Friday 28 February 2014

Local Council By-Elections February 2014

Number of candidates
Total vote
+/- Seats

Plaid Cymru**


* There were no by-elections in Scotland.
** There were two by-elections in Wales.
*** There were no independent clashes this month.
**** 'Other' this month consisted of the English Democrats (75 votes) and the National Front (33 votes).

Overall, 13,712 votes were cast over nine individual local (tier one and tier two) authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. For comparison see January's results here.

A pretty dull month, all told. The seat gain/losses figure hides the Tories winning a seat off Labour in Birmingham(!), but who then it turn lost a seat to the LibDems. What is interesting is how, as you might expect, the low number of by-elections means less scope for smaller parties and independents to enter the field. And as a result the polling percentages of the two main parties move more toward their reported positions in opinion polls. I think the Conservatives can take some comfort from the fact they're the party that takes by-elections most seriously as they field a candidate in virtually every contest. But month after month - since I've been collating by-election figures in fact - they are consistently behind Labour in vote averages, regardless of whether a month had a disproportionate number of contests in Tory areas or not. If one of Crosby's minions are keeping an eye on by-elections, this is cause for a furrowed brow. And, good grief, what happened to UKIP?

In minor party news, TUSC has outpolled the Greens for the first time ever. And for two months on the trot the BNP haven't bothered fielding anyone. To put things in perspective the not-quite-as-bad-but-decidedly-dodgy English Democrats have been more active. How long will it be before Nazi Nick and chums are counted as 'Other'?

Thursday 27 February 2014

Engels on Stoke-on-Trent

North of the iron district of Staffordshire lies an industrial region to which we shall now turn our attention, the Potteries, whose headquarters are in the borough of Stoke, embracing Henley, Burslem, Lane End, Lane Delph, Etruria, Coleridge, Langport, Tunstall, and Golden Hill, containing together 70,000 inhabitants. The Children's Employment Commission reports upon this subject that in some branches of this industry, in the production of stoneware, the children have light employment in warm, airy rooms; in others, on the contrary, hard, wearing labour is required, while they receive neither sufficient food nor good clothing. Many children complain: "Don't get enough to eat, get mostly potatoes with salt, never meat, never bread, don't go to school, haven't got no clothes." "Haven't got nothin' to eat today for dinner, don't never have dinner at home, get mostly potatoes and salt, sometimes bread." "This is all the clothes I have, no Sunday suit at home."

Among the children whose work is especially injurious are the mould-runners, who have to carry the moulded article with the form to the drying-room, and afterwards bring back the empty form, when the article is properly dried. Thus they must go to and fro the whole day, carrying burdens heavy in proportion to their age, while the high temperature in which they have to do this increases very considerably the exhaustiveness of the work. These children, with scarcely a single exception, are lean, pale, feeble, stunted; nearly all suffer from stomach troubles, nausea, want of appetite, and many of them die of consumption.

Almost as delicate are the boys called "jiggers", from the "jigger" wheel which they turn. But by far the most injurious is the work of those who dip the finished article into a fluid containing great quantities of lead, and often of arsenic, or have to take the freshly dipped article up with the hand. The hands and clothing of these workers, adults and children, are always wet with this fluid, the skin softens and falls off under the constant contact with rough objects, so that the fingers often bleed, and are constantly in a state most favourable for the absorption of this dangerous substance. The consequence is violent pain, and serious disease of the stomach and intestines, obstinate constipation, colic, sometimes consumption, and, most common of all, epilepsy among children. Among men, partial paralysis of the hand muscles, colica pictorum, and paralysis of whole limbs are ordinary phenomena. One witness relates that two children who worked with him died of convulsions at their work; another who had helped with the dipping two years while a boy, relates that he had violent pains in the bowels at first, then convulsions, in consequence of which he was confined to his bed two months, since when the attacks of convulsions have increased in frequency, are now daily, accompanied often by ten to twenty epileptic fits, his right arm is paralysed, and the physicians tell him that he can never regain the use of his limbs.

In one factory were found in the dipping-house four men, all epileptic and afflicted with severe colic, and eleven boys, several of whom were already epileptic. In short, this frightful disease follows this occupation universally: and that, too, to the greater pecuniary profit of the bourgeoisie! In the rooms in which the stoneware is scoured, the atmosphere is filled with pulverised flint, the breathing of which is as injurious as that of the steel dust among the Sheffield grinders. The workers lose breath, cannot lie down, suffer from sore throat and violent coughing, and come to have so feeble a voice that they can scarcely be heard. They, too, all die of consumption.

In the Potteries district, the schools are said to be comparatively numerous, and to offer the children opportunities for instruction; but as the latter are so early set to work for twelve hours and often more per day, they are not in a position to avail themselves of the schools, so that three-fourths of the children examined by the commissioner could neither read nor write, while the whole district is plunged in the deepest ignorance. Children who have attended Sunday school for years could not tell one letter from another, and the moral and religious education, as well as the intellectual, is on a very low plane.

Condition of the Working Class in England, pp 232-4 (1969 Panther Books edition)

Wednesday 26 February 2014

Intersectionality and Postmodern Feminism

We left the last post having worked through the basic conceptualisation of intersectionality. If you can't be bothered to trudge through its thousand or so words, simply put it is the appreciation of how different oppressions rooted in ostensibly discrete sets of violent (symbolically and physically) social relations can intersect and condition the lives of whole groups of people. Furthermore, activists involved in social struggles have to be conscious of and fight against the replication of oppression within discourses and movements committed to liberation. For example, feminism has to be alive to the possible marginalisation of black and minority ethnicity women, disabled women, and so on within the women's movement.

There are some issues with this, not least the pathological forms of identity politics that have become indistinguishable from intersectionality in the eyes of many participants and observers of the relevant debates. What strikes me, however, is how none of these debates are nothing new. Historical debates within feminism since the 60s were characterised by the "classical" distinctions between liberal, socialist and radical feminisms which, in the 80s and 90s, were followed by critiques attacking unconscious 'race', class, cis-gendered, and heteronormative biases, and a valorisation of doubly/triply etc. oppressed experiences of womanhood, are visited and revisited by today's 'third wave' feminism. This is less a 'second time as farce' repetition, even if the chosen venues for such arguments are Facebook and Twitter feeds, and more a cycle reflecting the persistence (or the perception of persistence) of really existing issues.

Without getting into the debates themselves, over the course of the last year my Twitter feed has been lit up by the refusal of a group of radical feminists to admit transwomen access to their events, of apologies for not checking one's privilege, and accusations that powerful white women in the mainstream commentariat use their position to exclude BME women. Go back to 1992 and you would find the same complaints reported in academic overviews of the then burgeoning postmodern feminist scene. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It's important to grasp the tacit theoretical agreements underpinning the disputes in postmodern feminism to have a handle on what's going on today. Contrary to contemporary crude renderings of postmodernism, these were very much concerned with the materially-lived existences of women bearing the marks of multiple oppressions. They were not about denying the possibility of developing sociological knowledge or activist-oriented theory, just sceptical towards what Lyotard called metanarratives. That is overly-simplistic catch-all theories that claim to explain everything, such as neoliberalism, or the Duplo Marxism common to most Trot groups. This is a scepticism that is well-justified considering at best the experience of women, let alone gay women, black women, etc. were dismissed as distractions or, at worst, people-categories to be manipulated and/or scapegoated and/or oppressed.

The tendency of the re-presentation of these debates for the poststructuralist movement among the 90s academy was not so much the under-appreciation of their materiality but the near-exclusive focus on identity. If postmodern feminism accepted the critiques that all three types of 2nd wave feminism with its unconscious privileging of white, middle class, Western women, if feminism then cannot speak for 'all women', who can it speak for and what can it do? One way was to try and find new universals women hold in common (for example, see here). Another option was to take the analytical scalpel and slice deeper into the social relations responsible for disaggregating 'woman', ending up with the distinctively pomo project of trying to destabilise gender relations by showing their discursive roots and free-floating performative character. Another strand still looked at ways of exploring alliances between different groups of women to achieve certain objectives, and to which intersectionality properly corresponds.

However, what is evacuated from postmodern feminism - even though the materiality of oppression is front and centre - is interest. This will be visited again when I get round to blogging about class and intersectionality. It's sufficient to say here that within the terms of postmodern feminism, its disappearance is understandable. With the fragmentation of the unified subject 'woman' who has certain interests vis a vis patriarchy, it follows there are instead multiplicities of interests - some of which might be at odds with one another. There's also the recognition that making assumptions about certain women's interests might actually infringe on hard-won autonomies. Who am I, as a white woman, to declare that the hijab is a symbol of Muslim women's oppression? Who am I, as a straight woman, to cast aspersions on the political strategy of lesbian separatist feminists? Who am I, as a bloke without much of an evening life, to pronounce on the topic of women's interests?

Postmodern feminism dealt with it by not dealing with it. By leaving interest untheorised a thousand relativist flowers bloomed. Those feminists who wanted to build alliances among women were hamstrung because the absence of interest gave no grounds for such an coalition to be articulated. Trying to rally the troops behind Butlerian deconstruction of gender and sex as discursive constructs in specialist journals weren't much of a go-er.

Unfortunately, it's this legacy of postmodern feminism that gets replicated in the social media wars of 3rd Wave Feminism, albeit on a larger, pathological scale. It appears as if convulsed by identity wars, of authenticity vs faux feminism, of privilege vs underprivilege, of contestations of who counts and who doesn't count as a woman. This doesn't preclude participants from shifting wider public debates about the status of women-in-general, or staging high profile stunts, or winning campaigns. Yet for the most part, the ethereality of feminism as postmodern identity politics lends itself well to the public presentation of self social media fosters, of the kind of discursive loop where what is and what isn't feminism is gone over time and again.

Yet the seeds for overcoming this seeming dead end can be found within the impetus that has remade feminism a force to be reckoned with. As the internet generally and social media specifically opened up public life to millions and millions of people, women not only found new spaces to share experiences but found the same old sexist, misogynistic crap had taken up the keyboards too. Remember, oppression (in this case gender) is a social relation and as per the old, traditional ways it defined women as second class citizens, as objects ripe for abuse. Regardless of identity and its nuances, the wave of discrimination that fell upon women - ironically - did not discriminate. The standpoint of patriarchal privilege and power cares nothing for difference among women, save for avenues it can drive cartloads of divide-and-conquer down. The starting point isn't a universalist subject of feminist agency or endless fights over what that looks like, but rather the catch-all negative constitution of woman by those who benefit from it. And what feminism and socialist politics can do.

Monday 24 February 2014

The Desperation of the Right

We always knew the election was going to be messy. But already, some 15 months before the big day swings around, the Tories and their allies are desperately flinging anything and everything that comes to hand. Crosby and co. have long excavated and chucked the mud from their wallow. They're now down to loose soils and gravel. Sling that it makes a mess, but it's easily brushed off again. By way of illustration, here are three recent attacks.

Exhibit One. You have the calling out of Ed Miliband as a millionaire posh boy who's never had a proper job. Yes, that is a proper Tory attack line. And yes, if you strain hard enough those are the death agonies of irony and satire you can hear on the wind. I mean, seriously. Far be it for me to offer the Tories advice, but if you must run personal attacks make sure that a) they can't be effortlessly batted back to you and b) it becomes an object of ridicule. No surprises that the walking sensory void Grant Shapps is behind that one.

Exhibit Two. Poor old Dave. Those nasty floods have exposed him as a clueless ditherer. Understandably people affected across the blue belt of Tory seats in the South West and the little-reported Yorkshire region (yes, there are some Tory heartlands ooop north) are a bit miffed at the government. What would the Mail on Sunday, the weekend warrior for all right-thinking people make of that? Bugger all, so its front page splash led with shadow environment minister Barry Gardiner's holiday to Mexico. You can imagine the foam-flecked outrage in the editorial office when no one paid it any attention whatsoever. The Mail being The Mail couldn't resist giving it a racist twist by drawing attention to Barry's relationship with an Indian businessman either.

Exhibit Three. If George Greg miscalculated with that one, Paul Dacre has proper lost it. The last three editions of The Daily Mail have led with supposed connections between Jack Dromey, Harriet Harman, and ex-MP Patricia Hewitt and the infamous 1970s campaigning group, the Paedophile Information Exchange. Three front pages. Three detonations of the P-bomb. And nothing in the way of damaging political fall out. Only now has a statement been put out comprehensively rebutting The Mail's smears. And yes, the look-at-me-this-is-a-real-scandal desperation of that paper makes Dacre look even more out-of-touch. Does he really want to replay his ill-fated attack on Ralph Miliband? It looks like he does.

The big problem for the right in British politics is they have absolutely nothing to offer. Between now and election day the government will not be pushing through anything new. They don't want to scare the electorate or hand gifts to Ed Miliband, which is what they usually do. They don't want to run the risk of an embarrassing parliamentary defeat, even if a rumpus with the LibDems might suit both coalition parties. Politics abhors a vacuum, and into it they and their helpers pour their negative messages. But already the bile drum is down to its last dregs. If anything, further attacks of this character, which will come, will be emptier, more panicky, more threadbare, and cloyingly desperate. It's going to be a long, long lead-in to the election.

Sunday 23 February 2014

Identity Politics and Intersectionality

Julie Burchill wrote this. Paris Lees rejoined with this. Burchill (paraphrased): "intersectionality is about scoring points off multiple oppressions". Lees (paraphrased): "intersectionality is about respecting difference". Who's right? Both of them are. Here's a 3,000 word essay making that point too. What often falls by the wayside in discussions around intersectionality is, to put it crudely, what intersectionality is for. It doesn't have to be for anything, of course. If you want it to just be a marker for mutual respect then take it. But for us of a more socialist bent, intersectionality is about political agency. But how does it, if you can pardon the pun, intersect with a socialist political project? Where does it leave class?

Here are some thoughts that deliberately do not address class and capitalism. That's because another post will follow that does.

1. Intersectionality grew out of an oversight. Nay, a failure. Its roots can be found in the so-called New Social Movements of the late 60s and 1970s: feminism/women's liberation, anti-racism/black power, LGBT rights/queer politics. In the context of the USA, it was because the anti-Vietnam War movement and (mostly student-based) New Left replicated the traditional political dominance of white/male/straight. With a little bit of violence to national specificities, in Western Europe it was the failure of labour movements and the working-class based revolutionary politics of the communist parties and the far left to take such matters seriously. At least initially.

2. If anything, "established" radicalism and official socialism/communism were hostile. Labour movements in the 19th century and after the 2nd World War worked to exclude women from the workplace, and by extension install them in the home. Labour movements have an inglorious history of enforcing a colour bar.

3. A rocky road has been travelled. Yet, despite some outstanding battles yet to be won the route New Social Movements, or, Identity Politics, have plotted these last 40 years has seen important milestones reached and passed. Officially speaking, sexism, racism and homophobia are no longer acceptable. In Britain at least an inclusive, civic nationalism is the preferred, sanctified mode of Britishness. Think the London Olympics. Don't think UKIP and the Empire.

4. Racism, sexism, and homophobia have not gone away. They are, instead, more underground than they used to be. Hate crime and hate speech can call the full weight of the law down on a bigot's head. But the case remains that if you're a woman, if you're a member of an ethnic minority, if you're not straight and/or present as the gender you were not assigned since birth, you have to put up with the grind of discrimination, symbolic violence and, occasionally, actual violence. The vitalism of the 'new', third/fourth wave of feminism speaks of the continued salience of sexual discrimination, for example.

5. Social locations are always social relations. What is more, they are negative social relations. Society, or 'the social', will never forget your gendered, racialised, sexualised carcass. It will never let you forget it either. We are not cultural dopes though, we don't dance to the rhythm of abstract, rarified structures - even if it sometimes appears as if that is the case. The social context, the field of power, the frame of networked interactions - call it what you like - it always-already conditions our lived existences. They do not determine it.

6. Disadvantaged social locations are something that is "done" to groups of people. But at the same time, because they are social relations, they can be remade. Subjectification is not the same as subjugation. The commonality of experience among masses of people is a well for the formulation of common grievances, common outlooks, and common objectives. Identity is politicised, and from this basis collective action can (theoretically) proceed.

7. The question immediately arises 'whose experience is being collectivised?' Did the Black Panther Party or the black nationalism of Malcolm X speak of the historic experience of African-American women? Did 1970s 2nd wave feminism in its liberal, socialist and radical iterations take on board the historic experience of African-American women? The answer to both questions was no.

8. As social beings, each of us can be read as a foci of multiple social relations. Some of those relations can, for a number of historic, cultural and socio-structural reasons, work to place ascribed categories of people at a systematic disadvantage. It is possible for one to inhabit more than one of these disadvantaging, disempowering sets of relations. This is the starting point of intersectionality.

9. As disadvantaged social locations cut across one another, must identity politics become 'nominally essentialist' - that is assume certain identity properties and proceed from there without getting bogged down in border disputes vis straight vs lesbian feminism, white vs black feminism, trans-friendly vs cis-only feminism, etc.; disappear into fragmentation and privilege checks; or seek alliances?

10. Each avenue corresponds to established political and cultural ways of doing things. Nominal essentialism, the "speaking for" all women, all black and minority ethnicities, all LGBT people maps on to pressure groups lobbying/campaigning for legislative and institutional change, promoting tolerance through official channels, and shifting attitudes. When it is successful, which tends to be incremental, there is a political/cultural trickle down that can, generally speaking, improve the quality of (a) disadvantaged social relation(s).

11. Nominal essentialist renderings of oppression has also undergone heavy depoliticisation. Gay men, for example, are less a political category and more a marketing demographic: a postmodern lifestyle to be catered for by our consumerist cornucopia.

12. Fragmentation is the pathological outcome of identity politics. It is not the effect of intersectionality. It is its failure. Its root is not so much a purer, more radical form of identity politics (though it can assume such a guise), but rather a political bend toward recognising x, y, z social location (or combinations thereof) as equally valid points of view. It becomes pathological and fragmentary when it is disconnected from politics. Or, rather, becomes a project of individual self-presentation - a project that lends itself well to the emergent narcissistic self. Hence the possibility of politics are closed, leaving behind the emptiness of identity display.

13. As social beings consistently and continuously constituted (and constituting) by interacting, disadvantaging/oppressing social relations, these are not Berlin Walls cutting each other off from each other's experiences. We can empathise. We can put ourselves in each others shoes. Our ability to speak, to understand is founded on intersubjectivity. Hence the possibility of reconciling difference, of building an alliance between multiple positions continually produced by disadvantaging social relations is possible. Especially when the relations that disadvantage simultaneously advantage certain elites. Oppression fragments the oppressed. Oppression homogenises the oppressor.

14. On what basis can an alliance of the oppressed and disadvantaged be founded? A nice idea, or some free-floating project discursively stringing together different flags won't do it. And, in and of itself, the intersectional commonalities shared by women, minority ethnicities, and LGBT people have so far not forged lasting political projects that take all of them on board. Especially when a small number of traditionally oppressed people now find themselves on the advantaged side of the equation.

15. This is where capitalism and class come in.

Saturday 22 February 2014

The Ones - Flawless

Hard as it is to believe, this 2001 ditty wasn't written about me. But it might well apply to my coming piece on intersectionality and socialism. We shall see.

Thursday 20 February 2014

Why are Welfare Cuts a Moral Crusade?

Can't find employment and dread the fortnightly grilling down the job centre? Can't afford the bedroom tax so have to rely on food banks to get you and yours through the week? At the end of your tether because you're waiting an age for the appeal against your Work Capability Assessment decision, which found you fit for work when your doctor and consultant both have prescribed nothing but rest? Well, chin up. These humiliations all come from a compassionate place. You see, Dave's on a mission. A moral mission.

Taking time out from dithering over the floods to rebut the soon-to-be Cardinal Nichols, leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Dave refused to accept that his government's cuts to social security have made life harder for those who rely on it. After all, IBS has ensured there will be no cumulative impact assessment for those hit by whammy after whammy of 1% "rises", the effective abolition of total council tax relief, the bedroom tax, and the chopping down of tax credits - no facts will rudely intrude upon Dave's caring reverie. Here is our caring, sharing prime minister in his own words:
Our long-term economic plan for Britain is not just about doing what we can afford, it is also about doing what is right ... Nowhere is that more true than in welfare. For me the moral case for welfare reform is every bit as important as making the numbers add up ... That means difficult decisions to get our deficit down, making sure that the debts of this generation are not our children's to inherit ... But our welfare reforms go beyond that alone - they are about giving new purpose, new opportunity, new hope - and yes, new responsibility to people who had previously been written off with no chance ... Seeing these reforms through is at the heart of our long-term economic plan - and it is at the heart too of our social and moral mission in politics today.
How cutting public spending and keeping your fingers crossed makes an "economic plan" is something this LibDem-supported Tory government still hasn't explained two months short of its fourth anniversary. But let's park that up - we can go for a spin in it another time. What interests me here is the thin gruel that passes for high Conservative philosophy.

Essentially, people, or rather, the lower orders, are thick and lazy. And when below stairs people occasionally get bored living a brute existence, they have the potential to be dangerous. Hence the men and women Conservatism addresses itself to - the aristocrats, the rich, the business folk, the people who've clambered out of the herd - they are ultimately responsible for looking after them. They know the people's interests better than the people themselves. What is good for them is hard graft. It toughens them up, gives meaning to their lives. Forces them to "contribute". The devil makes work for idle hands, and all that. Underpinning this is an incredibly narrow view of human nature. We are acquisitive animals. Since we came down from the trees, our first acts were to barter and exchange, to compete and kill for the nicest caves or the plushest savannah. The herd with their tacky soap operas, footy fixations and binge-drinking still respond to material incentives above all else (an article of faith that must have had Osborne scratching his head after next to no firms, let alone workers, responded to his shares-for-rights wheeze).

People might be greedy. But they want to do the bare minimum for it. Which is why social security is so dangerous. Permanent mass unemployment that scars busts and booms is a social pathology. The contradictions of capitalism are not to blame, but rather the welfare state offers incentives to be idle. You've heard the rhetoric - the so-called "something for nothing" culture. If you believe the spin, the last Labour government was a golden age for living it up on the taxpayer. There were no sanctions regimes, no mandatory work programmes, no work capability assessment. Apparently. The thing is, despite the tenor of their baying hounds in the press, people who live on social security can't help it. Not because there's never enough jobs to go around - that never causes unemployment. No, their acquisitive, lazy natures mean they are powerless to resist the material signals the state are putting out. By taking its money, they're inviting bureaucratic interference into places where the state shouldn't go (a critique nicked from the left, actually). It's infantilising them, robbing them of responsibility for their own self-provision. It's a route to a consequence-free existence, which immediately problematises society's moral foundations. Single parenthood, promiscuity, and crime are just some examples of what welfarism unwittingly encourages.

This is why, for Dave, cutting social security is a moral crusade. Taking money from out-of-work support kickstarts the instinct for self-preservation. It's not about kicking poor people. It's the administration of unpleasant medicine that will, in the long run, make them better. Just like that, cutting dole, housing benefit and council tax support, can transform lives. From skiver to striver, the feckless start making something of themselves. They improve. Their communities improve. The moral rectitude of the social fabric improves. And the public finances um, improve. This is why Dave and IBS fight shy of the evidence that cuts are having. They don't need to know it hurts because they believe it works.

NB Nearly everyone with half a brain has spotted the great knotty loop in Tory thinking. If the poor respond positively to the negative incentive of cutting money, then why do the rich - who have plenty of cash anyway - squirrel their wealth away and dodge tax than rather hand it to the state? It comes back to different incentives working on different situations. Because the rich have (presumably) built their fortune themselves, it is just reward for their efforts. If society is to continue benefiting from their superhuman feats, they need unfettered access to the wealth they produce. Hence taxation, in which the state takes a chunk of their rewards legally but, morally speaking, unjustifiably acts as a disincentive to keep working. And not just for the entrepreneur, but for up and coming business people too. However well intentioned taxation is, it deeply damages the good society. This is why many Tory politicians are genuinely stumped by the real public anger toward tax avoidance, and are utterly blind to the political damage it causes them.

Hence different signals sent by government and society, which appear inconsistent, make sense within the terms established by conservative thought. Removing state support for the poorest forces them on to the normative path of success out of necessity. But when they do succeed, society will reward them by allowing them to keep as much of their money as possible.

Elegant, heartless, self-serving nonsense, is it not?