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.

An alternative worth fighting for: the GFTU Liberating Arts festival
Wednesday, 12 April 2017 17:06

An alternative worth fighting for: the GFTU Liberating Arts festival

Published in Festivals/ Events

Chris Jury looks forward to a gathering of activists and unions to promote the role of the arts in challenging right-wing ideas.

The role of the arts and culture is crucial in the ongoing struggle for equality and social justice. In that struggle, the first battle that has to be won is the propaganda war and the arts are the most effective tool in that battle for hearts and minds. From the Egyptian pyramids to the nazi propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, to television’s Lion’s Den and The Apprentice, ruling elites have always understood that their power rests not only upon guns and money but also on the compliance of the people.

Early in November, a major union-backed conference and arts festival in Exeter is set to take a significant step forward in mounting a challenge to that power. The three-day event builds on the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) Art of the Trade Unions day last year and among its organisers are GFTU general secretary Doug Nicholls, creative activists, academics and prominent political arts professionals, including representatives from Reel News, Banner Theatre and Townsend Productions.

The festival aims to connect the trade union movement with cultural workers, creative activists and public educators. They’ll be exploring how power is as much an idea as it is a physical reality and, in order for people to take the significant risks involved in resisting power, they need to believe that change is both necessary and possible and that there is a preferable alternative.

Neoliberal propaganda has been spectacularly successful in convincing huge numbers of people that political change is neither necessary nor possible and that “there is no alternative” to free market capitalism. As a result of this propaganda victory, oppositional consciousness arising from declining living standards, increasingly precarious work, gross inequality and the barefaced dismantling of the welfare state is benefiting the far right as much as the left.

Effective propaganda costs money and by definition, the capitalists own or control most of it. In an almost entirely mediated world, dominated by global corporations and billionaire tycoons like Murdoch, how we can convince sufficient numbers of people that there is a credible and desirable socialist alternative to neoliberal austerity is one of the biggest challenges faced by the left.
Unless we can mount an effective countercultural propaganda offensive, our chances remain slim. 

Thus GFTU is inviting trade unionists, cultural workers, creative activists and educators to propose workshops, performances, media screenings, exhibitions, discussions, lectures and networking events that explore how we can fight back against the relentless stream of neoliberal propaganda and create our own propaganda. The aim is to convince people that there is a left alternative worth fighting for.

The inaugural Liberating Arts conference and arts festival will take place on November 3-5 at the Roborough Studios, University Of Exeter. If you are a trade unionist, cultural worker or creative activist and would like to propose a session for Liberating Arts 2017 then please email the event producer Chris Jury at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. If you wish to present an academic paper or other research-based event, please email Dr Rebecca Hillman, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Hypernormalisation
Saturday, 18 March 2017 15:37

Hypernormalisation

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.

Short Story: The Cage
Wednesday, 03 February 2016 15:33

Short Story: The Cage

Published in Fiction

When the man awoke he was surprised to find himself in a small cage. It was about eight feet square and had four walls and a roof all made of metal bars about four inches apart. There was a wooden floor and a full height gate made of the same bars. The man tried the gate but it seemed to be locked. He looked down and saw that he was wearing primitive leather slippers and a pair of sackcloth pyjamas. Puzzled he looked around him. On one side of the cage there was a bed, chamber pot, washing bowl, blankets and various utensils. On the other side was a strange machine that he would soon discover was a treadmill. In between the bed and the treadmill was a wooden chute opening out onto a small table below.

Outside the bars he could see nothing. There were no other cages, no landmarks just a strange mist that inexplicably frightened him. He couldn't for the life of him remember what had led him to this sorry state or indeed, anything of his life before he had awoken a few minutes before. He only knew he didn't like being in the cage and couldn't imagine what on earth he had done to be imprisoned in this way. "Help", he called out. "Is anyone there? Help!"

Out of the white mist a short and portly guard appeared wearing a well-worn, navy-blue uniform and a small peaked cap. "Can I help you?" The Guard asked politely.

"What am I doing in here? The man asked. "How do you mean?" The Guard replied. "Well, I'm locked in this cage." Said the man. "How did I get in here? Why is the gate locked?"

It's the natural order of things." Said the Guard, in a kindly, reassuring, sort of way. "People like you always live in the cages."

"People like me?" Asked the Man. "Yes." Said the Guard. "The people like you who always live in the cages."

"But why do we live in the cages?" Said the Man. "Because you always have." Replied the Guard, who was clearly getting a bit irritated.

"So the people who live in cages, live in them because they always have?" Said the Man. The Guard smiled. "You're getting it now." He said. "The King lives in his castle, you live in your cage, I'm your Guard and everything is exactly as it is meant to be."

The Man just looked at the Guard not quite believing what hewas hearing.

"If you want anything to eat or drink all you have to do is work the treadmill. Everything you need will come down the chute once you've done enough work." Concluded the Guard.

"Oh, right." Said the Man a bit nonplussed by the prospect. "Right I'm off." Said the Guard. "I'll be back in the morning to empty the chamber pot. Sleep tight; don't let the bed bugs bite." And he disappeared back into the mist surrounding the cage.

Alone once more, the Man looked around at the cage, not quite believing he was actually expected to live in it. He tried the gate again. It was definitely locked. He sat on the bed and pondered what was to be done. "There's nothing to be done." He said to himself. "Just got to make the most of it."

He realised he was hungry and decided to give the treadmill a go. He climbed into the sort of wooden cockpit thing and it forced his feet to rest on some steps below. As he put his weight onto the steps the cockpit closed behind him and clicked shut, held in position by his weight. The steps were actually on the rim of a wheel, and his weight was forcing the step he stood on down and as the wheel turned another step replaced it. He didn't move quickly enough and the second step bore down and painfully scraped the skin from his shin. He cried out in pain but there wasn't time for panic or self-pity because once the wheel was moving he had to keep stepping the steps or his shins would be scraped raw by the spinning steps. After a faltering start he managed to get the rhythm of the constant stepping and settled down to 'walk the treadmill' as he would later learn to call it.

The wheel moved slightly too fast for his natural rhythm and the effort of relentlessly climbing a never-ending staircase quickly made him breathless. Before long he was sweating and starting to panic as he couldn't see how he could get off the wheel but realised that if he stopped stepping his legs would be scraped and mangled to the bone. His breath got shorter and shorter and the pain in his calf and thigh muscles was intense. He started to whimper and his eyes filled with tears as the pain and the fear took hold of him.

But then just as he thought he could take no more, there was a rushing sound from the chute above him and the wheel started to slow down. A bottle of liquid and a bowl of food were dropped onto the table and after a few moments the treadmill cockpit opened and he was able to jump off.

He sat on the bed exhausted and relieved. That had been very scary and a lot of hard work. He looked at the food and drink on the table and smiled, realising he was rather proud of himself. "I certainly earned those." He said to himself.

When he had recovered his breath, he took the lid off the food bowl and inside was a pleasant smelling and inoffensive tasting gruel. But to the Man the gruel tasted like the finest gourmet meal money could buy, because he had 'worked so hard' to get it. As he slurped the gruel and drank the cold tea in the flask, the Man smiled to himself, maybe living in the cage wasn't going to be so bad after all.

And indeed for several days it wasn't so bad. The Guard would visit twice every day to empty the chamber pot, check that the treadmill and the chute were working and that the Man was alive and healthy. Otherwise the Man was left to his own devices. He could work when he wanted, eat when he wanted and sleep when he wanted. Much to his surprise and despite being locked in the cage, he felt sort of free.

He also soon discovered that by putting in a few extra hours on the treadmill he could earn some luxuries like toilet paper, soap, salt, books and even paper & ink. Thus when he wasn't working the treadmill, he could keep himself amused by reading, writing and drawing. He started to think life in the Cage really was pretty good.

____________________ ____________________

But as the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, it began to dawn on the Man that although the Guard had a pleasant manner and was not unkind, he was also an incompetent idiot. More than once the Guard spilt the contents of the chamber pot; more than once he had jammed the key in the lock of the cell, once he had even dropped the keys and the Man had to rescue them from falling through a crack in the floor. The Guard hadn't even thanked him for that!

The Man started to wonder why he was in the cage and the Guard outside. But whenever he asked the Guard he always got the same answer, "It's just the way it's always been."

"But what have I done to deserve to be in this cage?" Cried the Man. "You haven't done anything." Replied the Guard. "People like you are just born to the cage."

"People like me? How many of us are there?" Asked the Man. "Oh, hundreds of thousands." Replied the Guard. The Man was startled. "Hundreds of thousands! Where are they all?"

"In their own cages." Replied the Guard. "The world is full of cages. Each man has his own cage."

"Even you?" Asked the Man.

"Yes." Replied the Guard.

The Man was shocked. "You live in a cage?"

"Yes." Replied the Guard. "It's bigger than your cage of course, and more comfortable and I don't have to walk the treadmill."

"Why don't you have to work the treadmill?" Asked the Man.

"Because you do it for me." Replied the Guard. "I do?" Said the Man. "Yes. I'm the Guard and you work the treadmill for both of us. That's how it works."

The Man was a little put out. "So you don't have to do any work?" He said. "If only!" The Guard snorted. "I have to look after you."

"Well that's not difficult!" The Man snorted back.

"And all the other cages I'm assigned to look after." Exclaimed the Guard. "And I've got to fill in all the audit reports for the King's Comptroller of the treadmills."

"Really." Said the Man, not very sympathetically. "And how did you get to be a Guard?"

"I was born to it." Replied the Guard proudly. "My father was a Guard. My grandfather. As far back as you care to go."

"Could I be a Guard?" Asked the Man. "No." Replied the Guard firmly. "You have to be born to it."

"But that hardly seems fair!" Protested the Man. 'I'm locked in this cage and you've got the key, just because we were both born to it? Why shouldn't it be the other way round?" The Guards face clouded with anger, "You might as well ask why is the King, the King? He said,

"Well, exactly! Why is he?" Asked the man provocatively.

"Okay, that's enough of that." Said the Guard. "You've got everything you need and I'm not unkind to you, and yet you all you do is spout this insurgent nonsense. I can see I'm going to have to watch you. No bonuses for three days." And the Guard confiscated the Man's books, paper and ink and stomped off.

The Man was outraged. How dare the Guard talk to him like that? He had only asked a simple question. He shook the bars in frustration. "Give me back those books!" he shouted. "I earned those. You've no right to take them from me!" He took up his knife and fork and tried to pick the lock to the cage but only succeeded in snapping them. This enraged him further and he threw his chamber pot at the bars and it shattered all over the inside of the cage. He was furious by now and with a huge roar he picked up his bed and threw it at the bars. It splintered and broke and this seemed to give the Man some temporary relief from his impotent rage, and so in a frenzy, he threw the table and everything else in the cage at the bars. "You can't keep me in here!" He cried. "It's not fair!" And finally he threw his own body against the bars. It hurt and felt good at the same time, so he did it again. "I will not stay in this cage another minute!" He screamed as he flung himself at the bars. Again and again he threw himself at the bars until he was red-raw and the blood poured down his arms. But it was hopeless; the iron bars would not be moved and eventually he collapsed on the floor exhausted. He wept with frustration as he sat in the debris of what had until a few moments ago been his small but comfortable cage.

____________________ ____________________

The next day the Guard was primly smug. "You'll have to work for days and days to earn enough to replace all that lot." He crowed. The Man didn't reply, he was already on the treadmill, already working hard to get things back to how they had been. And the Guard was wrong, it didn't take days, it took weeks before the Man had earned enough to replace his bed, and the table and everything else he had smashed. But eventually he was done and everything was back to normal.

Yet this didn't make the Man happy. The whole business had made the Man sullen and resentful; angry at his own powerlessness, angry at the power the Guard had over him. And in turn the Guard wasn't so friendly or kind anymore either. They both seemed to realise that somehow the incident had revealed that they weren't on the same side and that in some subtle, unstated way, the situation pitted them against each other and that if things remained as the same, then it always would.

But as far as the Man was concerned the Guard was still a bumbling idiot and the Man decided to bide his time until the day came when the Guard would once again dropped his keys. And when it inevitably did, this time the Man didn't help the Guard. In fact, unseen by the Guard, the Man pushed the keys with his foot until they fell through a gap in the floorboards. Hearing them fall the Guard spun around and dropped to his knees to try and rescue the keys but no avail. The Guard cursed himself, what an idiot he was. "Right you." He said to the Man. "Stay exactly where you are. I'm going to have to get the hook stick to get the keys back." And he stomped off leaving the Cage door unlocked.

As soon as the Guard had disappeared into the mist, the Man leapt to his feet and headed for the exit of his cage. He swung the gate open and ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction to the Guard. As he reached the edge of the mist he realised it wasn't mist but smoke, and it was coming from a pit of burning fire that seemed to surround his cage on all sides. Whatever direction he ran in, the pit of burning fire blocked his escape. He wondered if he could jump to the other side of the pit and make his escape but the thick smoke meant he couldn't see how far away the other side of the pit was.

"I told you to stay in your cage." Said the Guard who had returned with the key hook stick.

"You left the gate unlocked." Replied the Man. "I'm not going to stay in there if I don't have to."

"But you do have to." Insisted the Guard. "There is no where else for you to go."

"So why lock the cage then?" Asked the Man. "For your own protection." Said the Guard. "These fire pits are very dangerous."

"I'm not an idiot!" Shouted the Man. "I'm not going to fall in there am I?"

"You might." Said the Guard. "Plenty have before you."

"Well they must have been idiots." Said the Man.

"Or just not able to live outside the cage." Suggested the Guard.

"Rubbish!" Said the Man. "You can get across the fire pits, so anyone could."

"I know where the bridges are." Said the Guard. "Well, show me where they are," demanded the Man, "or I'll throw you into the fire pits." And he began to advance menacingly on the now nervous Guard.

"Look, I'm just doing my job." Said the Guard. "There's no point having a go at me!"

"Then tell me where I can find the bridge over the pits?" Demanded the Man. "There's no point." Said the Guard. "Beyond the pits is the Dark forest and people like you don't have the skills to survive in the Dark Forest."

The Man stopped in his tracks. "Dark forest? What kind of Dark Forest? He asked.

"A wild Dark Forest." Replied the Guard. "Full of man-eating wolves, and quick sand, and snakes and all manner of things that want to eat you."

"So how do you survive out there?" Sneered the Man. "I don't." Replied the Guard. "The River of Discontent is between my cage and the Dark Forest, and I have a key to lock myself in; to keep the animal's of the Dark Forest out."

"Well, I could do that." Said the Man. "Why do I have to be locked in?"

"Because people like you don't know what's good for you and keep trying to escape from the cage." Replied the Guard. "We have to lock you in to protect you from yourself." The Man wasn't convinced. "I'd like to see this Dark Forest for myself." He said. "I can handle any man-eating wolves and I'm not afraid of snakes."

"You see this is the problem." Sighed the Guard. "If I let you go even up to the edge of the Dark Forest you will die. You just don't have the skills to deal with the dangers of the Dark Forest. Just wait here. I'll show you." And the Guard walked back into the mist. The Man waited expectantly. What now?

The Guard returned with a trolley containing the bloody remains of a man. The head was crushed and the legs and arms had been torn off. The Man recoiled at the sight of the bloody mess. "This is all that was left of the last one of your lot who made it to the Dark Forest." Said the Guard. "He just had no idea how dangerous the Dark Forest was and the wolves ate him."

"How long had he been out there?" Asked the Man. "An hour." Replied the Guard matter-of-factly. The Man was shocked and backed away from the trolley towards the safety of his cage. "You see this is what I mean." Said the Guard. "One false move out there and you are a dead man."

"Yes, I see." Said the Man starting to realise for the first time the seriousness of his predicament. "We know it can be difficult for people like you in the cage. You want to get out. You can't help it. We understand that." Said the Guard reassuringly. "So we lock the cages to make sure you don't hurt yourselves. Understand?"

"Yes, I do understand." Said the Man, who had unconsciously walked backwards into his cage. The Guard had cannily kept pace with him and once the man was safely inside the cage the Guard closed the gate behind him.

"Are you going to be okay now?" Said The Guard. "Yes, yes." Replied the man. "I understand now. Thank you."

The Guard smiled. "Good. I'm just trying to protect you. Life will be much easier if you stop fighting the system." The Man nodded, he understood now. The Guard smiled and turned to leave. "See you tomorrow." He said.

"But aren't you going to lock the gate?" Asked the Man. The Guard laughed. "Silly me." He said. "I've forgot to get the keys out from under the floor!"

"Here, let me do it." Said the Man eagerly. The Guard passed him the hook stick and the Man fished around under the floorboards until he found the keys. He hooked them out and returned them with the stick to the Guard.

"Well done." Said the Guard. "You won't regret this." And he locked the gate. "Don't worry I'll keep you safe." And he disappeared jauntily into the mist.

The Man settled onto his bed, feeling overwhelming by relief and gratitude. There were tears in his eyes as he realised what a fool he had been, what a lucky escape he had had and that his own headstrong, arrogance and ignorance had nearly cost him his life. He realised that he no longer felt trapped in the cage, now he actually felt safe within the security of the cage. "However, bad it is in here," he said to himself, "It's better than out there!"

____________________ ____________________

For a few weeks the Man's new understanding of his situation made life in the cage pleasant enough. But as the weeks turned into the months, the routine of life in the cage again started to weary the Man. The Guard started irritating him as much as he ever had and the Man became bored of the books and diversions the chute delivered to him. His dissatisfaction was compound by the fact that he now knew that there was no alternative to this life in the Cage, that there was no way out, that even if he could get out of the cage, there was nowhere to escape to.

This didn't stop him dreaming of a life outside the cage though. He dreamt of living the Guard's life, of locking the gate of his own cage, rather than being locked in this one by the Guard. He dreamt of being free to leave the cage whenever he wished. He dreamt of leaping over the fire pit and escaping into the Dark Forest. He dreamt of fighting and defeating the man-eating wolves and making a free life for himself out in the Dark Forest. But these dreams didn't make the Man happy because the more he thought of escaping the cage the more he was reminded that he couldn't. The Man started to slump into a deep depression.

"This is the problem with hope." Explained the Guard. "It's very destructive. There is no alternative to this life in the cage and hoping there is will drive you mad. You have to accept reality for what it is and learn to live with it; learn to love it if you can."

"But how?" Asked the Man.

"You need to think positively about your life in the cage." Replied the Guard. "You need to be grateful for what you have, not regret what you don't have. I mean, at least you have a cage." He said. "At least you're not on your own out in the Dark Forest being eaten alive by wolves! At least all you have to do is walk the treadmill to get everything you need. Think of the poor souls who don't even have that."

"Are there people who don't even have that?" Said the Man. "Oh, yes." Replied the Guard. "They are every where."

"I've never seen any." Said the Man.

"Okay, hang on a minute. I'll show you." The Guard turned and disappeared into the mist. The Man waited expectantly. As he stared intently from between the bars into the mist, he heard a cry and then a filthy child ran into view being herded by the Guard like a lone sheep lost from the herd.

The Man was horrified at the state of the poor child. It wore no clothes except for some rags tied hastily round its waist. It was so thin it made the man flinch away. Every rib could be seen and the sunken cheeks, bulging eyes and skin stretched taught over the skull, gave the child a nightmarish, otherworldly appearance that frightened and appalled the Man in equal measure.

"Offer it some bread." Said the Guard.

As the Man went to his table, the child started to salivate and threw itself at the bars of the cage. The Man was momentarily paralysed as the whimpering child hung on the outside of the bars like a half-dead Gollum, staring eagerly at the loaf of bread on the Man's table. The Man regained his composure and tore off a piece of bread from his loaf and tentatively held it out to the child. The poor creature snatched it from him and like a dog scuttled away to eat it, constantly on the watch for any one, or any thing, that might try to take the food from it.

"Where did it come from?" Asked the Man. "They live on the banks of the River Of Discontent." Replied the Guard. "Where's that?" Asked the Man. "On the edge of the Dark Forest." Said the Guard.

Suddenly the child was back in the Man's face hanging on the outside of the bars of his cage. "More!" Cried the child desperately. "More!" Desperate tears of starvation ran down the child's cheeks. The Man quickly reached for the loaf to give the child some more.

"No. That's enough." Shouted the Guard. "You can't give them too much or they become dependent." He advanced towards the child. "Be off with you! You theieving ragamuffin." And he chased the poor creature away.

"How many of them are?" Asked the Man when the Guard returned. "Millions." Said the Guard.

The Man was shocked." Millions? And there is no one to look after them?"

The Guard laughed. "Why should anyone look after them?" He said. "They are the children of the River of Discontent, they have always been there, and they always will be. It's not our responsibility to look after them, they must look after themselves."

"I see." Said the Man although secretly he felt this was very harsh. "Anyway," Said the Guard. " You and I just have to thank the lucky stars that it is them and not us who have no shelter and no way of earning of a living."

The Man nodded; he certainly didn't envy the life of that child.

"And that's the best we could hope for outside of the cage." Continued the Guard. "Even if we didn't fall into the fire pits, even if the Wolves of the Dark Forest didn't eat us, without the cage we would have to live like the children of the river. Forever fearful and forever hungry."

After the Guard had gone the Man was left alone with his thoughs. He could see now that the alternatives to living in the cage were far worse than life in the cage. He realised that yet again it was his was warped thinking that was causing the problem. And so with renewed vigour he vowed to himself that he would knuckle down once more to try and live happily in the cage.

____________________ ____________________

As the days and weeks went by he really did try desperately hard to be 'grateful for what he had', and to think positively about his situation. But in his heart of hearts he knew he was lying to himself, and so after montha and months of trying to 'think positively', he realised the only way out for him was to stop thinking completely. So he closed his mind down. He stopped wondering why he was in the cage, and why the Guard was not. He stopped thinking of escape and stopped dreaming of better lives he might lead outside the cage.

And to be honest, he felt much better for it, or, more accurately, he felt nothing at all; he no longer experienced anything, good or bad, he just was. He found it was much less painful that way and in time he ceased to worry about anything, because he had ceased to think about anything.

Then one day he was staring blankly into space while walking the treadmill, when suddenly six men dressed like him in the slippers and sackcloth pyjamas but they carrying weapons, came running out of the mist towards to him. They ran up to the cage and the leader of the group took out a bunch of keys and started to try them one by one in the lock of the gate.

"What are you doing?" Asked the Man. "We're letting you out." Said the Leader.

"Where did you get those keys?" Asked the Man.

"We took them from the Guard." Answered the Leader.

"Are you allowed to do that?" Said the Man.

The six men all laughed. "It's not up to them." Said the Leader. "Got it." He said as he turned the key and opened the gate of the Man's cage. "Right. Let's go."

The six men started to move away expecting the Man to follow but the terrified Man stayed firmly rooted to the floor of his cage. "Where are we going to go?" He asked.

The Leader came back to the gate. "Anywhere but here!" He said. "Don't you want to be free?"

'But what about the fire pit?" Said the Man. "Don't worry. We know where the bridges are." Said the Leader. "But what about the Dark Forest?" Pressed the Man. "The wolves, the snakes, the quick sand?"

The six men laughed again. "There isn't a Dark Forest." Said the Leader. "Rubbish!" Exclaimed the Man. "I saw the body of a man eaten by wolves!"

"There wouldn't have been a body left if wolves had eaten it." Said the Leader. And instantly the Man knew the Leader was right. Why hadn't he thought of that at the time? The Man was shaken. "So what was the body I saw?" Asked the Man. "It was probably a mutineer killed by the Guards." Answered one of the other men.

"Killed by the Guards!?" The Man was astounded. "My Guard wouldn't kill anyone." He said.

Again the men laughed. "You really are gullible aren't you?" Said the Leader.

"Okay, how will we feed ourselves if we are free?" Said the Man defiantly. "Have you never seen the starving children of River of Discontent?"

"Beyond the River Of Discontent is a land of milk & honey." Replied the Leader patiently. "The land of the King and his courtiers. They have enough food for all of us and all the children of the River."

"I know." Said the Man. "But he's the King and all that belongs to him, not to us. We can't just take it. That wouldn't be fair!"

"And is it fair that he lives in a luxurious palace and you live in a cage just because he was born a King and you were born to live in a cage?" Asked the Leader, who was now very irritated by the Man's timidity in the face of freedom.

"Come on the Guards will be here in a minute." Said one of the other men. "We have to go."

"But you've just told me that if we go the Guards might kill us." Said the Man incredulously. "Yes and if you stay, they'll keep you in your cage forever." Said the Leader. "Come on!"

The Man didn't know what to do. For months before he had dreamt of escaping from the cage but now he had found a way of coping with life in the cage and now faced with a real chance of escaping he was frightened. Could he trust the Leader when he said there was no Dark Forest? Why would the Guard lie to him about the Dark Forest? Did the Leader really know where the bridges over the fire pits were? What if the Guards caught them trying to escape? He hadn't been thinking at all for months and now all at once there was just too much to think about!

"Come on!" Shouted the Leader. "It's now or never!" The Man realised the Leader was right and he may never get another chance to escape the cage. "Okay." He said. And started to move towards the gate of his cage. "About time!" Said the Leader and turned and ran towards the rest of his men.

But as the Man reached the gate of his cage, a squadron of Guards armed with swords, pikes and axes appeared out of the mist from all directions and surrounded the Leader and his men. The Man's Guard was amongst them. "You stay where you are!" He shouted to the Man. The Man nodded, took a step back into his cage and pulled the gate closed behind him, locking himself in.

Then a cry went up "Charge!" And the Guards descended onto the small group of mutineers and started to hack them to pieces. The Man turned away at the sight of the butchery and tried to shield his ears from the screams of the dying men and the sounds of crunching bones and slashing flesh.

Eventually the slaughter was over and the Man's Guard approached the cage. "You okay?" He asked. The Man nodded. "I wasn't trying to escape..." He started to explain but the Guard cut him off. "It's okay. I understand." The Guard said. "These mutineers can be very persuasive. But you did the right thing going back into the cage and closing the door. Well done."

"I know." Said the Man. "Thank you. You saved my life." The Guard smiled. "I told you. I'm only here to protect you."

"How did the mutineers get out of their cages?" Asked the Man.

"The Leader knocked his own Guard unconscious, stole his bridge map and the master keys, and then set out to free the others. I don't know where they thought they were escaping to though."

"He told me there wasn't any Dark Forest." Said the Man. "That the King's palace is beyond the River Of Discontent. The Guard smiled. "Well he would say that wouldn't he."

"Have you ever been to the Dark Forest? Asked the Man. "Ha! You must be joking!" The Guard snorted with laughter. "I told you. It's too dangerous for any of us to go anywhere near it."

"So you've never seen it?" Asked the Man. "No. Thank goodness." Replied the Guard. "I don't need to stick my hand in the fire pit to know it will hurt do I?" He said. "I'm quite happy to stay right away from the Dark Forest, thank you very much."

"What will happen now?" Asked the Man. "Nothing." Replied the Guard. "We'll just go back to normal."

____________________ ____________________

And now the Man knew there really was no hope of a life outside the cage and he became very angry indeed with the mutineers and especially that bloody Leader. He thought the Leader's plan to steal all the food and property of the King was outrageous and just plain wrong. "Things must be the way they are for a reason." He said to himself. "And it is not for people like me or that bloody mutineer, to question why things are the way they are. I mean, who did those bloody mutineers think they were?"

He was also angry because the Leader had nearly got him killed. "How irresponsible", he thought, "the Guard had told him there was no way out of a life in the cage, and the Guard is a good man and yet the Leader thought he knew better. Unbelievable."

But what upset the Man the most was that the Leader had got the Man's hopes up again. The Man had just managed to find a way to survive by not thinking about anything at all, and then along came the mutineers and woke him up from his self-imposed torpor. Now his head was yet again full of all sorts of thoughts, all sorts of hopes and dreams and he couldn't stand it because he knew they could never be fulfilled.

Over the coming weeks he came to hate the Leader with an intense ferocity. And much to his surprise and delight he discovered that this ferocious hatred of the Leader and all the mutineers, eventually pushed all the thoughts and ridiculous hopes and dreams out of his head. In time it was this hatred of the Leader that gave him the energy to get up in the morning; it was his hatred of the Leader that drove him on the treadmill; it was as if each step on the treadmill was an opportunity to stamp on the Leader's head.

His luxuries accumulated as the hatred of the Leader spurred him on to earn, a four-poster bed, an armchair, silk sheets, a flushing toilet...

"You live like a King in here!" Said the Guard, who was also benefitting from the Man's anger fuelled energy. Indeed, what the Man didn't know was that his work on the treadmill was earning the Guard enough to turn his cage into a four-roomed house with a bath and a walled Garden.

But it was probably just as well the Man didn't know, because in fact the Guard and the Man were getting on very well. No one could describe the Man as 'happy' because his head was so full of resentment and anger at the Leader, but he had at least stopped fighting the system and thus there was at least no longer any tension between him and the Guard. The Guard looked after the Man and in return the Man worked hard on the treadmill to provide them with the luxuries they both deserved. In fact the Man was almost learning to love his life in the cage, as the Guard had once advised him to try and do.

____________________ ____________________

Then one day as he was furiously stepping away on the treadmill pretending he was stepping on the bloody Leader's bloody head, another small group of mutineers appeared out of the mist. The Man knew immediately what they were and angrily stepped off his treadmill and went to the gate of his cage.

"We've got the keys." Said the Leader of the mutineers as he tried a key in the lock. "We're going to let you out."

"Are you, indeed?" Said the Man. "And then you're going to the King's Castle I suppose, to steal all his property?" The new Leader stopped in his tracks. "Yes." He said. "It's the only way for us all to be free."

"It's the only way for you all to die." Said the Man. He turned to the other mutineers. "This irresponsible, anarchist is going to get you all killed." He said.

"No. He's setting us free." Replied one of the others. "Don't you want to be free?"

"I'm not meant to be free." Said the Man. " Neither are you. It's not how the world is arranged."

"But we can change the world." Said the New Leader as he found the right key and opened the gate of the Man's cage. "No you can't!" Replied the Man. "And even worse in trying to change a world that can't be changed you are going to get a lot of people killed!"

"I'd rather be dead than live in a cage like this." Said one of the other mutineers. "That can be arranged." Said the Man and slammed his gate shut and screamed at the top of his lungs, "Guard! Help! Mutineers. Guards! Escaping mutineers!"

"Traitor!" The New Leader cried out as the mutineers turned and ran into the mist.

A moment later the Man heard the sounds of the inevitable battle between the mutineers and the Guards. This time he relished the screams of the dying men and the sounds of crushing bones and the slashing of flesh. "Teach those bastards to come round here with their talk of freedom!" He thought to himself.

____________________ ____________________

After the mutineers had been crushed the Guard had come to the Man and was full of praise. He said he had mentioned the Man's actions in his report on the incident and promised that the Man would be rewarded for his courage and his loyalty. The Man was pleased but said he had already earned his reward by hearing the screams of the New Leader as the Guards had hacked him to pieces. Secretly the Guard felt this was a bit harsh and he wasn't sure he really liked who the Man was becoming, but his was not reason why.

One morning about a week after the battle with the mutineers, the Man heard through the mist the sound of a trumpet and was astounded to see his very own Guard leading The King and a coterie of ministers and generals, out of the mist and making their way to his cage.

The Man quickly tidied up his cage as best he could, licked his hand and flattened his hair and pulled his sackcloth pyjamas into shape. As the King arrived the Man bowed deeply and then stood to attention. The Guard was grinning proudly from ear to ear and was wearing an elaborate medal on his chest.

The King approached the cage and the Guard indicated to the Man to step up to the gate. The King barely looked at the Man but took a medal from a cushion held out to him by a servant, and stepped forward and reached through the bar's of the cage to pin the medal to the Man's chest.

"I hereby award you the King's Medal for loyalty and valour in the face of mutiny." The King pinned the medal onto the Man's jacket and then held out his hand to the Man. Startled the Man took the King's hand and shook it. "Congratulations." Said the King without even making eye contact. "Thank you, Sir." Said the Man bowing deeply but the King and his coterie had already gone.

The Man looked down at his hand. "That hand has shaken the hand of a King!" He thought to himself proudly. Then he took off his medal to get a better look at it. It was smaller and less colourful than the Guards medal of course, but it was still pretty impressive and it was his and his alone. He was so proud he could have burst.

The Guard came back. "What about that then?" He said, beaming with pride and delight.

"I know." Said the Man. "And thank you so much for mentioning me in your dispatches."

"Least I could do." Said the Guard. "And to cap it all, you've been given the day off."

"The day off?" Said the Man. "Yes." Replied the Guard. "The King himself will feed you today, so for 24 hours you don't have to work the treadmill at all."

The Man couldn't believe the generosity of the King and tears of gratitude filled his eyes. "Now, now." Said the Guard. "Don't cry. You deserve it. You just enjoy yourself. I'll see you in in the morning." And the Guard left.

The Man was alone again in his cage. He had the rest of the day off and was assured of the gratitude and respect not only of his Guard but of the King himself. He knew that tomorrow he would have to walk the treadmill again, and that he could never, ever escape his life in the cage, but he didn't mind anymore because his existence had been acknowledged, he had a medal and he had shaken the hand of the King, and surely that must better than being free.

This story is the full version of the piece of flash fiction embedded in Chris Jury's Counter Culture, Propaganda And Political Consciousness, on the culture hub.

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

Counter Culture, Propaganda And Political Consciousness

Published in Cultural Theory

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.