Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (76)

In defence of the cultivated imagination: An appreciation of Tommy Jackson
Saturday, 15 May 2021 12:46

In defence of the cultivated imagination: An appreciation of Tommy Jackson

Written by

Mike Sanders presents an appreciation of Tommy Jackson

Thomas Alfred “Tommy” Jackson (1879 – 1955) has been described as “the most brilliant proletarian intellectual to come out of the British Communist Party”. Born into a working-class family in London, he followed his father into the printing trade, but after completing his apprenticeship as a compositor he became increasingly involved with the socialist movement. In 1900 he joined the Social Democratic Federation, in 1904 he was one of the founder members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (serving briefly as its General Secretary in 1906), but in 1909 he joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) for whom he became a paid speaker until 1911, when he left the ILP to become a paid lecturer for the National Secular Society and then a freelance lecturer.

In 1917 he joined the Socialist Labour Party and also became a lecturer for the North East Labour College Committee. In 1920 he was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), a delegate to the Comintern, a member of the Central Committee from 1924 to 1929 and editor of The Communist and The Sunday Worker. Jackson opposed the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the CPGB in 1924 and was a leading critic of the ‘class-against-class’ strategy and this led to his removal from the Party’s leadership. However, it is important to note that despite his disagreements with the Party’s leadership, Jackson never became a renegade and continued to work as a journalist for the Daily Worker and after the Second World War as a lecturer for the Party’s Education Department. In addition, to his journalism, Jackson published a number of important works of Marxist theory, criticism and history including: Dialectics: The Logic of Marxism and its critics (1936), Charles Dickens: The Progress of a Radical (1938), Ireland Her Own (1946), as well as a collection of his literary journalism for the Daily Worker entitled, Old Friends to Keep: Studies of English Novels and Novelists (1950) and his autobiography, Solo Trumpet (1953).

TJ book

In his introductory essay to Old Friends to Keep, Jackson writes of his “unshakeable conviction of the indispensability of a cultivated imagination as a condition precedent for revolutionary class struggle, and of the high worth of classic fiction as a means of stimulating and developing that imagination.” Jackson returns to this themes in his closing pages where he writes, “I regard the systematic cultivation of the imagination – especially among the militant vanguard of working-class struggle – as the most fundamentally revolutionary work that there is to be done.” In effect, Jackson insists on the importance of “a cultivated imagination”, identifies “classic fiction” as one of the best means of producing such an imagination and, finally, contends that such an imagination is an ‘indispensable’ precondition for “revolutionary class-struggle”. These are large claims indeed; but as they are made by a Marxist after fifty years of practical experience of the class struggle, perhaps we would do well to take them seriously.

Certain aspects of Jackson’s thinking, for example his defence of literature both as an enlargement and enrichment of life and as a repository of trans-historical value, can be located within an emerging Marxist tradition of cultural theory. A more distinctive element in Jackson’s thought is his insistence on the immediate, practical value of literature as literature (i.e. not as propaganda) to the working-class movement. The crucial questions, identified by Jackson, are these; how precisely does the engagement with literature assist the “systematic cultivation of the imagination” and why is this of value to “the militant vanguard’?

Jackson provides the following answer to the first question:

The more profoundly the imagination penetrates into the essence of social reality, the more surely the artist reveals that most universal of truths – that motion is the essential characteristic of reality. “Things have just this value – they are transitory.” Fixity, immobility, finality, static indifference – these are attributes of the veil of illusion it is the function of great art to strip away. That which abides eternally is and can be nothing but motion; and the function of art is to so quicken feeling that it sets the intelligence searching and urges the will to action (OFTK 19-20)

Literature, therefore, promotes heuristic activity on the part of both the author and the reader. In this formulation, the author does not convey truth to a passive reader, rather the result of the author’s active enquiry into social reality provokes a corresponding enquiry on the part of the reader. In short, literature teaches a particular mode of thinking and promotes a particular form of consciousness, both of which are recognisably ‘dialectical’. In short, it is not that a given work of literature instructs its reader what to think, rather it teaches its reader how to think. It is also worth noting the sequence identified by Jackson, first feeling, then thought and, finally, conscious action.

Jackson’s focus on the active, empowering potential of literature is a valuable and necessary corrective to those forms of cultural theory (frequently originating in post-structuralism) which emphasise the difficulty (even the impossibility) of thinking outside existing social forms. These have given rise to pernicious forms of cultural criticism in which no cultural artefact is ever good enough because it is ‘always-already’ compromised by, or implicated in, various extant forms of oppression. Adorno was alert to this problem in the 1940s warning, in Minima Moralia, that the danger of denying the affirmative potential of art helps to “bring about directly the barbarism that culture is reproached with furthering indirectly”.

He also argues that the function of literature is to “quicken feeling”, prompt intellectual enquiry and motivate action. As Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach reminds us, this is the vital stage. However, as Tommy Jackson knew from his own experience, the passage between the three stages is neither inevitable or necessary. In some cases excessive sensation precludes thought, while in others the combination of sensation and thought negates the need for action. In both cases, it might be argued that action is prevented or negated by an excess of identification – with “sensuous form” on the one hand and with “rational content” on the other.

This, perhaps, provides us with a clue as to the nature of the “cultivated imagination” which is the lynch-pin of Jackson’s theoretical model. The “cultivated imagination” signifies not only the optimum combination of feeling and thought, but more importantly, suggests the need to move beyond an ‘aesthetics of identification’. In this respect, Jackson resembles the great Marxist playwright Brecht, who also sought to theorise and develop an artistic practice capable of jolting its audience into real historical consciousness.

Radical, subversive circus and cultural change
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 08 February 2021 09:28

Radical, subversive circus and cultural change

Written by

Kimberley Reynolds describes how radical and transgressive circuses in twentieth-century children’s literature make the case for social and personal transformation. Above image: Family of Saltimbanques by Pablo Picasso, 1905

The circus has been a consistently popular setting, theme, metaphor and space in publishing for children from at least the nineteenth century, and writers, illustrators and readers are attracted to it for a variety of reasons. Foremost among these is the fact that the circus world is exotic, international, polyglot, excessive and carnivalesque. They combine animals from distant lands (in line with concerns about animal welfare, few circuses now have animal acts), astonishing illusions, gravity-defying aerialists and acrobats, the antic behaviour of adults in the roles of clowns, and sideshows featuring what were traditionally known as ‘freaks’. These features are all related to the identification of the circus by the first wave of modernist and avant-garde artists and authors as a quintessentially radical aesthetic space: a space where themes and ideas are explored with a view to challenging and changing how the everyday world is perceived and organised.

A sense of the radical appeal of the circus can be established with a few examples. For instance, during his Rose or ‘circus’ period, Pablo Picasso used images of circus performers as metaphors for the socially and economically precarious position of artists. Like circus performers, he suggests, innovative, challenging artists in early twentieth-century Europe and America were regarded as unimportant outliers by those in positions of power. Henri Matisse had a life-long interest in circuses and what they said about movement, freedom and creativity. This interest is documented in his book Jazz (1947), which was originally titled The Circus. More than half of the images it contains are of circus performances. Fernand Léger and Marc Chagall were fascinated by the way circuses liberated bodies and minds from convention. Their paintings often focus on the way circus acts create a sense of mental and physical liberation from the constraints of everyday life.

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The Acrobat and His Partner by Fernand Léger

Circuses also offered artists new perspectives (from above and below) and celebrated speed, flight and simultaneity, as when multiple acts are taking place on the ground and in the air at the same moment. Circus rings and the contorted body shapes made by acrobats and aerialists lent themselves well to abstraction, while the transitions from acts featuring spangled, gravity-defying artists to lumbering elephants, ferocious big cats, bizarre clowns and the exceptional bodies found in circus sideshows gave a surreal, dreamlike quality to the circus experience. Perhaps most importantly, the inter-artistic nature of circus acts spoke to avant-garde interests in ‘Total Art’, meaning the combining of words, music, lighting, movement, and the plastic arts to provoke new sensations and perceptions.

Mikhail Bakhtin has shown how, by inducing new outlooks on the world, carnival, of which circus is one form, feeds cultural change. This understanding points to the subversive potential of circuses. In Ant-Nazi Modernism, Mia Spiro points to the way that the decades which witnessed the rise of fascism and Nazism saw the deliberate use of circuses to challenge the world view they promulgated. This deployment works well since circus life and circus acts stood for everything such regimes sought to suppress. They were ethnically, socially, and sexually diverse; they mixed levels of discourse; they displayed fluidity, eroticism, exoticism, and hybridity. The peripatetic nature of circuses means they were also free from geographical and nationalistic boundaries. This was as true on the page as under the Big Top or on the canvas. For instance, in Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood (1936), the circus is the only place where lesbian, transgender and other characters who struggle to fit into life in 1930s Paris and America can be at ease. Barnes makes the circus a space where, ‘no one is “alien” because everyone realizes that social positions, race, [and] sexuality are performances’ (Spiro 73).

Understanding the performative nature of all aspects of social life – not least in political displays – undermines the kind of mass spectacles by which totalitarianism asserts its power. So, for instance, performance theories relating to audience response compare the different effects on spectators of circuses and the huge, highly choreographed rallies favoured by Nazi propagandists. These mass spectacles were a deliberately hypnotic, homogenising and coercive kind of event. Their effect was to make most participants and observers unquestioning and conformist. Circuses, by contrast, are energising and individualistic; performances are not designed to lull audiences, but to provoke them. Their astonishing and often dangerous acts make audiences ask, ‘how do they do that?’ In this way, spectators are encouraged to recognise that they are watching tricks and illusions and to think about and deconstruct them – exactly the opposite effect of the Nazi rallies.

Circuses offered abundant metaphoric potential for celebrating freedom of thought, movement and interaction at a time when all of these were under threat. This made them valuable subjects for those artists and writers who were opposed to the divisive, hierarchical, nationalistic, and militaristic politics of the far right. In their hands, the circus was simultaneously offered as a site of intellectual and cultural provocation and a place of delight that appealed not just to a cultural elite but to large and mixed audiences. Children have always been part of the circus audience, and in circus stories, children are present as both performers and spectators. This does not mean that circuses are good places for the young. The experiences of real child circus performers have often been brutally abusive, and many of the first circus stories for children concentrated on this aspect of circus life. Stories about the sufferings of young circus performers make up a complete subgenre, but here my focus is on the way the circus setting was used by children’s writers and illustrators to introduce to their readers some of the artistic experiments and political critiques found in arts and letters from the first half of the last century.

Transformation and transgression in juvenile circus stories

Soviet writer Yuri Olesha’s The Three Fat Men (1928) overtly uses the circus to criticise oppressive rule and to celebrate imagination, creativity and intellectual freedom. This is a story about revolution: in it the oppressed people in an unnamed town rise up against the ‘Three Fat Men’ who rule their land and literally consume all its resources. Though it is not geographically or chronologically anchored in a particular time or place, because its author was living in the new Soviet republic and the story was completed just one year after the series of revolutions that saw the old imperial Russian rule replaced by the world’s first communist society, it is difficult not to link the book to those events. The revolution is led by members of a circus. One of these is Tibbulus the Tightrope walker and the other Suok, the girl acrobat, but even before they begin to take control of the events, a circus act has been encouraging the people to disrespect their three fat leaders. For instance, the three are represented on a stage by a trio of fat, hairy apes while a clown sings:

Like three great sacks of wheat,
The Three Fat Men abed!
For all they do is eat
And watch their bellies spread!
Hey you Fat Men, beware:
Your final days are here! (17)                      

The clown is right. The surreal plot, which includes separated twins, kangaroo trials and arbitrary sentences, a living doll, a talking parrot with a beard and a great many extravagant banquets, culminates in the overthrow of the Three Fat Men. The people are inspired  to liberate themselves by those with courage, creativity, education and morals. All of the provocateurs are connected to the circus.

The Three Fat Men is aimed at able readers, and Olesha’s use of the circus is deliberately political. But books for younger readers also celebrate the internationalism, category mixing, simultaneity and Total Art found in modernist painting and writing. One of these is Samuil Marshak and Vladimir Lebedev’s The Circus (1925). This belongs to the outpouring of much-admired books produced in the first decades of Soviet rule, often by avant-garde writers and artists who hoped that they were helping to build society anew. For its original readers the book’s internationalism mirrored the drive to unite the many countries and peoples, with their different languages, eye shapes, skin tones, hair colours and fashions, that made up the new Soviet Union. It also supports the work of transforming an illiterate peasant culture into one which was both literate and ready to welcome, rather than fear or resent, modern technology.

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Cover of The Circus and Other Stories, by Lebedev

The Circus begins with a poster based not on the highly decorated traditional fairground graphics usually favoured by circuses but on modern advertisements, as seen it its use of clean lines, sharp typography and white spaces. Huge, repeated exclamation points convey that very modernist quality of energy, while the text promises eclecticism in the form of ‘A rider from Rio,/An aerial trio/…. Jacko, the famous clown… all the way from Paris.’ Inside, a black tightrope walker is used to familiarise the workings of a telephone message, showing modern technology as thrilling but unthreatening, while a green musician is introduced as the wife of a Soviet clown. In line with the modernist appreciation of speed and dynamism, many images show figures in motion, zooming this way, galloping that, balancing precariously and defying gravity.

In the British-produced The Circus Book (1935), by Wyndham Payne with illustrations by Eileen Mayo, Japanese acrobats practise on one page while a man in evening dress is shown working alongside clowns and performing horses ridden by a bear and a lion on another. All are very familiar circus images, but when considering the significance of representing the way categories were mingled under the Big Top in these books, it is important not to forget the extent to which in interwar Europe, racial and national origins, sexuality, and physical development could determine a person’s fate. From policies in Nazi Germany to fascist demonstrations in London, Jews, Romani (a group closely associated with circuses) and others deemed inferior by those in authority were vilified and often attacked. The Circus Book makes much of the internationalism and inclusiveness of circuses. It asks children to admire the ability of circus performers to speak many languages so they can work together: ‘… circuses engage artists of every nationality so you can imagine the babel of tongues behind the scenes. Some of the directors can give orders in half a dozen different languages, nearly all the artists can speak at least two or three besides their own, and a well-known clown was able to do his act in twelve languages’ (8). This short information book is not overtly provocative or revolutionary; nevertheless, readers of the book are invited to admire what elsewhere in society was being presented as suspect.

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Undoubtedly the most famous circus story for children is Dumbo, as told through the 1941 Walt Disney animated feature film. The artwork in this circus story (which began life as a children’s book and generated many spin-off picturebooks) has a modernist edge that subtly comments on, for instance, the alienation of workers and the loss of identity in modernity as in the impressionistic depiction of the roustabouts who set up the Big Top in a storm, and crowds fleeing as the huge tent collapses when Dumbo knocks over the ‘Pyramid of Pachyderms’. Expressionistically-coloured scenery conveys mood, while Freudian-inflected experimental sequences such as ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ bring in other avant-garde interests around subjectivity, interiority and the psyche. The most pointed aspect of its radicalism focuses on racist policies in the United States at the time. This occurs in the section where Dumbo and Timothy meet Jim Crow and his gang. The name ‘Jim Crow’ refers to the laws that enforced segregation the in the US up to the 1960s. The crows dress and have the mannerisms of scat/jazz musicians: jazz clubs were places where whites and blacks often mixed. Dumbo and Timothy also mix with the crows in defiance of the segregationist agenda, and it is the crows who enable Dumbo to fly and become a hero. Their knowledge of psychology leads to the ‘magic’ feather that persuades Dumbo he can fly.              

KR the circus of adventure 

The Circus of Adventure, by Enid Blyton

There is nothing obviously radical about Enid Blyton’s The Circus of Adventure (1952); nevertheless, when the four adventurers, Philip, Dinah, Lucy-Ann and Jack, and the young central European prince who is in their charge seek refuge in a circus as they flee from a palace coup, behaviours that would have been suspect in other settings are valued. For instance, the young prince, Gustavus Aloysius, known as Gussy, gives a bravura performance as a girl, when soldiers ransack the circus, looking for the fugitives. The four British children have also been disguised with grease paint, circus costumes and an invented language. Because this is a circus and so outside what the soldiers consider to be the real world, they see insignificant itinerant performers rather than their prince and his middle-class British minders, and soon depart. The success of the children’s performances owes everything to the help of their circus friends. Their class background, age and nationality become unimportant, and the children are valued for their skills with animals and their willingness to join in the work of keeping the circus on the road.

As in the mythology that has grown up around circuses, all the members of the circus are portrayed as a big family, though they come from many countries and speak dozens of languages (‘Ma’ is Spanish, her husband is English, and their son seems to speak every language there is). Outside hierarchies are also of little consequence to the members of the circus. When the young prince objects to his treatment by, ‘Ma’, the woman who plays his grandmother, she responds, “Pah! ...You’re just a boy. I’ve no time for princes.” The narrator reinforces her statement by observing approvingly, ‘And she hadn’t’ (148). Such a celebration of classless internationalism is highly unusual for the broadly conservative Blyton.

The transformative effects of the circus on Gussy prove permanent. His time with the performers (and, of course, the four British children) has made him a stronger, better young man with a new, more respectful, attitude to his people and those who lack his social position. Gussy, it is implied, is on his way to becoming a modern ruler and a better ally for Britain. This is arguably a convenient than a radical conclusion from a British perspective, yet for much of the book even an author known for finding foreigners suspicious turns a circus full of ‘others’ into loyal, creative, heroic friends who use their circus skills to thwart a coup. The circus setting, then, shapes the book’s message and refashions the author’s ideological assumptions.

This brief sample gives a sense of how circus stories produced during the first half of the last century shared interests, agendas and modes with the experimental arts and letters produced by some of the best known modernist artists and writers. My growing collection of circus stories shows that for many writers and illustrators, the circus continues to provide an aesthetically and politically radical space, theme and metaphor that helps them make the case for social and personal transformation.

Popular culture, Brexit and One Nation Toryism
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Monday, 14 December 2020 15:27

Popular culture, Brexit and One Nation Toryism

Written by

Jim Aitken describes how so much of popular culture reflects and legitimises the values of the Tories and the ruling class. Image above: Downton Abbey

There was a palpable sense of euphoria on the BBC during the morning after the night before of the General Election of December 12, 2019. It had a feeling of glee about it; a childish excitement that the un-English dragon of socialism – as represented by Jeremy Corbyn – had well and truly been defeated by the forces of St. George of England. These forces, amazingly, had included many of those who had been reduced to the level of serfdom by the political party they were now supporting. Dragon Jeremy had promised these serfs their rightful inheritance and instead they chose Boris, the court jester. England’s green and pleasant lands could remain forever precariously green – a bit like the serfs themselves.

In a sense the BBC was entitled to this gleefulness because it had helped to orchestrate a campaign that told the serfs of England’s former industrial areas that the court jester needed their seats to Get Brexit Done. Many duly obliged because they too wanted to Get Brexit Done. No-one asked them why they wanted it done and why Europe was so noxious to them. No-one asked them if they thought it was the EU that was responsible for the de-industrialisation of their areas; if the EU was responsible for the austerity they lived under; for the food banks they go to for food or for the zero hours and chronic low pay they receive. No-one asked them if all these adversities were made in the UK or in the EU. For the court jester, however, Europe was foreign and too left-wing with too many regulations for a free-marketeer like him. England did not need to be a vassal state any longer. She could be free from all the regulations that guaranteed the serfs minimal rights, and be great again.

The political media pundits though never spoke much about England at all. They spoke about Britain and the British election and about how the incoming British government would Get Brexit Done. England and Britain are clearly interchangeable words, for them. The reality, however, in this election was that of the 365 seats won by the Conservatives, an enormous 345 were secured in England. Scotland gave them 6 out of 59 and Wales gave them 14 out of 40. Northern Ireland gave them a Remain vote and a nationalist majority. The overwhelming mandate for Brexit came overwhelmingly from England as a result of the English nationalist genie that had been released from the Brexit bottle. What has to be examined is how this huge English mandate has come about.

Yes, of course, the TV channels and newspapers will support any form of Conservatism including the cabal currently associated with Johnson’s extreme right-wing coup leading his Party. It doesn’t matter how far right this Party goes because – so we are repeatedly informed – the Conservative Party is the natural party of government. Any cursory look at the record of who has been in power down the last 120 years will confirm this. What has to be considered is why this is the case and how has it been achieved.

the crown season 5 everything we know so far

The latest sensation on Netfix is called The Crown and it traces the reign of the current monarch, Elizabeth. This series may soon have to compete with Andrew Marr’s new series Elizabethans telling the people of the UK how lucky they have been to be subjects of such an outstanding monarch. His book of the same name follows fairly fast from his The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth 2nd and her People which came out in 2012. TV schedules and daily news items abound about the monarchy. It is a bit like the logic of advertising whereby consumers will invariably buy what is most known to them. The more you are harangued the weaker your defence can become. Monarchy is certainly a product that is force-fed to the British people.

There are countless films and TV programmes dedicated to monarchs past and present. Some recent ones dealing with Queen Victoria, once Empress of India, include Young Victoria, Her Majesty Mrs Brown, Victoria and Abdul and Victoria. There has also been films further back on The Madness of George111, The King’s Speech (George V1), The Favourite (Queen Anne), Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age ( Elizabeth1), Henry V as well as The Queen about the current monarch. This is by no means an exhaustive list but these films do come immediately to mind. There has also been a rather morbid fascination in film with Henry VIII, the monster who gave England her first Brexit by breaking with Rome. Keith Michel played the tyrant in The Six Wives of Henry V111 as far back as 1970 but there has also been A Man for all Seasons (1966 &1988), Anne of the Thousand Days, The Other Boleyn Girl and several historical novels by Hilary Mantel which focus largely on the character Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s Machiavellian fixer, in Wolf Hall (2009), Bring up the Bodies (2012) and The Mirror and the Light (202

bj and churchill

Just below the level of monarchy we have Winston Churchill portrayed in films like Young Winston (1972), The Gathering Storm (2002), Into the Storm (2008), Churchill (2017) and Darkest Hour (2018) to name only a few. There have been countless biographies also written about him including one by Johnson in 2014. And like the monarch he turns up all the time in other TV programmes. The greatest offenders are programmes like Antiques Roadshow and Flog It. These programmes, while certainly interesting in terms of objects that have been superbly well made by magnificent craftsmen, often throw up pieces of Churchilliana along with the usual items associated with the reign of some monarch.

We are back to the effect of constant advertising again. While it has to be agreed that Churchill played a significant role during the Second World War, it should always be remembered that he was first and foremost a Tory and an imperialist with everything that usually goes along with that. Dundonians to this day continue to tell us that he was run out of Dundee after his comments on their drunkenness became widely known and another seat had to be found for him.

The use of monarchs past and present along with the figure of Churchill continues to be pervasive, permeating the public mind and perpetuating the values of Conservatism. This is how the masses are psychologically programmed to accept ruling class values – through these values being pervasive, through their permeation and perpetuation. In every city in the UK there are streets named after monarchs and aristocrats, hospitals, bridges, theatres, public buildings, coinage and stamps and countless mugs, tea-towels and all the rest

Even the anti-working class soap Eastenders where the characters are aggressive, violent, duplicitous and generally venal – and that’s just the female characters – all meet up in the pub called The Queen Victoria. The action also takes place in Albert Square. Monarchy can seem to be as natural as breathing if it is so pervasively used and being so pervasively used as it is in the UK means that the UK also has one of the most secure ruling classes in the world.

The aristocracy and landed gentry have also been rehabilitated and legitimised by TV. The Antiques Roadshow and Flog It again often either have their programmes set in stately homes or in the spacious grounds of such Palladian pads. The genial presenter Paul Martin will often have a chat with the owner about the wonderful, marvellous history of his house and marvel at how he has managed to keep it looking so spruce for another 500 years. Questions about how his ancestors acquired the wealth to build such palatial residences are seldom asked. Programmes such as these ones enable the success of long running series like Downton Abbey.

downton abbey 2 768.0.0 

And then there’s our armed forces. Sometimes these antique programmes can take place in buildings associated with the navy or in some armed forces museum and the memory of Abu Ghraib and what our soldiers did there can be conveniently forgotten. Dad’s Army has been running continuously since it first came out in 1968. When it did first come out it was funny with the memory of the war not too far distant. By running continuously there is the permeating agenda about how we won the war – which was all down, of course, to Churchill.

It seems that the further right the UK has gone politically, the larger and larger poppies have become. No other European country that took part in either of the two world wars commemorate these conflicts quite like the UK. It is now mandatory to have poppies emblazoned on football shirts from October to November. Football fans will stand quietly to remember the war dead so that the same ruling class can remain in power despite the fact that it was the same ruling classes that got us into such wars in the first place. Those who have died in war should be remembered but remembered in such a way that will prevent wars from happening ever again. With the arms industry the biggest one in Britain with exports around the world, conflicts have become inevitable. None of Her Majesty’s leading subjects standing proudly at the cenotaph wearing their poppies will ever mention this fact.

The poppy is also the ultimate item associated with charity, something the ruling classes worship because they lack any sense of generosity. Sales of the poppy are encouraged on TV and radio so that they can help the charities that help our retired and wounded ex-servicemen and women. Charity does not seem to have filtered down to many of the ex-soldiers currently begging on our streets who all went off to conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq as heroes and are now forgotten.

With Vera Lynn dead, the way the craven media has embraced Captain Tom Moore is quite incredible. Here we had a 99 year old ex-serviceman walking in his garden to raise a charitable donation to give to the NHS. While that is laudable given that the NHS has been underfunded by the Tories for the last ten years and the Covid crisis places huge demands on its services and staff, old Tom Moore did his walking dressed with all his military medals on his blazer. That was a moment the media loved because it played beautifully into the paradigm of our wonderful armed forces and charity at the same time.

The brutal British Empire

Captain Tom, just like Vera Lynn before him, was knighted for his services to charity. He became Sir as she became Dame. While citizens who have achieved great things and contributed to the welfare of others should be recognised by the state, the honours system in Britain does something else entirely. By calling people Sir or Dame or Lord or Baroness the British state separates people from others. To be in possession of an OBE, MBE or CBE is to be a recipient of the Order, Member and Commander of the British Empire. Such titles which Robert Burns derided as mere tinsel show, are seen as being the very epitome of respectability despite the fact that the words ‘British Empire’ refer to something that no longer exists and was brutal in the extreme when it was around.

Charity has become pervasive and its operation permeates minds just as monarchy does. The word comes from the Latin caritas meaning love and compassion. The word is also one of the seven Christian virtues but much of its practice is associated with the already rich becoming recognised and deemed respectable by receiving honours for charitable work. The same people have been silent on inequalities, food banks and zero-hour contracts.

Children in schools are conditioned to believe that social inequalities can effectively be ended by recourse to charity. There are countless charity days in schools to raise funds for various causes throughout the school year and you get to dress up in silly clothes or outfits from Harry Potter for the occasion. Teachers as well get down with the kids by dressing up. There are also the charity evenings on TV for Children in Need and Comic Relief. Here we can all see the latest celebrities doing their bit for charity and viewers are led into the belief that such celebrities are genuinely caring people. Some may well be. However, the fact that many of these celebrities bank their cash in offshore accounts is never raised. And the fact that such offshore accounts are facilitated by those in power who value charity so much is also never questioned. The question why one of the richest countries in the world has to have such recourse to charity is also a silent subject.

TV also seems to encourage tears. Chat show hosts, newsreaders and reporters seem to welcome tears from people who invariably say sorry as they dry their eyes and the interviewer says no, it’s fine. Sometimes this is done by people outside courts or people who have witnessed terrible events or, more generally, people who have come through adversities. Shows of emotion seem to be welcome. This has become particularly true on The Repair Shop, a programme that is a wonderful tribute to the highly skilled craftsmen and women who brilliantly repair objects brought in by members of the public. The programme is also a wonderful antidote to our throwaway society by getting skilled workers to repair a whole assortment of items.

Often when people come to see their items newly restored there will be tears of joy but often this can end up degenerating into sentimentality. And sentimentality is now part of a media dialectic which enjoys shows of sentiment and emotion while failing to adequately expose the actual brutality of the nation’s underlying economic base.

Marx once posited the base and superstructure theory. In this he noted the unequal economic base and how its relations are made manifest in a cultural superstructure which establishes its right to rule. In modern times, this happens through the people being told to believe in all the wrong things such as to love monarchy, Churchill, honours, widespread charity and shows of sentimentality. And the actual news programmes now treat viewers as idiots with graphics on screen to help them understand the simplest things. The Covid tier system recently announced by Johnson became a three-tiered wedding cake to help us understand what tier actually meant.

The last thing any capitalist state wishes is for is for its inhabitants to be well-educated. The £9,000 per year fees in England and Wales confirms this. Also the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations is a case in point. When statues of former slave owners were toppled or reactionary figures on plinths daubed with paint, the ruling class was temporarily shaken. But the idea that the Proms should abandon singing the imperialist ditties Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory and God save the Queen because they hark back to the days of slavery and empire was just too much for Johnson who insisted these traditional songs be sung out loud. Sadly, many ordinary people would have agreed with him.

For someone like Gramsci it is what the state and its media arms present to you all the time that gives the ruling class their ability to rule. The word hegemony meant for Gramsci an effective means of domination founded on acceptance. The dominated accept the rules of the social and political game, being convinced that such rules serve them well and form part of some kind of immutable order to which they are a part. The programme The Apprentice: You’re fired! is an example of this.

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This gigantic con-trick was in fact leaked by that grand old Victorian reactionary, the writer and journalist Walter Bagehot as far back as 1867 in his English Constitution. There is, of course, no English or British constitution written down anywhere. When Burke extolled its virtues to the republican Tom Paine it was Paine who asked Burke if he could furnish him with a copy so that he might read it for himself. The whole business of government is made up on the hoof. When the masses rebel sometimes they may win, but generally legislation will be brought in to keep them in their place like Thatcher’s anti-trade union legislation. At other times when there is serious pressure from below there can be legislation on race relations and sex discrimination. For Bagehot royalty functioned as a disguise. He elaborated further:

It enables our real rulers to change without heedless people knowing it. The masses of Englishmen are not fit for an elective government; if they knew how near they were to it, they would be surprised, and almost tremble.

In his customary invective against what the Queen Mother apparently called ‘the lower orders’, Bagehot went on to say that royalty ‘has a comprehensible element for the vacant many’ and in comments like these we can see how the ruling classes hide behind the monarchy, how it is used to keep us as subjects rather than as citizens. Bagehot again puts it so much better when he said ‘it is at the bottom of our people that we have done as well as we have.’

Johnson, Gove and all the clan from the 1922 Committee and the ERG could not have put it better themselves. Yet these people all claim that they are one nation Conservatives. This baloney is supposed to imply that they rule equally for everyone regardless of nation, region or class when their rule actually is designed to cater for the one class across the country who have all the wealth.

They have been using this term ever since it was coined by Disraeli in the 1870s. He used it to counter any expectations from the working classes after their agitation to further extend the franchise. His novel Sybil or the Two Nations came out in 1845 and the two nations of which he speaks are the rich and poor. His one nation term was coined to appeal to the masses that his brand of Conservative paternalism will look after them while not changing the structures and levers of the system that made them poor in the first place. Ironically, in the same year that Sybil was published Engels brought out his devastating critique on the two nations in his The Condition of the Working Class in England which avoided paternalistic solutions completely.

Bagehot described Wales as ‘a corner of England’ while deriding the Scots for their ‘intolerant common sense.’ As for the Irish he said predictably that ‘it is not so much the thing agitated for that they want, as the agitation itself.’ These attitudes are alive in today’s Conservative Party and this is best exemplified in the Internal Markets Bill that is strongly opposed by First Ministers Drakeford in Wales and Sturgeon in Scotland. The Tories were clear that they were taking back control and this Bill will certainly do that by centralising power away from devolved administrations.

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Brexit, we were told, was about taking back control but the question of who will be in control after Brexit was never asked. As far as I am aware there will still be a monarchy, an unelected second chamber in the House of Lords and the House of Commons will continue to function as an extension to the debating chamber of Eton, the place that has given us 20 Prime Ministers to date. The Church of England will continue to be established by the state and guarantee that no liberation theology will ever break out. And the Mother of Parliaments will continue to function without any written constitution and continue to make it all up as it goes along. Watch out on TV  for repeat viewings of The Dam Busters, Colditz, The Great Escape and more programmes on royalty along with as much dumbed-down reality TV as you can take.

Labour has been in existence for 120 years and her founder Keir Hardie loathed the privilege and hypocrisy associated with royalty. He described himself as an agitator who sought to ‘stir up a divine discontent with wrong.’ These are Labour’s roots and they have been steadfastly ignored even during the time of Corbyn. With Ireland gone, Northern Ireland with a changing demographic that could result in Irish unity, with Wales beginning to assert herself and Scotland with one independence referendum behind her and another looming, it is Labour too that will have to be taken to task for never having challenged the nature of a state that is designed to benefit the Tories. They created it, after all, to suit their needs. Maybe this has been inevitable considering for most of the last 120 years Labour has been happy with the nomenclature of being Her Majesty’s Opposition rather than being a socialist alternative.

Culture is Bad For You
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 25 November 2020 10:55

Culture is Bad For You

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Mike Quille interviews Mark Taylor, co-author of Culture is Bad For You, by Orian Brook, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor, published by Manchester University Press.

Q. The usual mainstream assumption is that culture is good for you – that it’s enjoyable, keeps you healthy, socially connected, inspiring etc. So ‘Culture is Bad For You’ is an interesting title for a book – can you tell us what you mean, the kind of research you’ve been doing over the last few years, and the core arguments that you’ve developed?

A. Culture can be good for you, depending on who you are. If you’re White, you’re not disabled, you’re a man, and you grew up in a household where there was at least one adult working in a well-paid high-status job, culture’s great. You probably grew up with positive examples of art, music, theatre, and so on all around you. You might also have decided you wanted to work in the creative industries: sure, you might have had to do a couple of unpaid internships in art galleries, or you might have spent months on writing your first Fringe show that you ended up losing money on, but you had good contacts that meant you were pretty sure that a promising agent would come to one of your performances, and you could keep living in your parents’ house in London while you were putting this together.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone: not everyone who works in the creative industries fulfils the stereotype above, and it’s not as if every single wannabe actor with parental wealth ends up making it. But our research shows that this is the broad direction of travel. There are exceptions to this, where some forms of culture do more to challenge social inequalities, but overall we conclude that culture primarily reinforces existing inequalities.

The first core argument in the book is to make this explicit. Culture is sometimes narrated as a place where anyone can make it and thrive; we show that it’s much easier for some people than it is for others. But we also want to unpack some of the reasons why this is, rather than stopping once we’ve mapped out the numbers. The second core argument is that this isn’t a new phenomenon. We often hear claims that there was a “golden age” in cultural work, and that the situation’s got worse more recently, particularly with reference to social class: we show that this is entirely due to changes in the labour market, and that cultural work has always been unequal. The third core argument is that negative aspects of cultural work that seem ubiquitous – for example, periods of working for free and navigating a freelance lifestyle – are in fact experienced very differently by different people, where they can be seen as freeing and exciting for people who are better-resourced and fit the “somatic norm” of a White middle-class man, but crushing inevitabilities for people with less money to fall back on and those who don’t fit that stereotype.

So culture can be bad for you if you’re working in the cultural industries and you don’t fit that stereotype of a middle-class, White, male person. What about as consumers of culture, can culture be bad for you then? And can you say something about how culture is defined?

When we’re asking how culture is defined, we need to think about who’s defining culture. For some people, “culture” will mean “the sorts of things that were funded by the Arts Council sixty years ago”: literary fiction, classical music, ballet, experimental theatre. For others, “culture” will mean hanging out with friends, going to gigs in independent venues, going to non-league football matches, or attending religious ceremonies. Both groups are right, but the first group tends to have its voice heard more often than the second group. It’s important to recognise that there are people who are in both groups, and that there’s plenty of other equally valid approaches to defining culture.

Consuming culture can be bad for you in much the same way that producing culture can be. Consistent with other research – people have known about this for decades! – patterns of attending different kinds of events, and patterns of people’s cultural tastes, are strongly associated with dimensions of social inequality, such as social class. The activities which skew most heavily towards people in the most privileged positions also tend to be the ones which are heavily subsidised by organisations like the Arts Council. This isn’t a criticism of the Arts Council, who are doing their best; it’s impossible to revert long-term patterns in a single strategy document. This means that the overall effect can be that when people from less privileged backgrounds attend these sorts of activities, they can feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. Another effect can be that the activities whose audiences are largely from less privileged backgrounds are less well-supported financially, with programmes more likely to be cut. Of course, this isn’t deterministic: we’re not saying that every single working-class person walking into an opera house will feel uncomfortable and won’t come back. However, several of our participants from historically marginalised groups reported feeling uncomfortable and marginalised as cultural consumers, just as they did as cultural producers.

Ok so your research suggests that there are deep and enduring inequalities both in the production of culture, and in its consumption. Is this true of all cultural experiences, or are there exceptions? Is the pattern of inequality broadly the same in all regions of England? Your book also suggests that the inequalities are ‘intersectional’, involving social class, gender and ethnic background. What does this mean, and what is the relationship between inequalities in the cultural sector and inequalities in wider society?

In many ways, everything is an exception! Thinking about consumption, there are some activities that seem to cut across different groups much more than others. Carnivals are a good example: there’s similar fractions of people from different social classes, similar fractions of men and women, and similar fractions of White people and people of colour. (There’s also more younger people than older people, which is the reverse of the pattern that we see for a lot of activities). Video games are another good example.

Thinking about production is a bit different. We can start by comparing people working in film & TV with people working in museums, galleries & libraries. At first blush, they look very different; 29% of people working in film & TV are women, while 81% of people working in museums, galleries, and libraries are. So if your goal was to get all sectors to 50:50, you’d have to take a very different approach. Then again, what both sectors have in common is that the workforces get more male as jobs get more senior. So, while they’re different from each other, they’re not as far apart as you might think.

The patterns of inequality aren’t the same in all regions of England, but in many ways that reflects the large fraction of cultural jobs that are in London. We find that you’re much more likely to end up working in a cultural job if you grew up in London, and that’s after we take into account the strong associations with parental social class, education, ethnic group, and gender.

Finally, we find that the intersectional experience is really important. Some of the people who’d had the most negative experiences working in culture were women of colour from working-class backgrounds. Of course, these experiences of working in culture reflect wider society. But we found that some of the informal structures of cultural work, such as people getting jobs through informal networks and a hostility from more senior people to what they see as bureaucracy, can make the situation worse.

It seems to be a very sobering, not to say depressing, picture that’s emerged from your research – but it’s one that clearly has major implications for cultural policies and strategies. The research seems to confirm theories which claim that ruling classes and elites own and control cultural production and consumption in order to reinforce and legitimise wider economic exploitation and social oppression of women and people of colour – or perhaps to divert attention away from it. Is that fair to say? And is there any reason to suppose that other cultural activities, such as sport, or religion, or broadcast and social media, differ significantly from this picture of structural inequality? 

I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Some of our participants were senior White men from middle-class backgrounds who are working, or who have worked, in senior roles in cultural organisations. Of course, we wouldn’t expect them to explicitly say that they’re reinforcing and legitimising economic exploitation and social oppression of historically marginalised groups, but it went further than that: they described a real distress at the inequalities in their sectors and recognised how they personally exemplified structural problems. It’s for this reason that I don’t think it’ll be possible to transform inequalities in the cultural sector by addressing the cultural sector alone. When you have a sector that large numbers of people want to work in, people who go in with better resources are in a stronger position. This can’t be overturned with changes to how the Arts Council distributes money; I often find myself thinking that the most significant way to confront inequalities in the cultural sector would be to transform legislation around private rented accommodation.

In terms of how other activities differ from this picture of structural inequalities, I’d point to work by people like Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman, who’ve investigated how the fractions of people from different backgrounds vary across industries. Culture, as you’d suspect, isn’t alone: in fact, it’s very similar to higher education.

If it’s true, as your research clearly seems to demonstrate, that class-based inequalities in cultural production and consumption mirror wider social and economic inequalities and class divisions, and that generally they reinforce and legitimise those inequalities, what should be done? What kinds of policies on culture should the current government adopt to deliver the promise of ‘levelling up’ the North?

What should ACE, local authorities and other bodies charged with managing and funding cultural experiences do to tackle the problem? What role should the labour movement – trade unions, trades councils, the Labour Party and other political parties – play? Should we be aiming to protest the unequal situation of working-class people, seek representation on strategic bodies like Compacts? Should we set up and support our own theatre groups, film networks, publishing houses etc?

A lot of the kinds of policy interventions that would be most effective in confronting inequalities in the cultural sector are broader than the sector itself. A simple example is formally regulating (and almost certainly banning) unpaid internships: the consequences of unpaid internships are particularly visible in cultural work, but it’s just as important for think tanks and the policy research environment more broadly.

A more complicated example is housing: several of our interviewees reported spending large amounts of money on low-quality accommodation in London where they were on edge about their landlord ending their tenancy at no notice. A few different policies would get at this: regulation of the private rented sector to look more like Germany; far more socially rented housing to look more like Austria; more homes being built so that housing is no longer such a scarce resource. This kind of transformation wouldn’t be targeted at the cultural sector, but for me it would be the most effective way to confront existing inequalities.

This doesn’t mean that the cultural sector is off the hook. It’s easy to blame broader structures for the inequalities in the sector, rather than taking responsibility. There are things that organisations like the Arts Council and DCMS could do, given the right support, such as committing amounts of money to Black-led organisations. There’s a very interesting and persuasive argument for this that Kevin Osborne’s recently written, that I’d recommend people read.

For people working in the sector, the first thing to draw attention to is campaigning and activism. There’s organisations operating in and around cultural work that are drawing attention to the inequalities in culture, and doing things about it – I’d particularly highlight Arts Emergency, who both campaign around these issues and work directly with young people from historically marginalised to improve their chances of working in culture. People working in and around culture can support campaigning charities like Arts Emergency as individuals; they can also try to convince their organisations for an institutional commitment. We should recognise that the unusual working patterns of a large number of people in the sector aren’t symptomatic of a stereotypical contract – although the precarity associated with cultural workers goes far beyond them – and defend and extend workers’ rights and conditions through trade unions.

Beyond this, a radical approach to addressing these inequalities needs radical measures. In the book, we suggest that it’ll be necessary to bypass current modes of cultural production: big changes don’t start by transforming the Tate, but by starting something new. We suspect that this is likely to follow from new digital business models, driven and controlled by the marginalised themselves. In addition, there’s also a responsibility from audiences: if there’s an alternative to mainstream cultural production, with all the problems that we describe in the book, then we should support it.

We demonstrate in the book that there’s an overwhelming belief in the power of culture: culture can change lives. This isn’t a marginal issue that we can deal with once we’ve confronted all the other inequalities and injustices in the world, it’s inextricably linked to them. At the moment, the power of culture is often negative. If we want to transform that, everyone needs to do their part.

Culture is Bad For You, by Orian Brook, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor, is published by Manchester University Press.

No Home for You Here: an interview with Adam Theron-Lee Rensch
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 04 November 2020 16:54

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adam Theron-Lee Rensch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An interview with Julia Bell

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Fran Lock interviews Julia Bell

Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 24 October 2020 10:33

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

Written by

Jenny Farrell writes about Mary and Lizzie Burns.

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

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

Mary

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

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

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

(translation Jenny Farrell)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lizzie Burns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by

Razia Parveen reviews Arundhati's new book of essays

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

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

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

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

The politics of writing and the writing of politics

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

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

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

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

Roy asks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The architecture of Indian fascism

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

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

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

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

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

tabrez ansari

Tabrez Anzari

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

The smoking debris of Modi’s India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture, class and civilisation

Written by

Dave Lordan continues his series on culture, class and civilisation

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

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

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

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

Hydraulic tyrannies

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

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

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

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

1 ziggurat 

Reconstruction of the ziggurat erected by King Urnamma

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

Why trade when you can loot?

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

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

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

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

3 taming animals

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

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

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

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

How does culture reproduce class power?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing to account for the surplus

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

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

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

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

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

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

King-lists, mythological narratives, and epic poetry

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

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

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

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

4 poem kinglist resized

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

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

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

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

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

Popular resistance

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

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

5 Sandburg note resized

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