Thursday 29 September 2011

The ties that bind ?

It's been around twenty years since I jumped out of the Labour Party - before I was pushed. It's even getting on for 10 years since my parents left in outrage at the decline of the party they had been lifetime members of: 

So just when will the time come that I finally stop feeling a sense of betrayal, anger and frustration with the Labour Party ? Because despite a theoretical understanding that the party has passed the point of redemption and that the task now is to build something new - I still can't help looking over my shoulder and feeling an emotional tug. And despite all our denunciations of Labour's bankruptcy I suspect many others on the 'ultra' Left,if they are honest ,feel the same.

But at some point I will settle for the resigned cynicism that labour movement activists in the US  must habitually feel towards the Democrats. A sense that they have been continually used and abused by a party that needs their support but fundamentally doesn't give a toss about them.

This year looking at Ed the geek 'the only thing I have fought for is my career' Miliband or Ed 'don't expect us to reverse the cuts' Balls - and their shiny faced army of a Mormon-like new generation of party hacks - I think the time has finally come...

Thursday 22 September 2011

Legal lynching of Troy Davis

Whilst I've been a member of a Marxist party for pretty much all my adult life (bloody hell) - for a similar length of time I've also been a member of Amnesty International. 

I know there are some contradictions here - Amnesty is  essentially a middle class liberal organisation with some serious political flaws. BUT when some of my comrades point this out I'm reminded of the scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian:

My rationale - without illusions - is that so long as people are actually being imprisoned, tortured and killed in the real world then writing a few letters on the outside chance that it might make a slight difference isn't going to derail the revolution with a revisionist petit-bourgeois deviation-ism. Simply sometimes doing something - even if it's  pissing in the wind - is better than doing nothing.

I feel  depressed at the news this morning that Troy Davis was executed. And also absurdly guilty - although I've written previous letters I forgot to send an emergency last minute email - I was too wrapped up in stupid work shit.

Monday 19 September 2011

Roots 3: Dark satanic mills - John and Kitty

More family history: Frustratingly I know very little about the paternal line of my family - the bit whose surname I carry. My granddad died twenty years before I was born and the  records have proved very elusive.

Although actually  from the point of view of social history these gaps are every bit as telling as the certainties. Inevitably there's a bit of speculation here thrown into filling these gaps - but it is informed by a background knowledge of a particularly grim phase in England's  rise as the major industrial nation:

The pivotal couple in the family's story seem to be my great-grandparents,  John and Catherine (Kitty) who were both born in the middle of the nineteenth century and lived in Dewsbury West Yorkshire.

John was a whitesmith - a craftsman who made household objects in tin and lead - but his origins are confusing and there doesn't seem to be any record at all of his birth. He was apprenticed to his step-father who bore a different name - which he briefly used himself before adopting his mother Ann's maiden name. 

There seems to be no record of Ann being  previously married and she first appears in the records in her mid-twenties working as  a live-in domestic servant to a small middle class household. The illegitimate children of the poor were fairly invisible to the authorities in those days, and so it doesn't seem too great a stretch to conclude that she gave birth to John out of wedlock and  only married later in life. If so - that must have been quite a story.

Now days this part of my family are Catholic and I had assumed that, like the other Catholic side of my family, this was because  they belonged to one of the peculiar pockets of English Catholics in the north of England who managed to dodge the reformation. But in fact John's mother wasn't Catholic and it seems safe to assume that he simply  married an Irish Catholic woman and the family's religious tradition began when the children were consequently raised in their mother's church.

Catherine or Kitty as she was known,  is also difficult to pin down in the archives. There is even some confusion as to her surname  - possibly because of some mis-transcribing in the records or more likely because she was illiterate. We know this because she was only able to make her mark on a number of official documents and it looks as if the surname was mis-heard at various times.

She was a worsted spinner  - a fairly usual job in the mill towns of West Yorkshire - and was born in County Leitrim. The west of Ireland was one of the  regions worst affected by the famines of the 1840's - and consequently one of the most depopulated by mass emigration. Leitrim was also a textile producing area and it's not hard to imagine why the people from there would be drawn to the booming mill towns of the West Riding. These hell-holes were the engine rooms of the golden age of British capitalism - which needed the cheap  Irish labour as much as they needed relief from their own sufferings at home. As Engels said: 'The rapid extension of English industry could not have taken place if England had not possessed in the numerous and impoverished population of Ireland a reserve at command'.  

Of John and Kitty's six children, four would go on to work in the mills at alarmingly young ages. One of them, my grandfather, was taken on as an errand boy on a local newspaper. Later - just after the Great War - he would come south to work on Fleet Street. And a new family tradition - of which I'm now the third generation - of working in 'the print' would begin. 

Tuesday 13 September 2011

The free and the unfree.

A nice angle over at The Bad Old Days Will End on the 'travellers and slavery' story. Or possibly non-story.

The discovery of a group of slave labourers at Leyton Buzzard  site in the run up to the eviction of the travllers' community at Dale Farm is both convenient and suspicious.

Ray is quite right in his post to also  raise the danger of us freedom-loving types instinctively  siding with the outsider who lives on the edges of society. Up close such communities can reflect exactly the same shit we see in the mainstream. In my own world I confess that sometimes I find myself romanticizing the outlaw MCs. But in reality, whatever the nobility of much of their ethos,   they often just act as predatory bullies. And  ironically those worst affected are often a group only slightly less on the periphery -  although indistinguishable in the eyes of Jo Public - the wider biking fraternity.

But specifically regarding the slavery angle in this story I do wonder about the police's motivation: Working in Soho I know that only a few yards away from my studio there is an open doorway to a staircase with a crudely hand-written sign advertising 'lovely new eastern European girl in town'. And its a sign that gets updated with a disturbing frequency.

I realise that the workings of the sex industry is  more complex and nuanced than simply human trafficking. But I also suspect that for every story of a Belle-de-Jour making an informed and voluntary career choice there is a parallel story about the exploitation of the vulnerable. Whilst I'm usually  loathe to suggest conspiracies of corruption, I can't help but notice that coppers must walk past these  doorways every half hour, often passing the respectable and be-suited punters on their way out. It seems like modern slavery doesn't raise too many eyebrows when it's an established part of the status quo. Like Woody Guthrie said:
Well, as through the world I've rambled, I've seen lots of funny men
Some rob you with a sixgun, some with a fountain pen
As through this world you ramble, as through this world you roam
You'll never see an outlaw drive a family from its home.

Friday 9 September 2011

A day which will live in infamy - and myth

I can still  vividly remember exactly where I was when news broke of the attacks on the twin towers ten years ago and the unfolding horror of it all - and I only say that as a preamble to make it clear that I'm as sensitive to the human tragedy as the next man:

Even so. Maybe ten years is too soon to try and get some historical perspective - but it is necessary when myth-making spillls dangerously into policy-making. And doing so needn't take anything away from the individual tragedies nor does it add to the conspiro-loons or Islamo-fascists and their apologists.

Watching all the coverage of the 9/11 anniversary I can't help but recall the words of the historian Shelby Foote on American hubris regarding their civil war: “We think that we are a wholly superior people – if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war.  But since we did fight it, we have to make it the greatest war of all times...  It’s very American to do that.”

History - and suffering - is not a numbers game. But sometimes numbers do give a perspective. It's often quoted that more people died in the 9/11 attacks than at Pearl Harbour in 1941. True - but if we are measuring recent civillian casulaties then 41,000  were killed in the war in Bosnia and  another 70,000 in the Darfur conflict. These are often forgotten - simply because they occured in obscure parts of the world in countries that aren't global players.  

Of course it's not just about the numbers. 9/11 also defined a turning point in American relations with the outside world. The attack on the US homeland was something unprecedented and so represents what has been described as a 'loss of innocence' for a  nation, which unlike many others, even in Europe, has not endured foreign attacks, invasion or occcupation. Undeniably 9/11 changed international relations and heralded in the new concept of  'the war on terror'.

But such interventionism by the US  is nothing new.  The US empire (Howard Zin's phrase not mine)  has been policing the rest of the world  in defence of its own interests since the nineteenth century. And specifically when it comes to the Middle East and relations with the ex-colonial (and coincidentally or not Islamic) word, America has been waging undeclared wars for many years. 

Which leads to an ironic footnote - the date of 9/11 will forever now be remembered as it is - rather than for the anniversary of the US inspired  and financed military coup of 1973 in Chile that eliminated the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and installed a fascistic-regime that enjoyed the support of US and British governments for the next seventeen years.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

No such thing as the 'criminal classes'

Ken Clark - the supposedly acceptable 'wet' face of the lounge-bar Conservatives - has been talking recently about the 'criminal classes.' Traditional Tory nonsense is nothing if not resilient.

At home I have a treasured early edition of Henry Mayhew's 'London Labour & The London Poor'. It isn't a revolutionary work in the sense of Engel's 'Conditon Of The Working Class In England' but it was in it's own way radical. 

Granted it reflects the Victorian obsession for recording and categorising everything in pedantic detail and you do sometimes feel that Mayhew, like a butterfly collector  would like to stick his subjects on a pin under a glass case. But it is ground-breaking in that it records the stories of London's working class in their own words - without too much middle class moral commentary. Most of all it paints a picture of the poorest elements of society - including those who make their living from crime - as victims of circumstance. Specifically of social injustice.

At the time this kind of thinking certainly wasn't the norm. Received wisdom would have it that there was some psychological or  genetic flaw that defined  the 'criminal classes'. Just have a look at Conan Doyle  - all very entertaining -  but  Holmes is constantly explaining to Watson how the 'degenerate' jawline or the low fore-head of a suspect confirms their innate villainy. This kind of thinking went hand in hand with  racial theories that mis-appropriated Darwinism in order to characterise some races as more primitive than other . Pseudo-science gave moral legitimacy to capitalism at home and imperialism abroad.

It's incredible that the idea of a criminal class is now being revived. But then again maybe it's the natural corollary of the old school toffs taking charge of government again.  Because by implication if one class is born to riot then another must be born to rule.

Friday 2 September 2011

No platform (literally) by the RMT

I've suggested in the past that the blanket application of 'no platform' could be past its sell-by date. 

The debates around the legal banning of the EDL march in Tower Hamlets this Saturday illustrate this. Just possibly the campaign for a ban might have a benefit greater than the ban itself. In the sense that the campaign could have been a tool in mobilising opposition to the fascists. But I'm not convinced - reliance  on such measures is a bit too much of a fig leaf for the 'institutional Left' to hide behind. And in practical terms the 'ban' might prevent a march but it doesn't keep the fascists out of the East End - in fact it facilitates a ritualised stand-off of 'static demos' by the EDL and UAF - with all parties able to go home with the feeling of having had a good day out.

But  the announcement from  the RMT  union that if the fascists went ahead with using Liverpool Street as an assembly point their members would close down the station on the grounds of 'health and safety' - strikes me as a perfect and meaningful instance of applying the principle of no platform. 

It opens up all sorts of possibilities for similar actions by workers -  bus drivers  might  be able to do the same thing. Hell even those 'workers in uniform' - the police community support officers - are in a union these days. Remember, these groups of workers in  London  are probably  some of the most diverse workforces in the country. And the use of health and safety is a great way for workers to circumnavigate decades of anti-trade union legislation aimed at preventing unofficial and solidarity action  - because any worker has the right to refuse  to work in a situation or environment that might put himself or others at risk.  Campaigning for this kind of action in the workplace would have a far politicising effect than any number of state bans.