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Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (98)

You’re great, just don’t get too big for your boots
Friday, 17 January 2020 09:14

You’re great, just don’t get too big for your boots

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Roaa Ali explains why you don't see many black and ethnic minority faces in cultural spaces, how race and class operate in tandem to marginalise minority ethnic groups – and what happens if you call out the system

Have you ever been to the theatre, looked around, and thought about how predominantly white the audience is? Does the same impression come to mind when visiting museums? If it does and the answer is a resounding yes, then you’re not alone. There is a major problem in Britain’s cultural industry and it’s time we all took a hard look at why.

For years now, there has been a growing recognition of the ethnic inequalities in the creative sector. Arts Council England found it to be prevalent and persistent, particularly in theatres and museums: 12% of the workforce in national organisations in the council’s portfolio were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and just 5% across its major partner museums. In positions of leadership, this fell to only 9% of chief executives and 10% of artistic directors in national portfolio organisations. On executive boards at partner museums it was 3%. A recent survey showed that 92% of top British theatre leaders were white.

In TV, a report from communications regulator Ofcom showed that ethnic minorities were also considerably underrepresented. It highlighted “a cultural disconnect between the people who make programmes and the millions who watch them”.

This is all despite a number of leading institutions introducing action plans and policies to improve their diversity. While Arts Council England launched the Creative Case for Diversity in 2011, to emphasise the importance and value of diversity in the arts and its significance in enriching artistic practice, leadership and audiences, leading broadcasters the BBC and Channel 4 have ramped up efforts to increase diversity. Yet change of the status quo seems to be minimal and in some cases static. The cultural sector remains steeped in ethnic inequality.

Failing Strategies

There are many factors for why Britain’s cultural sector appears to be circumscribed by whiteness in ideology and practice, production and consumption. Diversity strategies seem to be failing so far, partly because “diversity” itself is a problematic term that can often dilute the problem and depoliticise the issue of racial discrimination. In the creative sector, it has morphed from an aspiration to tackle racial inequality into a drive for better business and economics – a rationale that downshifts the social impact of ethnic inequality, as film studies fellow Clive Nwonka argues.

The business case for diversity can help campaign for ethnic equality, but using it merely as a business tool can mask discriminatory practices and shift focus away from deeper issues of structural racism – for example, in embedded attitudes about art production, its consumers and its exclusivity; attitudes that enforce creative hierarchies that align with racial and class hierarchies.

Myths about high art and its audience

Many a myth still exist about cultural creation, what constitutes high or low culture, and the attitudes of ethnic minorities towards cultural participation. Commonly held opinions include, for example, that audiences from black and ethnic minorities are hard to engage – a view that ignores the lack of ethnic representation in the sector, among other realities pertaining to education and class.

In 2014, and in response to calls by actress Meera Syal for theatres to cater to Asian audiences, distinguished actor Janet Suzman was staunchly criticised for claiming that theatre was a “white invention”, that “runs in their [white people’s] DNA”. Consciously or not, statements like these contribute to a segregation of culture, and a hierarchy of cultural production.

In What is this “black” in black popular culture?, Stuart Hall articulated how the ordering of culture into high and low serves to establish cultural hegemony:

It is an ordering of culture that opens up culture to the play of power, not an inventory of what is high versus what is low at any particular moment.

Take grime

Ethnic and racial hierarchies get reproduced through cultural hierarchies. For example, grime music is tolerated, even celebrated, as long as it remains an ethnic genre, confined to a black experience, and so subject to hierarchical cultural positioning.

The outrage that a number of public figures (such as presenter Piers Morgan and academic Paul Stott) showed towards Stormzy when he recently affirmed that racism exists in the UK, appeared to stem from their sense that the grime artist has succeeded courtesy to whiteness, its tolerance and patronage, as a tweet from Stott suggested:

It all starts with education
 
Attitudes about culture are also produced and reproduced through education. Theatre departments are probably one of the first and most essential blocs in the chain of supply for the theatre sector and cultural industry in general. Yet a predominantly white curriculum continues to be the norm in arts and theatre subjects – that is because for the most part, the canon has been constructed in the image of whiteness. As a consequence, most theatre students will study the works of Shakespeare and Bertolt Brecht, for example, but not many will consult the plays of Nigerian Nobel Laureate writer Wole Soyinka, or Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous.
Wole Soyinka: we don’t know either. jdco/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Black and ethnic minorities are underrepresented as students, academics and authors on reading lists. As one notable report put it: although a welcoming environment, the discipline remains monocultural in terms of both its staff and curricula.

The few taught modules that focus on non-white theatres texts are offered as part of an optional stream, to add “flavour” rather as part of the core canon. This reproduces the hierarchy of knowledge with whiteness on top, and ethnic contributions valued through their proximity to whiteness. It also exoticises and exceptionalises non-white modules, created to appeal to non-white students. While these texts, and those who consume them, are both kept part of and inside the institution, they remain outside its frame of cultural influence and power.

Some scholars and activists are taking bold actions to decolonise the discipline from within. Campaigns such as Why is my curriculum so white challenge the lack of diversity in UK universities and the dominance of white eurocentric teaching materials.

Yet attitudes towards cultural production remain set within a frame of mind that centres whiteness as the custodian of high art. When the principal of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama was asked about quotas as a potential way to boost diversity in 2018, his concern for the school’s standards and reputation implied that black and ethnic minorities might not possess the finesse required to meet such “standards”.

Others, such as the Black British Classical Foundation, aim to nurture interest and participation in art forms often seen as exclusionary.

It plays out in institutions

Our representations are created in cultural institutions, and it is within their daily operation, structures and processes that ethnic inequalities are either perpetuated or mitigated.

For the last two years, my colleagues and I have been researching how institutions reproduce or mitigate ethnic inequalities in cultural production. Throughout our research and interviews, the idea of exclusivity has been reiterated again and again by both majority (white) ethnic and minority ethnic staff.

Although some institutions have introduced diversity initiatives, progress seems slow and tied up to arts funding structures that are temporary and one directional – ultimately serving the institutions rather than the ethnic minorities they seek to engage. Organisations may gain funding by appealing to funders’ diversity agendas, but their engagement with ethnic minority communities and artists is rarely sustainable or lasting, leaving creatives feeling exploited and perhaps further marginalised.

Bafta: still struggling. Lorna Roberts/Shutterstock

Many theatres and TV production companies also aim to increase representations on stage and screen, but that really only serves as window dressing. Ultimately, creators, writers, producers, senior management and commissioners remain mostly white. The stories they tell are therefore also mostly white. The lack of diversity in the 2020 Bafta nominations is an example of a film culture that struggles to produce, represent or celebrate ethnic minorities.

Of course, class plays a major factor in perpetuating ethnic inequalities in the cultural sector, but it is also sometimes used to camouflage structural racism in its institutions. Race and class can work in tandem to marginalise ethnic minorities in cultural spaces, but racism in cultural spaces has a direct link to racism in social spaces and that has an impact on how the nation imagines itself – dictating who belongs and who doesn’t.

There is a silver lining, though. New modes of cultural production and consumption via avenues like Netflix, YouTube, and Instagram are changing traditional cultural production practices. Netflix’s large investment in original content and its subscription model means that the network is commissioning diverse content to cater for and further attract a receptive diverse audience. Such trends may yet force institutions to properly address their lack of diversity.

A cultural sector that is able to represent Britain’s diverse communities and respond to new digital means of production and distribution cannot happen without a diverse workforce, institutions that conceptualise diversity as a core strength, and funding bodies that facilitate long-term ethnic equality in the sector rather than short-lived diversity initiatives.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Tory election victory: control of the national narrative through culture
Monday, 16 December 2019 10:57

The Tory election victory: control of the national narrative through culture

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Stuart Cartland argues that the Conservative victory is based on their control of the national narrative, achieved partly through control of popular cultural experiences

It must be understood that it is not just the message of ‘get Brexit done’ that provided such an overwhelming majority for the Conservatives, although that is what it clearly appears to be. As surprising at the Conservative victory might seem to many, particularly where the Conservatives picked up the votes to win in traditional Labour strongholds, elections are not won on practical manifesto pledges but rather through dominating the national narrative, including dominance through the control of cultural experiences.

This dominance has been the culmination of an overwhelming control of a symbolic national narrative dictated and controlled by the conservative right. Practicalities of politics matter little here. The point being that key right-wing conservative tropes of Euroscepticism and anti-immigration rhetoric have become the common ground of British politics and a sense of national narrative, particularly within England. This has been an ongoing process and theme through a conservative cultural dominance that arguably made the Conservative victory almost an inevitability.

Since the Conservatives came into power under David Cameron, and probably even before this, there has been an ongoing reinvention and reinforcement of an experience of the mythical majority. The booming cultural industries, dominated by themes of nostalgia and national experience, have shifted the cultural imagination and a national narrative.

For example, the last 10 years have witnessed a cultural shift on the small and big screen of historical dramas, for example: Downton Abbey, Poldark, Call the Midwife, Victoria, The Queen et al, in which a very specific ideological narrative has been spun (a pre-politically correct, multicultural or liberal landscape). Ideological perspectives and cultural narratives such as conservative traditionalism and a discursive dominance go hand-in-hand with political dominance. It becomes a naturalised and normalised manner in which to imagine the nation, it is also a cultural perspective that has monopolised what national imaginings might be in an era of increasingly defensive nationalism such as the reterritorialising of British cultural politics within the context of a process of disengagement from Europe and devolution.

Moreover, the past 10 years has also seen a shift in a process of memorialisation as a form of conservative nationalism. This can be seen in the ideologically situated use of symbolic commemoration characterised by historicised cultural pastiche and revitalised nationalism, for example through the WWI centenary commemorations and the ongoing politicisation of the symbolic use of the poppy.

Bringing this back to the recent election, the key point is that Johnson represents this symbolic narrative, much like Trump does in the US. Regardless of how untrustworthy, contradictory, offensive and inappropriate he may have proven himself to be, and regardless of scandal after scandal, Johnson (much like May) represents the symbolic social and political discursive conservative dominance within England of a national narrative and imagination. It was the Conservatives' dominance of this national imagination, not the individual figure, that won the election.

For huge swathes of England voting for the Conservatives is an act of willing self-harm, but this proves how utterly encompassing the conservative message and dominance has become. Regardless of how (in practical terms) a Labour government would benefit the majority of the population and conversely how detrimental a Conservative majority will be, ‘get Brexit done’ is the symbolic representation of a conservative national imagination rather than the rather hollow and meaningless message it might seem on the surface.

In terms of policy the Conservatives offered very little in the election but they didn’t need to. The Johnson victory is the culmination and consolidation of several years of  Conservative cultural and ideological dominance, particularly within England, of the national narrative.

The election: Statement by 117 poets in support of the Labour Party
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 02 December 2019 09:57

The election: Statement by 117 poets in support of the Labour Party

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Statement By 115 Poets in Support of the Labour Party

We, the undersigned, representing a section of the poetry community, pledge our support to the Labour Party in the upcoming general election because we want to see its radically transformative and compassionate manifesto come into effect. The manifesto shows a commitment to social justice and equality not only in its comprehensive policies of state support for consumers and producers of the arts and culture generally, but also in its social and economic policies to support working people, including:

An end to austerity and the ideological attack on our welfare state
An end to the malicious work capability assessments of the sick and disabled and PIP
An end to the political scapegoating of the unemployed
An end to the two child benefit cap
An end to discriminatory rhetoric at the dispatch box
An end to the "hostile environment" for immigrants and refugees
An end to rough sleeping
An end to zero-hour contracts
An end to unpaid internships
An end to tuition fees
An end to creeping privatisation of the NHS

We want to see these Labour policies implemented:

A National Education Service
A National Care Service
A Universal Basic Income Pilot
A reintroduction of private rent controls and greater rights for renters
A restitution of Legal Aid
Free prescriptions in line with Scotland and Wales
A green industrial revolution
A culturally transformative Charter for the Arts
A Race and Faith manifesto

Signatories:

Keith Armstrong
Anne Babson
Bruce Barnes
Christopher Barnes
Amy Evans Bauer
Bob Beagrie
Brian Beamish
Peter Branson
Jane Burn
Gale Burns
Lesley Burt
David Cain
Ushiku Crisafulli
Andy Croft
Alan Dent
Matt Duggan
Steve Ely
Dr Naomi Foyle
Harry Gallagher
Owen Gallagher
Raine Geoghegan
Harry Gilonis
Prof John Goodby
Maria Gornell
Chris Gutkind
John G. Hall
Colin Hambrook
Chip Hamer
Emma Hammond
Robert Hampson
Oz Hardwick
Bruce Harris
Martyn Hayes
Kevin Higgins
Clare Hill
Luke Hoggarth
Bernadette Horton
Keith Howden
Zekria Ibrahimi
Andy Jackson
Kevin N. Jelf
Nicholas Johnson
Fred Johnston
Strider Marcus Jones
Tom Kelly
David Kessel
Mark Kirkbride
S.J. Litherland
Fran Lock
Marilyn Longstaff
Hannah Lowe
Rupert Loydell
Chris McCabe
Niall McDevitt
Rachel McGladdery
John McKeown
James Mainland
Caroline Maldonado
Char March
Dez Mendoza
Rob Miles
Christopher Moncrieff
Stephen Mooney
Alan Morrison
Graham Mort
John Muckle
Pete Mullineaux
Mark Murphy
Nicholas Murray
Chris Nash
Christopher Norris
Dr John O'Donoghue
Clive Oseman
Antony Owen
Ben Parker-Jones
Ian Parks
Tom Pickard
Steph Pike
Mair De-Gare Pitt
Winston Plowes
Dr David Pollard
Steve Pottinger
Alan Price
Prof John Quicke
Mike Quille
Frank Rafferty
Peter Raynard
Sally Richards
Karl Riordan
Lisa Rossetti
Anne Rouse
Dave Russell
Bernard Saint
Stephen Sawyer
John Scott
John Seed
John Short
Ken W. Simpson
Fiona Sinclair
Richard Skinner
Linus Slug
Barry Smith
Geoff Smith
Theresa Sowerby
Steve Spence
David Stoker
Peter Street
Paul Summers
Dr Andrew Taylor FRSA
Laura Taylor
Angela Topping
Ruth Valentine
Jo Walton
Rob Walton
Stephen Watts
Merryn Williams
Gareth Writer-Davies
Wendy Young

Co-ordinated by Alan Morrison (The Recusant) and Mike Quille (Culture Matters Co-operative Ltd), December 2019.

How to read an election
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 29 November 2019 11:36

How to read an election

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Mark Perryman provides a handy reading guide to the General Election

There’s not much doubt politics is getting hot, hotter, hottest – just as the nights draw in and get cold, cold, colder as Boris Johnson seek to bring some kind of ending to the sorry saga of all things Brexit.

A December General Election? The first at this time of year for goodness knows how long. And to sort out Brexit? Well the last one didn’t, and there’s absolutely no guarantee the result of this one will either, whichever way it goes.

In the immediate aftermath of ‘17 there was much talk that for Labour it was the manifesto that wot (nearly) won it. Mike Phipps’ For The Many helps us understand the original’s appeal and the ideas required to win this time.

Most of the contributors to the essay selection Rethinking Britain are slightly more detached from the organised Labour Left than those contributing to Mike’s book, though they share the same intent ‘for the many’, ranging over economics, employment, investment, and social security.

One of the brightest voices for such a brand of ‘new’ economics is Grace Blakeley, her first book Stolen is a compelling account not only of all that’s wrong with how financial power is misused but also what could be done about it.

The abolition of tuition fees was a vote-winner in 2017, makes good sense but surely we also need to ask what are universities for, not just how they’re being paid for. A good step in the former direction is provided by Raewyn Connell’s The Good University complete with the rather excellent sub-title ‘ what universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change.

My favourite source for ideas in and around Labour however, is the quarterly journal Renewal. Issue after issue it never disappoints – the latest is themed around the issue of democracy, with a stand-out essay by Lewis Bassett on the vexed question of democracy in the Labour Party.

Radical, new, policies broke through at Labour’s 2019 party conference including the 4-day week, abolition of private schools, a Green New Deal. Most of these have found their way into Labour’s 2019 manifesto. But in any general election these face the problem of how they are affected by the Brexit impasse which isn’t going to disappear in a hurry.

Also, Labour’s antisemitism crisis will be an issue too. Strange Hate by Keith Kahn-Harris firmly and correctly puts the resolution of that crisis in the context of anti-racism. While for those unfamiliar with the specificities of Jewish culture A Jewdas Haggadah provides a much-needed introduction, with occasional hilarious results.  

people get ready

For a primer chronicling the history of the rise of Corbynism read David Kogan’s Protest and Power : The Battle for the Labour Party. As to what happens if Labour wins, Christine Berry and Joe Guinan’s People Get Ready! deals strategically with how Labour might govern while seeking to implement a post-neoliberal economic strategy unimaginably radical in its ambition. Wow.

But to get even close to that point, Labour’s arguments for ‘real change’ need both to be made popular and to challenge a resurgent right-wing racist populism. J.A.Smith’s Other People’s Politics charts precisely this terrain via a rigorous deconstruction of the populist surge, and what kind of response from Labour this requires.

Labour’s ‘Momentum Left’ is often derided as extremist and Marxist. In fact it is overwhelmingly non-marxist – Marxism no longer offers the pole of attraction for those who favour politics against the mainstream that it once did. In its place there is a greater range of models of critique. But that’s not to suggest it is dead, buried or irrelevant. The Corbyn Project by John Rees is testament to the necessity of a Marxist critique of even the most left-wing versions of reformism,. We may choose to disagree with the critique, but to ignore it entirely is a serious error.

The new edition of the classic Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein The Labour Party: A Marxist History now updated by Charlie Kimber to take in both the Blair-Brown years and Corbynism, carefully records from a Marxist standpoint the errors Labour governments have made over the decades. Again we can differ over the precise nature of the causes and consequences, but those causes and consequences need accounting for.

If Marxism is no longer sufficient to explain everything about the modern world, that doesn’t mean it is analytically redundant. Testament to that proposition is the sharply titled, and written, Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism . Full of techno-politics of an unashamedly left complexion, the book is described as ‘a manifesto’. Notwithstanding the free broadband offer, Labour still doesn’t entirely share Aaron’s somewhat breathless enthusiasm for the progressive potential of technological change.

However, modern politics needs to understand how digital technology is transforming the terrain on which we contest. An unpicking of the contradictions this generates is provided by Jamie Woodcock’s Marx at the Arcade, a careful survey of video games and the politics they produce.    

Another ‘unofficial’ manifesto is The Socialist Manifesto by Bhaskar Sunkara, who offers up a political platform which is historic in inspiration, futuristic in vision, and practical for the present.

In a similar vein Nancy Fraser’s The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot be Born takes Gramsci’s famous dictum as a starting point to understand the twin, opposing, potentials of left and right populism out of the current global impasse typified by Trump, and Brexit. It is one of the first of a very welcome new pamphlets series from Verso, short enough to be read between canvassing sessions – relevant, intelligent writing leaving campaigners wanting more.

For the ‘new to be born’ demands that the ‘old’ has to be subject to critique. Stephen Duncombe describes this process as ‘reimagining politics’ which he explains in a new edition of his superb 2007 book Dream or Nightmare, updated to take in the age of Trump.

Such a reimagining demands an engagement with what politics means for those whose entry post-dates the 2008 financial crisis, 2019’s first and second time voters on whose support Labour is counting so much. Keir Milburn’s Generation Left should be considered the set text for connecting with these voters’ practical ideals.

And after all the votes have been counted, what changes and how much? The annual Socialist Register has taken for its 2020 theme ‘new ways of living’ with an admirably global view of the cusp of new versus old.

A scary vision of how such a transition might end up is provided by Peter Fleming’s The Worst is Yet To Come, described as a post-capitalist survival guide, ranging over economic decline, social division and environmental detonation. Oh well, it wasn’t good while it lasted.

TheTwitteringMachineCOVER

To prevent such a vision becoming a reality requires a conversational culture that enables differences of opinion to be shared, rather than as a badge of rising intolerance. Two contrasting approaches to this are provided by Billy Bragg and Richard Seymour, yet both take a similar starting point, social media. Billy’s The Three Dimensions of Freedom champions democratisation in the face of what some have described as ‘surveillance capitalism’. While in The Twittering Machine Richard Seymour tackles the degradation of political debate the entire social media edifice has helped bring about. In time honoured fashion we need both, institutional change and taking personal responsibility to effect that change. The importance of both approaches cannot be underestimated with elections increasingly fought as much online as on the doorstep.

Even in the heat of the such campaigns we need to locate change, personal and political, in the midst of what theorists call ‘the conjunctural’, the terrain of the present. A special edition of the journal New Formations takes this as its theme, This Conjuncture drawing on the work of Stuart Hall to apply the theory to a wide range of what constitutes the present.

Of course any sense of this particular ‘conjuncture’ is pretty much defined by all things Brexit. But of course the issue and what it raises has a history too. Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson’s Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire makes this precise point very well – imperial nostalgia is still a powerful political mobiliser.

cover The People s Flag and the Union Jack

Similarly, in The People’s Flag and the Union Jack Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw apply the consequences of an Englishness entwined with the imperial and the martial to the enduring failure for Labour to engage with either the break-up of Britain or the consequent re-emergence of the English nation. Both are of course vital to any understanding of Brexit.

It isn’t however a crude reductionism to suggest that Brexit must also be understood via the prism of class. Mike Carter’s All Together Now? is an epic journey, walking half the length of England to help provide that prism, looking at the deindustrialised communities almost entirely disconnected from the body politic. What kind of answer are the parties providing to their howls of rage?

In a similar vein Our City by Jon Bloomfield is an incredibly powerful testimony of how race and migration shapes the modern British city, in this case Birmingham, establishing grounds for both unity and division, the choice of which is entirely political.

Riding for Deliveroo, the debut book from Callum Cant, is another potent rejoinder to those who would reduce the entire General Election to all things Brexit. Callum’s spirited case for a resistance to the ‘new economy’ should be more than sufficient to convince it shouldn’t be.

If an election shaped by the Brexit impasse fails to respond to these many and varied howls of rage, the future will be anything but progressive. Cas Mudde’s The Far Right Today connects such an understanding to Brexit’s transatlantic equivalent, the 2016 triumph of Trumpism. A triumph framed by a populist racism coupled with authoritarian populism that has its origins in, and message projected by the alt-right.

The New Authoritarians by David Renton is an important new analysis of this phenomenon, that distinguishes this radicalised, racist right from more traditional versions of classic fascism. It is all the more dangerous for this shift. As David argues, our opposition and offering of alternatives is strengthened not weakened by understanding the nature and appeal of what we are up against. Casting votes will not be enough.

The biggest issue in the election should surely be the Climate Emergency. This will condition the shape of politics to come, so it’s useful to have a handbook to guide us. There is none better than Paul Mason’s latest, Clear Bright Future, a guide to past and present crises beyond any conventional electoral focus and a map of what a radical future in their place might look like too.

A more conventional response is provided by System Change not Climate Change edited by Martin Empson. It’s conventional in the sense that most of the contributors derive their politics from Marxism. It’s not to deride the entire legacy of this most revolutionary of ideologies to recognise that firstly its contribution to our understanding of the environmental crisis is negligible, and secondly other revolutionary ideas are serving to make up for that absence and inspiring millions to action.

For example, Greta’s short book No One is Too Small to Make A Difference , which would be my pick as the perfect 2019 Manifesto. And for a campaign guide, Extinction Rebellion’s handbook This is Not A Drill showcases the scale of audacity, action and creative resistance this campaign has generated in such a short time.

But however imaginative, however creative, in the same way that voting is not enough nor will blocking roads be sufficient if the Climate Emergency is to be reversed. We need ideas that become policies and in turn become government action. Labour putting a Green Industrial Revolution at the centre of its message is a hugely important development in this regard, although Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams’ The Economics of Arrival shows how far traditional, including left, governments need to travel to produce a society that is sustainable.  

Despite the claims of politicians on the stump, nothing in politics is ever entirely ‘new’. It pays to take more than a moment to pay heed to the past. Portugal in 1974 is one such instance, the most potent example yet of revolutionary change where we’ve become accustomed to least expect it, Western Europe. It’s an episode brilliantly recalled by Raquel Varela’s new account, A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution.

rebel

Closer to home the new edition of Rebel Footprints by David Rosenberg is a guide to the streets and other parts of London that carry with them a radical past. It’s a history lesson on the move – what a way to spend a Sunday afternoon after 12th December, with David’s book in hand, strolling for socialism.

Anti-racism is a strand that runs through much of this past, or at least it should. Evan Smith’s history British Communism and the Politics of Race may focus on one particular part of the Left and its changing relationship to anti-racism, yet the insights provide a much broader perspective on what makes, and what doesn’t make, an anti-racist Labour Party.

To keep up to date more broadly with the historiography of communism there’s no better source than the journal Twentieth Century Communism. The latest issue is testament to its customary eclectic mix, containing Eric Hobsbawm, the Brothers Grimm and the Communist Party of Cyprus.

A range of new titles offer an impressive revisiting of how to construct a political culture. Too little has been done on this front by Labour, since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. In the rush and tumble of the campaign theres’s Fck Boris and Grime4Corbyn – but what will remain of this after the polling stations close? If 2017 is anything to go by, not a lot.

Beautifully produced, the songbook Working Class Heroes: A History of Struggle in Song edited by Mat Callahan and Yvonne Moore provides like-minded artefacts from the past to inspire us that a radical political future is not only necessary but possible – and the beauty of this is that with instrument in hand, the music can be turned into a weapon of change here and now.

Visual Dissent is an extraordinarily vivid collection of works by the much-celebrated photomontage artist Peter Kennard. If only more of the Left took note of Peter’s ability to communicate with wit, humour and impact.

The LGBT movement is never backward at coming forward with communicating its hopes, ambitions, demands for change. The origins of that political and cultural imperative are beautifully chronicled in the photos and accompanying essays from Stonewall ’69 which comprise Fred W. McDarrah’s Pride: Photographs after Stonewall.

And for a soundtrack? In Don’t Look Back in Anger Daniel Rachel chronicles the rise and fall of Cool Britannia, a music that just like the politics of the same era, the 1990s and the noughties, promised so much but in the end didn’t deliver. Better luck this time, eh?

And as for when the cut ’n thrust of the campaign serves to get a tad blunt and tawdry, I recommend a turn to How to be a Vegan and Keep your Friends from Annie Nichols. Individual, lifestyle choices aren’t sufficient in themselves, we need governments to effect change on the scale the Climate Emergency requires, yet reinventing our diet and ‘keeping our friends’ provides more than an inkling of both what is possible and necessary. Tasty too!

Who knows what the future might hold after 12th December? We can but dream, with many sacrificing evenings and weekends to help make it happen. A very welcome return therefore of the Big Red Diary to help plan the first year of supporting, resisting – or maybe even a mix of the two – a new government.

poems for when your phone dies

And my book of the General Election campaign? Matt Abbott’s debut poetry collection A Hurricane in my Head: Poems for When Your Phone Dies. Poetry? And these are for children too! What’s that got to do with 12th December, eh? Heaps. This is a once-in-a-generation vote, not only to determine Britain’s relationship with Europe via the EU, but also the scale of ambition to tackle the Climate Emergency.

On both fronts those of us of a certain age will struggle on and learn to live with the dire consequences, if the worst possible result imaginable materialises and Johnson is back at Number Ten on the morning of 13th December. But those at secondary school, the age group Matt’s book is primarily aimed at, will have to live with the fallout for most of their adolescence. A Johnson victory moreover will cement the popular shift to the Right, institutionalise its grip on power for a considerable time to come, so those at school will face a grim future.

At the very moment the Climate Emergency needs reversing most urgently, the least will be being done to stop it. The school climate strikers symbolise an entirely different discourse, hope on the move, pinning the blame for the dire prospects for their future squarely on those old enough to know better. Matt’s poems capture this hope and potential superbly, with a line in humour that the grown-ups will smile along to warmly. 12th December, for those not yet old enough to vote is just the beginning – and this is their book.

Note: No links in this review are to Amazon, if you can avoid buying from the corporate tax-dodgers please do. 

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled 'sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction' aka Philosophy Football.

The election: Ask this, how do they treat the vulnerable, the stranger, the poor?
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 06 November 2019 18:18

The election: Ask this, how do they treat the vulnerable, the stranger, the poor?

Written by

David Betteridge responds to our call-out for material relevant to the election with a few words based on the Peking Opera

Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (continued)

by David Betteridge, illustrated by Bob Starrett

We all know who the Tiger is. We all know where its well-armed stronghold lies. We all know why our taking of it cannot be deferred, too many years and generations having died, whether lost in mistaken sorties, or stuck in camp. We all know how fertile the wide fields are, that open up beyond the Tiger’s rule.

So far, we are agreed; but opinion differs over the strategy to adopt. I propose that the taking of Tiger Mountain might be achieved by several strategies combined.

Some of us will advance from the North, some from the West, East, or South. Some will be organised in big battalions, some in guerrilla bands under various flags, but all united behind the one big cause that we embrace, and that embraces us. To defeat the Tiger in its burning arrogance and power, we with our several strategies will need the qualities of many opposing creatures, an entire rainbow of talents, a spectrum of troops.

How will we tell true allies from tigerish false friends? By their fruits, as an ancient poet warned. Study, not so much their immediate small steps from where currently they stand, but the direction of their travel, and the good they do, or fail to do, along the way. Study, not their past slogans, but their present poems, songs and laws. Ask this: how do they treat the vulnerable, the stranger, and the poor?

Socially engaged, internationalist and critical: the destruction of GDR culture since reunification
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 06 November 2019 09:56

Socially engaged, internationalist and critical: the destruction of GDR culture since reunification

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John Green discusses the obliteration of GDR culture since reunification. The mosaic is in Eisenhüttenstadt, and is by Walter Womacka

This month sees the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, leading a year later to the annexation of the former German Democratic Republic by the Federal Republic. I use the term ‘annexation’ intentionally because despite the people of the former GDR voting in their majority for a unified Germany, what they got was a de facto takeover by the west.

In his recent book ‘The New Faces of Fascism’, Professor Enzo Traverso of Cornell University uses this term unequivocally. He writes that ‘The annexation of the former German Democratic Republic was conceived of as a political, economic and cultural process that inevitably implied the demolition of antifascism …’ Despite the passage of three decades, the territory of the former GDR is in many ways still very different from the former Federal Republic.

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Hollensturz in Vietnam by Willi Sitte. Photo by Bob Ramsak / piran café

One might have the impression from the numerous depictions of the GDR in the western media that it was a country characterised by oppression, lack of freedom and a grey, monotonous daily life for its citizens. That it was in fact a country with a relatively high standard of living, with a flourishing industry and a vibrant cultural environment is redacted from the mainstream narrative.

Despite the fact that both postwar German republics were formed as a result of the partition by the Second World War Allies of a unified German nation, there developed in the eastern part a specific and separate culture and way of life, based on socialist principles, even if the system could be characterised as ‘state socialism’ and authoritarian in many of its aspects. Against all the odds the GDR – based on only a third of Germany as a whole and the least industrially developed part, with very few raw materials – managed to build a second German culture based on a clear break with the country’s fascist past and firmly rooted in Germany’s communist and internationalist traditions.

In any state there will always be a tension and sometimes conflict between artists and state institutions and official ideology. And in this the GDR was no different from most other countries, but art and culture were taken seriously by everyone; they were not marginal to people’s lives. The country had a lively book publishing industry, there were theatres and concert halls in even smaller towns, there was a thriving film industry and art scene. Financial support and encouragement were given to amateur art groups, often located in or near people’s workplaces.

The four-yearly GDR art exhibition in Dresden, at which a huge array of contemporary art works were exhibited, was a great draw for visitors from all over the country. There were often animated and fiery discussions about certain of the works exhibited. ‘Socialist realist’ art was the form that was officially sanctioned and encouraged but this was a somewhat elastic concept. Most artists were happy to paint and sculpt in a realist manner but interpreted the world in their own unique way. There were those who preferred to explore abstraction and they got a raw deal in terms of being able to exhibit and survive economically. It is only now, belatedly, that GDR art is slowly being recognised as interesting in its own right and worth exhibiting, even if most selections dwell overmuch on the so-called ‘dissident’ aspect.

The GDR produced its own home-grown song movement with a whole number of groups and individual singers who developed a recognisable ‘GDR style’: socially engaged, internationalist and also critical. Sometimes, as with Wolf Biermann, the critical element went too far for the powers that be and he was banned from publicly performing, before being expelled from the country, but most managed to find a niche and steer clear of official sanction. There was a large annual festival of political song which brought together musicians from around the world, like Pete Seeger from the USA, Inti Illimani and Quilapayun from Chile, Leon Gieco from Argentina and the Sands Family from Ireland, among many others.

What overwhelmingly characterised GDR art and culture was that it was viewed by everyone as an integral part of society, and for artists being engaged as well as critical were taken as given. Broad sections of the population were actively engaged in the arts, either as participants or as audiences and readers. Schools and workplaces organised regular trips to the theatre, concerts, cultural events and exhibitions and these were invariably subsidised by the state.

This unique integration of art, artists and society which is only really possible under a socialist system, came to an end with the demise of the GDR. And although the Federal Republic provides generous support for the arts – in contrast to the UK – they are very much linked to the capitalist structures within which they operate and are often very elitist.

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Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, by Bertolt Brecht

While the ruling SED party and GDR government were certainly over-controlling in terms of their cultural policies and over-fearful of what they viewed as potentially negative western influences and anti-socialist activity, they did actively and generously encourage and support the development of an artistic environment that was socially engaged, integrated and committed to humanitarian aims. That legacy has been lost.

Following unification in 1990, almost all GDR industries were very quickly dismantled or taken over by West German firms, and all GDR institutions (e.g. universities, theatres, museums etc.), if not closed, had new managers imposed on them. Most of the staff in GDR universities, colleges and schools, as well as in local and national government, found themselves out of a job or demoted.

The GDR’s media – television, radio and publishing houses – were all closed. Former co-operative and state farms were also closed down. With this total dismantling of the GDR’s infrastructure, people were obliged to migrate to the west to find work, particularly younger people. This left whole areas of the territory virtually devoid of a younger generation. Still today, wages are still lower in the east, as are pensions. The promised affluence has benefited very few and the wealth gap between the population in the former GDR and that of the Federal Republic remains large.

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Werner Tübke, History of the German labour movement II, 1961

The imposition of the federal German system on the East has also meant the obliteration of a specific GDR culture. Since unification, the German Federal government and media have attempted to deny anything positive about the GDR, and have deliberately conflated what they call ‘the two totalitarianisms’ i.e. nazism and communism. In doing so, they avow that this time they are determined to undertake a proper reckoning with the GDR and expose its totalitarian essence (implicitly recognising that they had not done this properly with Germany’s Nazi past). Most cultural representations of the GDR have also been eradicated or hidden.

In the concerted attempt to demonise the system and life in the GDR, there have been a plethora of horror stories – virtually all written by western pundits who never experienced the GDR first hand. The most notorious is the much-hyped book ‘Stasiland’ by the Australian Anna Funder, who visited the GDR for a few days as a tourist and returned there after unification to interview people who were ‘victims’ of the regime. Her book is littered with factual inaccuracie,s and reveals an abysmal ignorance of what life was really like in the country, but it is widely seen as the must-read book about the GDR.

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The Architects, a film by Peter Kahane. Photo by DEFA

In the cinema, the much-lauded ‘The Life of Others’ by the West German aristocrat, Florian Henckel von Donnersmark was a well-crafted thriller – but a total caricature. His portrayal of GDR artists as subject to Stasi control and at the mercy of arbitrary state coercion was a fantasy, but it perfectly fitted the narrative that the West German elite wished to promote. He spoke to Christoph Hein before making the film, wanting to utilise his experience as a writer who had certainly had his run-ins with GDR state censorship – but Hein himself later distanced himself from the film, and said it bore little relationship to reality.

GDR writers, film-makers and theatre directors have almost all been blacklisted, and have not been given the opportunity of reflecting their own assessments of GDR reality. This is all part of a concerted campaign to erase any positive vestige of GDR culture from the historical narrative.

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The most egregious example of the destruction of GDR culture was the controversial demolition of the Palace of the Republic in the centre of Berlin. This modern building symbolised more than any other the confidence, forward-looking attitude and strength of the GDR. The building not only housed the GDR parliament but contained a theatre, concert halls, cafes and restaurants which were much used by the city’s population.

Of course, the two parts of the formerly divided Germany will eventually coalesce, and memories of the GDR are already fading as new generations come along. However, it would be a historical travesty if the many positive sides of the GDR experience and the contribution it made to the world were to be totally obliterated. It would be even worse if this experience and contribution were equated with the Nazi atrocities of genocide and fomenting world war, as part of the same ‘totalitarianism’.

Stasi State or Socialist Paradise? The German Democratic Republic and What Became of It by John Green and Brunhild de la Motte is available from Artery Publications at £10.

Lively, incisive and erudite: Marxist Literary Criticism Today, by Barbara Foley
Wednesday, 30 October 2019 15:42

Lively, incisive and erudite: Marxist Literary Criticism Today, by Barbara Foley

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Tony McKenna praises Marxist Literary Criticism Today (Pluto Press, £19.99) for its clarity, coherence, and insightfulness 

For the last few decades the world of ‘Marxist’ literary criticism has been dominated by a tiny coterie of elite thinkers, figures like Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, ‘top-flight intellectuals’ whose tortuous, indecipherable language and pretentious linguistic philosophies often say a great deal about themselves but next to nothing about the literature they purport to analyse. For this reason I didn’t have high hopes for Barbara Foley’s new book, Marxist Literary Criticism Today, because I felt it might well be more of the same.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Foley is what someone like Jameson will never be. She is an authentic teacher – genuinely concerned with the type of clear and patient explanation which is designed to uplift the student and allow them to delight in the quirks and idiosyncrasies of her subject matter.

For this reason, part one of the book does not explicitly address the field of literary criticism at all. What it does do, is to give a clear and coherent account of some of the central concepts in Marxist philosophy and economics – concepts which one has to get a handle on, as they provide the optics through which great works of literature can be read. Foley outlines clearly some of the fundamental ideas in the Marxist lexicon: Class, Commodities, Capital, Surplus Value, Alienation, Reification, Totality, Base and Superstructure, dialectics and so on. These are often the subjects of fascinating discussions which are gradually integrated into literary concerns throughout the course of the book.

In the discussion on class, for example, Foley mobilises a classically Marxist understanding of the proletariat as the ‘universal class’ and emphasises that because of its structural position – as a social relation of production – it is the ‘“primary” analytical category for explaining social inequality and leveraging revolutionary and social change’. (17)  Historically speaking, patriarchal relations and relations of racist oppression have grown out of the structural dimensions of class exploitation, and therefore resistance to and destruction of the latter is, ultimately, bound up with the dissolution of the former and the mission of the proletariat in the modern age.

This might seem a little removed from the subject of literary theory. But when you understand that texts by ‘Shakespeare, Shelley and Brecht’ create their characters and describe their relationships in the context of ‘social forces constraining freedom in class-based inequality’ (106) and awaken in the reader ‘a universal need for freedom from alienation and oppression’ (106) thereby – you also come to understand that the universality which great literature projects is the aesthetic echo of the universality which is crystallised in and through the struggle for freedom that is part and parcel of the broader historical unfolding of the class struggle. (106)

Understanding and accepting this approach provides a significant tonic to the more fashionable ‘intersectionalist’ approach which often ends up ‘segregating’ different groups into the boxes which accord with their oppression; i.e. the notion that only people from particularly groups, ethnicities and genders are qualified to write about those same groups, or that ‘a dead white male’ like William Shakespeare can have nothing to say to a young black man growing up in a Harlem project.

At the same time, however, Foley never falls into ‘economism’ – that is, the belief that every aspect of social life is determined directly and mechanically by a set of class forces, without mediation or qualification. In fact, Foley argues, racist and sexist forms of oppression can often gain a near ‘autonomous’ life which throws up a myriad of complex and contradictory set of behaviours – behaviours which don’t always correspond neatly to the class interests which are at work underneath the surface of society, and which are responsible for directly producing and reproducing the means of social existence.

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That tension between the fundaments of class universality at the level of social being, and the richness and complexity of the myriad forms of cultural and political life, is one Foley brings out in a masterful analysis of the Ann Petry 1946 short story ‘Like a Winding Sheet’. This is the story of a black man (Johnson) living in same period, who is both economically exploited as a worker and racially oppressed as a person of colour. The story chronicles how he is racially abused at work by his boss, a white woman, and that the sense of such commonplace cruelty, along with the withering, debilitating physical conditions of his working existence, leaves him both smouldering and downtrodden. On arriving home one evening, an innocent remark from his wife (Mae) ‘causes’ him to beat her savagely. In one way, the action is baffling and nonsensical – he attacks his wife, another working-class person, another black person, and someone who has only shown to him affection and love. But Foley moves through the layers of society-wide oppression and exploitation in order to mine a deeper explanation:

As proximate causes, sexism and racism constitute the principal psychological motivators of the physical violence that Johnson enacts upon the body of Mae. Petry complicates her portrayal of causality, however, by supplying a further level of motivation to Johnson’s actions….Johnson’s lack of control over his hands, coupled with his lack of control over his conditions of work, signals a root cause of his anger in his alienation, construed in a classically Marxist sense, as the severing of mental from manual labor…his living labor is controlled by the dead labor embodied in the cart he pushes around, rendering him half-dead, indeed zombie-like all day long. The home, the site of the daily reproduction of labor power, is invaded by alienation; rather than functioning as a haven in a heartless world, it becomes the place where he can exercise the only freedom he has – the freedom to beat and kill, the freedom to reproduce in this own actions, in the seemingly private sphere of marriage and home, the dynamic of the intrinsically violent social relations of capitalism. (203-4)

Foley is able to show how the forces of sexism and racism interweave within the context of the broader class structures of capitalism. In other words she derives the ‘soul’ of the story from the forms and structures of social existence, but does so in a way which is neither mechanical or didactic, but clear and profound. Foley’s book is full of examples like this, meticulous fragments of analysis which capture the historical contradictions which abound in a given work of literature.

Thus Foley contrasts the medieval legends of King Arthur with the ‘rags to riches’ stories of young-adult author Horatio Alger as a means to elucidate ‘the supersession of feudal-era notions of obligations and dependency…by capitalist-era notions of individual freedom and autonomy’. (20) She employs a quirky and brilliant analysis in order so show how the English fairy-tale Jack and the Beanstalk hints at the specific and temporary nature of capitalism itself as a historical form: ‘Jack’s trading of the family’s sole cow for a handful of magic beans is a blatantly foolish act of exchange given the desperate poverty in which he lives with his mother. But the ability of the seeds to generate wealth far beyond the market value of the cow – through Jack’s ascending the giant bean stalk…testifies…also to the historical existence of markets where value and exchange value were not automatically seen as equivalent.’ From this one can derive the sense that our ‘present-day habit of quantifying exchange based upon the socially necessary labour time embodied in commodities is neither natural nor trans historical.’ (37)

Her analysis of the horrifically awful Fifty Shades of Grey is also rooted in the concept of Capital, only whereas Jack and The Beanstalk can be considered an expression of longing for pre-capitalist forms, Fifty Shades provide a paean to Capital. It is in many ways the idealised form in which Capital perceives itself – in as much as Capital is presented as a glittering, pristine creation entirely abstracted from the misery and suffering of the social exploitation which sets the basis for it:

There is no exploitation of labor in the world of Christian Grey, only capital willing to place itself on the market and, through creative application, expand itself indefinitely…The helicopter, the sheets, the glass-encased high-rise apartment: these commodities are so far removed from the labor processes generating them that capital cannot be thought of as a vampire sucking the blood out of living labor. (200)

And in the figure of dynamic billionaire Christian Grey, Capital as a charismatic force of progress abstracted from any social cost is personified:

Christian is himself Capital as pure money in seductive human form. And although…we are told he “works” so hard that he has little time for sleep – he is shown to be more concerned about the activities of his Gates-style philanthropic foundation, which is busy saving countless lives in Africa, than with overseeing the business empire which magically generates his wealth.’ (201)

Foley is also attuned to the silences between words, the invisible subtext, the things which are hinted at but not explicitly referenced in the gaps on the page. In an illuminating analysis of The Preamble to the US Constitution, Foley, in her rather Socratic manner, asks a series of pertinent questions. The document makes reference to ‘the People of the United States’ who are to ‘secure the Blessings of Liberty’, but ‘the people’ is a remarkably nebulous concept. Who are these people? Do they include the enslaved blacks? The women who didn’t have the vote? The poor white men, equally disenfranchised? ‘The people’ becomes a rather slippery stand-in for the real social group whose liberty and power the constitution enshrines, i.e. ‘white men possessing enough property to qualify them’. (171)  

The mirage being generated is that created by every ruling class which, ‘while promoting and articulating its own interests, proclaims its outlook to be a universal one.’ (172) At the same time, the cracks in the surface begin to poke through – the Constitution makes reference to the need to form ‘a more perfect Union’ (172) and thus implies the imperfections of the current arrangement while the exhortation to ‘insure domestic Tranquillity’ (172) obliquely hints at the political unrest of the vast majority of people who have been excluded from the remit of the Constitution – ‘there persists revolts of the less privileged like the recent Shays’s rebellion’. (172)  

Foley’s analysis of the Preamble to the Constitution is paired with an account of a 1987 poem by Gloria Anzaldúa, ‘We Call Them Greasers’ which offers the first-person perspective of an unnamed settler as he subjugates an indigenous group by means of rape and murder, ultimately driving them from the land:

I found them here when I came.
They were growing corn on their small ranchos…
smelling of woodsmoke and sweat…
Weren’t interested in bettering themselves,
why they didn’t even own the land but shared it
Wasn’t hard to drive them off,
cowards they were, no backbone…
And the women – well I remember one in particular.
She lay under me whimpering…
Afterward I sat on her face until her arms stopped flailing,
didn’t want to waste a bullet on her….
I walked up to where I had tied her man to the tree and spat his face.
Lynch him, I told the boys. (172-3)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

It is a stark and harrowing poem which ‘encapsulates a genocidal narrative in which sexism, racism and contempt for indigenous peoples are shored up by the nationalist dogmas proclaiming the supremacy of individualism and private property…In this phase of primitive accumulation called pioneering, the state is defined by the naked power of wealth; violence is the principal historical and geographical presupposition of the expansion of capital.’ (174)  

What is particularly intriguing and provocative in the pairing of the Preamble to the Constitution and the poem, is that Foley is able to show how ‘a historically materialist understanding of the role of the state in capital accumulation invites us to link the eminently civilized and rational prose of the Founding Fathers with the crude brutality evinced by the speaker in Anzaldúa’s poem. The realities of slavery, class struggle, rape, and genocide are masked in the enlightened language of the Preamble: yet one “we” leads to the next “we”.’ (174)

There is the odd occasion when the reader is tempted to take issue with some of the analysis. For example, Foley’s analysis of the great William Butler Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming’ is intriguing and well-argued, but flawed in my view. Foley detects a certain aristocratic longing to the poem – ‘the falcon cannot hear the falconer’ – which alludes, in her words, to ‘the hierarchical order associated with feudalism’ (168) of the past, an order which has been overwhelmed by the chaos of the present. ‘The “best’ (presumably those responsible for maintaining order) have not risen to the occasion, while the “worst” (presumably those responsible for the “anarchy” have taken command, “loos[ing] the blood-dimmed tide” and drowning the innocent’. (168)

According to Foley, the use of phrases such as ‘blood-dimmed tide’ in conjunction with social ‘anarchy’ ‘links the purposiveness of destructive human agents with the uncontrollability of natural forces’. (168) For Foley, the poem provides a ‘naturalisation’ of the human essence which essentially ‘bypasses the necessity for historical analysis’ (168) and thus the poem presents us with an ahistorical depiction of a generic humanity which inevitably tilts toward barbarism.

Of course the aristocratic tenor of Yeats's own politics – a certain anti-democratic and even fascist inflection – has a bearing on some of the themes in the poem. And the way in which social and historical relations are naturalised; the way in which the specific character of the capitalist social order is transmuted into an eternal fetish of human nature impervious to historical change – is important not only to help comprehend the ideological mechanics of political philosophies which aim to defend the status-quo, but in the literary arena it can give you a sense of why a certain work is aesthetically poor.

Rather than living flesh-and-blood characters who have grown out of the social relations of a particular phase of history and are, therefore, in some way imbued with the contradictions of the age, literary characters in which some kind of generic, eternal human nature is posited (be it a good or evil one) are inevitably aesthetically poorer, because they remain unchanging archetypes which cannot develop in a realist fashion in response to the pressures and demands of the social world they inhabit. They cannot fundamentally change in historical time – or in the case of the novel, they cannot fundamentally change in the course of the plot. If Anna Karenina had been born fundamentally good or fundamentally evil, the mainspring of her personality would not flow from the social contradictions of the society she inhabited; her tragedy would not flow from being a woman whose burgeoning self-determination in the context of a rapidly changing social world was nevertheless thrown into contradiction with an ossified and feudal hierarchy specific to 19th century Russia.

Guernica canvas Pablo Picasso Madrid Museo Nacional 1937

The ‘naturalisation’ critique can’t be so easily applied to a poem because a poem does not describe events in historical time in any coherent or linear detail (epic poetry being one possible exception). The poem is rather more fleeting and fragmented. This is something poetry shares with painting. If, for example, you consider Picasso’s Guernica – the bombs dropping on the small Spanish town during the civil war and the cataclysmic fragmentation and destruction of civilian life which ensues – there is no progressive historical development. We don’t see the citizens of Guernica as they are in the aftermath of the event, rebuilding their lives. But even though we are not made witness to a living historical development which is in some way embodied in the painting’s aesthetic – even though all the painting does show us is fragmentation and implosion – would it be fair to conclude that Picasso’s freeze-frame of civil war destruction represents an eternalisation of human nature according to the principles of savagery and destruction? I would say not; the painting offers up a snapshot of reality which evokes the ‘mood’ of a specific epoch rather than elaborating several moments in the historical trajectory of a given character or period in the way a novel might.

The Picasso painting gives some sense of what it means to be an individual walking through the remnants of a twentieth-century world which has been smashed by global and civil wars, the disorienting feeling of moving through the ruins in the aftermath. In the same way, ‘The Second Coming’ uses archaic, apocalyptic language and imagery – ‘beast…slouches toward Bethlehem’ – as a way of capturing the almost apocalyptic power and inevitability of modernity – in the words of Marx, all that is solid melts into air. But rather than ‘bypass’ the necessity of history in favour of a principle of naturalisation, Yeats’s poem, with its grotesque and funereal grandeur, captures the moment of modernity in all its sweeping, disorientating violence.

So the question of abstraction – i.e. to what level of clarity and concreteness can different forms of literature address social and historical contradictions – is one that Foley fails to address, and it is important here. But even if one were to accept that ‘The Second Coming’ is, in the last analysis, a poem which offers up an ahistorical view of human nature which privileges aristocratic hierarchy and power, then one is at a loss to explain just why it has such a moving and dramatic charge.

Likewise, the poem which Foley contrasts the Yeats poem to – Claude McKay’s ‘If We Must Die’ – is a worthy and affecting piece which deals in a far more coherent, politically conscious and revolutionary way with the concrete forms of oppression which human beings face in the twentieth century. However, it does not have anything like the level of aesthetic truth and power of Yates’s poem.

Perhaps because the subject matter is so broad, the range of works and concepts that Foley covers so diverse, there is the odd occasion when she spreads herself a little thin. For example, her discussion of the great Hegelian-Marxist Georg Lukács is weak at certain points, especially her explanation (74) of the ‘identical subject-object of history’ concept which Lukács puts forward, and which is so integral to an understanding of the proletariat in Marxist terms as the ‘universal class’.  

As for her categorisation of one ‘Tony McKenna’ as somebody who believes that the essence of art lies in the ‘transcendence of its class origins’ (144) – well…ahem…as bizarre as the thinking of that particular individual sometimes is, I can quite categorically confirm this is not his perspective.

Needless to say, these are but minor points. The major one is simply this: Foley has produced a work of great erudition which spans a colourful and vast selection of examples from literature past and present. In addition, her analysis is informed by a strong understanding of Marxist philosophy and economics which shows how the works she explores are shaped by the necessity and the contradictions of their historical origins. Finally, all this is brought across in the lively and incisive style of a teacher who genuinely enjoys the ebb and flow of discussion and debate. I think it is fair to say ‘Marxist Literary Criticism Today’ is an excellent work of literature in its own right.

Gandhi: 'The worst form of violence is poverty'
Monday, 07 October 2019 14:38

Gandhi: 'The worst form of violence is poverty'

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Jenny Farrell reviews Walk with Gandhi, Bóthar na Saoirse, by Gabriel Rosenstock (Author) and Masood Hussain (Illustrator)

Bóthar na Saoirse (Road to Freedom) Walk with Gandhi is a beautiful book to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s birth on 2 October 1869. The book is a collection of haiga – a style of Japanese painting often accompanied by a haiku poem. The artists are the watercolourist Masood Hussain, from Kashmir, and the Irish poet and haikuist Gabriel Rosenstock. Hussain’s exquisite watercolours are a re-interpretation of historical photographs taken of Gandhi. Rosenstock’s haiku are in Irish and English. This is significant, as one of the main themes of the book is colonialism and Gandhi’s awareness and opposition to it, including the colonising function of language.

colder than all the prisons

you’ve been thrown into …

Downing Street railings

In addition to the amazing interplay of the two art forms, the book is interspersed with fascinating insights into Gandhi’s life and philosophy. These reveal that the book is designed to make Gandhi accessible for the younger generation. They invite readers to consider historical events, forms of protest, the effects of colonialism, and relate them to the present.

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The information put together for the readers is not designed to turn Gandhi into a saint. It relates aspects that surprise us, for example, that “He achieved much for the status of his fellow Indians in South Africa … but native Africans – such as Zulus – do not hero-worship Gandhi today. Au contraire! Gandhi took the side of the British in the Zulu uprising of 1906.” It was in South Africa that Gandhi’s journey began, when he was thrown off a train for sitting in a “whites only” carriage. This awakening was the beginning of his lifelong quest for freedom and justice. Mandela said about him later, in India: “You gave us Mohandas; we returned him to you as Mahatma.” Many of the tactics Gandhi first used in South Africa, he employed again in India.

Back in India, in 1915, his friend the poet Rabindranath Tagore gave him the name title “Mahatma”, Great Soul, a name Gandhi never warmed to; it deified him in some way. Tagore makes several appearances in this book. One of these connects him to the Irish anti-colonial struggle: Pádraig Pearse was in correspondence with Tagore and his play The Post Office had its world premiere in the Abbey Theatre in 1913.

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The Book “Bóthar na Saoirse” explores many facets of Gandhi’s life. For the younger readers it could well be a first introduction to exploring ideas of colonialism. For example, the following haiku echoes Frantz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth:

are there hats enough

to go round …

the wretched of the earth

In the following haiku, Rosenstock gently hints at India’s own discrimination of the ‘Untouchables’, not without a reminder that “many societies have their own forms of class discrimination, snobbishness and exclusiveness, often based on dress, accent, schooling, money, property and other outer distinctive markings”.

a hand

like any other hand …

the untouchables

A fascinating insight Rosenstock provides in this book is linguistic links between Irish and Indian languages. Readers of this book discover that the “Irish word for a cow is bó and the Sanskrit is go…. The Celtic name Bovinda (White Cow) is the same as Govinda, another name for the Indian deity Krishna. A little clue to the cradle of Indo-European civilisation!”

This book is a gem. It is beautiful, a wonderfully enriching pleasure in terms of aesthetic appreciation and engaging the mind. It quotes many people on the significance of Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, such as Albert Einstein’s: “I believe that Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all the political men in our time. We should strive to do things in his spirit: not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in anything you believe is evil.”

To finish with a quote from Gandhi himself, one that struck a particular chord with me is: “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

The book is published by Gandhi 150 Ireland, 5 October 2019 Paperback: ISBN 978-1-9162254-0-4 Hardback: ISBN 978-1-9162254-2-8 Ebook: ISBN 978-1-9162254 -1-1

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Tackling class-based discrimination in British culture
Tuesday, 17 September 2019 21:17

Tackling class-based discrimination in British culture

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Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne argue that an incoming Labour government should make class discrimination a 'protected characteristic' in law.

At the 2019 TUC Congress Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Labour minister Laura Pidcock both spoke about establishing a new workers’ protection agency enforcing individual and collective employment rights. At the same conference, TUC head Frances O’Grady called for outlawing discrimination against working-class people at work, for example in the form of pay gaps and unpaid internships.

This is a welcome move. The gentrification of the Labour party under Tony Blair witnessed an increase in middle-class people voting for and joining Labour, and a reduction in the influence of the working class. With its talk of social exclusion, the Blair government removed the language of discrimination. We need to once again talk about the ways in which the working class are discriminated against, and the impact that has in all areas of their lives.

But for this to work in any meaningful way we need to couch this discussion within the framework of class struggle and not simply employment practices. Not all working-class people are in work and the denigration, policing and depoliticization of working-class people takes place across multiple sites – education, the media, health, housing, popular culture and politics. We need to recognize class as heterogeneous and multifaceted, but at the same time not lose sight of the homogeneity of oppression and exploitation that constitutes the material reality of working-class life.

The pronouncements by the Labour Party and the TUC offer some hope in a political context where class has become peripheral, and where the possession of material wealth and various social and cultural advantages are rarely considered to be part of the conversation.

Routine class-based discrimination in the professions

It is not widely known that in the last days of the last Labour government, the 2010 Equality Act was passed with a section which required public authorities to have ‘due regard’ to the desirability of exercising their functions in a way which reduces the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage.

Unsurprisingly, the incoming Conservative government declined to bring this section into effect. Had it done so, it could have been a lever with which to combat local council housing policies, or perhaps the DWP’s barbarism. But an incoming Labour government should be bolder than just bringing this into effect. It could also add socio-economic status to the list of protected characteristics to give real teeth to the fight against class discrimination.

The charity Just Fair has been working to promote economic and social rights through existing and new legal protections. Their policy director Koldo Casla points out that:

Unlike the UK, at least 20 other European countries provide legal protection against discrimination on grounds related to socio-economic status. In the light of most advanced international human rights standards and best practice from other countries, a future legal review could be the opportunity to recognise socio-economic status as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act.

To return to the question of employment, working-class people are routinely discriminated against in the professions. The professions are dominated by the middle class and are saturated with class prejudices, often carried by people who think of themselves as ‘progressives’. The job interview is one of the key points at which access to the professions is controlled by the gatekeepers. Sociologists have shown how a form of ‘cultural matching’ raises barriers for working-class candidates in job interviews. Middle-class gatekeepers feel, consciously or otherwise, more comfortable with those who come from similar backgrounds.

As the sociologist Lauren A. Rivera notes, ‘shared tastes, experiences, leisure pursuits and self-presentation styles’ between interviewers and interviewees function subtly to sort out who ‘fits’ and who does not along class lines. ‘Hiring is a powerful way in which employers shape labour market outcomes’ argues Rivera, and the job interview is the crucial gatekeeping process that facilitates ‘career opportunities for some groups, while blocking entry for others.’

Making class a protected characteristic could provide individuals and trade unions with powerful levers with which to help make professional institutions more representative – although of course, as with gender and race, legal protections do not automatically produce the desired outcomes. But it would provide organisations across the board with the motivation to collect data and implement training and recruitment practices that acknowledge the reality of class discrimination. And it would also provide working-class people with the power to challenge class discrimination when it happens.

The class discrimination against working-class access to the professions is an important issue because these professions are so influential on a societal level. The people who work in these professions are the policy makers, creating change and making decisions that affect people’s lives, but without representative input by the types of people often most effected by their decision-making.

The media are one of the most influential professions because they feed into the others. Their stereotypes of working-class lives have real effects as they inform the thinking of the policy makers and set the tone for what is acceptable or unacceptable. For example, had the media done their job and properly investigated the fact that the DWP has blood on its hands, the appalling treatment of welfare claimants since 2010 might have been more difficult. We note that the middle class take to the streets in their thousands over Brexit, but where are they over the DWP’s assault on the poor? The media play a key part in stirring people to action over some things but not others.

Class-based discrimination in the creative and cultural industries

Our recent documentary film The Acting Class showed how economic resources and various other disadvantages, ranging from geographical location outside the South-East, educational background, cultural knowledge and above all social networks, gradually and over time filters out would-be working-class acting talent from the profession. This is not only a matter of social justice for the individual involved, as with other professions, it has a wider societal impact. In this case, the stories we tell ourselves as a society are likely shaped by the class background of the acting talent that is available.

Across the creative industries, the problem of unpaid internships that Frances O’Grady highlighted in her TUC speech, are rife. Such practices give the economically advantaged – typically via their parents – the chance to gain crucial work experience in for example, the film and television industries – and build social networks, that working-class talent cannot access because they are working instead as a barista to pay the rent. A recent report by sociologists called Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries, noted that according to data from the Office for National Statistics, only 12.6% of workers in publishing come from working- class origins, only 12.4% in film, television and radio and only 18.2% in music, performing and visual arts. Yet those who are most successful within these industries, who are overwhelmingly middle-class and white, tend to believe that this situation reflects hard work and talent – in other words, a meritocracy. That is another reason why legislation is needed: to force a change in mindset which is at the moment broadly and self-servingly content with the status quo..

Within the neoliberal public sphere, working-class people are constantly denigrated, ridiculed and their lives examined through a middle-class optic, while working-class values and attitudes are delegitimized. This reinforces class divisions and in the process constructs middle-class mores as desirable characteristics we should all strive to emulate, while at the same time keeping neoliberalism and the global economic system safe from the demands of a potentially radical working-class project.

It’s time for the Labour and trade union movement to demand legal protection against class-based discrimination, which is perpetuating an unequal and unfair society.

Fostering solidarity through culture: GFTU's 120 years of supporting trade unions
Tuesday, 17 September 2019 09:40

Fostering solidarity through culture: GFTU's 120 years of supporting trade unions

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Paul Tims reviews the GFTU's recent booklet celebrating its 120th anniversary

The General Federation of Trade Unions recently celebrated its 120th Anniversary and, to mark the occasion, released a booklet designed to introduce newcomers to its work and goals. Although straightforward in its presentation, it’s a surprisingly dense gem of a document and serves both as a pocket history and an ideological primer.

In the early pages, we learn that the GFTU has its origins in the ideas of ‘New Unionism’ that began to take shape in the 1890s. Although there was considerable division between those who wanted to bring about an end to the capitalist system and those who wanted to develop trade unions within it, many prominent thinkers agreed that a federation to support trade unions was necessary.

The pre-existing TUC initially voted down the idea of a federation in 1896, but later came round to the idea, thanks in part to the writing of P.J. King and the support of Keir Hardie. In 1899, the GFTU was finally created with a remit to provide financial support and advice for unions, enabling them to strike without their members starving or facing legal repercussions. During these early years, the GFTU differed from the TUC that had created it quite dramatically. Whereas the GFTU aimed for day-to-day practical support, the TUC existed to discuss ideas and politics and to get trade union representatives into parliament.

Bolshevism or moderation

It wasn’t until later, during the rise of the USSR, that the GFTU’s ideology began to take on a concrete shape. The body had to choose whether to openly support Bolshevism or present a more moderate face in order to work with the British government to improve workers’ rights and secure the future of the unions. Its then leader, William A. Appleton, chose to steer the organisation away from Bolshevism in order to build an organisation that could work with and influence the UK government.

Ultimately, the labour movement that had spawned the GFTU gave rise to the Labour Party, while the TUC became the UK’s leading trade union body. However, thanks to its willingness to evolve and the astute decisions of its leadership, the GFTU survived and still plays an important role in supporting trade unions today.

The booklet’s potted history is even-handed (it freely admits that the GFTU often plays second fiddle to the TUC) while maintaining a positive vibe. However, the recitation of the organisation’s basic history is far less interesting than many of the individual highlights from that history. The GFTU’s booklet does an admirable job of showcasing the more bizarre, baffling, humorous and outright esoteric moments from its past. For example, we’re told that the miners’ union refused to join, despite the fact that the GFTU had attracted the support of many other large unions. We also discover that Isaac Mitchell, the first General Secretary of the organisation, though enthusiastic and tireless in his work for the union, was also so disorganised in his filing that he once managed to misplace a bond worth £10,000. Though it was successfully recovered, the GFTU was more careful about its bookkeeping thereafter.

However, the most important part of the 120th Anniversary document is also the most subtle. I refer to the insights into the GFTU’s sense of solidarity, which comes across in historical titbits and quotes. For example, from 1935 to 1937, the GFTU made an effort to get chain-makers recognised under new unemployment laws, so they could reap their benefits. From this we can gather that the organisation made a concerted effort to represent smaller unions and less well-unionised professions. This is supported by an earlier quote from Mitchell who (when he stood as a Labour party candidate in 1906) said that he sought to “represent all – except privilege”. We also learn that, during and after the First World War, the GFTU elected to support the admission of former soldiers into trade unions. This hadn’t been common practice before, but it helped cement the organisation’s commitment to solidarity.

Fostering solidarity through culture

The GFTU’s commitment to solidarity goes beyond purely practical matters: it’s enshrined on a deep cultural level. The modern GFTU actively pursues the cultural elevation of the working class in the hope of fostering solidarity. Although the 120th Anniversary booklet only touches lightly on the organisation’s cultural contributions, it’s worth noting that in recent years, they have hosted the country’s largest arts festival for trade unions, held a cultural festival for working-class Kurdish communities, and helped to promote plays about union history. The GFTU is even celebrating its 120th year by screening a series of films about women’s historic struggle to organise as part of the trade union movement. You can read more about that here in the Morning Star.

Perhaps the booklet’s greatest triumph, however, is the sense of continuity it provides between the GFTU’s historic roots and its present-day activities. It was born in the 1890s, in a time of political and ideological debate. Now it provides the tools of political thought to the next generation through accessible, left-leaning education programs. It was shaped by a need for solidarity among different types of workers, and now it regularly meets with trade unions and workers’ groups from around the world, thereby making that solidarity international.

The booklet is available here as a free downloadable pdf. Its graphic format is itself an example of GFTU's commitment to culture.

 

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