Tuesday 30 September 2008


A while ago I was chatting to Brother T, who'd spent a few days checking out a prestigious annual education event run by a well-known far left organisation. He enjoyed most of the sessions as well as giving me a few titbits to moisten my sectarian palate. He told me of overhearing a young full timer giving a more junior activist a few tips on how to recruit during the week. Her words were something like "just get them on a standing order and worry about the rest later". Evidently the political consciousness of new recruits wasn't particularly high on her agenda. But this wasn't too surprising. A young gentleman of intimate acquaintance was once cajoled into signing on with said unsaid organisation despite professing anarchist principles and being opposed to Leninist politics.

I mention this because the West Midlands region of the Socialist Party has undergone a flurry of recruitment of late. And Stoke branch is continuing to benefit from this upturn in the fortunes of our party too. I'm not breaking any confidences to say things have been slow over the last 18 months but these last two months recruitment has really taken off. Contacts have been coming in and a pleasing proportion have turned into active members, which has made a nice change. Plus we've just held stalls at the Staffs and Keele freshers' fairs. So it seems a precipitous time to reflect a little bit on recruitment, the recruitment process and the experience of recruiting people to a revolutionary socialist organisation.

For anyone with a passing familiarity with the far left, they will be aware recruitment is always a key priority. There cannot be an active leftist in Britain who hasn't, at some stage in their activist career, been asked to 'join the socialists/communists/revolutionaries by one or more of the varieties of British Trotskyism. And it is understandable. When I think about the range of activities Stoke SP has been involved in since I joined, the mind truly boggles. Solidarity activities, election campaigns, mass leafleting, organising, helping organise and taking part in demonstrations, broad-based campaigning, public meetings, student interventions come on top of the staples of street stalls, paper sales and contact visits. And I'm sure there's plenty I've missed out. We have been able to do these things because we have a stable number of core activists. But there's only so much we can do. More members enable us to extend the scope of our work and better make the socialist case more widely.

Unfortunately, here lies the first problem with recruiting to the SP, and I'm sure it's something leftists from other backgrounds are familiar with too. Earlier on in the first Keele Socialist Students meeting of the semester, one question that was asked was what do we do? I rattled off our record for the last year and talked a bit about the things the local SP branch has done as well. What I didn't realise, on reflection, was how daunting this may sound to a first year student who's just left home. And I should know - I remember how scary the prospect of doing stuff was for me when I first got involved with the left. But on the other hand there were other younger comrades who were champing at the bit.

How do you strike the balance? It's a tricky question. You don't want to scare prospective members away, but you have to be honest about what membership can entail. In recruitment discussions, I've always encouraged new people to do as much as they feel comfortable doing. I do not push people into situations and actions, but neither am I afraid to ask. Generally we find as new comrades get used to the branch they gradually assume some sort of role. It is better to allow people to grow organically into activism than foisting it upon them. Because of this I've known no one overcommit themselves and burn out.

Recruitment may be difficult but it can be very gratifying. To get someone involved, or, to turn up to branch meetings and see new faces, can give you and the rest of the group a real lift. More than money raised and papers sold it can boost morale as much as a particularly successful action or campaign the party has been involved in. It goes without saying that in the absence of the latter, new members help boost confidence even more, especially when a relatively large number join within a very short space of time. When you know a steady stream of people are joining up and getting active, it certainly helps keep you going on those rainy, windy stalls ...

Locally, regionally and nationally the SP is on the up again. The difficulties of the nineties are well behind us and our reputation as a small, but serious force for independent working class politics has grown in recent years. So if you're a socialist without a home or new to left wing politics, why not join up?

Monday 29 September 2008

A Working Class Face?

Last night I watched an old episode from the late-1970s hit series The Sweeney. I used to love this series and still find it watchable today. John Thaw played Detective Inspector Jack Regan who was aided in his never-ending fight against the London underworld by Sergeant George Carter who was later to change sides as Arthur Daley’s muscle and gopher, Terry, in Minder. At the time, as an impressionable young twenty-something, the Sweeney seemed to portray the gritty realities of life in London’s CID. It didn’t really. In between fighting armed robbers, Jack and George spent a lot of time drinking in pubs and trying to get a leg over. But the villains were never very convincing, usually coming across as middle-class actors wearing car-coats and throwing in a bit of cockney rhyming-slang to try and gain credibility as genuine blaggers. But it was all good fun, and it normally ended in a good punch-up under the railway arches or in a scrap-metal yard. Thaw was great as the moody, world-weary, boozy cynic who, like most TV cops, seemed to spend as much time fighting his superiors as the villains. He still had a hint of a Mancunian accent from his childhood and looked every inch a flawed working-class hero.

Earlier in the evening I watched a repeat of Inspector Morse. I don’t think I need to provide our readers with an overview of Morse as it was a far more recent series. Suffice it to say that Thaw played, as his new character Morse, a more educated and higher-ranking copper than Jack Regan (why wasn’t the series called Chief Inspector Morse or was he promoted during the series?). Now I think the series was superb and the plots were clever. Thaw again played a cynical, world-weary character at odds with authority and he played it extremely well. But although he had many a rather-sombre pint or two with Sergeant Lewis, Morse was a very different man from Regan. He would spend solitary evenings at home listening to classical music or poring over the crossword rather than unwinding with fellow coppers in the pub. Morse was thoroughly middle-class where Jack Regan was thoroughly working-class.

This brings me to class and faces. An old mate of mine once commented (on Thaw as Morse) that ‘he is playing a middle-class character with a working-class face’. At the time I dismissed the comment, but on reflection I think my mate may have been right. Thaw was playing a well-spoken opera buff but to me his face still fitted more to working-class Jack. I know that if Morse had been made before rather than after the Sweeney I might see it the other way round. But I do think there is such a thing as a working-class face, a face that portrays years of relatively unrewarded graft and resentment that it shouldn’t be that way. What do you think?

Sunday 28 September 2008

Nationalisation as Asset-Stripping

Another day, another bank collapse. This time it's the Bradford & Bingley that's hit the buffers. This last week the bank took a battering on the markets, seeing its share price plummet to an all-time low of 20 pence. No one could deny the writing was on the wall. In contrast to its dithering over nationalising Northern Rock, the government have decisively stepped in to take Bradford & Bingley into state ownership.

This development was always going to be a political football, especially in party conference season. Tomorrow the Tories are set to outline a package of financial proposals that would increase the powers of the Bank of England and set up an independent body for the monitoring of government spending. David Cameron went on Andrew Marr this morning to say nationalisation should not be the stock response to banking failure. Instead Cameron is for a Bank of England take over followed by a supervised reconstruction and sell off at no expense to the taxpayer. Cameron seems to forget the Bank continues to be state-owned, albeit with operational independence, and thereby any risks it takes on are underwritten by the tax payer. But I digress. Yvette Cooper's response on the government's behalf attacked the Tories for being incoherent, irresponsible and blasé with the financial system - a position not a million miles from the truth if a sample of the comments left on Iain Dale's post on Bradford & Bingley are anything to go by. For them adding two per cent to national debt is more outrageous than the toxic effects its collapse will have on the "real" economy. "Let it go to the wall" is their collective demand. In times like these, the only things trickling down for Bradford & Bingley staff are insecurity and unemployment, but for the Tories this is, at best, a marginal concern.

But it is far from my intention to praise Labour's latest nationalisation. Let's be clear about this. By saving the Bradford & Bingley, the government are going to destroy it. At the time of writing we are awaiting Alastair Darling's statement. But it looks as though it will be dismembered. The assets - the 200-strong branch infrastructure and savings portfolio - will be quickly sold off while the £50 billion mortgage and loans book will be assimilated into Northern Rock's holdings. Yvette Cooper on this lunch time's Politics Show said there was no other choice. The private solution found in Lloyds-TSB's takeover of HBOS was not available, despite government and FSA efforts.

It is instructive to see what has already befallen Northern Rock since it came under government auspices in February this year. To pay back a £25 billion loan it was forced to take out in September, 2007 from the Bank of England to prevent it from going under, its repayment plan wants 2,000 jobs to be shed over the next three years. Plus it will either sell half of its £100 billion mortgage portfolio. Already an "understanding" has been struck with Lloyds-TSB, allowing it to cherry-pick customers coming off Northern Rock's fixed rate mortgages by offering them new deals, minus the usual application fee. In return the Rock would receive a commission for those taken off their books. Upon nationalising the bank, Gordon Brown said "we want a successful company that we can pass on to another private sector owner in good time". It makes you wonder how successful it can be when the government are intent on letting its prime assets go, or not taking any action in bringing the £47 billion off-shore mortgage book under its immediate control.

Academics, armchair economists, libertarians and House Republicans are the only ones who take the "principles" of neoliberalism seriously. Governments here and across the Atlantic only stick with it in as far as it entrenches the rule of capital. And the way the government has handled the nationalisation of Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley and waived competition rules regards Lloyds-TSB and HBOS are entirely consistent with this. The state absorbs the the bad debts and liabilities, while it facilitates a transfer of assets to the private sector. As Vince Cable, the LibDem deputy leader observed in February, "Northern Rock’s ‘assets’ include unsecured debts, such as portions of mortgages in excess of the value of the properties concerned. In other words, the rubbish."

While sections of finance capital goes under, the government has and will continue to maintain the strength of finance capital as a whole. Whatever Tories and their ilk may think, nationalisation of this character is nothing to do with socialism. It's asset-stripping by another name.

Friday 26 September 2008

Racialising Crime: An Anecdote

Not a weighty treatise on the nature of crime in a capitalist society, but an anecdote from when E and I were out leafleting, building for last weekend's anti-fascist events.

We handed over a leaflet to one woman who was standing in her garden. She took one look at it and said she didn't want it, because "we need something like the BNP to sort out this area". We asked her what she meant. She went into minute detail of her run-ins with the local drugs gang, who happen to be young Asians. She showed us the stab mark in her head from where they'd last attacked her and told us of the number of times she'd been beaten up after dark. Her friend came out, who was interested in the leaflet, but told us similar stories about other local white people she knew had been attacked by this gang. There were times her kids had been on the local fields when one of their dogs had dug up a drugs and knives stash. And her house had been attacked by the gang as well.

Assuming they weren't pulling our legs, and judging by the time they spent talking to us and their general demeanour there's no reason to believe they were, you can see why the BNP might have an appeal. In this case the anti-social elements are a thuggish group of drug dealing Asian men. They harass and assault a number of vulnerable white residents. And the police couldn't care less. From the standpoint of these white women it appears to be a race issue. But in essence, it isn't. Socialists should not fight shy of this and issues like it because it is "inconvenient" and upsets some dogmatic view of how the axis of racial dynamics are supposed to be. To brush them under the carpet is to invite the BNP's unwelcome attentions. In situations like this socialists need to adopt sensitive local strategies that seek to empower communities at the expense of anti-social elements and overcome the racial divisions their activities foster. And one way of doing that, as much as it may stick in the gullet of ultra left pedantry, is raising the demand for greater democratic control and accountability of the police, linked with a complete overhaul of the government's counter-productive and damaging stance on drugs. Doing nothing or making hay with "anti-white racism", like the BNP do, will exacerbate racial divisions and won't stop peoples' lives from being a misery.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

A Day in the Life ...

... of a Marxist PhD student.

* Got to university at about nine, climbed the three flights of stairs and settled down at my comp.

* Sent emails to Stoke Socialist Party comrades with the weekly reminder for the branch meeting tomorrow. The topic? The BNP - who they are, what they represent, and how to fight them.

* Had a couple of university admin types drop by who are supervising our removal from this cold hole of an office and our dispersal to the four winds. Turns out I'm not going where I was led to believe and, I was snootily informed, my boxes of stuff have "no place" in the hot-desking continuation office I'm ending up in. But then one of the guys piped up and said he'd be happy to get the porters lug my boxes over from where I can slowly remove my crap back home.

* Met with Keele's finest bolshevik, Brother S, for a cup of tea. He went for the peppermint option and I experimented (somewhat unwisely) with ginger tea, and both of us were scandalised by the 19 pence price hike.

* Both of us paid a visit to a fellow UCU branch committee member to sign a retirement card and find out how the land lies teaching-wise. Doesn't appear to be much going for those who have to depend on part time teaching.

* Had lunch (home made bread with quorn slices and a banana, in case you were wondering) while checking out those blogs who've been updating more regularly than I. Added the new blogs Excuse Me While I Step Outside, Pink Scare and Tendance Coatsey to the blog roll.

* Fired off more emails about job applications and next week's Socialist Students stalls.

* The porters turned up to move my office mate's boxes, and I was told they wouldn't be able to move my stuff after all - an immortal up on high had decreed it. Swore a bit.

* Determined the day wouldn't be a total waste regards my PhD, I read a paper about the (unintended) biographical consequences of social movement participation. It was a bit pointless - existing literature suggests that activists, whether "core" cadre groups or those who more casually dipped into it tended to marry later, less likely have children, more likely to define themselves as leftist and retain some degree of "non-conventional" political participation. These results were gathered at least eight years after the mobilisations that piqued the researchers' interests. Problem was the narrow range of the sample, i.e. all were involved in US New Left movements and from a similar birth cohort. The problem then can their different lifestyles be ascribed to their activism, or the rapid social and cultural change of the 60s? In the absence of research into right wing movements and/or more contemporary mobilisations, the question at the time of the paper's writing (2004) was unanswered.

* Returned a pile of library books and met up with one of my now ex-office mates in her plush room. Nice new computers, looks quite cosy too. But not enough room to swing a cat.

* Boarded the bus to Hanley to meet up with A for party-related activities. We went contact visiting. Unfortunately only one of the four was in but we had quite a jolly chat. And we managed to recruit a new Stoke comrade yesterday :)

* A dropped me off in Hanley - the supermarket beckoned as C didn't fancy cooking this evening. Luckily there were two six packs of potato croquettes going for 75 pence apiece, so bargain! I unwisely awarded myself with a kitkat crunchy and wandered home.

* Sat down and had my tea (a vegetable chilli and rice) in front of Channel Four news. Then lazily began watching half of an old Voyager episode about some rogue torpedo or something.

* Dragged myself upstairs to phone the very healthy contact list we've built up. Had some very, very encouraging responses. Spoke to one bloke who was a teacher keen to encourage a bit of political awareness/engagement among his kids. He said he had one lad the other year who supported the BNP because they stood for "giving white people £40,000/year and kicking out all the foreigners". Indeed.

* Came back down, started writing this, and then realised the cat has left me a nice, brown present in his litter tray. Better stop this and sort it out.

Saturday 20 September 2008

Stoke Rallies Against the BNP

The BNP may have been grabbing the headlines, but there was a far larger mobilisation of opposition to the fascists' presence in The Potteries, earlier today. While the BNP were able to get some 300 people to its "memorial" event they reportedly only managed to turn 80 activists out for the morning's leafleting. The 20 rendezvous points they pre-planned across the city were reduced to ten. So much for their empty boasts about 400-plus leafleters. Compare this with the numbers anti-fascists mustered after a half-arsed mobilisation. Originally Unite Against Fascism had planned to leave the organising up to its local affiliate, North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (NorSCARF) and not go for a national mobilisation. Then mid-week last there was a volte face and all of a sudden a decent anti-fascist turn out was a national priority.

Considering the lack of time compared with months of BNP planning, 200-250 at the billed anti-fascist vigil (which, thankfully, became a rally with some half decent speakers) was a very good turn out. Most people I spoke to on the Stoke Socialist Party stall were local, most not the usual suspects, and for many it was the first time they'd attended an event of this kind. Not only that, the majority at the rally were young, and by young I mean under 25. Contrast this with Youtube vids the BNP have plastered all over their website - you'd be hard pressed to find many under 40 in the footage. Proof positive that, ultimately, the future is on our side.

Following the speeches we lined up for an impromptu march to Hanley Forest Park where the Stoke Unity festival was taking place. For reasons known only to the police they were determined to prevent the march from going through the centre of Hanley (which is strange considering the BNP rally (appropriately) took place on a scrap of wasteland near Fenton) and blocked off the road. There was a bit of argy-bargy as some SWP activists tried to push through the line, but that was about it. The police successfully diverted us away from any concentration of "normal" people (funny they never had any problem with the 500 strong march for the Burslem 12 earlier in the year, nor the 2,500 on April 2006's demo against hospital cuts) and we got to the park without incident. In sum there must have been about a thousand at the carnival already.

I do have some gripes about the SWP/LMHR full timer who liked to think she was "in charge" of the event. She tried to prevent Stoke SP from erecting our banner on the grounds "it was agreed" no parties could not have their banners and signs out. Unsurprisingly she wasn't so vociferous in challenging her comrades who came with their SWP placards. But that brief whiff of hypocrisy aside, today showed the reservoir of anti-fascism is far wider than what the BNP can draw from. But between now and next June, when the mayoral (if they happen) and the European elections take place, it is the job of anti-fascists to turn that reservoir into a weapon that ensures the BNP sees no more electoral advances in Stoke-on-Trent.

Friday 19 September 2008

The Socialist in Colour!

You may not have realised it if you read it online, but there's a flashy new (sort of) left paper on the block. The latest edition of The Socialist is the first time our paper has been splashed with colour. And what a looker it is. The Socialist Party has gone from having what was, in my humble opinion, a pretty drab looking paper, to one of the most nifty publications on the British left. Strictly in design terms it sustains a very favourable comparison with Socialist Worker too. If you're not a regular reader of The Socialist there's no better time to pick up a copy, especially as this issue is sure to become a collectors' item!

Get your copy here.

Wednesday 17 September 2008

North Staffs NSSN Launched

North Staffs branch of the National Shop Stewards' Network got off to a flying start this evening. Participants from the UCU, Unison, CWU, PCS, Unite and North Staffs TUC were present. Chairing the proceedings was AVPS's very own Brother S.

Sheila Cohen, our visiting speaker from the national steering committee of the NSSN began with a potted history of the network, of how it started as an initiative from the RMT looking to experiment with new forms of activism in the wake of that union's ejection from Labour. Its aim is to bring rank and file trade unionists together to help rebuild the strength of our movement from the bottom up. This can be done by exchanging information and encouraging solidarity between far flung workplaces. To this end another key objective of the NSSN is to act as a clearing house for workers in struggle, as a means for disseminating information about disputes and strikes and bringing solidarity to bear. But this also requires an expansion of the network into a truly mass movement, a position it's nowhere near at the moment but could become as our rulers try to make workers pay for the crisis of their making.

As if to demonstrate this, one of the Burslem 12 talked about how the self-inflicted difficulties that have been plaguing Royal Mail these last few years have been paid by increasing the exploitation heaped onto workers. Changes to work patterns, more work for no extra money, "macho" managers - they're all part of the same package. Anyone who stands up against this culture are targeted by management and picked off. This is why a movement is needed, to ensure they cannot get away with this.

Pete McNally of the NSSN SC and ASLEF (speaking in a personal capacity) suggested that the time is right for the NSSN to have emerged onto the scene. Workers are facing attacks on every front - prices are rising while wages are stagnating, in real terms. And yet the bosses tell us they have to keep a lid on wages to stop inflation rising, as if spiralling food prices have anything to do with the tens of pence per hour most workers can expect by way of a wage increase. Coupled with the steady rise in the number of strike days and growing unemployment there is a good chance the unions could be shook up in the near future as more and more workers are forced into struggle.

From the chair, S gave a short contribution on the situation at Keele, where the struggle won concessions from management. It was magnificent to see so much of the local labour movement and unions from outside North Staffs descend upon Keele on April 4th to demonstrate against management's cuts. It sends the message that instead of taking on a local association, the bosses were up against the wider labour movement. This is why solidarity is important. We need to move from the mindset that see things as 'PCS struggles' and 'CWU disputes' but as workers' struggles we all have a stake in. This is where the NSSN can come into its own.

We heard a series of contributions from the floor. One postal worker said there was nothing better than receiving visitors on the picket line, and it's something that always worries management and, occasionally, higher union officials don't like to see. For the union tops its about keeping a handle on a particular dispute, for management it's the avoidance of embarrassment and publicity. Perversely keeping an action isolated and unremarked is in both their interests. Another added that last year's successful action by the POA talk just two phone calls from the leadership - the rest was self-organising. The NSSN has the potential for facilitating this kind of action across the labour movement.

A argued we were forever being told that action is doomed to defeat, but that simply isn't the case. In Swansea at Visteon a successful struggle saw workers maintain their pay and conditions after the company was sold off, including a fiver per cent pay increase. In Greenwich, Unison was able to wage a successful fight against the local authority's attempt to reduce some workers' wages to pay for rises in others in the name of single status by winning equal pay without any losses for anyone. It shows that where a lead can be given victory is possible. A key task for the NSSN is to act as a pressure on union leaders to give that lead.

Another of the Burslem 12 made some observations about struggle. Recalling the days when he used to lug 8-10 sacks of mail per day to Robbie William's house when he still lived in Stoke, it was more a less a case of it going in through the front and straight out the back. And it's the same with petitions also. Struggle requires direct action and militancy. As valuable as initiatives like the NSSN are it's not enough in itself - a new party that speaks up for workers is needed. What this means for the NSSN politically is it should try and make Labour work, but if it fails it shouldn't be afraid of trying something else.

In short this was an excellent beginning for North Staffs NSSN. The meeting appointed a local steering committee and solidarity actions with local struggles are planned. The aim now is to reach out to greater layers of trade unionists and make our local movement into something that will give Potteries' bosses sleepless nights.

Tuesday 16 September 2008

September 20th: Stoke Anti-Fascist Activity

On the 20th September, thousands of activists will be mobilising in Manchester on the occasion of Labour's annual conference to protest against the continued occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. But down the road, in Stoke-on-Trent, another significant event is taking place.

Readers may recall that last summer, Stoke BNP activist Keith Brown was killed after a long running dispute with his Asian neighbour, Habib Khan. Unsurprisingly and distastefully, the BNP nationally and locally have opportunistically made racist hay with the subsequent court case, at which Khan was found guilt of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years. To protest this the BNP are parachuting in (they claim) around 400 activists this Saturday. They plan to deliver leaflets, attend a public rally (apparently, with the so-called Truth Truck) and go for a slap up meal afterward.

Characteristically the BNP have kept the location of their rally close to their chests. But they have obtained permission from the police to hold it. Also, the police have banned local anti-fascist group, NorSCARF (North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism) from holding any kind of counter-protest in Hanley, leading activists to believe the BNP's rally will be held somewhere in the vicinity of the city centre.

Chances are the BNP rally will be very heavily policed, so anyone looking to come to Stoke to "physically confront" the fascists are going to be disappointed.

Nevertheless there are two counter events taking place.

First, NorSCARF are holding what it calls a 'Unity and Peace' vigil at 10am, this Saturday, NORSACA car park, Cannon Place (off Broad Street/Victoria Square), Hanley (also supported by UAF and LMHR)

Second, from 12 onwards in Hanley Forest Park, north of the city centre, thousands of local young people will be coming together for the Jam It Unity Festival, organised by the Youth Arts Forum. Anti-fascists will have a series of stalls and meetings at the event, and will be organising large teams to go out and counter-leaflet the BNP in the afternoon and evening all across Stoke. Socialist Party members will be distributing our new anti-BNP leaflet and thousands will be available for those outside the area who want to give us a hand. Activists who don't fancy distributing SP material are more than welcome to bring their own and use them while still being part of the same leafleting teams.

You can pretty much guarantee it will be the BNP who grab the headlines after Saturday, given the increasing softness of the local paper, The Sentinel, toward them. But the simple fact is there will be many, many more in Stoke on the day showing their opposition to the BNP's racist lies. Why not come and join us?

Monday 15 September 2008

Sunday 14 September 2008

Slow Blogging

You may have noticed it's been a bit of a slow week on the old blog this last seven days. This is because Brother S has been busy organising the founding meeting of Stoke NSSN and I've been writing my PhD. Yes, that's right, I'm actually working on the blighter. Problem is my funding has run out so I now have to get by on an income that makes the paltry wages paid to Socialist Party full timers look a right princely sum. The sooner the thesis is done, the sooner I can be granted my doctorate and the quicker I get a decent job. At least that's the plan!

So, regrettably, that means this fine figure of a blog will be on a go slow for the forseeable future. AVPS is not being abandoned, far from it! But just expect the posting rate to be more sedate and measured. That said, I remember making a similar pledge at the beginning of this year, a pledge I didn't strictly adhere to. However, as seductive a post on the latest self-inflicted difficulties of the SWP is, I must resist and devote my efforts toward my model of radicalisation and commitment instead.

But there's plenty going on this week. There's Socialist Students stalls to be had. Leafleting to be done. Comrades to drink with. Meetings to go to and fascists to combat! I'm sure all this will be reflected in some bloggage somehow!

Wednesday 10 September 2008

Telling It Like It Is

Professor Brian Cox, the emo voice of British science, tells it like it is:

"Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat."


Tuesday 9 September 2008

Anna Richardson Talkin' About Sex

I don't remember my officially-sanctioned sex education being all that great. All it consisted of was watching a hideous film presented by Sarah Kennedy and having a group talk with our PSE teacher, Mr White, about wet dreams (the girls spoke to fifth formers about periods). You couldn't think of a more hideous and inadequate way of going about it. But it worked, if you count "working" as the low number of gym slip pregnancies. In my school year there was just one pregnancy. That wasn't to say kids weren't having sex, but it does suggest that despite our sex "education", the contraception message the government were pushing at the time had got through. For our young and impressionable minds the hard hitting AIDS campaigns of the time had sunk in.

If you believe the commentariat's frequent sexual moralising, teenage pregnancy is at an all-time high and hundreds of thousands of people are busy between the sheets, passing on all manner of sexually transmitted infections. The tone is people, generally speaking, are just too "uneducated" to have sex. Is there any truth to this?

The accepted way of measuring the success or failure of sexuality governance in Britain are the number of teenage (i.e. 13-18) pregnancies and diagnosis rates of sexually transmitted infections. On the former, according to the Every Child Matters government agency, teenage pregnancy statistics for under 18s between 1998-2005 shows a declining trend, from 46.6 per 1,000 (total 41,089 in 1998) to 40.4 per 1,000 (total 39,003 2006). There was a weaker decline in under 16s - 8.8 per 1,000 (total 7,855 in 1998) to 7.7 (total 7,296 in 2006). Legal abortion for both cohorts - from 42.4% to 48.9% for under 18s and 52.9% to 60.3% for under 16s over the same period. The government are looking for a 50% cut in the pregnancy rate by 2010 from 1998, and have only managed an 11% reduction so far. They may be a long way off target but it hardly fits the popular narrative of spiralling numbers of "children having children".

STI rates, however, are heading in the wrong direction. According to the HIV/AIDS charity, Avert diagnoses are way above the height of the 1980s AIDS panic. Throughout the 90s figures fluctuated within the 2,000-3,000 range, climbing above the latter for the first time in 1999 and peaking at 7,692 diagnoses in 2005. Since then they have declined to 7,276 (2006) and then 6,393 (2007).

Here are some more figures from the Health Protection Agency:
# An overall rise in the number of new diagnoses seen in GUM clinics of 3% in 2005 compared to 2004 (from 767,785 in 2004 to 790,443 in 2005)

# Genital Chlamydia remains the most commonly diagnosed STI in GUM clinics with an increase in diagnoses of 5% (from 104,733 in 2004 to 109,958 in 2005)

# Primary and secondary syphilis diagnoses increased by 23% (from 2,282 in 2004 to 2,814 in 2005)

# Genital warts increased by 1% (from 80,055 in 2004 to 81,137 in 2005)

# Genital herpes increased by 4% (from 19,073 in 2004 to 19,837 in 2005)

# Gonorrhoea decreased by 13% (from 22,321 in 2004 to 19,392 in 2005). This follows the 10% decrease seen between 2003 and 2004
Where STIs are concerned, something needs to be done. Education has to be part of the mix, but in these neoliberal times we can't have the state taking up the cudgels. Into the breach comes more calls for sex education, and tonight Channel 4 did its bit with the launch of a new six-part series, The Sex Education Show. Anna Richardson (pictured) describes the reluctance to be more communicative about sex as a "peculiar British disease". So let's talk some more about it!

Tonight's episode cast a wide net, covering porn, sex commodities, body image and contraception - and no forgetting a close up of male genitalia. On contraception, Anna went and spoke to the mighty Long Ashton football team. Depressingly, of the 11 players only three of the guys admitted to regularly using condoms - and reported that slippage/breakage was one of the main reasons why (according to SES research, 35% of surveyed men had experienced this at some point). Returning back to the studio. one woman said they were a passion-killer in her experience, and so didn't bother, while others had a more sensibly cautious view. A poll of the audience found 22% of women and 40% of men did not always use a condom with new partners. All grist to the Daily Mail mill.

The short feature on porn revealed 58% of 14-17 year olds had seen it and five per cent viewed internet porn every day. Anna speaks to three 15 year old boys about their habits and very quickly the conversation starts talking about the extreme things they've seen. Judging by the description they gave, they talked about the infamous 2 Girls, 1 Cup (don't worry, it's a link to the Wikipedia entry!) ... she then went and viewed it with their parents. Understandably, they were disgusted, shocked and scandalised by the very, very "specialist" content. But this seemed to miss the point, as far as I was concerned. The implication was that millions of teenage boys are getting off on this content, when in fact for the overwhelming majority it is a gross out meme used to shock and amuse their friends. And this is nothing new - when I was at school and college, fetish magazines and literature were passed around to the same effect. (Erotic Horse and Dog Orgy, anyone?)

What was interesting was the recognition of the ways the ubiquity of porn is affecting teenage perceptions of the body. SES reported that 92% of teenage girls were not happy with their bodies, nor were one in five comfortable with the appearance/size of their genitalia. Small wonder really: the boys were shown a sequence of flaccid penises and were asked to select the one they thought corresponded to the British male average. All of them chose two that were 4.5 and 5 inches long. They were genuinely surprised to learn the average was three! A mixed group was then shown a parade of breasts and select what corresponded most with their "preferred" pair. Unsurprisingly, the round, pert and evenly spaced pair, i.e. the surgically enhanced pair, got the thumbs up from boys and girls. As one lad put it, it's not surprising the fake is their norm because, in porn, you have nothing else to go on. Small wonder so many teenagers are unhappy with their bodies.

One strong undercurrent was the message that if you want to improve your sex life, you have to be willing to spend money. Anna describes her sex life as not being particularly adventurous or torrid, and goes to see how she can spice things up a bit. It means a trip down to the beauticians to keep up with the latest hair removal fashions. The beautician 100% guaranteed that a full Hollywood wax would improve her sex life. "Men find it exciting" she cooed. But not only men, increasingly women too seem to prefer a "tidier" look on them, which probably explains why 92% of the female and 60% of the male studio audience "style" themselves. If that is or isn't your bag, sexy undies can add a sparkle to bedroom goings-ons. And how about a bit of tantric sex training at £100 a throw? In the name of investigative journalism, Anna tried the lot and appeared to have had a raunchy night in with her partner.

As this is a six part series I expect SES and Channel 4 will cover all the permutations and complexities of human sexuality in their customary depth. Pictures of willies and mimsies before the watershed will generate some outraged publicity too. If some people pick up on the information around contraception and body image and helps them lead safer, more fulfilling sex lives, than that's all for the good. But I can't shake the thought that SES is more geared toward navigating the world of contemporary commodified sexuality than anything else.

Sunday 7 September 2008

Township Funk

It's high time I inflicted my music taste on the AVPS audience again. It's been a month!

This is the week's top tune, and what a stonker. Check out DJ Mujava's Township Funk, a dance video that's a rarity for not featuring near naked women and gynaecological crotch shots. Enjoy.

Friday 5 September 2008

Branch Meeting: British Union of Fascists

Last night's Stoke Socialist Party meeting had the pleasure of listening to a lead off by AVPS's very own Brother S. His topic was the British Union of Fascists.

The story of the BUF is closely intertwined with the person of Oswald Mosley, its founder and leader. Mosley was born into an aristocratic land-owning family in Staffordshire and had an upbringing befitting a man of his class. In the Great War he saw active service as an observer for the Royal Flying Corps and later an infantryman in the trenches. His experience profoundly affected him and Mosley emerged from the war with the determination to build a new society. By the time he was 23 Mosley was the Tory MP for Harrow. But he was a strange kind of conservative - he campaigned for slum clearance, welfare, higher wages, nationalisation of key industries and shorter working hours. It wasn't long before he found himself outside the party, resigning the whip to become an independent who supported the then ruling Liberal coalition before finally joining Labour in 1924.

More or less straight away Mosley became a maverick figure on the left of the PLP. He advocated government intervention and the nationalisation of the banks, but very quickly it became apparent he didn't have much time for democracy, which he believed was an unnecessary fetter on government action. But this was no bar to achieving high office. He ascended to a junior non-portfolio ministerial position in the 1929 Labour government with a responsibility toward unemployment. Between January and July 1930, unemployment tripled from one to three million. Mosley's response was a radical programme that would have seen the raising of tariff walls to protect British jobs and a lowering of the retirement age. But it was too much for the cabinet and the Labour party generally, and so Mosley founded his New Party on a corporatist basis. It was unique for developing a network of political youth clubs organised explicitly for dealing with hecklers at public meetings and outdoor addresses ... and as a defence force against any communist uprising. But despite the blaze of publicity that greeted its formation it fared badly at the unexpected 1931 general election. Of 24 candidates, all but two lost their deposits - even the CPGB, smarting under the lunacy of 'third period', polled better. The experience convinced Mosley that the old way of doing things was too ineffective and slow and began to look to Mussolini and Hitler.

Mosley founded the BUF in 1932, bringing together elements of the New Party and the old British Fascisti (an obscure group founded in 1924 against 'communism, anarchists, atheists and free love'). The BUF grew to be a sizeable organisation - 10,000 flocked to see Mosley speak at the Albert Hall and then there was the notorious meeting at Olympia - another 10,000 were present but was this time marked by some very ugly scenes. This caused soft support, such as that coming from the Daily Mail ("Hurrah for the Blackshirts!") to fall away. It wasn't helped by Hitler's attack on his SA in the Night of the Long Knives, nor did the BUF's adoption of anti-semitism.

The BUF did retain pockets of support, mainly on the south coast, the east end of London ... and Stoke. In the mid-30s, A.K.Chesterton, then a BUF organiser, came to Stoke, which was then host to the biggest Blackshirt branch in the country with a membership of about 400. He described a most "unsatisfactory situation" that was "part thieves' kitchen, part bawdy house". 300 were purged from the rolls.

It underwent a reorganisation in 1935 and officially titled itself the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists. The fascist "defence force" was wound up, and seemingly, at least for that year's election, its electoral intervention. Instead Mosley called for a boycott and, given the very low turn out, felt as though the British people had heeded his propaganda. This no doubt helped enable the mass following the BUF had picked up in the east end. Support was drawn mainly from the hundreds of small businesses located there plus unemployed workers, who blamed the local Jewish and Irish communities for their plight. This culminated in the Battle of Cable Street, which I won't dwell on here. But what it did was deal British fascism a blow it never recovered from until the rise of the National Front in the 70s.

As for the BUF, its fortunes began to slide. It ran out of money, there were personality quarrels, and ideological divergences between anti-semitism and more conventional patriotism. With the outbreak of the war Mosley opposed it on the grounds that Britain really didn't have a quarrel with Germany. In 1940 after the Dunkirk debacle, the BUF was shut down by the government. 1,200 fascists were imprisoned and Mosley and his family interned in Holloway prison.

That marked the end of the BUF. After the war Mosley set up a pan-European fascist organisation that advocated a united Europe that could ensure it competed on an equal footing with the super states of the east and the west. He remained virulently anti-immigrant, and tried to use the 1958 Notting Hill riots for an ill-fated political comeback. Mosley died in relative obscurity in 1980.

In the discussion, P noted that previous British fascist organisations always invite comparison with today's BNP. But how we do the comparison is important. What we shouldn't do is take the BUF as a 'classical fascist' template and see how the BNP measures up to it. Such an approach smacks of abstracting both formations from their historical contexts and reducing the comparison to superficial and often secondary features. It is much more fruitful to consider them in their respective political climates and look at the processes that fuelled their growth and influence, and what, if anything, the BNP takes from the BUF. He suggested the BNP have drawn constitutionalist lessons from this and their own street fighting experiences.

F said he'd taken a look at the 1938 BUF pamphlet, The Coming Corporate State. It advocated dividing the economy into 12 sections, each responsible for agriculture, mining, retail, etc. Each conglomerate would be run by a board composed of workers, consumers (i.e. business) and the state. The government itself would be very small as the corporations would be self-governing. The problem for this, P pointed out, is for a government run on the leader principle, the autonomy of the corporate agencies leave an awful lot of room for bases of opposition within the regime to take root. Or, it can be a recipe for administrative chaos. In Hitler's regime, there was no government programme as such. Each department was left to its own devices. Their heads received no direction from the fuhrer, instead they had to "work toward" what they thought would please him. He would only intervene if a dispute between departments flared up or if a decision had to be made by him.

Returning to comparisons, G thought it was interesting how the BUF's areas of strength - Stoke, the south coast and the east end are bases of BNP support today. C mentioned how the decline of the BUF didn't necessarily mean a decline in nationalist and/or fascist ideas. Sometimes the kinds of sentiments fascists feed off and encourage can be absorbed into the mainstream, as was the fate of the NF at the 1979 election - Thatcher's Tories campaigned hard on law and order and immigration.

For A, we have to remember the historical role played by fascism, which is as a battering ram against the labour movement. It's no mistake that Marxists, as the most militant and conscious elements of our class are always the first in the camps or up against a wall. In Britain, the reason why the BUF failed was because the labour movement had failed. The working class hadn't recovered from the 1926 general strike and wasn't a threat to the rule of capital, so a fascist movement was more or less superfluous and failed to pick up significant support in ruling circles. Today, it's difficult to say if the British ruling class would turn to fascism as a last resort if it was faced by a confident and advancing socialist movement. Because the Nazis had a mass base it was able to subordinate big business to the state, especially so as the war progressed. In effect the bourgeoisie lost control of their state and paid the price with loss of independence and German capitalism part-expropriated by Stalin's armies.

Lastly, A felt duty-bound to defend Stoke's honour. It might be true the Potteries once paid host to the BUF's biggest branch, but whenever they marched in their Longton "stronghold" they were met with bricks, stones, coins and fists.

In sum, Brother S did a great job shedding light on this episode of British political history.

Thursday 4 September 2008

"Normalising" the BNP

This afternoon I attended a clutch of Keele postgraduate presentations on political theory. I heard papers on the problems of reconciling democracy with political obligation, and the contradictions between democratic organisation, risk, and protection. But the most interesting from my point of view was a presentation delivered by Gavin Bailey. His paper was called 'Keeping the Politics Out: Worldview, Politics and Action in the Neighbourhood Polity'. Or, if you prefer, 'how the BNP act as local politicians'. The setting for his study is an estate in Stoke-on-Trent that has returned BNP councillors.

He started off with an explanation of what he means by the term 'neighbourhood polity'. This political space is heavily localised and has completely different dynamics to 'big' politics. The kinds of people involved in neighbourhood polities are what you might call 'stakeholders' in New Labour speak. These are residents, local councillors, council officers, and representatives from the police, fire service, housing associations, church groups, and other community bodies - sometimes from outside the area. This polity is formally enacted via the range of meetings that take place in Stoke's communities, which Gavin divided into those dealing with regeneration and 'other' meetings dealing with all the other matters that affect the community.

The powers of these bodies are strictly limited to a set of ward-level responsibilities, such as special events, regeneration micro-management, policing, communications with residents and some housing issues. Furthermore each ward is granted £150,000, which is controlled by the councillors.

What is unique about neighbourhood polities is the absence of party politics. Everyone Gavin spoke to in his study emphasised the importance of checking their party hats at the door. The clear inference is these decision making bodies that proceed on the basis of deliberation and consensus building are an inappropriate arena for making political statements.

But what happens when some of the participants are BNP activists, acting in their capacity as councillors? Does it filter out their extremism? Surprisingly, it appears they have also accepted the unwritten rule on party politics. But, as Gavin noted, you can take off your hat but your head remains. Their values and preferences does make itself felt and has affected the kinds of things neighbourhood polities do, but again, not as you might expect. For example, despite the ludicrous claims made by Lee Barnes, the BNP locally and nationally has put great store on a Christian identity. What it translates into in Stoke are innocuous council-sponsored Xmas festivities and Easter egg hunts - not something that's really going to disrupt neighbourhood consensus politics. In this case, local structures have successfully diverted their nationalism down safe channels. And there might be some evidence it is blunting BNP councillors' world views. One councillor reported how much they enjoyed a multi-cultural event, and Stoke BNP itself did not oppose the (gay) pride festival early last month.

Does this mean we should stop worrying about the BNP? Of course not. The BNP remains a particularly unpleasant and potentially dangerous enemy of the labour movement. But what Gavin's presentation does is teach us two things. By assenting to the informal rules of neighbourhood polities the BNP can accrue political capital as "reasonable" and "serious" community politicians. Anti-fascists have to up their game by paying more attention to the records they build, in and out of the council chamber. It's no use pretending that the election of a BNP councillor automatically means the sky has fallen on everyone's heads. Secondly, and we need to be careful not to overestimate it, as the BNP colonises local government, local government is also colonising them. This opens it to a number of pressures its not used to, similar to those the socialist movement experienced between revisionists and revolutionaries, and in the greens between realists and fundamentalists. Wherever possible anti-fascists need to help widen the fissures the responsibility of office brings.

Wednesday 3 September 2008

Class Consciousness and False Consciousness

As we have already seen, for Lukacs history is a process, a struggle between classes. But all classes are largely unconscious of the processes their actions unleash. Any awareness they do have is projected onto nature or the realms of the fantastical. The forms this consciousness assumes have historically been the bread and butter of philosophical contemplation. For Marxists the meaning of phenomena is not derived from formal inquiry but the social relations that constitute them. Without this, history is unknowable - it 'just is' (and immutable) or irrational and hopelessly complex, but can still be distilled into the actions of the great personalities of age. The former kind of consciousness is 'false' consciousness, so-called not because it isn't 'true', but as a property and function of the social totality.
Concrete analysis means then: the relation to society as a whole. For only when this relation is established does the consciousness of their existence that men have at any given time emerge in all its essential characteristics. It appears, on the one hand, as something which is subjectively justified in the social and historical situation, as something which can and should be understood, i.e. as ‘right’. At the same time, objectively, it by-passes the essence of the evolution of society and fails to pinpoint it and express it adequately. That is to say, objectively, it appears as a ‘false consciousness’. (1968, p.50).
When consciousness is considered in its relationship to society, it becomes possible to infer the basic patterns of thought appropriate to the objective situation. For instance, it was impossible for St Thomas Aquinas to reach historical materialist conclusions. But what this inference allows Lukacs to construct class consciousness in theory as "... appropriate and rational reactions 'imputed' to a particular typical position in the process of production" (p.51). Thus class consciousness is a set of possible positions existing in a latent state - there is a difference exists between in and the everyday consciousness of the working class.

If there is a 'consciousness gap' and if capitalist society can only be seen in its totality from the standpoint of the proletariat, is the mundane consciousness of the working class capable of this feat? Lukacs suggests that for every position in the process of production there corresponds a class-conditioned unconsciousness of that position, an intellectual reflex of the structures the class experiences. In as far as the class remains locked within the terms of this unconscious it cannot perceive the totality as it really is, think through its class interests and properly organise in pursuit of them.

But at least the proletariat has the capacity of becoming fully conscious. In pre-capitalist societies this kind of consciousness was impossible for all classes. For example, feudal society rested on a self-sufficient peasantry who were juridically tied to the land and were forced to labour for the landlords or pay over grain as rent. The basic unit of production was the household, so peasants had no need to mix anywhere near as much as modern day proletarians do. The state, in as much as it existed, was the private military organisation of the sovereign. It leeched off the landlords as they leeched off the peasants. It was marginal to the organisation of production, unlike the capitalist state, which plays an integral part. This was a much less cohesive society, hence a systematic understanding of feudalism could not have been accomplished by any of the classes that grew up under it.

But it is also true that under capitalism, none of the other classes can become fully conscious either. The petit-bourgeoisie have their material roots outside of the central antagonism of labour and capital. Its collective consciousness imagines it either above or outside the class struggle, and/or sees it as unnecessary and undesirable and therefore favours its amelioration. Mainstream green thinking, which sees the class struggle as irrelevant to 'doing something' about the environment, and contemporary fascism, which can equally condemn labour and capital as dividers of 'national/racial unity' are two political examples of this standpoint. But for all this, the petit bourgeois can only become a decisive factor when it lines up with one class or the other.

The peasantry, largely being a class inherited from feudalism but has also adapted to capitalism, to an extent, remained a largely atomised class for the classical Marxists. Because of this only major external upheavals can provoke them into action. But the role they play in the class struggle depends on the weight of the contending classes and the consciousness of the parties that lead them. Hence the peasantry is highly unstable, ideologically speaking. They can be a decisive actor for revolution and a bastion of reaction.

What of the bourgeoisie? As one of the two "pure" classes of capitalism, we immediately run into a problem in theorising the contours of bourgeois consciousness. If we accept their ideologies have the effect of masking the class-bound nature of capitalism, and if capital has so completely penetrated the social body and subordinated it to its will, why is bourgeois consciousness so partial?
Bourgeois thought observes economic life consistently and necessarily from the standpoint of the individual capitalist and this naturally produces a sharp confrontation between the individual and the overpowering supra-personal ‘law of nature’ which propels all social phenomena. This leads both to the antagonism between individual and class interests in the event of conflict (which, it is true, rarely becomes as acute among the. ruling classes as in the bourgeoisie), and also to the logical impossibility of discovering theoretical and practical solutions to the problems created by the capitalist system of production (p.63).
The limits of their consciousness coincides with the limits to the system. To recognise capitalism is a historically bounded system and that capital has become a fetter on the socialised forms of production it has called into being is to acknowledge one's obsolescence. The necessity of avoiding this conclusion is the root of the bourgeoisie's false consciousness. But this falseness is different from that the proletariat are prey to. This provides the bourgeoisie with the illusions necessary for them to carry on believing in their inhuman system. But also the actions they pursue, based on this false consciousness, fits their class interests like a glove. For example, whatever one may think of Max Weber's Protestant Ethic thesis, his argument that groups of early capitalists conducted their economic behaviour out of Calvinist convictions nevertheless shows it had the effect of deepening and reproducing capitalist relations of production. But for the proletariat, false consciousness prevents it acting in concert as a class.

For Lukacs capitalism's split between economics and politics is one of the chief props of false consciousness. In labour movements this is consistently realised as the tension between immediate needs and objective ends. As long as this persists, socialism cannot come about because the coming of the new society demands the division is consciously bridged. This is why it is so important for Marxists to make propaganda and build up influence among the working class. Any old bunch of ideas will do to underwrite bourgeois rule, from Scientology to Neo-Classical economics, but not for our class. Marxism must be fused with our class so it can become aware of its position, its interests and its destiny.

This emphasis on building class consciousness makes the struggle against opportunism a priority. Springing up spontaneously from the economics-politics split, it emphasises the particular and the partial. This makes it particularly insidious in moments of crisis. As the totality of capitalism becomes ever more stark opportunism works to split the class and drive it down "safe" channels.

For as long as capitalism remains the proletariat is subject to reification, the "act (or result of the act) of transforming human properties, relations and actions into properties, relations and actions of man‑produced things which have become independent (and which are imagined as originally independent) of man and govern his life. Also transformation of human beings into thing‑like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing‑world. Reification is a ‘special’ case of alienation, its most radical and widespread form characteristic of modern capitalist society" (Tom Bottomore et al (eds) 1991, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, p.463). Politically the results are pragmatism/empiricism (of which opportunism is a species) and utopianism, of a naive belief that "something" will make everything better. Reification can be fought through the conscious organisation of the proletariat, but requires capitalism itself to be superseded if it is to be put to rest. As Lukacs puts it
The workers’ council spells the political and economic defeat of reification. In the period following the dictatorship it will eliminate the bourgeois separation of the legislature, administration and judiciary. During the struggle for control its mission is twofold. On the one hand, it must overcome the fragmentation of the proletariat in time and space, and on the other, it has to bring economics and politics together into the true synthesis of proletarian praxis. In this way it will help to reconcile the dialectical conflict between immediate interests and ultimate goal (Lukacs 1968, p.80)
There are two charges that could be levelled at Lukacs' account of class consciousness. The first of these is essentialism. You could argue, as have Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in their 1985 book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy that the philosophical conclusions drawn by Lukacs and others were theory fictions. His theoretical construction of class consciousness as an ideal-type derived from theorising the position of the working class is all it is. The working class Lukacs speaks of is an object of Marxist thought, nothing else. To pose the idea of an imminent revolutionary potentiality then is to lapse into essentialism and teleology.

This criticism is mistaken in my view. As post-structuralists, Laclau and Mouffe fight shy of the shadow cast by real world processes onto the realm of thought. There is no autonomy of theory and philosophy, it is always conditioned by social being and the contradictions/conflicts that play out in it. This basic point is a key foundation of Marxism. As we saw in Lukacs' first essay on Orthodox Marxism, different systems of philosophy more or less correspond to class positions, and concentrate in abstract form the experiences of those classes. Lukacs' observations on proletarian class consciousness are no different. Laclau and Mouffe forget that Marxism is constantly formulated and elaborated in close relationship with the struggles and experiences of the working class. Lukacs' argument that class consciousness is an imminent potentiality did not just pop into his head, it was based on the concrete, historical experience of the class up to the point he was writing, an experience that had seen the 1848 revolutions, the Paris Commune, the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions, and the 1918-19 revolutions in Germany and Hungary. There is no essentialism here.

The second point is the possibility of drawing ultra-left conclusions from these meditations on consciousness. I'm sure the importance Lukacs attached to the struggle against opportunism is music to every Spartacist's ears. A very superficial reading suggests class consciousness is just bubbling beneath the surface - all that's needed is the removal of the proletariat's opportunist misleaders et voila, a fully formed and combat-ready working class is born. To make such a reading you would have to ignore the ways capitalism systematically reproduces forms of false consciousness, particularly with regard to reification. To struggle against it and to build class consciousness, Marxists have to intelligently and skilfully put the socialist case to our class, something which the British left hasn't got a terribly good track record at doing.

We'll be looking more into the problems reification poses consciousness in the next post on History and Class Consciousness.

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

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Just 17

This here is the top 20 left of centre blogs as voted for by those who participated in Iain Dale's annual poll of top UK-based political blogs. And would you Adam and Eve it, AVPS crashes in at number 17! See, look!

1. Tom Harris MP
2. Hopi Sen
3. Stumbling & Mumbling
4. Liberal Conspiracy
5. Recess Monkey
6. Luke Akehurst
7. LabourHome
8. Tom Watson MP
9. Ministry of Truth
10. Dave's Part
11. Sadie's Tavern
12. Harry's Place
13. SNP Tactical Voting
14. Socialist Unity
15. Paul Linford
16. Labour Outlook
17. A Very Public Sociologist
18. Obsolete
19. Ordovicius
20. Normblog

Hand on my copy of The Manifesto, I solemnly swear I'm aware of no multiple voting. Honest!

It is an interesting list though and it's good to see more proper leftists feature in the chart. But there's still way too many reformists, revisionists and renegades in there for my liking.

Right, I'm off for a celebratory green tea with Brother S ...

My Manifesto

I'm sure you won't mind granting me this moment of indulgence, especially as it means I get a short break from writing 'heavy' posts. Last month I put my name forward for the secretaryship of the Keele Postgraduate Association, truly a mighty organ of class struggle. The rules of the contest required me to put together a manifesto and attend hustings at our newly refurbed KPA bar. I planned my campaign, located a ready supply of muck to fling at my opponent and filmed an election broadcast for the BBC. But just as battle was about to be joined I realised something else would have to give. So instead of stomping all over the opposition I meekly sent off a notice of withdrawal ... but not before I'd written my manifesto. For some reason a few Keele election anoraks have expressed an interest in seeing it, so rather than spending precious time emailing it to them separately I thought I'd stick it up here. After reading this, would you have trusted me with your note-taking needs?

Under the rules of the KPA I’m required to put together a manifesto telling you why you should vote for me on the 19th of this month. But what can I say? I can’t promise the transformation of the KPA into a red base from which Keele postgrads can foment global revolution. I can’t pretend my election will usher in a golden age of honey for everyone either. But I will guarantee to:

  • Work toward improving the efficiency, accuracy and transparency of the KPA’s administrative operations.
  • Work to raise the visibility of the KPA on campus.
  • Encourage wider participation in the KPA – activities, elections, general meetings and KPA-sponsored campaigns.
  • Work toward building more links with KUSU, the UCU and other campus-based staff organisations.
  • Work with the rest of the KPA committee to realise these objectives.

I realise most of you reading this don’t know me from Adam. As attractive as my photo is I wouldn’t expect you to vote for me just because of my boyish good looks. Instead you should vote for me on the basis of my experience.

As an editorial assistant on a well-known academic journal I am used to discharging a wide variety of administrative duties in a timely fashion. I’ve also held elected office as a shop steward in a local trade union, where I developed a good reputation for standing up for members of staff. I was also the secretary for the North Staffs NHS-SOS campaign, which, among other things, involved producing accurate minutes of some very fractious meetings!

I have been at Keele since 2003, first as a part-time sessional teacher, then as a Masters student, and now as someone writing up their PhD. I know Keele, I know the issues that matter at Keele and I know how these can impact on postgraduate life. If you elect me as your secretary you know you’ve supported someone committed to making the structures of the KPA as responsive to the requirements of the members as possible.

On the 19th, vote for me, Phil BC, for your Keele Postgrad … secretary!

Monday 1 September 2008

Revisiting the 'New Times'

The commentators grouped around the influential Communist Party journal, Marxism Today, produced a body of innovative work trying to make sense of the political consequences of the Tories' neoliberal offensives of the 1980s. They concluded we were living in 'New Times', which required a rethinking of leftist politics and abandoning 'outmoded' templates of the past. If we were living in New Times, then what were the 'old times'? And is there anything in their political prescriptions we can find useful 20 years on?

In the 1989 New Times collection of edited Marxism Today articles, Robin Murray argued the wealth of the post-war ‘Fordist’ (i.e. old times) era rested in part on a production paradigm that was pioneered by Henry Ford’s principles of mass production. Murray argues the four key principles of Fordism were the standardisation of products, their components, and the assembly tasks required; a standardising of tasks that enabled them to be performed by machines; remaining tasks broken down and subject to labour process study; and production was dominated by the pace of the assembly line. This could typically be found in large scale workplaces, often employing thousands of workers and constituted the basic characteristic of the division of labour under post-war, Keynesian capitalism.

In their 1987 book, The End of Organised Capitalism, John Urry and Scott Lash, and Urry's contribution to this collection, the ‘organised capitalism’ of Keynesian demand management/state intervention became increasingly disorganised. The globalisation of capital, communications technologies, risk, and social relationships eroded the political and economic nationalism Keynesianism implicitly rested on. Shifts away from large production units to smaller, more specialised production have occurred in conjunction with its ‘internationalisation’: the infrastructure of multinational corporations (whether their production is outsourced/sub-contracted to third parties or not) tend to be scattered across several or more countries. For example Murray demonstrated in his contribution that the clothing firm Benetton were paradigmatic of the new ‘post-Fordism’. Of its (then) 11,500 strong workforce, only 1,500 workers were employed by Benetton directly, the rest were composed of those who produced clothes through sub-contractors. The role of the firm itself was to provide designs, stock control, and direct production from the figures provided by the point-of-sale computer systems installed in its franchised outlets. This has accelerated to such an extent that sportswear firms such as Nike, Reebok, and Adidas primarily concentrate on branding, image, and marketing, while their productive architectures have been almost completely divested and sub-contracted.

Processes such as these foregrounded an ideological articulation that married employers and capital with modernisation, flexible dynamism, and a fetish for ‘the new’. Workers and the labour movement were associated with the old, the inefficient, and the immobile. The final ideological ingredient was a strengthened emphasis on consumption as a site for individuated personal fulfilment and identity construction. As two chief thinkers of the New Times put it
... the world has changed, not just incrementally but qualitatively, that Britain and other advanced capitalist societies are increasingly characterised by diversity, differentiation, and fragmentation, rather than homogeneity, standardisation and the economics and organisations of scale which characterised modern mass society (Hall and Jacques 1989, p.11).
While they are keen to stress that post-Fordist practices have impacted unevenly economically and culturally and that Fordist organisation and attitudes persist in places, it is the former that is now in the socio-economic driving seat.

A key concern for New Times theorists have been the extent to which these processes are bound up with Thatcherism. Is post-Fordism is a product of neo-liberal economics? Or was Thatcherism a (ruling class) response to pre-existing post-Fordist processes? New Times thinking tends to suggest the latter is the case, allowing Stuart Hall to argue in his 1988 book, The Hard Road to Renewal, that the left should not view post-Fordism with uniform hostility. For Hall the Conservatives' programme attached itself to post-Fordist processes and attempted to steer them (largely successfully) in a neoliberal direction, culminating in a ‘regressive modernisation’. Hence while it “speaks the language of choice, freedom and autonomy, Thatcherite society [was] increasingly characterised by inequality, division, and authoritarianism” (Hall and Jacques 1989, p.17). If post-Fordism was no more the conscious creationg of capital than post-war Fordism, it suggests political opportunities for the left are not foreclosed and new avenues for progressive struggles could opened.

One of the key issues regarding class for New Times theorists was how post-Fordism could turn a previously unified working class against one another. Returning to Murray’s Benetton example, under post-Fordist conditions it is reasonable to expect that employment is better paid and more secure for those workers employed by the firm directly, than those who work for sub-contractors, setting up a division between ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ workers. Goran Therborn paints a bleaker picture. Following Marx’s view that unemployment is inherent to capitalism, he argues the ‘flexible-specialisation’ of post-Fordist economies depend upon a large reserve of unemployed workers necessary for keeping labour markets sufficiently fluid for capital's needs. This means a section of the working class is permanently marginalised, as opposed to the remaining ‘two-thirds’ of secure workers, managers, and capitalists who (despite competition and contradictions between themselves) retain a stake in post-Fordist capitalism.

New Times commentators may broadly agree about the dissolution of the post-war compromise, but there was less unity on the direction working class politics should take. Murray for example suggested that trade unions should respond by taking up quality of life issues into the workplace. Union militants should be tackling management’s definition and setting of ‘flexible time’, and fight to subordinate the demands of the workplace to life outside of work. Hall thought the hegemonic stress on individual identity and new media technologies could open new areas to political contestation, suggesting so-called identity politics be taken seriously. For example, Dick Hebdige argued for a sensitivity toward new identities constructed on the basis of shared commonalities that cross the old class boundaries – such as youth music subcultures. In contrast others argued the New Times demanded a political response that went beyond class. Urry argued post-Fordism produces a politics inflected by a heterogeneous experience of class, which is further mediated by the existence and influence of new social movements, an influence with disaggregating effects that made mobilisations for collective action around shared demands that much harder. Charles Leadbeater contribution argued for a values-oriented response to the right’s rhetoric of freedom and responsibility. Instead of addressing demands toward the state and local government, the left should be seeking ways for which individuals can take on these responsibilities. This strategy could have far reaching democratising effects by providing an empowering self-help model of individualism contra the bureaucratism of state-led welfare provision and the conservative reduction of individualism to consumerism. It would expand “the sphere of individual responsibility, but in tandem renewing a culture of social responsibility and collective provision” (p.138).

In the end the majority of political conclusions lead many New Times figures abandoning class politics altogether, some ending up in the enemy camp. Most disappeared into academia. Charles Leadbeater ended up as an advisor to Tony Blair. The old CPGB wound itself up and went through several phases of liquidation, finally merging with Charter 88 to become the liberal pressure group Unlock Democracy. Hardly surprising considering most of their political responses to post-Fordism moved away from any sort of collective politics to individual solutions. But this doesn't necessarily mean their diagnosis was incorrect. In a climate where we're courted on the high street and hammered in the workplace, if anything the characteristics of post-Fordist capitalism have deepened. As Lindsey German put it in her 1996 SWP pamphlet, A Question of Class, "far from the working class being dead or dying, the actual situation of the mass of working people is that they are forced to sell their labour power for a wage that covers their subsistence but little else" (p.49). Only by relating our politics to the working class can we begin to see beyond the capitalist old times.