Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other
Thursday, 18 July 2019 12:00

Angels and Demons: one must subdue the other

Published in Cultural Commentary

Sean Ledwith reviews Angels and Demons, by Tony McKenna, a collection of essays on artists, writers and politicians written from a historical materialist perspective.

The role of the individual in history has been one of the perennial debates throughout the development of Marxist theory. Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century were keen to dissociate themselves from the ‘great man view of history’ that had characterised much of bourgeois scholarship up to that point. The defining feature of historical materialism as an analytical tool in their hands was to transfer the focus of attention away from the actions and intentions of individuals, and onto the structural forces and relations of production that have combined to create a succession of modes of production across the millennia of human history.

At the same time, as revolutionary activists and not simply disinterested scholars, the founders stressed the ongoing importance of human agency and the capacity of individuals to operate with a degree of choice, albeit within the constraints of these subterranean processes. This fine balance between structure and agency is neatly encapsulated in a celebrated passage from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

Of course, subsequent generations of thinkers, seeking to follow the founders’ example, have not always succeeded in reproducing both elements of this conceptual tension; oscillating at times between the voluntarism associated with Sartre and others, and the subject-less paradigm constructed most intricately by Althusser.

Anyone looking for a modern attempt to recreate the dialectical balance between the individual and wider social forces in the spirit of Marx and Engels should refer to this highly readable collection of essays by Tony McKenna. The author impressively surveys the lives of a number of individuals across the fields of politics, philosophy and the arts who have had a major impact – for good or ill – on human affairs.

SL 1

Nicholas II

McKenna takes his theoretical cue from a passage in Trotsky’s seminal History of the Russian Revolution in which the character of Nicholas II is portrayed as an amalgam of the subjective and objective:

In Trotsky’s account, the personal and the political achieve a harmonious but terrible synthesis, for in the person of the last Tsar is embodied all the decadence, fatality, pettiness, self-deception, brass ignorance, denial and hopelessness of a historical tendency which has entered into an inevitable, mortal freefall. (3)

Developing the template provided by Trotsky for a distinctively Marxist approach to biography, the author persuasively argues that a nuanced version of historical materialism, eschewing both crude determinism and naïve individualism, can creatively identify the strands that link the lives of the one with the many. The personalities he discusses are not reducible to mere abstract cyphers, the personal representatives of mechanical, anonymous historical forces, but rather their art and activity, their interests and individuality, only resonates its full uniqueness and meaning in the context of the historical epoch, and the underlying social and political contradictions which set the basis for it. (6)

As a formulation of the Marxist conception of the role of the individual in history, McKenna here provides a valuable new iteration of the analyses of Marx, Trotsky and others in previous eras.

The author divides his ten subjects into the two categories alluded to in the title. This classification follows a method that in more familiar terms consists of radicals and reactionaries. In the former camp, we find Victor Hugo, Hugo Chavez, Rembrandt, Andrea Dworkin, William Blake and Jeremy Corbyn. The ‘Demons’ team is made up of Christopher Hitchens, Schopenhauer, Hillary Clinton and Trump.

It would be difficult to think of more diverse and anomalous assortment of case studies for McKenna’s thesis that historical materialism can usefully contextualise the personal with the political! However, he deploys with virtuosity a remarkable grasp of the breadth of cultural, economic and political forces at work in the lives of these personalities. Anyone interested in any of the above figures will find their understanding enhanced by McKenna‘s sophisticated delineation of how the respective subject’s ideology was shaped by the dynamics of the age.

The only slight drawback of the author’s selection is that the personalities are not analysed in chronological order. The reader for example can find herself rewinding from Hitchens in the twentieth century to Rembrandt in the seventeenth, and similarly from Dworkin in the twentieth to Blake in the eighteenth. McKenna perceptively suggests the key to explications of individual psychology from a Marxist perceptive should comprehend how major figures mediate most profoundly the most significant contradictions within the capitalist order at different stages in its development. (15)

It might have been preferable, therefore, if each study more evidently reflected a step-change in the operations of the rule of capital from the dawn of the bourgeois revolutions to today’s seemingly remorseless neoliberal hegemony. However, this consideration does not detract from the elegance and power of McKenna’s expositions.

The emphasis on contradictions in an individual personality is the fundamental insight that lies at the heart of McKenna’s methodology. Again, in this aspect he follows in the tradition of some of the best thinkers in the Marxist tradition. Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks of the 1930s, drew attention to ‘contradictory consciousness’ as one of the symptoms of alienation in the mental framework of every subject living under the role of capital.

Voloshinov, in the previous decade, explored the phenomenon of ‘multi-voicedness’ and the manner in which the consciousness of an individual can simultaneously contain ideological input from a range of sources, some of which may be conflicting. Likewise, the author here contends that the key to unlocking human personality is the way in which the contradictions of the age are manifested in the unique experience of every person. The result of this methodology is a sequence of portraits that fulfils Gramsci’s guidance on how biography in the tradition of historical materialism can produce insights that are superior to its bourgeois counterpart:

They never let you have an immediate, direct, animated sense of the lives of Tom, Dick and Harry. If you are not able to understand real individuals, you are not able to understand what is universal and general.

SL2

Rembrandt, Self-portrait at the age of 63

In the moving chapter on Rembrandt, McKenna elucidates how the painter’s sublime genius lay in his ability to tune into the contradictions of the world’s first bourgeois revolution as the newly born Dutch capitalist state threw off the yoke of the Spanish Empire at the turn of the seventeenth century:

For he channelled this dualism in an art which attains a new depth of individuality and interority, illuminating the flickering shadows of the soul, while at the same time possessing the kind of aesthetic integrity which was able to express the suffering of an age, allowing it to bleed into the backdrop of his paintings. (96)

450px Rembrandt Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son Google Art Project

McKenna recounts how many of Rembrandt’s portraits of the 1630s, such as ‘The Prodigal Son in the Brothel’, are of the moneyed bourgeoisie whose ‘exuberant political freedoms' (89) are expressed in the lavish and salubrious scenes depicted around the characters. The optimism and self-confidence of an embryonic ruling class that is taking a torch to the decaying carcass of feudalism is almost palpable.

1024px Rembrandt The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

The greatness of Rembrandt, however, is that the artist notes, amid the surging power of the Dutch bourgeoisie, a sense that its hegemony will be built not on the abolition of exploitation but only a new type of exploitation. Describing the iconic ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp’, McKenna draws our attention to the attitude of the scientists looking down on the corpse in front of them: They see him only in terms of an object like any other, to be appropriated, to be carved up; as a means to enhance their own material and intellectual powers. (93)

This picture is conventionally interpreted as representing the humanism and idealism of the scientific revolution of the early modern age. With an appropriate lightness of touch, however, McKenna deploys a Marxist lens to re-imagine it as a portent of the calculated disinterest the capitalist class retains for the millions of subjects who labour in its name.

At no point does the author’s analysis relapse into a crude materialism that might see Rembrandt as the artist of the Dutch bourgeois revolution and little else. McKenna does not lose sight of the fact that the reason the artist remains phenomenally popular is that he addresses anxieties and concerns that continue to exercise the human imagination, and that probably always will.

Rembrandt bue squartato 1655 01

For example, ‘The Slaughtered Ox’ from 1643 contains an enigmatic power that seemingly defies rational explanation. The image of a butchered bovine cadaver in a basement at first would appear to be an unlikely source of fascination. For McKenna, however, the painting brutally reminds us of the material reality of our existence as transient beings in a universe ultimately beyond our comprehension:

Rembrandt is making us aware that, ultimately, this is our destiny – that, each day, life crucifies us that little bit more and that little more slowly, through the sense of loss and suffering we must inevitably accumulate. (102)

If Rembrandt is rightly one of the eponymous angels of the collection, Christopher Hitchens as one of the most famous critics and polemicist of our age falls into the less desirable category. His championing of the calamitous Bush-Blair inspired invasion of Iraq in 2003 is probably the main reason Hitchens was suitably dubbed as a fallen angel in the eyes of many on the radical left. McKenna ultimately concurs with this damning verdict but does not elide over Hitchens’ undoubted qualities as a writer and is generous in acknowledging his subject’s stoical battle against cancer in the twilight of his life:

Hitchens had a wonderful facility with words. His literary flair surpasses that of his idol Orwell, in my view, in terms of its fluidity and grace…even in his later years, the increasingly rotund figure of this patrician journalist was in possession of a certain stoutly courage. (71-72)

Hitchens’ espousal of Western imperialism in his last decade can appear bizarrely incongruous in the light of his previous association with the revolutionary left. As McKenna observes, the most obvious explanation would be that ‘the allure of money and privilege no doubt played its part’. (70) But the author contends that a more productive line of thought is to trace the conflict that raged within Hitchens’ persona throughout his life between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the desire to shock the establishment, and on the other, the need to be part of it. In McKenna’s words:

The need to have it both ways, so to say-to be able to indulge the exhilarating frisson and enjoy the moral vitality which are the remits of the freedom-fighter, while simultaneously partaking in the silky confidences of the most famous and powerful; this was the central, elemental contradiction which fissured across Hitchens’ existence. (82)

Perhaps the moral of this particular life is that although contradictions are the essence of the human condition, they do not always play out without resolution. The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks forced Hitchens to decide whether he would decisively take the side of the oppressed or the oppressor. His total failure to comprehend Islamism as a distorted form of resistance to imperial hegemony led him into the welcoming arms of Cheney, Wolfowitz and the rest of the neocon cabal in Washington.

McKenna’s reflective adoption of a Marxist approach to psychology here highlights the advantage of not focusing on our interiority alone; but also perceiving how by events in the external world can force us to confront the contradictions within ourselves. The fiery fiasco of the ‘War on Terror’ forced Hitchens to face the paradoxes of his own existence – and he was found wanting.

Jeremy Corbyn Leader of the Labour Party UK

McKenna’s closing chapter is a timely assessment of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. As the Tory government stumbles through the Brexit morass, the prospect of the Labour Leader walking through the black door of Number 10 is tantalisingly real. In the neatly titled ‘Chronicle of a Coup Foretold’ McKenna predicts that such a scenario would trigger a major crisis of the British state, in which the aspirations of millions of working-class people, long neglected by a venal elite, would be pitched against the centuries-old conservatism of the ruling class. Unlike the previous profiles in the book, McKenna does not detect any deep contradictions in Corbyn’s personality, and the author’s focus is more on a looming rupture in the wider body politic. In fact, it is fair to say that the Labour leader’s apparent lack of hidden agendas – conscious or otherwise – is the root of his remarkable appeal. Corbyn’s lack of complexity and personal ambition is a refreshing change from his recent predecessors in the post:

Jeremy Corbyn is a kind, decent, reasonable man who evinces a sense of faint distaste and aloofness to the more savage and Machiavellian manoeuvrings, which are so much a part of modern politics. (238)

Nevertheless, McKenna shrewdly cautions us that these qualities are eerily reminiscent of Salvador Allende, Chile’s doomed socialist Prime Minister of the early 1970s. Allende believed decency and reason would be enough to restrain the dark forces of military intervention that stood at his side in the last weeks of his administration. By the time he realised they were actually his deadliest enemies, it was too late. If Corbyn is not to suffer a similar fate in the future, the whole labour movement in the UK will need to realise there can be no common ground in the event of a clash between the ‘Angels and Demons’ – one must subdue the other.

Angels and Demons is available here.

Le Maillot Gallois: Tour de France 2018
Thursday, 18 July 2019 12:00

Le Maillot Gallois: Tour de France 2018

Published in Sport

C’est magnifique, Geraint! declares cycling fan Mark Perryman, and calls on Labour to develop a socialist culture policy to encourage popular, grassroots cycling.

Britain took 109 years to achieve its very first Tour de France winner in 2012. And now we can hardly stop winning it, with the single exception of Italy’s Nibali in 2014 (when Chris Froome crashed and was unable to continue) every year since. The French aren’t best pleased mind: ‘Boring, Boring Team Sky’ is one of their less impolite responses.

Each of our winners has been different. Wiggins in 2012 was impeccably English, complete with RAF roundels mod-style on his helmet and a fondness for The Jam (the band, not what we spread on our toast). His victory was immediately followed by the London 2012 Olympics where he also triumphed in the Time Trial, to win a Gold Medal to add to his Yellow Jersey.

Pictured astride a throne at Hampton Court, where the race ended, Bradley with Wiggomania in tow was rampant with the Union Jack enjoying a late Cool Britannia renaissance. It was a moment when most of us thought Wiggo could do no wrong, until we found out via a jiffy bag that maybe he could.    

Then along came Chris Froome, Wiggins’ number two in 2012 who didn’t much fancy playing second fiddle to anyone, least of all Wiggo. Born in Kenya, educated in South Africa, Froome pays (or rather doesn’t pay) his taxes in Monaco. Never mind, he could climb a mountain on a bike like nobody else, never out of his saddle, twig-like arms outstretched with hands ‘on the hoods’ staring into the distance as if the gradient barely existed.

Four wins in five years 2013- 2017, a legend in the making. The idea that in order to be a world-beating sports superstar an athlete needs the ‘personality’ to go with it is an unwelcome product of our celebritified era, but there’s not much doubt it helps. Froome’s achievements dwarf Wiggins but he was never a hit with the great British sporting public in the same way, most of whom don’t have much more than a passing interest in watching cycling. And so his near downfall via the over use of an asthma inhaler didn’t have quite the big hit of Wiggo and his dodgy jiffy bag full of we know not what. All it did was confirm those deep seated suspicions that the superhuman qualities of Grand Tour cyclists aren’t as naturally-produced as they might appear.

And now we have Geraint Thomas. Previously a super-domestique, always happy and willing to help his leader, as the cliché goes – road cycling is an individual sport played by teams. His emergence first to lead Le Tour and finally win it shocked just about everyone, not least himself.

Yes undoubtedly the suspicions linger, cycling will never entirely be rid of these, but Geraint’s is a homespun story of a Cardiff kid who joined his local cycling club, went to a secondary school with superlative sports facilities, and was talent-spotted at an early age. His is a rare ability, that took him first to Olympic glory and then on to the road, grinding out the hundreds of kilometres mainly in the cause of more-celebrated others. He is in this regard the perfect combination of Wiggins’ personality and Froome’s athleticism on a bike.

So are we about to witness ‘Geraintmania’? If back, and in most cases front, pages are anything to go by on the Monday morning after the Champs Élysées triumph the afternoon before, we might like to think so. Handily sandwiched after World Cup 2018, Wimbledon and the British Open, before England’s test series against India and the start of the football season, a British Tour de France win now receives the kind of blanket media coverage that before Wiggins barely existed. But somehow I doubt the scale of any ‘mania’.

Thomas’s backstory, and particularly his Welshness, adds something to the mix, however. He’s more understated than Wiggins, but someone to warm to in a way Froome never quite manages. Yet short of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, it is hard to imagine Thomas will be much in the news in the interim. Despite that, as he revelled in his victory all the media-talk was of how he would inspire others to follow him in the same way he’d been inspired to get on a bike by Le Tour as a kid. 

 This is the cruel myth-making of any sporting triumph. It’s not being a killjoy to point to the social construction of sport, rather it is the only means of understanding how to change participation from sofa-watching to getting off that sofa. 

Cycling in this regard has a lot going for it. It is a means of transport and freedom for children, a way to spend time together as a family, a means to get to work or to do the shopping for adults. And all the while we can dream we are Geraint Thomas.  

Yet each of these opportunities are shaped by the socio-economic circumstances of the world we live in. Fewer children cycle to school than ever before. Safe cycling routes to enjoy for parents and children ambling together on two wheels remain few and far between. Towns and cities are ill-equipped to cope with expanding demand to cycle to work, and we have a rail system that actively deters the carriage of cycles.

Don’t believe me? Visit any other European country and both the much better participation statistics and vastly more positive lived experience of cycling put Britain to shame. Yes there’s been a post-Wiggins increase in cycling but mostly it has been those who have given up one sport, anecdotally marathon-running and golf are often cited, for another.

There’s been next to no overall reversal in ever-declining physical activity participation rates. So well done Geraint, but I’m afraid to change all this its going to be down to another cyclist. Over to you, Jeremy Corbyn!

Thomas Tour Win 2018 s s rev1

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’, aka Philosophy FootballTheir Maillot Gallois T-shirt is available from here. 

Durham Miners' Gala 2018
Thursday, 18 July 2019 12:00

Durham Miners' Gala 2018

Published in Poetry

Gala Day, Durham Miners

by Jane Burn

At eight-fifteen, the band stands up in regimented lines.
July, before the schools break – the morning lull broken
by the stray parp of tuning notes, loud and sudden
through nets ghosting open windows. It’s a signal
to get up, throw cardigans over nighties, join the exodus
of neighbours slopping feet in slippers, scratching bed hair.
Slovenliness forgiven, this once – right now it means more
to be outside, listening to them play.

CJ1 5206   CJ1 5214

CJ1 5253  CJ1 5260

Dorothy – bitched about me once, with them at thirty-one,
but if I cannot forgive her that, what use as a person am I?
Her Arthur, taken by cancer in less than a year. Marie, last
of three sisters; a street full of women outliving their men.
Sleepy-eyed kids, hurried out of their beds to hear the opening
bars of Abide With Me, see The Banner, tassels of gold and red;
For The People By The People. Your history, I tell my sons.
Your village, see? This is why we don’t forget.

CJ1 5268   CJ1 5333

 

CJ1 5565   CJ1 5589

We were children when we lived through the last of the mines.
Thatcher – strikes, scabs, picket lines; Arthur Scargill
in Barnsley. The Dearne Valley villages – always the backdrop
of pit-heads, men in donkey jackets, orange panels bright among
allotment leeks. The scent of sparking fires – the sharp, oily smell;
powder, staining everything it touched – grimy on the coal man’s
hessian skin, sooting the sacks on his flat-bed truck. Dad, quitting
before it got too late, did not want the blackness settling on his lungs.

CJ1 5801   CJ1 5808

CJ1 5946   CJ1 5947

Wath Main, Wombwell, Hickleton, Manvers – given to nature now,
flat under birds. Nineteen eighty-four. The corridors of our local comp
overrun with cameras from the BBC – kids sticking two fingers up
for the telly. Tracy, from my year at school is missing and so are
her brothers; Darren and Paul have been killed, while scavenging
for slack on Goldthorpe coal-tips. The funeral – playing the schools
dented brass, my tongue dried up on the mouthpiece, metallic
with tears and tin. Brothers don’t die – they do not die beneath

embankments of smother and soot before they are sixteen, bursting
their lungs under slag; their fathers fingers digging through the scree,
nails split, skin torn. Blood and choke. The drummer strikes the skin
of the bass drum. A sonic boom, as if Gabriel himself is smiting
the roofs of our estate. The troop moves down the hill – people,
magnetised like iron filings follow the flag; dwindling to a last
earful of airborne notes, clear as crystal tears. Left behind,
we swallow the thick in our throats; faces lit by zealot’s blaze.

There is nothing left. Stranded here and there a winding mechanism;
giant upturned bogie wheels framed against the sky. Beamish tunnel
to gawp at – to remind us of kiddies pulling up half-ton coal tubs
in the dark; their lives lit by the whim of a candle's flame.   

Gala Day, Durham Miners was previously published by Proletarian Poetry and is part of Jane's pamphlet, Fat Around The Middle.

All photos of Gala Day 2018 by Carl Joyce, www.carljoyce.com

Will England’s World Cup success embolden nationalist Brexiteers? You better believe it......
Thursday, 18 July 2019 12:00

Will England’s World Cup success embolden nationalist Brexiteers? You better believe it......

Published in Sport

Stuart Cartland responds to Mark Perryman's article with a more cautious assessment of the potential for extracting progressive cultural meanings from the success of the England team.

As much as I want to believe in the positive force of seeing a strong and unified young multicultural English team do well at the Word Cup, as a symbolic metaphor for a modern, inclusive and progressive nation, I can’t help but dread how any English success only serves to embolden a sense of Englishness of the conservative right.

The metaphor of England beating other nations (and all nations that England play have some sort of symbolic ‘other’ about them) only serves to embolden a sense of English doggedness, separateness and fleeting superiority. In the current times of post-Brexit anxiety and continual economic and political crisis, the England team is used to represent a fantasy of England fighting against the odds and determining their own future.

Take a stroll into your nearest newsagents and see how the ever-reliable tabloids lap up these metaphors with gleeful jingoism. Time and again the tired old cliches and fetishes of war, empire and isolationism are dusted off when the England team play in major football tournaments. It’s as inevitable as a rail replacement bus, a hosepipe ban or the Germans doing well…Ooooh errrrrr.

Maybe, just maybe this time it will be different though – a faint hope I always have in times such as these. Never before has the England team represented such a youthful and multicultural image of England, a beacon of inclusivity, modernity and a last bastion of meritocracy in a society corrupt with nepotism and inequality.

However such obvious and strong metaphors, are quickly over-looked for the more familiar tub-thumping we are all familiar with and can expect or rather, have already witnessed. Regardless of who is playing for England, what dominates is the nationalistic default attachment of England’s glory to the good-old-days, a blitz spirit, bulldog spirit and how England needs only itself to determine its own future irrespective of the outcome – sound familiar?

How though can Labour or the left in general disrupt the dominant conservative narrative around cultural identity? Watching the now viral clip of Danny Dyer speaking about Brexit last week on the new Piers Morgan fronted TV show with fellow guest Jeremy Corbyn looking on, I couldn’t help but feel how his simple yet perfectly worded rant made Jeremy Corbyn look out of touch with a general mood, in that it’s left to someone like Danny Dyer to articulate genuine frustrations that politicians can’t or are unable to – and when they do attempt to it, it often looks contrived or off the mark.

In a similar way, if Corbyn and Labour tried to focus upon sport as a means to articulate a political or cultural struggle it is in very clear danger of ending up like the example that Mark Perryman gave of New Labour from 1996. Political manoeuvring around national teams often ends up looking like cheap and contrived bandwagon-jumping. In a wider sense ‘Cool Britannia’ and New Labour’s very purposeful rebranding of Britishness in the late 90’s also only served to solidify concepts of Englishness as the preserve of the conservative right. People are very wary of politicians trying to purposefully exploit sporting events, however sporting events are often used to manifest ideological sentiment – just think of Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. This is a good example of very clear inclusive and egalitarian sentiment expressed through a sporting occasion – but is a very rare and relatively successful example from the left.

The crux of the issue is that it is assumed and taken for granted that England (and it is particularly England for many reasons) doing well at sport (particularly football) is automatically linked to and co-opted by a particular and paradoxical type of nationalism. It’s a sort of default preserve of the right, a struggle that inclusive and radical concepts of national identity have always struggled with and against. This is clearly a deeper issue within our society, identity and dominant national narratives however, one that is constructed and can change. There is nothing natural about nationalism being inherently conservative or right wing,

How football is consumed and engaged with today has massively changed, it is the global game. Anyone watching the vibrant and good-natured mix of fans in Russia (yes, the place where we were warned not to go due to threats of extreme xenophobic violence) couldn’t help but be struck by the cosmopolitan feel of it all.

But even this international utopia of good will and the very clearly overwhelmingly working class and multicultural make-up of the England team is lost within the hubbub of England doing well (so far) at a major football tournament. Who the England team are what they can represent does have the potential to be a most powerful metaphor for the nation and a new sense of identity within a time of crisis and anxiety, but much like the potential of the team itself it never seems to be realised.

England expects........the World Cup, anti-racism, and Corbyn's Labour Party
Thursday, 18 July 2019 12:00

England expects........the World Cup, anti-racism, and Corbyn's Labour Party

Published in Sport

As England prepare to take on Colombia tonight, Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman outlines what we can look forward to. He discusses the potential of modern football for communicating anti-racist messages, and offers some advice to Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party about developing a cultural struggle to run alongside the labour movement's political and economic struggles. This involves adopting a political practice which is rooted in popular culture, where ideas are formed – and changed.

The last time England got to this stage at a World Cup there was no happy ending. A 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany at South Africa 2010. Well at least we know that isn’t going to happen, Auf Wiedersehen before the postcards, ouch!

Though it might not do to be too cocky. England have a decent record in the last sixteen, when not up against a top tier football nation. Beating Ecuador at World Cup 2006, Denmark in 2002, Belgium in 1990, Paraguay in 1986. But out of that lot the only time we then made it past the quarters to the semis was when at Italia’90 after beating Belgium in the last 16 we faced Cameroon, rather than a higher-ranked team.

This is what makes the Russia 2018 campaign so mouth-watering a prospect. Beat Colombia and the quarter will be against Sweden or Switzerland. And with Spain dispatched England’s semi-final opponent would be Russia or Croatia. Arguably there has never been a World Cup like it for sending well-fancied former tournament winners home early, Germany now joined by the last sixteen exits of Argentina, Spain, and reigning European champions, Portugal.

But again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Since England’s last World Cup semi-final appearance 28 years ago, quite a few non top-tier football nations - Bulgaria, Sweden, Croatia, Turkey, South Korea, Portugal, who have never won the World Cup or played in a final - have made it this far. England’s world standing never moved on after 1990. In the almost three decades since then, we have fallen behind others, and in the recent past have slipped back still further. Thus Columbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Croatia and Russia can’t be taken as lightly as some might assume.

All those fancied teams going home early has certainly opened up the tournament, but something else has happened too. No African team has made it into the last 16. Pelé’s prediction that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000 looks as far away as ever. And with only Japan making it through to the last sixteen, despite their plucky performance against Belgium, their eventual defeat means the same goes for Asia too. Football is a truly global game, but the very top level remains a European-Latin American cartel, with little obvious sign of that changing.

Since the beginning, the World Cup has been won by a remarkably small number of teams. Apart from Brazil, Germany and Italy plus Uruguay’s rather ancient 1930 and 1950 tournament wins following England’s one and only triumph, newcomers Argentina have won the trophy twice, in 1978 and ’86.

Three tournaments later, host nation France lifted the trophy for the first and only time in ‘98, and another three tournaments later Spain did the same in 2010 but not again since. After the exits of Germany and Argentina, and the failure of either four-times winners Italy to qualify or Holland - who hold the unenviable record of making the most appearances in a World Cup Final without winning it - the best possible outcome from Russia 2018 would be for a nation that’s never won the World Cup to lift the trophy. Or England, of course!

World Cup winners may be more or less unchanging yet something else has changed, for European teams in particular. When England won the World Cup in 1966 the team was all white. 24 years later and the team that lined up once again to face West Germany in the ’90 semi-final included just two black players, Des Walker and Paul Parker. Another 28 years on and of the England team to face Columbia tonight more than half the line-up will be black or mixed race. And what is true of England is also true for France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Portugal too - all teams made up of a patchwork of the nation’s migrant communities .

Of course the meaning and effect of all this can be overstated. At France ’98 Zinedine Zidane led arguably the greatest multicultural team of all to World Cup triumph, and two years later the same at Euro 2000. But in 2002 Jean Marie Le Pen makes it into the final round of the French Presidential Election for the first time ever, polling almost 20% of the vote. And in 2017 Marine Le Pen achieved the same, this time attracting a third of the popular vote.

But the point is that a St. George Cross draped in the colours of multiculturalism has at least the potential for the beginnings of a journey away from racism. It has a reach and symbolism like no other, touching the parts of a nation’s soul no anti-racist placard thrust in our faces is ever going to.

This is the meaning of modern football, and when England begin to scale the heights of 2018 World Cup ambition the reach of that message is amplified still further on a scale and in a manner that ’66 could never have done, and ’90 barely began. A popular Left politics must surely connect with such episodes as metaphor, to translate what we see on the pitch into the changes beyond the touchline that we require to become a more equal and socialist society.

So here’s my advice for Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues. If Labour cannot explain the meaning of the World Cup why should I listen to what the party has to tell me on how they’re going to fix the mess the NHS is in? A World Cup provides an unrivalled opportunity to illustrate occasionally hidebound points on race, nation and globalisation that touch upon the lived experience and emotions of millions who otherwise might not give such issues a second thought at best, and who might adopt a reactionary position at worst. Corbynism has this kind of popular communicative potential but to date has scarcely even begun to make these kinds of connections.

That doesn't mean the flimsy populism of Blair, when he adopted the ‘Labour’s Coming Home’ message after England’s last tournament semi, Euro ‘96. It means a political practice rooted in popular culture, because it's in popular cultures like football, more than anywhere else, that ideas are not only formed, but also changed.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football, self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. Their England Expects T-shirt is available from here

England Expects 2018

Freedom for Humanity
Thursday, 18 July 2019 12:00

Art, politics, anti-semitism and anti-Corbynism

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Wright discusses, art, anti-semitism, and anti-Corbynism.

Labour is weathering a co-ordinated campaign which combines criticism of Corbyn's policies and persona with an intensified drive to brand any criticism of the murderous policies pursued by Israel's rulers with anti-semitism.

I was once branded an antisemite. It was the during the Thatcher/Major years and I was editing the newspaper of the trade union for executive civil servants. Our cartoonist, the brilliant, award winning Frank Boyle, drew a series of strips which called out the Tories for their dogma-driven privatisation policies. One depicted the Cabinet as bloodthirsty pirates of a distinctly unsavoury disposition — the chief among them a swarthy, hook-nosed, carbuncled cutlass-wielding figure in a striped vest, battered pirate hat.

A flood of letters arrived, a good proportion using strikingly similar phrases, rather obviously co-ordinated and some clearly unfamiliar with the actual cartoon and more generally concerned at the left-wing character of the union's policies. To my surprise I was accused of publishing anti-semitic images. In discussion with one or two of the more reasonable of my correspondents we were able to agree that the conflation of stereotypical Cornish pirates with the anti-semitic depiction of Jews was too far fetched to be taken as evidence of intent. But it was a useful illustration of how an image can possess an ideological power that transcends both literal meaning and the intent of its creator, the context of its creation and thus have an impact on an audience already sensitised by their own ideological position and their life experiences.

This was a useful experience in my next job working at the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight.

It is in the light of this experience and after several decades of anti racist and anti fascist activity that I approach the question of the now-destroyed East End mural that is the pivot on which the latest assault on Jeremy Corbyn turns.

Less I am accused of gratuitously circulated anti-semitic images I can claim that in four years at art school; two years specialist art teacher training and three years of post graduate research as an art historian that I encountered many medieval, Renaissance and modern art and design objects imbued with anti-semitic notions. These artefacts possessed a wide currency in the times in which they were created but nevertheless remain the object of critical scrutiny. We must bring the same approach to the examination of the mural depicted here. Called Freedom for Humanity it was painted by the Los Angeles-based graffiti artist Kalen Ockerman, also known also as Mear One.

We can describe the formal features of the mural thus: Against an apocalyptic background that includes rather ambiguously crafted elements of industrial production and power generation sit six elderly business-suited men playing what appears to be Monopoly. The surface on which they are playing rests on the backs of crouching, naked, possibly androgynous figures and includes a pile of currency notes and tokens that signify industrial production, oil extraction, property ownership and, perhaps, in the case of a miniature Statue of Liberty, political values.

To the left foreground a man is carrying a poster placard that proclaims 'The New World Order is the enemy of humanity' while his left arm is raised to a clenched fist. To the right a melancholy mother holds her baby.

Rising above the central group is a pyramid and all-seeing eye, sometimes taken to signify Freemasonry and more universally recognised as an element in the design of US dollar bills.

It is conventional to catalogue the formal features of a work and the processes used. We can see that the artist works in a contemporary medium using commercially available saturated spray colours. We know from basic research and observation that the artist is proficient in this medium and a high degree of preparatory work and a measure of expert draughtsmanship and technical expertise is evident. This conclusion is supported by a film, available on social media, which shows the process underway.

So, having described the content how do we analyse its meaning?

We can of course, go with our immediate, subjective impressions. This clearly is what many people have done. Judging by the social media discussion some have even ventured an opinion without actually looking closely at the work. But to understand more fully we need to ask what is the painting about.

One way is to take its title. Freedom for humanity has a clear and transparent political meaning In a game of chance and skill six white men dispose of power and wealth while the oppressed and the propertyless support the structures which permit this disparity of means.

But this is not enough. Context is all important. As it is public art we already know something about the audience, we know it was made in 2012 and destroyed by the local authority. We know who made it. We know from the BBC report at the time that the artist said his artwork was not targeting Jews.

We need to locate the mural in relation to other work, including that of the artist himself, the local and global politics of its production and display and we need to understand how the public discourse around the work was originally constructed and how it has been reconstructed in the present moment.

This takes us to the contested meaning of the painting and the significance of the central group. The Times on 24 March this year reported that Jeremy Corbyn has been forced to apologise after initially defending his apparent support for “a mural depicting Jewish bankers playing Monopoly on the backs of the poor.”

The day before The Guardian had said the that mural pictured several “apparently Jewish bankers” playing a game of Monopoly. The Guardian was on the same wavelength as the Daily Telegraph which reported that Jeremy Corbyn had questioned a London council’s decision to destroy an antisemitic mural “which depicted a group of Jewish bankers counting money on the backs of ethnic minorities.”

A more careful, or perhaps better informed Jewish Chronicle was better informed about the identities of the six. It said the 'controversial' artwork depicted a group of businessmen and bankers sitting around a Monopoly-style board and counting money. 

At the time, in 2012, there was relatively limited coverage of the mural's destruction. Reportedly, on Facebook, the backbench MP Jeremy Corbyn had suggested that the artist was in good company. “Rockefeller destroyed Diego Rivera mural because it includes a picture of Lenin” he said. A Labour spokesman at that point claimed Corbyn was standing up for free speech.

It is unclear whether Corbyn – who is fluent in Spanish and very well-informed about Latin American history, politics and culture — was mobilising his pre-existing cultural knowledge or if he knew something of the mural's content. However, the connection here artistic freedom and Rockefeller, who is one of the (non Jewish) figures depicted in the East End mural.

In 1933 the Mexican communist painter Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint frescos on the lobby of the Rockefeller building in New York. He titled them The Frontier of Ethical Evolution and The Frontier of Material Development, representing capitalism and socialism. When the patron, Nelson Rockefeller, pressed Rivera to remove images of Lenin and a Soviet May Day scene Rivera refused and the mural was painted over. Rivera recreated the artwork in Mexico as Man, Controller of the Universe.

NW Man at the Crossroads Rivera

There is little critical comparison between Rivera's work and the contemporary mural. Working in plaster and more translucent media Rivera deployed a rich and subtle colour palette, complex imagery, a vast cast of characters and drew upon a rich heritage of political understanding which articulated popular and revolutionary currents of thought.

The technical differences in production are clear enough. Both are public art, both have an avowedly political content, both are didactic. However in scope and sophistication the works could not be more dissimilar.

Given the highly politicised context of the present controversy this gives us a handle on the kind of criteria we must apply in evaluating Ockerman's work

Two immediate issues arise. Firstly, are the bankers and business men all or predominately Jewish? Secondly, in the light of the answer to this question is the depiction of the characters anti-semitic?

To quote Ockerman: “I came to paint a mural that depicted the elite banker cartel known as the Rothschilds, Rockefellers, Morgans, the ruling class elite few, the Wizards of Oz. They would be playing a board game of monopoly on the backs of the working class. The symbol of the Free Mason Pyramid rises behind this group and behind that is a polluted world of coal burning and nuclear reactors. I was creating this piece to inspire critical thought and spark conversation.”

We have to take him at his word. The problem is that the iconography draws on a very restricted set of references and these references are, in themselves, problematic. Set aside the passivity and subordination with which the oppressed are depicted. Look instead at the central figures who are depicted as distinctive types, painted with a clear reference, if distorted, to real historical protagonists.

Even if only two of these six bourgeois, Warburg and Rothschild, are Jewish we still need to make a judgement about the character and currency of their depiction. The draughtsmanship clearly exaggerates the distinctive features of all six men. The problem is that exaggerated depictions of Jews are created, disseminated and understood in a historically defined context that includes a powerful, even dominant, discourse that draws upon the long traditions of antisemitism embedded in the dominant ideology and expressed, over the centuries, in the dominant visual culture, including both traditional art forms, religion, politics, popular culture and mass media.

That these traditions are currently more diffused than hitherto and that today, for example, Islamaphobic narratives are more virulent and produce more dramatically dangerous consequences than does contemporary anti semitism is no justification for a lack of vigilance.

In truth, the subterranean narratives around notions of the Illuminati, Freemasonry and bourgeois conspiracies cannot, in much popular imagination, be disentangled from deeply suspect discourses in which alien, Semitic and covert elites are the controlling forces in our lives.

Such notions run exactly counter to the kind of materialist analysis that take the real and existing features of contemporary class society and seek to reveal their workings. State monopoly capitalism operates at vastly more profound levels and bourgeois hegemony is maintained by vastly greater systems of ideological domination than are illuminated by Ockerman's mural or accessible through his restricted political imagination.

Inevitably, this mural was going to understood in the context of existing traditions. If Jeremy Corbyn had not risen to his present stature this mural would have been long forgotten.

The truth is that neither its formal construction nor its artistry, neither its political language nor its iconography is articulated with sufficient levels of complexity and sophistication. It simply collapses, without sufficient theoretical or ideological underpinnings, into an inversion of its creator's avowed purpose.

This is bad art and worse politics.

When, five years later the long-forgotten facts around this painting's destruction are weaponised in a new coup against Labour's popular realignment, we can only marvel that the theoretical poverty of these latter-day art critics is matched by their political hypocrisy.

I am reluctant to criticise Jeremy Corbyn who is the most transparently honest and principled leader of the Labour Party in decades. It is true that his 2012 defence of artistic freedom might have been expressed with more circumspection and today a more robust defence might counter some of his more unprincipled opponents. But the unceasing assault on him is so obviously manufactured that I suspect its effect has a limit and that itself has more traction with a metropolitan and political elite than with broader masses of people.

It is possible to discover in the mountains of social media data instances of clear anti semitic intent. More common are maladroit formulations, poorly constructed arguments, ignorant and lazy conflations of terms that are logically distinct along with arguments that reflect various levels of conscious and unconscious bias. The diligent will find examples of trolling that have their origins in the crude public language in some sectors as well as provocations of even more dubious origin.

We can be sure that one agency or another is searching for any clumsy formulation or ill advised comment that can be weaponised against Labour. That no such diligence is directed at the Tory party or the media that serves bourgeois interest is clear enough indication that this is a project with a clear purpose.

The many hundreds of thousands of Labour folk know this. Many millions more sense the artifice entailed in this campaign. It is instructive that in working class Britain, which by and large is not deeply involved in this controversy, popular sentiment senses that Corbyn is the target. How else to account for the reports that crowds at boxing contests and football matches are breaking out in chants of Jeremy Corbyn's name.

Already the spurt in Labour (and Momentum) membership is taken by more intransigent zionist opinion a proof itself of a wide currency of anti semitism. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn's Seder night feast with a group of irreverent young Jews in his constituency itself is weaponised. Associating with the wrong kind of Jews is also anti semitic it seems.

The association of Blairite MPs with the campaign being waged by the Board of Deputies (and the more obviously Conservative-linked Jewish Leadership Council) will do them no favours with Labour supporters who know from their own experience just how limited is the purchase of anti semitic ideas in the party and the broader labour movement. Interestingly, the non zionist Jewish Voice for Labour is experiencing a new wave of support.

We cannot disentangle the alarm that the Zionist establishment feels at the success of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement from this current offensive. Corbyn is the target because he maintains his principled solidarity with the Palestinian cause and remains opposed to the imperial war plans that pivot on Israel's strategy towards it's neighbouring states.

The real danger is that in conflating, for narrowly sectarian political purpose, what is a fairly widely diffused currency of anti semitic ideas with the more poisonous political anti-semitism that exists as a conscious ideology this campaign runs a real danger of reinforcing the latter.

It is not enough to point out that the most reactionary trends in Zionism act on the basis that the existence of anti semitism is the principal validation of their political project. Anti-semitism needs to be confronted at every level — not as a privileged category of political action — but as part of a conscious movement to assert the universality of human values.

Calling out the crude conflation of Zionism with Jewish identity is the basic building block of any project to combat antisemitism. That this necessarily entails a principled criticism of its mirror image in the most virulently reactionary trends in present-day Zionism is a powerful demonstration of dialectical truth.

Why Christianity matters to socialism
Thursday, 18 July 2019 12:00

Why Christianity matters to socialism

Published in Religion

James Crossley argues for the importance of the radical Christian tradition as an important resource for the revolutionary transformation of the world. 

On becoming leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn envisaged living a society “where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system. Instead we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society.”

Every since that historic victory, Corbyn has repeatedly used the language of “not passing by on the other side.” It is an allusion to the Parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke’s Gospel and one popular among politicians. While David Cameron, Hilary Benn and others have used the parable to promote military intervention in North Africa and the Middle East (think the Good Samaritan violently beating the robbers), Corbyn, unusually for a contemporary politician, has used the parable to attack the scandal of increased homelessness, rough sleeping and the housing crisis.

JC Helping the homeless

These contradictory interpretations of a parable attributed to a figure like Jesus are not unusual: revolutionary and reactionary tendencies have always been part of Christianity, perhaps even present in the message of Jesus. The earliest traditions about Jesus have him predicting an imminent theocracy, not all of which would necessarily look progressive to us. It was likely to have been understood as a violent intervention in history, with new hierarchies established and subservient nations put in their place.

Christianity itself would later become integral to the Roman Empire. Some of this was due to changing religious affiliations in the Empire and Christianity adapting itself to Roman power. But it was not entirely alien to a theocratic message present from the beginning.

However, Jesus and his earliest followers’ hope for a new divine empire was tied in with stark attacks on the inequality and wealth, some of which were brought into sharper focus by the major building projects and land displacements in Galilee as Jesus was growing up. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus gives us some indication as to what this would have looked like in the case of one such building project, the town of Tiberias:

The new settlers were a promiscuous rabble, no small contingent being Galilean, with such as were drafted from territory subject to him [Herod Antipas] and brought forcibly to the new foundation. Some of these were magistrates. Herod accepted as participants even poor men who were brought in to join the others from any and all places of origin. It was in question whether some were even free beyond cavil. These latter he often and in large bodies liberated and benefited imposing the condition that they should not quit the city, by equipping houses at his own expense and adding new gifts of land. For he knew that this settlement was contrary to the law and tradition of the Jews because Tiberias was built on the site of tombs that had been obliterated, of which there were many there. And our law declares that such settlers are unclean for seven days. - Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.36-38

Jesus seems to have formed an alternative community to one where traditional households had been uprooted by aristocratic demand for greater surplus with a message revealing some awareness of the structural nature of poverty and wealth. The Acts of the Apostles suggests that these revolutionary impulses were kept alive in a community of shared goods that would later inspire Tony Benn in his defence of public ownership against the attacks from New Labour.

We should understand Jesus’ teachings in terms of Marx’s famous understanding of religion as “an expression of and protest against real wretchedness.” In a world where wealth was concentrated among a small aristocratic elite, Jesus was remembered as saying the rich would burn or be excluded from the coming kingdom while the poor would be blessed.

Parables like the Rich Man and Lazarus (where the rich man burns for being rich and the poor man Lazarus is rewarded because he was poor) and sayings such as “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” are in line with other expectations that the wealthy will eventually be overthrown and punished, at least if they did not give up their extreme wealth to those in need.

JC Anonymous Rich man and Lazarus ca. 1610

Pieter Cornelisz van Rijck, Kitchen Interior with the Parable of the Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus, 1610

This was to be, as the Acts of the Apostles note in a different context, turning the world upside down. But warning signs of this future were enacted in the present. People overcharging for sacrificial animals were the focus of Jesus’ ire as he was remembered for overturning the tables of the moneychangers and dove-sellers which would lead to his execution as a seditious threat.

The tension between reaction and revolution has continued throughout the history of Christianity. Clashes between elite power and the desire for radical democratic transformation or wealth redistribution simmered and occasionally boiled over in the history of English Christianity, leaving us with a long radical history, from the Peasants’ Revolt through the seventeenth-century radicals to the growth of the Labour movement and Keir Hardie’s desire to “stir up a divine discontent with wrong,” a saying referenced by Corbyn at the Labour Party conference in 2015. The language of this tradition was employed in the founding of the NHS and the successful Labour manifesto of 1945.

Thanks to countless dedicated socialists from the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp to revolutionaries travelling to Rojava, this was a tradition whose language would remain alive on the English left. The story of Jesus and the moneychangers was a prominent one in challenging “the one percent” at Occupy London Stock Exchange where St Paul’s Cathedral itself epitomised the tension: church leaders were uncomfortable with protesters while the grounds were simultaneously a readily available space for a sustained protest.

JC jesus and moneychangers

We now find ourselves in the position unusual for the Left: close to power. There have been encouraging discussions among Momentum and union activists about growing a working-class socialist culture “from below,” where social events, sports clubs, foodbanks, etc. become part of building a mass movement, see http://colouringinculture.org/cultural-democracy-home.

Historically, this socialism from below has had strong overlaps with Christian traditions. The impulses of Christianity which tackle poverty continue today, as in work of the Trussell Trust, whose role in foodbanks has made sure that Iain Duncan Smith does not forget Jesus’ words about poverty.

Yet, as I have discussed in a forthcoming book (Cults, Martyrs, and Good Samaritans: Religion in Contemporary English Political Discourse [Pluto, 2018]) there is evidence that much of the public does not like politicians explicitly invoking religion, Christianity and the Bible, particularly for grandiose claims about Christianity being the source of parliamentary democracy or free markets, as David Cameron claimed.

However, there does not appear to be widespread hatred of Christianity per se, not even beyond the pockets where church attendance remains relatively high. There is some indication that there is support for the Bible as a general moral code for helping others. This is something that should not be ignored by socialists. And Corbyn’s allusion to the Good Samaritan is precisely what is palatable for much of the British public: pithy, vague, but full of basic human decency.  

But there is also evidence that Christianity can be associated with national identity. One recent study found that nearly a quarter of people viewed being Christian in ethnic terms, i.e. a signifier of being English or British despite the sharp decrease in church attendance in recent decades and the accompanying rise in those identifying with non-belief.

This can, of course, be dangerous for the left and fertile ground for the right. Theresa May and Nigel Farage have both tried to capitalise on this ethnonationalist understanding of Christianity. For example, when asked in Parliament about the respecting between Christmas of “mainstream Britain” and “minority traditions” of Diwali, Vaisakhi and Eid, May responded, “We want minority communities to be able to recognise and stand up for their traditions, but we also want to be able to stand up for our traditions generally, and that includes Christmas.”

May, like Farage, was attempting to appeal partly to a certain kind of working-class voter in the light of the EU Referendum. Uncomfortable though it may be, these issues should not be ignored by the English left where the struggle over national identity has been a difficult one. Here we can turn to the radical English tradition which has informed the contemporary left, including Corbyn and his mentor Tony Benn.

In fact, Labour have recognised this potential in the fight against UKIP and the Tories. Sam Tarry, co-director of Corbyn’s re-election campaign, talked about the importance of an English Labour movement promoting “the Peasants’ Revolt, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, and the suffragettes and others” as a “socialist vision” which is also a “patriotic one, because nothing is more patriotic than building a society for the many; not the few.”

There is, of course, no doubt that religion can be a divisive issue on the left because of its well-known reactionary traditions. But Christianity (or any other religion) does not always have to be reactionary and socialist Christians won’t cease to be socialists because some of their co-travellers are not.

Left-wing Christianity has been central to English and British socialism and its legacy remains important to this day, whether in fighting poverty, keeping radicalism alive, providing ready-made community networks, or influencing the general language we use. None of this means, of course, that we all convert to Christianity or attend church on a Sunday morning. But if we want to transform this world, this radical tradition will prove to be an important resource.

religion

Neoliberalism and Austerity
Thursday, 18 July 2019 12:00

Art for and by the many, not the few

Published in Cultural Commentary

Phil Brett shows how art has often been about power and prestige, argues that art should be not only for but by the many.

The history of Western art has been dominated by artworks created for and by the few. Paintings and sculpture have been associated with power and privilege. In the twenty first century, liberal capitalist democracies may have tinkered around with that fact, but essentially it is still true. 

Leon Trotsky wrote, "Every ruling class creates its own culture, and consequently, its own art." This can be seen throughout history, from ancient times to the present leaders have liked to have statues, friezes and buildings to show their own glory. Rulers have always loved having their images captured for eternity. There are many examples, like Titian painting the Hapsburgs, oor Henry VIII appointing Hans Holbein the Younger, as the English King's Painter, whose iconic 1536 portrait depicts a powerful and athletic king. Even today, the paintings of Prime Ministers line the staircase of 10 Downing Street, and if the reigning monarch's portrait is being painted, it always makes the 10 o'clock news. Though, with no disrespect for the artists involved, we're not talking Holbeins or Titians here.

Battles have often been a popular subject for the rulers to use art as propaganda. They meant pain and agony for the poor folk actually involved in the fighting, but victory in them gave the rulers added authority and legitimacy. Two examples will suffice: Maria de'Medici commissioning Pieter Paul Rubens to paint a series of paintings depicting her dead husband's (French king Henry IV) victorious battles. In World War I, the Government wanted painters such as Paul Nash and Percy Wyndham Lewis to promote the cause of Britain. Whether their stunning depictions on the horror of trench warfare do so, is open for debate, because good art often exposes the truth and questions dominant ideologies - something the ruling class find troubling.

Even with religious painting, power and prestige are there. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel may be a stunning tribute to the glory of God, but it was also for the glory of Pope Julius II. Sometimes, the link is far from subtle. The Medici family were an example of a new class of people, powerful financiers, who used art to help the status of Florence (and themselves). In many paintings they had themselves painted in. In Sandro Botticelli's 1475 painting, Adoration of the Magi, the Medici family are actually the Magi. Keen takers of selfies should take note, that's quite a high bar to beat.

PB sandro

Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi.

It hasn't always been monarchs and God. Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Gainsborough painted the landed gentry, keen to show off their fine clothes, homes and grounds, demonstrating their position and class power for all to see.

Governments of the twentieth century were aware of the power of art. The 1917 Russian Revolution, led to many artists, such as Chagall and Malevich flocking to its support. Many in the early Soviet regime embraced the avant-garde (October 1917 - the spark for great art). However, it did not see its role as to pitch one school against another. Both Lenin and Trotsky argued for the relative autonomy of art and artists, although in practice there was significant state sponsorship, support and influence over art and culture. A fundamental change occurred in the late Twenties and Thirties, with the art of ‘socialist realism’, designed to promote the Soviet model of socialism. In an ironic twist, in the late 1940s, the CIA promoted and funded Abstract Expressionist exhibitions - unknown to the artists themselves - to show just how free and exciting the USA was compared to Soviet Russia.

PB ae2

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm

In the private sector, profit joined prestige and power in the mix, leading to the rise of the collector/dealer. The names of Frick, Guggenheim and Sainsbury are familiar names of galleries. There are others such as Benjamin Altman, with his collection in the New York Metropolitan and Joseph Duveen, who made a fortune from art. Controversies about tax avoidance or the authenticity of paintings he sold did not stop him becoming a Lord and having a gallery named after him in Tate Britain.

This group of people may not have their names on the credits on the paintings we see, but they were very influential in modern art. With eyes and wallets focussed on the market, they helped the growth of isms, serving as brand names to help the sales. One such dealer was Ernest Gambert, the influential art dealer for the Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti nicknamed him 'Gamble-art' for his interference and keenness for the artists to paint in the Pre-Raphaelite style.  He once argued with John Everett Millais that the horse’s head was too large in his 1857 painting A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford.

Picasso's paintings from his Blue Period stayed in his studio for years because influential art dealer Ambrose Vollard dismissed them as being unsuitable for the wealthy buyers, with their depictions of beggars and street urchins. The few may have got slightly larger than in Holbein's time, but it was still only a tiny minority who could see, let alone own, such art. Ownership conferred status and privilege - and of course profit to the dealer.

PB guggenheim

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

The art world started to balloon in size, after the war. In 1955, Fortune magazine advised its readers to look to art as an investment, suggesting  De Kooning, Pollack and Rothko as good to start with, being between $500 and $3500 each (they're worth a whole lot more now). Today, the art market (not including the illegal sector, which Interpol have in their top five financial crimes) has been estimated as worth a cool $63.8 billion. In 2015, the UK accounted for 21% of this (behind the USA with 43% and ahead of China with 19%). A growth which has given people like Charles Saatchi enormous influence (and a few bob too).

Alongside the private collections, and following the Enlightenment, public museums began to emerge. The rich would have a monopoly of owning art but the common folk could be allowed limited access to gaze gratefully at masterpieces. As the art critic John Berger said: "Anyone who is not an expert entering the average museum today is made to feel like a cultural pauper receiving charity".

Museums may have grown very popular but there is still a separation of art and the majority. How many times have we heard people say, "I don't know anything about art but I know what I like"? Is that not an obvious defensive comment of a (usually) working class person, isolated from art and made to feel inferior to it?

But one might say, are not art galleries more popular than ever?  In the 2017 list of Britain's most popular twenty attractions for the previous year, the National Gallery was at number 2; the Tate Modern at number 3; the National Portrait Gallery at number 11, with the Scottish National Gallery ay number 18. That's a total of 15.59 million visitors, without even considering adding the Royal Academy or Tate Britain or the hundreds of other private and public galleries. That's a lot of people straining to see the pictures.

However, all is not as egalitarian as it seems. There has been much criticism that the artworks on show are from a small (often white and male) clique. For black artists it was for a long time impossible to be shown. Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Party Minister of Culture said, "The ghetto is the gallery for the revolutionary artist". Graffiti artists continue that tradition.

PB GG5

The Guerrilla Girls, a group of feminist artists who confronted the sexism of the art world, estimated in 1989 that 5% of the Metropolitan Museum were by women whilst 85% of the nudes were women.

Curators might argue that there have been some attempts to address this, but the fact is that the people running them are still from a narrow social base. Look at the patrons of the Royal Academy and you'll see lord and ladies, with the common person occasionally represented by the likes of Stephen Fry.

The influence of the private art world ,with such figures as Saatchi in public galleries should not be underestimated. With the costs of art rocketing, most of the public galleries cannot compete, they feel that they have do deals with the private world. The Tate receives 70% of funding from non-Governmental sources. Public galleries have found one way to compensate this by getting sponsorship from big business. The Victoria and Albert exhibition of You Say You Want a Revolution included sponsors such as Levis, and the Royal Academy show Abstract Expressionism boasted the sponsor: 'BNP Paribas: The bank for a changing world'.

If that isn't ironic enough, then consider that one of the major sponsors of the Royal Academy's Revolution: Russian Art 1917 - 1932 was the Blavatnik Foundation. Its founder, Sir Leonard Blavatnik, may not be that well know, but he perhaps should be. In 2015 he was named as Britain's richest man, worth an estimated £17.1 billion. It is perhaps a brief look at his history: 1978, he emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States. He built an international conglomerate, which entered the commercial stratosphere, when it made billions after the collapse of the Soviet Union from the petrochemicals and oil industries. Considering that many people were unhappy at the political impartiality of the exhibition - see Great Art, Shame about the Curating - one can legitimately ask how much influence, direct or otherwise, did the foundation have on the exhibition. See also Corruption of Art and Culture.

 PB poster   

Poster advertising V. and A. exhibition - and its sponsors

So why do these multinationals get involved? The answer is from our old friends, power and prestige. Those attendance figures of galleries means that they are now goldmines for tourism. Bilbao used the Guggenheim Gallery, opening in 1997, to regenerate the area. It worked. One survey found 80% of the visitors at the airport had arrived to visit it. Big money then, which cannot but affect the direction of the museum - not only the acquisition policy but its display. In 2011, a BBC Freedom of Information request found that the Tate only shows 20% of its permanent collection. To be fair, that contrasts well with the international average of 5%. The removal of art has been termed, "deaccessioning". It is estimated that MoMA has thirty Picasso paintings 'deaccessioned'. Galleries are as much like banks, storing valuable assets, as museums to entertain, educate and interest people.

Curators wield considerable influence on cultural and art policy. So John Berger's view that, "as a professional group, their character is patronising, snobbish and lazy" should cause us to worry. Certainly, Royal Academy show on the art of Russian Revolution with its lack of historical and indeed artistic understanding, would give some credence to such an accusation. The concern being that, even in the twenty first century, curators, gallery directors and critics all seem to come from a very narrow social base.

In recent months, articles in the Guardian, the Morning Star, and various other professional periodicals as well as in the social media, have discussed the whole issue of the running and funding of arts. The Government body with overall responsibility for the arts is the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), who in turn fund and oversee Arts Council England (ACE). ACE gets its funding partly directly from the Government and partly from the National Lottery. This is public money and there has been a concern that essentially it is still art for a few, by a few – but with the many paying for it.

Laura Barton, feature writer of the Guardian, raised concerns that 85% of ACE funding for music goes to classical and opera. A growing number of people have attacked the National Portfolio (basically the list of organisations which ACE funds) as being London-centric, biased against the working class, being too focussed on middle class taste and not diverse enough, e.g. in terms of gender and ethnic background. The balance between community and premier league art establishments leans towards the latter. ACE is institutionally biased towards the middle classes who see arts management as a good career path. Worries have been expressed just how transparent the decision process is, with the issue of a £2 million grant being given to as yet unformed theatre company, whose director appears to have links to senior figures of ACE.

With the Government policy of austerity, money (for some areas) is tight. So such uses of public money are legitimate ones to raise and socialists should do so. However, the Tories use this as cover to attack the very status of art. In the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto did have a few words about the importance of art but set beside the fact that in the last five years money spent on the arts has been cut by £165million, they don't really amount to much.

PB neol

Simon Wren-Lewis: Neoliberalism and Austerity

Tom Watson rightly states that, "Lottery money is plugging holes where Government funding has been cut". Tories will argue that hospitals and schools matter more than galleries (whilst cutting these in any case). Of course, money can be found when they want to: £7 billion for the Parliament refurbishment or £370 million for Buckingham Palace, for example. What they really mean is that art is for them, not us – for the few, not the many.

Here’s John Berger again: "the fundamental division between the initiated and the uninitiated, the loving and the indifferent, the minority and the majority has remained as rigid as ever." This is especially true in education. In primary schools, especially in working class areas, a major concern are the SATs results, which in turn lead to league tables. Failure to meet the school's targets set could lead to failing OFSTED and thus academisation. Fundamentally, even with some tokenistic nods towards child happiness and creativity, Government policy is all about reading, writing and maths (and mechanical versions of them at that). The squeeze is being put on the arts.

The same is true in secondary schools, with the focus on the EBacc, when students achieve Grade C or above in English, maths, history or geography, a science and a language. If budgets are tight because of education cuts, the curriculum is narrowed, with subjects dropped, and the arts get squeezed out of the curriculum. Ditto in further education and university.  And of course, with tuition fees, the chances for working class students to attend university or art college are narrowing. Whatever the Tory manifesto might say, the policy is that we proles just don't understand, or need to understand, the arts.

As a result the social base of the artists is narrowing. To an extent the artist, certainly the successful one, has always come from a particular stratum of society. One of Britain's greatest artists, Turner, faced snobbery from his fellow Royal Academians because of his lowly birth. Damien Hirst is from a working class background but he is now in a very different world. His latest exhibition, in Venice, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is impressive. I was lucky enough to visit it and thoroughly enjoyed it. But I note that it cost Hirst personally £50 million to create it; not many artists could do that! 

All gloomy then? Well, not quite. It is heartening that Jeremy Corbyn has launched a comprehensive arts policy, with a number of excellent initiatives which includes introducing an £160 million arts pupil premium, which would "support cultural activities in schools". Scholarships would be introduced. They would also "consider demands of those working to maintain our public museums to challenge corporate influence".  The policy also promises to 'consider' including an art element in EBacc.

PB JC

Labour Policy for Art: http://www.jeremyforlabour.com/arts

The policy is a good starting point art moving away  from the few to the many. I think that any Corbyn Government should be bold. There does not have to be a choice between galleries or schools, museums or hospitals. Whatever indicator you use, Britain is always in the top ten wealthiest countries in the world. Britain can afford galleries and schools, museums and hospitals.

The choice in reality is tax cuts for the rich, or galleries, hospitals, and schools for the many. A Corbyn government can challenge the notion of art as a luxury just a for a few. He has committed to scrapping tuition fees - good. But there should also be a commitment to scrapping SATS, EBacc and league tables, to create a freedom to learn. Pump funding into education so the widest possible curriculum is offered, from the nursery to university and evening classes. Be totally upfront that art is important, it can enrich and change lives.

Labour could involve the public in decision making more. Not just in making ACE more transparent but also why not make regeneration projects, really that, regeneration and not just social cleansing? In areas such as the North East, housing could be built, with input from local residents, deciding on what they need and want. There are plenty of vacant industrial buildings - why not renovate them alongside the new homes and use the stored art collections of the Tate, RA, National and Imperial War Museum (which has over 200,000 paintings, most, yep, hidden away!) to create new wonderful galleries? Let's 'accession' them! After all, they are ours. Ask people what sort of gallery they would like. New schools and hospitals? Get local artists and community groups to decorate them. That is what an art policy for a Government should be: to fund, facilitate and support. It does not need to be prescriptive, we don't need instructions.

That would be a great start, it would be an arts policy which could help transform this country, creating a place for people to live in. I am a revolutionary socialist, and believe that people's creativity will only be allowed to fully blossom in a class-less society. Whilst we live in a capitalist society we shall still have the haves and have nots – those with power and those without. It is difficult to be creative when you are working long hours, paying the bills and looking after the kids. In a socialist society, in the words of Trotsky, "The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise."

In other words - art for, and by, the many.

The Peterloo Massacre
Thursday, 18 July 2019 12:00

More than ‘Rise like lions’: Shelley beyond The Mask of Anarchy

Published in Poetry

Mike Sanders writes about Shelley 'the Chartist poet' as a catalyst for working class creativity, how he envisioned a communist society, and how the privileged classes refused to hear the revolutionary meanings of his poems.

One of the unexpected features of the recent General Election campaign was the ‘co-opting’ of a long-dead Romantic poet as a speech-writer by Team Corbyn. Many of Jeremy Corbyn’s speeches ended with the recitation of the closing lines from Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many, they are few.

These lines written almost two hundred years ago in response to the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ have long been part of the Left’s cultural memory – anthologised, repeated and recycled for the best part of two centuries. I first encountered them as a teenage punk rocker in 1980 on the back cover of the Jam’s Sound Affects album and the discovery prompted me to buy a selection of Shelley’s poetry from a local second-hand bookshop. In that dog-eared volume, I discovered a poet who could give better shape and expression to some of my own rather more inchoate ideas about the society I lived in and my hopes for a better future.

Subsequently, I came to understand that previous generations of workers had also found in Shelley’s words, ‘resources for their own journey of hope’ (to adapt Raymond Williams’ wonderful phrase). Working-class appreciation and recognition of Shelley began relatively early. Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England observes; 

Shelley, the genius, the prophet, Shelley, and Byron, with his glowing sensuality and his bitter satire upon our existing society, find most of their readers in the proletariat; the bourgeoisie owns only castrated editions, family editions, expurgated in accordance with the hypocritical morality of today.

Shelley’s long poem Queen Mab was often described as “the Chartist’s Bible". Indeed, there is a sense in which Shelley is a Chartist poet insofar as many of his more overtly political poems, such as ‘Song to the Men of England’, were first published in 1839. 

The poetry column of the Northern Star, the leading Chartist newspaper, attests to Shelley’s importance as a catalyst for working-class creativity. In particular, Shelley’s ‘Song to the Men of England’ is reworked a number of times by various Chartist poets. I would like to suggest that this poem, which identifies the inverse relationship between production and consumption as moral obscenity as well as economic injustice, is even more important than ‘The Mask of Anarchy’. The poem begins with a series of questions intended to highlight the paradoxical way in which the economy distributes economic rewards:

Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?

Wherefore feed and clothe and save
From the cradle to the grave
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?

Replace “lords”, “tyrants” and “drones” with “bankers” and “bosses” and you have a concise summary of our current economic woes. But Shelley does not rest there, he continues by observing that the workers also produce the means of their own political oppression:

Wherefore, Bees of England, forge
Many a weapon, chain, and scourge,
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil?

Next, Shelley asks his readers if they enjoy the key features of a genuinely human life?

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?

Thus far, the poem consists of a series of questions designed both to defamiliarise and thereby make visible the structural features of the economic order. These questions also invite the reader to think. However, in the second half of the poem statements predominate, as Shelley offers two very different views of the future. The first of which is the maintaining of the current economic and political order:

The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears.

The second envisages a future in which there is a direct correlation between production and consumption.

Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap:
Find wealth—let no imposter heap:
Weave robes—let not the idle wear:
Forge arms—in your defence to bear.

In the poem’s penultimate verse, Shelley makes clear that social change will require resistance and courage on the part of the oppressed. The “drones” will indeed shed, if not drink, blood to preserve their privileges if necessary:

Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells—
In hall ye deck another dwells.
Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see
The steel ye tempered glance on ye.

In the final stanza, Shelley makes clear that the choice is one between life and death.

With plough and spade and hoe and loom
Trace your grave and build your tomb
And weave your winding-sheet—till fair
England be your Sepulchre.

The clarity with which Shelley both identifies the structures of exploitation and oppression, and identifies two very different visions of England’s future in this poem goes some way to explaining the different assessments of his work in the Nineteenth Century (and beyond). The privileged classes simply refused to hear this Shelley, preferring to construct him as a naïve dreamer – “A beautiful and ineffectual angel” to quote Matthew Arnold.

The Chartists and their successors heard a different Shelley. They heard a Shelley who was in no doubt as to either the necessity or the difficulty of securing political and economic change. The “Rise like lions” passage is inspiring, but if we read it in isolation there is a danger of seeing it as a promise of easy victory. For Shelley, the murdered victims at Peterloo were sufficient testament that there would be no easy victory. And the same is surely true for us today.

 

Grime helps launch a revolution in youth politics
Thursday, 18 July 2019 12:00

Grime helps launch a revolution in youth politics

Published in Music

Monique Charles examines the links between grime and progressive politics.

It became clear on June 9 that Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election was ill judged. This election has highlighted the disregard for the “many” that government should serve, and after an election in which the youth turnout was around 72% of those aged 18-24, the impact of the youth in Labour’s surge of popularity is obvious.

Of particular note is the role of a series of influential grime artists, who are not traditionally known for their politics yet came out in full force, working to galvanise the youth to vote and specifically supporting Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. In a 2003 radio interview, then MP Kim Howells laid into the grime scene, calling its artists “macho boasting idiots”. In the aftermath of the election, who are the macho boasting idiots now? Those in power should never underestimate the collective power of the masses. This is particularly true of the grimy kind.

 MC JC images

The relationship between grime and politics has been an interesting and evolving one. Grime is a genre of music that emerged at the turn of the 21st century in London’s inner boroughs. Early on, its sound was most closely likened to US hip hop and rap. But those in the know appreciate grime’s deep connections to its UK predecessors, which include music from the British underground scene such as garage and jungle, in addition to Jamaican dancehall, electronic/experimental music, and British punk. The grime “sound” developed as it grew, eventually being acknowledged as its own genre at the MOBOs in 2015 and iTunes in 2016. But grime has always been more than music. It is a culture, and this is key to its significance in this last general election.

Generation grime

Although now considered trendy in many strata of society, grime is a working-class scene. It originated from the very people and places government legislation has hit the hardest in its austerity measures over the last ten years: the bedroom tax; underfunded schools; tuition fee rises; zero-hour contracts; dwindling prospects of owning a home; and increased job insecurity. From this perspective, the relentless spread of gentrification and London’s role as a global financial capital can make David Cameron’s profession that “we are all in this together” simply farcical.

Grime originated as a predominantly black British musical form, yet appeals to young people irrespective of race or ethnicity. The common ground in its appeal was the focus on class based oppression and British cultural references. While racism remains pervasive and impacts young people in different ways, we live in a time of diverse multiculturalism, particularly in the inner city home of grime. There is a level of commonality in the British working class experience.

 MC grime and politics

 

This is all the more powerful given the collective nature of the grime scene. Success achieved by individuals in the scene is viewed as success for all. Individual achievement produces collective pride. This collectivity contributes to the solid sense of identity and culture that grime promotes. The collective experience of hardship and navigating it fosters community.

And middle class youth also see their futures in less certain terms. Grime, as with the appeal of other genres of music, is also a method of identity formation, which helps them to separate themselves from “older” generations, most notably parents.

Quite possibly for the first time, this election provided what I term “generation grime” (those predominantly under 30 who have grown up with it as a soundtrack to their lives) with an opportunity to engage with a political figure whose values align more closely with their lived experience, personal values and aspirations. Corbyn’s understanding of working-class issues, racial oppression and homelessness struck a chord. While the lyrical content in much grime may not be political, lived realities and hardships are a common theme to this work.

Prominent grime artists openly supported Labour and worked hard to encourage their supporters to vote: in response to their lived experience; the government’s disregard of their future; and the disconnection they felt to this government. Stormzy was one of Corbyn’s first grime supporters. In a 2016 interview, he said: “I dig what he says. I saw some sick picture of him from back in the day when he was campaigning about anti-apartheid and I thought: yeah, I like your energy.”

MC Jeremy corbyn 1496590874 crop 550x407
 
 
JME and JC

JME, Akala, and Rag'n'Bone man, all influential artists to generation grime and all of whom admitted to not voting before or having little interest or faith in the political system, also got behind Corbyn. Recent protests about government decisions which affected the future of generation grime led to minimal change and kettling, heightening apathy. This election offered a new approach. For scene members and fans not politically minded or disengaged from political processes, grime artist endorsement was the much needed push to look into Corbyn’s track record and manifesto. Young people suddenly felt they could do something to influence British society and their futures.

What now?

This election provided the opportunity for generation grime to really see the collective power in working together for the society they would like to create and the things they want to preserve. Although Labour did not win the election, a new energy has been injected into politics and political engagement among young people. It has given them the opportunity to realise their political power, and how to use it.

Significantly, this last election has also reignited the music-politics relationship of British punk in a new, 21st-century way. Grime artists made particular use of social media in order to galvanise generation grime into political action through the use of hashtags such as #Grime4Corbyn. And it doesn’t stop here. After the election, artists encouraged each other and scene members to engage with their local MPs. Grime artists tweeted about the success and the importance of staying involved.

This movement could be the start of something huge. The challenge is to maintain the momentum. While grime content is largely apolitical, this shift could open a space for more political lyrical content and imagery for both new and established artists. It may also lead to more systematic civic engagement, as artists can see first-hand the power of their influence on generation grime to push for social change.

For more than a decade, the government undervalued and strategically implemented policies to decimate the life chances of generation grime under the banner “we are all in this together”. We are not. Government must govern #ForTheManyNotTheFew, and now generation grime realise the potential of their political power they can push for it strategically.

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