Chris Jury

Chris Jury

Chris Jury is an award winning actor, writer and director. A regular contributor to the Morning Star,  he is also the cofounder of the Tolpuddle Radical Film Festival and a member of the TV Committee of the Writers Guild Of Great Britain.

The cult of Shakespeare: a provocation
Friday, 26 January 2018 15:41

The cult of Shakespeare: a provocation

Published in Theatre

Chris Jury tells us why he can't stand Shakespeare.

I don’t like Shakespeare. There, I’ve said it. Said the unsayable. A man who claims to be literate, educated and intelligent says he doesn’t like Shakespeare. It’s an outrage!

And I know ‘outrage’ will be a response to this statement because I’ve been saying the same thing for 40 years and have been met with occasionally violent outrage over and over again.

My nose was broken in 1981 by a ‘civilised’ Shakespeare lover, who launched himself across the table and set about me, simply because I dared to suggest that in 1981 The Clash were more culturally relevant than Shakespeare. This pattern has been repeated throughout my life as civilised, sensitive, Shakespeare lovers become rabid tyrants simply because I say I don’t care for the work of this particular Elizabethan playwright.

In middle class, educated, society it is perfectly acceptable to say, “I don’t like the plays of Christopher Marlowe” or “I don’t like the plays of Harold Pinter/Samuel Becket/Jez Butterworth etc, etc.” But to say, “I don’t like the plays of William Shakespeare” is to commit a cultural cardinal sin and to condemn oneself out of one’s own mouth as an ignoramus and cultural Philistine. It is simply not acceptable for anyone who claims to be educated or intelligent to say they do not care for Shakespeare – to not like Shakespeare is to be by definition either uneducated or stupid.

Yet Shakespeare wrote his plays nearly 450 years ago in an England that was a brutal, religiously extremist, totalitarian regime that makes modern day Iran look like a liberal paradise. When Shakespeare wrote his plays England was ruled by an absolute monarch, religious faith was a political not a personal matter, religious heretics were regularly burned alive at the stake, and to incite the displeasure of the monarch could easily (and often did) end in your torture and execution. Concepts of equality before the law, universal suffrage, and women’s rights as we know them today were unthinkable.

Shakespeare also wrote in a version of English that is very different to that we use today, with many of the grammatical forms and individual words he uses no longer having common currency. This makes Shakespearean verse difficult to speak and very difficult for a general audience to understand.

If drama plays a part in defining and redefining human society how does putting on plays that helped define the world 450 years ago help us today?

Do we not have stories to tell today? Are there not enough events and ideas in the world today worthy of treatment by playwrights? Of course there are, I hear you cry, and playwrights continually do exactly that you say. BUT and this is the point, it is extremely difficult to get a new play on in a theatre in the UK. Most regional theatres do at most one new play a year. The rest of the repertoire is made up of modern or historical classics. The West End is dominated by ‘classic’ revivals and 20-year old musicals. New plays are generally relegated to the low budget fringe theatre and performed in venues seating 50-100 punters.

Today our theatre is not a vibrant part of our modern culture, it is part of the heritage industry. One of the major justifications for state subsidy of the theatre is the tourism it stimulates. So does this mean the RSC, National Theatre and the West End are simply no more than historic tourist attractions? If so why do regular theatregoers have such a sense of their own moral and intellectual superiority? If going to see Macbeth at the RSC is no different than visiting the Shakespeare’s Birthplace tourist attraction, or Kenilworth Castle, then what’s the big deal?

So what on earth is going on here? Why can we not have a rational debate about Shakespeare? Why are people not allowed to dislike Shakespeare as a writer? Why do we spend hundreds of millions of pounds every year on performing plays that are 450 years old and that describe a world that no longer exists? Is it because Shakespeare is the ‘timeless’ genius our cultural elite claims he is; or is it because appreciating Shakespeare has become a sort of defining orthodoxy for membership of the middle class?

For a bourgeois cultural elite the more ‘difficult’ a form is the more useful it is in establishing elite credentials. The more educated and informed you need to be to ‘appreciate’ an art form then the more your appreciation of that art form demonstrates your elite status. Shakespeare is difficult to appreciate; ask anyone who has been tortured by it in school! But it was not written by Shakespeare to be difficult. Shakespeare’s plays were written for the appreciation of largely illiterate, popular, commercial, audiences. The ‘difficulty’ of Shakespeare is not based in its intellectual complexity or even the literary genius of its poetic language. The ‘difficulty’ of Shakespeare is that it is written in an obsolete form of English that is 450 years old. The willingness to overcome that linguistic ‘difficulty’ is what grants you membership of the cultured middle classes. Your willingness to work hard to appreciate the form despite the linguistic difficulties demonstrates your commitment to civilised middle class values.

And this is at the core of the outraged reactions I get when making the surely uncontroversial statement that I am not an uncritical fan of a particular Elizabethan writer. Appreciating Shakespeare has become a symbol of acceptance of a whole range of middle class cultural ideas. To say ‘I don’t like Shakespeare’, is to reject the ‘authority’ of all the elite experts, the academics, theatre critics and artistic directors. To say ‘I don’t like Shakespeare’, is apparently to say I don’t like the theatre at all nor classical music or ballet and art and everything civilised. To say ‘I don’t like Shakespeare’, is to say I side with the ‘plebs’ who would tear civilisation down and replace it with wall to wall X Factor and super hero movies. To say ‘I don’t like Shakespeare’, is to say that English is not the world’s greatest language and that England is not an exceptional country. To say ‘I don’t like Shakespeare’, is to say I’m not part of the civilised ‘middle class’, that I am not ‘one of us’, that I am one of the uneducated masses who wish to tear down everything decent and civilised.

In fact, I said no such thing. All I said was, ‘I don’t like Shakespeare’. All I said was that after reading and watching Shakespeare’s plays for over 40 years and using my own rational, critical faculties, I have come to the conclusion that the plays of Shakespeare are massively over-rated. That’s all I have said.

In my view out of 37 plays attributed to Shakespeare only about half a dozen are really any good. This is unsurprising with such a massive output and indeed a pretty good record by anyone’s standards but it's a more moderate response to the writer’s oeuvre than the worship of every line he ever wrote that is so common today. I also think that by the critical standards of today, even Shakespeare’s ‘good’ plays are all over the place in terms of structure, plotting and characterisation.

The entire plot of Romeo And Juliet, for example, rests on a drug that allows Juliet to fake her own death. No such drug exists or ever has existed. Shakespeare simply invented it to allow him to overcome a plotting problem. This might be acceptable in a play like Twelfth Night or The Tempest that are clearly set in magical, ‘other worlds’, but in Romeo And Juliet, which is set in the real, contemporary world of Shakespeare, the drug is just a cheap trick and no playwright writing for at least the last 200 years would have been allowed to get away it.

Sometimes people respond to such criticisms by reference to the poetry of Shakespeare’s language. They claim that the beauty of Shakespeare’s language overcomes these other manifest weaknesses and renders them insignificant. Just think about that for a minute. Do you buy it? Would you buy it in reference to any other writer? We are being asked to forgive all the ‘scriptwriting 101’ errors of Shakespeare on the basis of his beautiful, poetic use of the English language, which as we’ve already established is written in an obsolete form most people simply can’t understand.

My contention is that no one would accept this in any other writer in English or indeed any other language. With Shakespeare we are asked to set aside our own critical faculties, we are told that if we find Shakespeare boring then the fault lies within us not with the writing. We are told that if we find elements of Shakespeare’s plotting or dramatic structure weak or implausible then that illustrates our blindness to his greatness, rather than a problem with Shakespeare’s writing.

This is surely irrational, and indicative that Shakespeare has achieved a ‘cult’ status. Shakespeare’s plays have attained the status of religious texts that cannot be criticised – to criticise Shakespeare as a writer is to deny his unique creative genius and has become the cultural equivalent to denying the divinity of a Christ or Mohammed. And just as religious heretics must be silenced and punished so must the heretical critics of Shakespeare, the beloved one.

It is interesting to note that the ‘cult’ of Shakespeare as the ‘special one’, rather than an appreciation of Shakespeare as part of the cannon of English literature, developed simultaneously with the development of the British Empire. Crucial to the moral justification for the brutal imperial conquest of half the world was the idea that the British were an exceptional ‘race’ whose moral, practical, creative and intellectual superiority over other ‘races’ meant they were ‘destined’ to rule the world.

Shakespeare was a central plank of this claim to British Exceptionalism. The English language had given rise to Chaucer, Milton, Wordsworth, and of course the greatest writer in world literature, William Shakespeare. Surely a nation that could produce such brilliance must be destined to greatness!? Thus Shakespeare became a literary equivalent to Nelson or Wellington, an Imperial hero confirming Britain’s greatness.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the idea that the ‘classics’ of literature reveal ‘universal human truths’ is a denial of the political. In Shakespeare’s plays nearly all the protagonists are aristocrats or royalty. Working class and even merchant-class characters are almost always comic fools or villains. In Shakespeare’s plays the idea of monarchy and aristocracy is never challenged and no alternative ever even hinted at. To suggest that this reflects some sort of ‘universal’ representation of human truth is to suggest that monarchy and aristocracy are the ‘natural’ way human beings organise themselves and that there-is-no-alternative. (Sound familiar?) This is of course deeply political, and deeply reactionary.

Even as late as the mid 19th Century Shakespeare was known as a great playwright along with Johnson, Marlowe etc, but he did not have the ‘cult’ status that he does today. Indeed, in the 19th Century it was common for producers to re-write Shakespeare’s plays introducing theatrical effects like floods and fires to the narrative and changing a sad ending for a happy one.

However, today the ‘cult’ of Shakespeare entirely dominates UK theatre. We fund the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre puts on Shakespeare, every Rep in the UK puts on at least one Shakespeare production a year. Schools, universities and colleges all mount endless productions of Shakespeare. The recent rebuild of the RSC theatre at Stratford cost the taxpayer £112 million plus £5 million from the lottery to keep the theatre staff employed for 2 years while all the theatres were closed!

If the time, money and creative effort that today goes into performing Shakespeare were put into performing new plays, we would be living in a new Golden Age of the theatre.

Saturday, 18 March 2017 15:37


Published in Films

Chris Jury finds Adam Curtis's latest film to be memorable and compelling, but also irritatingly obscure.

The term "hypernormalisation" is taken from Alexei Yurchak's 2006 book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, in which Yurchak argues that for many decades everyone had known the Soviet system was failing, but as no one could imagine any alternative, politicians and citizens were resigned to maintaining a pretence of a functioning society. Over time, this delusion became a self-fulfilling prophecy and the "fakeness" was accepted by everyone as real, an effect that Yurchak termed "hypernormalisation.
- Wikipedia

Hypernormalisation is the latest film by iconoclastic documentary filmmaker, Adam Curtis. It was released on October 16th 2016 and is available only on the BBC iPlayer. It is a history of the neoliberal age (1975 to the present day) and seeks to causally link some of the defining features of the era such as financialisation, corporatisation, managerialism, computerisation, the use and abuse of cyber networks, disruption in the Middle East, Islamist extremism and the failure of the left to provide a coherent and credible alternative.

Being ambivalent about Curtis’s work, I approached the film with mixed feelings. His films are undoubtedly extraordinary and unique and his heterodoxy is impressive. Bitter Lake and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace are powerful and thought provoking. However, the more of his work I watch, the less convinced I am by his obscurantist, 'art house' aesthetic which often has the effect of making his films seem like banality dressed up as conspiracy theory. (There are some hilarious parodies of Curtis online).

There is a lot in the thesis of the film that anyone on the left will identify with. Curtis suggests that as an economic and political philosophy, neoliberalism seemed to offer the possibility of a 'a world without politics' - a much simpler world in which the free exercise of market forces would resolve all politicalissues in the most democratic way possible, i.e. through the aggregate of people's commercial choices. Thus Curtis argues that neoliberal politicians in the West stopped trying to change the world for the better: instead they set about trying to 'manage' the world as a stable system without politics. Stability and the avoidance of risk became the point of politics, and politics became about managing a post-political world. To do this Western politicians adopted the managerialist public relations systems of commercial corporations, and at the heart of that approach is what Henry Kissinger called 'constructive ambiguity' – in other words, lying.

So for 35 years we have been relentlessly told by Western politicians that there is no alternative to neoliberalism, and that anyway it is a hugely successful system generating huge amounts of wealth that are 'trickling down' to everyone, bringing about a general increase in living standards and overall happiness. However, for most of us this positive 'spin' has been at odds with what we have actually experienced as the neoliberal decades have passed. What the vast majority of us have actually experienced since the mid-seventies is longer working hours, increasingly precarious working conditions, stagnating wages, a dysfunctional housing market and the decimation of the welfare state that was created to support us in times of need.

Curtis proposes that this gap between political rhetoric and lived experience has led to a profound 'cognitive dissonance' in the West, as politicians and a compliant media present the world in an endlessly positive way that people's own experience tells them isn't true. Curtis puts it very simply when he says, "the stories politicians and their collaborators in the media tell us about the world no longer make sense."

Curtis suggests that this credibility gap between public rhetoric and lived experience has led to a process of 'hypernormalisation' whereby, "politicians and citizens are resigned to maintaining a pretence of a functioning society," and that this has now got so bad that it is analogous to the last 20 years of the disintegrating Soviet Union.

This is a version of an argument that is very familiar to those of us on the left - and I've just summarised it in less that 500 words. In Hypernormalisation it takes Curtis 2 hours 46 minutes to make it. It needn't have taken that long except that to explain this well-established narrative of neoliberal failure, Curtis tells a myriad of apparently unrelated stories that the film's structure implies are linked.

The stories he chooses to tell include Syria and Hafez al-Assad, Libya and Muammar Gaddafi, Henry Kissinger's foreign policy in the MiddleEast, Donald Trump's bankruptcy, New York City's 1975 bankruptcy, the history of suicide bombing, the history of Hizbollah and Hamas, the role of computers in financialisation and corporatisation, and Gawd help us, a conspiracy theory that proposes that UFOs were invented in the 1950's by the US military to disguise Cold War weapons testing. Fake news gone mad!

Despite this seemingly arbitrary eclecticism, there is some great material in here. There is a truly terrifying clip of Ronald Reagan doing a Presidential broadcast in which he states "into the hands of America God has placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind. God bless America." The history of suicide bombing, "the poor man's atomic bomb", is told with great clarity and explains the turmoil in the Middle East in a new way that makes absolute sense to me. There is a great bit where Curtis explains that in the past "journalists thought their job was to expose lies and assert the truth" but that in this new world of 'hypernormality' their job is to maintain economic, social and political stability.

He neatly criticises American radicals in the seventies and eighties because they gave up trying to change the world and succumbed to neoliberal,individualistic logic, turning to self-expression rather than collective action.

The stuff on the ideological conflict in the nineties between technoutopian idealists and cynical political and corporate technologists is also great. The story of Trump literally gambling in a gangster-owned Vegas casino to try to save his company is jaw-dropping. Hearing about Larry Fink's computer company Black Rock and his supercomputer, Aladdin, is fascinating. There are several places where the 'banality of evil' is magnificently illustrated, for example apparently Bashir Assad's favourite band is ELO...which explains a lot, doesn't it! I also like the idea that since Reagan, US foreign policy has been reframed as if the USA were dealing with 'arch-criminals' and that Sadaam, Gadaffi, Assad etc are to be explained as no more than Bond villains.

His description of the weaknesses inherent in 'clicktivism' is convincing as he explains how in the 2016 US election liberals expressed their anger at Trump in cyberspace, where it had no effect because algorithms ensured their posts were only seen by people who agreed with them. And how these ubiquitous algorithms used by social media corporations mean that waves of mass public anger don't change anything any longer, because on social media no-one outside the group of fellow angry folk is even aware of the issue.

He succinctly and correctly in my view, criticises Occupy and Tahrir Square, demonstrating that these movements ultimately failed because they had no vision of the future and a managerial view that politics are process, and that "you can organise people without the exercise of power." And the references to Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, and Ulrich Beck's 'runaway world' theory are also interesting and powerful... and so it goes on...

Hyper 2

Which illustrates the problem. This scattergun approach to references and material doesn't so much give insight as give the impression of a deranged conspiracy theorist who seems to somehow be linking suicide bombers with UFO's. He isn't doing that by the way, but it's not clear what exactly he is doing either.

As in a parody of an 'art film', analogies and images are arbitrarily juxtaposed. It's as if he has bunged in anything that comes into his head and assumed it must have meaning and coherence because the disparate ideas came from the same head. At times the images are almost irrelevant to the voiceover and yet there is so much eighties footage it often feels like an avant-garde, student documentary from the eighties or the early nineties. There are long sections with no voiceover where horrible pop music plays over obscure library footage and images. There is a certain fascination in the novelty of these clips and images as I've certainly not seen most of them before, but what they are supposed to mean is anybody's guess.

This is political documentary expressed as 'art film'. Style overwhelms substance so much that at times it is like some irritating French or Italian film from the late fifties with a masturbating nun and a random lunatic round every corner. And the broadness of the references and connections made in the film give rise to an incoherence not dissimilar to the worst of 'art film' and in turn this seemingly arbitrary, approach means the film is always threatening to descend into a conspiracy theory parody of itself.

Ultimately, I would argue that the film fails both as a film and as a piece of heterodox propaganda because it is guilty of exactly the things it criticises others for - it is a political documentary that discusses political issues without political analysis, and an 'art film' that is ultimately more about self-expression than it is about collective political action.

So in summary, for anyone on the left of UK politics Hypernormalisation is worth a look and there is some fascinating material in it. But you will have to be prepared to forgive the film's weaknesses (not least its length) and recognise that although it suffers hugely from style-over-substance and has an irritatingly obscurantist, 'art film' aesthetic, it does nonetheless provide some memorable and compelling insights.

Finally, it is worth saying that it is a miracle that in this day and age the film got made at all, and the fact it was made by the BBC is even more astonishing. On Wikipedia it says the budget of the film was £30,000. This is a tiny budget for a feature length documentary but more money than most of us could spend on making a film such as this. So I thank the BBC for continuing to support Curtis. For me it’s a bit like the recent work of Ken Loach, there are weaknesses in the work, but it's great that it can be made and distributed at all.

Counter Culture, Propaganda And Political Consciousness
Friday, 29 January 2016 11:22

Counter Culture, Propaganda And Political Consciousness

Published in Cultural Commentary

Chris Jury traces the relations between culture, oppositional consciousness and class struggles in recent history.

“It may be good to have power based on arms but it is better and more joyful to win and to keep the hearts of the people.”
-Goebbels, Speaking in The Triumph Of the Will, Directed by Leni Riefenstahl

Throughout history ruling elites have been all too aware that political consciousness is culturally created. From the Egyptian pyramids to Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph Of The Will, and through to the BBC's Dragons' Den, ruling elites have always understood that their power rests not only upon the guns and money they control but also, and just as importantly, on the ‘false consciousness’ of the people.

For all oppressed groups ‘power’ is as much an idea as it is a physical reality, and it has often been pointed out that we all collude in our own oppression by obeying the rules and playing the game even though we know the rules are fixed against us. The main reason we do this is because we can't imagine how it could be otherwise.

Thus in order for revolt, rebellion and/or revolution to take place, a number of ideas have to be become widely believed:

(i) That the current regime is illegitimate (Change is necessary, even unavoidable).
(ii) That there are legitimate, credible and desirable alternatives (The new order would be better than the old order).
(iii) That the current regime can be overthrown. (Change is possible).

When a person comes to believe these three ideas simultaneously they can be said to have developed an 'oppositional consciousness', and this consciousness is a crucial factor in bringing about progressive political change because without them individuals and groups will not undergo the inevitable hardships explicit in any fight for progressive social change - because they don’t believe change is necessary, possible or even desirable. But these ideas do not arise inevitably out of material conditions.

The Cage                                                             

A Man wakes up to find himself locked in a cage with a wooden treadmill. A thick mist surrounds the cage and he can see no other cages or any other landmarks. He called out for help and a Guard appeared. "Why am I in this cage?" Asked the Man. "It's the natural order." Said the Guard. "People like you always live in cages. If you behave yourself and work the treadmill for 8 hours a day you'll get everything you need." The Man tried to argue but the Guard made it clear the Man was never getting out of the cage, so the Man had no choice and tried to make the best of it.

But the Guard turned out to be an incompetent idiot and after a while the Man thought, "Hang on a minute I'm as good as him, why should I live in a cage while he swans around like Lord Muck?" So the Man decided to try and get out of the cage. He started banging his head on the bars to try and break them but he gave up very soon because it clearly wasn't going to work and it really hurt. Then one day the idiot Guard dropped the key to the cage and when he was gone the Man let himself out of the cage. It was only then that the Man discovered that the cage was surrounded by a wide pit of fire that he could not cross. The Guard returned and told him that there is no way to escape to anyway because beyond the flames of the fire pit, there is a Dark Forest full of vicious man-eating wolves and that, "People like you always live in the cages and don't know how to defend yourself in the Dark Forest." So the Man accepted that there was no alternative to his life in the cage and gave up trying to escape.

Then one day a group of rebel mutineers appeared with a set of keys. They had come to set the Man free. But the Man was frightened. "Aren't people like me meant to live in the cages?" He asked the Leader of the mutineers. "And anyway how are we going to get over the pit of fire? And what about the man-eating wolves?"

"Don't you want to free?" Asked the Leader. "Of course!" Said the Man. "But it's not possible. The world is the way it is and there's nothing we can do. There is no alternative."

The Leader tried to persuade the Man but the Man refused to try and escape saying it was dangerous and pointless. "I don't like the cage." He said. "But it is safe in here and I get everything I need."

"Okay, suit yourself." Said the Leader. "We're going to fight to be free." And the mutineers started to run off but out of the mist a squad of Guards appeared and all the mutineers were gunned down, right there, in front of the Man. The Man was so pleased he was clever enough not to get involved with the mutineers and realised that he was never, ever going to try to escape from the cage again.

Raising Oppositional Consciousness                                                    

So I've just told a story, a cultural object, to try and convey my meaning to you. By telling you the story I'm inviting you to imagine yourself living in the cage and by empathising with the situation, understand the point I'm trying to make.

And at the point I've left the story, it is clear any future mutineers would have a hell of a job persuading the Man to try and escape from the cage. They'd have to persuade him that he was unjustly being kept in the cage, that he didn't have to accept his imprisonment, that the Guards could be overcome, that there is a way over the pit of fire and there are no ravenous wolves in a Dark Forest, and that there is a life outside the cage. It might be very difficult to persuade the Man of this because although living in the cage is horrible it is safe and escaping might involve all sorts of risks that could literally cost the Man his life.

Raising oppositional consciousness always involves an imaginative leap of this kind. We have to illustrate to people how and why the world they live in is unjust. We have to help people to imagine and envision a world that doesn't exist yet, an alternative reality that could exist but only if they were prepared to fight for it. And we have to convince people that the fight could be won, and that it is worth the sacrifice involved in the fighting.

Dry political theory and strategy papers aren't going to do this because the process is largely emotional and imaginative, and we have to be able and willing to use emotional and imaginative tools to inspire people to make the sacrifices inevitably required by any political struggle. Thus the books, posters, pamphlets, songs, graffiti, films and theatre associated with contemporary campaigns and movements for social change, are not simply a feel-good sideshow to the main business of political action, but an integral part of creating the oppositional consciousness essential to making political change happen is not possible.




In any given situation it is oppositional consciousness rather than the underlying economic circumstances that determines whether resistance, revolt and revolution take place. This is not to deny that brutal and oppressive economic realities can in themselves be important factors in developing oppositional consciousness, just that they are not the determining factors as economists (Marxist or otherwise) might claim.

We’ve Never Had It So Good?

The Wall St crash of 1929 and the austerity measures that followed plunged the West into the Great Depression. It took WW2 and an entirely managed wartime economy to drag the world out of this depression.

In post WW2 Europe a form of highly regulated managed capitalism combined with the rapid expansion of the Welfare State gave rise to unprecedented economic growth. In the UK the period from 1950 to 1973 was characterized by exceptional economic growth, a fall in the ratio between the highest and lowest paid (i.e. increasing equality), low inflation and near full employment.

This led to increasing disposable household incomes for ordinary people, which combined with the political idea of ‘democratising’ elite privileges to stimulate a burst in technical innovation that gave birth to the modern consumerist age. By 1957 Harold Macmillan was able to famously say, "Let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good."

As the Fifties turned into the Sixties washing machines, fridges, central heating, cars, televisions all started to become affordable to working people. The Welfare State also meant that ordinary people (in the UK and Europe) were getting medical care free at the point of use, free access to education, (right up to undergraduate level and beyond for the brightest students), and a benefit system designed to ensure that no citizen ever again had to suffer the deprivations and indignities of the 1930’s. It was true! Exactly as Macmillan said, we had never had it so good!

But what happened next seems to fly in the face of this economic reality, because what followed was a 15-year period of sustained and intense left-wing resistance, revolt and rebellion, which involved occupations, sit-ins, violent riots, police brutality and murderous terrorism.

1960-1979: Power To The People


The resistance, riot and revolt of the Sixties and Seventies was not the result of oppressive economic conditions but was the result of several, initially distinct, cultural phenomena that conflated and gave rise to the cultural idea of the ‘rebel’ being central to the way a generation defined itself. These cultural phenomenon can be summarised as:

The relentless ‘freedom’ discourse of The Cold War.
The 'Liberation' struggles of the former European colonies.
The African-American Civil Rights movement.
The emergence of Rock & Roll as a profoundly ‘rebellious’ form.
The identification between black and white youths that came about as a result of the power of ‘black’ music.

By the end of the Sixties to be a ‘rebel’ was to be cool; to be a white kid and have black friends was really cool; and to be ‘young, gifted and black’ was exceptionally cool.

For perhaps the first time in Western history oppositional consciousness was the dominant mainstream disposition of an entire generation. To be patriotic was not ‘cool’; to dress like your Mum or your Dad was not cool; to be obedient was not ‘cool’; to respect authority was not ‘cool’; to work hard and do as you were told was not ‘cool’. By the end of the Sixties to be ‘cool’ was to be angry, rebellious and defiant.

The Cold War

The Cold War is perhaps the defining cultural feature of this post-war era. Western Cold War propaganda conceived the West as ‘free’ and the East as ‘oppressed’. The West meant the capitalist, representative documentaries of Europe and it’s ex-colonies; The East was Russia and China and their Communist satellites. This basic conflict between ‘the free’ West and the ‘repressive East’, defined both elite & popular Western culture for 40 years. In the elite arena of ‘Art’ the idea was that the repressive East used Art as propaganda to impose its evil doctrine on their helpless citizens, therefore in the West ‘Art’ that conveyed political ideas was to be avoided at all costs - hence the dominance of the abstract in post-war painting and sculptor and the dominance of the L’Art Pour L’Art philosophy of the 19th Century Aesthetes across the entirety of elite Western culture in the post war period – Western Art was free because it didn’t say anything.

In popular culture we were reminded that we were ‘free’ (and they were not), on a daily basis. Russian and East European ‘dissidents’ and ‘defectors’ were endlessly valorised on the news and even scripts of popular TV shows like Robin Hood were purposefully written using the language of liberation and resistance. For the capitalist ruling elites of the West there was however an unforeseen and unwelcome repercussion of this endless ‘free West’ propaganda - we started to believe it! We actually started to believe we were free, that we were democratic citizens entitled to determine our own futures and not beholden for our livelihoods to the prince, bureaucrat or businessman.

Colonial Liberation

From the end of WW2 into the 1980's, most of the Third World European colonies in the Third World freed themselves from direct colonial rule after 300 years of brutal Imperial exploitation and oppression. This process started with the Independence of India in 1947, which was achieved without a war of independence due to the non-violent strategy led by Ghandi. But most other colonies were forced to fight for the freedom through violent military insurrection. The Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya 1952-60, and the French Algerian War 1947-62, started the trend and were followed by violent independence struggles in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Algeria, Uganda, Egypt, Tanzania, Zaire, Guinea, Senegal and Nigeria, to name but a few.

The success of these violent revolutions established the three principles of oppositional consciousness. (i) The colonial powers were widely shown to be morally and politically illegitimate as they controlled these countries against the wishes of the indigenous population and only by brute force. (ii) The successful liberation struggles proved that it was possible to overthrow these colonial powers. (iii) It was recognised by all that whatever the negative economic or political consequences of liberation, the reality of living free from racist colonial rule was worth fighting for.

The victories of the former colonies demonstrated convincingly that the world didn't have to be the way it was and that as rich and powerful as the Western Imperial powers were, they were not invincible. This had a transformative power on popular political consciousness not just in the third world but also in the first - especially amongst the Afro-Caribbean community of the USA who were inspired and emboldened by witnessing their brothers in Africa fighting for freedom.

Civil Rights


The participation of African-Americans in WW2 had a profound influence on the communities sense of self worth and this combined with the victories of colonial struggles in Africa and the relentless cold war discourse of freedom and of America as ‘the land of the free’, to bring about an oppositional consciousness within the African-American community in the USA and by the mid to late Fifties the Civil Rights movement had been born.

Despite the obvious courage of the Civil Rights activists and the justice of their cause, most white Americans did not initially identify with the trials and tribulations of black America, which were perceived as either ‘natural’ (i.e. it was the black person's own fault), exaggerated (i.e. it can't be as bad as they say), or as the sufferings of a far off distant foreign land (i.e. this might be happening in Mobile, Alabama but it isn't happening in my town). And so initially in the 1950's, the black community was very much fighting alone - until the culture changed.

Rock & Roll

And it changed because in 1953/54 black Rhythm & Blues was fused with white Country music to form 'Rock & Roll', which became in due course, the single most significant cultural factor in building bridges of empathy between black & white America.

Initially, in the fifties it was Rock & Roll performed by white artists from the South, but as the fifties became the sixties, black music written and performed by black artists crossed the segregation lines in to mainstream white culture in the form of the Blues, Soul, Motown, Funk and Reggae.

But the cultural impact of Rock & Roll wasn’t just that it was ‘new’, Frank Sinatra had been ‘new’ once, no, the thing about Rock & Roll was that it was disgraceful. It wasn’t the lyric content of Rock & Roll that made it subversive, ("And we rolled, reelin' and a rockin'. We was reelin' and a rockin'. Rollin' till the break of dawn." are hardly radical lyrics), it was that the form itself, and the way it was enjoyed, rejected the musical and social norms that had gone before, and to be a Rock & Roll fan in 1955 was to be a rebel; to not do as you were told and not to look to your elders as role models but to your peers. To be a Rock & Roll fan in 1955 was to be out of control, to be dangerous.

Unsurprisingly the ‘establishment’ turned on the new music with vitriol and Rock & Roll fans were defined by mainstream society as ‘outsiders’ within their own society; as being in opposition to the white middle-class men who were trying to stop their fun and were demonising them simply for wanting to dance. But then amazingly as Rock & Roll became the mainstream so did this sense of the young being outsiders and in opposition to the old, suddenly to be young, rebellious and defiantly rebellious was the mainstream!

Over time the attraction to black music forced white youth to re-examine and redefine how they related to black people. As a result the Civil Rights movement started to achieve success partly through the growing support from the white community and especially the urban, educated, white youth of the North. In turn, watching news coverage on the TV of white and black youths fighting together for Civil Rights, seeded in the mainstream white audience a number of ideas, namely: (i) That the USA (the land of the free) was a country capable of violent oppression and injustice like any other; (ii) That there were legitimate, credible and desirable alternatives to segregation and oppression; (iii) That the U.S. government could be beaten – i.e. that change was possible.

It just so happens that these are the basic ideas of oppositional consciousness.

Then came the Vietnam War, a war that was going to be fought by young people (mostly black) on behalf of the very white middle-class men who had, just a few years before, tried to stop them dancing. So in opposing the Vietnam War the interests of the youth of white and black America coincided, and due to the success of the Civil Rights movement and the impact of Rock & Roll, many of these young people had already developed an oppositional consciousness, which meant that this particular generation were willing to fight.

There is not space here to delve further into the history of the Sixties but suffice it to say that the violent overreaction of governments to radical youth activism escalated oppositional consciousness across the Western world. In Europe this led to many white middle-class youths becoming radically politicised resulting in Grosvenor Square, CND, the LSE, the Radical Student Alliance... to name but a few.

Privileged, often middle-class, young people were kicking-off all over. In Paris in May 1968 the middle-class student revolt led to an alliance with the trade unions and there was very nearly an actual revolution. In other places the rebellion was so ferocious it turned into terrorist violence. In Northern Ireland the Catholic Civil Rights movement led to the reactivation of the IRA as a terrorist organisation. In Italy the Red Brigade was formed, and in Germany Baader-Meinhof.

But it wasn’t just middle-class students. In British Industry the effect of the spread of oppositional consciousness into the mainstream of popular culture was dramatic.

By the early '70's, industrial strife was said to be 'the British disease'. Things were so bad that in 1969 even the Labour Party tried to control the trade unions but Barbara Castle's paper, 'In Place Of Strife', was rejected and by 1974, when Edward Heath tried and failed to take on the miners, trade union density had risen to over 55% of the total workforce. 13 million of us were members of trade unions. Men like Red Robbo, at British Leyland in Birmingham, represented a real challenge to the ‘managers' right to manage’. Ideas of worker control of industries were seriously being discussed and despite, or perhaps because of, the ‘never had it so good’ economic conditions, the British working class were more empowered and more willing to fight than at any time since the early years of the 20th Century.




By 1979 the ruling elites had had enough of the economic costs that all this 'freedom' had imposed on their businesses. They realised that full employment and job security had encouraged rebellion and revolt and that structural unemployment and financial insecurity were crucial to reasserting capital's control. So counter-intuitively perhaps they planned to regain control by purposefully making material conditions worse for the working class and deliberately creating fear, anxiety and insecurity in order to encourage people to be passive, obedient workers. And so with Reaganomics and Thatcherism the ruling class launched a class war to reassert their profits, power and authority – a class war that is still going on today.

And culture has been central to that class war. In the UK since 1979 positive images of the working class and/or radical political struggle have almost entirely disappeared from the mainstream media. Business and businessmen are relentlessly valorised in the mainstream media (Dragons' Den and The Apprentice), consumer goods are fetishized and the celebrity culture of Big Brother and The X Factor endlessly promise the poor and underprivileged that ‘it could be you’; that any of us can be rich and privileged if only we can get on the telly, and of course if we ‘want it enough’.

Modern capitalists certainly know that political consciousness is culturally created and in 2014 they spent $650 billion on doing it – it’s called advertising. Modern advertising is remarkable in that it has largely succeeded in persuading millions of us that our ‘freedom’ is best expressed by buying things we don’t need and can’t afford. This is an incredible political achievement that Goebbels would have been proud of as it flies in the face of centuries of Christian teaching and social practice. In England, even as recently as 30 years ago, conspicuous consumption, debt and self-promotion were regarded as vulgar, yet today they are the hallmarks of status and prestige across the whole society.

But it is Thatcher’s 'there is no alternative' (TINA), narrative that has been so culturally effective in stifling dissent for the last 30 years. TINA is so powerful because if you can get people to believe there is indeed no alternative to neoliberal free markets, free trade and capitalist globalization, then what is the point in opposing them? The argument is that neoliberalism is the only legitimate system because it is the only possibility. There are no alternatives so obviously there is nothing to replace the system with. And change obviously isn’t possible because there is nothing to change to, because there are no alternatives. It's clever stuff - if you can get people to believe it.

And it seems they have done just that because despite the most catastrophic crisis in global capitalism since 1929; despite the fact that ordinary people are literally being asked to pay for the debts created by the bad bets of the casino banking culture; despite the conspicuous 19th century levels of inequality directly linked to that casino culture; despite the blatant and evident dismantling of the Welfare State; despite the lay-offs, closures and pension heists; despite all this, we are seeing nothing like the levels of radical resistance and revolt that were seen in the boom years between 1950 and 1973.

The economy boomed 1950-73 yet there was revolt and rebellion across the world. Since '79 wages across the West have stagnated and the welfare state dismantled and there's barely been a murmur. Why? Because the culture dictated the consciousness of the working class not the material conditions. From the birth of Rock & Roll and The Angry Young Men in 1956 to the Punk explosion in 1976, oppositional consciousness was at the heart of Western popular culture. But after Thatcher's election in '79 the ruling capitalist elite relentlessly reasserted through the mainstream media its cultural hegemony of obedience, hierarchy, and inequality, and for 30 years has put out the consistent message that there is no credible or legitimate alternative to capitalist economic liberalism, and that the benefits of free markets far outweigh any disadvantages. And it seemed to almost everyone that they had won the propaganda war and the Left's propaganda had failed to such an extent that 'the Left' had ceased to exist as a meaningful political force. It seemed that ideological history had indeed ended.

Or so they thought

Because somehow, despite all their propaganda, the ideas of equality, liberty and fraternity have not only survived but have found a new form of expression and a new burst of energy.

Since the mid-nineties the internet has allowed for a flourishing of independent counter-culture and media to be widely accessible outside of the mainstream and this has allowed oppositional consciousness to survive, even prosper, despite the success of the TINA narrative in the mainstream. This is primarily a cultural phenomenon, rather than a technological one, with social media being merely the vehicle to distribute the alternative news, information and cultural memes at a nominal cost.

Indeed, it could be argued that 'the internet' is serving the same function today as 'Rock & Roll' did 50 years ago. 'The internet' as a concept is rebellious, subversive and uncontrollable, just as 'Rock & Roll' was. Sure it is owned and controlled by corporations, just as most record companies were in the previous era, but it also allows for an unprecedented level of free expression beyond the confines of the mainstream media.

The idea that the current regime is illegitimate is almost ubiquitous on the internet, similarly credible and desirable alternatives are all over the web as is the idea that change is possible. Thus the internet creates a sort of permanent, vibrant counter-cultural oppositional consciousness that bubbles along entertaining, educating and informing but completely under the radar of the mainstream.

On the internet people have access to cultural and intellectual material like they never have before; most of the defining literature of left wing discourse is available for free as PDF's on the internet; Wikipedia has democratised knowledge in an unprecedented way; subversive jokes, graphics, posters and images are constantly exchanged and disseminated across the globe. People can see pictures and photographs of demonstrations, revolts and rebellions from all over the world while the events are still taking place. The internet can give an unprecedented sense of being part of a movement while still being in your own living room (or bedroom). Even though we mainly use the internet as atomised individuals, suddenly all this oppositional discourse can come together and find a collective, public outlet. As a result across Europe we are experiencing an outburst of oppositional consciousness and the return of democratic socialist ideas to the public political discourse. Podemos, Syriza, Corbyn and even Bernie Sanders in the USA, are collective, real-world, public expressions of the virtual counter-culture that has been quietly working away for 15 years.

But the 'Arab Spring', that most famous previous example of internet inspired rebellion, shows us that while oppositional consciousness is a necessary prerequisite for revolt and rebellion, it is not alone sufficient to bring about permanent change. For that we also need determination, patience, courage, solidarity and self-sacrifice.




The full version of the flash fiction embedded in this article as The Cage is on the fiction section of the arts hub.

The BBC: national treasure or tool of propaganda?
Monday, 30 November 2015 18:33

The BBC: national treasure or tool of propaganda?

Chris Jury explains why we should defend the BBC against the free-marketeers.

The period of public consultation on the BBC Charter renewal has already been undermined by the announcement that from next year the BBC will be responsible for the cost of providing free TV licences to the over-75s. This in itself represents a 20 per cent cut in BBC funding. But Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has made it clear that this is the very best the BBC can hope for and that far more significant changes are being considered.

In response, the Federation of Entertainment Unions has launched the Love It Or Lose It: Save the BBC campaign. Much to our surprise, the campaign has met with sullen indifference and even hostility from many on the left, based on the assertion that the BBC has a malevolent right-wing bias and is simply a propaganda tool of the Establishment.

It is undoubtedly true that for at least the last 20 years the BBC has mirrored the prevailing neoliberal economic and political orthodoxy and that “the suits” have seen their salaries rise to staggering levels in exchange for imposing cuts on
everyone else. But this has happened across the public and private sectors, so why would we expect the BBC to be any different? And does anyone seriously think that turning the BBC into a fully commercial media company will improve its political bias?

Ever since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, every BBC Charter renewal has seen the its legitimacy challenged using the catch-22, free-market argument which says that if the BBC makes popular mainstream programmes then it is unfairly competing with commercial businesses that should provide such programmes.

But if it only made niche public service programmes a universal licence fee would not be justified and the only way to resolve this dichotomy is for BBC content to be paid for directly by individual consumers through a mixture of commercial subscriptions, pay-per-view and advertising. Thus the size and function of the BBC would be determined by the market, not by politicians.

In response, many quite rightly argue that for licence payers the BBC is incredible value for money. For 40p a day you get 11 TV channels, 18 radio stations, iPlayer, the website, three orchestras and one of the most highly regarded news services in the world.

But the free-marketeers simply respond by saying: “Great! If it’s such value for money then consumers will voluntarily pay for a commercial subscription, right?”

And they claim that “free” consumers, making “free” consumer choices in a “free” market will force the BBC to provide the programmes that the viewers actually want — and that these “freely” made consumer choices are a far more authentic expression of the collective will than any choices made through democratic institutions ever can be.

This is of course the same “public bad, private good” logic that is used to attack the NHS, education, social services and everything else in the public sector.

But it is a profound misrepresentation of how business actually works. The purpose of any commercial business is not to provide goods or services to the public but to make money for its owners.

Indeed, the law has established that for public companies traded on the stock market, this is their only legal purpose. And it may surprise you to hear that the business of commercial TV companies is not the making and broadcasting of television programmes but the selling of advertising and/or subscriptions.

In business terms, the content of TV channels is simply a cost that has to be endured in order to generate the income from the real business, which is selling advertising and/or subscriptions. The profit comes from charging more for advertising and subscriptions than it costs to acquire the programmes.

This is not of course how viewers experience television. To viewers, its programmes are cultural objects, just like books, plays, songs, symphonies or operas and they carry huge significance and meaning. To a passionate Whovian, Dr Who is not a consumer product. It is an imaginative window into a life-enhancing world of infinite possibilities. To a regular viewer of Eastenders, the characters and world of the story are part of their own experience of social life, not simply a branded consumer product like washing powder.

Being informed by television about the arts, wildlife, history, news, science or how institutions work from the inside transforms lives on a daily basis. It informs career choices for the young, stimulates people to take action by joining organisations and it enriches all our lives by allowing us to observe and share experiences across space and time.

We experience television as a transformative cultural experience and for most of us television is the principal, if not the only, opportunity we get for such experiences. Television, and what’s on it is hugely important to us as individuals and to the health of our society. Making money for the owners is not the primary aim of the BBC, nor is selling advertising or subscriptions.

Its purpose is, or should be, to use the latest broadcasting technology to inform, educate and entertain the British public as democratic citizens and to do so without pressure from corporate advertisers or the government — hence the licence fee, which is actually a noble and praiseworthy attempt to provide value-for-money for licence-payers and a non-commercial income for the BBC while keeping the government and commercial corporations at arms length.

For a democracy to be meaningful all citizens have to be informed and educated to a level that allows them to analyse and critique competing economic and political theories and policies, to engage with civic life and to make informed choices at the ballot box.

The BBC is not simply a provider of consumer media content; it is, or should be, one of the foundational institutions of our democracy. A fully commercial BBC would owe no allegiance to Britain or its democratic citizens but only to its “customers,” and the only influence they could have would be to subscribe or not to subscribe.

So the questions we need to ask about the BBC are not whether we like this programme or that programme, or whether this or that presenter is a Tory bastard.
We need to ask whether we think our democracy would operate more effectively if the BBC became a commercial business, whether cultural life and the public expression of our shared cultures would be enhanced or whether television news and comment would be more reliable.

Just like the NHS, the questions about the future of the BBC are ideological. Do we believe that free markets are the only just and efficient way to provide individuals with all their wants and needs? Or do we believe that collectively owned public institutions are crucial to mitigating the inevitably brutal, destructive and chaotic effects of the marketplace?

Culture is both individual and universal and, of course, we make personal and individual choices based on which cultural objects we prefer. But the result of these choices is far more than simply an aggregate of these choices. It is what we call “our culture,” all of us live embedded within it and, like it or not, television has for the last 50 years been the defining and determining expression of our culture and will, in some digital manifestation or another, be so for many years to come.

Thus we need to defend the BBC as one of the core institutions of our culture and our democracy and not fall into the free-marketeers' trap by defending it solely on their terms or conversely dismissing it as merely a tool of the Establishment. Whatever its current failings, a national television broadcaster independent of both the government and the marketplace is the envy of the world and should be treasured and defended with all the passion we on the left can muster.