Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (97)

No Home for You Here: an interview with Adam Theron-Lee Rensch
Wednesday, 04 November 2020 16:54

No Home for You Here: an interview with Adam Theron-Lee Rensch

Written by

Mike Quille interviews Adam Theron-Lee Rensch about his new book No Home for You Here: A Memoir of Class and Culture

Q. Can you tell us about why you decided to write the book; what the book is about; and why you chose the ‘memoir’ genre to write it in?

A. I was very resistant to writing a traditional memoir, and the first draft of the book included very little personal narrative. While I’ve written about my life and experiences in essays, I believe the memoir or “creative nonfiction” genre tends to perpetuate neoliberal narratives that eliminate structural critique in favour of emotional identification. Everything becomes about the writer as an individual: their suffering, their triumph, etc. Who cares about the larger set of social relations that make this possible? What matters is what is moving enough to sell copy. So, I knew I didn’t want to play into this.

At the same time, I realized my life was something of a convenient structure onto which I could hang my critique: I was born in 1984, came of age in the post-9/11 landscape, and internalized the liberal obsession with meritocracy. If I was going to make something of myself, I thought, I had to become educated. The middle-class fantasy of managerial creativity was baked into how I saw the world, and how I imagined solutions to its problems. I had to unlearn all of that. I think the “left” more broadly also needs to unlearn this, and I’m hoping that people will find something useful in reading about my own process.

Q. Yes, and one of the ways you are clearly hoping that readers will ‘unlearn’ their political outlook is through a more accurate understanding of their class position, and the importance of class-based politics. Can you tell us about your own journey to a clearer understanding of class, and your thoughts on how the left can achieve a cultural shift towards a greater class consciousness amongst working people?

The biggest obstacle for me in understanding class was, as it is for many, the cultural and aesthetic markers that are often confused for class: education, taste, etc. I grew up in Ohio, surrounded primarily by poor and working-class whites. For a long time, I was ashamed of this fact, and attempted to leave it behind by embracing a stereotypically “cultured” aesthetic. I placed a lopsided emphasis on “ideas,” that elusive resource utilized by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the so-class professional-managerial class. There was something seductive about feeling smart, but at the end of the day it did not change my material conditions. I was still struggling to find reliable work, and was in debt from all that schooling I was certain would bring me success.

A few years after the financial crisis of 2008, I moved back to Ohio. Slowly, and admittedly with some resistance, I began to see that all the stuff I thought mattered was not very important. It was mainly a way for me to rationalize my own position in the hierarchy: I may be poor, but at least I’m not stupid! Sadly, this is still a common reason for many to justify inequality and suffering. I think the first major step in creating class consciousness would be to understand that it has nothing to do with individual beliefs and traits of this sort. You likely belong to the same class as many of your partisan adversaries—the working class—and while it may feel uncomfortable to demand justice for them as well it is nevertheless the only way forward.

What I mean is that a majority of workers receive a wage that barely covers their cost of living. It is enough to cover rising costs in housing, food, and insurance, perhaps a credit card or car payment, but not enough to get ahead. Many are not “lucky enough” to even make this much. These are the conditions that shape the lives of most people. They are material, not cultural, and they unite workers in a way that other categories cannot.

The left’s best chance at organizing a broad movement is to focus on these material conditions that a diverse population has in common. This is of course easier said than done, because cultural divisions are powerful. Resentment is a logical reaction to suffering, and it is easier to blame someone than it is to accept that your pain is simply the result of an indifferent economic logic. But again, I think focusing on material condition is a necessary first step toward creating a political movement that a mass of people find appealing.

Q. Ok so if we need to develop a new culture of class-based politics which will unite the mass of working people, this will mean engaging in so-called ‘culture wars’ against the dominant forces that shape our culture. In this context, what do you think is the responsibility of cultural workers – artists, poets, writers, film-makers, playmakers etc. – to help our class develop and apply a more class conscious approach to social and political campaigns?

This is a good but difficult question, but one I think about a lot given my own position as a writer who values culture objects like novels and films. I am not “influential” in any meaningful sense, at least compared to mainstream writers and filmmakers who reach the general public. Nevertheless, I am conflicted by the role works of culture play. It is something of a cliché to bemoan the fact that art is a commodity, and that works of film or literature, even those with explicitly political commitments, must in some sense appeal to a market for distribution. But acknowledging the cliché doesn’t change that fact. The market’s primary function is to relegate politics to the realm of consumer preference: this film appeals to your political sensibilities, that novel appeals to someone else’s, etc. In my more cynical moments, I often wonder if art is not inherently conservative, even when its aesthetic is outwardly radical.

At the same time, I don’t think being a philistine is a useful position for anyone to take. So, what we’re left with is a tension between market forces and the individual commitments of cultural workers, the latter of whom must court the market for an audience. Their politics, much like the critics handing out prestigious awards, tend to skew liberal. But I would say if there’s one thing cultural workers can do it is challenge the sort of narratives the market finds so appealing, and that justify the neoliberal worldview of individual adversity and triumph. What this would look like, exactly, I’m not sure. Class relations have nothing to do with “the individual” in the narrative sense, or even “lived experience,” to borrow a term used a lot these days. Perhaps the role of cultural workers is simply to find ways to make objects that acknowledge this. I think a film like Parasite comes close: it is a film first and foremost about class, and adopts genre tropes to offer a description of class relations, which is totally smart and useful.

Q. Thank you! There is a lot there to think about, and that resonated with our approach to culture on Culture Matters. Can I now turn to the main political and cultural issue in the United States – the presidential election. In the light of the need for more class-based politics, what’s your take on Trump’s presidency and the class consciousness of different segments of the American people?

Contrary to popular belief, I think class consciousness does exist in America. The problem is that it’s the wrong class. The wealthy have a keen sense of their position, and as our political “spectrum” shows they are willing to put aside differences to make sure they maintain their power. Indeed, bipartisanship is never greater than when workers try to organize or fight back.

There are many obstacles preventing widespread class consciousness among workers, from the shame of admitting one is poor to the atomization characteristic of what I like to call “curated capitalism.” The algorithm has done a lot to fracture any sense of a common or “mainstream” culture that everyone interacts with. Everything can be tweaked and personalized, and soon you find yourself online in communities of people just like you, never needing to interact with anyone outside of it. Add to this our lack of organized labour, our culture wars, and a deep suspicion toward the possibility of change, and you’re left with a country of alienated people who are often too exhausted to do anything except find small comforts in leisurely activities.

Adam head shot

Adam Theron-Lee Rensch

Trump’s presidency has been painted as some sort of populist uprising, but I don’t think that’s quite right. About 110 million people didn’t vote in 2016, mostly those in the lower income brackets. If anything, the absence of working class participation is the real populist revolt, but this fact is never talked about seriously. Instead, we continue to inflate the problem of the “white working class” who of course is described as inherently authoritarian, racist, etc.

Why? Because it justifies the worldview of those who benefit from our class structure, and ensures that the discourse focuses on criticizing individuals (bigots) and not social relations. After all, if you’re a manager or media personality, even one with left-leaning politics, do you really want workers to organize and take away what power and influence you have? It’s not a surprise that during the 2020 primary, Elizabeth Warren’s base was educated professionals who preferred her top-down managerial approach to Bernie’s bottom-up solidarity. They were the ones who’d get to manage the “revolution”!

Q. Thank you. Finally, what is your view on the result of the election, in terms of the need to develop and promote class-based and socialist politics in the U.S.? What does the future hold for the U.S. and the world generally?

The 2020 election was in a lot of ways a missed opportunity for class-based politics in America. Sanders never fully recaptured the insurgency he represented in 2016, and I think his exit was seen by the establishment as an indictment of policies that prioritize the needs of the working class. As a result, the “choice” between Biden and Trump was basically aesthetic: which version of austerity do you prefer?

Moving forward, I think there needs to be a serious conversation about what “the left” represents. The culture wars of the Bush era never really went away, they were just given new descriptions. To be somewhat reductive, the Christian Right was replaced by the Fascist alt-right, and the Latte Left was replaced by the anti-fascist Left. A lot of self-described socialists still reflexively approach working people as incapable of contributing to the movement. They are often seen as too reactionary, or too uneducated, unable to participate in the discourse properly. As someone who has spent too much time in academia, I feel comfortable saying we need to stop taking our cues from intellectual vanguards and prominent media personalities who remain mired in the culture wars. Under this approach, material interests of working people are not always represented within this dynamic. This can make the left’s project alienating and incapable of attracting broad support.

I am not smart enough to offer an easy solution to this problem. What I will say is that we need to focus more on those material interests that impact a massive segment of the population: wages, insurance, housing, and debt. The U.S. economy is not productive in the way it once was, which means the source of exploitation has changed. While industrial capital still exists, much of it has been outsourced and replaced by finance capital. Monopoly rent-seeking has become a critical problem and effectively resurrected feudalism.

In other words, far fewer American workers are being paid to produce goods that other workers buy to realize profits. Rather, profits are realized by charging workers to use services. This is the Silicon Valley model as seen with Netflix, Spotify, and others. Amazon, for example, generates billions each year simply by charging people to host websites. How do these companies remain profitable? They do so by cutting costs, not by hiring more workers to produce more goods. So, focusing our energy on that parasitic model of profit extraction would have the greatest impact in changing the power relations to benefit working people.

An interview with Julia Bell
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 09:47

An interview with Julia Bell

Written by

Fran Lock interviews Julia Bell

Background

Julia Bell is a writer and Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, where she is the Course Director of the MA in Creative Writing. Her recent creative work includes poetry, lyric essays and short stories published in the Paris Review, Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, Mal Journal, Comma Press, and recorded for the BBC. She is the author of three novels with Macmillan in the UK (Simon & Schuster in the US) and is co-editor of the bestselling Creative Writing Coursebook (Macmillan) updated and re-issued in 2019.

She is interested in the intersection between the personal and the political, and believes that writing well takes courage, patience, attention and commitment. Radical Attention is Julia's latest book and is available from Peninsula Press here

*

FL: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk to me about your new book, Radical Attention. This essay is already garnering praise for its chilling and clear-sighted account of our collective internet addiction, and how this addiction is manipulated. The book makes an eloquent case for a sustained and tender regard in which to hold the world and each other, which stands counter to the instrumental indifference of our transactional economy. I wonder if you could start off by talking a little bit about the idea of 'radical attention', particularly in relation to Shoshana Zuboff's notion of 'radical indifference' as it applies to social media monopolies like Facebook and Twitter?

JB: It’s become quite clear to me that the interests of late-stage capitalism have diverged quite sharply and catastrophically from the interests of most humans and the planet. One of the most evident examples of this can be seen in the way that the social media monopolies have built their empires on the attention and the behavioural data of its users. Human attention and behaviour is now the product being sold. To begin with, I think, we used their platforms in good faith, as a vehicle for socialising. But over the years these platforms have also begun to socialise us. They trap us in echo chambers of the information the companies perceive is most likely to appeal to us, and adverts which have been microtargeted by companies who pay to have access to that information. We don’t choose what we see. The algorithms are built in such a way as to feed you more of what you want, so it doesn’t matter if it’s a picture of your cat or a suicide note – as long as you’re engaging it will keep feeding you more of the same.

In such a context I wonder how much control we actually have over what we actually look at and think about. If you spend three or four hours a day on your smartphone what are you actually doing with your time, and by extension your life? Was that leisure time or did it make you anxious, outraged, afraid? I suppose I’m taking an autoethnographic approach to consider how these changes have affected me and my friends, but also the social and political environment around me. To me Radical Attention was my attempt to step outside the Attention Industrial Complex to see what is actually going on. I want to encourage others to do the same.  

FL: One of the things that occurred to me while reading was that the term 'machine' stands equally for the technologies we use and the systems that drive and deploy them. When you write about dazedly losing yourself, “zombified by the machine”, I find myself interpreting this in a couple of ways. Firstly the machine is the literal device, the screen that mediates our experience of the world and captures our attention. Secondly, it is also capitalism itself, the corporations and institutions that vie for this attention in order to keep us engaged, enraged, consuming and competing. As a person who experiences a great deal of unease about the enmeshment of social media and late-stage capitalism, I wonder if you see them as in any way separable? Or is exploitation itself part of the hardware?

JB: Steve Jobs said that technology should be a ‘bicycle for the mind’ and as an early adopter in the 90s I was thrilled by the potential of technology and the web – the possibilities of making publishing easier and cheaper for example, or breaking the monopolies of the music companies that kept such tight control over the copyright of artists while creaming off huge profits, etc. I’m not sorry that we have much easier ways of disseminating knowledge, music, film, writing, art – for people to have access to the means of production. It has improved diversity. It means so many more people can have a voice. And I think there is huge potential in tech to be put to use solving some of the pressing issues around the climate and so on. Smartphones are amazing inventions in many ways.

So, I’m not anti-technology at all, but I am anti the current enmeshment of tech companies with an increasingly dark version of libertarian capitalism. The way the companies have grown into these disruptive, monopolistic behemoths with little or no regulation and who are now making eye-watering amounts of profit – especially the social media monopolies which pretend to be a reflection of society, when actually they are increasingly a means of socialising it into various new forms. Also, this has happened in a place where we have no jurisdiction, and yet this technology has an increasingly huge effect on the quality of my life. I remember thinking in the 90s when I first started using the net – What will all this be for? It seems the people with the capacity and the imaginations have made something very big and revolutionary out if it, but it has become way too centralised and ordinary people have become increasingly locked out of the conversation. There are us – the users – and then a very small elite who are the coders, and we have to live in the world they have built.

FL: I ask because the passages in Radical Attention about Silicon Valley cynicism really struck a chord with me. Nir Eyal writing that noxious book on how to manipulate others through technology, then later publishing a self-help manual for those wishing to take back control of their hijacked attention felt particularly chilling. I recalled that at the start of the year I was at an arts and performance event in London where one of the participants had designed what was essentially a baffle for Alexa: a kind of cyberpunk face-mask that anonymised and distorted speech. I made myself wildly unpopular by suggesting that a simpler solution would be not to buy Alexa in the first place. I've always felt like capitalism's shtick is to break our legs then sell us crutches, so I was mentally cheering to see this feeling so incisively evidenced and articulated in your essay. In particular, you describe the growth of “mindfulness” and self-soothing industries originating from Silicon Valley as the flip side of endemic distraction.  I wonder if you could speak a little bit about that, and share any thoughts you might have on the sudden explosion in popularity of online and app-based pseudo-therapies?

JB: I agree about Alexa – mine is unplugged in the shed after it started talking to us in the middle of the night. It was a gift I might add, which very quickly became a sort of faded novelty. But another example of the way in which tech becomes ubiquitous and then starts to spy on us. I think in time goods and internet services will need some kind of mark of quality, enforceable by law, which promises to protect your privacy. 

The pseudo-therapies issue also interests me – it’s worth noting that the the QAnon conspiracy spread through wellness communities. People feel very uneasy at the moment for quite obvious reasons and they want definitive answers for their unease. There is a lot of snake oil being peddled on the internet and again, I don’t think the companies are interested in whether your therapy works or not, as long as you're prepared to pay for advertising.

FL: I'm highly conscious that when I write critically about social media and digital technology that those platforms are often the sites of first reception for that very criticism, and that there's always a danger in coming across as hypocritical or judgemental. I think one of the most refreshing things about Radical Attention is its deep acknowledgement of your own implicatedness, a reckoning with which would seem to be the absolute prerequisite for any kind of meaningful resistance. Was this reckoning difficult for you?

JB: Yes, and it still is. I feel like, without a major publisher or what is left of UK mainstream media behind me, being able to disseminate this book on social media and be part of the conversation is important. I think social media is another arena where we are asked to perform versions of ourselves for profit. Late capitalism atomises us into individual units of consumption, parsed still further by all the data they have on us. So everyone is scrambling for the latest ‘hot take;’ there is a sense of a frenzy, sometimes, of people shilling their ideas. I am of course one of them. I will share this interview on Twitter and FB. What else can I do?

The flip side of this is then controlling my own social media use, and so on. Just being aware of using it, rather than letting it use me. I think one of the key issues is around feeling. If I’m especially tired or vulnerable it’s very easy slip into things like ‘hatescrolling’ or ‘doomscrolling’ where my feelings are suddenly amplified by seeing so many stories about the same thing. It’s always worth thinking – how does this make me feel? If half an hour on Twitter leaves you exhausted and despairing rather than informed, it’s surely worth asking what the hell it’s good for. Whenever I take extended breaks from social media it’s interesting how much less anxious I feel.

FL: Related to my previous question, do you feel that we are so saturated, even at the level of language, by the logics and rhetoric of capitalism, that some form of complicity is inevitable? And if that's the case, how do we meaningfully manifest any kind of resistance? For example, is going off-grid a useful strategy? Are the technologies we use and the ways we use them even susceptible to subversion?

JB: Of course I could go without it altogether, but it’s increasingly difficult to do that. People who don’t connect in this way do miss out ,I think. It’s important for resistance too. There are some interesting versions of subversion – the K-Pop Tik-Tok fans who bought tickets to the Trump rally and never showed for example, or certain flashmobs. BLM emerged from the internet: the video of George Floyd spread at speed through the networks, sparking a huge moment of resistance. The problem is really that resistance often only works at scale, when everyone joins in. The pressure on the government to change over free meals in the holidays is an interesting example of internet pressure paying off. What happens online becomes news and forces change in real life. So the desire to cancel certain speakers – I hesitate to call it ‘culture’ – comes from this impulse I think to see results of online political pressure played out in real life.

FL: Sorry, that was quite a lot in one go, but these thoughts have been very much on my mind since lockdown. In Radical Attention you write about lockdown as moment of illumination, one that demonstrated how interconnected we really are, and how much we need one another. I wonder to what extent you feel that it also exposed the paradox at the heart of our social media compulsions: that the very technology we use to escape our isolation is, in many subtle ways, damaging our  ability to relate to one another in anything other than transactional or oppositional terms?

JB: The problem with ‘the machine’ (and you rightly point out I use the term interchangeably at times for the system as well as the smartphone and the software which runs on it) is that it runs on binaries – zeroes and ones – whereas humans are fractional. Humans live in grey areas which are not black and white.

Social media forces us to create and then perform versions of ourselves for profit, so we are always on display. ‘I’m like a cartoon of myself’ Paris Hilton says somewhat tragically in a new documentary, which seems at the same time to be asking us to psychoanalyse her because she can’t do it for herself. Hers is an interesting example of a life stunted by its own performance. A cure for this endless exhausting narcissism surely has to be a kind of radical attention for something other than the black mirror of the smartphone screen.

FL: This question of relation is a recurrent theme across the book, and it seems to me to be at the heart of what radical attention is and does. You take great care throughout the text to highlight the physical impacts and consequences of the virtual realm. In places you describe a kind of slow persistent atrophy in the realm of the real: the slump, hunch and stare of bodies bent over phones; a skewing in our systems of perception so violent that it prevents us from recognising our Facebook 'friends' and online adversaries as fully human. One of the book's most significant challenges appears to be to this notion of 'transhumanism' as somehow utopian or liberating. You suggest that the opposite is true, that an unwillingness to acknowledge or attend to the bodies of others is a function of privilege. You state that “real bodies are problematic”. I wonder if you could elaborate on that, and the importance of remembering and attending to their complexities?

JB: Belief in transhumanism is a dodge, like planning colonies on Mars. It’s a bit like running away from the scene of the crime, rather than putting energy into the here and now. Developments in medical tech might well produce some kind of extraordinary cyborg, but this isn’t going to solve the issues that are in our face right now, which are biological, and by extension ecological. They are physical, embodied issues. The planet is trashed and dying. So are we. The question is, what are we going to do about it? I also think the pandemic reveals the limitations of the technology. It can never replace the physical presence of another person. And COVID has also put us in a situation where we are going to have to live with a great deal of uncertainty. For the privileged, this is a new and unwelcome reality, but for a lot of people it’s a familiar kind of instability.

I would say the last ten years have been about the mental zombification of a populace – the internet got mean, sinister. Donald Trump and Brexit didn’t come from nowhere, the social spaces were overwhelmed with bad actors. Military grade psy-ops, along with the amplification of outrageous actors like Hopkins and Farage. It’s worth asking who paid for those Leave adverts and what was going on behind the scenes as journalists like Carole Cadwallader are doing. Who does Brexit actually benefit and why did they spend so much money persuading us that a catastrophe was a good deal? I don’t think we’ve any clear answers to these questions and the whole situation was made murky and surreal by the proliferation of misinformation online.

FL: Following on from my previous question, one of the things that really stood out for me was your reading of Simone Weil who wrote that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love”. This struck me so forcibly because so much of my own reading and writing recently has been around ascetic practice, and the sustained, often painful attention to the suffering of others that such practices demand. There is a kind of fudged modern reading of ascetic practice that presupposes a withdrawal from the world and a turning in toward the self, whereas the opposite is true: the anchorite is asked, as Weil asks of us, to “renounce our imaginary position at the centre” and to  fully apprehend the 'other' without distraction, sentiment, or hope of reward. To write about faith, love and the soul in a contemporary essay has often felt like a risky move. What I sense from Radical Attention is that these terms themselves have great radical and resistive potential. I wonder if you have any thoughts on how we might approach and potentially reinvigorate words and concepts that so many view with suspicion, or that have been so effectively colonised by pseudo-spiritual industries and destructive religious hegemonies alike?

JB: We got rid of religion without thinking about the place it took in society as a space for moral and spiritual questions and crucially, care. I’ve always had a problem with organised religion – in my view it’s always been on the wrong side of history in terms of money and sex. The church could be a space which enacts a kind of radical care and stops bothering about what consenting adults do in bed. But the Cof E is too compromised by its allegiance to the state, after all it was founded to allow Henry VIII to marry his next wife. That aside, we do ourselves a disservice as humans if we throw off the spiritual and philosophical questions humans have had for millennia, especially in relation to our aliveness and our place the world. Denying that we are in some ways questioning, spiritual, even moral beings, is at the core of a lot of anxiety. It’s not about having answers – this is quite clearly where madness lies – but acknowledging that we don’t know and that even without answers the questions are still valid, fashionable or not.

I also think we need new (old) language to speak against what seems to be a new kind of moral barbarism. The level of lying in the political sphere makes a mockery of the very idea of public service. What does it really mean to be a good person? What does it mean to show courage or to love someone? Where are our examples of good people? We’re surrounded by man-babies who are busy trashing everything. Healing from the damage they are causing is going to take a huge rethink in terms of what we actually value as a society.

FL: One of the things that surprised me the most about Radical Attention was the image of humanity that emerges: not feckless or desensitized, but vulnerable and deeply wounded. It would seem that our devices simultaneously insulate us from the horrors of the world, and expose us to those horrors. We become trapped within a self-referential feedback loop of our own making, unable to connect to others; we are endangered both by our own obliviousness to our surroundings, and by our infinite accessibility to the forces of neoliberal surveillance. We are phone-jacked, or data-mined, or we selfie our way over cliff edges and into oncoming traffic. The selfie deaths really got to me: that there's a Wiki page for that kind of blew my mind, as if even those deaths are sucked back up into an endlessly scrolling textureless meld of data. I wonder if you think living such disconnected and technologically mediated lives that we have lost or refused our sense of ourselves as mortal beings? How might the kind of radical attention you advocate help us to recapture that sense?

JB: This is the critical message of the book. I think our mortality – which is one of the key conundrums of being human - is cheapened by social media and is one of the issues I wanted to encourage the reader to address. The shadow of death passes over us nightly in the middle of a pandemic. It’s one of those clarifying events that reveals what is important. The difficult thing is getting in touch with our feelings about this and turning that into action. 

FL: I'm aware that this has been a very long and quite dense set of questions, so I have one more, and then that's it. I notice that throughout the essay you draw upon and quote from various works of fiction.  Fiction requires of both writer and reader a bestowing of non-trivial attention. As a writer of fiction yourself, and as someone who teaches creative writing, how has technology shaped the writing practices of this current generation, and do you think there is anything to be learnt from the models of attention espoused by the writers of creative fiction?

JB: Good writers are good observers of the world – they pay attention. They walk around the world on high alert. It’s this practise that I want to teach students. It’s what I tried to do when I wrote this – to give my attention for a concentrated period of time on one question, on what technology was doing to me. And then use these observations as evidence for argument. I’m coming at the subject not as an expert at all but as writer in the world, an observer for whom attention is the most important part of the practice. The world was feeling unreal and weird and I wanted to figure out why.

As for fiction specifically, I think one of the reasons that the structures of social media seem so clear to me is that in writing classes we are always trying to work out how to create affect in the reader. How to place the character in relation to the reader to create the best experience. How will the story carry? What is the best way to provoke surprise? Horror? Fear? Storytellers understand the human need to make patterns from chaos. How far we can push language, structure, truth before the story breaks. These skills are useful it seems, in decoding some of the fake news, and deliberate outrages that have become part of our daily lives.

A statue in verse for Mary Burns, Engels's partner
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 24 October 2020 10:33

A statue in verse for Mary Burns, Engels's partner

Written by

Jenny Farrell writes about Mary and Lizzie Burns. The image above is of Mary Burns

Friedrich Engels, whose 200th birthday falls 28 November 2020, had a very personal connection with Ireland. The moment he set foot in Manchester, in 1843, sent by his father to help run the family textile factory, he met the then 20-year-old Mary Burns, daughter of an Irish dyer, and herself a worker in the Engels-owned Victoria Mills. In 1845, Mary accompanied Engels to Brussels; by 1846 he refers to her as “my wife” in a letter. In Brussels, they both attended political meetings and met Engels’ friend, the revolutionary German poet Georg Weerth, who had a great interest in Ireland.

Weerth wrote the poem ‘Mary’, one of the few contemporary documents about her:

Mary

From Ireland with the tide she came,
She came from Tipperary:
“Oranges, fresh and good for sale”
So cried our lassie Mary.
And Moor and Persian and Brown,
Jews, Gentiles overwrought -
All people of the trading town,
They came and bought, and bought.

And with the money that she gained
For juicy, golden mandrines
She hurried home determined
Her face in wrathful lines.
She took the money, safe it kept;
Treasured ‘til January,
To Ireland fast and sure she sent
The money, so did Mary.

‘Tis for my land’s salvation,
I give this to your coffers!
Arise, and whet your weapons.
Stir up the ancient hatreds!
The Rose of England strives to choke
Shamrock of Tipperary
Warm greetings to the best of blokes,
O'Connell, from our Mary.

(translation Jenny Farrell)

According to Weerth, Mary was a street fruitseller, not a factory worker, but of course, she could have been both. She was a spirited young Irish patriot, whose family had crossed the Irish Sea to work in the 'satanic mills' of Manchester. As the 24-year-old Engels noted in “The Condition of the Working Class in England” (1845): “The rapid extension of English industry could not have taken place if England had not possessed in the numerous and impoverished population of Ireland a reserve at command.”

The Irish also brought a tradition of struggle. Many got involved in trade unionism and Feargus O’Connor, highly regarded by Marx and Engels for his class understanding, was elected to parliament in 1847, as the first Chartist.

There can be little doubt that Mary Burns was instrumental in introducing Engels to the horrendous conditions of the Manchester proletariat. She knew intimately the conditions of families at work and in their typhus and cholera-stricken shacks.

The situation in proletarian families led Engels much later to note in “The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State” (1884):

...now that large-scale industry has taken the wife out of the home onto the labour market and into the factory, and made her often the bread-winner of the family, no basis for any kind of male supremacy is left in the proletarian household – except, perhaps, for something of the brutality towards women that has spread since the introduction of monogamy.

Engels understood marriage and family as directly linked to the propertied class system, whereby the accumulation of wealth led to formal marriage, strict monogamy on the part of women, and female subjugation:

…in proportion as wealth increased, it made the man’s position in the family more important than the woman’s, and on the other hand created an impulse to exploit this strengthened position in order to overthrow, in favour of his children, the traditional order of inheritance. This, however, was impossible so long as descent was reckoned according to mother-right. Mother-right, therefore, had to be overthrown, and overthrown it was.

The overthrow of mother-right was the world-historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.

Engels decided never to marry. He lived first with Mary Burns, and following her early death, with her sister Lydia (Lizzie) as his partners. In order to do so, he effectively led a double life. One, in an official residence as a factory manager, the other, in the suburban cottage he rented under an alias for Mary and Lizzie, his real home.

In 1856, Engels and Mary visited Ireland together. Following this trip, he wrote to Marx, “Ireland may be regarded as England’s first colony” and “I never thought that famine could have such a tangible reality”.

Both Mary and Lizzie were very involved with Irish liberation and supported the Fenian struggle for an independent Ireland. Aged only forty, Mary died suddenly on 8 January 1863. She had been Engels’ partner for twenty years. He was deeply shaken with Marx’s inability to respond compassionately; it nearly broke their friendship.

Lizzie Burns

After Mary’s death, Engels and Lizzie (above) moved in together. This is the house where Marx visited a number of times, as did his daughter Eleanor. Eleanor struck up a deep friendship with Lizzie and through her became an Irish patriot. Lizzie was a member of the Fenian Society, and Engels describes her as an “Irish revolutionary”. There are indications that Lizzie joined the First International soon after its foundation in 1864.

In 1867, when two Fenians, Colonel Kelly and Captain Deasy, also veterans of the US Civil War, were captured by Manchester police to be brought to trial, Lizzie became involved in the ultimately unsuccessful plot to rescue them. Paul Lafarge suggests she may even have hidden them briefly. Following their execution, Engels wrote to Marx:

So yesterday morning the Tories … accomplished the final act of separation between England and Ireland. The only thing that the Fenians still lacked were martyrs.

Engels and Marx, while staunch supporters of Irish emancipation, were no devotees of the Fenians. In both the Marx and Engels/Burns households, the women expressed their support of the Fenians by wearing green ribbons with black for mourning.

In September 1869, Lizzie, Engels and the 14-year-old Eleanor Marx spent three weeks in Ireland. Their visit coincided with a revival of the liberation movement, sparked by the demand for an amnesty for the Fenians held in British jails. Tens of thousands of people were out on the streets of Dublin and Limerick. Lizzie and Eleanor “came back even hiberniores than they had been before they left”. Engels formed a plan to write a comprehensive study of Ireland and began researching its history.

Lizzie and Engels moved to London 122 Regent's Park Road, Primrose Hill, in September 1870, just ten minutes’ walk from Marx. This house became a centre for the Socialist movement. Lizzie had been unwell for quite some time and died 12 September 1878. A measure of Engels’ love may be seen in his marrying Lizzie on the night of her death, to put her at ease. On her death certificate, her occupation is given as former cotton spinner. In a letter, Engels writes to Julie Bebel:

She was of genuine Irish proletarian stock and her passionate, innate feeling for her class was of far greater importance to me and stood me in better stead at all critical moments to a greater extent than all the pseudo-intellectual and clever-clever ‘finely educated’ and ‘delicate’ bourgeois daughters could have done.

Giving a voice to the voiceless: Azadi, by Arundhati Roy
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 02 October 2020 09:38

Giving a voice to the voiceless: Azadi, by Arundhati Roy

Written by

Razia Parveen reviews Arundhati's new book of essays

This is a hugely stimulating collection of nine essays of varying length which focus on issues related to the domestic and foreign politics and culture of the Indian subcontinent. Amongst the political ponderings, the world-renowned author explores the process of how the external world merges with the internal psyche for literature to occur. Arundhati Roy discusses the backdrop to her novel-writing and her increasingly powerful political essays, making it clear that both genres blend into one another, and that any supposed binary relationship between the two does not exist for her.

The first essay is from a 2018 lecture called ‘In what Language does Rain Fall over Tormented Cites?’ This was delivered at the W.G. Sebald Literary Translation event at the British Library. Although much of this essay focuses on the political situation in contemporary India, it also asks the question “which language should a non-English writer write in?”. Roy tells of interesting encounters she had while promoting her pioneering first novel The God of Small Things. The writer tells us how the colonial past still haunts the country today:

Fundamentally, India is in many ways still an empire, its territories held together by its armed forces and delivered by Delhi, which for most of her subjects, is as distant as any foreign metropole (p.11).

Critics of Roy have said traces of colonialism are there for the whole world to see within the writers of India today. Roy, however, sees her writing as a political act of challenging the postcolonial status quo.

The politics of writing and the writing of politics

These essays entwine the domestic politics of India with the art of writing, which she sees as an implicitly political act. This is a book essentially about culture: about the art of writing and how to write whilst living through times of political destruction. Roy has interwoven the personal and political spheres of human existence – a radical stance which also underpins her two great novels, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. She states in the essay ‘Language of Literature’ that:

the place for literature is built by writers and readers. It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When its broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter (p.78).

The act of writing becomes a political one which cannot be separated from fiction, so literature and the political become irrevocably connected. One cannot survive without the other from her perspective. The great Marxist critic, John Berger, once said to her:

Your fiction and non-fiction, they walk you around the world like your two legs (p.79).

Roy asks:

Could I write as compellingly about irrigation as I could about love and loss and childhood? Not as reportage, but as a form of storytelling? Was it possible to turn these topics into literature? Literature for everybody – including for people who couldn’t read and write, but had taught me how to think, and could be read to? (p.87)

Roy clearly sees her political writings as an important form of narrative which is firmly embedded in the heart of literature. In order to fully appreciate these essays, the reader would be advised to become familiar with her two novels:

I knew that if The God Of Small Things was about home with a broken heart in its mists, The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness would begin after the roof had been blown of the home, and the broken heart had shattered and distributed its shards in war-torn valleys and city streets (p.88)

Roy uses her novels to amplify her political voice. She gives a voice to the voiceless – the poor, the oppressed, the outcasts of society surviving in the margins of the Asian sub-continent.

 In the novels, Roy addresses the politics of the war-torn region of Kashmir:

The story of Kashmir is not the sum of its human rights report…For a writer Kashmir holds great lessons for the human substance. About power, powerlessness, treachery, loyalty, love, humour, faith. What happens to people who live under military occupation for decades? What happens to language? The narrative of Kashmir is a jigsaw puzzle whose jagged parts do not fit together. There is no final picture (p.89).

Geopolitical hotspots become Roy’s characters and are given voices. She not only inhabits these worlds but almost becomes them, through the process of character-building.

The architecture of Indian fascism

The next two essays, ‘The Silence is The Loudest sound’ and ‘Imitations of an Ending’, explore the dire situation in Kashmir and the rise of Hindu nationalism within the wider Indian state. The recent set of legislation surrounding citizenship known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) are compared to the infamous Nuremburg Laws of 1930s Germany. Roy informs the reader of the lives of people living under fascism and the BJP-inspired mob mentality daily. She chillingly writes that:

As the world looks on, the architecture of Indian fascism is quickly being put into place. (p.105)

By directly comparing Modi’s India to Hitler’s Germany, Roy not only jolts the attention of the reader, but also hands responsibility onto the reader to help avert another genocidal catastrophe. She is accusing Western powers of standing by as the Rome of secular India burns in the flames of sectarian hatred.

Roy recounts the case of a young man, falsely accused of a crime, who was murdered in broad daylight by a mob wielding sticks and axes:

The lynching of Tabrez Ansari illustrates just how deep the rot is. Lynching is a public performance of ritualized murder, in which a man or woman is killed to remind their community that it lives at the mercy of the mob. (p.122).

tabrez ansari

Tabrez Anzari

According to government records, lynching is becoming another pandemic in the country. The act of lynching demonstrates a terrifying balance between inclusion and exclusion of the mob and the community.

The smoking debris of Modi’s India

Why does Roy devote so much of her writings to explain in detail the politics of India? The reason which becomes clear is that her surroundings are the backdrop in her novels. Very much like nineteenth-century English writers such as Dickens and Gaskell, who depicted characters with a commentary on the Industrial Revolution, child poverty and the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor, Roy creates novels out of the  smoking debris of Modi’s India.

Another essay is the 2020 Clark Lecture in English Literature which Roy delivered earlier this year. This essay is entitled ‘The Graveyard Talks Back’. It is where her second novel is situated and is also a pun on the influential 1980s study of colonialism, ‘The Empire Writes Back’. Roy discusses how the geography of space can shape a novel. She writes:

I have given about the place for literature in the times in which we live, and about the politics of language, both public and private. (p.151)

In this essay, she shines a light on the physical act of writing. She explains the importance of her view from the window:

Some writers may wish to shut the window or move to another room but I cannot so you will have to bear with me, because it is in this landscape that I hear my stove and store my pots and pans. It is here that I make my literature. (p.153)

In the rest of the essay, Roy describes what is happening on the ground in Kashmir, which is integral to the narrative of her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Roy also explains in detail the caste system, which remains a hugely controversial aspect of Indian society:

The principles of equality, fraternity, or sorority are anathema to the caste system. It’s not hard to see that the idea of some human beings are inherently superior or inferior to others by divine mandate slides easily into the fascism of a master race. (p. 163)  

Roy writes in this essay of how the internal and the external worlds of human experience are fundamentally connected:

We keep our complicated world, with all its seams exposed, alive in our writing (p.177) 

She talks again of the many similarities of the European fascism in the 1930s to the rise of Hindu nationalism in the 21st century. In her final essay ‘The Pandemic Is a Portal’ Roy, is optimistic for the future, not only for India but the world. She writes powerfully of how:  

Covid-19 has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could..…in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves (p.214).

 Roy ends this collection on a note of hope or at least the possibility of hope for the post-pandemic future. By referring to this pandemic as a chance for us to ‘let go’ of:

The prejudices and the hatred our dead rivers and smoky skies..(and be)…ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it. (p214).

After all the despair and sadness discussed in this highly readable collection, Roy is refreshingly optimistic that a better world awaits us on the other side of the portal.

Culture, class and civilisation
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 16 September 2020 09:34

Culture, class and civilisation

Written by

Dave Lordan continues his series on culture, class and civilisation

About 10,000 years ago, after 3.6 million years of the Stone Age, humanity began to slowly and stutteringly transform itself. A nomadic species made up of small egalitarian groups and surviving (or not) on the given bounty of the Earth, changed into a settled, class-based, accumulative society. It was based on agricultural surpluses, and institutional hierarchies and gross inequalities were to become a permanent feature. The domestication of certain animals such as the sheep and the goat, cultivation of high-yield grains, and improvements in food storage methods, irrigation, and farming methods and technologies, gave humanity for the first time the problem of more than enough stuff to go around - surplus - and what to do with it.

Small groups, perhaps those associated with high status tribal positions such as shamans and or hunt leaders, split off from society as a whole and seized control of the agricultural surplus and of its distribution. We don’t know whether this coup against society - the first, forced division into haves and have-nots  - succeeded the first time it was tried, or whether it was beaten back and had to be tried again and again over thousands of years before breaking through.

It may well have been the latter, but it seems from the simultaneous emergence of agriculture and class in several parts of the world with little or no contact with each other that the very existence of the potential for minority wealth-hoarding made such hoarding inevitable - such is the basis of the ongoing human tragedy. The so-called agricultural revolution, once established, rapidly spread and societies based on exploitation of people and nature took deep root across wide swathes of the planet.

The first truly sophisticated civilisations emerged a couple of thousand years after the agricultural revolution in high-yield river valleys in India, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. They gave their respective hierarchies enough amassed wealth and concentrated power to rule vast areas, centred on imperial capitals such as Babylon and Thebes.

Hydraulic tyrannies

Archaeologists and anthropologists sometimes refer to these societies as 'hydraulic tyrannies', so called because the areas under cultivation, and therefore the size of potential wealth generation, were massively expanded by irrigation works, and royal prestige often depended upon how much and how well one built up such works. One of the great heroes of Chinese mythology from this time is Yu, combining the skills of an engineer and a wizard to halt and redirect the devastating annual flooding on the Yellow and Wei rivers, thus allowing settled agricultural society to prosper and expand in the Chinese heartlands.

Similarly, the ancient Egyptian macehead of the Scorpion King, roughly dated to about 3100 BC, depicts the king cutting into a ditch that is part of a grid of basin irrigation. The Sumerian God Enki was a God of water and wisdom and was reputed to have raised the City of Eridu from the surrounding watery marshes.

The new rulers needed bodies of armed men to protect their wealth, and enforce and expand their exploitative rule. They also needed to be able to offer a cosmic explanation as to why aristocracies existed and why they held privilege over all others. Warrior and priest castes thus played an essential role in the new political set-up, and their upper echelons were part of a ruling class centred round a tyrant in hereditary  (often incestous) royal families  who were often, as in the case of the pharaohs of the Egypt, portrayed as divine beings and unbeatable warriors carrying out the incontrovertible and irresistible will of the gods.

Within the Sumerian city of Uruk, the world’s oldest city, there was a large temple complex dedicated to Innana, the patron goddess of the city. The city-state's agricultural production would be “given” to her and stored at her temple. Harvested crops would then be processed (grain ground into flour, barley fermented into beer) and given back to the citizens of Uruk in equal share at regular intervals.

1 ziggurat 

Reconstruction of the ziggurat erected by King Urnamma

The head of the temple administration, the chief priest of Innana, also served as political leader, making Uruk the first of many ancient world theocracies.

Why trade when you can loot?

With control of this surplus these rulers could therefore exercise a previously unthinkable absolute power over society as a whole - deciding who got fed and who didn’t. They could provide a salary for craftsmen, warriors, and priests, therefore expanding and maintaining a ruling class interdependent with them. They could also trade the surplus with adjacent settlements for luxury goods. But why trade and parley if you can conquer and loot? The acquisitive society is also an expansionist one, and imperialist warfare has been a constant feature ever since. The story of ancient societies around the world is that of constant warfare and the rising and falling of ever more militarist city-states and empires - bloodbaths lasting thousands of years.

Human ingenuity and creativity, the foundations of which were built up over millions of years of egalitarian hominid life, was put to work above all on the arts of war. Everyone from blacksmith to poet was engaged chiefly in the maintenance of war machines and in the service of warrior elites and warrior cultural codes:

Agamemnon the lord of men was glad as he looked at them
and in words of graciousness spoke at once to Idomeneus:
“I honour you, Idomeneus, beyond the fast-mounted
Danaans whether in battle, or in any action whatever,
whether it be at the feast, when the great men of the Argives
blend in the mixing bowl the gleaming wine of the princes . . .
Rise up then to battle, be such as you claimed in time past.”
- Iliad 4.255-60 and 264

At this time too we see the emergence of a sense of humanity and nature as enemies, and of nature as something to be conquered and controlled. Thus, the economics and ideology of planetary devastation are set in motion. One of the most widespread motifs in the art of this periods is The Master of Animals, which a King or other high official is portrayed in between two wild animals which he (or occasionally she) has brought to heel.

3 taming animals

By way of such endlessly repeated representations of the superior humanity or semi-divinity of the rulers, the achievements of human labour and the common people come to be falsely viewed as the result of the efforts of the King alone, or of the Gods, whose avatar on earth was the King. Millennia later, this paradox of public consciousness found unequivocal expression in poetry:

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
- Brecht, Questions From A Worker Who Reads

These were also slave societies, who looted wealth and labour-power from neighbouring societies with which they were always at war, sometimes winning, other times being defeated by a newly rising imperial power. Thus in quick succession the empires of Sumerians, Assyrians, Akkadians, and Babylonians rose and fell, each eating the other for breakfast, lunch and dinner, before being similarly eaten themselves in turn.

The fundamentals of human existence - food, shelter, protection, cohesion - were now all prerogatives and weapons of power - no longer collectively struggled for and enjoyed collectively, but fought over and accessed only in line with one’s class position.

How does culture reproduce class power?

So, what happened to art and culture generally? In the sense that we think of it, as a distinct sphere of productive activity with its own prerogatives, generating beautiful forms for the sake of contemplation and entertainment, art did not exist. The ancient Egyptian language has no word for art. Almost all art was, back then, quite useful - it served for the praise of and the reproduction of class power.

The skills and technologies needed to produce the art of the time were accessible only to skilled craftspeople, whose easy lives - relative to slaves and field-workers - were paid for by the King-God. There was no material basis for any kind of popular or oppositional art in forms that were likely to have been preserved - such things as protest songs and poems and tales that undermined or belittled the warrior class undoubtedly existed, but were firmly part of the oral tradition, which has not survived except as traces in later written traditions.

Art’s evolutionary role in forging a group identity and as the bridge between the individual and a supra-individual loyalty, does not change. But the nature of the group does change, from one which is united in a common struggle to survive, to one fragmented into classes and divided against itself, with each of the divisions having separate and competing interests. In nomadic egalitarian societies the group identity elucidated and performed by ritual and magic arts had, no matter how mystical its expression, an underlying material truth to it. Everyone was in it together. Everybody did depend upon and prosper from the efforts of everyone else. What little was held, was held in common. Now pressure arises from the minority at the top of society for the elucidation of a false consciousness around group identity that would portray social divisions as in line with a divine and unassailable cosmic order and its rulers as favoured by the Gods above all others.

Art and literature in the new dispensation become the handmaiden of ideology, chiefly through the medium of religion, and associated mythological literature. Many of the aesthetic practices built up in common over thousands of years' worth of collective ritual - techniques from music, song/poetry/chant, self-decoration, performance, dance - were appropriated by new state religions and subsumed into religious worship and observation.

This is an ‘enclosure’ of the cultural commons as unjust as later enclosures of common land. Ever since then, access to the arts and participation in the arts, literature and culture generally, have been deeply and chronically unequal. In an era when religion and politics were fundamentally complementary sets of ideas and institutions serving the same social order, the arts were the means by which this order was expressed, absorbed and reproduced in the realm of forms and ideas. For the most part, the arts did not have any separate meanings or independent existence outside of this.

One of the most important of the new Bronze Age technologies of power is writing. We know a lot about early writing thanks to fire. Writing was done by a special caste of scribes in cuneiform on clay tablets. These were stored in special rooms in palace complexes, which could contain hundreds of years’ worth of tablets. Left to their own devices, the centuries would have turned all these to dust. Thankfully, the palace complexes of the Bronze Age were prone to burning down - whether accidentally or as a result of arson or of natural disaster is a matter of debate. And in some cases, this resulted in the high temperature baking and preservation of the tablets.

Writing to account for the surplus

Writing, including all of the great written literature of the world, is actually a byproduct of accountancy, which is itself a consequence of surplus and accumulated property. Stone Age humans didn't possess much or accumulate anything much to count or keep account of. But as soon as a ruling elite seize a hold of surplus goods it becomes necessary to know exactly how much of these surplus goods they possess.

Counting beads are used for this purpose at first, turning up in all urban archaeological records from 8000BC onwards, and a simple written numbering system - scratches on clay tablets - follows soon afterwards. But as cities and empires expanded and both the number and variety of goods increase at a rapid pace, and large-scale trading relationships between cities and empires evolve, more sophisticated methods are obviously required.

Pharaohs need to know exactly what it is they are owning, buying, selling, consuming, and distributing, as well as how much. They need to know not only how many sheep they have, but also their weight and age, and their cost from a certain trader at a certain date at a certain place, and what they were sold for at a certain other place on a certain other date to a certain other trader for, so that the God-King makes a certain gross profit minus expenses of keeping them, leaving a certain net profit.

Without such detail, fraud and theft are inevitable, and accumulation and trade above a certain primitive level are impossible. Numbers alone are not capable of such detail, so a system of signs, showing ever more detail and sophistication over time - writing - is developed in order that the king or queen know the exact nature and extent of their riches.

A second advantage to writing for commanders of states and of armies is the new and vital ability to transmit precise, sealed orders and other communications, over long distances. Empire-builders needed a guaranteed method of having their dictates expressed throughout vast swathes of conquered territory, of maintaining diplomatic relations with other states, and of conducting negotiations and treaties by distance. Writing served all these novel necessities of power. An abundance of often elaborate royal seals, used to stamp official documents, testifies to the critical importance of writing to early imperialism.

A third function of the new technology of writing was the dissemination of ruling class ideology, by which I mean the set of approved narratives and sanctioned ideas that explain and justify the prevailing social order. In our day the dominant, but not exclusive, ideology of power, is, broadly speaking, a secular and deeply cynical one - capitalist realism, the notion that we have got to accept capitalism, no matter how bad it gets, because there is simply no other system for organising society. In the early days of class society, however, ideologies of power emphasised the superhuman nature of kings and the divine roots of their authority. Secular and religious worlds were intertwined. To disobey the king in any way was to draw the wrath of the gods on one, if you hadn’t been chewed up and spat out by the godlike king himself before then.

King-lists, mythological narratives, and epic poetry

Broadly speaking, three major forms of overlapping official literature emerge: chronicles in the form of king-lists, mythological narratives, and epic poetry. However, it is important to note that we do not have anything like a complete record of the written works of the Bronze and Iron Ages. Speculations are based on the available, fragmentary, if ample, evidence and subject to development and revision as new evidence arises, although the fact that writing was an elite technology used for elite purposes of mystification and domination will not alter.

Neither is it possible in the space of an essay to fully represent the riches of the literature of the ancient World. Consider, for example, that the Ancient Egyptian literary tradition lasts from around 3500 BC until around 400 AD, and included dozens of genres we do not have time to deal with here.

King-lists have the names and order of succession of monarchs, including exaggerated accounts of kingly deeds. In  general, the farther back the king is in time, the more superhuman his characteristics, with godlike founding monarchs.

The lists provided legitimacy and a sense of dynastic continuity to monarchs, as well as a form of historiography which emphasised the deeds of great men in the shaping of history. Taken as a whole, a king-list provided the present monarch with a guide to the nature and role of a monarch and what needed to be emulated and achieved to go down in history as a great king. The military prowess and the mercilessness  of kings, alongside the pointlessness of resisting them is often emphasised, as in this 400 year-old Babylonian account, rendered into modern English by the great socialist poet Carl Sandburg:

4 poem kinglist resized

Mythological narratives were comprised of the various supernatural beings and their innumerable escapades, and had the overall purpose of explaining what could not then be reasonably explained about the world given the low level of scientific knowledge. Mythology is rarely internally coherent and there are often numerous contradictory elements, indicating that the myths we have been handed down were a patchwork, stitched together out of existing oral traditions stretching back thousands of years into the Stone Age. As the oral traditions were stitched together, they were reshaped to reflect the current world and worldview.

So it is not surprising that a polity like ancient Greece, made up of hundreds of quarrelling mini-states, where dynasties rapidly rose and fell and alliances were constantly shifting, produced a mythology full of fickle and callous divinities always at war with each other and always trying to catch each other out.

Epic poems are a combination and repurposing of elements of both the king-lists and the mythological narratives. Figures from an idealised aristocratic past overcome great challenges, performing incredible deeds within lengthy and exciting narratives. These stories are often presented as historical accounts, and work as a kind of moral, political and even military instruction book on how society should be run, who should rule and who submit.

Although there are numerous epic poems produced by ancient societies all over the world, The Iliad is the best known and most influential, having survived 3000 years on the library shelves of the world’s imperialist elites, in their public schools and military academies. In part 3 of this series we will examine the Iliad - a poem which Boris Johnson can perform extended quotes from in the original ancient Greek - closely as a political document and look at its enormous contribution to the ideology and practice of class power.

We can be sure that the working people of the ancient world, neurologically and emotionally similar to ourselves, felt resentment at their treatment. They occasionally rose up in both spontaneous and organized ways, eg the Spartacus rebellion in Italy and the ancient Egyptian general strike. But even these events are only recorded by members of the 1 per cent (at most) who could read and write, who are of course opposed to them, and not from the point of view of the rebels.

Popular resistance

This is a huge problem with the historiography of the time - most of what we know about the Celts of Gaul, for example, was penned by their conqueror, Julius Caesar. However, some signs of popular life and even popular resistance survive in the literature of the ancient world. Even the Iliad contains the famous ‘Thersites’ passage, describing the first anti-war and proto-communist mutiny to appear in literature, which we will examine in detail in part 3 of this series, alongside the rebellious and anti-militarist poetry of Sappho.

In addition, the scribes of Byzantium, just like the monks of a later era, sometimes left marginal scribbled notes and verses that tell us something about popular life of the time. So let’s finish this part of the essay with an example, once again resurrected for our time by the great socialist poet Carl Sandburg.

5 Sandburg note resized

Narrow Streets: publishing and the class conundrum
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 10 September 2020 20:41

Narrow Streets: publishing and the class conundrum

Written by

Lyndsey Ayre writes about the class problem in publishing

On the inside cover of the 2019 edition of Tove Ditlevsen’s Childhood – the first of her autobiographical Copenhagen trilogy  there is a short paragraph describing the writer’s class and upbringing. It goes something like this: Ditlevsen, one of Denmark’s most important writers, grew up in the early 20th century, in a working-class neighbourhood called Vesterbro. From an early age, she knew she was different, that she was going to be a writer with ‘long, mysterious words crawling across her soul.’ ‘Inevitably,’ the bio continues, Ditlevsen came to the realisation that to pursue this dream she would have to ‘leave the narrow streets of her childhood behind.’ The message is clear: her working-class background was a problem that had to be navigated and escaped before she could blossom into the successful author and poet she was destined to become.

The articles I could find about Ditlevsen online told a similar story. The Guardian in 2019 described her as a ‘dreamy working-class misfit,’ while The Spectator applauded her journey from ‘slum girl to literary prodigy.’ Hers is a rags-to-intellectual-riches story: a young woman with a burning vocation for art who escapes her narrow street and winds up having dinner with Evelyn Waugh.

Yet I wonder how helpful it is for Ditlevsen to be described this way. Why was it inevitable that she would have to leave Vesterbro? Is it always necessary, or helpful, to point out a writer’s class on the blurb of a book?  And what about the framing of her class? What if she had stayed living on her narrow street at the same time as being a writer, and it hadn’t been something to be escaped: a rein on her creativity, a hurdle to be jumped over in pursuit of finer interests? Is it really still considered an extraordinary feat for an author to be from a working-class background?

Working-class writing

These are complicated questions whose answers I’ve not yet been able to decide upon. My feelings are confused and constantly shifting, not least because I, myself, won an award for working-class writers – the Sid Chaplin award – in 2019. I am endlessly grateful to the panel of judges who read the first chapter of my novel and saw enough in it to award me the prize. I’m thankful for the support I’ve received since, which secured me an agent. I feel an immense amount of pride in my background and was honoured to have won an award in Sid’s name. And I think schemes and awards that help working-class writers and artists to navigate worlds that are largely set up in ways that make them inaccessible are important for communicating that the industry recognises that it needs to effect change. 

Still, I’ve never really been sure that I fit into the mould of what a working-class writer is expected to be. I feel that this is, in part, because I’ve been repeatedly told what my class experience should be, via a complex web of texts and codes fed into popular culture by a publishing industry that often seems to have little grasp as to what real life is like for so many of us.  I’ve always felt a strong affinity with the kitchen-sink writers of the 1950s and 60s, for their insistence on the everyday nature of class experience. Their characters are smart, witty and funny. They go to work and are frequently frustrated by dead-end jobs, finding release in the lager-drenched pubs and clubs of the weekend. Many of the attitudes of these books have aged badly, but I still think that their portraits of the drama that plays out against the day-to-day business of people’s lives sparkle.

When I think about my class identity, I often think, too, of Alan Bennett’s description of his own childhood. Now in his 80s and referred to – pejoratively, you can’t help but feel – by some as a National Treasure, he is hardly considered to be at the vanguard of class writing. Yet his descriptions of his parents – shy, uncertain, fearing being thought of as ‘common’ – are still some of the most nuanced and relatable class portraits I’ve read.

I didn’t grow up in deprivation: my childhood was mostly quiet and composed of Sunday dinners at McDonald’s, caravan parks, Babysitter’s Club books and bottles of Panda Pop. Class, for me, wasn’t something that I railed against or felt the need to escape from – or that I remember seeing anyone else railing against. I knew that our cousins lived in a more expensive house than we did, that they went to a better school, and had different accents, yet I only knew this vaguely, as a sort of abstract concept. While the inequality gap yawns ever larger for so many people, I cannot claim to have experienced anything like the worst of it myself: only to have worked and earned my own wage since I was 16; to have gone to a struggling school and received middling exam results; to have attended a polytechnic; to have avoided speaking up at readings and conferences, conscious of my regional accent; to have no savings and no financial safety net to fall back on.

As I've grown older, bad experiences of the world of writing and the arts have stacked up: a snide comment made on my glottal stop; a major publisher who wasn’t sure where Newcastle was; a prestigious journalism award I was once shortlisted for, where senior journalists at a major, left-leaning publication expressed surprise that I was there ‘from the North.’ These are comparatively small hardships and slights compared to those faced by many people, and yet, at times, they have been enough to make me feel like giving up. I have written on work lunchbreaks and stayed up until 2am writing, drinking so much coffee on shift the next morning that my hands shake and my vision blurs. I’ve spent my 20s writing articles for various publications – few of which have ever been in a position to pay – in the hope that one day they would lead to something more substantial. I have taken on more hours in my day job and felt the time I have for writing squeezed ever smaller. I have wondered why I continue to put myself in positions and situations where I feel, at best, fundamentally misunderstood and at worst, unwelcome.

I've continued partly out of a real passion and love for reading and writing, and partly out of sheer bloody-mindedness and the idea that voices like mine should not be forced out because they don’t easily fit into a publishing industry’s idea of what a working-class voice should be. It has been hard. For many working-class people – people who have more responsibilities than I do, people such as young carers or young, single parents – it is even harder.

So – what can be done about it?

Class diversity in publishing can’t be fixed by simply allowing a handful of working-class voices through, no matter how explicitly and loudly you tell people that that’s what you’re doing. After all, diversity isn’t really diversity until it becomes normality: before that you are simply in the process of attempting to effect change. There are no quick fixes to the problem, which has its roots in wider, societal issues. But perhaps a starting point is to reframe how we think about writing and about culture more broadly.

What is needed is not so much a set of solutions to the ‘problem’ of greater class diversity in the publishing industry, so much as a shift in understanding as to what, and who, reading is for. We might best address the issue by going back to the very basics of how the industry is run, applying socialist principles to the publishing industry as we might apply them to any other resource that everyone should have access to. The narratives that an era produces speak volumes about the time in which they were conceived. Books, plays, films and song have the power to summarise complex societal conversations around race, gender and class struggles. They have the power, also, to speak to people about their everyday lives and to reflect and legitimise their experiences, lending them the permanence of art. Narratives are not superfluous: they are what societies are built on. 

The class problem in publishing

But despite schemes from publishers such as Penguin – who, in 2016, took away the requirement of a university degree for job applicants – and the emergence of a number of small, Northern-based publishers, it still remains uncomfortably true that publishing on the whole is populated by people who are predominantly white, predominantly London-centric and predominantly from the middle and upper classes. Entry-level roles in publishing are often low-paid and located in London, where sky-high rents and cost of living effectively block out people without prior means of supporting themselves. Many roles now advertise as remote working, yet still inexplicably require the employee to live in London. Simply moving the seat of publishing from London to Manchester is not the answer to ensuring a greater variety of voices get through. Yes, it is a step in the right direction, but creating a second capital in the North risks creating a sense of complacency that real change has been achieved.

There is clearly a class problem in publishing. In 2019, the Labour Force Survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics showed that 43% of workers in the publishing industry (authors, writers, translators, editors, journalists etc.) came from middle-class backgrounds, and only 12% from working-class backgrounds.

This is in contrast to the rest of the population, where around 14% of the population are from higher professional and managerial origins, and around 35% are from working-class backgrounds.

In 2019, a survey in The Bookseller of people who worked in or were connected to the publishing industry found that nearly 80% of respondents from a working-class background felt discriminated against in their field of work due to their social class – particularly because of discrimination based on accent, and nepotism in the industry.

Focussing on the experiences of working-class writers, meanwhile, Common People, a 2020 report between Northumbria University and several regional writing agencies, provided a detailed breakdown of challenges and prejudices faced by a selection of writers in England and Wales. Again, nepotism was highlighted as a major issue faced by working-class writers, alongside impostor syndrome, a lack of peer support and off-putting experiences of inclusivity schemes which paid lip service to change but did little to really help and support attendees. The report made several recommendations: moving publishing outside of London; making routes into the industry more transparent and fairly-paid; investing in regional writing agencies; and learning from the good practice of the third sector.

These are crucial conversations: that we are able to have them at all now signals a real desire for change. And yet, if we are to effect progress for coming generations, the work needs to begin much earlier to improve diversity in the industry. I loved reading as a child: when it came to choosing a degree course, the only option that was ever explained to me was English Literature. For many working-class teenagers who are likely to be the first in their families to go to university, doing a degree in a subject like publishing simply wouldn’t ever be discussed. A drive to make the vagaries of the industry more transparent, accessible and welcoming for young people is one way we might target change for the future.

Meanwhile, the gap between the well-off and those in our society that are struggling the most grows ever wider. A report commissioned by the National Literacy Trust (NTL) in 2018, Literacy and Life Expectancy, found that 44% of children from disadvantaged backgrounds were not at a good level of general development by the time they started primary school. At age 5, their vocabulary was, on average, 19 months behind children from higher-income backgrounds. 

Work by charities such as the NTL to localise literacy campaigns and set up regional literacy hubs is one example of how real action is needed inside of our communities to ensure that all children are given an equal start when it comes to language and communication. In Middlesbrough, for example, after the first NTL hub was set up in 2013 the number of children reaching the expected level of communication by age 5 rose by 31%. The trust now has 14 such hubs across the country. Whilst the work that the NTL has done and is doing is invaluable – including sending out 1 million books to children who may not have access to them at home – it has stepped into a space out of necessity where there should be no space at all.

The punishing raft of austerity measures

For it can be no coincidence that the NTL set up its first hub in 2013, three years after the formation of the Coalition government and the punishing raft of austerity measures which began thereafter. The state should be supporting literacy: that 43% of working age adults can be allowed to be without the literacy skills required to make use of health literature is a scandal. Since 2010, 800 public libraries have closed. While much has been made of the crucial role libraries play in providing access to people without the internet at home, I think it is equally as important to consider that children are now growing up without ready access to free books.

What could the labour movement do about the systematic bias in the publishing industry in terms of the workforce, and the lack of affordable and meaningful material for working-class readers? One way of addressing this could be for trade unions to form a not-for-profit publishing house of their own, focusing on using digital technology to maximise accessibility and keep costs low. Free or very cheap e-books could be produced, not only for trade union members but for working people generally. At the time of writing, David Walliams’ latest children’s bestseller is priced at £12.99, well above the National Minimum Wage of £8.72 an hour. 

When you consider that this is the case, it is unsurprising that publishing – both for writers and for workers – remains a closed industry. If generations of children grow up without access to books, how can they be expected to want to work in – or indeed write within – a publishing industry whose motives and purpose remains opaque and remote?

Publishing, reading, literacy and writing must be for everyone at every stage: from those children who start school without access to books and reading, to the adults suffering impostor syndrome who feel out of place at misguided inclusivity events. Until it is, working-class people working in the industry will remain in the minority – with those that do feeling their class background has impeded their careers. Working-class narratives should eventually be recognised as narratives that are simply rooted in the various experience of the majority of people. A diverse publishing industry means a diversity of stories: without which, ultimately, we all lose. 

The Necessity of Green
Monday, 24 August 2020 11:03

The Necessity of Green

Written by

David Betteridge writes critically and creatively about the artwork above, Nature writing, Bertolt Brecht, and eco-communism.

The idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history - Raymond Williams

What you see above is a lino print called “Leaf of Tree”, by Owen McGuigan. 

It hangs on the wall above my computer at home, is mounted on white card, and is surrounded by a broad hardwood frame. It measures five inches across by seven inches tall. Looking at it, as I often do - it draws my attention to it, inspiringly - I find that it invites two kinds of looking: one from above, so to speak, as if I was a bird gliding over a fertile landscape, and the other slower, more detailed, as if I was an insect prospecting this way and that way at close quarters. How does this “Leaf of Tree” image strike you, I wonder? 

For most people, probably, the thoughts and feelings that the print arouses will be pleasant ones, and for three reasons. The first reason is physiological: the highest-density part of our eyes’ retina is most sensitive to green, so responds to that colour with greatest acuity. The second reason is aesthetic: the placing of one larger leaf, stylised, within a pattern of smaller leaves is very skilfully handled; we look, and we recognise beauty. The third reason is associative: the image triggers memories in us of previous leafy encounters, whether in the real world, or mediated through art or literature.

Those 35 square inches of art might stand for three or five or 35 acres of green growth, or more, or for the whole world if you think so; or they might stand for some smaller singular Dear Green Place, dear only to you. For me, the fresh green of “Leaf of Tree” conjures up a summer’s day in a wood in Argyll. I hear the waves slapping on Loch Etive, not far from where I stand. The sun is shining directly on, and through, a panoply of sessile oak leaves, highlighting their veins in all their intricacy. I am also reminded of William Morris’s lovely plant designs, particularly “Acanthus”, “Orchard” and “Willow Bough”. 

Building on these or similar associations, we might even go on to interpret the colour green and the idea of “green” in a symbolic way, seeing in growing things the very principle of life, as Walt Whitman did when he wrote his Leaves of Grass:

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition,
       out of hopeful green stuff woven...
I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic...
Growing among black folk as among white...
I give them the same, I receive them the same...
All goes onward and outward...
       and nothing collapses...

Having images such as “Leaf of Tree” on display at home, or stored electronically, is pretty commonplace. Looking at them, we can readily feed our senses and our imaginations, for the reasons given above. It is also commonplace to want to read and be reminded of green things, especially in dark times such as we live in now - and when are times ever not dark? Books about Nature are consistently in lists of best-sellers.

During the recent Covid-19 lockdown, my “Leaf of Green” took on especial significance for me. It inspired me to wrestle some green thoughts into a chapbook of poems, including the one given below:

While the pot boils

(Looking out of my kitchen window during the Covid-19 pandemic)

Even in these dark days,
the world does not forget to green
and grow.

My neighbour’s apple-tree progresses well,
no longer bare twigs, but leaves and flowers.

With fruit to come, it gives sanctuary
to a pair of nesting wrens,
who get on busily with everything
that their lives demand,
heedless of what we humans know,
or do not know.

The tree waves and bends
in the frequent wind. 
I note it does not break.
Like the wrens, it is industrious.

How readily Earth’s habitats renew,
recycle, and remake!

A critic of puritanical bent might argue that such “nature worship” or “nature wallowing” as is found in the above poem - and in Nature writing generally, perhaps - is a deplorably “escapist” habit, a turning away from the “real” business of dealing with the world. George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers) was an early example of this stern and restrictive school of criticism. In 1670, or thereabouts, he wrote to his followers as follows:

And therefore, all friends and people, pluck down your images; I say, pluck them out of your houses, walls, and signs, or other places, that none of you be found imitators of his Creator, whom you should serve and worship; and not observe the idle lazy mind…

Later, and famously, from a secular, communist standpoint, Bertolt Brecht wrote as follows, apparently as puritanically as Fox, but significantly not quite:

To those born later 

Truly, I live in dark times!
The guileless word is folly.

A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity.

The man who laughs
Has simply not yet had
The terrible news.

What kind of times are they, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
That man there calmly crossing the street
Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends
Who are in need?

Being a great poet, and a man fully alive, Brecht carefully avoided the extremism that was found in Fox, who went so far as to prefer grey to all other colours. “Almost a crime,” Brecht declared; therefore not a crime, although some on the Left might still think it is, trapped in the notion that tree-talk can only be a turning aside from the realities of the class struggle, and therefore a holiday from the building of socialism. No, Brecht was careful to keep for himself a certain licence to talk about trees, and write about them, and delight in them. These things he did throughout the years of the Second World War and Cold War, up to his swan-song Buckow Elegies. Consistently, he used trees as an emblem for pleasure, well-being, and for continuity across generations.

“Lovely trees,” he exclaimed in “Finnish Landscape”, and “Such scents of berries and of birches there!” He saw no need to repress his delight in Nature. It resurged again and again, gaining expression in other poems that he went on to write, often about gardens, including, most luxuriously of all, his friend Charles Laughton’s garden on the Pacific coast near Los Angeles. Brecht singled out the fuchsias for praise: “Amazing themselves with many a daring red”.

Always the dialectician, Brecht contrived to plant negatives among his positives, creating a complex context for his celebration of green beauty. So, in “Finnish Landscape”, written in 1940, with war spreading from country to country and across continents, he wrote:

 Dizzy with sight and sound and thought and smell
The refugee beneath the alders turns
To his laborious job...
[He] sees who’s short of milk and corn...
And sees a people silent in two tongues.

And in the Californian “Garden in Progress” (1944), he added to his picture the fact that there was “crumbling rock” destabilising the garden.  Even as the gardeners worked to finish their planting, “Landslides / Drag parts of it into the depths without warning.”  Meanwhile, the poet was aware of the gunfire of warships exercising off the coast, and thought of “a number of civilisations” ready to collapse.

The same delight in the things of Nature as Brecht’s, again voiced in communist terms, and again set in a complex context, is found by the wagon-load in William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890). Near the end of this imagined visit to a future commonwealth, Morris’s alter ego William Guest is told by his guide, Ellen, that:

O me!  O me!  How I love the earth, and the seasons, and weather, and all things that deal with it, and all that grows out of it...

Here Morris’s green utopia is used as a method of criticising capitalism, of opposing it, and of rejecting it, while at the same time re-imagining how a society might better function in future. His utopia is as much a dramatising of a communist “structure of feeling”, as defined by Raymond Williams, as it is an outlining of a political programme. It is an early example of eco-communism, where Green and Red go hand in hand, albeit simply.

There is an eloquent passage in Ernst Fischer’s The Necessity of Art where he quoted Brecht regarding the same critical use of utopia as Morris deployed:

Dreams and the golden “if”
Conjure the promised sea
Of ripe corn growing...

To Brecht’s “Dreams and the golden ‘if’” we might add our own corollary: “Hope and the green leaf”.

II

So far, we have looked at the “Leaf of Tree” image as a finished product, its only context being provided from our own store of memories of similar green things, and images of things, and writings about them. Your store will be different from mine, of course, although I guess - I hope - that there will be enough commonality between them for us to agree that “Leaf of Tree” is well worth looking at, and looking at many times, and that doing so is a rewarding experience: in a nutshell, that it is life-affirming.

Now it is time, in the second half of the essay, to show the process by which “Leaf of Tree” came into being, and to put it in its full context -  a context that includes its artist, its time and place of production, and the culture out of which it came and into which it feeds. Knowing these extra things about the image is unlikely to change our first opinion of it, but may give depth and confirmation to that opinion, and increase the range of associations that the image prompts in us.  “Oh no,” a formalist critic might protest, narrowly, “we should only be concerned with what lies within the frame.”  We, preferring a cultural materialist perspective, will not be deterred.  As when we get to know anything or anyone new, so with “Leaf of Tree”: we want to ask of it, Where are you from?

the shed

Here is where “Leaf of Tree” is from: namely a garden shed on the very boundary of Glasgow and Clydebank. The artist is Owen McGuigan, a former shop-fitter, now retired. He is well known in Clydebank and beyond as Clydebank’s best archivist and celebrator.  His principal medium is photograph and video, although latterly he has also used drawing, print-making, jig-saw and wood panel burning as media for his vision.  Visit his website here, and be bowled over by its very great volume, beauty and range of reference. All in all, there are sufficient images archived on Owen’s website to satisfy legions of social historians and Bankies wanting a visual record of their hometown, legions of art-lovers, and to inspire legions of poets. 

Owen has contributed to the Culture Matters website, on the subject of ship-building’s double legacy in “Profit and Loss” (28 January, 2017), and on war and peace in “The Pity of War” (23 July, 2018) and “No More War” (10 November, 2019).

I have picked out a few examples of Owen’s work below, to keep his “Leaf of Tree” company: -

trees

Trees in winter, Dalmuir Park

A garden game

 A garden game, devised for grandchildren during the Covid-19 lockdown

Clean up

Cleaning up the Forth & Clyde Canal: a recent photo

clydebank blitz

The Clydebank blitz: a jigsaw composition

 Elegy

 Elegy for Glasgow School of Art: aftermath of its second fire, June, 2018

Shipbuilding

Profit & Loss: Ship-building anatomised

Dogwood

Dogwood and spider

Even these few examples give a good impression of Owen’s range of styles and subject matter. What unites them is a strong shape, a clear content, and skill. They are all labours of love, produced in Owen’s leisure time. This fact gives them a special significance, rescuing them, and rescuing Owen, from any nexus of commodities and marketplaces. In Raymond Williams’s words:

The real dividing line between things we call work and the things we call leisure is that in leisure... we make our own choices and our own decisions. We feel for the time being that our life is our own.

The garden shed that is pictured above is only one of Owen’s favoured workshops. That is where he works when he works alone. On other occasions, when he works with others, sometimes as a tutor, sometimes as a learner, always collaboratively, then he has two other places to go to, both close to home. One of them is an arts centre in Dalmuir Park, in an old park superintendent’s house; the other, rejoicing in the name “The Awestruck Academy”, is in a defunct snooker hall in Clydebank’s pedestrianised town centre. 

Ten thousand such cultural hubs across the land, for community use, sited wherever “To Let” signs are commonest, would serve the people there in the way rising sap serves a tree. Ten thousand such hubs devoted  specifically to socialist and trade union work would specifically serve the labour movement. There are several pieces on the Culture Matters website exploring this notion, notably Rebecca Hillman’s “Rebuilding Culture in the Labour Movement” (27 November, 2017), Mike Quille’s “Culture for the Many, Not the Few” (13 December, 2018), and Chris Guiton’s “Profound New Visions of a Better World” (10 June, 2019). They underpin the argument being advanced here.

Regarding the two cultural hubs in Clydebank that Owen favours, and is fostered by, he mentions them in a contribution he has written for this essay, giving the “Leaf of Tree” back-story.  From it, you will realise that the image that is at the heart of this essay is unique: it is the first, and so far the only print made from Owen’s linocut:

I have had a fascination about trees since I was a boy, from climbing them in Whitecrook Park with my two sisters in the 50s, and our mum taking us berrypicking at Blairgowrie during the school holidays, where on our day off my two sisters and I would go to the forest around the loch and light camp fires. I can still smell that. Later in life, my nephew David and I did a lot of hill walking. We walked the West Highland Way together, and I loved walking inside a silent forest. The family and I even built a cabin up at Carbeth, in the hills, which we had for twelve years before vandals set fire to it.

So, over the years, trees have been a recurring theme in my work. More so when I joined the Dalmuir Park Art Class in 2013. We did a lot of nature-themed projects. Last year we all did a big tree mural, and over the year we added various elements to it reflecting the seasons. I made a video of this project:

Usually, when I sat down at the art class to start a lino- cut, I never planned what I was going to do. An idea of a tree inside a leaf popped into my head. The final title was a play on the words “Tree of Life”, an image that has always fascinated me. I made some Christmas decorations of it, although it was a lot of work, as they were handmade. 

The first linocut that David saw was at the Awestruck Academy in Clydebank, on a board that someone had set up with several linoprints. David was taken by the image, and I said I would print one for him. I looked through all my linocuts, and, as usual, it was the one that was missing! Then I remembered that Sandra Anton, the Community Ranger that runs our art class, liked the linocut herself and wanted to display it at home, so I let her take it. I asked her, but she had been decorating and stored it somewhere, and couldn’t find it. I then did a new linocut especially for David and printed it for him. This was the inspiration for David to create his latest poetry book.  

III

Looking again at Owen’s “Leaf of Tree”, taking into account both the context and the process of its making, we can agree that the image suggests much more than a bit of green growth. We can agree, in reality and metaphorically, that a leaf - any leaf, anywhere and everywhere - is sustained by a twig, and the twig is sustained by a branch, and the branch by a tree’s bole, and the bole by a system of roots, and the roots by the soil into which they dig down and spread.  And we can agree that the tree - any tree - might well not stand alone, but is part of a greater habitat.

So Owen, by analogy, is a vigorous part of a pretty extensive living, growing and interdependent People’s culture, rooted in Clydebank, but reaching further by means of the internet. The culture that he and his co-producers spring from, and feed back into, is a foreshadowing of the greater culture to which Socialism will lead; but it is not only a foreshadowing. It is also a preparation for that greater culture, sharing good practice and educating desire now.

Brecht, as we have noted, kept an appreciative eye open for trees wherever he went. He was speaking equivocally when he commented that, during political crises, “To talk about trees is almost a crime.” No! On the evidence of Owen’s image of a green leaf, and all the associations it carries for us when considered in context, as in this essay, we can state, unequivocally, that not to talk about trees is almost a crime.

The green leaf delights the eye,
and leads the mind to a hundred habitats
where it may either rest or roam.

Hope and the green leaf inspire the wish
that such green habitats - where humankind
keeps step with Nature’s ways - might be
for all of us our proper home.

Labour and hope, if only shared
world-wide, and people-wide,
will make at last that vision real,
bringing to detailed life the concepts
of our commonweal.

Rethinking the kind of culture we want
Sunday, 16 August 2020 14:30

Rethinking the kind of culture we want

Written by

Theresa Easton, Northern Organiser for Artists' Union England, shows how the Covid crisis should be tackled by applying the principles of cultural democracy. The image above is by David Shrigley

The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the cracks in the arts sector, which is supported by a freelance workforce that has few employment rights and protections. Many supplement their poorly paid freelance art practice with part-time jobs, zero-hour contract work and precarious, casual employment. Artists’ average annual income from their art is only around £6,000.

The lockdown resulted in all work being halted. Members of Artists’ Union England have reported that all exhibitions, projects, and commissions were abandoned, delayed indefinitely or cancelled.  Government support packages excluded many artists – because so many artists are forced to seek other kinds of paid work, they fall outside the government’s categories for self-employment. So many artists have been forced to sign on to the pitifully inadequate Universal Credit scheme.

Arts Council England’s emergency financial support of £20 million for creatives turned into a lottery.  Keep it Complex, an artist-run group of cultural workers described the response from ACE as ‘business as usual’, creating competition between cash-strapped freelancers in a time of crisis. Keep it Complex kicked back against ACE’s proposal, organising artists into syndicates, working collaboratively to share any winnings. AUE recently launched its Solidarity Fund to support those in financial hardship, supported by artists contributing some of the proceeds from sales of their work.

Overall support from government for freelance and self-employed artists has been inadequate, with many falling into debt, struggling to pay bills and worrying about the future. 

The announcement of a ‘rescue package’ for arts, culture and heritage has been launched to much fanfare. Typically, comments from Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden about preserving the ‘crown jewels’ of the arts sector, along with similar statements from Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, have revealed the limits of ministers’ understanding of the arts, and their inability to look beyond buildings and institutions.

There is only 7% grant support for freelancers to apply for, after larger institutions take their cut of the pie from an allocated grants budget of £880 million. Some of these institutions are currently making staff redundant while receiving handouts from government. 

Tackling precarious employment in the arts

So what are the answers to this crisis? One suggestion from one of our members to tackle a long-standing problem was for more equity in spending between London and the rest of the country. The arts and culture are not funded adequately or fairly, and so have become irrelevant to many people’s lives – particularly outside London and in less well-off communities everywhere.

Trade unionists from Yorkshire and Humberside TUC have highlighted “the disparity of DCMS and Arts Council England funding, at £69 per head for Londoners and £4.58 per head for the rest of England”. Investment in the arts, they argue, should not be driven by economic considerations, but by its social benefits, and it should be accountable to local communities, not imposed on them.

We need to tackle precarious employment in the arts sector. A group of Northern based AUE members have been working on a charter of minimum standards of employment for visual arts freelancers working in the sector, which needs to be widely promoted and adopted by employers. 

Work in the creative and cultural industries should be accessible and feasible for everyone. But there is plenty of evidence that the precarity of contract work, the informal networks of institutional gatekeepers, and discrimination on the basis of class and race make it harder for people from working-class and BAME communities to access and progress equally in the arts and culture sector.

Working-class voices and experiences are increasingly absent from the professional arts sector. The most recent official analysis of employment in the cultural sector finds only 13% working in the sector to be from working-class backgrounds. Social mobility in the arts, as in many other areas of British life, has stalled.

The fundamental problem is that years of cuts to local authorities, austerity, and ongoing privatisation have created a sector with an unsustainable, capitalist business model. It relies far too heavily on commercialisation, corporate sponsorship and market forces to fund people’s cultural experiences. But the arts and culture, like health and education, are just too important to be left to the market.

The pandemic has meant that institutions are struggling to cover building costs and management roles, while cutting the jobs of creative workers. And the reality is that apart from TV and cinemas, most people have limited access to the arts, both as consumers and as creative workers.

Shared ownership and control

So Covid-19 is also a chance for us all to rethink what kind of culture we want. 

It's time to radically change the way that cultural provision is planned, managed and delivered. Democratic principles of shared ownership and control need to be applied.

We need a radical rebalancing of provision towards less well-off communities. Local authorities and communities need the funding and power to develop culture hubs which can stimulate and encourage local cultural production. We need democratic accountability of cultural institutions.

Finally, there needs to be close involvement of trade unions in the strategic planning and delivery of cultural experiences, so that working people, both as producers and consumers of culture, have fair access to all the benefits that the arts and culture can deliver.

Artists’ Union England is a relatively new trade union representing visual artists which emerged from the 2012 anti-austerity and anti-cuts movement. The trade union is a grassroots, members-led organisation campaigning for better working conditions, pay and equality in the arts sector.  This article is the latest in the series of articles on Covid-19 and culture, jointly published with the Morning Star.

Free culture in the time of the virus
Sunday, 16 August 2020 10:19

Free culture in the time of the virus

Written by

Adam Stoneman explains how the Covid crisis is an opportunity to share digital cultural experiences more freely. The image above is 'Hands', by Theresa Easton

Kneeling on Mount Alvernia in prayer, hands and feet freshly pierced with stigmata, St. Francis faces the apparition of Christ. Zoom in and you see his eyes fixed in stoic determination, lines of flesh in furrowed brow, a body transcending mortal pain. Zoom in further and spidery lines of cracked paint appear, flecked and damaged. Zoom in further still until shimmering waves of light disturb the vision; rows and rows of LEDs break the surface. Zoom out, blink and rub your eyes, sit back in your chair.

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During the long days and nights of lockdown, many of us reached through our screens for culture, quenching our emotional and intellectual thirst in isolation. Museums and galleries published virtual exhibitions and tours (you can see St. Francis in glorious macrophotography as part of a virtual Van Eyck exhibition); theatres and opera houses streamed archive performances; JSTOR expanded free access; the Internet Archive created a National Emergency Library of free e-books. UNESCO, which launched a #ShareCulture campaign to promote online exhibitions of world heritage sites, proclaimed that culture must be “accessible to all, and that the full diversity of humanity’s cultural expressions can flourish, both online and offline.” The proliferation of initiatives like this during lockdown arose from a recognition of the important role that art plays in sustaining us and the universal right to culture.

Knowledge, art and culture held in common

Despite the limitations of experiencing certain forms of culture through digital interfaces, along with the individualised nature of online engagement, digital access to art is enriching. From the confines of our houses, access to performances, films and music was a lifeline to a world of ideas and emotions that helped to guard against the darkness of isolation. The sharing and free access to digital culture during the lockdown provided a glimpse of a future in which knowledge and art are shared freely and in common.

Throughout the first few months of the lockdown, most moves to extend free access to online culture were billed as temporary, ‘emergency’ measures in response to the crisis and most have since ended as institutions have opened up again. Emergency or not, copyright holders were not slow to act when they felt their intellectual property was being infringed. The Internet Archive’s free library of e-books was shut down after only a few weeks on threat of a lawsuit from publishers.

As with changes to remote working, the extension of access to digital culture is unlikely to disappear now that it has been established. Though the crisis has accelerated the trend, digitising and opening up collections had started long before the virus struck (Europeana, for example, is an online platform that hosts over 10 million cultural artefacts from 3,000 European institutions for educational and non-commercial use). The question is how expanded digital access can be integrated within a rehabilitated cultural sector. Facing a cultural industry ravaged by the virus, if not quite a “cultural wasteland”, institutions are under enormous pressure to increase revenue, and subscription and paywall models are already being trialled. The Met Opera in New York, which had streamed archive performances for free during lockdown, is now testing a pay per view model.

The success of Netflix - now worth more than Exxon - and other streaming platforms is held up as a model for emulation. But the commercial logic of algorithmically designed streaming services like Netflix and Spotify privilege certain forms of culture to the detriment of others. Streaming is predicated on high consumption ‘binging’ and repeated playbacks and therefore trades better in mood and affect than intellectually demanding culture. At local, regional and national level, public funding can provide artists with patronage that breaks from a commercial logic, allowing more radical and challenging forms of culture to emerge. Digital culture must not be beholden to the laws of the algorithm - the Netflixification of culture needs to be resisted.

It is clear the Covid-19 crisis will be used by corporate interests as an opportunity to further entrench the neoliberal privatisation of the cultural sector. The Southbank Centre recently announced plans to make 400 of its 577 staff redundant this week and when it reopens in 2021, to model itself on a start-up enterprise, with 90% of its spaces for rent and only 10% for art. While these moves must be resisted, there is the opportunity to go further, to strengthen and extend public funding and democratise access to and participation in the arts. Indeed, this pandemic has helped arguments for a publicly funded cultural sector. The model of private arts funding dominant in the United States, in which institutions rely on philanthropy and earned income rather than government funding, has left cultural institutions especially vulnerable; the American Alliance of Museums reported to Congress in March that as many as a third of museums could fail to reopen their doors - compared with one in ten globally.

Reward the artists, not the shareholders

Rather than finding new ways of monetising digital culture, our recent collective experience of free online art can lead to fundamental questions about access and ownership. Copyright is usually framed in terms of the individual artist or author; in practice, copyright is typically ceded to publishers or studios, who exercise these powers and get most of the benefits, sharing only a small portion with the creator. It is usually publishers that lobby to increase copyright powers. Yet corporations spin and hide behind the image of the penurious artist to defend their extraordinary profit ratios. It is not illegal file sharing that has increased that has made the cultural sector so precarious, but a system which rewards the shareholders of Spotify while the company pays artists as little as $0.0032 per play.

The paradigm of free digital culture can challenge and expose the lie of neoliberalism. The internet has opened up new possibilities for cultural exchange, both in terms of sharing existing content and also finding platforms for one's own work that are not mediated by institutions or corporations. The persistent popularity of file sharing networks demonstrates a social desire to share and exchange culture; as filmmaker Shekhar Kapur quipped, "In India we see copyright as the right to copy".

Cultural producers organising as part of the labour movement can ensure the post-pandemic cultural landscape is one in which artists earn a decent and secure living. In France the system of financial support for artists and technicians, known as intermittents du spectacle, has just been extended into 2021, despite years of government attempts to end it (after one such attempt in 2003 actors and technicians went on strike, leading to the cancellation of a major festival in Avignon and sacking of the culture minister). The artists' unemployment insurance system, paid for by employers and workers' contributions, an artist or technician must work for a certain number of hours during high season to gain benefits for the fallow periods between intermittent contracts. Models such as this can be taken up by artists’ unions to shift the balance of power back towards artists and cultural producers.

Free access to digital culture need not threaten cultural producers; digital culture is not a replacement for the physical experience of art but complements and enhances it. Rather than build walls around online culture and knowledge, we must work on expanding free access. Let the harm of the pandemic spur us to build a society in which culture and knowledge are freely shared in common.

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Poetry and class in a time of cholera
Monday, 27 July 2020 11:03

Poetry and class in a time of cholera

Written by

Fran Lock writes about poetry and class, in the latest in the series of jointly published Morning Star/Culture Matters articles on the effects of the pandemic on cultural activities

During this Covid crisis, poetry is being asked to do a lot of good: to offer consolation and catharsis, to carry some kind of vague universal experience, to speak truth to power. But whose experiences, and whose truth? These are pressing questions.

Everyone, from practitioners to pundits, has an opinion, the same opinion:  poetry is a 'contemplative' form, productive of comfort and of empathy; what poetry does singularly well is negotiate between subjective feeling and mass social concern. True, but whether contemplation is likely to provide solace or to further empathy rather depends on what you're being asked to contemplate, doesn't it? And we might be equally involved in global events, but we are not all equally affected by them. The virus does not discriminate. Humans do.

This is where our current definitions of poetry fail, at a disparity so great it can never quite be broached; at the edge of an ONS report  that says there are fifty-five deaths for every one-hundred-thousand people in the poorest parts of England compared with twenty-five in the wealthier areas. For BAME communities the situation is even bleaker. Class dictates which of us will feel the effects of coronavirus the deepest, and who will be left to endure its legacy the longest. Under such conditions what should poetry do or be?

Poetry doesn't stand outside of capitalism's brutalising power structures speaking in. It is enmeshed and beholden to those structures; subject to and scarred by them. Artists are also workers: art is work, and the large majority of us do other jobs to support ourselves and our families. When the welfare state is failed by government, it fails us too, when jobs are cut, they're our jobs too.

The idea that art is an adequate salve to these wounds is ludicrous. 'Feeling better' should not replace collective, active and organised social change. This is the limit and the danger of 'consolation': we shouldn't have to find ways to 'cope' with an unacceptable situation; pressure should be applied to those who engineered it.

Catharsis is ripe for exploitation. The deep swell of feeling a poem prompts may seem profound, momentous even, but it is interior, entirely subjective, the oppositeof true sympathy, true solidarity. This kind of poetry, and the idea that it connects people through some golden thread of fellow feeling conceals the fatal extent of the inequality existing between us.

Catharsis makes a fetish of working-class resilience; it ties that suffering to a marketable performance of identity, where your pain has meaning and value only in so far as it elicits a profound emotional response in your audience. Writing the poem may help us, but its efficacy in challenging the attitudes and conditions that produce those feelings is limited.

I live – we live – a continual, exhausting negotiation with and within language; with and within capitalism. Our use of language is both an organic response and a purposeful riposte to the non-language of bureaucracy, the populist sloganeering of governments, and the reductive stereotyping of the mainstream media.

I want to fight back against the misuse of lyric; against the easy absorption it sometimes fosters. Capitalism uses ease of assimilation to slide its most toxic messages past us on the sly. Those are the enemy's tactics. Our poetry must do more. If the state were a body, then poetry should tell us where it hurts; to keep pointing to the sites of failure and neglect and saying 'Look! Listen!'

They don't listen. If they did funding bodies and publishers would have already moved past the tokenistic representational model of working-class inclusion to make real changes to the way in which financial support for artists is allocated and accessed.

Applying for assistance - before coronavirus and during - is a bewildering process. Many give up. In poverty you're asked to account for yourself in a variety of ways every day, just to access what you need to survive. We live with a level of scrutiny and required 'proof' that is intrusive and stressful.  Impenetrable bureaucratic processes are not helpful. Funding bodies frequently assume a familiarity with their processes, but often people are unaware of what's out there, what they're 'entitled' to. And there are talented artists who don't have the vocabulary to present the 'best case' for their vibrant and necessary work. Who, among the working classes, can afford to expend time and attention on a process they feel sure will fail?

Attention to diversity means reaching out, talking about the opportunities for disadvantaged artists with those artists. Regularly. Systematically. People new to funding processes may have no previous experience navigating these systems. It is about making space for them, even if their work does not conform to some preconceived idea of how a working-class person writes or sounds. It means recognising that a middle-class audience is not the default. It means making money available to forms of art that the working class can actually practice.

To occupy the same spaces as our middle-class peers we are performing a phenomenal amount of extra labour; it's labour we shouldn't have to perform. But if we do, if this is really the best system our cultural gatekeepers can come up with, then we should be allowed to be angry. The idea that art should or indeed can be apolitical is patently ridiculous, and it's a fiction that serves those already comfortably ensconced in places of privilege.

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