Jon Baldwin

Jon Baldwin

Jon Baldwin is Senior Lecturer in Film and Digital Media at London Metropolitan University. He recently edited a film/tv special edition of the Journal of Class and Culture."

Review of 'Mick Lynch: The Making of a Working-Class Hero'
Monday, 06 May 2024 11:26

Review of 'Mick Lynch: The Making of a Working-Class Hero'

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jon Baldwin reviews the new book by Gregor Gall, Mick Lynch: The Making of a Working-Class Hero (Manchester University Press, 2024)

Mick Lynch is a 60-year-old London School of Economics alumnus who earns a six figure salary, owns a Victorian terrace house worth £1million and supports Brexit. Yet in the summer of 2022 the status of ‘working-class hero’ was suddenly thrust upon him by the lumpen online left-wing following a series of severe yet quite sane ideological skirmishes with the UK’s corporate media.

As the General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) – who oversaw extensive industrial action at the time – he is perceived as one of the most active, high-profile militants in the country. Indeed, apart from Arthur Scargill in the 1980s, it is difficult to recall the last time when a union leader has become such a household name.

Gregor Gall’s new political biography, Mick Lynch: The Making of a Working-Class Hero (Manchester University Press, 2024), traces and analyses Lynch’s journey to this vaunted status by following ‘The Four Ps’: persona, politics, period and power. That is, he is calm, collected and calculating; his politics are progressive and social democrat in ambit; the period of the 2022-23 strike action choreographed him on to centre stage; and the RMT have the resources of associational, structural and institutional power. And so he took the opportunity to be the astute voice of the union, rejuvenating its organisation so it could publicly punch above its weight.

Mick Lynch and Richard Madeley

As Gall recalls, when Piers Morgan linked him to the Thunderbirds’ arch enemy, ‘The Hood’, during an interview, Lynch retorted, ‘Is that the level of your journalism these days?’ On Good Morning Britain he reminded Richard Madeley, the programme’s host, that ‘you do come up with the most remarkable twaddle sometimes.’ And, as Sky News’ Kay Burley attempted to conjure up visions of picket line violence from the 1980s, he exclaimed, ‘I can’t believe this line of questioning …What are you talking about? You’ve gone off into the world of the surreal.’

Lynch’s self-assurance, use of plain language, factual correctness, indignation and sarcasm felt authentic and refreshing to media-literate viewers who were emerging from lockdown and, even worse, from a monotonous party-political hum of prepared statements which proclaimed, like an Oxbridge choir, national consent on COVID. Gall suggests that, as a new voice with ‘soft power’, adept at out-manoeuvring mediated mantraps and reframing socio-political issues to represent his members’ concerns, fellow union leaders can learn a lot from his survival in the bear pit of broadcasting.

In the phenomenal wake of 46 million online views of Mick Lynch video clips, as well as the popularity of Mick Lynch mugs and Mick Lynch tote bags, Gall notes that there is no application process, no adjudication committee, and no references required for appointing a working-class hero. Indeed, as Brecht states in Life of Galileo (1943), ‘unhappy is the land that needs a hero’, and Lynch arrived in such an unhappy land at exactly the right time. The working class is disenfranchised, beaten down by years of austerity, low in confidence, low in class consciousness and low in workers’ collective struggles. Following the Establishment’s political execution of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, the void in the mainstream was there to be filled.

Even the comedian Stewart Lee would name Lynch as the ‘best spokesman for workers’ rights and leftwing values this century.’ Yet he would also call Lynch a ‘Brexit arse made good’ due to the RMT’s support for Brexit – or its Lexit variant – due to the belief that rail nationalisation could only occur again under such insular conditions. This ignores the fact that many European countries have nationalised railways however and, surprisingly, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has recently pledged that, should they reach government, much of the rail network will be renationalised.

Mick Lynch Tote bag

Gall’s biography probes the inner workings of the RMT and can be seen as neither a hagiography nor hatchet-job, but both a celebration and critique of Lynch. For instance, the author suggests two major contributions that this leader has made. Firstly, to reinvigorate social democracy as a counter-narrative and alternative ideology to neo-liberalism; and, secondly, to rekindle the heat of trade unionism and galvanise the working-class with collective self-confidence.

He continues that there are six essential functions of leadership which are relevant to unions and the position of general secretary. These are: 1) clear agenda setting and framing of arguments; 2) confident public speaking and communication; 3) effective negotiation skills; 4) insightful strategic planning; 5) productive caucusing and alliance building; and 6) active management of people and organisational resources.

Gregor further argues that Mick Lynch’s predecessor Bob Crow surpassed him in all these functions. For example, in terms of strategic planning, the RMT has a very limited strike fund, whereas Unite has the ability to pay £70 a day strike pay in an effort to secure victory, under both Len McCluskey and Sharon Graham’s leadership. As a critical friend of the unions, Gall also advances more innovative tactics, coordination and organisation.

He writes that Lynch is best characterised as a social democrat, because he advocates reforming capitalism rather than abolishing it. His thinking on politics is about pragmatism, compromise and he is known as a ‘dealmaker’. This may well serve RMT members, but what of the wider working-class community to whom he is supposedly a hero? From the perspective of Marx and Gramsci on the unions, this can be regarded as a lost opportunity.

Marx suggested in Der Vorbote (1866) that trade unions ‘originally sprang up from the spontaneous attempts of workmen’ to check competition amongst themselves and to raise them at ‘least above the condition of mere slaves.’ Unions, ‘unconsciously to themselves,’ formed ‘centres of organisation of the working class.’ But they did not expand or exploit this organisational potential, becoming instead too ‘exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital’ and did not fully appreciate the possibility of ‘their power of acting against the system of wages slavery itself.’ The potential of trade unions is anticipated by Marx: ‘Apart from their original purposes, they must now learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation.’

In turn, Gramsci also indicates in L'Ordine Nuovo (1919) that a moment is now lost in unionisation. Instead of uniting in revolutionary and internationalist terms, the unions tended on the other hand ‘to embody the theory and the tactic of reformist opportunism and to become merely national organisms.’ To be sure, well-thought out and brave movements and strikes saw the condition of life of the workers improve with the eight-hour day, pay rise, social legislation and so forth. But all these victories of union action are set on the old basis and ‘the principle of private property remains intact and strong, the order of capitalist production and the exploitation of man by man remain intact.’

In such reformist union managerialism ‘[t]he choice of the union leaders was never made on criteria of industrial competence, but of merely legal, bureaucratic or demagogic competence.’ This notion of ‘demagogic competence’ might also be said of Mick Lynch.

Gall’s book and general work on trade unions is exemplary and is precisely the helpful commentary that is needed. Lynch has often had low aspirations: ‘We hope for a little bit more than nothing.’ Surely, we should expect more from our heroes, even just for one day. Lynch has agreed to be interviewed by countless journalists and broadcasters, appeared on panel-shows and so forth, yet did not engage with Gall in the writing of his book, despite many appeals. This, of course, is his right, but it would be interesting to know if his possible trajectory is from ‘soft power’ to ‘hard power’.

'We need a radical Red Marx, not a cuddly Green Marx': Climate change as class war
Friday, 29 March 2024 10:48

'We need a radical Red Marx, not a cuddly Green Marx': Climate change as class war

Published in Science & Technology

Jon Baldwin reviews some current thinking on climate change, Marx and the radical left

Assuming that the free market and contemporary democratic states are not up to the job, and that the climate crisis is getting worse, then what can the radical left offer? The Japanese Marxist Kohei Saito says we should simply slow down our consumption habits, learn from Marx, and form small communes. His book, Slow Down: How Degrowth Communism Can Save The Earth is a fusion of Marxism, the ecological crisis, and degrowth economics. It was an unlikely hit, selling over half a million copies in Japan, and was published in English in February 2024. As The Guardian gushed: ‘A new way of life’: the Marxist, post-capitalist, green manifesto captivating Japan.

Saito cuts through many climate crisis initiatives such as green technological utopianism, sustainable development goals, green consumption, variants of doughnut economics, and so forth. All share the notion that the economy can continue to grow or at least sustain itself. And that capitalism can, in some wilted form, still save the planet. Ultimately the effect of these initiatives is merely to buy more time for capitalism. They do more harm than good in easing the pangs of conscience, like the buying of Catholic indulgences: ‘The road to extinction is paved with good intentions.’


Saito proposes a – third volume Capital – late Marx who saw that capital ruptures and creates a rift in the reciprocal metabolic interaction between nature and man. This extraction and exploitation without return has contributed to the crisis. Here is a late Green Marx who apparently repudiates his younger self as a proponent of productivism and history as progress. Marx moves through three phases Saito suggests: the productivism of the Communist Manifesto, 1840s-1850s, which affords growth but not sustainability; the eco-socialism of Capital, volume one, 1860s, which affords both growth and sustainability; and the Degrowth Communism of Critique of the Gotha Program, 1870s-1880s, which disavows growth but affords sustainability.

This final Green Marx is the position Saito takes and argues we must take – degrowth communism. ‘Sustainable development’ is held to be oxymoronic and greenwashing at its ideological best. There cannot, on this planet with its run-down resources, be development and growth as well as sustainability. Saito identifies the incessant growth model of capitalist economics as the problem – infinite accumulation on a finite planet. ‘Can this type of growth really be compatible with the planet’s limitations?’ he asks, and no it can’t, he answers. This must stop if the challenge of the climate crisis is to be seriously met. He proposes a form of slowing down the economy to somewhat of a halt, with degrowth initiatives organised by democratic socialism from below and originating from the commons. Eventually, with degrowth growing, the planet will be saved.

Degrowth communism

We are presented with four choices and four possible futures, he suggests: Climate Fascism (with wealthy elites fighting off climate refugees); Climate Barbarism (with starvation, poverty, civil war, and uprisings); Climate Maoism (with top-down climate change policies); and Degrowth Communism (a democratic ‘commons’ forms of mutual aid). It is the latter that will save us. No one wants fascism or barbarism, and the practice-before-theory of Mao is apparently too scary for Saito to even discuss any further.

An Exxonmobil advert to go with climate barbarism

This all sounds quite radical, but one can see immediately that this will not affect power in any real sense, indeed the middle classes would love this new green version of Marx suggesting we all just slow down a bit. It taps into the green-conscious consumption habits of meat-substitutes, recycled fashion, showers-instead-of-baths, thrift-shop upcycled furniture, wild gardening, ‘plant a tree’ initiatives, sharing our new solar panels on social media, cake-baking to save the whale, constant self-surveillance of one’s carbon footprint, and green corridors for the bees.

Yes, remind me to tell the gardener to leave the privet hedge on the south side of the borders of my expansive private property to grow a bit wild to create a corridor for the bees. ‘But what will the neighbours think?’ They will think I’m saving the planet. Now, off you go, Geoffrey, don’t forget your bicycle clips, that resource hungry military-industrial-oil complex needs all the middle managers it can get.

Or, ‘Daddy, daddy, what did you do during the climate war?’ Well, son, we made the necessary sacrifices, we took one less flight abroad per year, your mum went vegan for a week, and I’d labour every other Thursday with the wine bottles to leave near the recycling bin. These were dark days, my boy, before the series of isolated degrowth pre-industrial agrarian communes grew and grew and the siren call of eco-poetry and smell of freshly baked tofu was simply too much to resist. ‘Wow, dad, wow.’

Imagine if someone said about the housing crisis that well, we just have to squeeze together a bit more, share our space, rough it out, there are simply not enough housing resources, we must degrow/despace/dehouse/dehome. This would very much suit the landlords’ supply and demand chain and there would, quite rightly be uproar from the left. The housing crisis is due to private ownership, there is no shortage of space – the problem is the ownership and control of housing and hoarding of ‘private property’. Likewise with the environment – perhaps it is not about degrowth and personal austerity but about public ownership and proper management of the environment.

Saito has the very good intentions he decries in others. But it would be a shame if this is all that the radical left offers. Fortunately, it is not. What are the problems with Saito’s degrowth? Apart from the bad science and bad politics, it might be the focus on consumption habits and individual responsibility, rather than production and collective action. The focus on individualism, a neoliberal norm, is compliant with the oil industries marketing and billions spent on lobbying, donations to political parties, and influence. ExxonMobil advertisements, for instance, systematically worked to shift responsibility for global warming away from the fossil fuel industry and onto consumers. And the very notion of a personal ‘carbon footprint’ was first popularized in 2004-6 by oil firm BP. Again, this was to divert attention, divide and conquer, and make it all your consumer-choice fault and therefore all your consumer-choice solution.

It is focus on production instead, and collective action, that other voices on the radical left argue we need to converge on. We do not need degrowth, which puts demands on an already downtrodden working class without any resources to eschew in any case. Instead, we need fruitful jobs for the working class in galvanising projects to combat the climate crisis.

This would be a revision of the Green New Deal on a planetary scale, with cooperative internationalism, and working-class solidarity. As Matt Huber argues in ‘Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet’, the working class are central to the solution: we have the numbers, a heritage of collective action, and a material interest in challenging the capitalist status quo. ‘The climate crisis gives us no other choice but to assert global control over our energy and emissions systems.’

Huber admits that abolishing class and private property is unlikely to happen in time to avert climate catastrophe. We must start somewhere, however, and Huber suggests that this is by resuscitating the notion of the public good over private property. We need a public struggle, integrally involving unionised labour for public ownership of the power industry. We need a radical Red Marx, not a cuddly Green Marx.

From Salford to Saltburn: Class, Privilege and the Screen Industries
Tuesday, 05 March 2024 18:04

From Salford to Saltburn: Class, Privilege and the Screen Industries

Published in Films

Jon Baldwin compares and contrasts Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist with Saltburn. Image above by Paul Routledge, see here

Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist (dir. Brett Gregory, 2022) and Saltburn (dir. Emerald Fennell 2023) were released within a year of each other. Both, in their own way, offer a gothic twist on contemporary matters of British class and economic relations. They are refreshing and innovative, lyrical and sumptuous. Both are from under-represented film-directors, e.g. neither is an affluent white man.

Both directors extract remarkable scenes from their actors, in particular a ten-minute single take of Reuben Clark by Gregory. Both have the classic locations found in British cinema, the gritty streets (of Salford) or the sprawling manor house (of Saltburn). But the journey to screen and subsequent destination of these films could hardly be more different. I make a comparison here, not to denigrate one (or other) of the filmmakers, but to try to shed light on class, privilege, and the screen industries.

Working-class access to the film industry

Brett Gregory is a working-class filmmaker and would no doubt have encountered the obstacles identified by Carey et al, 2020. Working-class entrants face at least twelve challenges to work in the Screen (and other) Industries. In early life they face unequal access to cultural experiences, disparity in cultural education, participation and achievement, and lack of role models. In post-16 education, they have unequal access to higher education, are offered flawed technical education pathways, and disadvantaged by a lack of resources to undertake work placements.

When making the transition to work there are the obstacles of informal recruitment practices, and cultural matching and unconscious bias, perpetuating ‘jobs for the boys’ which alternatively smooths the access of the privileged who can often count on the ‘bank of mum and dad’ to sustain their entries into the profession and rely on the old boy network.

Finally, in-work progression and advancement is often challenged by organisational culture and ‘fit’: that is, mastering the upper/middle class behavioural codes that are vital in ‘getting on.’

The underlying causes of these issues lies in disparity in the financial, social, and cultural capital of those of different class origin and not in notions of meritocracy, intelligence, talent, or hard work. The upshot is a disastrous lack and silencing of working-class voices, narratives, content, considerations, and concerns in the industry and production.

Emerald Fennell is an affluent well-connected filmmaker and would not have encountered the obstacles detailed above or associated issues around funding, production, exhibition, and distribution. This is not to say that she has not transcended other obstacles in her path or that she is any less resilient or talented a filmmaker. But her education, family economic support, networking, and privilege must have greased her development in a way counter to the grit placed in front of Gregory’s wheels.

In a piece for Variety, K.J. Yossman sheds light on Fennell’s background and education. Fennell is the daughter of society jeweller – ‘king of bling’ - and old Etonian, Theo Fennell. She attended Marlborough (£15,665 per term), where she found herself a year or two either side of Princess Eugenie and Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge. State-educated Yossman attended Oxford in 2006 at the same time as Fennell. It is claimed that Fennell was part of a rarefied social set whose family names were recognized from the gossip columns and history books. Yossman describes how she was once introduced to a contemporary whose last name was Roosevelt-Morgan, with the whisper that: “She’s that Morgan but not that Roosevelt” — which Yossman interpreted to mean she was descended from the banking dynasty but not the U.S. president.

The working class are Not Fucking Invited

In a telling anecdote revealing the aforementioned privilege of having the ‘bank of mum and dad’ and ‘old boys’ network’, Yossman recalls that she and Fennell were involved in a charity fashion show. Yossman’s contribution was to persuade make-up artists to lend their services for free; Fennell however got her father to donate some jewellery for the accompanying raffle. As the show drew nearer, Yossman says, “select students received silver-embossed invitations in their pigeonholes. The rest were NFI — not fucking invited.” You don’t have to guess who got the silver and who was NFI. In micro, this is contemporary class relations in macro and the workings of the screen industries today: the working classes can try but they are NFI. There is nothing simpler than a problem you can toss jewels at.

Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist is an independent arthouse film, which is to say, it is not small budget, or even micro-budget, it is a debt-producing feature film. Gregory used a redundancy package and maxed-out credit cards and relied on the good will of crew over six years.

Despite this, there are captivating monologues that focuses on Manchester, austerity, and the effects of the erosion of the welfare state over the decades. The protagonist, shown through distinct stages of life, is appropriately angry and often confused at their socio-economic position (and how this plays out in family dynamics) but also resilient. There is dark humour with exclamations that “no one in the whole wide world would miss me, except for Barclaycard and the Student Loans Company.” As well as a school head’s quizzical, “And all this nonsense about following your heart and chasing your dreams…what would OFSTED say?”

There is a sharp edge and truth to this humour – in neoliberalism many only count as a financial entity or quantity to be measured, compared, governed, and controlled. There is the capitulation to hegemony enunciated further by a higher education lead: “Now what this former staff member failed to understand is that our students and their families, they just want to get on with their lives, they don’t want any drama, they don’t want surprises, they don’t want anything to change, they just want jobs.”

Miller suggests the film “stands as proof that the pioneering spirit of independent British cinema is very much alive and well.” The Ozu-esque transition sequences in the film are particularly poignant and effective – time-lapse photography of a derelict pub at night with faded Morrissey posters on the boarded-up windows, or a burial of broken dolls, a viaduct with a John Cooper Clarke stencil, the glitzy financial hub of contemporary Manchester at night, network of canals, elements of rurality in the Manchester environs and so on. These aspects, as well as the medieval musical score, add a lyrical tone. They immune the film from accusations aimed at working-class films, often based in the ‘social realist’ tradition, of ‘miserabilism.’ Or on the other hand exploitative, ‘poverty porn.’ Arguably it is Saltburn that offers the porn.

The pathos of stasis and inertia

In Saltburn, Oxford scholarship kid Oliver is desirous of upper-class Felix, and slowly we discover he is somewhat of a con artist. His mark, his love, is the blue-blooded Felix, accurately described by Yossman as “kind-hearted and guileless, a cross between Princess Diana and Harry Enfield’s comic creation Tim Nice But Dim.” Oliver desires Felix but we cannot guarantee at times whether this is due to his beauty or wealth. Felix invites Oliver to his manor house, Saltburn. The viewer is invited to share Oliver’s desire for the beauty, wealth and luxury associated with and embodied by Felix.

At one point Oliver spies Felix masturbating in the bath. Later he lustfully drinks the semen-laced drained bathwater. Capital often tries to legitimate itself along the lines that wealth trickles down and is therefore good for all. It was probably not intended in such a way but lower/middle-class Oliver lapping up the upper-class spoilt ejaculate in the bath water is a marvellous rendering of the reality of such trickle-down economics and distorted class relations today.

There is some significant satire in Saltburn. The emotional dysfunction of the family, as well as the sheer banality, emptiness, and boredom of these people, is epitomised by the collective term for associated sex-pest clone-like friends – ‘The Henrys.’ This is the burn-out of wealth and conspicuous consumption with nothing left to buy, except people. Only Oliver, later revealed to be an emotionless sociopathic murderer, could find anything to desire here.

Dullness hangs in the air like dust mites in the empty rooms and spaces of the manor house. Just breakfast, lunch, or better, dinner with wine, or something new like a lower/middle-class house guest, a neurotic friend, or a piece of spiteful gossip, can stir the dust off these lives already asleep. This is the depressive hedonia, described by Mark Fisher, as not an inability to get pleasure so much as it is by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a real sense that ‘something is missing.’ But also with no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle. That is, beyond consumption, beyond luxury, beyond wealth.

Oh, for the luxury of time to be bored for protagonist Jack in Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist. In Jack’s life, like it or not, one is an agent. One must be active merely to survive. From this notion of agency and autonomy the working class has the opportunity to recognise and become conscious of itself and change its material condition and relations to production. Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist hints at the possibility of growth, change, and progress. Saltburn demonstrates the pathos of stasis and inertia.

Famously, at the end of chapter one of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels suggest that modern industry has inadvertently produced a potential assembly of proletarians. Hence, “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”

Alas, things are not quite so simple. The burgeoning middle class will go on to buffer class antagonism, and the repressive and ideological state apparatus will secure hegemony with any means necessary. But the classic gothic imagery of the grave from the time of Marx and Engels also features in the two films under discussion. In Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist there is a mesmerising time-lapse sequence from a freshly dug grave, a snail circulating, leaves flickering fast on the gravestones. A meditation on time, perhaps the time necessary for progress.

In Saltburn, in a scene which the TikTok generation has sent viral, Oliver strips naked before Felix’s freshly dug grave. He makes a hole and fucks the grave. The only act of intimacy he is afforded with affluence, the closest he gets to social mobility, is of a necrophiliac nature. Instead of digging the graves of the bourgeoisie, he is fucking them.

Gregory’s stated aim is to “represent the Northern working class on screen with intelligence, authenticity, and dignity, in direct opposition to the demeaning stereotypes and caricatures regularly churned out by the corporate mainstream media.” Saltburn, alternatively, relishes in the antique absurdity of the upper classes (and the muddled middle class, in awe of such lifestyle). But as Yossman argues, Saltburn ultimately whitewashes their uglier and exploitative side: “maybe it’s because she herself [Fennell] is one of them.” (Yossman 2023)

Gregory is certainly not one of them, and he is NFI. If we require from the popular arts that they at least say something meaningful about their times and economic relations, then it is clear that Gregory’s work is of significance here. It is likely however that Saltburn will continue to attract commentary, viral parodies, and online chatter in the millions. Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist will be discussed in the small circulation, left-leaning, small presses, and websites like Culture Matters. It’s not how it should be, but it is how it is.

The distinction between these films reveal inequality from top to bottom. Working-class cultural artefacts and ‘rare utterances’ are an endangered species. They need wider support in this current neoliberalist tech-feudal socio-political climate that we're all enduring.

Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist is available here for free.

Saltburn is available everywhere for a price.