal a break down in the East/West division but an inequality gap still exists. For example, the GDP per capita of the three EU states bordering the ascension countries (Italy, Austria and Germany) stood respectively at $35,000, $36,000 and $40,500. For their eastern neighbours the figures were Poland ($11,700), Czech Republic ($17,000), Slovakia ($13,900), Hungary ($20,000) and Slovenia ($22,100) (all rounded to the nearest 100).

It's unsurprising that workers from the East, particularly the Poles, have travelled to the West to find employment. Unfortunately, in Britain and despite their status as EU citizens, migrant workers are among the most exploited sections of the working class. Very low wages - often beneath the statutory minimum, substandard housing and con-merchant landlords are no strangers to thousands of workers drawn from this layer. If this wasn't enough, the political establishment, at times deliberately, at times unconsciously conspire to dehumanise them. We on the left are frequently appalled by xenophobic attacks on migrants by the mainstream right wing press. But we also need to beware of liberal paternalism. "Supportive" sections of the ruling class have been known to hail East European workers as "efficient", "hard-working" and willing to work the kinds of jobs slovenly British workers won't do. But all this does is render them dehumanised automatons impervious to appalling working conditions, underlining their "alien" qualities and reinforcing the cultural "othering" of the East.

The discussion moved on to the South Ossetian crisis and how perceptions of the conflict are likely to strengthen this separation further, but this time with Russia as the condensing point for all the anxieties about the East. In part this was already fed by the uneasy interdependence between it and the EU. Russia is an exporter of the energy the EU needs, and the EU presents to Russia its most lucrative markets. Tensions are not helped by much of the EU's military apparatus being tied to the USA via NATO.

On the conflict between Georgia and Russia, there's very little need to go into the ins and outs considering the forensic treatment it has received in the mainstream media and on the blogs. But there were two arguments of interest that came up in the discussion. Picking up on analysis found all over the internet, was the observation that the crisis marked the beginning of a nascent multi-polarity in international affairs threatening to overtake the USA's position as global hegemon. Linking into this was speculation about why Bush acquiesced to Georgia's assault on South Ossetia. Knowing this was likely to provoke Russia into overt military action, and given the US wants to strengthen its grip on the Middle East via a string of bases and friendly regimes in the region, why be so foolhardy to allow an apparent reversal in Georgia? One comrade ventured that perhaps the US position is now stronger. Russia's projection of power into its near abroad has left many on the EU's flank fearful of interventions in their direction. It undoubtedly helped focus the mind of the Polish government who overcame 18 months of jitters and signed up to Bush's missile shield. Ostensibly designed to intercept missiles from the remaining 'Axis of Evil' - Iran and North Korea - Russian military strategists are not daft enough to think this doesn't give NATO a key strategic advantage over its position.

But for all the positioning and posturing the "new cold war" is a rhetorical recrudescence of distrust and paranoia. The politicians may spout hot air, Russians and generic East Europeans might be making a come back as "baddies" in popular culture (Indiana Jones, The X-Files and Hellboy, for example), "dodgy" Russian businessmen maybe swanning around with their dubious wealth, buying up premiership teams, and the spies are running around London leaving a trail of isotopes in their wake. But at present the ruling class in the East and the West have more than enough mutual interests to prevent this going beyond an exchange of insults and human rights lectures.

The walls, barbed wire and minefields may have gone and the cultural divide is stronger than before. But a more fundamental division, between the rulers and the ruled, between capital and labour is even more deeply entrenched. As long as this constant exists, regardless of the differences within and between East and West, so does the potential for unified international action to fight it.

Wednesday 20 August 2008

Journal Watch: Sociological Review

It's been a while since I dipped into the pages of a sociology journal, and I did promise this was going to be a semi-regular feature. Remember, if you want a more complete and regular low down of what's happening in social science journals, Journal Flood is the blog for you. Now, where was I? Oh yes. During a quiet moment this afternoon, I thought I'd have a nose around the latest Sociological Review (Volume 56, number 3, August 2008). And there are a couple of articles that caught my eye.

First up is W.G. Runciman's provocative article, 'Forgetting the Founders' (abstract). Well, by provocative I mean pretty critical of the "founding fathers" of sociology - Marx, Weber and Durkheim. His is a well tread argument: the three were writing in a different time ... so much has changed since then ... we need to move on. Pity most of this "moving on" has resulted in a discipline-wide retreat from explanatory social theory, but I digress. Regardless of Runciman's opinion on the big three, he advocates a bold new direction for sociological research: Neo-Darwinism. Runciman argues this is being deployed in two ways - psychological and biological arguments concerning naturally-selected facets of human behaviour, and "the framing and testing of non-reductionist causal hypotheses about cultural and social evolution." He acknowledges these claims are controversial for sociologists, but this shouldn't be taken to assume some kind of genetic determinism. It's certainly an interesting argument and one that sociologists - including this one - will require a lot of convincing.

The second of my picks is 'Vive la (Sexual) R̩volution: The Political Roots of Bourdieu's Analysis of Gender', by Gad Yair (abstract). As long-time AVPS readers know I use the work of Pierre Bourdieu in my PhD and so have an interest in any new scholarship that comes along. In this paper Yair courts controversy with the claim that the 1789 Revolution constitutes a deep cultural code that continues to structure French scholarly practice, and Bourdieu was no exception. His "preoccupation with the Revolution Рand his analyses of its frustrations in the realm of the sexual division of labour Р[could be read] as a reincarnation of a deep French cultural code which animated his writings." In other words, the code is so deeply embedded in the French intellectual habitus that this is refracted in all of Bourdieu's work on gender. After exploring the argument in more depth, this leads to a suggestion (not all that shocking, from a Bourdieusian point of view) that there may well be national peculiarities that are reflected in our social scientific output, undermining the discipline's image as a scholarly community imbued with a cosmopolitan internationalism. Interesting.

The full contents of this edition of The Sociological Review can be read here.

Tuesday 19 August 2008

Look At Me!

There's a new meme on the block that should be up every blogger's street. Let's strip away all the right-on reasons for blogging and get down to brass tacks. It's all about vanity isn't it? We write so we can show off how brainy and knowledgeable we are. And we want other people to know it, don't we? Well, this meme is designed to show our best face. It's very simple. The Showcasin' Meme wants you to pick your ten best/favourite posts and list them for all to see. The only rules are the collection must be authored by you - not a guest poster or a repost from another blog/website/paper (but interviews are fine). They also have to be at least one month old. And you have to tag seven other bloggers with the meme.

Here are mine in no discernible order:

Problems With Porn

Touching Base With Managerialism

Democratising Public Services

Politics is in the Blood ...

Defining Neoliberalism

Sexing Up Sociology

Tories Target Trade Union Political Funds

Some Problems of Partisan Social Movement Research

The Other Black Gold

Baudrillard Again

I think my vanity is satisfied now. Right, over to you. I hereby tag Life is a Question, Harpymarx, Jim Jay, Leftwing Criminologist, Andy, Splinty and Cruella.

Monday 18 August 2008

The Perfect Vagina

When you've had your nose, lips, eyes, tummy and breasts done, why not let your vagina go under the knife too? Yes, incredibly, vaginoplasty is becoming an increasingly popular type of cosmetic surgery. The British Medical Journal describes the procedure as the "shortening or changing the shape of the outer lips, or labia, but may also include reduction in the hood of skin covering the clitoris or shortening the vagina itself." RANZCOG have warned against this type of surgery because of the potential for scarring, infection, loss of sensation and other complications. But when the average operation costs $9,500 (US) there is certainly money to be made.

As part of Channel 4's 'G-Spot' season on modern "women's issues", Lisa Rogers investigates The Perfect Vagina. Increasing numbers of British women are selecting to have labiplastys, a less invasive form of vaginoplasty in the hope it will give a more uniform appearance. What Lisa wants to know is who are these women doing it for? Is it themselves?

The documentary starts with a visit to Professor Linda Cardozo, who tells us demand for labiplastys on the NHS has doubled in recent years. As the vagina is now another marker of fashion, women generally want to look like other women. Unfortunately the hegemonic look is that of a small child's. As the BMJ notes, "patients who sought genitoplasty "uniformly" wanted their vulvas to be flat and with no protrusion, similar to the prepubescent look of girls in Western fashion ads". So when did this fashion begin? Lisa nips down the salon for her first Brazilian in a couple of years to find out. The beautician says the fashion for pubic styling/hair removal became voguish in the late 1990s, especially after a Sex and the City episode on that theme was screened.

However, hair removal is one thing. Surgery quite another. Lisa meets with 21 year old Rosie who is booked in for a private labiplasty. Rosie's story is one of body confidence. From a young age her sister has continually made fun of her labia and has made it known to all her friends about her "hanging ham". She has also used it to ward off potential boyfriends. It was difficult not to feel her humiliation when she talked about standing in a club with a group of male "friends" who were "jokingly" laying into her about them. It's a pity there are no surgical solutions to boorish insensitivity and sexist bullying.

It is to The Perfect Vagina's credit it did not skimp on the uncomfortable surgery scenes. We are shown Rosie's fear and pain as her labia are anaesthetised in turn and unceremoniously sliced off. Even though I don't own a pair, I'm sure I wasn't the only one who couldn't suppress a wince. But if this wasn't bad enough, the wounds can take up to three months to heal. Surely seeing Rosie sat on a loo with a handful of tissue pressed between her legs in a vain attempt to stop the bleeding is enough to put anyone off this procedure. I hope so.

Lisa then meets 31 year old Kelly. She was brought up by her grandparents, which meant anything to do with the body was strictly off limits. When she started her period her grandmother told Kelly it would be "their secret". This set the tone for a problematic relationship with her vagina. As a red head she would take mascara to her pubic hair in an effort to look like everyone else in the changing room. She also talked about watching porn with her husband and how it was predisposing her toward labiplasty and liposuction so her vagina could compare with porn star genitalia. Her reasoning was if hers were perfect then maybe her husband wouldn't feel the need to watch.

To try and dissuade her from surgery, Lisa took her along to have a cast of her bits done. Jamie McCartney, a Brighton-based sculptor, is building a wall of vagina casts. Several women who'd already been done thought the experience was quite encouraging because it showed them what they had was not freakish or unpleasant. Kelly was similarly positive when she'd been done too. She went from describing it as a hot dog bap with a "beak" to seeing it as it really was - genitalia well within variation. Happily it made her think again about the surgery.

Lisa then goes to see Eric Shulton, a plastic surgeon specialising in vaginoplasty procedures. She asks wouldn't it be better to encourage women to accept their bodies instead of slicing bits of it off? His reply - as you'd expect - is that the women who come to him have tried to and failed, so what solution is left? Lisa then decides to submit herself to an examination to see if, according to his opinion, whether she qualifies for surgery. His conclusion is that she's normal, but has operated on at least one very similar vagina because the patient thought her clitoral hood was a little too large.

It was inevitable Lisa would come across hymen reconstruction surgery at some stage. For a minority of Muslim women (though, it should be said, not exclusively so), bleeding after sex on the wedding night is taken as proof of her virginity. Lisa meets with one 19 year old woman desperate for a reconstruction. If anyone found out she wasn't a virgin she and her parents would feel compelled to kill themselves for the shame it would bring upon them. She made it clear this was a punishment she had to undergo to save them all - she couldn't care less about the man arranged to be her groom.

In her closing, Lisa finished with a plea to women to "love your flaps", which summed up the body positive image The Perfect Vagina laboured to get across. It centred on personal and educational means of overcoming women's alienation from their bodies. Kelly benefited, as did Raegan, who attended a holistic sex therapy session with Lisa where they were encouraged to talk about the memories associated with their vaginas. Lisa also pledged to bring her two daughters up in a body positive atmosphere to head them hang ups off at the past. But is this enough?

As far as I'm concerned, anyone should be entitled to change their bodies how they wish. But when large groups of women feel compelled by a variety of pressures to go under the knife, something is seriously wrong. With regard to designer vaginas, there are two interrelated and mutually constitutive factors the programme identified but did not go into enough depth.

The first of these are men. Lisa asked her partner, a group of her male friends and Jamie McCartney whether they "noticed" vaginas - had they ever been put off by a foo? The answer was no. But it appeared on the basis of the evidence presented in the show to be an age and class thing. Rosie's young male "friends" certainly cared. Kelly thought her husband cared. Part of Raegan's insecurities stemmed from her ex who used to make disparaging comments about her after she'd had a baby. And the two work men Lisa hired for painting work certainly had very fixed and detailed opinions on how a vagina should look. Rosie's group were young and presumably affluent like her. The remainder were working class.

As far as I know, there's no data on porn use by men by class location. Nor am I about to assume middle class men like Lisa's friends are any less likely to view it. Whatever these specifics are, it's not a great leap of the imagination to suggest a relationship between porn, pubic fashions, vaginal anxiety and men. As Lisa noted earlier on, waxing has a lot to answer for. But this is one property of a new ubiquity of genitalia. The continuing spread of the internet and the vast quantities of it devoted to porn means sexual imagery of one kind or another has never been so accessible. Most women who work in porn conform to conventional body stereotypes. But also their vaginas, which tend to be shaved or waxed, are seen by many more men ... and women, than the Razzles and Escorts of old. This has a knock on effect in hegemonic constructions of femininity. The disappearance/minimisation of pubic hair and the ideal vagina of the porn star translates into a mainstream aesthetics of the pubis. This aesthetics is sustained through magazines, marketing, peer pressure, and the perceived expectation that potential sexual partners prefer the porn star look. Small wonder some women turn to vaginoplasty in an effort to conform.

Unfortunately, this culture seems to be getting stronger all the time. The gaze, the libidinal economy of patriarchal sexuality that greases the wheels of the multi-billion pound sex industry has never been so powerful and pervasive. Literally every inch of women's bodies are commodified and pronounced upon. This culture, which distorts sexuality by casting women in an inferior position is a big obstacle to building the humanistic, fulfilling and liberating socialist society our species deserves. How do we halt the juggernaut?

Sunday 17 August 2008

Rallying Against the BNP

I was at Codnor in Derbyshire yesterday for the rally/rallies and march to protest at the BNP’s annual Red White and Blue festival that was being held on farmland at nearby Denby.

A coach was provided from Stoke (in part financed by North Staffs TUC) that carried a disappointing seven people. Yes, I know it is holiday time, but given the electoral strength of the BNP in Stoke, I feel that it was a poor turnout. Both NSTUC and North Staffs Campaign Again Racism and Fascism need to pull the stops out to maximise support for future protests.

Two rallies had actually been planned, one by Notts Stop The BNP commencing at 9.30 and another by UAF starting at 11.00! Now I am not going to delve into the politics of this (much has already been written elsewhere). I had turned up to rally against the BNP and supported both events, as did most people there. In reality, the second rally merged into the first.

We later marched about half a mile through the village to the entrance to the farmland where the BNP were holding their ‘festival’. The police stopped us there but did allow thirty protesters to walk the further three-quarters of a mile to a designated ‘protest spot’. We congregated for about an hour before marching back. At one stage, we had the silly situation of different speakers addressing the front and back of the march, neither of which I could hear! We then walked back to the village for another rally.

Was it a success? I think so. I estimated there were about 400/450 people on the march, 500 top whack - not bad. Could have been higher but a big improvement on last year when there was apparently a lone protester! There were about ten unions that were visibly present, plus some Trades Councils, the Asian Workers Association, Racial Equalities Council, and assorted left groupings- a wide mix. I have to say that the locals did not appear to be very supportive. They generally looked bemused or rather hostile. Only one motorist sounded his horn in support. We made our presence felt. Let’s hope it did some good.

Friday 15 August 2008

Luxemburg, Revisionism and Revolution

In the last post on History and Class Consciousness, we looked at Lukacs' understanding of 'orthodox' Marxism. The two key themes you could take from his essay was the intimate relationship between historical materialism and the working class; and his emphasis on the necessity of grasping the totality of capitalist social relations.

His second piece in History, The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg, is a logical extension of these concerns. Lukacs found Luxemburg an important figure in the elaboration of Marxism because, he argued, she expressed the kind of orthodoxy he was keen to establish. Especially where her frequent polemics with Eduard Bernstein and the revisionists were concerned.

To recap, in bourgeois social thought, the starting point of analysis is the individual. For reasons discussed in the previous post, there are no paths linking such a beginning to the totality of the social formation. The best it would be able to do is approach aspects of it in a disconnected, fragmentary manner. By way of illustrative example, one of the primary differences between political economy and the critique of it performed by Marx is that the former analyses capitalism from a position homologous to that of the individual capitalist, while Marx proceeded from the collective class totalities that constitute the system.

This was the point of attack for the revisionists. Because Marx elaborated his theories on the basis of a hypothetical society consisting solely of bourgeois and proletarians, they argued rising living standards and a growing middle class invalidated his analysis. For Luxemburg (and Lukacs) the revisionists made the cardinal error of, as Marx once put it, mistaking the things of logic for the logic of things. Marx's theoretical construct was merely a method of exposition designed to make clear the contradictions of capitalism so that this understanding can then be applied empirically. Lukacs cites Marx's analyses of primitive capital accumulation as one example - but there are many more instances throughout Marx's body of work.

Luxemburg was not merely concerned with critiquing revisionist ideas. She resolved to analyse their material basis. Just as Marx's critique of political economy located David Ricardo's work in the rising power of the bourgeoisie, Luxemburg produced a similar analysis of revisionism. To this day, it remains the standard Marxist understanding of the collapse of social democracy into the capitalist camp. Revisionism reflected the emergence of a privileged layer within the working class who benefited from the super profits West European imperialism brought home from its access to cheap raw materials and protected markets. This expressed itself in an outlook that looked to a peaceful, reformist road to socialism.

For Lukacs, this typifies the historical materialist method. Luxemburg's analysis demonstrates knowledge of the total historical process. It shows how an ideological struggle, Marxism vs revisionism, is in fact a struggle against a section of the class whose material circumstances put them at odds against the rest. As Lukacs summarises it (also speaking of Lenin's State and Revolution)
To ensure that the problems under consideration will arise before us dialectically, they provide what is substantially a literary-historical account of their genesis. They analyse the changes and reversals in the views leading up to the problem as it presents itself to them. They focus upon every stage of intellectual clarification or confusion and place it in the historical context conditioning it and resulting from it. This enables them to evoke with unparalleled vividness the historical process of which their own approach and their own solutions are the culmination. (1968: 35)
Lukacs already touched on the junking of materialist dialectics by the revisionists in the previous essay. In their abandonment of socialism as a real movement in society, as a process tied up with the experience and consciousness of the working class, revisionist socialism either becomes fatalist (socialism will happen (or not!) regardless) or ethical (socialism as a 'nice idea' that can be promoted through self-improvement and 'education). With varying permutations over the last century, revisionism in the form of social democracy, British Road Stalinism, Eurocommunism and 'Post-Marxism' sees no socialist potential in the working class. Marxism, because it deals with class totalities and class relations argues differently. Class consciousness and socialist politics are always latent and in certain circumstances, such as economic and/or political crisis, necessity can call it into being. Lukacs says
... the moment when the class consciousness of the proletariat begins to articulate its demands, when it is ‘latent and theoretical’, must also be the moment when it creates a corresponding reality which will intervene actively in the total process ... The form taken by the class consciousness of the proletariat is the Party. (1968: 41)
Luxemburg appreciated this understanding of class consciousness. Unlike those who freeze Lenin's 1902 arguments about workers being only capable of "trade union consciousness" into a dogma to justify their particularly elitist practice of the vanguard party, Luxemburg argued that workers could be spontaneously revolutionary. In fact, it follows that organisation is more likely an effect of the revolutionary process than its cause. The organisation - the revolutionary party - is endowed by the development of class struggle as the bearer of the most fully worked out form of proletarian class consciousness. Its mission is to fulfil the historical vocation of its class, to enable it defeat the bourgeoisie and capital and lay the basis for the new socialist society. However, even though the party develops through class struggle it cannot assume a tight relationship between it and the class. At every juncture the party must seek to merge itself with the class. It has to fight to ensure the struggles and energies unleashed by the revolutionary process finds expression in the politics and strategies the party espouses. If the party can win the trust of the mass it has earned its place at the head of the revolution.

Once again, owing to the terminology of the day, there is an implied inevitability about this. The problem is one can read a certain uniformity into the way class consciousness unfolds and construct a linear progression from the first primitive actions of the newly-proletarianised machine breaker to the brink of socialist revolution. If such a schema was the case, why aren't we now enjoying the fruits of almost a century of global socialism? Lukacs does address the problem of uneven and "false" consciousness in his subsequent essay, which we will visit in the next post on History.

A complete list of History and Class Consciousness postings can be found here.

Thursday 14 August 2008

Branch Meeting: European Crisis and the CWI

Last week, Stoke Socialist Party sent a small delegation of members to the annual CWI summer camp in Belgium. Tonight, A and M reported back on several of the discussions. A concentrated on political developments in Europe and the fortunes of some of the CWI sections there, while M concentrated on the organisation elsewhere. In this post I'll be concentrating on A's contributions as the information on most CWI sections, their membership figures and their prospects is really for internal consumption only. (We had membership figures for each CWI section up on the wall - I couldn't help wondering what a certain left newspaper would give to see those figures!)

A opened with the observation that a qualitative change in the political situation is sweeping across Europe. This manifests itself in three ways.

First, there are successions of economic and political crises - Brown's predicament is by no means unique. There was the forlorn hope the credit crunch would be a passing blip, but now several countries are staring into the abyss of deep crisis. Iceland, for example, has been described by several business observers as a hedge fund on the brink of bankruptcy. One current account belonging to the Bosnian government has been so depleted that the princely sum of €23 is all that remains! Denmark has slipped into recession, having fulfilled the 'official' definition of two consecutive quarters of economic shrinkage. And the Eurozone as a whole shrank by 0.2 per cent in the last quarter.

Par the course for our rulers when their economies enter choppy waters, they are trying their best to get European workers pay the price. Nearly everyone has felt the pinch from higher food, fuel and energy prices. In Portugal, unemployment has doubled. In Spain, 300,000 jobs, mainly in the construction sector, has been lost to the collapsing property market. In France, Sarkozy is attempting no less than 116 separate attacks on the French working class, ranging from terms of employment to the social wage. In Italy Berlusconi has picked a fight with the country's education workers with a plan that aims to throw 20 per cent of them onto the dole.

But the ruling class has a problem. Politically, its social base in wider society is very weak indeed, and as a consequence they are increasingly out of touch. New Labour is a case in point. Nationally and locally it refuses to budge from the deeply unpopular policies that have seen electoral humiliation after electoral humiliation heaped upon it. And what are we to make of the bungled announcement, during a crucial by-election in a solidly working class Scottish constituency, that Thatcher might receive a state funeral? But it's the same elsewhere. The SPD in Germany continues to shed members like its going out of fashion as they prop up its 'grand coalition' with the CDU/CSU. Sarkozy has entered the record books as the least popular first-term French president in history. Mainstream politics in Belgium are paralysed and there's talk of divorce among its constituent Walloons and Flemings. And Irish voters delivered a big slap in the face to its ruling class and the eurocrats when they rejected the Lisbon Treaty.

This is a precipitous moment for our class to start moving. And the situation is compelling it to do so. Workers in Belgium have taken advantage of their masters' constitutional difficulties - there have been 80 strikes against below inflation pay "rises". In Britain we recently had the two day Unison local government strike and the first national teachers' strike for 20 years. Greece has been shaken by three general strikes over the last year, including a two month teachers' strike backed by a significant movement of radicalised school students. Transport and manufacturing workers in Poland have taken action, and among them are the first employees of Tesco to walk out.

The rising gradient of crisis and struggle has affected the politics of our class. The tendency present from the 1990s toward the emergence of new workers' parties/left formations has been strengthened. Developments in France and Italy were made in passing, but A preferred to deal mainly with Germany. Electorally speaking, Die Linke is now (just!) the third party in Germany. Its leading figure, Oskar Lafontaine appears to be positioning himself more to the left with more talk about socialism. But unfortunately the programme of the party is not socialist - yet. In the opinion of the CWI, its potential is stymied by a preoccupation with pursuing those polling figures at the expense of the social movements that have so far nourished the new party. The SAV, Germany's CWI affiliate, is committed to helping Die Linke develop in a positive political direction and is currently discussing strategies on how this can be done.

A also touched on Greece, where conditions are very favourable for the development of a new left party. Here the CWI section, Xekinima is part of an 11 party coalition of the left, Syriza. In 2007 it won over 360,000 votes (5.04 per cent) in the general election and is gaining support at the expense of the traditional centre left party, PASOK. Since the upturn of class struggle in Greece its opinion poll ratings have improved by such an extent that PASOK has made overtures for coalition talks. Xekinima and the CWI are opposed to participating in bourgeois coalitions, which is one of the reasons why support for the PRC in Italy collapsed.

In sum, as neoliberalism as a model of capital accumulation and a strategy for class rule is becoming exhausted, we're opening into a more volatile period marked by economic and political flux and increasing class struggle. In short, a period not too dissimilar from the transition to neoliberalism from the old Keynesian/pseudo-Keynesian policies of the post-war boom. The CWI may possess tiny forces but everywhere it is seeking to place itself in the strategic centres of struggle, and it will do all it can to carry them through to a successful conclusion.