Friday 28 January 2011

The death of polemics?

I've missed Burn's night - but I've  just realised that one of his quotes expresses much more succinctly what I was trying to grope towards in my last post about some recent squabbles on the Left:

“Oh wad some power the giftie gie us to see oursel's as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us, And foolish notion”

And also from north of the border there is a perfect demonstration of the non-application of this principal in the three-way row between the SSP - Solidarity and George Galloway on Newsnight Scotland

I've still not fully resolved what I think about all this. Not so much on the specific  dark corners of the Tommy-gate affair  - but on  the more general question of when the best tactic is to sit on your hands and shut up in the interests of unity.

At home I have bookshelves of Marxist classics. Many, if not the majority, are written as polemics. The first passages of these are often  filled with  scathing but generally tedious  demolishings of political opponents who are now long-forgotten. These passages invariably generate a need for footnotes and historical introductions that  I skim over as quickly as possible: Engel's 'Anti-Duhring' is probably the most coherent summary of the Marxist approach to philosophy that you can find in a single source but frankly I'm not sure that anyone these days gives a toss about who Duhring was or what he said. Engels ' polemics against him may serve as a jumping off point for the development of his own arguments but are actually now more of a hindrance than a help to the modern reader.

Many of the Left would argue that these jumping off points are still needed and that polemics remain an essential part of the political process. The trouble with that argument though is that Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky didn't live in a mass media age with a literate and informed working class. The Left and its milieu  of their time was a closed and intimate little world often on the edge of what they would call 'civil society'. I wonder how these founding fathers would have come across in panel debates or online forums: If they stuck to the same styles they used in their written work then I suspect  they would be perceived as sectarian loons. 

But I also suspect that they were far too smart not to have modified their style to be effective in the society in which they found themselves.  Just a thought.

Saturday 22 January 2011

NSSN - two cheers not three

I went to the NSSN conference today and witnessed the overwhelming (3to1?) victory of the majority position to launch an all Britain anti-cuts campaign. I'm a member of the Socialist Party - who makes up most of that majority -  but still I can only feel that the decision was a necessary one to get past an obstacle - and not a cause for jubilation. 

So why my hesitation ?

Not because I had any reservations that the conference was a sectarian stitch-up. Doubtless some will be getting ready to claim this. But from what I saw the conference was scrupulously fair - almost painfully so; bending over-double to facilitate an even-handed two and three quarter hour debate from the floor. Having watched their antics over the years  in the ANL, the Socialist Alliance, Stop The War and Respect, I find any complaints from the SWP - frankly a bit fucking rich.

And not because I think there 'isn't room' for another organisation. We need a proper mass organisation that is campaigning and democratic. Not an unaccountable think-tank of the Left's great and good that claims to be 'one big tent' but has no democratic structure (CoR). Nor one that really is a blatant front organisation from a long lineage of  many previous front organisations (RTW).

The arguments from the syndicalist opposition lack the hypocrisy of the SWP,  and  so carry more weight - Essentially they argued that being a campaign is effectively beyond the remit of the original intent of an activist network, and  that the campaign will become dominated by one current at the expense of all others. The trouble with this is that it is in the nature of any discussion at a conference  that someone has got to win the argument. I  think the way the argument was conducted is proof enough that the SP is not the same as the SWP - and that there is still room for other currents. I genuinely hope they stick around and don't now take their ball home as some of them threatened to - but this threat cannot be used to hold the majority to ransom.

Actually my hesitation is based on something one of the minority delegates said about the wider pereption of the campaign's launch:

One advantage of being a parent is that you are forced to reconsider politics through the eyes of a new generation.  And I have to ask myself what relevance does the NSSN's decision have to my daughter and her friends from the student-kettles ? Or the under 30 year olds  in my own workplace where the union is a distant memory ? I suspect their reaction - however angry they are about the ConDems or worried about their futures - will probably be - 'wot?' And that's why I think that the conference was necessary - but really only a start. This isn't the 1980's and however proud we may be about the poll tax movement and Liverpool City Council, there's a whole new landscape to navigate and a new generation to be won. 

Wednesday 19 January 2011

The King's Speech

I detect a monarchist conspiracy behind the 14 BAFTA nominations fof 'The King's Speech':

It was always going to be a winning  combination. Colin Firth the darling of the quintessentially English Sunday evening period costume drama; posh-totty Helena Bonham-Carter; George VI - it was him and the queen mum wot won the war for us; and of course the impending marriage of People's Prince William and the lovely Kate -she's so common just like us- Middleton.

Actually George VI may have been shy and reluctant to  become king ,and struggled with a little-understood disability - but probably the best thing to be said of him is that he wasn't actually an open Fascist sympathiser like his elder brother Edward VIII. 

He certainly voiced the prevalent attitudes of the  upper classes of that generation - anti-Semitic and favouring appeasement with Nazi Germany in the 1930's.  And despite the myths - he and his family didn't sleep through the Blitz in the tube station alongside his fellow Londoners but in the safety of a bunker under Buckingham Palace.  Which was why he was in fact boo-ed and jeered on his first visit to the East End.

Still I predict street parties next summer and open-air screenings of this palliative nonsense.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Rosa Luxemburg

Another guest spot yesterday over at 'On This Deity' - to mark the anniversary of the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and the defeat of the Spartacist Rising in Berlin.  

Thanks again to Dorian for indulging me in a celebration of one of my heroes.

Friday 14 January 2011

Dangers of living in your past

I like Vikings. It's a bit schoolboy-ish I know: My surname is of Norse derivation. I have quite a few Norse tattoos. I think their culture is fascinating; they were so much more than the hairy thugs in horned helmets of popular myth - explorers, traders and artisans with a political and legal system that has quite a bit to admire even today. And when I've had a shitty day at  work the prospect of a warrior culture that suffered no insult or bullshit without swift and honourable recourse is pretty attractive. But I draw the line at carrying around a bloody big axe and settling my disputes with trial by combat. In other words I know that I'm not really a Viking and this isn't the dark ages.

Why then do many Americans persist in carrying on as if they are in the Old West ? 

I mean, much like the Vikings, I can see the attraction: If I'd had the chance I would have been the first to strap on a six-shooter and after a hard day on the ranch blow away anyone who looked at me a bit funny in the saloon... But this is the 21st Century and that stuff  just doesn't wash anymore.

Although you wouldn't think so to listen to US politicians from both sides of the liberal divide talking about the fall-out of the shootings in Arizona.  Maybe Obama is trying to appear non-partisan. Maybe he doesn't want to antagonise a mythological Middle America.  But  of course Jared Loughner's attack on 'federal government targets' was inextricably connected to the Right's myth of a democracy with frontier values, its obsession with gun ownership and the macho political culture and language of hunting and shooting.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Class expectations

The latest school league tables - and in particular the stats' for the new 'English Baccalaureate' speak volumes -if not about education then certainly about class.

Having  myself been lucky enough to take a very traditional academic path until the age of 22, my views reflect my own  prejudices. I'm inclined to think that the baseline of English-Maths-Science-Humanity-Foreign Langauge is a pretty good summing up of a rounded education. But I'm not an educationalist and and I'll defer to anyone with a more enlightened take on this. These arguments aside though, the fact remains that of the top 100 results of schools in this country measured against the new standard there is not a single comprehensive amongst them nor even an inner city state school of any descripition.

We can debate whether the 'Bacc' is the right way to go: But thanks to the attacks on student funding with raised fees it's clear that we are going back to the days of two - or multi- tier higher education. And the Bacc. will  act as a ready-made indicator for those on a traditional elite academic path. It's probably only a matter of time before Oxbridge and then the Russell Group specify it as requirement much as they do now  with their lists of 'approved' A-Levels.

And so again working class kids in the cities will systematically have their expectataions lowered, their schools will be ill-equipped to meet the standard, and the message will again be 'it's not for the likes of you'.

Monday 10 January 2011

Touts and agent-provocateurs

My first reaction was hilarity on hearing  that the case against a group of direct action eco-activists  had collapsed because undercover copper Mark Kennedy (pic here for future reference) who infiltrated them for ten years appears to have 'gone native' and offered to testify for the defence.

It's not the first time  that an undercover officer should find  that he's met  a nicer class of person amongst his 'targets' than in the police canteen.  I remember reading the  autobiography  of William McQueen - the ATF agent who went undercover in the notorious Mongols MC California. He recounts how he was overwhelmed at the genuine compassion shown by his MC brothers when his mum died in contrast to his law-enforcement colleagues who barely acknowledged his loss.  And you also can't help but laugh at  the old bill's consistent ability to get it wrong in who and what they target. Undoubtedly there are some terrorist  threats in this country  - but they don't come from vegans armed with nothing more deadly than wire cutters. Ten years infiltration at vast public expense probably prevented no more than a glorified act of vandalism.

But humour rapidly gives way to outrage that unaccountable state forces not only take it upon themselves to target entirely peaceful activists,  but actually use agent provocateurs to incite them to take extreme action. This is a conscious strategy to de-legitimise activism, alienate the 'public' from the activists and provide an excuse for ever-more repressive state powers.

Sounds paranoid ? Consider this - two of the most important 'terrorist' incidents in English history conformed to this strategy:

The original Gunpowder plotters may have been genuine religious fanatics who needed no encouragement but Wallsingham's secret service undoubtedly infiltrated their network and let the conspiracy run its course. With the result that it could be exposed at the eleventh hour and the regime strengthened with an anti-Catholic backlash. And centuries later the Cato Street Conspiracy - the last significant attempt at a coup d'etat in this country - was the result of a government agent providing a group of radical democrats with a plan to blow up the cabinet. This of course was the period of the notorious Six Acts - blanket repressive legislation that was a forerunner of the Anti-Terrorist Act of our own time.

Interestingly it was also  in this period - the first quarter of the nineteenth century - that English radical movements became so infiltrated with government agents that the system collapsed. Juries were reluctant to convict on dubious evidence against activists they were sympathetic with.  This, and outrage at the mis-handling of public order, were the  reasons why unaccountable agents backed by military force were replaced with a civilian police that was supposed to rely on public consent and co-operation.

Seems we're coming full-circle.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Meet the new New Left - same as the old New Left

A couple of times I have started writing to wade in at length  on the whole Laurie Penny / Alex Calinicos online spat.

I was going to write something against Laurie Penny's political dilettantism (New Labour apparachik- to LibDem voter -to angry  anracho-'new' Left). Another time  I was actually going to write something supporting her criticism of the traditional Left's fetishisation of producing and selling newspapers. 

On each occasion however I aborted the mission  because wonderful and democratising though this whole online thing is, it actually provides the masturbatory oxygen that makes possible the whole Laurie Penny phenomenon. A phenomenon that the whole Orwell Prize thing seems to celebrate - and it troubles me. 

It's a phenomenon that  represents a  new take on the very oldest  form of 'vanguardism' - that of the intellectual in the movement. Relatively privileged people who think that have just invented being poor, or being young and angry - and along the way  manage to pick up quite a nice career niche as the tame media-friendly wadicals of a new generation.  In other words I look at her and see Tariq Ali. 

Actually I do Tariq Ali an injustice; he might just be a media-twat these days but there was a time when he actually was an influence in the real world (albeit the student world) , and so for better or worse he  came to represent something.  A genuine moment in the history of the movement - and a bit more substantial than trading on the  experience of being kettled for a few hours.

And meanwhile as -  Though Cowards Flinch  so well describes -  life and struggle  goes on.

Saturday 1 January 2011

My 2011

After the Christmas hiatus - I've actually been in work over the holiday with very little to do and apparently nothing much to say here either - it's time to think about the coming year. 

To coin a cliche -  I expect the best of times and the worst of times:

Politically Cameron has already told us to expect the worst and grit our teeth  in his sanctimonious  state of   the nation podcast. But for those of us who had to endure Blairism and  the market-triumphalism of the 90's and 00's, we are seeing the best of times in the renaissance of activism. Although as one of those who reluctantly has to accept he is now part of the 'old Left', I have to temper my enthusiasm with a wariness that we are up to the task. At the moment Lefty-land is still  full of the usual internecine controversies - most topically the vying of three organisations to be the legitimate voice of the anti-cuts movement - and there is a danger that we will simply be by-passed by the Facebook New Left.

Personally - having AGAIN been fucked over by a big business client at work -  I am tasked in January with sorting out the consequences of redundancies and paring down. I'm not after sympathy here, I'm managing it not suffering it and I won't permit myself the hypocrisy of 'this will hurt me more than them' - but it is unquestionably the worst of times. The best of times is watching my kids coming of age - in every respect - but most of all in questioning and challenging the world into which they are now taking their place.

Watch this space...