Tuesday 30 November 2010

Everywhere I look - policing without consent

I seem to be in danger of turning into an 'all coppers are bastards' stuck record at the moment. I don't mean to give the impression that I'm vehemently anti-police - some of my best friends are coppers  - well come to think of it they aren't, nor are they ever likely to be -  but that's not the point.

It's just at the moment everywhere I look  I seem to see hordes of police intimidating - or actually attacking - legitimate protest. 

The latest was at the council meeting in Lewisham last night where anti-cuts protesters where met with riot police and a mounted charge. This came at the end of the same day when it was announced that the Met were disgracefully finally getting round to looking into possible 'misconduct' on the part of the TSG's PC Simon Harwood who attacked, and very probably killed  Ian Tomlinson last year. 

And today we see a repeat of the scenes from last week, in Whitehall (although the snow has ensured it is on a smaller scale)  -  as I write  mounted police are again charging students - many of them young school students.  

The Met have also  taken the opportunity today  to warn the parents of underage protesters (and most importantly I suspect potential protesters) that they should be aware of the dangers of protesting. In effect we are being told that we enter our own streets at our our own risks.

It's becoming a dangerous time to be a protester - but it's also becoming a dangerous time for authority. The state in this country has always rested on the idea of policing by consent - it's what gives the basis for our supposedly 'peculiarly english' tradition of shying away from political confrontation. Now, probably more so than at any point since the miner's strike of 84-5, that consent appear to be  being withdrawn.

Thursday 25 November 2010

Chip off the old block

I suppose it is every left-y parents' dread that their kids will rebel against them by becoming Young Conservatives, Born Again Christians - or doing a degree in Marketing.  

But when my daughter led the student walkout from her school yesterday, my feelings went way beyond relief. Not because she simply joined in the protests but because she used the full  force of her teenage smart-arsery (which we are usually on the receiving end of)  to challenge and  face down the authorities at her school.  We are all slightly nervous of what the repercussions of  this might be today - some teachers are taking a principled stand in supporting the students - but the spiteful wrath of humiliated authority cannot be underestimated.

Fingers crossed on that account. She  has already experienced the arbitrary and naked misuse of power when she, along with thousands of others were kettled by the police for eight hours on the coldest day of the year. I had given her some advice about how to handle being in a situation that like - but nothing in all my years of demos and protests has come close to that experience. It is a conscious tactic to intimidate protest. And I suspect to create situations - such as the unsurprising trashing of a police van conveniently 'left' in the middle of the kettle  - which will make good media stories to de-legitimize protest.

Someone I spoke to this morning told me that I was irresponsible to encourage my daughter (as if she needs any encouragement). I said that the day had more genuine educational value than any school trip to the Houses of Parliament to learn about our political system or so-called 'civics' lessons - and watching the manipulated news coverage is worth any amount of 'media studies'.

Here's to the future - there's still hope ...

Wednesday 24 November 2010

A little bit of Zen ?

Breaking my usual blogging rule that martial arts is for training not talking: Recently since my teacher moved out of the country, he visits twice a year to put on  a weekend seminars. I organise these for him,  film them and  make DVD's  to sell. It means that I don't get to sweat much at the actual seminar - but on the on the other hand in editing the footage I get to review the content many times over. I've been to many of these over the years so there's naturally some repetition in them,  but there's also always a few new insights that  keep my thinking. This time there are two thoughts turning over in my head (these are my Sifu's and I take no credit for coming up with them):

Think about the mechanical beauty of a crafted sword or gun - it's cleverness in mechanical and aesthetic perfection in fusing form and function. It is innocent of the consequences of its actions with no pre-meditation  and no consciousness of its effect. Becoming a martial artist is about perfecting ourselves mechanically whilst also ridding ourselves of emotional intent.

The karmasutra wasn't written by a virgin but it wasn't written by a pervert either - and similarly the 'instructional manual' for a martial art - its syllabus of forms and drills etc - whilst grounded in the real world of fighting application is not intended to foster an unhealthy obsession with violence either.   We need to be wary of  developing this as a side-effect of training.  


Monday 22 November 2010

Never had it at all.

I deliberately restrained myself from commenting on Lord 'never-had-it-so-good' Young's remarks and subsequent downfall. Displaying insensitivity and crass class arrogance of such cunt-ish proportions, there was just nothing more I could add. 

It's clear that the  attempt to pass his comments off as a slip of the tongue were ridiculous. Actually what he said was considered and representative - of that section of not-so 'middle' Middle England who sit around at dinner parties and take as their economic indicators house prices and mortgage rates. Cuts in child benefit and the increased costs of putting their kids through university are minor irritantants but essentially they fly in a stratosphere above both recession and austerity packages.

Thinking about that got me to thinking about my local community: Despite a good local anti-cuts campaign, the most-affected, those large swathes of people here whose daily existence is dependent upon public services, are  also those least aware of what is coming - and least placed to do anything about it.

Far  from luxuriating in a soft-touch benefit system, life for these people  is largely a constant grind to navigate a way through a crumbling system to get what they are entitled to. It's a world apart from  my own experience, but one I see just a tiny piece  of when using my local health service and bouncing back and forth from one mis-managed and under-resourced service to another, with a confusing labyrinth of different agencies, ever-changing procedures, staff shortages and lost communications. 

But that's just for one small non-life threatening part of my life - multiply the humiliation, frustration and time wasting ten-fold  if your income, housing, child welfare etc are dependent upon 'the system' and it's easy to understand why living on benefits can became a full time job. And if you are in that position then your expectations may well have been so lowered that it's  difficult to imagine that things could actually get any worse. 

It is understandable that what  should be anger passes into fatalism - when you've never had it all.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

On This Deity - Victor Serge

I'm honoured to have a guest post today - marking the death of one of my favourite revolutionaries, Victor Serge  - over at the excellent 'On This Deity'.  

For anyone with a taste for radical history Dorian Cope's blog should be in your bookmarks.

Here we go again

When Charles and Di got married in 1981, I'd just taken my O Levels - and me and my  mates managed to avoid the mass-hysteria by going walking in the Highlands of Scotland. My reaction on hearing the news about William and Kate was much the same - followed of course by outrage at the cost at this time of recession, austerity and cuts. And then frustration  at the opiate effect it will undoubtedly generate in this bizarrely deferential celebrity-hungry age.

We've been here before: For most of their history the royals have kept their family affairs to themselves. Not because they   desired privacy - they simply felt that it wasn't any business of the plebeian masses what they got up to. Granted;  coronations, funerals and the royal 'progresses' were important demonstrations of royal power and mystique. But generally the royals and their hangers-on  could happily feud and shag  themselves stupid  because they saw themselves as above the moral reproaches of the great unwashed and most definitely not answerable to them.

Significantly a sense of royal PR-awareness only seemed to develop in the nineteenth century. Maybe  the first instance was the marriage of Caroline of Brunswick to the then Prince Of Wales, later the Prince Regent and then George IV. Engaged in the traditional royal manner before they had actually met,  she ticked the required  boxes of princess/protestant/available. All this would have been  business as usual if George hadn't have been such a monumental  arsehole - Blackadder's caricature of him is in fact charitable. His increasingly appalling treatment of his wife - including having the doors shut in Caroline's face at his own coronation - captured the popular imagination in a period of economic hardship,  reactionary governments and radical upsurge. This manifested itself in a ground-swell of sympathy for her - and after her early death the prime minister, Lord Liverpool even tried to divert her funeral from London to prevent rioting. 

From then on the royals seemed to take on board the need to play  the PR game and keep the masses 'on message':  By the 1870's  Queen Victoria had slipped out of the public eye and into reclusive widowhood. So Tory prime minister Disraeli, worried at social discontent and growing radicalism,  re-branded and re-launched  her  by reviving the Mughal title of 'Empress Of India' and stage-managing lavish jubilee celebrations.  By the 1930's prime minister Stanley Baldwin was pulling the strings behind the scenes of Edward VIII's abdication - and as he saw it safeguarding the institution of the monarchy and the fabric of society at another time of economic crisis and popular discontent.

Economic crisis. Radicalism. Discontent. Tory prime ministers. It all sounds horribly familiar - and it's why the monarchy still matters - it's not just about the money, they are always there to be wheeled out by the ruling class when things get a bit iffy ...

Tuesday 16 November 2010

The dirty South

Despite Joe Strummer's best efforts to immortalise the Westway - songs about roads in this country lack the romance of tales of Route 66 and dusty lost highways. But the cold late night ride home from seeing the Drive By Truckers at the Shepherd's Bush Empire somehow felt like a very appropriate end to the evening.

Don't know why their Country Punk / Southern Grunge  - with its  peculiarly Southern-Gothic tales of whisky, feuds, domestic violence, shotguns, farms  and broken dreams- should ring so true; but it just does. And like  all the best Country music  it finds the extraordinary  in the ordinary and makes you feel that the song was written for you. It fucking rocks too.

This from Sunday's show  at the Shepherd's Bush Empire - not my own footage but fantastic stuff:

Thursday 11 November 2010

Fires in the belly of the beast

In the aftermath of yesterday's 'riot' the sensible-tendency are falling over themselves to condemn the students who trashed Tory HQ - peaceful protested 'hi-jacked' by a minority of anarchists bent on violence ? Quite possibly. And for the middle-England tendency -  the end of western civilisation in that most heinous crime the attacking of private property. Certainly.

But my own reaction to watching the students - and I imagine that of quite a few of us - was to cheer them on. Granted, a few trashed windows do not a mass movement make. But if the Tory HQ, quite literally the belly of the beast, isn't a legitimate target what the fuck is ? If ever there is an argument for the 'propaganda of the deed' it is here: watching the scenes on TV will give a bit of inspiration to those millions who at the moment just feel impotent anger whilst they await the next round of austerity cuts. 

The important question of course now is - what's next? - but just for a moment let's celebrate that there's a change in the air. And an answer to those who had politically written off the X-Box generation or moaned that the British are genetically more docile than the  French or Greeks .

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Remembrance - look back in anger

As the world wars fade into memory, Remembrance inevitably focuses on wars fought since 1945. The trouble with this is that platitudes like ‘they died so that we might be free’ simply don’t wash when it comes to these wars. Because – let’s be frank about it – Britain’s post 1945 wars have been bad wars. Wars that were colonial policing operations; wars that were part of Cold War real-politic; or wars fought for brazenly economic interests. They have more in common with the ‘little wars’ of the Victorian era than with the moral certainties of the Second World War. And the motivation of the professional armies that fought them – largely economic conscription - has little in common with the patriotic hysteria of the First World War either. 

The history of these ‘bad’ wars is essentially that of the suffering of working class young men for causes that had bugger-all to do with their own lives or those of their families back home. Recruits have always tended to come from the poorest layers of society – Wellington referred to his common soldiery as ‘the scum of the earth’. Even in that brutal age, life in the ranks of the nineteenth century army was particularly grim, and a career option taken only by those most desperate to avoid prison or the workhouse. And before Rudyard Kipling popularised the virtues of the ordinary British soldier, the army was generally viewed by society as a whole with distaste and suspicion, In part at least because it was used as much for policing its own countrymen as it was for fighting foreign enemies.
I’ve been doing some family research recently and have uncovered something of a military tradition on one side of my family – it’s quite an insight:
The first soldier I’ve found seems to be my Great-Great Grandfather - Albert – a private in the 10th Hussars in the middle of the nineteenth century. His father had been a master bricklayer and a prosperous artisan but the family struck hard times. He joined after the regiment returned from the spectacularly disastrous and pointless Crimean War, and he seems to have left before they went off to the equally futile Second Afghan War. He probably would have spent at least part of his service stationed in Ireland on policing operations.
Albert died young and his family must have been fairly poor, his widow is listed in the census euphemistically as ‘laundress’ (or more prosaically washerwoman).  So his son - my  Great Grandfather Frederick - joined the Royal Horse Artillery. He served for twenty years  and fought in the Second South African War - a shameless bit of land grabbing by the British Empire that introduced the expression ‘concentration camp’ to the world. When Fred left the army the municipal authorities appointed him as the town’s resident fireman – in those pre-welfare state days this was typical of the charity given to the deserving poor of ‘good character’.  This would have been a stroke of good fortune- then as now, ex-servicemen were disproportionately represented amongst the homeless and beggars of Victorian London.
In the Great War, Fred’s youngest son – my Great Uncle Albert Victor – seems to have enlisted underage in the Hampshire Regiment. He also fought – and was killed – in a far-flung corner of empire - Mesopotamia - or Iraq as it is now  known. Even in a war of vainglorious futility and bungling this particular campaign stands out as a spectacularly misguided and pointless waste.
Fred’s grandson, my Uncle Charlie, served as a gunner in the Royal Artillery in the Second World War. His time was not spent liberating Europe from Nazism but with the ‘forgotten’ 14th Army in Burma defending the empire from Japanese expansion. Before the war Charlie had been a bright grammar school lad destined for better things but his experiences led him to stay on in the army after the war and he ended up retiring as a senior NCO. That was in a pre-Rambo age when PTS hadn’t been discovered.
In all this of course I’ve deliberately omitted to mention those parts of the family who did participate in the defeat of Fascism. But that’s my point – in the tradition of Britain’s ‘bad’ wars,  WW2 or the 'People’s War’ is an aberration.  A century after Queen Victoria's death our servicemen are still being sent to serve in imperial outposts -  in fact still in Afghanistan and Iraq. 
My family’s military history - like Britain’s military history -  is a story of ordinary people fighting for causes that are not their own; poor men fighting rich men’s wars. I see no glory or sacrifice in this history, only sadness and anger – and that should be the best form of Remembrance.

Thursday 4 November 2010

Defending a liberal education

Just as I find it particularly offensive that a tax-dodging plutocrat should get to lecture us on how to save money in the public sector I find it offensive that a bunch of middle-aged Oxbridge grads should now get to tell ordinary kids and their families that university education is a privilege that it is only fair to pay for with higher tuition fees and  student debt.

Their arguments to justify this are essentially philistine and small minded: That the main benefit of education is to bestow a competitive edge in the employment marketplace - and that this advantage needs to be paid for. And that by the laws of this market the economically useful subjects would be promoted and frivolous ones discouraged. 

This we are told is both fair and good for society as a whole. Pure fucking hypocrisy. Of the present ConDem cabinet 19 went to Oxbridge. Specifically in the big four jobs,  the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Home and Foreign secretaries, all went to Oxford. And six of the cabinet studied the same distinctly 'un-practical' subject there;  PPE Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

I have a personal insight into this - and not just because my daughter is coming up to the age when she has to think about all this. Back in the days when the state still saw university education as right not a privilege, an oik like me managed to sneak under the radar into Cambridge and study the equivalent subject there. And I can let you into a secret - it was a doss: Far from being hot-housed and groomed for leadership it was a perfect subject if you didn't fancy getting up for lectures in the morning and preferred to spend your afternoons shooting pool in the JCR bar - and you could still get a very respectable degree. I  even switched to it from doing history - which was hardly onerous in the first place. I actually worked much harder when I studied afterwards for a year at the London College of Printing on a far less prestigious vocational diploma course.

I feel absolutely no need to apologise for this. In between my idling I developed myself in an environment that encouraged the broadest form of learning that had nothing whatsoever to do with the course - by undirected reading on my own initiative in the libraries and by contact with other enquiring minds. I think that constitutes the very best of what is meant by the old-fashioned term of a 'liberal' education. And I'm sure that students at unglamourous  former polytechnics studying media or gender studies - or any other of the subjects that are snootily scoffed at now - go through exactly the same journey. They come out more rounded individuals, more enquiring, more rational and altogether more open-minded than when they went in. And a civilised progressive society needs this - every bit as much as it needs the obvious doctors, engineers and scientists.

The ConDem  cabinet who yesterday put higher education just a bit further out of the reach of working class families know this full well. After all, it's why they studied humanities themselves. So they are not actually philistines - just  hypocrites and vicious snobs - they don't think that it should be for the likes of us.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Know Nothings triumphant

At what might be the high-tide of the Tea Party movement in the US mid-term  elections yesterday I can't help recalling a previous US political force with a similarly stupid name - the Know Nothing Party of the 1850's.

It's said that America is a land without irony, and the name is supposed to come from the movement's underground origins - when supporters were encouraged to respond 'I know nothing' if quizzed about their activities - these activities often being the violent intimidation of immigrant communities. But they also came to revel in their name and take pride in the down-to-earth folksiness it implied. (Shades of Sarah Palin ?)

Primarily the Know Nothings were a 'nativist' movement - on what we today call a populist right-wing anti-immigrant platform. Their main target were the large number of Irish Catholic immigrants who flooded to the US in the wake of the famines of the 1840's. Their hostility was also extended to any other European newcomers who threatened to upset the Anglo-Saxon Protestant hegemony with their 'un-Americanism'. At the height of their success they even re-branded themselves as the 'American Party'.

They had their moment with election success in the 1854 election but they rapidly declined as they split along Northern and Southern lines over the slavery issue in the years running up to the civil war. It's therefore  tempting to dismiss their significance, but in fact they did have a lasting legacy in speeding the demise of the old rather patrician Whig Party and the rise of the populist new Republican party in its place. And ironically in the reconstruction period their ideas were revived to fuel the ideology of the Ku Klux Klan.

And I also can't help thinking  that the Tea Party probably see themselves as fitting  comfortably into this tradition...

Monday 1 November 2010

The joy of fixing stuff

Every now and then a book comes along that you feel is the book you could have - should have - written and Matthew Crawford's is one of them.  Not so much because it  is especially  insightful but just because it comes so close to my own experience: Crawford has  followed a similar career path to me - a supposedly  'elite' academic background  that was then  followed by  a career where he learned a practical trade. His trade - motorcycle mechanics - is only a hobby for me but I  completely identify with the unsurpassed feeling of pride and satisfaction  he describes when a once dead engine fires up.

Essentially the thesis of the book is that there is a false dichotomy between academic and practical education -  at the expense of the latter.   'Knowledge'-based white-collar jobs are actually as subject to the mind-numbing de-skilling that once characterised factory production-lines.  And that true happiness lies in the trades - particularly those that are community based and focus on 'fixing stuff' - like mechanics, carpentry, plumbing and building. 

Crawford argues that  tradesmen in these sectors actually get to exercise the intellectual disciplines of deduction and hypothesis  more than graduate  middle-managers whose functions largely consist of reinforcing  the 'culture' of their employers' organisations and the repetition of low-level administrative tasks. He shies away from the term 'craftsmnship' seeing it as laden with sentimental associations, but he comes very close to the ground covered by Richard Sennet in the Craftsman - although with a more personalised slant.

Crawford's weakness is that he steers clear of the other C-word - Capitalism: The devaluation of work he describes is very close to the classic Marxist theory of Alienation -  and in fact he draws quite heavily on the work of the Marxist sociologist Braverman. But ultimately the author is a Jeffersonian Democrat who sees civic virtue in a community of small scale artisans. He rejects the idea of surplus value and the exploitation of labour by capital - and sees the main problem for the worker - in business or industry - as  a disconnection with the community of his consumers.

For this reason, whilst  the book serves as good career advice, it is of  less value  on a  societal level: We can't all be tradesman in community based service sectors - and so the kind of happiness that Crawford describes can only be achieved by a small minority. 

My own experience confirms this - I enjoyed the exploration of abstract thought in my academic education, but I equally enjoyed the practical learning of my later vocational training. I choose a career in the printing industry based on the belief that  it  was  more 'real' and bullshit-free than either the options of corporate middle-management or public sector administration that are the more usual pathways for humanities graduates..

Unfortunately  the industry I choose is not community-based but depends on big businesses, and has been de-skilled by technology. With the result that we are being replaced by software and  'off-shored' to wherever labour is cheaper.  So ironically  I now spend more and more of my time using the skills of bullshitting that turned me off academia in the first place, in a rearguard defence of what we have - arguing our worth to corporate reptiles. But  the few remaining enjoyable parts of my work still  lie in using my technical and deductive abilities to forensically deconstruct a job that has gone wrong - or as Crawford would put in - solving and fixing. 

I just wish I was better at motorcycle mechanics ....