Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (56)

Empathy with the poor and oppressed: a review of Reading and Rebellion
Thursday, 14 March 2019 16:01

Empathy with the poor and oppressed: a review of Reading and Rebellion

Written by

Jan Woolf reviews Reading and Rebellion: an anthology of radical writing for children 1900-1960, edited by Kimberley Reynolds, Jane Rosen and Michael Rosen

This fine anthology of socialist writings for children – pre-school to adolescent – spans the inter and post-war years in Britain: that time of hope for Socialism in the world, with the Soviet Union a kind of lodestar. Polly Toynbee writes in the preface ‘Stories from childhood sink deep into our lifelong imagination’: So they don’t just roost there, stories help form us. As Bruno Bettelheim outlines in The Uses of Enchantment, children project themselves into fairy tales to imagine what they would do and how they would behave in the protagonist’s situation, and this can play a vital part in maturation.

Although Bettelheim’s thesis is beyond the remit of this book, socialist/leftist/radical stories are designed to do just that, for as well as political perspective, many of these stories were written to prepare youngsters for the socialist life, whether as practitioners or agitators: how to behave in meetings, chair, debate, speak with confidence, take the minutes – make the tea! Some might say this is ideological. Of course it is – it carries ideas. As everything does!

JR Young Socialist 2

The book is arranged in ten sections, listed here, as this encapsulates the thematic breadth better than sentences in a review can. Stories for Young Socialists. The War Against War. Writing and Revolution. Of Russia with Love. Examples from Life. Performing Leftness. Fighting Fascism. Science and Social Transformation. Sex for Beginners. Visions of the Future. Each section has an introduction, outlining the effect of these books (and sometimes performances) as well as biographical notes on each author, making this a social and literary manual as much as a collection of stories.

The three editors’ introductions are fascinating too. Kimberley Reynolds was the first Senior Honorary Research Fellow for the ‘History of Emotions’ at the University of Western Australia. Now that’s a job title worth talking about. Jane Rosen describes her radical family background, and wanted to find out about the reading experiences of others from leftist families. Michael Rosen (unrelated to Jane) is one of our best-known children’s’ writers and broadcasters, serving time as Children’s Laureate 2007-9. But the epithet ‘national treasure’ will not do – for he nips at the establishment and ducks and dives under its feet. He also knows about child development and the place literature has in that, recalling, as the son of Communist Party members, being give A White Sail Gleams, by Soviet author Valentin Katayev, a novel about the 1905 revolution and Potemkin uprising seen through the eyes and emotions of two Odessa schoolboys. There is an extract in the anthology.

The writing in the stories is uneven – many written by councillors and trade unionists rather than professional writers. No matter – they all work. But the stand-out story for me was Tom Wintringham’s Steel Spokes, about children riding motorbikes on a picket line. The interaction of human and machine, and the magical thinking of giving human qualities to machines, is beautifully done. Infused with fantasy as well as narrative, the story has great emotional as well as political truth. Wintringham was a dispatch rider during WW1 and commander of the British battalion at the battle of Jamara in the Spanish Civil War, and the story is full of love for machines and how we depend on them for our survival – or not. This could only have been written by an activist.

As a working-class child growing up in Surrey in the 1950s, I’d have loved some of these stories, or those that at least reflected my background. Instead, the best was Rupert Bear with those magical winds and landscapes, the Enid Blyton tosh (which we loved), and Angela Brazil’s novels set in the school dorms of the upper classes. It seems I was to share the reading matter of my parents’ employers – catching up politically as a student and teacher later on.

Polly Toynbee also points out that many childrens’ stories have empathised with the poor and oppressed, with characters like Dick Whittington or Cinderella eventually hooking up with the rich and powerful in their journey through social mobility. Yet the writers in this anthology present a deeper moral view of how to live, with comforts for main characters drawn from solidarity with kindred spirits living in the same world that they are all trying to improve, thus affecting the thinking of future politicians and legislators. In this era of neoliberalism, the solitude of screens, shallow soundbites, and frenetic TV, it has never been so important to emphasise – in our children’s’ minds – the importance and comfort of societies and collectivity, and the effect this can have on the wider culture. As that great novelist EM Forster said: Only connect.

The book is available here. Culture Matters is interested in reviving and developing radical children's literature, so if you think you can help us, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

JR Red Dawn

IWD 2019: Pioneers of Women's Emancipation in Ireland
Thursday, 07 March 2019 15:22

IWD 2019: Pioneers of Women's Emancipation in Ireland

Written by

To mark International Women's Day, Jenny Farrell reviews Pioneers of Women’s Emancipation in Ireland, by Priscilla Metscher

Since times immemorial, people involved in the struggle for a better world have given expression to their aspiration not only in political texts and deeds, but also in artistic ways. These artistic expressions are not mere decoration, but an integral part of understanding and changing the world.

As explored in a previous article, the United Irishmen (and women) made extensive use of literary satire, and published songs in their political publications. Mary Ann McCracken wrote insightful, emancipatory letters to her imprisoned brother, Henry Joy. James Connolly took time out to write two plays and over twenty songs, poems and ballads. The play "Under Which Flag?" was first performed by the Workers' Dramatic Company in Liberty Hall three weeks before the Easter Rising (March 26, 1916). To quote the Irish suffragist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington who reviewed it:

It is a play of country life in Ireland at the time of the Fenian Rising... the dramatic conflict is fought around the person of Frank O'Donnell, a farmer's son, who in the first act announces his attention of joining the English Army, but at the end of the third act, having been shown the right path by his parents and sweetheart, and the old blind patriot Brian McMahon joins the fighting forces of the Irish Republican Brotherhood instead.

In the play, the farmer's wife Ellen replies to her eldest son Pat's intention to emigrate to America.

Far off hills are always green. Always slaving for other people, is it? And do you think you will get out of that by going to America? Faith then, you won't. The poor of the world are always slaving for other people, always going hungry that others may be fed, naked that others may be clothed, badly housed that others may live in palaces. 'Tis the way of the world in America as well as in Ireland.

In a short story discovered recently and attributed to Connolly, "The Agitator's Wife", another powerful woman character features at the heart of the piece. To quote Connolly: "No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression."

Priscilla Metscher’s study, Pioneers of Women’s Emancipation in Ireland (Connolly Books, 2018) focuses on the political thinking, activities and lives of eminent Irish fighters for women’s emancipation, from a Marxist perspective. The author examines in turn Mary Ann McCracken, Anna Doyle Wheeler, William Thompson and James Connolly.

Mary Ann McCracken’s (1770-1866) emancipative ideas concerning the lot of women in her day are revealed in the correspondence with her brother Henry Joy McCracken, a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen, while he was imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail. The goal of the United Irishmen was a separation from England and the setting up of a republic along the French model. Women were sworn into the Society and some actively participated in the ’98 Rising. Mary Ann McCracken is just one example of how mainstream historiography has neglected women’s contribution in shaping the outlook of their society. It is through her we can see that feminist ideas were gaining ground in Ireland in the late 18th century.

Next, Priscilla Metscher turns to two outstanding figures among the early socialists in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Anna Doyle Wheeler (1785-1848) and William Thompson (1775-1833). Both came from the Irish Ascendancy and had connections with leading socialists in Britain and France. Their ideas on the emancipation of women are expressed in their jointly authored Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, To Retain Them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery, which was first published in 1825. This publication went further than the writings of the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft by creating a set of concepts regarding the mutual oppression of the sexes under social inequality. While Wollstonecraft had commented on the degradation endured by women, Wheeler makes practical proposals concerning the equal rights for all citizens.

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Anna Doyle Wheeler

Irish socialist James Connolly took a firm stand on the question of equal rights for women. He saw it as one of the prerequisites of a future socialist society in Ireland:

Of what use … can be the re-establishment of any form of Irish state be if it does not embody the emancipation of womanhood.

Where necessary Connolly took direct action. When the Belfast textile manufacturers began to speed up production, Connolly, on request from the women workers, organised them as a textile branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.

Within the socialist movement in Ireland and Britain, Connolly stands out as one of the few socialist leaders of the time who insisted that the economic and political emancipation of women must be an integral part of any socialist programme. As Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, editor of the suffragist newspaper the Irish Citizen stated:

Mr. James Connolly…is the soundest and most thorough-going feminist among all the Irish labour men.

This study outlines the thinking and actions of each individual considered in it. Implementing their beliefs put them to the forefront of the political movements of their times. Priscilla Metscher considers these pioneers within their times, showing what they achieved, or where their thinking fell short. In this sense, they were both ahead of their times and of their times. By reading about and understanding these pioneers of women’s emancipation, the relevance of their insights and activism becomes clear. Their lives and work are to be recognized, celebrated – and above all built on.

The booklet is published by Connolly Books and available from them for €7, see here.

'So now yir tellt!': the life and work of Alex Hamilton
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 01 March 2019 09:39

'So now yir tellt!': the life and work of Alex Hamilton

Written by

David Betteridge discusses the life and work of Alex Hamilton, 1949-2018. It is a companion piece to Jim Aitken's essay-obituary of Tom Leonard.

I

This is not a proper obituary, although it started out as such. It is more a “thinking-through-writing” kind of thing, trying to wrestle a meaning out of some confusion. My subject is my friend of forty years, recently deceased, the prolific and talented and largely unpublished author, Alex Hamilton, aka Sandy Hamilton (to those who knew him from childhood), aka S&eh? (to those with whom he exchanged emails, who shared his love of puzzles), aka Alex. Hamilton (with a precise or pedantic dot after the first name, as he sometimes signed himself), aka Alexander P. Hamilton (as inscribed on the brass plate screwed to his coffin, which, following his own instructions, was lowered into the ground without a word being spoken), aka Django Ross or Cordelia d’Amfreville (pen-names that he adopted, the first mainly for works where he explored the punning possibilities of several languages, the second mainly for erotica).

As an author, Alex is remembered, if at all, for being one of the contributors to a handsome paperback collection of prose and verse published in 1976 by Molendinar Press, Three Glasgow Writers. The other two contributors were Tom Leonard and James Kelman, whose careers as authors, and later as professors of literature, rose and rose, while Alex’s flat-lined, then declined. I have been trying to understand why the two succeeded, by all measures, while the other, my friend, failed.

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Alex reading at the Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, in 1976, at the launching - jointly with Tom Leonard and James Kelman - of Three Glasgow Writers, published by Molendinar Press. This still is taken from a video recording of the occasion, reproduced here by permission of the Contemporary Centre for Arts, Glasgow. (Ref. TE3/1976/117)

You can read Tom Leonard’s works and you can read works about him quite readily, whether in book form or online, as in Jim Aitken’s superb essay in Culture Matters, written a few weeks after Tom’s death, which came a few weeks after Alex’s. Even more readily, you can read James Kelman’s works and works about him, and you can go on reading them, as he is still alive, happily, and still producing noteworthy literature - witness his recent novel, Dirt Road. Alex’s works, by contrast, are hard to find, either because they were never published, or because they are tucked away in magazines e.g. Gutter, or are long out of print. It was not always so, however.

In 1981, three of us, Ian Murray, Adam Currie and myself, all friends of Alex’s, persuaded him to let us publish a selection of his short fiction, under our Ferret Press banner. With support from the Scottish Arts Council, this collection came out the following year, with the title Gallus, Did You Say? and Other Stories. In putting this selection together, we were able to draw on a pretty wide range of previously printed and/or broadcast outings. Ian Murray’s Introduction to Gallus lists some of these sources:

Alex. Hamilton was born in Glasgow in 1949 and still lives there, as he has done for most of his life. He is known best for the stories in this collection, which have been published and broadcast both in Britain and the United States. His work has appeared in many journals and magazines, including the Times Educational Supplement, Akros, and Transatlantic Review, and in the book Three Glasgow Writers (Molendinar Press, 1976). Some of his stories have been broadcast on BBC television and radio and Radio Clyde. The author’s reputation as a reader of his own work makes him a frequent visitor to schools and colleges, where he was invited to give over 20 readings last year, and he has read from his more adult fiction at the Kelso and Frayed Edge Festivals, the Third Eye Centre, and the University of Glasgow.

Alex. Hamilton was awarded Scottish Arts Council writer’s bursaries in 1974 and 1979.

II

What went wrong - if indeed it is fair to call failing to get published necessarily wrong - after the initial interest in his work? Part of the answer, it may be argued, was Alex’s retreat, after Gallus, from writing in a fluent and readable and refreshing mixture of vernaculars, with some Scottish Standard English spliced in whenever he judged that a character’s speech-style demanded it. Alex himself did not regard it as a retreat, but rather as an advance, a striking-out into new literary territories, with new language uses to suit. If readers did not see fit to advance with him, he reckoned that that was their loss. In an email sent to me in 2016, he wrote this, referring to himself, oddly, in the third person:

He's long since given up writing for the (etymologically & demotically) ignorant. He - I - write(s) for a player-audience of two. If you exit before I do, there'll be a player-audience of one. If I exit before you: "CURTAIN!".

First of all, post-Gallus, Alex began to experiment with very short texts in a most elegant style of English, almost Augustan. One such piece, I recall, was called “Abdul, the Tobacco Curer”. He duplicated and spiral-bound a few copies for giving to friends, and for submitting (unsuccessfully) to publishers. Its content was slight, I have to say. Then he went on to elaborate that style in other texts, playing with words at every twist and turn, and wangling in allusions, drawn from various sources, print and otherwise. Thereafter, other languages besides English were plundered and bent to the same purposes, including French, Greek, Latin, Russian, and especially Scots. An interest in typographical high jinks followed, and photo-montage. Joyce’s portmanteau coinages and Mallarme’s calligrams were among his inspirations. As the form that he used became increasingly witty, and increasingly condensed, to the point of extreme brevity, his content became decreasingly significant, I thought. Often, the whole point of a text was a single pun, or a paradox.

When we discussed his writing over too much beer, or, in later years, over coffee or wine, and I questioned the form-over-content imbalance, Alex replied that he had no interest in putting across messages of any kind. He would leave such sententious and tendentious stuff to those authors with axes to grind. He held especial scorn, for example, for Susan Sontag and such engaged essays of hers as Regarding the Pain of Others.

Once, he went so far as to say that he no longer held any belief in any grand narratives or big themes, his early commitment to Socialism and membership of the Labour Party having lapsed, as also his optimism regarding the possibility of any substantial social or political progress. Too many years working as a project manager on various EEC- and EU-sponsored public-private enterprises on brown-field sites - a job he entered after leaving the teaching profession - had tired him, and jaundiced him. He grew to distrust the political and business elites whom he was hired to serve, as also the popular and populist movements that gained support in the Nineties and Noughties across much of Europe.

Technological progress was a different matter: he embraced it happily, notably in connection with computing, hi-fi, and medicine; and for a while he engaged full-heartedly and doggedly in certain discrete issues that impinged on his life, as he listed in an email to me dated 2010:

Yup, sir: the enlightenment continueth. Wickedness encroacheth, or attempts to.

I've played my little part agin: the poll tax; the identity card scheme; the proposed closure of the FM network; & the environment on various fronts (& backs). 

Persistence. 

III

So that you can see and judge for yourselves, what I mean about Alex’s “retreat” - or his “advance” as he regarded it - let me juxtapose an early bit of text (published) against several later ones (unpublished):

From Our Merry (1976):

See, she had this wee kitten in her hands, and it was that toty you’d have thought it shouldn’t have been away from its mother....

“Heh, that sa a wee stoatir,” says Andy, and bends down to get a stroke at it.

“Lee it alane, you!” goes Merry, just as sudden as that, screaming and cuddling it real tight the way she does with her dolls. “Yir no tae touch it, awright? Awright? ... Kiz it’s mines!”

“Heh, wait a minnit, Merry,” I goes. “Whitdji mean, it’s yours? It’s probbli jiss ta stray ur that an that mean zit’s naebdi’s... relse if it sno a stray, it’s sumdi else’s.”

Compare the above with the following typical mini-text emailed to me in 2010. Note his copyrighting:

I think that I mentioned that I'm re-reading - and re-enjoying - Ellman's Joyce.

The attached occurred yestreen.

            PRODDY GÆL SUN

Anglophile Ἴκαρος was a dead loss to his patter.

                                               © DJANGO ROSS

Or this (2017):

As you know, I've been immersed in færie tales for the past couple of years, including Joseph's (translated) versions of a wheen of Celtic wans. Like you and Berger and the tellers of yore, my attitude is that a story's only a story, for if the hearers' interest wanes, you don't get your dram...

Currently reading thro - one per eve, of course - the latest (Penguin) translation of 1,001 Nights, which attempts to give all the stories, y compris the centuries' accretions. They haven't succeeded, but - kiz they hivnae nklewdit mines.

Which allows me to tell you of which, videlicet:

Sharazad's One Thousand and Second Tale

Woman, saith the Caliph. These three years, these thousand and one nights, thou hast succeeded in pleasing thy Lord. Thus, woman, I'm raisin thee to the status of my currant Sultana.

Or this, with graphics and a touch of colour, called The Retiree (2015):

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IV

The last time I saw Alex was at a screening of The Sense of an Ending at the Glasgow Film Theatre. Afterwards, he praised the film, and said even better things about Julian Barnes’s novel, of the same title, on which the film is based. I was surprised to hear Alex speak well of these two contemporary works, as he usually saved his plaudits for the past, notably for works from the eighteenth century. He especially liked Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which he read and re-read several times over, in its complete six-volume edition; and, from the first half of the twentieth century, he especially liked James Joyce’s exuberant and encyclopedic two novels, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, complemented or contradicted by Samuel Beckett’s increasingly condensed late plays and novellas. Julian Barnes and the film-makers did well, I thought, to break into this company of merit.

Looking back, from after Alex’s death, I begin to see the deep relevance that The Sense of an Ending had for my friend, especially when considered in light of the essay in literary criticism, by Frank Kermode, that lay behind the novel and the film, that Alex knew from his student days.

I have a hunch that Alex consciously shaped the way he lived and worked during the last decades of his life, with especial urgency in the last few years, by when I suspect he was beginning to have intimations of mortality. He shaped it so that the resulting narrative would made sense to him, even though the wider world’s narrative did not. In so doing, he was exercising the same set of skills that Kermode reckoned a novelist exercised in writing fiction, and we exercise in reading it.

Alex’s narrative prompted him systematically to edit loose ends from his life, cutting them out abruptly if that proved the neatest thing to do. Friends and family alike got this treatment. What is more, he increasingly ordered his life along almost monastic lines, governed by a sort of home-made liturgy of the hours. He set aside time each day for reading, and for writing; for listening to BBC Radio 3; for walking to the library to consult the only journal he had any regard for, The Economist; and for calling in at a shop where he could buy past-their-date foodstuffs cheaply, including not-quite-stale bread. Twice a week, he walked to a branch of Tesco about a mile from his house, sometimes on the way to a free concert or lecture in the University or Art Galleries; there he bought items that were discounted. Once, I recall, when I met him there by chance, he pounced on a tin of sardines, at 39p. “This is enough,” he told me, “for three meals, with a bit of bread.”

When at last his doctor told him how little time remained to him, without fuss Alex engaged the services of a lawyer, and gave his final instructions. (I know about this from a phone conversation I had with Alex’s former wife, after the event; she in turn had learned the details from the lawyer.)

Alex wanted to be interred with no ceremony in a plot in the same graveyard as his parents. He wanted the money that he had saved from his frugal living to be spent on two things: the printing of a collection of his writings, the details of which I have not yet been able to discover, and the performance of a cello concerto, in memory of his father, who had been a skilled worker in the shipyards, as well as a skilled amateur cellist. (This concerto he had already commissioned, from Edward McGuire.)

Eddie was one of the last people to see Alex. He visited him a couple of times at his flat. This is how he describes their meetings:

I had not been in touch with him for a few months and thought it was time to update him on progress in my composing the cello concerto that he had commissioned the year before. So, on October 4th 2018, I brought him a bound copy of the draft version of the piece, and pointed out where music had to be completed in each of the 3 movements. I was able to say the soloist - Robert Irvine - was hoping to premiere it in the Spring of 2019. It was not until about 2 hours into our conversation that he told me about his terminal cancer diagnosis. So I said I'd keep in regular touch. My next and final visit was nearly 3 weeks later on October 24th, again at his flat. He was much weaker then but was optimistic about attending the concerto premiere in the Spring. So I was surprised to learn that he had died a week or two after that - I had planned a third visit in November. I hadn't heard about him going into the hospice.

There was one matter that took Alex and Eddie a while to agree on: how to phrase the concerto’s dedication. Alex did not want his own name to appear on the score, only his father’s and the composer’s. After some discussion, they agreed to add the words “Commissioned anonymously”. My own suggestion to Eddie was that, when he publishes the work, he changes the dedication to, “Commissioned anonymously by his son”. Why edit oneself out, and become a ghost? That is one of the questions about Alex that I am puzzling over.

V

Alex’s burial did not go the way his sense of an ending had prescribed. To start with, there were more people at the graveside than he wanted, ten in all, if you count the undertakers and the gravediggers, plus a Golden Labrador called Hector, who seemed to enjoy the outing, to judge from a photograph taken by an old school-friend, who decided to invite himself along. The dog is straining at his lead, eager to be off sniffing. The photograph also shows another eager soul, quite unmourning because of her young age, namely Alex’s infant grand-daughter, whom he never knew he had. There were also more words spoken in that country churchyard than Alex had bargained for, not at the moment of interment, but immediately afterwards, when half an hour of animated conversation burst out. Some of it sprang from the mourners’ pent-up anger or sadness or bewilderment at the way Alex had lived his life, and treated them; some of it sprang from shared memories, or from shared curiosity about the others.

While there was no ceremony or service or religious observation, there was one little gesture of traditional leave-taking from one of the ten. The old school-friend took a handful of soil from the box offered by the undertakers. He went to the grave’s edge, and threw it on top of the coffin with its bright new brass name-plate. He didn’t want to not do anything after all the years he had known Alex - or Sandy, as he called him - and enjoyed his company.

ah3

Email attachment received from Alex in 2015

I have a sense of an ending of my own, different from Alex’s, and better than the one that actually happened. I have only belatedly arrived at it, some months after Alex’s grave was filled in, and the mourners went home, and the JCB mini-diggers that did the digging were taken to other jobs.

First, I would have been there at the graveside, along with many, many others - we should have invited ourselves. His old pals, James Kelman and Tom Leonard, would have been there, Tom Leonard restored to health, without any need of his walking-stick and a tube up his nose. Second, a cellist would have played the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite Number 3, just as a colleague of my sister’s had done at her funeral some years earlier. Alex was there, and expressed great pleasure at hearing that noble music. Third, a jazz guitarist would have played another piece of music that Alex liked, Django Reinhardt's Nuages. When he was young, Alex played the guitar quite well, and till the end kept his instrument out of its case in his living room; but latterly he was unable even to hold it properly, let alone play it, as a disabling disease turned first one hand, then the other, into crab-like claws. Django famously lacked the use of two fingers, after being burned in a fire; Alex lacked the use of any. Fourth, every one of us there would have thrown our handful of earth into the grave, and either recited something or sung something, con brio. Fifth, we would all have gone to a pub somewhere afterwards, and held a riotous wake. Sixth, every one of us would have received a fat package through the post a few weeks later, from Alex’s lawyer. In it would have been a volume of Alex’s best writing, handsomely printed, and a CD of Eddie McGuire’s Cello Concerto. Seventh, we would have learned that we had been misinformed, and that Alex’s life never had taken a wrong turning.

This is me writing fiction, of a consoling kind.

VI

Looking back, summing up, it is clear that Alex was for a while a significant figure in an informal movement combining authors and publishers and broadcasters and readers and teachers, especially secondary school teachers such as Alex himself was at that time. Collectively, they shifted the centre of gravity of Scottish Literature further towards the vernacular, or vernaculars (plural) rather. Others continued that movement, with increasing success, while Alex chose to follow his other path, pursuing other projects. Tom Leonard and James Kelman, his former book-mates in the Molendinar Press volume, went on to become international faces and voices of the movement, each in his own distinctive way, and many others joined them, one of my favourites being Anne Donovan. Her story Hieroglyphics (2001) says a lot about vernacular and standard forms of a language, and says it in a vernacular so precise that it is an idiolect. Reading it sheds light on Alex’s early work.

The story describes a child’s struggles to decipher print, coming to Standard English texts from a Glasgow vernacular starting place. One word that gives her especial difficulty is her own forename: MARY. “That's ma name. Merry. But that wus spelt different fae merry christmas that you wrote in the cards you made oot a folded up bits a cardboard an yon glittery stuff that comes in thae wee tubes...” Here we find a lovely echo of lines written by Alex a generation earlier.

He similarly transliterated that girl’s forename as “Merry”, in his own story “Our Merry”, from Three Glasgow Writers.  I remember querying Alex’s use of “Our” in his title, at the time we were getting Gallus ready for the press. I asked him if “Oor” was not the form he needed. Quickly and correctly, he pounced on my levelling, flattening, ignorant tin-ear. “It might be ‘Oor Wullie’,” he said, referring to D.C. Thompson’s cartoon character, “but in the North part of Glasgow, where my character comes from, and where I come from, it’s just as I wrote it: ‘Our Merry’.” There we see the same precision that made him place a dot after his own forename. “Alex. is an abbreviation,” he insisted. “It’s an abbreviation of Alexander, cutting the word short; hence the dot. So now yir tellt!”

VII

It would be a mistake for me to try to draw too large a conclusion about literary careers from considering Alex’s particular example. There is no compelling reason why writers should confine themselves to using vernaculars, there being plenty of good poems, short stories, novels, plays, etc. written in varieties of Standard English. There is no compelling reason, either, why they should desist from word-play and allusion and experimentation with layouts and fonts. If overly “realist” and “anti-formalist” assumptions were allowed to govern which works are deemed good, and therefore published, and which are deemed not good, and therefore not published, literature would be impoverished. Had such criteria been applied in the past, we would have lost access to a great deal of Hugh MacDiarmid’s polymath and polyglot output, to take one mighty example.

Other writers, too, would have remained in a limbo of unpublishability. Scotland’s first modern Makar, Edwin Morgan, would have suffered; or, at least, his concrete poetry inventions would have failed to make it into print. Similarly, some of Alastair Gray’s most typographically adventurous pages. And where would Hope Mirrlees’ s Paris be?

My comradely disagreement with Alex about the later direction of his writing did not relate to its form, considered on its own, nor to the demands it makes on us as readers to raise our game, but to its diminution of content. That is to say, my disagreement related to his conscious avoidance of engagement with the world, and the peoples in it, and their unavoidable concerns with big issues. In fact, I enjoyed Alex’s textual extravaganzas, as did a friend in London, the composer and poet David Johnson, to whom I showed some of Alex’s later work. “It is the sort of experimentation that excites by sound and rhythm more than sense,” he wrote, “as if he was writing in a language invented on the spot, or from a sort of speaking in tongues. Is it visionary? Mad? These questions alone spark an interest in me...” No, I just wanted Alex’s adventures in form to serve something bigger; and so, I suppose, did all those publishers who so often sent him rejection slips, or plain ignored his submissions.

Ernst Fischer considered this diminution of content phenomenon, across all the arts in his far-ranging study, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach. He saw it as a problem intrinsic to late capitalism, affecting creative individuals who were, or who became, detached from the realities of society, or indeed from their own true natures; in other words, as in Marx’s classic definition, individuals who were alienated. Fischer wrote:

The de-socialisation of art and literature produces the recurring motif of flight: the motif of deserting a society which is felt to be catastrophic.....

Alex’s flight became the dominating feature of his life and his work alike. How I wish he had chosen - had been willing and able to choose - to stay in touch with more things, more people, more issues, while still playing as he wished with form and language. How I wish he could have made Joan Miro’s manifesto-motto his own. In a 1948 interview, Miro, speaking of his own work, said, “Plant your feet firmly on the ground if you want to be able to jump up in the air.”

Suddenly, having pursued my argument thus far, I am aware of a certain rather large anomaly, namely a work-in-progress of Alex’s called The Reinhardt Variations, which I have only just remembered. It recounts the tale of a young technocrat’s journeys across several nations of Eastern Europe. Here, Alex avoided the form-over-content imbalance. He rendered chunks of real life, experienced at first hand, taken from a time and from places undergoing epochal change. Sure, the language may have been difficult in places, compressed, over-written perhaps, full of parodies of different kinds of writing, from newspaper journalism, to company report, to political polemic, to letter, to diary entry; but it was about something significant. Unfortunately, he never finished the novel, or even, latterly, spoke of it. It sank. I am left wondering if anything of it survives, maybe on a memory-stick or disk. I hope so, as it would show that Alex’s “retreat” (or “advance”) in his writing was not in a straight line, not 100 percent consistent. 

VIII

There was a conference on brownfield site development in Moscow some years before Alex retired, that he attended. He was called to speak about his own work on such projects, being at the time employed by the European Commission in a variety of countries. He prefaced his remarks by quoting, in Russian, the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same holds true, he told his fellow-attendees, even more so, of countries. As his life wore on, and the world’s politics got ever more dysfunctional, as it seemed to him, and as his own affairs went the same way, he became an expert in unhappiness; but it was his genius to carry on nonetheless, to hold fast, with a wry smile on his haggard face, and a bon mot forming in his mind, to be saved in his computer file.

Although, as I have shown, he favoured playfulness over seriousness in his writing, and in his public persona, I sensed a deep seriousness inside him, that darkened and hardened and shrank as the years went by, ending up as a nihilism similar to - and maybe even modelled on - Samuel Beckett’s, but without the Irishman’s great concern for the “still, sad music of humanity”, achieved through plain speech beautifully handled. A passage in Beckett’s Molloy expresses this nihilism perfectly. Alex read the novel both in its original French and in its later English translation, and sometimes quoted from it:

All I know is what the words know, and the dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning, a middle and an end as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead. And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or any other thing...

Clearly it did matter, however, at least some of the time. Alex’s dying instruction to his lawyer to arrange for a selection of his writings to be published was proof of that.

IX

There is much more that I could say about Alex’s life, and the way he chose to live it and to end it, yoking on as he did of a sort of Stoicism, if that is not too grand a term for his self-directedness, and his matter-of-fact acceptance of all the losses he suffered, and in some cases brought on himself; or should he be termed a Cynic, rather; or just a plain old misanthropic bastard? Maybe I have already said too much, divulging private matters about my friend. My intention is not to speak ill of him, but to recognise and try to understand his pursuance of his chosen craft, and to mourn the things that went wrong.

I am left with the questions I started with. The biggest one is this: how could a man who knew so much about other people’s lives choose so narrow and austere a narrative for himself? Here was a man who was deeply read in such deep studies of life as King Lear - to the extent that he sometimes adopted the mad king’s estranged and then reconciled daughter’s name, Cordelia, as a pen-name - and yet, looking back with selective fondness to his long-dead father, he chose to elevate his role as a son over all his other dealings with people, including his own daughters? And how could he lavish so much care on his complex weaving of witticisms and word-play - much ado about little - while neglecting so much else? It was as if, to reverse the idea contained in a line spoken by Cordelia in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Alex wanted his epitaph to be: “My tongue's more richer than my love.”

Ernst Fischer’s analysis of the de-socialisation of literature puts Alex in his historical context, but I am still left wondering why. Why, in this particular case, yet not in others, do we see a recurrence of Fischer’s motif of flight? To take two obvious counter-examples, Tom Leonard and James Kelman, both of whom came from similar class origins to Alex’s, and pursued similar destinations: they signally stayed grounded, never ballooning away into the least hint of alienation. Why the difference? Clearly, there is no simple iron law or hidden societal hand requiring de-socialising and flight. There must be other factors at work also.

Reading a life is the hardest thing.

X

While struggling to put this piece together, I found that a verse-elegy began to form in my mind. It went through about a dozen drafts, before the following text emerged. Alex would have thoroughly disapproved both of its form and of its content.

Dead Letters

by David Betteridge

Friend, I let you down;
and you let me go.
In doing so, you let me down;
and we let the silence that ensued
between us grow and grow.
We both were wrong,
needing as we did -
and still do - the other there,
in touch, if not in step or tune,
aware.

Disuse, the destroyer,
eroded friendship’s base;
and then, not telling anyone,
you went to a private place,
and straightway died;
you died with unanswered letters
left, and no good-byes.
I am not the only one estranged.
Year on year, you cut adrift
alike your family and your friends,
you hurting man.

Young, you kept your ear
close to the People’s complex voice;
you wrote their lives;
and your voice was heard.
Then, by cold degrees,
you privileged your own small take
and slant on things,
and your own sharp wit.
These led you to your solitude,
and turned the key on it.

Too soon you settled
into garret-ways, ensconced
in the clean order of your top-floor flat,
with the storm-doors shut.

Sitting there,
you pleasured in thesauruses,
and in the alphabet.
You had software that provided
every font of every type.
You wove them closely
into ever-dwindling texts,
with an ever-dwindling sense of right.

Your favourite letter
of the twenty-six was “O”.
You wrote the “O” that gives expression
to surprise; the “O” of salutation, too;
and the “O” of moans and groans,
extending once, in a tale of yours,
to twenty pages, then in colours
fifty more, some garish red, some blue.
You wrote the Venn diagram’s encircling “O”,
that separates one thing from the rest,
including (and excluding) self;
also the “O” that signifies an open wound,
or eye, or grave; and, finally, the “O”
that is the empty “O” of nothing, of which
no thing will come, as Lear observed;
and so it proved,
as your life’s course attests.

You found delight in Joyce,
striving to out-fun in print
that magic-making Irishman.
Now and then, in miniscule,
you ran him close,
but quite forgot to keep
your soul and heart engaged,
as he did his, and your feet
earth-pressed, like Antaeus.

Words, old friend, lost friend:
they were your true companions.
You kept faith with them,
cherishing them till death,
punning cleverly all the way
to the grave full-stop of your last breath.

Why did you not keep faith
with more?

Why did you turn
from the prime substantial world?
Why did you favour emptied signs
and metaphors?

Too late now to redraft
your life’s plot,
to redirect the great talent
that you had,
that it might serve a better end!
What’s done is done.
We must let it be.

Oh, that you’d kept in touch
with wider themes,
and with wiser friends than me!

Further reading: Caroline McAfee’s contribution, called “Glasgow”, which is part of Varieties of English Around the World, published by John Benjamins, Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 1983, available online. It contains extracts from Alex’s short stories, and from an early novel, Stretch Marks.

 

A common treasury for all: Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 23 January 2019 20:44

A common treasury for all: Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers

Written by

John Storey tells the story of the 33 Digger communities, intended by Gerrard Winstanley as a first step in a revolution to change not just England but the world. Dug into the text is a poem by Fran Lock in memory of Winstanley, taken from Ruses and Fuses.

On Sunday 1 April 1649 a group of between twenty and thirty poor men and women began to dig the earth on St George’s Hill in Surrey. According to a government spy, ‘They invite all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink and clothes. . . . They give out, they will be four or five thousand within ten days. . . . It is feared they have some design in hand’.

The Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, did have a design in hand. As Winstanley expressed it, ‘To dig up George Hill . . . we may work in righteousness and lay the foundations of making the earth a common treasury for all, both rich and poor. . . . Not enclosing any part into a particular hand, but all as one man, working together, and feeding together; . . . not one lording over another, but all looking upon each other, as equals’. Moreover, ‘every single man, male and female’ should have equal access to what is a ‘common store-house for all’.

What Winstanley envisaged was a movement from private to communal ownership. At first the two systems would co-exist, but increasingly, with the withdrawal of hired labour, the privately owned estates would cease to be viable and the communal system would prevail. As he explained,

No man can be rich, but he must be rich either by his own labours, or by the labours of other men helping him. If a man have no help from his neighbour, he shall never gather an estate of hundreds and thousands a year. If other men help him to work, then are those riches . . . the fruit of other men’s labours as well as his own.

Winstanley knew very well that ‘all rich men live at ease, feeding and clothing themselves by the labours of other men, not by their own; which is their shame, not their nobility’. And when the rich give charity, as if this justified oppression and exploitation, ‘they give away other men’s labours, not their own’. Without the labour of others, the rich would have to work the land themselves and it would become impossible for them to continue to maintain their large estates. In such circumstances, he argued, the rich would join the poor in the communal cultivation of the land. The result would be the end of private property, buying and selling, alienated labour, and the political authority which helped produce and reproduce all three.

In other words, Winstanley’s revolution does not propose to take land from the rich, but to deny to them the means to cultivate it. If the poor work together to produce for themselves, the rich will have no labour to hire and exploit. As he explains, ‘None can say, their right is taken from them; for let the rich work alone by themselves and let the poor work together by themselves; the rich in their enclosures, saying this is mine; the poor upon their commons, saying this is ours, the earth and fruits are common’. What is taken from the rich is the capacity to exploit the labour of others. If they want lots of land, let them work it by themselves. When this proves impossible, they will have to join with the new community of common ownership.

The refusal to work for the rich, and the inability of the rich to work the land themselves, would bring about the downfall of private property and class difference. The proposed mass withdrawal of labour from working the land for wages was in effect a general strike. What made it more sustainable than most general strikes, was that working for wages was being replaced by working as a community to support each other. In other words, the withdrawal of labour would produce an alternative economic and social system. Not giving hire nor taking hire would deny to the landowners the workers they needed to cultivate their estates.

Diggers 3

The result would be that ‘No man shall have any more land than he can labour himself, or have others to labour with him in love, working together, and eating bread together . . . neither giving hire, nor taking hire’. Without workers to exploit and oppress they would have to work the land themselves. Without hired labour the large landowner would have to reduce his property to a size he could work with just family and friends. As Winstanley puts it, ‘if the rich will still hold fast this propriety of mine and thine, let them labour their own land with their own hands’. But if the rich for some reason cannot labour, providing they give up their land they will be welcomed into the community.

As he further explains, ‘He that is now a possessor of lands and riches, and cannot labour, if he say . . . take my land only let me eat bread with you, that man shall be preserved by the labours of others’. Making the additional point, in a gesture that would never be reciprocated, ‘And if any of you that are the great ones of the earth, that have been bred tenderly, and cannot work, do bring in your stock into this common treasury as an offering to the work of Righteousness; we will work for you, and you shall receive as we receive’.

The brutality of the opposition the Diggers encountered was driven by the threat they posed to the system of property ownership. It quickly became clear that the Diggers represented something new; they were not squatting in the hope that local landowners would take pity on them and allow them to stay; rather, they were challenging the very idea of land ownership.

The attack on the Diggers included an economic boycott, harassment, violent assaults by hired thugs, and legal actions. It was all organised by local landowners. They even employed a clergyman, whose sole purpose was ‘to preach down the Diggers’. The men of property were determined to prevent the Diggers establishing themselves on the commons and the example this would set. When the Diggers moved their activities to Cobham Heath in August 1649, the opposition intensified, continuing what had gone before, but now burning dwellings and furniture, and hiring thugs to chase the Diggers from the area.

turning earth

by Fran Lock

i.m Gerrard Winstanley

god holds us all in the hollow of his hand, costing
our melt-weight. from boy to man. stripling into
ingot. i see it now, we are more precious, we are
not less base. our swords, they are not morphing
into ploughshares, and every cutting blade insists
upon its own utopian intercourse. god is not found,
but made. these yeomen, apprentice lads. oh, we
have smithied his kingdom, reckoned it level with
hot, dull force. they call this treason. we’d turn
the stifled earth and let it breathe. the ground, not
broke, but opened after all. god holds us close.
they only see what we tear down. but god will
know, will know us for waywardens of the soil.
the soul. brothers, i dream of a spring without
omission, rising blue and green from winter’s
cryptic jinx. sisters, i dream of a spring without
remission; a love that shrugs the slog of mongrel
toil. god holds, god knows. man is not made
for minting open mouths. man is not made for
driving stakes into the frozen ground. they skim
the fat, we till a trough of stones. man should
be held, man should be known by what he
grows: the shoot, the word, the human good.
we planted christ. came capsized and aspiring,
sweated our tenure in stockades, and stung
into hunger, ate grass. we planted christ. not
christ as a bright dividing line, but christ, an
immovable root that binds the chalky earth
together. crisis ripens a fist like a snail in beer.
we rage and are imperfect, yet we know, we
are vouchsafed, and all are saved. for it is hope
that we make grow.

Winstanley remained convinced that ‘you lords of manors . . .have none to stand for you but whom you force by threatening’. Men pulled down the houses out of fear of what might happen to them and their families if they refused. As Winstanley explains, ‘one soldier . . . forced . . . three country men to help him pull down . . . [a] house; . . . the men were unwilling to pull it down; but for fear of their landlords, and the threatening soldier, they did but their hands to pull it down’. And when the houses were burned, tools and crops destroyed, ‘their lords gave them ten shillings to drink, and they smiled one unto another; being fearful, like a dog that is kept in awe, when his master gives him a bone, and stands over him with a whip; he will eat, and look up, and twinch his tail; for they durst not laugh out, lest their lords should hear they jeered them openly; for in their hearts they are Diggers’.

The final attack on Cobham Heath occurred on 19 April 1650. The hired thugs violently attacked men, women and children. One woman was so badly beaten that she later miscarried. Houses were burned down, crops destroyed and the Diggers forcibly dispersed. More hired thugs were paid to occupy the site to prevent their return. Local inhabitants were warned not to provide lodgings for or food to the Diggers. They had been defeated by the organised power of the local landowners: they brought the court case; they paid for the clerical attack; they hired the thugs to violently confront the Diggers and to break up their tools and destroyed their dwellings and to eventually drive them from their work on the land.

The digging on St George’s Hill, Cobham Heath and in the other 32 Digger communities was intended as a first step in a revolution to change not just England but the world. Winstanley refers to ‘our work of the earth’s community’. He also says, ‘And not only this common, or heath should be taken in and manured by the people, but all the commons and waste ground in England, and in the whole world, shall be taken in by the people in righteousness, not owning any propriety; but taking the earth to be a common treasury, as it was first made for all’.

He also knew ‘that the earth was made to be a common treasury of livelihood for all, without respect of persons, and was not made to be bought and sold . . . [and] none ought to be lords and landlords over another, but the earth is free for every son and daughter of mankind, to live free upon’. When he talked about the world being turned upside down, he really did mean the world and all who inhabit it.

Rosa Luxemburg and the spiritual growth of the proletariat
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 03 January 2019 21:58

Rosa Luxemburg and the spiritual growth of the proletariat

Written by

‘The most precious thing' said Rosa Luxemburg, 'in the sharp ebb and flow of the revolutionary waves is the proletariat's spiritual growth.' Jenny Farrell presents two letters by Rosa Luxemburg, murdered one hundred years ago in Berlin by the proto-Nazi Freikorps.

Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, founder members of the German Communist Party and fearless anti-war activists, were murdered on 15 January 1919. It is not difficult to discover the details of their political and public lives. However, we would like to honour their memory by highlighting their spiritual and ecological awareness, through presenting two private letters by Rosa Luxemburg to the Russian-born Sophie Liebknecht, wife of Karl Liebknecht.

RL 1

These letters reveal the private person, the inner landscape of Rosa, an aspect rarely explored in the letters of Marxist writers. The correspondence highlights her sensitivity towards the way we express our humanity in our relationship with the natural world, and that our political, economic and cultural struggles for a humane existence are not ends in themselves, or merely material struggles. They are also moral and psychological struggles for an empathic, compassionate life, for an almost ecstatic, peaceful unity with oneself, with others and with nature.

1. Vronke, 2 May 1917

My dearest little Sonyusha!* Your dear letter arrived here in perfect time yesterday, 1 May. It and two days of sunshine have done much to cheer me up. For my heart was very sore these last few days, but now things are looking up again. If only the sun would stay that way! I am outside almost all day, strolling around in the bushes, searching every corner of my garden and finding all kinds of treasures. So listen: Yesterday, May 1st, I met – guess who? – a radiant common brimstone! I was so happy that my whole heart pounded. It flew up to my sleeve – I wear a purple jacket, and the colour probably attracted it – then it bobbed up and down the wall. In the afternoon, I found three different beautiful feathers: a dark grey one from a redstart, a golden one from a yellowhammer and a greyish-yellow one from a nightingale. We have many nightingales here, I heard the first one early on Easter Sunday, and since then it comes to the big silver poplar in my little garden every day. I put the feathers in a lovely blue box for my small collection: I also have feathers there that I found in the yard of Barnimstraße** – from pigeons and chickens, and also a beautiful blue one from a jay in Südende***. The “collection” is still quite small, but I like to look at it sometimes. I have already decided to whom I will give it.

This morning I discovered a hidden violet right next to the wall I was walking past! The only one in my whole garden. How does Goethe put it?

A violet in the meadow stood,
With humble brow, demure and good,
It was the sweetest violet.

I was so happy! I am sending you it here, with a kiss pressed lightly on it, may it bring you my love and my greeting. Will it still be little fresh when you get it? ...

Then this afternoon I met the first bumblebee! A very big one in the new shimmering black fur jacket with golden yellow belt. It hummed in a deep bass and flew first to my jacket, then in a big arc high above the yard. The buds of the chestnuts are so big, rosy and swelling, shiny with juice, in a few days they will probably pop out their leaves, which look like little green hands. Remember, last year, how we stood in front of such a chestnut with young leaves and you called in droll desperation: “Rosa! (You roll the “R” even more than I do), what can you say? What can you say at such delight?”

And another discovery made me happy today. You may remember, last April I phoned you both urgently at 10 o’clock in the morning to come to the Botanical Gardens and listen with me to the nightingale giving a whole concert. We sat quietly hidden in dense shrubs on stones beside a tiny streamlet; but after the nightingale, we suddenly heard a wistful call, which sounded something like this: “Gleegleegleegleeglick! I said it sounded like some moor or water bird, and Karl agreed, but we simply couldn’t work out what it was. Just think, one morning a few days ago, I suddenly heard the same lamentation near here, so that my heart throbbed, impatient to find out what it was. I had no peace until I discovered today: it’s not a water bird, but the wryneck, a grey woodpecker. It is only a little bigger than the sparrow and has its name because it tries to frighten its enemies by strange gestures and head contortions. It lives on ants only, which it catches with its sticky tongue like the anteater. The Spanish call it hormiguero – the antbird. Mörike by the way wrote a lovely funny poem on this bird, which Hugo Wolf set to music. I feel like I’ve been given a gift, knowing what the bird with the sad voice is. Perhaps you could let Karl know about this, he would be delighted.

What do I read? Mainly scientific books: plant and animal geography. Just yesterday I read about the causes of songbirds disappearing in Germany: it is due to increased rational forestry, horticulture and agriculture, slowly destroying all their natural nesting and feeding habitats: hollow trees, wasteland, scrub, and withered foliage in gardens. It was so painful to read this. I’m not worried about their singing for people, but the image of the silent, unstoppable demise of these defenceless little creatures hurt me so much, I had to weep. It reminded me of a Russian book by Prof. Siber about the destruction of the Redskins in North America, which I read in Zurich: Slowly but surely, civilised people drive them off their land and submit them to silent, cruel annihilation.

I must be unwell that everything shakes me so deeply now. Do you know? Sometimes I feel that I am not a real person, but some bird or other animal in a failed human form; inwardly I feel much more at home in such a small shred of garden as here, or in a field amongst bumblebees and grass than - at a party conference. I can tell you all this: you will not immediately sense a betrayal of socialism. You know, I will hopefully die for the cause anyway: in a street battle or in prison. But my innermost self belongs more to my coal tits than to the ‘comrades’. And this is not because, like so many bankrupt politicians, I find a refuge, a rest in nature. On the contrary, here too I find so much cruelty at every turn that I suffer a great deal. Imagine, for example, that I simply cannot forget the following little episode. Last spring I was on my way home from a walk across fields, in my quiet, empty street when I noticed a dark little spot on the ground. I bent down and saw a soundless tragedy: a large dung beetle lay on its back and defended itself helplessly with its legs, while a whole load of tiny ants swarmed over it and consumed it – alive! I looked at it, took out my handkerchief and began to chase away the brutal beasts. But they were so cheeky and stubborn that I had to fight a long battle with them, and when I had finally freed the poor wretch and taken him far onto the grass, two legs had already been eaten away ... I fled tormented, feeling that I had done him a very dubious favour.

There is long twilight in the evenings now. How I usually love this hour! In Südende I had so many blackbirds, here I can’t see or hear any. I fed a pair all winter and now it has disappeared. In Südende I used to stroll the street around this time in the evening; it is so beautiful when even in the last violet rays of daylight the rosy gas flames suddenly flicker in the lanterns and look so strange in the dusk, as if they were a little ashamed of themselves. Then the indistinct shape of a porter’s wife or a maid scurries through the street, quickly running to the baker’s or grocer’s to fetch something. The shoemaker’s children, with whom I am friends, used to play in the street in the dark until they were robustly summoned home from the corner. At this hour there always used to be some blackbird that couldn’t find rest and suddenly screeched or babbled like a naughty child, s startled rom sleep and flying noisily from tree to tree. And I stood there in the middle of the street, counting the first stars, reluctant to go home, leaving the balmy air and the twilight in which day and night nestled so softly together. Sonyusha, I will write to you again soon. Put your mind at ease and be cheerful, everything will be fine, even with Karl. I will write to Mathilde about your household worries and do whatever I can. Goodbye until the next letter, my dear little bird.

I embrace you.

Your Rosa.

* Russian pet name for Sophie (Sophie was a native Russian speaker, Rosa was very fluent)

** The Women’s Prison in Berlin

*** The district in Berlin where Luxemburg lived

Translated by Jenny Farrell

RL 2

2. Wrocław prison, mid-December 1917

Yesterday I lay awake for a long time – these days I can’t fall asleep before 1 a.m., but I have to go to bed at 10, because the light goes out then, and then I dream to myself about various things in the dark. Last night this is what I was thinking: how odd it is that I’m continually in a joyful state of exaltation – without any particular reason. For example, I’m lying here in a dark cell on a stone-hard mattress, the usual silence of a church cemetery prevails in the prison building, it seems as though we’re in a tomb; on the ceiling can be seen reflections coming through the window from the lanterns that burn all night in front of the prison. From time to time one hears, but only in quite a muffled way, the distant rumble of a train passing by or quite nearby under the windows the whispering of the guards on duty at night, who take a few steps slowly in their heavy boots to relieve their stiff legs. The sand crunches so hopelessly under their heels that the entire hopeless wasteland of existence can be heard in this damp, dark night.

I lie there quietly, alone, wrapped in these many-layered black veils of darkness, boredom, lack of freedom, and winter – and at the same time my heart is racing with an incomprehensible, unfamiliar inner joy as though I were walking across a flowering meadow in radiant sunshine. And in the dark I smile at life, as if I knew some sort of magical secret that gives the lie to everything evil and sad and changes it into pure light and happiness. And all the while I’m searching within myself for some reason for this joy, find nothing and must smile to myself again – and laugh at myself. I believe that the secret is nothing other than life itself; the deep darkness of night is so beautiful and as soft as velvet, if one only looks at it the right way; and in the crunching of the damp sand beneath the snow beneath the slow, heavy steps of the sentries a beautiful small song of life is being sung – if only one knows how to listen properly.

At such moments I think of you and I would like so much to pass on this magical key to you, so that always and in all situations you would be aware of the beautiful and the joyful, so that you too would live in a joyful euphoria as though you were walking across a colourful meadow. I am certainly not thinking of foisting off on you some sort of asceticism or made-up joys. I don’t begrudge you all the real joys of the senses that you might wish for yourself. I would just like to add to this my inexhaustible inner cheerfulness, so that I could be at peace about you and not worry, so that you could go through life wearing a star-speckled cloak, to protect you from all things petty, trivial and alarming.

If you enjoyed these letters, you can read more here.

An armoury of ideas: reading for rebellion in 2019
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Thursday, 27 December 2018 22:38

An armoury of ideas: reading for rebellion in 2019

Written by

Kitted out with optimism, Mark Perryman makes a New Year selection of books as weapons to help bring down a government

Not much doubt which argument will rage on long after any Christmastime peace and goodwill has disappeared – Brexit. Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure is an account of this most dismal of sagas which locates its gestation in a mix of imperial delusion and cultural confusion rather than this deal, that deal or no deal.

On a similar front England’s Discontents by Mike Wayne is an exploration of English national identity that provides a highly effective insight towards understanding the political terrain of post-Brexit Britain. This new terrain will be sited on competing definitions of ‘control’ and precisely who, or what, we need to take it back from.

Gianpaolo Baiocchi’s We, The Sovereign describes models of sovereignty that retain both an egalitarian impulse and the power to transform.  Most on the Left would regard staying in the EU as a necessity towards any such ambition but that doesn’t mean the arguments in the new book The Left Case against the EU from Costas Lapavitsas should be discounted either. Leave? Remain? The key surely is Change. 

Whether or not Labour can come out the other side of the seasonal break from Brexit starting to look more and more like the next Government will be the crucial question of early 2019.  Jeremy Corbyn and the Strange Rebirth of Labour England, by Francis Beckett and Mark Seddon, revisits the roots of Corbyn’s rise to provide readers with credible optimism towards that end.  Matt Bolton first wrote up his critique of Corbynism as a blog, describing it as possessing a ‘terrifying hubris’. Harsh but his was a critical account that was decidedly well thought-out and deserving of a considered read. Now Matt, with co-thinker Frederick Harry Pitts, has turned their shared line of argument into a book Corbynism : A Critical Approach.  I wasn’t convinced by their answers but there are some very good questions raised, too good to simply be dismissed out of hand.     

MP JmcD

Here’s one question that most certainly needs asking – will it be the economy that shifts things in 2019, stupid? Yes, almost certainly. The publication of the collection Economics for the Many edited by John McDonnell is a comprehensive range of the kind of policies that will not only roll back austerity but also in the process lay the foundations for a durable alternative.

However, any such project should also be about the quality of the lives we lead, which is why Melissa Benn’s Life Lessons is such a vital companion volume.  Making the case for a ‘national education service’ this book is an explicit critique of the managerialism that has monetised our children’s education.

Of course the New Year is also a time to look back over the past twelve months. No one is better equipped to inject some biting satire into remembering the events of 2018 than cartoonist Steve Bell. If Steve’s latest collection Corbyn: The Resurrection, covering the years 2015-18 failed to make it as a stocking-filler, my advice is to rush out and buy yourself a copy to be sure of a happier New Year.  

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Of course neither Brexit nor Corbynism exist in a vacuum. Trump and the revival of the Democrats in the mid-terms, especially the breakthrough of new, young, Left candidates, was a 2018 transatlantic example of certain commonalities. Where we go from Here  is an account by Bernie Sanders of the two years since Trump’s election and what this means for the future of American politics.  By the end of 2019 the next round of Democrats’ Presidential primaries will be fast approaching, making sense of the parallels and differences with our situation in the UK that Bernie helps reveal thus becomes increasingly vital. 

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Both Trumpism and Brexit have unleashed some ugly forces. The Chris-Howard Woods, Colin Laidley and Maryam Omidi edited collection #Charlottesville details one particular moment when a nakedly white supremacist politics came up against militant resistance. But for an insight into how to build a mass, popular and victorious movement around anti-fascism and racism there is no better book than David Renton’s latest, Never Again, a historiography of Rock against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, 1976-1982.

Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin in their co-authored National Populism describe the resurgent Right from Trump via the German Afd, Liga in Italy, and Marie le Pen in France to the Brexiteer ultras with ‘Tommy Robinson’ in tow  as a revolt against liberal democracy. A useful schematic for understanding the causes, it however fails to address what a progressive and in particular anti-racist alternative might look like.

A much better, and hugely original, starting point therefore is the one outlined by Will Davies in Nervous States. Utilising a wide range of both analyses and examples Will points to how reason has declined, and feeling has come increasingly to take its place. He doesn’t patronise the latter but via an understanding of it reasserts the cause of a rational, radical politics properly equipped for the era in which we live. Brilliant.

What kind of political organisation may be up to the task of not only resisting the rise of this populist-racist right but also reclaiming the cause of reason versus reaction? Paolo Gerbaudo’s The Digital Party is a wide-ranging, and international, survey of those parties that have gone furthest to embrace the organisational changes the new modes of communication demand of us all and as such is a compelling read for the future of politics.

 While some things change, others remain the same. The brutal, dehumanising treatment of the Palestinians by Israel continued in 2018. And this time the shooting by the Israeli army of unarmed protestors who joined Gaza’s Great March of Return offended even many of Israel’s hitherto staunchest supporters. But sadly still nothing seems to change.  What a relief therefore to read Nathan Thrall’s The Only Language they Understand an unashamed search for a principled compromise, that won’t satisfy entirely either side but will most.  

One of the welcome after-effects of Corbynism has to be the revival of a Left intellectual culture. One of the best examples of this is the journal  Renewal.The latest edition in particular carries a superb piece by left-wing economist Christine Berry available as a free download ‘how does a movement prepare for power.’  

Compass has always confounded convention by combining the work of a thinktank with the ambition of being a campaign hub. Occasionally wrongfooted by the rise of Corbynism, the latest Compass publication The Causes and Cures of Brexit showcases the organisation’s thoughtful strengths at their best, not demonising the support for ‘Leave’ but seeking to understand its rationale, something too few even recognise. Also available as a free download here.   And my favourite popular-intellectual initiative of 2018? The return of the political pamphleteer in the shape of Dan Hind’s excellent ‘New Thinking for the British Economy‘ series.

In the twentieth century it was 1917 that framed the efforts of those who followed in the footsteps of revolution.  John Maclean, by Henry Bell, details Scotland’s flirtation with revolutionary politics, while a special edition of New Formations marks the 2019 centenary of  Rosa Luxemburg’s murder with a range of essays detailing her continuing influence and significance.  

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The journal Twentieth Century Communism remains the unrivalled source of insights into 1917’s aftermath worldwide, the latest issue providing a rare focus on African communism. That aftermath was, of course, not unchanging. The first transformation we might date to the post-1956 New Left, chronicled in a brand new Socialist Register Reader with contributors ranging from Ralph Miliband and Jean-Paul Sartre to Rosana Rossanda and André Gorz.

And then a decade later a further convulsion, 1968, which in 2018 celebrated its 50thanniversary. The Voices of 1968 is an invaluable collection of original material from this most extraordinary of years ranging right across Europe and the USA for its sources.  Fiercely critical of the ‘official’ communist movement yet ardent defenders of its own particular interpretation of 1917, and Leninism more widely, John Kelly’s critical, yet not unfriendly, account in Contemporary Trotskyism details the particular appeal of this version of a revolutionary politics.

Of course ‘revolution’ in the era of late capitalism has come to mean all manner of things.  Alan Bradshaw and Linda Scott’s Advertising Revolution accounts rather brilliantly for the word’s evolution via a Beatles hit into a Nike advert and a message even Trump embraces. Taking a different tack Oli Mould in Against Creativity demolishes all manner of claims to ‘liberate’ body, soul and mind via a corporatised version of the power of the creative. Neither critique eliminates the necessity for social change, but both books force us to tackle a bastardised vocabulary as a barrier to making it happen. 

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Versemongering in the cause of social change has a long and rebellious history. Dread, Poetry & Freedom by David Austin provides not simply a biographical account of Linton Kwesi Johnson but a political history of the context of his poetry. Fusing their poetry with street-level activism the ‘Poetry on the Picketline’ collective stand unashamedly in the tradition of LKJ’s campaigning performances. Their debut collection Poetry on the Picketline, published by Culture Matters, gives a great feel of what they bring to any protest party. I also recommend that you aim to experience them live on picket lines in 2019. 

At the core of much of this is an admirably do-it-yourself ‘We are all poets’ philosophy. To help us on our way, iambic pentameters and the like, there’s no finer how-to read than Michael Rosen’s classic What is Poetry?    

Undoubtedly the political novel of 2018 was Jonathan Coe’s Middle England. A funny, if sorry, tale of generational political drifts and divides set in the present and immediate past. An epic – read it before Brexit Day, 29thMarch, ouch!

For children’s reading in 2019 how about going back in time? Michael Rosen has edited a new collection of old socialist fairy stories Workers’ Tales and he’s also adapted an all-time favourite Dickensian tale, Oliver Twist, into a brand new story retold alongside his version of the original, Unexpected Twist. Or for something entirely of the present, the third in Michael’s Uncle Gobb series Uncle Gobb and the Plot Plot is bound to be a 2019 favourite.

Pushkin Press are past masters at hunting down children’s books from around the world for translation and republication. Two of my favourites from 2018 were Jan Terlouw’s Winter in Wartime, a tale of a Dutch teenager in the wartime resistance, and Ele Fountain’s Boy 87 a story of childhood, refugees, and survival.

For the practical task of planning the year ahead there’s no better tool than the hugely stylish Verso Radical Diary and Radical Planner  – the perfect New Year treat for the well-organised person in your life. Sadly, there’s no entry for a 2019 General Election date, not yet......

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And my book of the New Year? Michael Rosen has collaborated with Kimberley Reynolds and Jane Rosen to produce a fantastically illustrated anthology of radical writing for children called Reading & Rebellion. Stretching back to the start of the last century right through to the beginnings of the 1960s revolt this book is an absolute treat of a revelation for children, and grown-ups, of all ages. The perfect read for a New Year and a new generation who more than anyone else will help ensure a future where peace and goodwill is more than a seasonal marketing gimmick but instead at the core of human existence.  

No links in this review are to Amazon, if you can avoid purchasing from this tax-dodging low-wage employer please do so. Mark Perryman is the editor of The Corbyn Effect. His new book Corbynism from Below will be published by Lawrence & Wishart in Autumn 2019.

Street art, Bristol
Friday, 14 December 2018 19:59

Caught Doing Social Work? - socially engaged art and the dangers of becoming social workers

Written by

Stephen Pritchard offers some provocations on themes around instrumentalism of the arts and artists, gentrification and artwashing in the age of neoliberal capitalism.

Many people in the artworld believe that art can deliver social change. Many are following yet another artworld trend – that of socially engaged art. This is perhaps best represented by Assemble winning the 2015 Turner Prize. An important moment in the turn (or perhaps return) towards “Useful Art”.

assemblegroup

Assemble group photo, 2014

Many more see socially engaged art as a way of instrumentalising artistic practices in the name of state, corporate and other agendas. The English state, for example, instrumentalises art as a means of “improving” the economy, health and wellbeing, social ills, education, the environment, urban places, crime rates, unemployment, on and on and on. Art can, some argue, offer salvation to all our ills: Panacea Art.

Cultural policies around the globe are being honed to embed art and culture as a way of supporting and delivering the agendas of almost every government department and non-government organisation; harnessed by big businesses to unleash the false fog of corporate social responsibility.

In this sense, socially engaged art becomes yet another tool employed to support the target-driven, cost-benefit values of the dominant neoliberal ideology that is strangling our lives in the noose of individualism and strapping us into the straitjacket of uncaring personal gain.

A humanistic, socialist cultural democracy

The problem with this perspective is, for me, three-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, the type of social change being sought here is always state-led and thereby powered by political and economic agendas, meaning the arts will always be instrumental. Beautifully crafted, state-funded tools impose the soft power that’s so important to neoliberalism.

Secondly, there is the question of what is social change? Arguably anything: Good or bad; emancipatory or totalitarian; always ideological; never likely to result in paradigm-shifts. Recycling household waste is social change; but then so is Nazism.

Thirdly, people who not part of the artworld are not usually listened to. Their words, thoughts, ideas, wishes, dreams, hopes, fears are ignored or sanitised. Most people are disenfranchised by cultural policies “done to them”, not by, with and for them. This isn’t social justice. This isn’t democracy.

I believe in the radically political project (or perhaps projects) of cultural democracy. People-powered participatory democracy. Humanistic and socialist democracy. The arts have been used very effectively to implement all sorts of state agendas for time immemorial, but they have also been equally effective in opposing the state, opposing capitalism. So, does our work support neoliberal ideology or contest and oppose it?

 Missionaries, Mercenaries, Mediators and Mobilisers

We all learn and experience and express ourselves through cultural activities (whether “high” art or “popular” cultures and subcultures). Our creativity leads us to everyday revolutions that change our ways of being and living in our everyday cultures.

So why do we privilege artists to “engage” people in projects or “work” with people in ill-defined and misunderstood “social” spaces or places?

Are we, as artists working in “the social”, working as Missionaries preaching the Western European, white, middle-class, male, able-bodied gospel of the neoliberal creative industries and Creative Class?

Are we working as Mercenaries, engaging “disadvantaged” people and people in “difficult” places and communities somehow deemed to be in some way lacking in culture, for the sole reason that we need to make a living, a career, to make money?

Are we working as privileged Mediators capable of listening to people who are not listened to – who are ignored – with the sole purpose of helping amplify their frustrations, their anger, their fears, their hopes, their ideas, their demands for rights?

Are we working as Mobilisers – as political activists?

I ask, then, which side are you on?

Who Pays the Piper?

We are privileged. It’s how we use that privilege that matters. We must recognise that our practices are powerful and that we are influential. We must use our influence positively to bring about real and lasting change – radical change.

This is not the time to be instrumentalised by the state, by local authorities, by corporations, by NGOs, by those with vested interests in developing or profiting from our present neoliberal hegemony and the dominance of a neo-colonial Western culture propped-up by art, and proliferated using the slow violence of socially engaged art.

We must not be mercenaries or missionaries.

We can be mediators only if we recognise the privileged position of being able to mediate, and only if we do this with humility and when we do this ethically.

We can be mobilisers working as part of a broad movement of movements for radical social and political and economic change.

We can help bring down the citadels.

We can be part of the demand for the Right to the City.

We can be part of the movement to take back the city.

We can challenge status quos.

We can call for the decolonisation of our racist Western culture.

We can call out those who proliferate inequity, selfish individualism and greed.

We can stand together with those who are denied the privilege given to us.

Are we, then, truly using our privilege to help bring about truly radical acts?

A Revolution of Everyday Life?

We must never help governments and developers displace people.

We must say no to those who want to use us to deliver their neoliberal agendas.

We must never work as NGO artists, subtly instilling Western culture and language and ways of living on different people from different places.

We are not social workers or community workers or community developers or doctors or nurses or psychotherapists or teachers or preachers or community consultants.

We are not foot soldiers of capitalism.

We are not place-makers.

We are not the servants of the neoliberal Creative Industries ideal.

We must never be story-harvesters.

And we are not social cleansers.

Human relationships, radical action and democratic grassroots participation must happen in our everyday lives.

We need a Revolution of Everyday Life: revolutions of everyday lives.

As artists, we can help bring about a revolution of our everyday lives, of everyone’s lives and ways of being and living.

We can help people self-organise, cooperate and reignite our understanding of ourselves as individuals who are stronger collectively.

But we must never get caught doing social work.

Have you been caught doing social work?

Disturbing the Dust on a Bowl of Rose-Leaves

Cultural policy, like fortune, has always favoured the rich and powerful. But it has never before been harnessed so nefariously in the name of “social work”.

We must say NO! We must remember our roots; revisit our histories. We must understand how and why our arts and cultures have been separated from our everyday lives.

We must be wary of those who seek to enforce their values upon our creativity or denounce it as inferior to other cultural activities.

The qualities of radical acts exist in the form of aesthetic experiences not shallow, monolithic Kantian aesthetics.

Our everyday acts and our everyday cultures transcend instrumentalism.

Our everyday lives take must not be determined by institutions – artworld or otherwise.

We are to them like dandelions. We are weeds.

Yet, whilst they regard themselves as fragrant roses, safe within their walled gardens, we know that old roses, old cultivars, grow weak with age. We know that, as dandelions, as wildflowers, we are vigorous and hardy and that we can grow anywhere – whether inside or outside the false boundaries of their garden.

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.

- T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, 1935. (From The Four Quartets, 1941.)

Stephen Pritchard blogs here. 

Culture for the many, not the few
Thursday, 13 December 2018 14:22

Culture for the many, not the few

Written by

Mike Quille presents some principles and practical policies to implement cultural democracy.

This article is a contribution to debates around cultural democracy in the socialist left, the labour movement and academia. It includes discussion of:

- What culture means and why it is so important
- The links between cultural activities and politics, and current examples of the way cultural activities function in class-divided societies like our own
- Why we need a democratic and socialist approach to all cultural activities, going beyond the narrow, elitist and top-down approach of Arts Council England
- Specific measures which might form part of a programme for an incoming Labour government

The real meaning of culture

Culture matters to the many, not just the few. For a large part of our lives, particularly in our leisure time, we make choices – or choices are made for us – on what to do with our time. Whether to watch television, and if so what to watch. Whether to surf the internet, go on Facebook, or read a newspaper or magazine. Whether to visit an art gallery or concert hall, go to the pub or out for a meal, listen to some music, buy some clothes, make some clothes, play an instrument, go to the opera, play football, watch football, go to church, sing in a choir, paint a picture or play computer games.

All these activities, and many more, have a cultural dimension. They entertain, educate and enlighten us, and help us to enjoy life by giving it meaning, purpose and value. And the choices we make are socially determined. Their accessibility, cost and their very meanings are conditioned and constrained by the choices made by the owners, controllers, and gatekeepers of culture – the rich and the powerful, the politically dominant social classes in capitalist societies. We make our own culture, but we do not make it as we please, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. 

So culture is essential to being human. Culture is ordinary and culture is everything, a whole way of life, and it is closely linked to society, to the economy, and to politics. Let's unpack these ideas in more detail.

 

As Raymond Williams said: “Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start”. So culture includes not just the arts, but all those learned human activities which give our lives meaning and enjoyment. To restrict the term, and political discussion of it, to a selected menu of arts-based activities is to devalue and exclude the majority of cultural activities as practised by the majority of the population. As well as the arts, culture includes sport, TV and the media generally, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, education, religion and many other popular activities. This makes for a looser and more varied set of concerns to think about, integrate into political manifestos and campaign about. But it is fairer, more inclusive and is far more relevant and appealing to the labour movement and most working people.

Fundamentally, human cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They tend to express and assert our common humanity and solidarity against divisions of class, gender, race and other social divisions caused by unequal economic arrangements such as the capitalist system. And cultural activities such as art, music and religion can directly inspire and support radical change in the real world, both personally and politically.

Taking part in this wide range of cultural activities, as consumers and as performers/actors, is not some optional extra for us. It sustains our health, well-being and happiness, promotes our freedom from oppressive political systems and exploitative economic arrangements, and is absolutely necessary to our development, liberation and flourishing as human beings. Culture is therefore essential to the socialist project of transforming society for the benefit of working people – the many.

As workers, we’re well aware of the economic struggle, the struggle for a fair return for our labour and for food, shelter, and other material necessities. In these days of austerity economics and flatlining wages, it’s a constant struggle to make ends meet on low incomes and inadequate benefits. The chaos and cruelty around the introduction of Universal Credit is the worst but not the only example of deliberate attacks on the poor by the Tory Government.

As voters and political activists, we’re also aware of the political struggle. This is the struggle to change the terms and conditions of our existence for the better – to liberate our social selves and prioritise social justice and the common good across all areas of state power and policy. So we struggle for various forms of social rather than private ownership of the land, farms, factories, offices, shops, utilities and banks. And we struggle to gain democratic control of social institutions, so that we all have an equal say in what happens in our lives.

Socialists, however, have always recognised that there is another struggle, which accompanies, expresses and supports the economic and political struggles. This is the cultural struggle, the struggle for cultural democracy, to apply fundamental socialist principles of shared ownership and democratic control to everyday and ordinary cultural activities.

How is class linked to culture?

Class-based divisions in society, based on unequal property ownership, constrain or prevent the full and free enjoyment of culture. Cultural activities may be fundamentally liberating and social, but in societies divided by class they are limited, appropriated and privatised.

Throughout history, tiny minorities of dominant social classes have tried – often successfully – to turn cultural activities into circuses, to go with the breadcrumbs thrown from the tables of the rich and powerful. In these class-divided societies, culture tends to become inaccessible, costly, irrelevant and of poor quality. It tends to be owned and organised in undemocratic ways. It tends to legitimise, conceal or ignore the ongoing, systematic oppression and exploitation of working people. And it is used to promote diversionary and reactionary political messages and values, in order to prevent the development of radical, anti-capitalist ideas such as cultural democracy.

So a continual struggle goes on to develop and sustain a cultural commons for the many, not the few. We face a cultural struggle against the co-option, misuse and appropriation of cultural activities, just like our economic and political struggles for better wages and for ownership and control of essential goods and services like our schools, our railways and our health service.

Just as neoliberal capitalism has shown itself to be incapable of providing adequate public services in these areas, so too it cannot sustain cultural production, delivery and consumption. We are witnessing the insidious and often hidden growth of corporate influence and control over cultural institutions – not only institutions like Arts Council England, but also social media platforms, broadcasters, sports clubs, pubs and clubs, and supermarkets.

These cultural institutions, which are of such importance to the everyday lives of so many people, present a major challenge for a socialist cultural policy seeking to implement shared ownership and democratic accountability into the cultural landscape.

What’s wrong with current popular cultural activities?

For the many, massive problems flow from the unequal and undemocratic ownership and control of cultural activities.

In sport, owners and management bodies are failing to make sport accessible, affordable and enjoyable for everyone, through sky-high ticket prices, undemocratic, ineffective regulatory authorities, and subsidies for elite sport at the expense of school sports and grassroots sports. Commercial pressures mean that capitalist ideologies of individual excellence and competitiveness – rather than the social and co-operative nature of most sport which is its most essential and appealing characteristic – cause regular scandals in most sports, involving drug-taking, cheating and corruption.

In the media, private ownership of large swathes of the means of communication by gigantic corporations like Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook prevent us enjoying human interaction without being watched, manipulated and influenced by commercial capitalist interests. We face privately owned media companies like Sky, Netflix, Disney and Fox, dedicated to making profits rather than meeting human need. And we face state-controlled media like the BBC, designed to support and legitimise the economic and political status quo, and institutionally biased against radical politicians, newspapers and ideas.

Our daily activities of eating and drinking are also cultural activities, as well as biological necessities. We do so in company with family and friends, for pleasure and to express and enhance our common and social natures. Yet corporations produce and sell us food and drink loaded with too much sugar, salt, and fat, and we are pressurised into consuming unhealthy amounts and types of of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Children and other vulnerable, poorer members of society are particularly at risk in a system where corporate profits depend on obesity and drunkenness.

Religious institutions own and control huge resources - land, buildings, capital - which do not always meet and serve the needs of many people for collective gatherings to express and strengthen shared beliefs and a commitment to the common good, and for refreshment, comfort and inspiration. Most religions have a powerful strand of concern for the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed and exploited, yet their vicars, priests, bishops and other leaders often fail to call for and to practise social justice.

In the arts, the situation is not much better than when Raymond Williams said, in a Guardian Lecture in 1985:

The central socialist case, in matters of culture is that the lives of the great majority of people have been, and still are, almost wholly disregarded by almost all arts.

What’s wrong with the arts, and Arts Council England’s ‘Cultural Democracy in Practice’?

Problems with cultural institutions mean that we face inaccessibility, obscurity, and vapid spectacle, as does the fact that state funding is so unequal. Money that comes from our taxes and our Lottery tickets is overwhelmingly focused on cultural provision in the London area, which benefits mainly the already well off, and tourists.

MQ pi 04 2016 map

The continuing, monumental failure of Arts Council England to develop and sustain fair allocation of the massive increase in resources it has received from the taxpayer and from Lottery funds over the last 20 years or so is truly appalling. Imagine the outcry if there were far more hospitals per person in the London area than elsewhere, or far more schools for the better off than for the poor, everywhere. Yet this is broadly the situation in the arts, and one which ACE is not even planning to tackle.

Clearly fearful of the true implications of implementing cultural democracy in a class-based, unequal society, which would obviously involve replacing their current structure, funding and mission to subsidise culture for the rich, ACE have attempted to co-opt the language and the concepts in the recent report which it commissioned on ‘Cultural Democracy in Practice’. This document has come under heavy criticism, including this statement from the Movement for Cultural Democracy:

We are agreed that the Arts Council report has almost nothing to say about Cultural Democracy – in practice, in principle or as public policy. It is a crude, historically whitewashed and politically inept attempt to co-opt to its own cause a long standing and now re-emerging strand of radical cultural debate, policy and practice that fundamentally challenges its record and its structure – particularly its use of lottery funding.

The MCD has now published a new statement on rebalancing funding of the arts.

There are other problems apart from funding. For working-class people wishing to have an arts career, it is getting harder to become a musician or actor or writer without rich relatives to support you. As Jeremy Corbyn has said:

There is a poet, author, singer, pianist, actor, playwright, and artist in every single person.

But cuts and curriculum changes in education mean our children are being deprived of the chance to learn how to appreciate and participate in artistic, sporting and other cultural activities at both primary and secondary school stages, as well as facing exclusion and discrimination when they attempt a career as writer, performer, musician, actor or artist.

The Government’s politically-driven austerity policies have led to huge cuts in cultural facilities, including libraries, community centres, youth facilities and sports facilities. These cuts are set to continue for years to come, and have been knowingly targeted at the least well-off sections of society.

MQ library closures

We also face the possibility of an expansion in leisure time in the next few decades, as labour-saving technology generates more unemployment, under-employment and free time. Again, this will impact more on the working class generally, and on less skilled workers, younger people trying to build careers, and people who are already socially excluded and discriminated against for various reasons. Over time there will thus be an increasing need for accessible, relevant cultural activities for large numbers of people who are currently excluded from participation

What would a better culture policy look like?

To tackle these problems, what should be the general principles for a Labour government’s culture policy, a policy to implement genuine cultural democracy?

Firstly, acceptance that culture is ordinary and everyday, and that it is essential and not marginal to working people’s lives. Both spectatorship and engagement in cultural production and consumption are fundamental to human fulfilment and flourishing, and therefore central to any progressive political programme. It is not just an aid to ‘economic regeneration’, still less a sticking plaster to mask the deindustrialisation, decay and worsening health of many working-class communities, particularly in the North.

Secondly, we need a more inclusive approach to culture and culture policy, covering cultural activities which matter to most working people, and which can attract the support of the labour movement. We need to start promoting culture as part of the ‘social wage’ for everyone, like health, education and welfare benefits, not an exclusive extra for the better off. We need to break down long-established hierarchies between different kinds of cultural activities and practices, which often reflect and perpetuate class divisions, and which again point to the importance of integrating the economic, political and cultural struggles in our attempts to build Blake's new Jerusalem, a classless society.

Thirdly, we need to develop democratic, inclusive and bottom-up cultural policies in which communities of practitioners and audiences are empowered, through various structures of shared, social ownership and democratic control, to direct culture towards their own defined ends. Those ends should be self-determined, and could be entertainment, personal fulfilment, self-expression or as a contribution to the struggle for a better world.

More broadly, we need to think about ways of facilitating and encouraging grassroots cultural formations and activities. There are some very good examples of people working together at various forms of cultural activity – whether learning to play a musical instrument, paint, write poetry, cook, play football or make films – for enjoyment, education or the value generated by doing things in a social environment. These activities may not be explicitly political, linked to any defined progressive thinking or located in the trade union and labour movement. But by providing platforms for people to share their work and ideas, and by encouraging people to do things socially and collaboratively, they build confidence, promote learning and open the doors to deeper levels of cultural and political engagement.

Specific policy proposals – some examples

It would be inappropriate to construct a detailed blueprint for culture policies, as there is a prior need to consult, discuss, and democratically decide on priorities. But there would surely be a consensus on the left about the following priorities for an incoming Labour government:

- Dismantling the barriers of class, cost and geography that stop working people from accessing culture, as consumers and as practitioners;

- Embedding cultural education – both appreciation and practice – into the national curriculum;

- Reclaiming the media – newspapers, online platforms, TV and radio – by reforming its funding, ownership and control and providing space for working-class voices and truly diverse, community-based providers. Facebook, Google, Amazon, broadcasters and newspaper publishers all require radical reformation, taxation and regulation, to lessen and ultimately abolish the influence of billionaire private owners;

- Radical shifting of public spending on the arts and sport, towards more support for grassroots participation, working-class communities and provision outside London;

- Increasing the representation of the working class in all cultural institutions, especially the arts, sports, and the media, in terms of content, audiences and practitioners;

- Developing partnerships between secular and religious authorities, so that as congregations dwindle and resources lie unused, local communities - particularly the poorest and most oppressed sections of those communities - can be empowered to access and benefit from their material and non-material resources;

- Regulating, taxing, and democratising other relevant cultural institutions, including food and drink corporations, breweries and pubs, supermarkets, arts facilities and sports clubs. All these institutions have potential to be specialist hubs in a common socialist project to meet need (rather than make profit) across the whole span of cultural activities. Various kinds of social ownership models and democratic management arrangements need to be applied to cultural institutions including ownership by the state, local authorities and local community co-operatives.

Conclusion

Cultural activities often reflect and serve the needs of the dominant class, in a class-divided society such as ours. At the same time they can also provide the space to resist the status quo and overcome alienation and oppression. They can help people envision better, fairer ways of organising our society, as well as promoting our physical, mental and spiritual well-being. To help culture works its magic on the many, not just the few, we need to imagine a world in which we have a stake in all the cultural activities available to us, and they are organised and delivered to meet our needs as human beings and not to make profit or to reflect and legitimise a set of exploitative and oppressive econmic and political institutions.

Demo

The Labour manifesto of 1945 contained these words:

We desire to assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation.

Cultural democracy was promised in 1945 and is long overdue. Now is the time for the Labour Party to present a new democratic and socialist culture policy in the next manifesto, and to develop local, co-ordinated campaigns involving CLPs, trade unions, and activists, across all the cultural areas. Why? Because culture matters to the many, not the few.

This article is an extended version of an article first published in New Socialist. With thanks to Roland Boer, Theresa Easton, Chris Guiton, Sophie Hope, and Jack Newsinger for their inspiration, assistance, comments and contributions to this article. Further contributions from writers, activists and artists on the detail of a socialist culture policy, are welcome, please send them to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Cultural democracy in practice: alternatives to artwashing and the Great North Exhibition
Monday, 08 October 2018 15:11

Cultural democracy in practice: alternatives to artwashing and the Great North Exhibition

Written by

Theresa Easton and Martin Gollan are two members of a group of artists who staged protests about The Great North Exhibition and who organised an alternative – and ongoing – series of events, The Other Great Exhibition of the North. They were recently interviewed by Mike Quille.

MQ: There was a lot of media attention given to The Great North Exhibition. What were the views of local artists?

MG: I think for many artists and musicians and others involved in the creative world of Newcastle and Gateshead, the Great Exhibition of the North (GETNORTH) was something planted down with little relevance or desire to attempt to connect with what was happening locally, especially at grassroots level.

As it got closer to the launch of GETNORTH it became increasingly clear just how limited its engagement would be with established centres of creative activity, like the Ouseburn in Newcastle, or those communities where Tory welfare reforms and austerity have increased already entrenched levels of poverty and disadvantage.

Yes, there was a small grants programme, but few artists we know were successful in getting any funding from that. And GETNORTH’s ‘inspired by’ programme was simply an act of appropriation, making claims for festivals, projects and cultural activities which were already planned and in the calendar.

‘Inspired by’ gave the illusion of GETNORTH’s reach into Newcastle and Gateshead’s local arts community, when the reality was that it barely moved beyond the established cultural venues along the Quayside and city centres of Newcastle and Gateshead.  

It was clear fairly early on that IT was less about celebrating cultural, scientific and engineering accomplishments, than a promotional device for George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse. Unlike other arts festivals in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool or Middlesbrough, it was hatched in Westminster, like the Northern Powerhouse’s devolution plans.

It’s worth remembering that Osborne’s plans for a North East devolution deal, similar to Manchester’s, had already been rejected, that Greater Manchester seemed to be the only place where anything was really happening. You need to remember too that GETNORTH, although taking place in Newcastle and Gateshead, was supposed to be about the whole Northern Powerhouse area – hence John Lennon’s piano and Helen Sharman’s spacesuit being included in the rambling display at Newcastle’s Great North Museum.

GETNORTH was simply an example of artwashing – using culture to give a positive gloss to a cynically inspired political programme designed to distract northern communities from the reality of a centralised political and cultural machine. This Westminster machine is hellbent on pursuing neoliberal economic policies, and making ordinary people pay for the reckless and criminal actions of finance capitalism in the 2008 crash.

MQ: How did local artists, musicians and other creative workers react to the project?

MG: The cynicism of GETNORTH and its neoliberal capitalist roots was made clear by its list of sponsors, including BAE Systems and Virgin Trains. We acknowledge that along with the arts, it was also about science and engineering, and maybe from that perspective those two sponsors made some sense.

But only someone with a tin ear to what was already happening in museums and galleries, where protesters had already for several years been taking action against BP’s sponsorship of the National Portrait Gallery’s annual portrait competition, or Airbus’s links with the Science Museum, would think it a good idea to approach BAE Systems and Virgin.

GNE 2

The Art not Arms campaign against BAE Systems involvement in GETNORTH and BAE’s subsequent withdrawal, was a galvanizing moment for artists and demonstrated how we didn’t need to simply put up with it. Also, Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry incensed artists when he referred to them as ‘snowflakes’, chasing ‘subsidies’. It was obvious he was clueless as to the precarious working conditions of artists, who on average survive on less than £10,000 a year.

In April we put a call out through social media to anyone interested in creating an alternative, more democratic cultural initiative, which would be grassroots, led by North East artists and involve the communities that the official programme wasn’t interested in. We organised a meeting and about 20 to 30 people turned up – artists, performers, musicians, writers and activists. It seemed like we’d struck a chord.

We outlined our reasons why there needed to be a response to GETNORTH and we agreed a name for what we were planning, The Other Great Exhibition of the North, or OtherGEN. A website was set up along with Twitter and Facebook platforms to promote events and advertise the planning meetings, which continued through the summer. OtherGEN deliberately reached out to creative communities in Sunderland, Durham and Middlesbrough and elsewhere in the region, where GETNORTH was absent.

Our programme was necessarily somewhat ad hoc and reliant on the artists to themselves organise events and exhibitions. Some great ideas didn’t come off simply because of lack of time. Remember, work began on GETNORTH in 2016 – OtherGEN only had a few weeks.

However, we were awarded some funding from Seedbed Tyneside Arts and received donations from Newcastle Trades Council, Northumbria UCU and that enabled us to meet at least some of the costs incurred by the artists and performers who took part. Over time a core organising committee naturally formed and as we are all members of either Artists Union England or the Musicians Union, paying artists and performers was important.

Demo

June demo against GETNORTH artwashing

Among the events that took place as part of OtherGEN, the first was the march/parade on 22 June, the day GETNORTH launched. We marched from the Haymarket, down Northumberland St and congregated outside the Laing Art Gallery, where we had speeches and songs. It was a great way to start off.

In July The gallery at 36 Lime Street was transformed into a working studio as resident artist Theresa Easton created a range of hand printed posters in response to GETNORTH. On show was work by young women attending St Michael's Centre, Byker, alongside Theresa’s collection of broadsides and posters covering the 'Together Against Trump' campaign and a past residency at Robert Smails Printing Works, Innerleithen.

Otherness 1 Sheree Angela Matthews

OtherGEN workshop run by Sheree Mack

I think we were all clear that OtherGEN, as much as it was a set of cultural actions, it was also a straightforwardly political act. When OPENM;NDED, a group providing a platform to explore challenging issues through conversation, community and creativity, made contact with us about a spoken word event they were organising, there was no question of OtherGEN not getting involved.

The event at Kommunity had a panel featuring OtherGEN’s Stephen Pritchard, also Mo Lovatt and John Tomaney, who had recently published an article critical of GETNORTH, and spoken word performances from Wajid Hussain, Harry Gallagher and Andy White.

Other events in August included a Friday night ceilidh at Blackfriars Centre, Byker with local band Berking Mad. An exhibition, Is the Spectacle the Sun that Never Sets, was also held at System Gallery. The show, featuring work by North East artists Azin, Mark Carr and Sharon Gollan, explored the ideologies and consequences of neoliberalism and the deliberate austerity policies pursued by the Tory government. So along with the art on display, we shared information about Gateshead Foodbank, Newcastle West End Foodbank and the People’s Kitchen.

Work worklessness and the politcal economy of health sharon gollan 2

Work, worklessness and the political economy of health, by Sharon Gollan, in an OtherGEN art exhibition

In September, OtherGEN supported a jazz event in Sunderland, with Emma Fisk and James Birkett playing early jazz numbers. There was also a display from Assign (Arts Sunderland Support Initiative Group Network) of jazz influenced artwork.

A ‘drink and draw’ night was held at the Tyneside Irish Centre. Organised by Angela Kennedy, a Gateshead-based interdisciplinary artist and activist, the drink and draw was an opportunity to have some fun and loosen up their creativity in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.

We returned in September to Blackfriars for a comedy night with local comedians Mike Milligan and John Scott.

MQ: Now the GNE has ended, what does your group intend to do?

TE: OtherGEN has struck a chord with many of those involved and will continue to build links with communities to create events and plan artistic developments with a whole range of people. The group has also developed a supportive role within the artistic community.  

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Community arts screenprinting workshop at Redhills, Durham, run by Theresa Easton for OtherGEN

The neoliberal and elitist environment of the ‘art world’ where the ‘free’ market rules, is being challenged and exposed. Alternative models of making a living as an artist are being embraced. Community art, sometimes seen as less important or serious as ‘high art’, is being used to challenge the idea that success is measured by the price of artwork.  

This is particularly relevant, as recently Arts Council England commissioned a report called ‘Cultural Democracy’ which was supposed to encourage arts organisations to open up decision-making and physical spaces for local communities and artists.

In fact, the report is another top-down approach that appropriates the radical concepts behind cultural democracy, and the work of communities and art activists. OtherGEN will continue to hold the government and its institutions to account as long as it continues to artwash its programmes of austerity, inequality and class-based discrimination.

MQ: What kind of pressures are artists under these days? How do you make a living?

TE: The effect of austerity on artists and their working lives is no different from other professions, having a direct adverse effect on the precarious paid work of artists. We are facing zero-hour contracts, less local government and public funding for the arts, cuts in visiting lecture work and huge cuts in schools’ art budgets, as well as the time devoted to the study and practice of the arts.

This inevitably affects the funding available for art work in educational contexts, communities, gallery work, art projects, residencies, and commissions – all these avenues of funding have been decimated by the austerity programme.  

Universal Credit has hit many artists hard, as benefits are cut because of irregular wage income. Artists are regularly asked to work for free to complete projects, so their business model is often deemed unprofitable by the DWP. Artists in England formed a trade union in 2014, the Artists’ Union England, to counter the exploitative nature of their work and demand better wages and conditions.

The corporate takeover of the arts manifests itself as sponsorship deals, which do not put money into artists’ pocket or provide regular, adequately paid work. Instead corporations are using taxpayers’ subsidies to present a squeaky clean image while they avoid tax, pollute the planet and exploit lucrative government outsourcing deals.

MQ: What would you like a Corbyn-led Government to do, in terms of arts and culture policy?

TE: Reverse the austerity cuts, and reintroduce universal, accessible library and museum services. The arts will always need subsidy, so investment at local and regional level is imperative in order to avoid a centralised approach.

The arts and other kinds of cultural activity need to be at the centre of communities. They are too important to our well-being to be restricted to weekend visits to cultural venues by the better-off. Those who work in the arts need employment protection like any other worker, and to have their trade unions automatically recognised. Diversity in terms of class, ethnic background, sexuality and other factors needs to be addressed, both for those who work in the arts and those who access and engage with it. Much more needs to be done to be totally inclusive and representative of our communities, especially working class and poorer communities.

MQ: More broadly, how do you think OtherGEN relates to the current discussions and debates about cultural democracy? What lessons might political parties like Labour take from OtherGEN?

TE: The general consensus from the discussions we have had in meetings is that our kind of ethos – participatory, egalitarian, based on mutual co-operation and support, and rooted in local communities – is what cultural democracy should be about, only for artistic activities, but other cultural activities too.

Cultural democracy is not something that can be imposed from above. It’s a process of genuine empowerment of communities, and the artists in those communities. If resources and power are located in grassroots groups, and the means of cultural production and enjoyment are developed, managed and enjoyed within democratic structures, as they have been within OtherGEN meetings, then it’s genuine cultural democracy.

But if power and money are located in professional cultural organisations, following templates and monitoring systems set by national bureaucracies or private corporate sponsors, then it’s not cultural democracy.

Like health, education and key industries like the railways, culture is too important to be left to the so-called ‘free market’. In our discussions, people have imagined arrangements where there is a genuine and significant amount of shared, social ownership and democratic control of cultural services. We think that just like other more material resources, working people also need to have more ownership of cultural production, communication and enjoyment.

Lying to the Land
Sunday, 30 September 2018 15:17

Lying to the Land

Written by

In the first of a series of articles on aspects of modern culture, Paul Tims tells us about 'fauxgress' as exemplified in the film, TV and music industries as well as elsewhere – and how we can make things better.

The most pernicious and successful lie in western culture is that things are getting better. Every day, in every way, we move closer to perfect equality – or so we’re told. The general consensus is that we have more rights than ever and the bigotries and xenophobias of the last century are being pushed out of existence. The rise of the far right and the election of spray-tanned pop-up tyrant Donald Trump are supposedly aberrations: the death-throes of a sickening paradigm.

It must be nice to believe that. It’s a comforting theory that probably helps a lot of people sleep at night. I have another theory, however: one that contains markedly less horseshit. My theory is a simple one and can be summarised in a single sentence. Brace yourself. If you’ve been living in the consensus reality-tunnel for the last few years, this may blow your fragile little mind-melon into a thousand tiny pieces. Here it is: our culture is basically as awful as it’s always been, just slightly prettier. Don’t worry if your monocle popped out your eye in astonishment. That’s a perfectly ordinary reaction.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the progress we’re supposed to be experiencing is a carefully-crafted illusion. Over in the States, Trump wasn’t elected by a vocal minority of bigots, because that’s not how democracies work (no matter how dysfunctional they are). He was elected by a terrifying majority of socially alienated, systematically-ignored rust-belters who didn’t have access to the level of education needed to realise he was exploiting them, lying to them and pandering to their worst impulses. Here in the UK, racism is clearly alive and well. The British people are glibly preparing to leave the E.U. (along with the cultural and economic benefits it provides), largely because ludicrous caricatures like Nigel Farage told them it might provide a great opportunity to get rid of a few foreign johnnies.

Feminist Classic White Ladies Tee 1050x

You can buy T-Shirts with the word ‘Feminist’ on them, but they were probably sewn in sweatshops by women who are treated little better than slaves. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, did you know that reports of rape shot up by 20% last year in London alone?

It’s also worth noting that there is a prevailing sentiment against the poor and the sick here in Britain. The Tory government has declared literally thousands of disabled people on benefits ‘fit for work’ only to have them die within six weeks, cut off from the state support that allowed them to live. If there wasn’t a nasty undercurrent of hatred for the impoverished and the disabled, there is no way the party that did that would still be in power.

Racism, right wing lunacy and misogyny are supposed to be dying out, but the most cursory glance at actual statistics (or even just electoral and referendum results) tells you that this isn’t the case. The lie of continual progress is laughably transparent. There are, however, two questions worth asking. Where is this false narrative on culture coming from, and why is it being pedalled?

The chances are that you feel confident that you’ve encountered the narrative and agree that it’s pretty pervasive… but I bet you can’t think of a single source that’s actually articulated it! That’s because the lie isn’t told explicitly on news programmes or in editorials. If it was, people would see through it in an instant. Humans are pretty dense, but they don’t actually have brains made of play-doh. They’d notice a fib that spectacularly obvious. Instead, the lie is fed to us at a sort of primal level: it’s encoded into our cultural myths, emphasised by the stories the media chooses to tell and implanted in the very language used in mainstream forums.

moonlight

The media went mad with ecstasy awhile ago, when Moonlight (a film by and about black people) won Best Picture at the Oscars. It was happy news, of course, but did you notice the way that it was framed as a watershed moment: a significant victory that marked a serious change in the way western culture regarded non-white stories? Maybe that’s even true, so long as the stories in question are on the silver screen.

The year that film came out, America arrested 111,000 people just for being in the country illegally- a 42% increase over the previous year. Sure, it’s great a film by someone other than Honky McWhitebread the Third won an Oscar, but clearly it changed diddly-squat about race-relations in the real world, where human beings actually have to live.

If the murky waters of US race relations don’t float your boat, why not take a look at the always-zany world of representational feminism? Since 2016, we’ve seen gender-flipped reboots and/or continuations of some major nerd-culture touchstones: women now fill the main protagonist roles in Star Trek, Star Wars, Ghostbusters and Doctor Who. This is framed as an indisputable sign of progress by the decision-makers responsible. Conversely, any criticism of these gender-swaps is framed as inherently sexist.

marvelwomen

But why are we seeing lazy gender-swaps of stuff that already exists instead of a wave of original women-lead TV shows and films? And why hasn’t this supposed triumph of vaginal representation magically empowered women to not be used as fuck-toys and free labour by rapists and sociopaths out here in the real world? It’s almost like a lot of people in the film and television industries have cynically seized on feminism as a brand, that can grab viewers for their sub-par cultural byproducts while leaving actual women to suffer the same miserable fates they always have.

It’s not just films and telly that have turned once-meaningful ideologies into cheap brands, however: it’s also the music industry! I speak, of course, of Beyoncé. She’s held up as a symbol of both racial equality and feminism in the music world… despite being a truly terrible human being who shouldn’t be considered a paragon of anything. Once again, I should stress that it’s good non-white women are having their voices heard in music. Unfortunately, Beyoncé is a non-white woman who once gave a private concert to the family of the murderous dictator Gadhafi. She also once danced around in front of the giant neon-hued word ‘Feminism’ wearing nothing but a figure-hugging leotard. As a man, I understand I’m not allowed to define what feminism involves, but I know a lot of radical feminists who would tell you that it doesn’t involve gyrating around, half-naked.

Of course, in the three previous paragraphs, those perpetuating the lie of progress aren’t actually oppressing anyone or screwing anyone over. Maybe they’re not deliberately creating a false narrative? Maybe they’re just overly optimistic morons who ate a lot of paint as children? My counter-argument is one word: Disney. Disney films have had a fairly liberal outlook lately, right? They’ve promoted tolerance and equality and… hang on a minute! This bloody company was producing its merchandise using sweatshop slave labour as recently as 2012! Weirdly, I can’t find anything more up to date than that on the subject… which is suspicious in itself. If you needed proof that the pedlars of faux-progress (fauxgress, if you like) know exactly what they’re doing: there it is.

On a similar note, Nike (purveyors of the world’s most pretentious trainers) recently launched a massive ad campaign designed to combat racism… by including non-white people (especially Muslims) on the posters. We’ll leave aside the fact that simply including non-white people isn’t especially radical: it’s basically just the bare minimum demanded by human decency. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that Nike was using sweatshops and child labour in non-western countries as recently as August 2017.

nike

Just like Disney, Nike is a systemically racist company with a history of exploiting non-white workers. Despite this, they are hypocritically cultivating a progressive, anti-racist image for themselves in order to promote their brand. As with Disney, trying to figure out if Nike still uses sweatshops has proven rather difficult, as there’s a troubling dearth of post-2017 online resources regarding their corporate practices. However, I’d invite my readers to apply inductive reasoning to the problem and take a wild stab in the dark.

Nike and Disney don’t have the monopoly on exploitation however. The tech giant Apple has a nasty habit of filling its phones and computers with conflict minerals. If you’re not familiar with the term, I should explain that conflict minerals are metals and other materials mined in territories controlled by local warlords who use the profits to fund obscenely violent conflicts with other warlords. It’s interesting that Apple has managed to position itself as a trendy, alternative, ‘progressive’ brand without actually having a specific progressive message. It’s even more interesting that it’s managed to do it while indirectly funding wars that kill innocent women and children on a daily basis.

I’ve told you where the cultural narrative (or lie) of progress is coming from – cultural pundits, media outlets and half-arsed content creators. Given this information, it’s not that hard to figure out why it started. Money. Tell people everything’s getting better, frame yourself as a champion of the new paradigm and watch millions of good, kind, politically-aware people queue up to buy your DVDs and T-shirts, read your magazines and newspapers, retweet your sponsored fucking content.

The world is not getting better. Not in the ways that matter. But it can get better. You might be feeling a bit bleak and alienated after reading twelve paragraphs of proof that progress is a lie and that the world is as bad as it’s always been. But I’ll tell you a secret. You have the power to change things for the better.

Progress in mainstream culture may be a write-off, but we are living in an age where we have unprecedented access to music, books, TV shows and opinions that exist outside the mainstream. If you’re feeling dissatisfied with the way you or others are represented in your favourite genre of TV show or film, go on the internet and find cinematic works created by artists with genuinely different voices, or visit an online bookstore and find literary examples of your preferred genre that would never make it into Waterstones or Barnes and Noble.

If you’re sick of the pandering, half-witted fauxgress to be found in modern music, it’s easy to find lists of alternative songs in any style on music websites, then listen to them immediately on Youtube. It’s even easier to simply not buy products from corrupt, fauxgress-spouting compaies.

You’re already sat at your computer, reading this article. You’ve already taken the first step towards seeking out counter-cultural content. Thanks to technology, you have the ability to ‘vote with your feet’ and only engage with content that meets a high standard. If you want to kill fauxgress and replace it with something better, the simplest way to do so is to ignore it to death.

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