Capitalism, Ideology, Philosophy, Politics and economics

Knowing our left from our right, Part Three: Social justice and human freedom

In the first of these posts about the left-right divide in politics, I argued that the media portrays anything even remotely left of centre as ‘extreme’, ‘hard’ or ‘far’ left. I said that the left-right divide was crucial and expressed ideological divisions themselves reflective of fundamental material social divisions. I then offered 10 ideas expressing my supposedly ‘far left’ views which, i believed, made me a regular intelligent, sensible, and caring human being.
In the second post, I argued that the left-right divide wasn’t really about what we were generally told it was about, namely the appropriate balance between states and markets in economic matters i.e. the production and allocation of resources.
In this post, I’ll begin to argue what I think it’s really about. Here, I’ll talk about social justice and human freedom

What left-wing politics has always historically been fundamentally about is the struggle for social (and environmental) justice – for the liberation of working people, of women, of people of colour, of sexual minorities, of disabled people, of anyone classed as ‘different’ by those with the social power to define difference. Here, I would say that, with the exception of this first category, the left-wing aligns with liberal thought against conservatism and, of course, fascism. The liberals travel with us a fair way down this road, but we part when we get to the market…

On the question of social justice and human freedom, just like the states-versus-markets red herring, right-wing thought generally presents us a similarly false binary or spectrum between supposedly opposing political ends: social equality and individual freedom. We are told that if we want social equality then we must suppress individual freedoms, but that if we prioritise individual freedoms then social equality must suffer. On a superficial level, this seems true. Our current extreme individualist financialised-consumerist capitalist society seems to offer us ultimate individual freedom. We are told that we can take and quit whatever job we can find; we can choose from seemingly infinite consumer products to satisfy our needs, desires, (or ‘utility’ as economists call it); we can buy and consume whatever, whenever, wherever we like; we can entrepreneur our very selves; and we can get the credit freely to do it all. This what human freedom is, we are told.

Liberal, bourgeois thought starts with the individual. Its goal is the maximum freedom of that individual. Our contemporary society is the triumph of liberalism – the reign of the individual. And, yes, the consequence is inequality, vast, perhaps unprecedented, economic, social, and (beyond formal voting rights) political inequality.

Conservative thought begins with the imagined and idealised social grouping, usually the nation. Its goal is order. In eras of capitalist crisis, liberal dreams of freedom end in conservative, fascist realities of order and control – what capitalism requires when individualist fantasies of market freedoms crash and need rebooting.

As I understand it, left-wing thought starts with the individual and society. Here’s how the famous anarchist Emma Goldman put it…

‘There is no conflict between the individual and the social instincts, any more than there is between the heart and the lungs: the one the receptacle of a precious life essence, the other the repository of the element that keeps the essence pure and strong. The individual is the heart of society, conserving the essence of social life; society is the lungs which are distributing the element to keep the life essence – that is, the individual – pure and strong.’

Emma Goldman

Left-wing thought critiques the flawed and sociopathic egoism of liberals. It recognises all human beings as ‘social animals’, as Marx put it. We are all socially constructed. We cannot eat, reproduce, work, find meaning, or live satisfying and joyful lives without each other. Yet this recognition of the social is of course, totally inimical to conversative thought and ambition. Opposing the conservative desire for order, it seeks the fundamental, indeed revolutionary, reordering of society. What that society might look like, how it should be attained are, sadly, questions which have historically been at the heart of much bitter infighting within leftist organisations.

This emphasis on the social does not mean that left-wing thought eschews liberals’ rightful emphasis on human freedom. Indeed, I believe that only under conditions of radical democratic socialism/anarchism can each individual truly pursue and fulfill their personal freedom and individuality. Why? Because under such conditions we wouldn’t have to compete against our fellow human beings to work for others in jobs we hated; technological advances wouldn’t benefit private firms but would allow us all to do far less necessary work, freeing us up to pursue the creative passions within us all; capitalism has been integral to establishing and institutionalising other horrific forms of discrimination and oppression such as patriarchy and racism, which would be hugely alleviated (but by no means automatically ended) by capitalism’s demise; and capitalism’s demise would also allow us to establish an economic system in harmony rather than in conflict with our ecosystem. So, where liberals and lefties part company is over individual freedom and the market. Why? The answer to this question comes back to a comment I made in the intro to this series of posts: because ideology has material roots. Liberalism is the ideology of the bourgeosie. Therefore, liberal freedom is not fundamentally about human freedom; it is about the freedom of capital and the freedom to possess, to own, to have. This is a freedom of having, not of being!
So, liberals see the market either as an unequivocal socially neutral mechanism for facilitating maximal individual freedom or able serve this function so long as it is well regulated and its worst ‘externalities’ ameliorated. In contrast, eft-wing thought focuses less on the market itself and far more on the structurally exploitative and oppressive nature of capitalist social relations that function through the market. Rather than the supposed ‘hidden hand’ of the market that Adam Smith told us turns the selfish pursuits of individuals into socially beneficial outcomes, lefties see the ‘hidden abode’ of production, the workplace, far away from the ‘noisy sphere’ of the marketplace within which the ‘secret of profitmaking’ – the exploitation of labour – is revealed. We also see other hidden abodes of exploitation and oppression – throughout society in the ‘social factory‘, throughout our ecosystem, throughout all cultural institutions, and, of course, within the traditional family and household itself. We all like a good market, but a good market is a truly free one; it is not one in which we are compelled to sell not just our goods, but our very bodies and souls each day. In reality, as Marx put it, our market society offers us a double freedom: the freedom to work and the freedom to starve. This is a concept of freedom founded on a realistic and explicit understanding of power.

So, for me, while left-wing politics has perhaps been most positively and accurately associated with social struggle, the political visions of democratic socialists/anarchists of the so-called ‘hard’ left are far more compatible with the true individual freedoms that transcend the mirages of freedom that the right-wing advertisers, politicians, and financiers promise us. Whether it’s ‘arbeit macht frei’ or ‘credit macht frei’, the dreams we are peddled are false, are backed by violence, and are sustained, as David McNally put it, only by ‘the dreams of the poor’. We need to dream differently. We need to dream together.

Thanks for following this series on the left-right divide. Click here for the next post in which I explore one key reason why right-wing ideology has proved so powerful in recent decades in particular: it offers simplicity. But life is complex and simplicity is invariably simplistic. Stay tuned!

Joel

Capitalism, Globalisation, Ideology, Neo-liberalism, Politics and economics

Knowing our left from our right, Part Two: the states-versus-markets red herring

Yesterday, I started this series of posts by saying that, while anything other than overtly racist right-wing parties and movements are described merely as ‘centrist’ or ‘right-wing’, in the UK anything to the left of New Labour is described by the media as ‘hard’, ‘far’, or ‘extreme’ left. I then set out to argue that the left-right divide is important because it expresses fundamental ideological differences which are themselves grounded in the very real material conflicts that structure our society. I then listed ten beliefs which supposedly make me ‘hard left’, but which I think make me a regular sensible, intelligent, caring human being.

Today I’m going to challenge the usual way in which the left-right divide is framed in terms of ‘states versus markets’. But first a very brief word on language…

Starting on the back foot

‘Words make worlds’. It is surely no coincidence that conservative groups and schools of thought – those social forces and theories that seek to justify, legitimate, and, ultimately, preserve the status quo of class, gender, and racial hierarchy – describe themselves as being ‘right’. The shared meaning of ‘right’ as ‘right-wing’ and as factually or morally correct transcends the English language. In other Germanic languages, like German and Dutch, it is synonymous with the word for the state and law too. Conversely, being of the ‘left’ is bound up with literally sinister connotations. ‘Sinister’ is the Latin word for ‘left’ and in many cultures being left-handed was seen as a mark of the devil that required exorcising. So, we on the left in politics start firmly on the back foot. But, best foot forward!

It’s not states versus markets. It’s always states and markets

The traditional, uncritical assertion is that the left-right spectrum plots one’s political position regarding the optimal size and scope of activity of states and markets in some zero-sum relationship. So, here, as it’s usually framed, if you’re a socialist (i.e. so-called ‘hard left’) you think that the state should be the main economic and social actor planning production, taxing progressively, and providing welfarist social protection. In contrast, those in the centre and to the right believe that the limits of human knowledge make the neutral market a far more efficient and socially just mechanism for production, exchange, and distribution and that the state’s role should be limited to low taxation and spending on providing the essential infrastructure, public goods, and the legal and regulatory oversight that markets require to function optimally.

This reductionist definition of politics is flawed in about every way conceivable. We are wont to call those on the right ‘free marketeers’ or even ‘laissez faire’ ‘neo-liberals’, but, in reality, the state and its coercive powers are as necessary to build our supposedly ‘market society’ as any socialist polity. The market is a social institution and markets need to be constructed in society. This also involves politically bulldozing the people, places, and practices that stood there before. The most obvious contemporary example here is what Paul Mason calls the ‘neoliberal privatisation machine’. The usual strategy is for the state to run down a public service through a combination of underfunding, disciplinary bureaucracy, and media denigration. Then the sector can be privatised, but invariably the new ‘free’ market must be artificially and infinitely propped up through various subsidies (subsidized by taxpayers and consumers) and raising the barriers to entry beyond the reach of all but a few preferred companies. Consequently, in all the former public sectors privatised in recent decades we see not flourishing markets, but monopolies and cartels backed by state law, regulation, money, and, when necessary, repression. As Naomi Klein has most ‘shockingly’ revealed, the amount of violence required to extend and enforce the ‘free market’ has been immeasurable. It has involved the direct and indirect deaths of millions. We can safely call it a genocide. Even arch-free-marketeer and imperialist cheerleader Thomas Friedman famously affirmed that ‘the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist – McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps’. The expansion and intensification (penetration into ever more areas of society and ecology) of market ideology and institutions that we have witnessed over the past few decades could not have been remotely achieved without the use of states.

It’s also clear that markets don’t function like they’re supposed to in the economic textbooks. They are systemically prone to failure. Lot’s to be said here, but suffice simply to say ‘Global Financial Crisis!’ and ‘massive state bailout!’…

bank bailout

And yet, for all the talk of markets, it would be far more accurate to argue that we live in a society dominated not by markets, but by huge global corporate organisations. 51 of the largest 100 economic entities are multinational corporations. Many of these ‘MNCs’ are not just economically larger, but have way more power than most nation-states. Furthermore, these organisations function a lot like the stereotypical ‘inefficient’ welfarist, or even evil Stalinist, state they are supposed to oppose: they are rigidly hierarchical and bureaucratic structures running roughshod over individual lives and human rights and ecosystems, and choosing central planning over market mechanisms in production decisions and resource allocations. Think that’s an exaggeration? Explain why up to two-thirds of global trade takes place not between but within firms. Allow me. It’s because capitalism isn’t primarily about markets; it’s about profit. Thus, neo-liberal globalisation isn’t primarily pro-market or anti-statist; it’s about reviving corporate profitability primarily by increasing and expanding capital’s power and freedom and destroying working class power.

The final reason why the states-markets definition of left versus right is overwhelmingly a red herring is because for many, and an increasing number, on the left, the state is as much a symbol of repression as it is for many on the right. It is fair to say that the dominant socialist thought and practice of the 20th Century, be it Leninism, Trotskyism, or even Keynesian social democracy, was focused on the state as dominant economic and political actor and, in the Marxist case, vanguard of revolution. However, this dominance must always be situated in the context, first, of the central Marxian belief that the dissolution of the system would mean the gradual dissolution of the state itself since the state was really only there to enforce a social system of structural oppression and exploitation, and second, of the rich tradition of Anarchist political thought. Anarchists believe in the rights and capacities of all human beings to organise themselves freely and spontaneously with no need for any overarching structure of political compulsion. Anarchist thought is, I believe, growing in influence today, particularly as information and communication technologies enable us to organise virtually and in real life in the ways Anarchists have long imagined.

In short, whether it’s because right-wing supposedly pro-market/anti-statist ideologies and strategies both require high levels of state intervention and coercion and actually invariably create private monopolies and oligopolies or whether it’s because there is a rich radical democratic anti-statism inspiring much left-wing thought and strategy, the states-markets definition of left-right divide is now mostly an anachronism. What definitely confines it to the margins is the reality that the specific conditions of the post-WW2 world that enabled a co-operative rapprochement between labour and capital expressed in the Keynesian state are long gone and are the polar opposite of today’s reality. That said, it’s never really been states versus markets. It’s always been states and markets or even states-markets.

Thanks, again, for reading. Click here for the link to the next post where I explore the issues of social justice and human freedom.

Joel

Capitalism, Democracy, Media, Politics and economics

Knowing our left from our right: social justice, human freedom, and utopian realism

What does it mean to be ‘left’ or ‘right wing’ today? Does it even matter? There seems to be a lot of basic confusion out there coupled with a lot of instinctive contempt and fear for what is understood as left-wing politics. The media is central to the production of this contempt and fear. They can’t seem to use the word ‘left’ without preceding it with either the powder-puff adjective of approval – ‘centre’ – or the adjectives of danger and condemnation – ‘hard’ or ‘extreme’. We are repeatedly told, for example, that the Labour Party is now ‘infiltrated’ by ‘hard left’ elements.1 In contrast, only racist parties like the British National Party or movements like the English Defence League are similarly labelled. So, we begin our answer to these two important questions with the observation that the default mainstream media position is that the right is, well, right. This is a position often held and expressed by journalists indirectly, even subconsciously, and it is often justified by a belief in the greater realism of centrist/right-wing politicians and parties and their ideas and policies.

the far left

What I’m going to argue is that left and right totally matter. I’m going to say that the political division is clear and expresses fundamental ideological oppositions, and that’s because, in turn, these ideologies are rooted in very material social conflicts. So, it’s not primarily about ideas, but about real material social power. I’m going to suggest that this divide is not today really over what the mainstream media tell us it’s about – the size and limits of the state’s economic and social role vis-a-vis the market. Instead, I‘ll argue that it’s primarily about social justice, human freedom, and, yes, realism. I’ll post about the state-market red herring tomorrow and the social justice and freedom stuff later this week. But, first, here are ten things (in no particular order) I believe in that apparently make me ‘extreme’, ‘far’ or ‘hard’ left, but I think make me a regular intelligent, sensible, and caring human being…

  1. There is no place for weapons that can obliterate millions of people. They make no military, political, or economic sense. Get rid of nuclear weapons;

  2. Homeless people should be allowed to live in peopleless homes. People not property are the priority. End homeless now!;

  3. There is no room for profit-making in the provision of the basics we all need to live a safe, healthy, and dignified life;

  4. Rich corporations and individuals should pay tax, they should pay more in absolute and relative terms than poor people, they should pay even more for income derived from rents and speculation, and this tax should be used to improve the inequalities of opportunity and material needs caused by market relations and hereditary privilege;

  5. Working people should co-own and run the businesses they work in. No one should be obliged to work for someone else. Workers co-operatives, in their myriad forms, are generally great;

  6. Everyone should receive an unconditional basic income – an amount of money considerably smaller than a minimum living wage, but enough to enjoy a tolerable, basic life. This would allow them to truly freely choose the work they wish to do;

  7. The best way to end terrorism is to end imperialist war. Western militaries should leave the Middle East and anywhere else immediately;

  8. Our financial system should serve us., but we currently serve it. Most of what goes on on financial markets is gambling that benefits the rich and, when it all blows us, destroys the poor. The banking system should simply allocate capital to socially beneficial sectors and enterprises. We should nationalise and democratise our banking system, our central bank, and, eventually, the money supply.

  9. An economic system that condemns people and societies to lifelong debt servitude is a system of effective slavery. We should cancel all odious debts;

  10. An economic system based on infinite growth will lead to inevitable catastrophe on a planet with finite resources. We need to transcend capitalism and establish democratic socialism quickly.

There you go! There were more I could and probably should have picked, but that’s yer ten! They’d improve the lives of every single person on the planet a great deal! Right. Tomorrow I’ll post about why the left-right divide isn’t really about states-versus-markets. (I’ve now jumped into the future and here’s the link for the second post in this series!)

Thanks

Joel

1Here’s a recent example from the most left-wing large UK newspaper, The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/oct/23/unite-challenges-expulsion-of-alleged-trotskyists-from-labour-party

Capitalism, Ideology, Marxism, Politics and economics, UK, Work

Working tax credits: the real questions, some real answers

What is ‘hegemonic power’? One central element of hegemonic power is the power to make the root (systemic) causes of our problems invisible and largely unspeakable and unthinkable. Instead, all our debates are over ways to remedy or improve the symptoms of the disease (or even why the painful symptoms are good for us) rather than the disease itself.
An example of this from the UK is the current furore over tax credits. The Conservative government is removing working tax credits (though before the election it promised not to). These are state payments that supplement workers’ wages. Their removal will hurt very many poor people indeed. As this article from today’s Guardian shows, the government crows about the low unemployment rate, but says nothing or very little about the paltry sub-poverty wages so many of us get for that employment.

David-Cameron-586215
What are virtually absent from the debate are the questions any curious child would surely ask. These are:
(Q1) ‘Why do the companies we work for pay us so little money that we can’t afford the basic things to live a dignified life?’

(Q2) ‘If they pay us so little why do we have to work for them?’

(Q3) ‘Why should the state supplement their low wages with tax credits which is effectively payments from general taxation, which, in turn, is largely contributed to by working people through their work and consumption?

(Q4) ‘Can’t we create an economic system where everyone gets a decent human life? And if that does involve doing monotonous or stressful work can’t we make sure that those who do it get properly rewarded for it?’

Now, I would be surprised if you’ve never, ever asked those questions or similar ones to yourself before. The fact that you never hear them asked publicly or on your TV screens has probably made you think that they are stupid or naive, fantastical questions. They are not! They are intelligent, actually common-sensical, questions that need to be asked and deserved to be answered. These questions are the clothes that the Emperor doesn’t wear!

I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I think I have good ones and they all pretty much come from reading Karl Marx and Marxist literature. In short, my answers would be:

(1) Cos profit (what Marxists call ‘surplus value’) comes from our labour. This makes the class conflict, and the resulting balance of power, between workers and capitalists the fundamental political condition shaping capitalist societies. Today, that balance of power is very firmly skewed towards the capitalist class. They need to pay us what it takes for us to keep ourselves alive so that they still have a workforce, but beyond that the capitalist class will seek to minimize labour costs to maximize surplus value. But, it’s not just about economics. Work is political, capital is a social relation, and ‘the economy’ is not a force of nature. So, it’s not just about minimizing labour costs to maximize surplus-value. More fundamentally, it’s about repressing workers and our collective organizational power to ensure that the system continues. Poverty, debt, social atomization, and media BS are the main weapons here to keep us down, disillusioned, and divided. And these are weapons, and there are casualties (truth being the first) in this class war.

(2) Cos we have to work. This is what Marx called the ‘double freedom’ in capitalist society. We have the freedom to choose to work (and, to an increasingly limited extent, choose which work we do) and the freedom to choose to starve. We have to work and this makes us working class essentially. If all we have to sell is our labour-power we are working class. We are working class because many years ago, we were kicked off our land – the land that gave us a choice between subsistence and wage-labour – and forced into the towns and cities. Think you’re free? Stopping doing the job you hate...

(3) You’re right! The state shouldn’t do this. It shouldn’t have to do this. We have the collective, organisational potential to demand that our companies pay proper wages and give us far more security and safety in our jobs. Recent moves in this direction have come from popular action. But that will both hit already flagging corporate profits and turn the balance of political power towards us. So, that must be stopped at all costs.

(4) Yes! We can! I think capitalism is absolutely dying now. It can’t revive its profitability. Capital went global and financial in an attempt to crush our political power and revive its profitability. It largely succeeded (temporarily) in the first aim and only partially and temporarily succeeded in the second. Now, through money-printing, asset-inflation, austerity and debt, the capitalist class tries again to reboot the system, but can’t. At the same time, we now have the technology that enables us to share for free, co-operate rather than compete, do far, far less crappy work, and build a networked rather than hierarchical society all based on a commodity, information, that is infinitely abundant and so is incompatible with a market economy unless it’s a forced monopoly/oligopoly that represses the free exchange of information and ideas. See Paul Mason’s brilliant new book PostCapitalism on this. So, what those who dismiss exciting new political developments in the UK and many places beyond don’t see is that the world is already changing. We can totally create a new society based on a different, social value system, radically democratic in its configuration, and compatible with individual freedom, social peace, and environmental harmony. I really do think this it’s coming already.

If you’re sat there reading this stressed out by a job you hate or by the awful, endless pursuit of just trying to get a job you’ll hate, anxious about the mortgage or rental payments you struggle to make, or the consumer or student debt you’ll never ever pay back, you might be saying ‘Get real! Talk is cheap!’ and you’d be right! Talk is cheap. That’s why we still have capitalism, patriarchy, structural racism and other forms of intolerable injustice and oppression. But, it’s equally true to say the only way we begin to rid ourselves of these diseases is not bickering about the symptoms, but to see the root causes. And if it’s an economic or political issue, be it tax credits, the housing crisis, the privatisation of the NHS, or austerity, the symptoms differ, but the disease is the same – capitalism: the cancer on our body politic. When we think we might be sick we need that initial bravery to recognise the fact and to take ourselves off to the doctor. Well, I guess here I am that doctor and here’s the diagnosis. The only difference is that the disease is collective and the treatment is the responsiblity of all. Feel free to get a second opinion, but if you’re convinced then please get involved in the collective remedy. Though full recovery will take time, voicing these questions, and getting involved will help you feel loads better right away! Why? Because what you’ll feel is your own power and once that’s turned on it won’t turn off! Go for it!

Capitalism, Globalisation, Housing, Immigration, UK

On the ‘migrant/refugee’ crisis: Part One – Does charity begin at home?

Dear readers,

I’m sorry for my recent silence. I’ve been here and there and looking after my kids a lot. But now the summer hols are over and I’m back on it!

There’s only one possible topic to address in this blog – the ‘migrant/refugee’ crisis gripping Europe. I’ve been thrilled to see so many people across Europe getting involved, showing their solidarity and support for people trying to escape conflict zones and impoverishment to make a better life for themselves and their beloved children. We have by now all seen the indescribable horror of migrants and refugees’ ordeals. People say ‘as a father or mother of a child that age’, but that’s unnecessary. You don’t need to be a parent yourself to feel a primordial grief-anger when confronted with a photo like that.

So, I’m heartened to see people wanting to act and demanding that their governments take action. But, for action to be effective and not counter-productive it has to be considered and well informed. So, my goal here is to try to present you with some deeper structural analyses of the current situation to help you make better decisions about how to act. I always try to think praxis – thought/action. Thinking without acting is useless; acting without thinking is dangerous!

Thinking in this way necessarily means confronting ourselves with challenging questions and that’s what we need to do here. So, this will be a two-part blog. In this first part, I’ll try to answer that common right-wing refrain that we can’t help these refugees out because ‘charity begins at home’ and we’ve our own house to get in order first. I’ll also challenge the idea that the solution to our problems lies in charity. In the second part, I’ll look at who these migrants/refugees are, where they’re coming from, and why they are risking their lives to enter economically depressed Europe. In both parts, I’ll offer evidence for thinking about the current migrant/refugee crisis as a consequence of capitalism and the current profound crisis of capital.

In this part, I will argue that  fears many of us feel are legitimate but mistaken, and that we actually have more in common with newcomers than our ruling class. I will also argue that charity as a human response is understandable, but charity does not address (and even exacerbates) the root structural causes of this crisis. If we want to truly end war, inequality, poverty, and ecological destruction – if we want to help people stay and prosper in their own homelands – we have to confront and overcome capital; we have to go beyond charity and get political.

In this and all my blogs, I am, of course, trying to persuade you of my argument, but, first and foremost, I’m encouraging you to think critically and believe in yourself as someone who totally can understand, and help to change, the world around them.

Does charity begin at home?

The right wing media and politicians constantly argue that, if we’ve got our own houses to sort out, and if Britain is an already overcrowded island, why should we be expected to help the world’s waifs and strays? So the first question we need to address is: ‘Doesn’t charity begin at home?’

Last Sunday, in my own town of Oxford, over 1,000 people came out to express their solidarity and support for refugees. It was wonderful to see so many people of all ages coming together as common humanity. I couldn’t get close enough to hear the speeches at the rally. However, the questions that I suspect few if any were addressing were these very domestic concerns: ‘In a city in which houses and rents are the most expensive in the whole country, where local people themselves are desperate for new and better housing, where are these newcomers supposed to live? Which of the already overcrowded schools will their kids go to? What about the overrun hospitals and depleted and run down social services? What about the already clogged roads?’ Unsurprisingly, in his speech, the City Council leader Bob Price apparently expressed an acute awareness of these practicalities.

There were people from all parts of Oxford society at the rally. But it was undeniably dominated by the middle class. It’s wonderful that these people – people like me – with more social, economic, and cultural security and resources want to welcome thousands of new refugees to Oxford, but we’re not the ones who will be most affected by their arrival and integration. We might even open our own doors to new refugees, but these new folk can’t stay forever. They won’t want to. They will want and need their own homes. And there’s the rub! If we’re serious about opening our borders we need to confront the practical question of where these people will live, work, learn, and the resources they will consume. When people raise real concerns like these, when people ask about those in need who are already here, they are often attacked as ignorant, prejudiced, or racist. That’s not constructive. Their feelings are valid. Their concerns are legitimate. Let’s address them.

So, if you want to argue that charity begins at home, you do need to answer whose home you’re talking about. Is this nation really a home to us all equally? You also need to answer why we might need charity in a wealthy country like this. The answers to these questions are political: they concern the ownership and control of land, property, finance and overall political control.

Whose home is it anyway?

Land and property

Regarding land ownership, just 6,000 owners – made up of aristocratic families, billionaires, the royal family, the Church of England, and Oxford and Cambridge colleges – own two-thirds (40 million acres) of all the land. In Scotland, the situation is even worse. The concentration of landownership is one major factor suppressing housebuilding. If you own the land, you will hold it and let it out slowly to ensure land prices keep rising. So, right away, we can seriously dispute the claim that Britain is full. More than fullness, it’s about extreme population concentration in small urban pockets, and actually less of Britain is built on than most other developed countries.

Dorling UK land as wealth

Historical house builds

Property ownership has also become far more unequal in recent decades. Landlords now own hundreds, even thousands of houses and flats, renting them out at exorbitant rents and often neglecting the conditions of these properties. In the press, benefit-scrounging tenants get the blame, but they don’t see the money at all. Last year, local councils in the UK forked out £9.3 billion in housing benefits to private landlords. The 311 (out of 380) councils which released information showed that the top twenty company landlords in all areas receive housing benefit direct from councils. These landlords use tax loopholes and the UK government’s own generous tax provisions to avoid and minimise their tax contributions. And they often leave their properties in awful and dangerous conditions.1 Some of the biggest landlords are from the same aristocratic families representing themselves in the House of Lords and even Members of Parliament.

Since the Conservative Party introduced the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme in the 1980s, which allowed council housing tenants to buy their own homes at discount prices, almost half of all former council housing has ended up concentrated in the hands of ‘buy-to’let’ landlords. So, where there used to be social housing with life-long leases, there are now landlord barons milking desperate tenants on short and fragile contracts who compete with each other to be exploited!

Then we have the more dispersed problem of people owning multiple homes. In many coastal and scenic parts of Britain, local people on very low wages cannot remotely afford to buy a flat or house because (often London-based) outsiders’ demands for holiday homes have inflated prices out of reach. A similar dynamic is at work in Oxford where nearly half the houses are bought by the UK and global elite who buy up property as either investments or to house their kids for their education. And its not just the one percent. In depressed economic conditions with low growth, high debt, and privatised pensions, burgeoning numbers of pensioners depend on rising house prices and rents to supplement their pensions.

Any government knows that its political survival and success is pegged to the housing market, so they keep reflating the bubble and helping politically influential land-owners and landlords. Also, it’s no coincidence that, whereas only 1% of the British population are landlords, nearly 25% of MPs are!

% of MP landlords

Finally, we have, of course, the issue of homelessness. Because of varying definitions and categories, it’s hard to say how many people are homeless in the UK. In England alone last year, however, over 112,000 households applied to their local authority for homelessness assistance. Compare that with the government’s own statistic showing over 600,000 empty homes.

Empty houses

In any civilised society, in which a house performed solely a social function and satisfied a basic human need, homelessness would simply not exist. In our capitalist society, in which the house is a commodity to trade and an asset to generate rental income, and in which house prices boom and bust, homelessness is a structural constant. This is perverse.

In the UK, social housing is sold off cheap to landlords who then enrich themselves on rental incomes and tax benefits from taxpayers; poorer people are ‘socially cleansed’ from prosperous areas and cannot buy homes in their own neighbourhoods; rich people own multiple homes and leave good homes empty while others sleep rough or in hostels or temporary housing; and 2/3 of the land is owned by 0.1% of the population. In conclusion, if you want to argue against accepting newcomers to the UK by asserting that charity begins at home, the argument that the UK is all ‘our home’ does not stand up to scrutiny.

Why do we need charity?

Economic and financial power

If you want to argue seriously for ensuring that our own people are looked after first, you need also to look at the political economy (power & money) of the UK. You need to explain why this wealthy society still (and increasingly desperately) needs charity. Over one million people received emergency food and support from foodbanks in 2014-15! That’s up from 26,000 since the economic crisis began in 2008!

Numbers given 3 days' emergency food

The globalisation arguments are well rehearsed. Since the 1970s, we’ve seen a sustained and hugely successful attack on working class people. Trade unions are now far smaller and weaker and we’ve had 40 years of wage stagnation. In the UK, we’ve seen a particularly dramatic shift in the structure of our economy away from manufacturing (jobs and industries exported primarily to China) towards services and finance. This has definitely intensified the imbalance in our economy, not just in terms of trade (export/import) or budget (deficit/surplus), or even just in terms of production/consumption. The promotion of finance above all else has also exacerbated the London-centric nature of our economy. Foreign and internal ‘migrants’ flood into London and huge swathes of the rest of the country languish in stagnation. Not that life for most is prosperous and easy in London either!

The combination of wage stagnation with a hyper-consumerism has led societies like ours to ridiculous levels of private debt – loans, credit cards, etc. The nature of this debt has become more usurious as the economy has faltered and people’s situations have become more desperate. Legalised, parasitic loan sharks enjoy near free reign to exploit the desperate.

At the same time, austerity constitutes a political strategy and economic policy to make the poorest and most vulnerable pay for a crisis that originated in the crash of the combined US housing and financial markets caused by rapacious speculation. The main beneficiaries of these financial markets are seeing their wealth soar in recent years as the trillions printed to keep the system afloat finds its way into their accounts as new bubbles in asset markets form. As the recent Chinese stock market crash shows, it’s only a matter of time till the next collapse.

So, again, if we’re serious about getting our own house in order, let’s take a look at why we still supposedly need charity: why our country’s economy is so unbalanced; why we depend on banks and financial firms that steal from us and financial markets that explode in our faces; why our wages are so low; and why people remain in ever greater levels of debt.

The class war: the war in our ‘home’

There has never been more money in the world. It has rarely if ever been concentrated more unequally. Those who run our economies also control that wealth. Their wealth and power are totally tied up with the current system and maintaining the status quo. We cannot expect them to ‘get our own house in order’. Indeed, even that phrase still suggests that, as the Tories like to say, ‘we’re all in it together’. We’re clearly not. When we begin to recognise this, we begin to see that there is actually a war in this country, in every country right now, in which people are dying, suffering ill physical and mental health, and losing their homes each day of the year. That is the class war! It is the war prosecuted by the ruling class – the owners of capital – against working people. Austerity is the current economic policy and political strategy used by the ruling class to prosecute this war.

Where this war has been prosecuted most intensively, it has led to millions of deaths. Throughout the Third World, for example, the world’s poorest people were compelled by Western governments, the IMF, World Bank, and complicit, corrupt rulers to pay the cost of the debt crisis of the 1980s and bail out American and European banks. We saw manufacturing collapse. We saw indebtedness soar. We saw unemployment and emigration rise. We saw infant mortality, maternal mortality, life expectancy in these countries drop. Similar trends can be observed across Northern and, to a greater degree, Southern Europe today.

Look up! Look up!

It’s vital not to sneer at those who may seem merely to parrot the alarms rung daily by our media and politicians. It is perfectly understandable and rational to feel and express these fears. If you feel this way right now, your fears are real. Your concerns are genuine. However, what I’d ask you to do is to ask yourself whether our collective economic security and prosperity is threatened more by the people seeking to come here out of political or economic need or by a system that continues to exploit, expropriate, impoverish, and indebt the poorest, and destabilise our communities, society, and ecology. What would affect the prospects of the average UK citizen more, the expropriation of the six thousand biggest landowners and the return of that land to common ownership or the arrival of ten thousand Syrian refugees? What constitutes more of a threat to our economic security, new immigrants or unstable financial markets? Should we be angrier at a system that allows bankers, landlords and payday loan sharks to milk us or at poor people trying to make a better life?

Here’s another way to frame this argument. Imagine you’re on a small volcanic island quite low down near the coast. The sea levels are rising. Other islands have already been swallowed up. Desperate people crowded into unseaworthy boats are trying to land on your island. You yourselves are crammed into densely populated villages by the coast. The rich people on your island live in the beautiful wide expanses of the fields higher up that dominate most of the island. ‘Look down!’, they cry out each day. ‘Look down! Look at the people on the boats! They are outsiders coming to take our land, our homes! They don’t understand our language, our customs, our history! Look down!’

Every day, the newspapers and politicians call us to look down. What I’m suggesting is that it might be more fruitful and just to look up instead and see what we find.

The false friend of charity: Action begins at home

A lot of good, kind people are feeling an almost overwhelming urge to do something right now. Unfortunately, in our society, that drive to act is invariably colonised by charity. Charity is a false friend. Charities seem to offer us what we think we need. Give money, time, and resources and we can make a difference. We can make a difference to individuals’ lives, but we will also invariably sustain the very system that creates the tragedies and injustices that compelled us to act. So, when Bob Geldof invites refugees into two of his homes, that’s very charitable, but why the hell should anyone have so many unused homes! And when the interest rate rise finally comes and the near million UK people on interest-only mortgages find themselves threatened with eviction, will we rally for them and open our doors to them too?

Only structural change can resolve this crisis. So, instead of charity beginning at home, let’s think about action beginning at home, within ourselves. Let’s think about changing ourselves as individuals, communities, and as a society, working towards making the structural changes that won’t just make things a bit better till the next crisis comes, but will actually help us to create a better and more just world. This means making bigger demands of ourselves – of our time and energy – but if we’re serious about social and environmental justice, that’s what we need to be doing.

Thanks for reading. In the second part, I’ll take an external look at the refugee/migrant crisis and try to show how those who run countries like Britain are directly complicit in creating the instability and violence that compels people to leaves their homelands and risk life and limb to get to Europe.

1The Property Ombudsman reported a 37% increase in tenants’ complaints last year. Check out this article that tells of a young man Georges Almond who turned the mould in his bedroom in Manchester into an art exhibit, and his rented home into a community art project!

Capitalism, Critical pedagogy, Education/learning, Politics and economics

Oxford Democracy-Builders: Reading/Viewing/Listening materials on austerity

Hi there,

Ahead of our fourth (provisionally named) ‘Oxford Democracy-Builders’ meeting to discuss austerity, here is a list of materials for learning about the debate. I’ve tried to bring a wide range of perspectives into the conversation here.

You can download the list in a LibreOffice document here…

Don’t panic!! It’s intentionally long and full of resources. You’re not expected to read all of this! I haven’t!! Just read what interests you. There are short and longer videos too.

If you haven’t used the doodle poll yet to choose a preferred date for the meeting then you can do so here…

Also, I would really recommend the New Economics Foundation weekly podcast on economic issues as a brilliant entry point. It strikes the balance between making content understandable and treating listeners with intellectual respect really well!

Finally, back in 2012, I personally produced a series of podcasts on political-economic issues alongside my friend Neil Howard. You can listen to the one on austerity here…

Thanks

Joel

Capitalism, Culture, Democracy, Education/learning, Ideology, Marxism, Media, Neo-liberalism, Radical democracy, UK

What does this Sun/Women’s Own email really show us? And what can we do about it?

Dear reader,

It’s been an interesting 24 hours since my friend Kate Evans (@iamkateevans) showed me an email by a contributing editor to The Sun newspaper and Women’s Own magazine asking charities for a very particular request…

Embedded image permalink

I subsequently posted this email and a few observations on Agent of History here…

Since then, Kate’s been inundated with tweets and retweets, has been interviewed for an article in The Independent, and I’ve had over 20,000 views (and counting) of my original post. Even Russell Brand retweeted it, which is great! I should try to strike while the iron’s hot and offer a very brief analysis of what I think the significance of this email really is and what we can do about it. If you don’t have the time right now to read the entire post, feel free to just read the bits in bold to get the jist of my argument…

What does this Sun/Woman’s Own email really show us?

(1) Nothing we didn’t know or at least suspect!

I suspect that, in our heart of hearts, it shows us nothing that we didn’t know already. Alternatively and, perhaps more accurately, put, I suspect it just confirms our worst fears: that a large part of the ‘news’ we read in our ‘news’papers each day is actually stories prefabricated by journalists following edicts from editors and, indeed, in turn from newspaper/TV station owners and senior political figures on high. These stories clearly seek to construct a world in which the poorest, least educated, most deprived, and vulnerable people are the feckless, greedy, lazy, stupid architects of their own pathetic downfall! Homelessness, unemployment, obesity, disability, illiteracy, ill health, relationship breakdown, addiction, poverty are portrayed as conditions suffered by individuals and caused by individuals. Since these people are to blame for their own sorry states, it follows that any resources that allow them to sustain their shameful lifestyles should be stopped. The welfare system is reframed as a ‘benefits’ gravy train full of dependent passive passengers that has to be stopped if these passengers are ever to regain their independence and walk again.

daily mail benefitsAn all too common example of the daily attack on working class people

(2) Poverty is political!

I don’t want here to get into a detailed discussion about the political economy of poverty. Suffice to say here that poverty is a structural necessity in capitalism since it ensures that there is an ‘industrial reserve army’ always there to cow individual workers into accepting wage-slavery; that wages remain low enough to maintain profitability; that workers are alienated from each other in competition over jobs needed to avoid destitution; and that workers are way too preoccupied in the daily struggle for sustenance and survival to question and organise to challenge the system. It is a key weapon in the class war used to divide and rule. Poverty is not fundamentally a personal, cultural, or economic problem. Poverty is political!

Levels and forms of poverty differ, of course, according to the contextual and shifting economic conditions of capital accumulation, balance of political power between capital and labour, and control over the means of cultural production. The way that poverty was defined and described in the media in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s in the UK and elsewhere was, I suspect and believe, mostly very different. I see a key moment as the neo-liberal (Thatcherite) counter-revolution of the late 1970s. Since then, I believe a central ideological objective of the ruling class – one achieved with remarkable success – has been precisely to reframe social problems such as poverty, mental and physical ill health, crime, and homelessness as individual failings. We see this institutionalisation of individualism and what’s often called the ‘responsibilisation’ agenda embedded now throughout not just the media, but the education, health, public policy, and even charity sectors.

Two years ago, I tried (unsuccessfully) to run a political economy learning group at a leading national homeless charity. There, I was struck there about how any structural analysis of homelessness, poverty or mental illness was silenced in favour of a total focus on the individual – skilling up, jobseeking, boosting confidence, correcting personal failings, etc. I’m not saying don’t do these things. I’m emphasizing the political success of the responsibilisation agenda. This is ‘hegemonic’ power in practice!

What’s ‘hegemony’?

By ‘hegemonic power‘, I refer to (post-!)Marxist political theories of power shaped, in particular, by Antonio Gramsci in an Italian fascist prison in the 1930s and 1940s and by Argentine and French philosophers Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe from the 1980s. Here, it is language and signs/images that form the weapons, the cultural field that constitutes the battlefield, of politics (for Laclau & Mouffe, not just class politics but the politics of gender, race, sexuality, disability and all other structural forms of power and oppression).

Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci

Laclau

Ernesto Laclau

MouffeChantal Mouffe

What this email shows us, then, is how the hegemony not just of capital, but of patriarchy is constructed and maintained. It isn’t a coincidence that the email’s author is looking for a woman. I suspect this is for various cultural reasons, primarily because of the obscene objectification of the female body – a central mechanism of patriarchal power.

An image taken from today’s homepage (!) of The Sun newspaper

I want to make two further short, key points about this email and hegemonic politics.

(3) Avoid culturalism!

First, I don’t believe that politics is, therefore, just a ‘war of words’. Capital is a social relation between those who own and control the means of production and those who must sell their labour-power to survive. Therefore, economic conditions have a huge effect on cultural conditions. The reason why the email’s author is looking specifically for ex-fatty-scroungers is because his newspaper’s editor and owner and even the government too are needing to construct a particular ‘truth’ that excludes any consideration of current economic crisis (of capital’s inability to restart its engines and provide society-wide opportunity) and sets the working class against each other through the manipulation of our baser, negative instincts.

(4) Power ≠ Violence!

Second, when we read emails like this it is totally understandable to experience feelings of anger, but also passivity, powerlessness, and hopelessness. A perfectly rational and understandable response to this would be: ‘So, the media lies to us, fills us with hate for our fellow suffering brothers and sisters, and is run by powerful people seeking to maintain their power! What the hell can I do about it!?’

Allow me to offer an alternative reading. I see the desperation in this email as suggestive of declining and increasingly fragile hegemonic power. This email is an act of violence, symbolic violence, done to the particular poor individual they find to do their bidding, but also to poor working class people, especially women, in general. We must not, however, confuse violence with power. I remember reading Hannah Arendt who first showed me how power and violence are actually opposites! Power is always legitimacy conferred by people in some direct or indirect way. Violence is what you use when that legitimacy has gone. You can’t rule by violence alone for long.

ArendtHannah Arendt

The email shines a light into the desperation of a ruling class whose legitimacy to rule has been gradually revoked by us. We see this collective revocation in the slow retreat from formal political engagement over recent decades. The most stable regime of hegemony is founded on rule by active consent of the people, i.e. when we believe that those who rule rule in our interests. Hegemony is rendered less stable when that consent becomes passive. It’s then a case of needing to naturalise an artificial and contingent social order. In this case, the primary hegemonic task is then to make capitalism seem as natural as the air we breathe. Hence, the power and necessity of the infamous ‘TINA” (There Is No Alternative) doctrine. We are told that the world we experience is the only world there can be.

thatcherTINA

The end of TINA

The TINA Doctrine reigned supreme for around 25 years. It can probably be dated to around the late 1980s when Thatcherism and Reaganism consolidated in the UK and US (i.e. working class power was mostly destroyed), when the IMF and World Bank brought Structural Adjustment (hardcore austerity!) to the Third World, when the Soviet Union and Communist Bloc collapsed removing any ideological alternative, and when, consequently, the world was opened up for capitalist globalisation. It was destabilised by the rise of left-wing Latin American governments, and it took probably a mortal blow in the 2008 financial crisis, but it’s only been more recently in the patent inability of capitalism to revive and the concomitant creation and growth of alternative social movements, parties, and grassroots co-operative endeavours that we can see that the era of TINA hegemony is over; that the neoliberal project is on the rocks; that the discursive field of politics is thrown wide open again; and that another world is possible once more. Hence, for example, the panic over and demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing frontrunner of the Labour Party leadership campaign.

In short, this email shows us:

  1. How the media spectacle and, moreover, our opinions, beliefs, even our very identities are constructed;
  2. How it really helps to think about politics in terms of hegemony – language as weapon, culture as battlefield;
  3. How economic conditions are a fundamental force in shaping hegemonic politics;
  4. How the current conditions of economic crisis and collective reimagining have forced the 25(ish) year-long closure achieved by the neo-liberal counter-revolution wide open again;
  5. How, therefore, rather than interpreting this email in any disempowering way, we should recognise the media’s current daily campaign of symbolic violence that this email represents and recent panics over emergent social democratic/socialist forces as actually revealing the frailty and desperation of the ruling class.

So, what should we do about it?!

There are lots of things we can do. What you do is up to you, of course, but I would suggest that there is no innocent bystander and that acting brings such an inexpressible sense of empowerment and hope. So…

  1. Don’t buy these papers any more. However…
  2. Do check them out online. First, it’s crucial to know your enemy and to see the strategies, the discourses, the frames they are using. Second, it helps to develop our critical skills of reading and analysis;
  3. Spread the word online! Share your own findings and your own analyses. Don’t just take my word for it!
  4. Don’t be scared of theory! Theory literally means ‘to see’ (theoria), I believe. Read and use theory (political-economic, socioloigical, cultural, etc) to see the world in deeper, richer ways. Use and develop your own theories to understand the world you experience – by yourself and with others;
  5. Let’s talk and listen. If we accept a language-focused theory of politics, we don’t have to accept the eternal violence imbued in ideas of words as weapons and culture as battlefield. We can try to actively create new radical democratic forms of communication and society right now by coming together with others and exploring what it takes to use words as tools to rebuild, words as bridges to unite. This involves listening as much as talking, particularly listening to those who have been systematically and systemically silenced for too long (like 35+ impoverished women!) We can explore art and culture not as a battlefield, but as a way to express our individual and collective humanity.

Just some ideas for you! The particular choices you make, the particular forms these choices are articulated in are up to you. They are an expression of your particular, and our collective, humanity. They are the integral elements of the process of humanisation we seek to explore and develop.

These are my personal thoughts. Feel free to challenge and correct me. I am totally open to rethinking and revising my understandings.

Thanks for reading

Joel

P.S. If someone can teach me how to align three photos together on one line in WordPress and why WordPress doesn’t seem to recognise the lines I try to put between paragraphs and sections I’d be extremely grateful! This technical fault or, more likely, my technical ignorance is really annoying me! Thanks!

Capitalism, Communication, Culture, Democracy, Media, UK

This is what our ‘news’papers do every day…

I have just read an email sent by a ‘contributing editor’ of The Sun newspaper who is looking for a particular someone. This person’s words speak for themselves so I’ll say no more. Here’s the email (anonymised, of course)…

“Hi

I’m looking for a woman aged 35+ who used to be overweight and on disability living allowance due to weight related issues, but is now a healthy weight and employed. We”d like her to agree with the idea that overweight people SHOULD lose their benefits if they refuse treatment on the NHS (e.g. gastric band surgery, gym membership etc). We’d want her to talk about how having her benefits taken away would have given her the motivation to lose weight, and how great she feels now that she\’s thin and supporting herself.

NB, this is an edict from on-high (the editor), not one of my making (in case anybody takes offence!).

Please contact me by email…if you can help.

Kind regards,

X”

This is what our ‘news’papers do every day. They very consciously and strategically construct a ‘reality’, a spectacle that is designed to divide us against each other, to direct our hate and anger toward the poorest and most vulnerable, and, by doing so, distract us from the real causes of the poverty, injustice, and misery so many face.

Please spread this email far and wide. Please don’t buy their newspapers. Here’s one video made by people with learning disabilities in which they express their own views and feelings about benefits.

“I am not a scrounger” from My Life My Choice on Vimeo.

Oh, and here’s an analysis of the significance of this email and what we can do about it published subsequently (added Aug 12th)

Thanks

Joel

Capitalism, Democracy, Ideology, Marxism, Neo-liberalism, Politics and economics, UK

The Pint’s Half-Full! On knowledge, freedom, and unravelling hegemony, Part Two: Unravelling Hegemony

From the psychology of pint-buying to a political theory of hegemony

In the previous post, my curious discovery that I couldn’t say with certainty why I acted the way I did regarding buying drinks in pubs led me to question the nature and limits of knowledge and how that relates to our freedom. I suggested that anyone claiming absolute knowledge is demonstrating a politically, socially, economically, and ecologically dangerous hubris. I also equally suggested that those who claim that nothing is knowable are condemning us to political paralysis and acceptance of an unjust status quo. Thus, I argued that we can learn loads about our world and our selves and that we then have to use this knowledge to act in the world. This ongoing process of learning and acting is called a ‘praxis’ and that praxis is the only true way toward individual and collective freedom.

In this post, I want to build on these conclusions by bringing in another insight from my recognition of the limits of my self-understanding. I want to do this in order to share a theory of politics that, I believe, sheds a huge amount of light on what’s going on in the world today. This insight is this: If I do not fully know why I do what I do then how could I possibly judge others for their actions?

This insight generates two important conclusions. First, it highlights the sheer dehumanising toxicity of our contemporary model of doing politics. The practice of adversarial, conflictual party politics is one of daily accusation, besmirching, and scaremongering, a practice that unsurprisingly has led to ever increasing levels of public cynicism and disengagement from what we widely understand as ‘politics’.

PMQs

Furthermore, one primary objective of our political, economic, and cultural leaders is to divide us by seeding fear, mistrust, and even hatred among us. They do it very well.

daily mail benefits

Fundamental to all this malignant political practice is the issue of judgment – judgments handed down by politicians and the media and the invitation to judge people and social groups we know very little about. This is a politics of negativity, of cynicism, of shame, of bitterness, of vengeance, guilt, and many other terrible emotions. This is an anti-democratic politics because it relies on a silencing – those to be judged must be marginalised and silenced in order to be most effectively demonised – and on a labelling – making those silenced wear identity labels not of their own choosing. It’s what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu powerfully called ‘symbolic violence’. Those who have ‘symbolic power’ – the power to make meaning in the world – wreak a symbolic violence on those they judge, silence, and label. This violence is invariably linked to very material, physical consequences too.

The antithesis and antidote to this is, of course, a truly democratic politics – a politics of dialogue, of empathy, of faith, of inclusion. An organisation I work with, My Life My Choice – an organisation run for and by people with learning disabilities – has a really powerful slogan relating to this: ‘Nothing about us without us!’

The second conclusion to be drawn is perhaps the most nuanced, but politically the most significant. If we recognise that we are never fully rational or self-aware, that we are ‘social individuals’, and that we are all constantly changing then we surely cannot accept a theory of politics that offers a narrow, fixed definition of what a human being or what society is. If we look back at ourselves ten years ago and see a very different person who would have defined themselves and the world very differently, how can we subscribe to a theory of politics that can’t accommodate this messy reality of personal and collective complexity and change? This is, I think, the argument that Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe make in their very influential book ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’. They criticise what they call the essentialism of most Marxist theory that posits human beings, first and foremost, as workers in an exploitative economic system and explores the most effective ways to analyse and overcome this system. Though Laclau and Mouffe (like myself) remain Marxists and socialists, they argue that human beings are many varied and changing things; that the struggles we face are not exclusively economic; and, crucially, that these struggles are not secondary to the class struggle. Unfortunately, we could too easily have a socialist society that remained patriarchal, homophobic, racist, disabilist, etc, i.e. fundamentally unjust and undemocratic.

Laclau and Mouffe’s central thesis is that politics is primarily a struggle fought over and with words and images. So, yes, while the fact that everything and everyone is changing means there can be no absolute, eternal truth, and that the world is full of torrential flows of words and images, it is clear that people and societies are stable enough for powerful groups to achieve a long-term closure by imposing a relatively fixed definition of key political issues and practices like ‘society’, ‘economy’, ‘work’, ‘money’, ‘value’, ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘family’, ‘sex’, ‘common sense’, ‘tradition’, ‘nation’, etc, etc. This ‘semiotic’ closure is a closure of our individual and collective hearts and minds and, consequently, a closure of what can be politically imagined, hoped for, and created. So, what this term ‘hegemony’ means is a political dominance that a social group achieves when they are able to dominate the production of meaning in a society and they are able to dominate it to such an extent as to make the contingent and political seem natural and inevitable. That’s real power!

The unravelling of neo-liberal hegemony

What light can this theory of politics shed on contemporary events? A great deal, I believe. For over three decades, we have experienced the paralysing and economically, socially, and ecologically destructive hegemony of neo-liberalism. What I understand neo-liberalism to be is a reactionary political project, beginning in the 1970s, first to reassert and then to extend and intensify capitalist social relations and the hegemony of capital worldwide. Thus we see not just more and more areas of human life ‘commodified’, i.e. turned into areas of profit-making exchange, we see the logic of the market penetrate ever deeper into all our psyches and relationships. Though an extreme free-market ideology fronts it, if the interests and needs of capital diverge from free-market dogma, it is dispensed with. That’s why it’s best, I believe, to think of neo-liberalism as a material political project and not just as an ideology. The hegemony of neo-liberalism is best summarised in the term ‘There Is No Alternative’, otherwise known as the ‘TINA doctrine’, credited to Margaret Thatcher.

thatcherTINA

What I believe we are now seeing is the accelerated unravelling of the TINA doctrine, of neo-liberal hegemony. This post-neo-liberal (post-capitalist perhaps) era began, fittingly, where neo-liberalism itself first broke through – in South America – where we have seen the rise of many powerful left wing governments and social movements. We now have Syriza, a left wing party/social movement, in power in Greece, and powerful parties and social movements like Podemos in Spain and Left Bloc in Portugal are rapidly emerging across Europe, primarily in Southern Europe. And then suddenly, in perhaps the unlikeliest of places, we have a socialist, Jeremy Corbyn MP, catapulted into the media limelight as clear frontrunner in the leadership election of the British Labour Party.

Regardless of whether Corbyn wins or not, this seems a development of immense significance. In the negative politics of judgment and fear upon which neo-liberal hegemony depends, it has been easy to demonise the ideas and the people of the left because they are rarely seen or heard. By being obliged to give considerable airtime to these same ideas and their proponents, the TV channels, despite their best efforts, can’t help revealing that these ideas are far from ‘loony’ or ‘evil’, but are eminently sensible and morally appealing, and that those proposing them are not crazed fools, but sober, intelligent, likeable, and (unlike most politicians these days) principled people. Suddenly, the unthinkable becomes thinkable, the unimaginable becomes imaginable. Suddenly, the closed is reopened. Suddenly, hegemony is destabilised. The reaction is both shocking and unsurprising. We have seen pathetic levels of fury, vitriol, name-calling, scaremongering not just from the right wing press, but even from those self-appointed left wing patrician guardians of our morality. Now I know why The Guardian is so called!

One final thing to emphasise here is that I believe that this crisis of hegemony is directly related to a material crisis of capitalism. Capital’s inability to revive itself, to generate decent lives for now most people not just in poor countries but in rich ones too, its generation of extreme inequality and global ecological destruction make the articulation of alternatives possible and, of course, acutely necessary.

The overall conclusion to draw is not so much that ‘times they are a-changing’, but that we who desire to create a new just and free society out of the old finally can now see new, exciting opportunities to pursue. For those in their 50s or older, it has been a long wait! But it is up to us to seize, create, and take those opportunities. At moments of crisis like these, in conditions of civic illiteracy, the fascist Sirens call out. This time around, we cannot hold religiously and dogmatically to any essentialist truth. We need to use theory, for sure. But we need to apply those theories flexibly and contextually, and we need to create movements that combine the power of our collective organisation, imaginations, and energy with the flexible autonomy for individuals and separate groups to pursue their own struggles and dreams. This is the lesson that scholar/activists like Laclau and Mouffe offer us and, I think, this lesson is reflected in the new more horizontal, networked forms of organisation we see emerging throughout the world right now.

Phew! All that from an initial thought about buying pints in pubs! I’ll drink to that! Cheers!

Capitalism, Culture, Globalisation, Politics and economics, UK

Newcastle Divided

The English Premier League finished this weekend and one famous old club, Newcastle United, almost found itself relegated from it. Whether they avoided relegation or not, Newcastle United Football Club has fallen a long way down. I’m no ‘Geordie’, but I have an immense respect for the people of this great city, their history, and their passion for football. The story of Newcastle United’s demise is a story of how the very fabric of society has been torn apart in late globalised capitalism. It is the story of the denial and denigration of community. This is why it’s such an important story to try to tell to a wider audience. This is a blogpost about football, but only as a major institution in British social life and history. So, even if you hate football please do read on…

Globalisation through football shirts

How can we understand something about globalisation by studying football shirts? Well, consider the evolution of the corporate sponsors of Newcastle United’s team shirt from 1980 to 2015. The story begins with this iconic logo worn on team shirts for most years between 1980 and 2000.

Newcastle United NBA shirt

We see a blue star at the heart of which is the silhouette of the Newcastle skyline. The sponsor is Newcastle Brown Ale, a good brew, which was, at the time of its being club sponsor, manufactured locally. Heineken bought out the original brewers in 2008 and, since 2010, the beer has been brewed in Yorkshire instead.

NBA

This Newcastle United shirt represents the old pre-globalisation economy of more local manufacturing generating more stable employment for local people. I am not romanticising this period – it was still based on capitalist private ownership and exploitation and problematic practices of gendered labour. However, crucially, it was also bound up with very strong feelings of personal and collective pride, self-reliance, independence, mutuality, and community.

I skip a couple of seasons when NTL (now Virgin Media) was club sponsor to move your attention to shirt number two…

NUFC Northern Rock shirt

Now we have Northern Rock as the club’s sponsor. Newcastle-based Northern Rock began life in 1965 as a building society created in the merger of two regional building societies established in the 1860s. So, we still have local connections, but we see a distinct shift from manufacturing to finance.

It took just a few short days for this particular ‘rock’ to crash in September 2008 when it was revealed that it was massively exposed to the American sub-prime mortgage crisis. In the ‘credit crunch’ that followed, Northern Rock collapsed after the first run on a British bank for 150 years. The UK government was obliged to step in, guarantee ordinary people’s savings, and take the building society into state ownership.

Northern Rock’s predecessors were ‘mutual’ building societies set up and mutually owned by communities to perform a very simple, but vital intermediary function: they helped ordinary people to save and helped local businesses to start up and to grow. All profits were distributed among their members. The deregulation of finance championed by the Thatcher government of the 1980s changed all that. The vast majority of these building societies ‘demutualised’, i.e. became ‘publicly limited companies’ (PLCs) with shares trading on stock markets. They began to compete nationally and this triggered a process of consolidation with bigger fish swallowing up the smaller ones. Northern Rock itself had bought up 53 smaller building societies before demutualising and becoming a bank, floating on the London Stock Exchange in 1997. These demutualised building societies/banks also moved away from regional or national lending and into the world of speculation on global financial markets. Whereas the benefits of prudent lending were, for decades, enjoyed by their communal owners, today the vast majority of these once proud building societies are extinct. It is really only the largest privatised ones and the few which steadfastly remained mutually owned that remain.

Oh, and what happened to Matt Ridley, Northern Rock’s chairman at the time of its downfall? Well, in 2013, Matt Ridley was made ‘The Right Honourable The Viscount Ridley’, serving the Conservative Party in the House of Lords…

On to Newcastle United shirt number three – Virgin Money…

NUFC Branson Virgin Money

Oh, Richard Branson, that serial carpetbagger! When the Labour British government nationalised Northern Rock in 2008 for £1.4 billion, it took all of the building society’s ‘bad’ loans, i.e. those loans or investments which were not going to be repaid in the foreseeable future or ever, and kept those and then sold off the cleaned up Northern Rock to Branson in a shamefully cut-price deal worth ultimately around £900 million! So, then, in the season 2012-3, Newcastle’s fans had to stump up £40 or so for the pleasure of sporting Virgin Money on their chest. But it gets even worse, way worse in fact. Check out shirt number four…

NUFC Wonga shirt

Since 2013, it has been this company, Wonga, that has ‘graced’ the Geordie chest. For most of human history, in most societies, the practice of ‘usury’ – charging interest on lending money – has been either strictly circumscribed or outright prohibited. In the UK today, the exploitation of desperate poor people through short-term ‘payday’ lending at rates often exceeding 1000% per annum is perfectly legal.

When Newcastle United’s new owner, Mike Ashley, announced the sponsorship deal, the leader of Newcastle City Council described feeling ‘appalled and sickened’ at the Club’s decision. Local MP Chi Onwurah summed it up succinctly: ‘Some of the richest young men in Newcastle to wear shirts calling on the poorest to go to a legal loan shark.’

Economic globalisation and its social consequences

That brief jaunt through the football shirts of Newcastle United tells us much about the contemporary capitalist economy. We journey from local production to local high finance and then to global financial collapse. Now, on the other side of that collapse, what do we see? Rather than revival, we see parasitism: state parasitism in the form of Virgin Money and social parasitism in the form of Wonga. We also see the decline of the British economy in the figure of Newcastle’s owner Mike Ashley. Ashley, a billionaire, owns Sports Direct, which employs British people on very low wages and often ‘zero hour’ conditions to sell low-end Chinese leisure manufactures in depressing retail park outlets. Newcastle United represents a perfect cycle of parasitism: Fans get paid sub-living wage money from Ashley (and others), leading them to borrow desperately from Wonga to find the money to worship at the shrine of St James’ Park (Newcastle’s stadium). Ashley at one time even changed the name of this temple of football to ‘Sports Direct Stadium’, but finally bowed to public pressure and reversed his decision.

The shirts also point to a deeper social crisis behind this economic story – a story not just of poverty and exploitation, but of a process of deindustrialisation and of the commercialisation of football that has ripped the heart and soul out of football and the communities it brought together. This is true not just in Newcastle, but in towns and cities right across the UK.

Mes que un club

Mes que un club!

In the Camp Nou stadium, home of Barcelona FC, the seats in one of the stands spell out the words ‘Mes Que Un Club’ (more than a club). This famous slogan refers to the Club as an institution at the heart of Catalonian history and, therefore, as an emblem of Catalonians’ struggle for independence and social justice.

The phrase ‘more than a club’ might have particular resonance for Barcelona, but actually every football club is ‘mes que un club’. Newcastle United is mes que un club. Southend United is mes que un club. Torquay United is mes que un club. Why? Because these clubs, like the building societies that were also destroyed in the name of greed, were founded and built up by ordinary working people and have brought people together as communities for decades. All of this has been thrown on the altar of profit and as football has globalised we now have the perverse and disgraceful situation of the ‘people’s game’ being owned, and ‘the people’ bled dry, by a collection of the dodgiest oligarchs, emirs, bankers, and sweatshop-owners in the world.

In a climate of deep-rooted enmity between rival fans, it is hard to imagine football fans coming together to win back their beloved game. But, there are some signs of unity. ‘The mythology of power that the rich propagate can only be sustained by the dreams of the poor’ wrote David McNally. We can only hope that football fans stop dreaming that an oligarch will come and buy their club and instead start dreaming collective dreams – of collective protest, of collective power, of collective ownership. Football fans of the world unite!