Communication, Democracy, Media

The road to hell is paved with neutral intentions

The BBC decided to mark the first (and hopefully last) anniversary of Trump’s inauguration by asking people around the world what they thought of him. Check it out

Of course, being the BBC, they had to ensure ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’. This meant that they had to find people who actually supported him – that’s fine – but they had to give them equal time to those who opposed him. So, they drag up some right-wing Israelis to crow their support.

There’s no such thing as neutrality or objectivity in journalism and the BBC’s commitment to it just makes it complicit in legitimating the system’s lurch towards authoritarianism, dictatorship, fascism, and hate.

Adolf Hitler was elected Germany’s Chancellor in 1933. I don’t know how the BBC covered his first anniversary, but can imagine a vox populi being produced with similar views as the one produced here for Trump’s anniversary.

‘Oh, he’s a visionary!’ ‘The economy is reviving!’ ‘The trains are running on time again!’

The BBC is a huge organisation that generates an incredible, often wonderful, and occasionally critical and even subversive output across its TV, and radio channels. However, in its news coverage, the BBC looks like it’s institutionally locked into its commitment to objectivity.  Sadly, as this video shows, we can’t look to the BBC here to shine a light in the darkness exposing the rising fascist politics of the ‘mainstream’.

 

Capitalism, Conservative Party, Crisis, Culture, Ideology, Labour Party, Media, Neo-liberalism, UK

Dousing the fires: Part Three

Dousing the fires: On the crisis of hegemony, the forthcoming war of manoeuvre, and how only love can win this war

Part Three: The ideological crisis – a crisis of hegemony

As usual, if you prefer to listen to a recording of this blog, you can do so here…

In the previous article (the second of this five-part series), I offered an overview of the profound economic, social, and political crises gripping the UK right now in order to set out the underlying material context provoking the current ideological crisis. In this article (the third of five), I will offer evidence for this ideological crisis, this crisis of hegemony, and how the ideological landscape has been dramatically dragged leftwards in the last two years, decisively and transformatively so by our recent general election.

The ideological crisis – a crisis of hegemony

We are experiencing a profound ideological crisis. What I mean by this is that the ideology that had served to legitimate, justify, and naturalise the social order since the late 1970s – namely, neo-liberalism – can no longer perform this function. This means that the social ‘war of position’ – the war fought by opposing social forces in mainstream and social media and on the terrain of civil society is now raging. Things that were unthinkable and unsayable become thinkable and sayable. The parameters of common sense are shifting rapidly.

In the daily soap opera of rolling 24-hour news, we can be forgiven for having short memories that prevent us from identifying significant cultural and ideological shifts. But, we don’t have to look back that far to realise how profound the ideological shift that we are experiencing is.

JC as OBK 1

For the past three decades before Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in August 2015, even moderate social democratic voices and views were omitted from our TV screens. Yes, a radical and articulate rage punctuated this hegemonic silence during the Occupy movement in 2011, but such was the ideological and material strength of neo-liberalism at this time that the mainstream media was quite able to sustain it by demonising, infantilising, and ridiculing protestors and their ideas. Nonetheless, a serious blow was dealt to the hegemonic order by Occupy’s powerful slogans and images around inequality in particular and, in Southern European countries gripped by crises, left-wing movements and parties made big breakthroughs.

occupy1.jpg

We can identify a crucial weakening in the hegemonic stability of neo-liberalism in these post-crash years in the way that, globally, official state and transnational discourses around ‘the market’ shifted. Gone were optimistic, utopian claims about the magic of the market’s ‘invisible hand’ or moral declarations about the goodness of greed. In decline also were the suggestions that one just needed to pull one’s socks up and work hard in order to benefit from the market’s benevolence. Such claims became increasingly hard to maintain in the face of growing numbers of benefits claimants already in full-time work. Instead, what we saw was a global shift to a discourse of ‘resilience’. While the resilience discourse expressed the classic neo-liberal traits of individual responsibility and self-reliance, it offered us no positive message. Instead, it basically told us that shit happens, natural disasters, financial crashes, job losses, and indebtedness happen – without exploring why, of course – and that we, as individuals and, now, as communities (‘big society’!, have to be resilient so as to deal with them.

Such a discursive shift reflects a major hegemonic weakening in neo-liberal ideology. In the wake of financial meltdown, austerity, and falling living standards, there was nothing positive left to claim. The core message went from ‘pull your finger out and get rich’ to ‘life’s cruel; deal with it’. In short, resilience = neo-liberalism – hope! This is an ideological journey from utopia to dystopia and dystopia cannot be sustained for long without increasing repression and violence. The shift to resilience signalled the impending death of neo-liberalism as functioning hegemonic ideology.

The key moment that heralded neo-liberalism’s ideological death for me was Teresa May’s inaugural speech as Prime Minister. Gone was even the faintest hint of market triumphalism. Instead, May gave a speech damning the ‘burning injustices of modern Britain. It’s worth quoting her speech here to remind us of the depth of this ideological volte-face from the government that brought us austerity!

‘That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others.

If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.

If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.

If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.

If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand.

If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.’

You can view the whole, brief speech here.

May’s speech was monumental, but she was never actually going to follow it with action. Consequently, in the absence of any positive message in this prolonged Great Recession, the ruling class doubled down on the hate agenda. If you can’t rule at all through hope, it has to be fear. Brexit, then, (aided by an almost equally negative Remain campaign) can be interpreted through this lens. There is, of course, a huge amount of justified despair and anger among working and middle class communities to exploit, but there is even more hope, pride and love to rekindle. The war of position was far from over. What was required, what was politically and existentially necessary, was a message, a vision of hope.

Common sense transformed

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in August 2015 was monumental. Corbyn’s election smashed through a ‘representative’ democratic system whose major parties had represented none but the interests of capital for decades.1 Instead, Corbyn’s priorities were the welfare of people and planet. Basic social democratic ideas and values, and even some more radical ideas, were back on our TVs and newspapers. Of course, they and those who espoused them were relentlessly ridiculed and demonised by the media. Corbyn was not helped by right-wing and doubting Labour parliamentarians who schemed against him. Sometimes he seemed not to help himself. Yet, an election period in which broadcasting is more tightly scrutinised by the electoral commission ensured Corbyn and Labour a relatively fair access to the electorate. Unsurprisingly, kind-hearted and eminently sensible ideas proposed by a clearly serious, sober, and compassionate man were received first with interest, then with support, and ultimately with excitement by millions of voters. The Labour campaign and manifesto and the ensuing election results have transformed the ideological order in this country. Working class hope was revived and working class anger was to follow.

The Grenfell Tower disaster will have, is having, as great a political and ideological effect on this country as the election. First and foremost, it is the final nail in austerity’s coffin. Austerity is now dead – as ideology if not yet policy. Even that most sacrilegious of notions – tax rises – are back on the Tory agenda!

Consider next a phrase that, in neo-liberalism’s heyday, came to exemplify everything supposedly ridiculous, overbearing, and infuriating about the paternalistic, invasive, and incompetent state: ‘health and safety’. Health and safety was public enemy number two (behind political correctness) for the Daily Mail (and other right-wing papers who relentlessly published myths on this theme) and became the knee-jerk, unthinking lament (Gramscian common sense) of many of its readers. I recall occasionally having to defend the notion to such folk that working people should be able to work in conditions that do not jeopardise their health or safety, conditions they struggled hard to secure. Now, in the wake of Grenfell, ‘health and safety’ is redeemed. Now, suddenly, even the right-wing Metro newspaper is lambasting government ministers for cutting corners on health and safety. I offer this as a concrete example of a radically and rapidly transforming ideological terrain on which our collective understanding and definition of common sense is dramatically shifting leftwards. Something major is going on when even Piers Morgan is savaging government ministers for their policies and responses to this terrible tragedy. Something potentially radical is going on when the expropriation of empty private property held by rich foreign nationals is being proposed by a party leader and supported by major newspapers!

At this point, I want to recap my argument so far. Neo-liberal hegemony is over, undermined gradually by a long-term decline in living standards and opportunities and extreme inequality, weakened by effective social movements and campaigns, and brought to its knees, first, by a positive Labour election campaign and, second, by a horrific man-made disaster. The Tory response has been a confused combination of faux hope – a promise of progressive policies and social justice – and full fear – Brexit, Islamophobia, immigration. A material crisis of capital is playing out also as a political and ideological crisis. The Labour resurgence under Corbyn has shattered the pro-capitalist democratic veneer. A combination of anger and hope is bringing huge numbers into political activity. People are mobilising and organising as groups, as communities, as social movements in really significant numbers, it seems.

In the next article (fourth of five), I will set out my predictions for what will take place in this country within the next two years. I predict the emergence of a full-blown ‘war of manoeuvre’ – the intensification of social warfare from primarily just cultural terrain (ideological warfare – ‘war of position’) to intense economic and even physical warfare.

Thank you so much for reading.

Solidarity and love,

Joel

1New Labourites would challenge this assertion. To be fair, they did invest in public services and welfare, but in ways that advanced neo-liberal capitalism, for example, private finance initiatives.

Capitalism, Culture, Ideology, Media, Politics and economics, Television, UK

On Comic Relief and charity generally: make charity history!

Here’s a post I wrote two years ago at the time of the last Comic Relief Day in 2015. I re-read it and it still resonated with me, so I’m reposting here.

Sorry I’ve not been writing. I will start writing again soon on some thoughts about the nature of ‘post-truth’ and how to respond.

Let me know what you think.

Best wishes,

Joel

 

Crisis, Culture, Love, Media, Singapore

On clowns

Hi there, dear reader!

I’ve been trying to make time to explore what I’m calling ‘ultimate contradiction’ on this blog, but I last wrote about Jeremy Corbyn and I’m gonna sidetrack again to write briefly about…clowns!

My 11 year-old daughter has just started secondary school. Apparently, the phenomenon of (mostly) young people dressing up as macabre, evil clowns in order to scare people has been a central topic of conversation around her school. This trend started in the US and has spread to the UK.

I want to think about what this phenomenon might signify. I’ll argue that it expresses deep-rooted feelings of fear and powerlessness in our society. I’ll contrast this evil clown phenomenon with the amazing Clowns Without Borders, a group of talented clowns who bring laughter and love to children and grown-ups alike suffering deep trauma in places like slums, disaster zones, war zones, and refugee camps. I’ll conclude by arguing that the evil clown phenomenon expresses a concentrated social fear and that its timing is not surprising, coming as it does in this time of crisis, catastrophe, and breakdown. But, as Clowns Without Borders show us, the only way forward is an embrace not of fear, but of love.

On evil clowns

I’m not going to give these odd characters dressing up like murderous clowns the air of publicity by linking to them. Suffice to say that the phenomenon involves people dressing up as evil clowns and stalking other people, sometimes young children. Mostly, they just stalk from afar. Sometimes, they chase others.

What does this phenomenon represent? I think it represents the current deep state of fear in our species inherent in our societies, in our personal and collective hearts and minds. What is the clown turned evil? It is the death of childhood: of innocence, of laughter; of wonder, of faith, of magic.  It is the triumph of the nightmare over the dream. The historical character of the clown, the jester, the joker is also the character who is able to poke fun at and speak truth to power. By lampooning the powerful – the king, the president, authority – s/he is the character who suggests that the status quo of domination and exploitation is unjust, grotesque, and illegitimate. Perhaps s/he was mostly just a pressure valve, but she was a source of hope. The rise of the evil clown, then, is the death of hope – the triumph of cynicism over utopianism. Above all, the evil clown is a concentrated, pure expression of fear. We are scared: we are scared of each other and we are scared of ourselves – as individuals, as societies, as a species.

On loving clowns

Clowns Without Borders was founded in 1993 by Spanish clown Tortell Poltrona as an organisation whose aim was to  use ‘humor as a means of psychological support to communities that have suffered trauma.’

CWB now have projects in dozens of countries. I met a CWB clown, Clay Mazing, in Aarhus, Denmark back in April this year. He had just been to the Greek island of Lesvos to perform for Syrian and other refugees there.

The situation that these clowns confront is, of course, one of profound stress, anxiety, uncertainty, illness and death. Aid workers and volunteers are there to provide material support. Clowns are there to bring relief, bring hope, bring love, bring people together through laughter. It may be a momentary respite from refugees’ trauma, but it seems to give parents such solace to see their children smiling and laughing even just for a while.

Clowns Without Borders are the very opposites of the evil clowns. They are clowns pointing us towards a brighter future for our species: a future of hope, of dreams, of laughter, of sharing, of unconditional love. They are courageous, loving clowns.

On loving evil clowns

How should we respond to evil clowns? How should we respond to fear? We should face our fears. We should face our evil clowns. But, we shouldn’t attack them. Let’s try to empathise. What kind of mental and social state would a person probably be in to do such a thing? Probably a painful one, one where s/he feels a distinct lack of power over her life; one where s/he herself feels fearful and hopeless; one where s/he herself has experienced violence. In short, evil clowns are just people experiencing more pronounced forms of the kinds of experiences and feelings we all have.

If you see an evil clown and feel a genuine sense of personal threat, run away. But, if you don’t then perhaps just a smile and a kind word might be the best response! Only by facing our fears can we, do we start to see hope.

On the contested symbolism of the clown

It’s crucial to recognise that both the persona of the evil clown and the people dressing up as evil clowns are us. They are in and of our society. They have social meaning. We have to recognise them, confront them, accept them, love them, overcome them. Everything in our culture, every symbol, has meaning. In fact, it has multiple and contradictory meanings and the power to determine which meanings dominate and shape our interpretations is a political power. There’s a reason why we’re hearing about evil clowns and not about loving clowns in our media.

So, the persona of the clown can mean various, contradictory things. The clown here is a symbol of fear (leading to hatred, violence, and separation) and a symbol of unconditional love (leading to unity). Let’s create a society in which the evil clown can be empowered to transform her/himself into the loving clown.

Cheers for reading!
Joel

Capitalism, Crisis, Democracy, Ideology, Labour Party, Left-wing politics, Media, Neo-liberalism, Socialism, UK

On Jeremy Corbyn: let’s end cynicism and embrace (critical) hope

Dear friends,

Feel free to listen to a recording of this blogpost above…

I just want to make three points about Jeremy Corbyn and his re-election. I want to argue the following: (1) Ultimately, we should analyse Corbyn’s role in terms of its significance as part of a growing counter-hegemonic war of manoeuvre against capital – a role that has ensured nothing less, in my view, than the ideological death of neo-liberalism; (2) I am deeply sadden by those espousing socialist views and values who express feelings of cynicism and fear towards Corbyn. I will suggest that we should be able to empathise with such feelings, but will argue that they are misplaced and self-defeating; (3) I will emphasize that we must always remember that we are committed to struggling not for Corbyn, but for socialism. Therefore, our commitment to Corbyn should remain steadfast for as long as he and his team prove principled and, yes, competent leaders. But, based on its achievements so far, I’m convinced that Corbyn’s Labour can win an election.

12_corbynvictory_w

(1) The Corbyn movement’s historical achievement – the death of neo-liberalism

The first thing to say is that surely we are blind if we cannot see what remarkable things have been achieved since Jeremy Corbyn’s initial election. We must not forget that, prior to the summer of 2015, people like Jeremy Corbyn were not just on the political margins; they were beyond the pale! For over three decades, social democrats like Corbyn, let alone socialists, were hardly ever allowed on the TV or radio. For example, after the riots of 2011, the BBC readily gave a platform for the overt racism of people like historian David Starkey and the tough repression of conservatives, but barely allowed social critiques grounded in class and racial analysis. Consequently, socialist ideas were easily ridiculed and their proponents demonised. Everything changed once a group of Labour MPs voted to include Jeremy Corbyn on the Party’s leadership election list – a move most of them only made to give the election a veneer of ideological breadth. The move backfired most spectacularly when Corbyn won the largest leadership victory in UK history, voted in by hundreds of thousands of new members and cheered on by huge crowds nationwide.

But, what explains this remarkable victory? It cannot be understood without recognising the depth of the economic crisis that capital and we are still mired in; the depth of the contempt with which vast swathes of British people hold its morally bankrupt political class; and the corresponding depth of the ongoing ideological crisis whose expression is taking its most concentrated form within the Labour Party. As articulation of ideological crisis, Corbyn’s victory expressed a negative feeling and move – the rejection of neo-liberalism and its proponents. Yet, it also expressed the rebirth of socialist, truly democratic, politics, hopes, and imaginaries in Britain. In short, Corbyn’s victory heralded both the ideological death of neo-liberalism and rebirth of socialism as a legitimate and viable ideology and potential organising function of society.

By ideological death, I refer to an ideology’s ability to perform its central function of legitimating the social order or, to put it in Gramscian terms, securing hegemony. Neo-liberalism cannot do this any longer, i.e. it can no longer secure widespread consent for the status quo. Here are two major pieces of evidence to support this claim. First, while Corbyn’s internal Labour opponents have tried to attack him wherever and whenever possible, their attacks have focused far less on policy and overwhelmingly on personal and strategic grounds. Indeed, Corbyn’s adversary in the recent second leadership election, Owen Smith, conceded pretty much all policy ground to Corbyn, choosing instead to reinvent himself as a radical, critiquing only Corbyn’s leadership and ability to win power. A second piece of evidence comes from Teresa May’s inaugural speech as Prime Minister. If neo-liberalism were still a functioning ideology, May’s speech would have been founded on the usual sanctification of the market, the insistence on its socially just and moral mechanisms, and a call for working people to work harder in order to succeed. Instead, in stunning fashion, May delivered a speech so focused on social injustice that, had Corbyn made it, he would have been savaged as a dangerous socialist. May argued that black people faced discrimination, that women faced discrimination, and that even people working as hard as they possibly can are failing to make ends meet due to low wages and high rents. And, all along, the media rallied around May and even supported ‘Citizen’ Smith in his failed attempt to dethrone Corbyn.

So, if you believe that: the NHS should be properly funded; that rich people and companies should pay tax; that we need to move to a renewable energy-powered society asap; that we need to build loads of social housing and to impose rent controls; that students should not be crippled by debt; that transport and energy should be renationalised and run by and for the people; that people should have far more power in their local communities and municipalities; that the UK state should not spend £200billion on nuclear weapons and prosecute murderous foreign wars; that people should be paid a living wage for their labour; and that workers should have more ownership and control of businesses, then you owe a debt of gratitude to Jeremy Corbyn and the movement that brought him to power. Before any criticism begins, we must all recognise that this list of, frankly, self-evident ideas and policies are once again on our TVs and radios, in our newspapers, in our community and family discussions – in short, back within ideological reality and political possibility – thanks to the Corbyn movement.

The previously impossible and unspeakable has become possible again. I mean, just pause and think for a minute! Jeremy Corbyn! Jeremy Corbyn!…is leader of the Labour Party! WTF! That, for people over a certain age, in itself feels like the world turned upside-down!…

(2) Understanding and transcending fear and cynicism

And so, yes, although the ideological power of the media, think tanks, and education system remains intimidating, there is no longer a stable hegemonic situation. The system cannot be reproduced through active consent and even passive consent is dissipating. Hence, the rise of violence – both physical and, above all, symbolic and semiotic violence – is used in an increasingly desperate attempt to maintain order. In layman’s terms, we’re seeing increasingly violent words and images to attack all identified enemies of the state, the nation, freedom, prosperity, etc.

Faced with the capitalist system’s inability to reproduce itself without increasingly desperate and intensifying monetary interventions, mercenary parasitism, and ecocidal assaults, what is our response? We respond with hope and we respond with fear. Many key recent elections reflect this schism. What saddens me most, but does not surprise me, is that many people who espouse socialist values and views are condemning Corbyn, insisting on his unelectability, and even arguing that his election has destroyed any hope for left-wing politics in the UK. Not only do such views betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the political situation, more significantly, they express a cynical worldview, a subjectivity driven not primarily by love and hope, but by fear. What I would suggest is that this is entirely understandable after more than three decades of T.I.N.A. and the purposive and relentless attacks on our belief in ourselves and each other. We should have empathy with those expressing this cynicism; it resides to some degree in all of us. It expresses both a social and a personal fear – that our dreams are futile, that we are pathetic and powerless. It also expresses a deep conservatism driven by insecurity – if I take a leap of faith and try to change the world and fail, I’ll look naïve and foolish and there may be repercussions, but if I simply denigrate anyone trying to change the world I can appear as a clever ‘realist’ from a safe distance. But, ultimately, living in fear is paralysing, and hope, as Paolo Freire pointed out, is an ontological and spiritual necessity for every human being. Humans are not really beings; they are becomings. Ultimately, a leap of faith needs to be taken – in each other and in oneself.

Gramsci’s famous prescription is to have ‘pessimism of the intellect’ but ‘optimism of the will’. Far too often, I see not even pessimism; I see cynicism, which is a pessimism of both intellect and will. We have to work on ending this together. But, neither is a blind optimism of use either…

(3) Offering active and critical support to Corbyn

While we can readily dismiss criticisms coming from Corbyn’s political and ideological sworn enemies from outside and within his Party, we should not close our ears to potentially sympathetic Labour MPs and others who claim to have experienced Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as incompetent. There are sufficient mitigating factors until now to give him and his team the benefit of the doubt, but there are frustrations among his supporters concerning the audibility and clarity of his strategic message.

JC as OBK 2

A year ago, I wrote an article comparing JC to Obi Wan Kenobi. I suggested that, ultimately, Corbyn’s fate may be similar to Obi Wan’s – he may initiate a counter-hegemonic movement and nurture that movement and new leaders, but he may be destined to give way to new, fresher leadership. The crucial point is that the goals are democracy and justice, not the election of Corbyn’s Labour per se. Consequently, I would suggest that those who want to promote the democratic and socialist cause, whether Labour members or not (I’m not), should offer critical (not cynical!) support to Corbyn and his team, while contributing to: growing the democratic movement, ensuring Corbyn’s team are competent in their communication and strategy, and pressuring them to be even more radical in their proposed policies for transforming our country.

Conclusion: he’s electable, our values and dreams are achievable

Jeremy Corbyn has faced and faced down the combined threat of the oligarchic media and biased BBC and the attacks and coups of the neo-liberal Labour factions. He has emerged with a larger mandate than before. Personally, I now want to see Corbyn not seeking compromise with those factions, but using his strong mandate to push for radical internal democratisation and to articulate a clear strategic and policy agenda beyond. The polls are rigged, as is the electoral system. He faces huge structural challenges and should quickly embrace a strategic cross-party anti-austerity pact with the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens, as recently proposed by Caroline Lucas. I’m not worried at all by the polls. When the election is called, because of his historic breakthrough, Corbyn’s Labour will have plenty of time and space to clearly articulate their manifesto.

Our future will be constructed fundamentally on either fear or hope. Corbyn categorically embodies and expresses hope. We have to overcome our fear and support him hopefully and, of course, critically. So, I say to anyone who wants to see a better world, that world needs you to build it, so get out there – talking, learning, working with others, building communities, movements, and parties – and let’s get behind JC so long as we deem, critically not cynically, that he’s the right guy to lead.

Thanks for reading!

Joel

Language, Media, UK, Welfare, Work

Flipping the script: Example No.1 – from ‘benefits’ to ‘compensation’

Dear Reader,

Sorry for the prolonged silence. I’m sooo busy. It’s a bit of a crunch time for me. My research fellowship ends and with it any regular money. I’m not realistically gonna get any university jobs mainly because instead of focusing in and carving out a particular academic niche, I’ve done the opposite and tried to incorporate many more ‘ologies’ and perspectives. I’m keen to understand and respond to the fundamental challenges we all face and that means transcending the artificial disciplines that compartmentalise knowledge and research within the university. It also means doing more than research and actually acting in/on the world. It means also not acting upon others, but acting with others in democratic processes of knowledge co-production. And it also means working with other kinds of people, especially artists.

Therefore, I, along with some like-minded friends, have decided to establish the ‘Centre for Transformational Learning and Culture’ (CTLC). We’re working on a model and plan now, but we’ll fill you in very soon along with an invitation to join us and be a part of it.

Anyway, this brief post is about something different and related. It’s about language and how language is used by powerful elites to deform us and how language can be taken and used by us to transform ourselves. We need to flip the script wherever possible.

The war over ‘benefits’

Here in the UK, it’s all kicking off within the ruling Conservative Party and a civil war is breaking out on two main fronts: 1) Whether the UK should remain in the European Union and 2) The economic and political merits of further public spending cuts (austerity). I don’t have the will to bring myself to comment on the first issue – a choice between staying part of transnational undemocratic, corrupt institutions or leaving it to advance the self-interest of those committed to our own national undemocratic, corrupt institutions. I guess I slightly prefer the former option.

On the second front, after the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) declared cuts to disabled people’s so-called ‘benefits’ alongside tax cuts for the richest, the long-serving Minister for Welfare and Pensions, one Iain Duncan-Smith, decided that enough was enough and resigned. Suddenly, after six years and countless deaths later, he claimed to have reached his moral limit. Enough has been written speculating on this internal conflict. My proposal here is to suggest that we strike while the iron is hot and strike with language.

Iain-Duncan-Smith-001Iain Duncan-Smith

Flipping the script: From ‘benefits’ to ‘compensation’

The word ‘benefits’ is a classic example of how the ruling class constructs political reality. A benefit sounds like something good, something generous, something not earned, but received. The mass media, particularly the tabloid press, hammer this home each day with stories of the lavish lives of the feckless, lazy poor. Again, enough has been written debunking these ridiculous, toxic myths. We know, of course, that benefits are meagre and condemn their recipients to lives of poverty, even when they are working.

scroungers4

We should not accept this word. Rather than the ‘benefits system’, I propose that we start talking about the ‘compensation system’. ‘Compensation’ is much more accurate. This system offers paltry compensation for the dehumanising experience of having lost the right to a decent livelihood, access to education and training, and, increasingly, access to transport, health, and justice. In short, it offers shameful compensation for rendering people surplus to, and reconstructing them to meet, the capitalist system’s requirements.

Imagine the potential political impact if everyone who opposed austerity and recognised its barbarity swapped ‘benefits’ for ‘compensation’! It could be huge. So, why not join me. Any time you’re in a conversation or debate, especially if you’re on TV or radio, start calling it the ‘compensation system’.

If you have any other ideas for ‘flipping the script’, let me know.

Thanks

Joel

Capitalism, community education, Critical pedagogy, Culture, Education/learning, Ideology, Media, Value

On value and values

Hi there,

I’ve decided to produce a Soundcloud podcast of each blog I write. If you’re like me, you enjoy listening to things as much as reading them. I also spend a lot of time cooking and cleaning, so it’s a great way to learn new stuff while I do my housework. I’m hoping that the podcast will attract more people to engage with my blogposts.

Let me know what you think. Read/Listen on!

Thanks

Joel…

On Value and Values

I’ve recently revisited a wonderful group exercise called ‘Draw a Fire’ that invites people to explore the values they hold most dear. I ran it with all three of the community learning groups I currently help to run: Oxford Democracy-Builders, My Life My Choice, and Hodge Hill. All three groups are very different and, indeed, each group itself is made up of people from different backgrounds and perspectives. Yet, what this exercise shows very clearly is that the values cherished by everyone in each group are really very similar.

The exercise is taken from a practical community education book called Partners Companion to Training for Transformation (p.118). Here’s what you do…

“Everyone in the group is asked to take paper and pencils and to draw a fire with the help of the following guideline questions.

1. By what was my fire shaped and formed?

2. What is it that motivates me or gives me energy?

3. What is at the heart of it all?

4. What has kept me going/nourished me?

5. What kindles me, what causes me to blaze, smoulder, quench, rage, warm, destroy, bake, spark, etc?”

Participants work alone, drawing their fire. Then, depending on the size of the group, people can come into small groups or can reform as a whole group to share their fires and stories.

I will share three photos of the key words and phrases I took by listening to each participant in my groups when they shared their fires. 

Fire of vision and values

MLMC fire

 

Bromford fire

What do you notice about these three collections of words and phrases? What values do you see? What visions for the good life and society do you see coming through?

What I see coming through so clearly are a set of values that I believe to be almost universal among us common folk, a central emphasis not on ‘money and things’, but on ‘relationships and experiences’, as one participant put it. The values that everyone throughout these three groups here cherishes are friendship, freedom, community, love for others and for our natural world. Money, riches, possession sare all conspicuous by their absence. This is certainly not because all the group participants have enough money and enough things. Numerous people in these groups very often have not had and/or do not have enough money for some of the most basic things in their lives. So, what is going on? In our Oxford Democracy-Builders group, some questioned whether these values were indeed widespread, suggesting that they might just reflect the values of an already self-selecting group of people passionate about social justice and change. Let’s explore this question…

 

The universal human value system: extrinsic and intrinsic values

For decades, psychologists have been conducting studies with thousands of people throughout the world in an attempt to understand what humans value. Reviewing this research, one psychologist, Prof Tim Kasser, points to clear evidence for a universal human value system:

“…the human value system is composed of about a dozen basic types of values, including aims such as having fun, understanding one’s place in the universe, being healthy, and having close relationships. People in every corner of the globe appear to care about and be motivated by each of these basic values, although of course to varying extents.”

So, we share a universal value system, but, says Prof Kasser, this system can be divided quite clearly between what he calls ‘extrinsic’ and ‘intrinsic’ values. Extrinsic values give primacy to ‘financial success, image, and popularity, each of which involves a strong focus on rewards and other people’s opinions. In contrast, intrinsic values emphasise ‘self-acceptance, affiliation, and community feeling, which tend to be more focused on helping to satisfy people’s inherent psychological needs’.

 

universal human values

 


According to Kasser, these psychological studies have shown that extrinsic values are linked with unhappiness and poorer health and that intrinsic values are associated with higher levels of happiness and well-being. They also show how people’s values are linked to their social behaviour and how these values ‘bleed over’, so, if someone has intrinsic values in one area of their life, this is much more likely to ‘lead them to express stronger desires to support the larger community of people, other species, and future generations’.

So, maybe my friends in the Oxford Democracy-Builders group are right. Maybe the complete and consensual emphasis on intrinsic human values we expressed just reflects the values of a small minority, while most others out there actually emphasise those antithetical extrinsic values. Or maybe not…

 

The intrinsic majority and the perception gap

A recent report by the UK-based Common Cause Foundation presents evidence from its UK Values Survey to show that actually almost three-quarters of all UK citizens ‘attach greater importance to compassionate values than selfish values’. And, guess what, just as some of my group-mates thought that our intrinsic values might not be shared by most of the rest of our compatriots, the Perceptions Matter report shows that a huge 77% of respondents also believed that their intrinsic values weren’t shared by their fellow citizens. The Common Cause Foundation’s research reveals a large gap between the intrinsic empathetic values that most of us espouse and the extrinsic self-interested values we think others hold. And the Foundation finds that the larger the gap between the two within a given individual, the less likely it is that they will vote in elections or generally be politically engaged.

 

values perception gap

 

To recap, here’s the story so far. Three separate and diverse groups perform a group exercise that reveals a universal emphasis on those intrinsic human values of friendships, nature, community, love. The extrinsic values of wealth, possessions, image are entirely absent. But, are we just atypically nice people? There is evidence to suggest that we aren’t; that, in fact, the values we stress are the same values that 3 in every 4 people share.

Two questions come to mind now: (1) If we’re primarily all about cultivating intrinsic values, how comes our whole media and culture is totally dominated by materialism, consumerism, superficiality of body and image, in short, extrinsic values? (2) What about that fourth person? What’s up with them?!

 

The fourth person: the cultural production of subjectivity

Now we get political. Politics is about power and power isn’t just about making people do what you want them to do. It goes way deeper than that: it’s about creating the very human beings you want or, alternatively put, the creation of political subjectivities that the social system requires through the production of ideology and culture. Who we are, what we think, the values we hold are overwhelmingly related to the kind of society we live in and are influenced by the institutions of communication, culture, and education that structure and reproduce it.

So, what values do our institutions inculcate within us today? For author F. S Michaels, our institutions are seeding within in us a ‘monoculture’ in which the sole narrative we are taught is the ‘economics story’ to the extent that we are forgetting all the other rich stories that make up the human experience. Michaels is undoubtedly right. However, while I haven’t read her book, Michaels seems to be an idealist thinker (believing that ideas are the dominant force driving history). I am a materialist. The monoculture of economism that Michaels identifies reflects the dominance (hegemony) of capitalist class power since the neo-liberal counter-revolution of the 1960s. To establish political hegemony, a ruling class must naturalise its dominance; it must make us think that the way the world is is not socially contingent, but is as natural as the air we breathe. The fact that every area of life must be beholden to the economy, to the market and every thing we do as a society justified in economic terms – the fact of the monoculture – reflects the success of this capitalist hegemonic project over the last five decades.

The ideological, cultural, and financial resources at the disposal of the ruling class and the depths to which this monoculture has been sown is incredible. Just think of our daily life: the radio/TV/newspaper messages; the images of happiness-through-consumption we are bombarded with; the government propaganda. When one thinks of all that, one should probably be amazed that, after decades of increasingly intensive and sophisticated targeting of this stuff, after countless trillions of advertising, still only one in four people explicitly avow the extrinsic values of the monoculture! But, I’m not surprised! Human beings are intelligent, conscious beings. We know what makes us happy; we know what makes us sad. We might make bad choices for ourselves under conditions of stress, peer pressure, desperation, but, deep down, we know-feel universal truth and we seek love.

 

Towards a transvaluation of values

There’s a phrase in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche that I think I get, but might not! The phrase is the ‘transvaluation of values’. Nietzsche’s work was about showing us that the values or ‘morals’ that dominated a society were not natural, but were the outcome of a long historical development. He developed a philosophical/social scientific method of ‘genealogy’ to look back into history to show us why we believed what we believed. It led him to rail against his own society and its Judeo-Christian ideological/moral foundations.

Just like me, Nietzsche believed in values that transcended history. In stark contrast to me (and, it seems, three-quarters of the UK population at least), Nietzsche’s universal values were individualism and a ‘will to power’ at the heart of which were ‘exploitation and competition’. I like Nietzsche’s historical method (taken up later to incredible effect by Michel Foucault), but deplore his values. Instead, I argue for a transvaluation of intrinsic values as described by Tim Kasser.

 

Value: the foundation of political economy

At the heart of political economy is the question of value. Human beings come together and use the natural world to produce and exchange goods. These can be produced and exchanged in many different ways. Today, in our capitalist society, of course, goods are produced as commodities for market exchange by wage labour in increasingly complex, global, hierarchical organisations. However they are produced and exchanged, the fundamental question always is one of value: how do we establish how much of one thing we exchange for another? For over a century, the dominant school of neo-classical economics says it’s just a question of ‘utility’: the value of something was simply how much people were willing to pay for it. This subjectivist view really defined economics as a distinct discipline because, prior to the late 19th Century, classical political economists (most famously, Adam Smith and David Ricardo) held the objectivist view that value wasn’t just determined by supply and demand, but that there was an objective, scientific underlying determinant of value, namely labour. Karl Marx took their theories and radically developed them to reveal the secret of capitalist profit-making: capitalist profit (surplus value) comes from human labour-power (and nature).

Capital needs to grow; it needs to accumulate value; it needs to exploit human labour and nature and it needs consumers to continue to buy more and more in order to convert this value back into money capital and start the cycle of accumulation again. Consequently, the values that the capitalist class must promote are extrinsic: wealth, possession, status-through-consumption. There is a conflict between our instinctive and latently universal intrinsic values and capitalism’s relentless extrinsic values.

 

The political task: a society where our values determine value

One way, then, to frame our political task is to create a society in which value no longer determines, but is determined by our values. In such a society, rather than the economy and economism dominating society and nature and telling us what we should and must be, we would begin with our vision for our lives, our society based on our values and only then would we ask the economic question: how can we produce and exchange what we need in harmony with our values?

As it stands, value dominates values. Our world is upside-down and our suffering, as a consequence, is great. But, in this time of terminal crisis for capitalism, things are already changing. The stakes could not be higher, but, as I work with wonderful people in learning groups and read research that reinforces my beliefs, I feel a surge of hope.

Art and Culture, Capitalism, Communication, Critical pedagogy, Culture, Democracy, Education/learning, Media, Radical democracy, Television, UK

Five ideas for hacking television

Dear readers,

Here is an article out today on OpenDemocracy in which I offer five ideas that might guide any attempts to democratise the production and viewing of television. I’m trying to apply these ideas and more to my own project – the Capital City Project. Early days yet for that, but some good stuff in this piece if I say so myself! 🙂

If following a link feels a little like hard work, just read the article pasted below instead!

All the best and, as ever, comments most welcome

In Solidarity

Joel

In this article, I present five ideas for democratising television. The ultimate goal in mind is the democratic transformation of our society. All five ideas derive from a field of practical philosophy commonly known as ‘critical pedagogy‘. The question of transformation is a pedagogical one: people, communities, societies can transform themselves through processes of learning and the practical application of what they learn.

The practice of ‘hacking’ entails the deconstruction of a technological device or practice in order to fully understand its logic and function so that it can then be reconstructed or reconfigured to perform additional or alternative functions. What I am proposing in this piece are practical ideas for hacking television.

These are ideas that are evolving in train with my plans for the ‘Capital City Project‘ – a project aimed at producing a TV drama series and accompanying website. The drama will be based on and around the trading floor of an investment bank, telling the contemporary story of money. The website will be produced by a team of philosophers and social scientists, inviting viewers to use social theory to analyse the drama.

Before starting on the project, I had little idea of how television was really made. I now understand that accessing the television industry requires first penetrating the outer walls guarded by affiliated production companies. To do so invariably requires an already established track record of production success. Perhaps all obstacles can be overcome by a combination of money and contacts, but most of us don’t have those things.

This could lead most to abandon television and develop our own alternatives online – a process already in train. Yet, those committed to democratisation through intellectual empowerment need to think seriously about scaling up in order to catalyse a mass praxis: a society-wide process of learning and transformation. We have to think about how to democratise our use of contemporary media technologies in order to engage millions, rather than dozens, of our fellow citizens.

To attempt mass praxis, we also can’t give up on public service broadcasting. Though I feel the BBC has seriously reneged on its mandate to ‘educate, inform, and entertain’, under changed political conditions the corporation could yet play a central role in cultivating intellectuality and democracy in the UK.

So, in this spirit of optimism, here are five key principles that could guide our attempts to democratise television:

(1) Breaking down boundaries between television’s producers and consumers

Following Walter Benjamin, fundamental to the democratisation of television is the democratisation of the means of its cultural production. The barriers to achieving this are political not technical.

Democratising the production of a film or TV programme would require a practice of giving voice, ensuring that the objects of our documentaries or dramas become active, speaking subjects. Ultimately, however, the camera itself must be handed over. The universal male, straight, bourgeois gaze must be joined by a multiverse of gazes: female, queer, black, disabled.

We must also pursue the democratisation of our consumption – our viewing – of television, ending the paternalistic and manipulative concepts of the passive spectator that shape current television production. Here, a cornerstone of critical pedagogical thought is essential. Jacques Ranciere’s ‘equality of intelligences’ is a pedagogical universalism: ‘I learn everything the same way – translate signs into other signs and proceed by comparisons and illustrations in order to communicate and understand’. As viewers, we actively make sense of what we experience in just the same ways as we do in our daily lives. Any democratisation of television must recognise the active intellectuality and emancipatory potential of the viewer. A more direct way of putting this might be to endorse David Simon’s maxim of ‘F*ck the average viewer’!

Jacques Ranciere. Credit: Petitfestival

(2) Creating dissensus

The transfer of cultural productive power generates a plethora of voices and perspectives. It is now that the possibility for producing television capable of creating ‘dissensus’ emerges. The concept of dissensus comes, once more, from the philosophy of Jacques Ranciere. What we understand as politics Ranciere sees as a relentlessly policed consensus. Creating dissensus means disrupting our sensibilities of our naturalised social order so that we recognise its artifice and contingency. Other realities, other worlds suddenly become conceivable. It is this experience that is necessary for us to begin to remake ourselves and our society.

(3) Empathy for disorientation

Dissensus does not just disrupt what we see and believe, it disturbs our very subjectivities and identities. Dissensual culture creates the antithesis of what Theodor Adorno described as the ‘feeling [of being] on safe ground’ and the ‘infantile need for protection’ that our current mainstream ‘culture industry’ generates. Dissensus also reintroduces the personal and social conflict that television’s production of reality sweeps away or constructs and smoothly resolves. Consequently, initial responses to dissensus can include feelings of denial and anger. Producers of democratic television need to be empathetic toward this experience of cognitive dissonance or disorientation. We need to work with psychologists, psychoanalysts, and critical pedagogues to explore strategies for helping individuals, communities, and even whole societies convert feelings of initial disorientation into positive energy for transformation.

4) Theoretical glasses

Probably only artistic interventions can create a dissensus capable of provoking initial emotional response strong enough to open up transformational possibilities. Yet, the fact that dissensus can help us see our world anew makes the role of social theory vital. The word ‘theory’ comes from the Greek ‘theoria’ meaning ‘to see’, ‘to behold’. Producers of democratic television should invite viewers to use social theory to analyse the films and the issues they raise.

We can understand our own ideological perspective as the particular pair of glasses we wear to see the world. Transformation involves changing our proscription, enabling ourselves to see further and deeper. Critical pedagogy as a radical democratic philosophy is committed to self-driven transformation. We must avoid what Pierre Bourdieu rightly called the ‘paternalistic-pedagogical’ television of the pre-neoliberal era. To quote Bourdieu, we might regularly ask ourselves: ‘Am I seeking to get people to see what I see or am I trying to help people to see for themselves?’

5) Harnessing the emancipatory potential of the website

It is the internet that provides exciting technological solutions to the challenges of democratising television. We can build websites to facilitate and encourage online and real life dialogue – safe spaces for people to share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas; to help viewers use social theory to analyse the issues raised by our films; and to help viewers come together to join existing or create new social initiatives. The pedagogical website can also liberate the film from any direct need to be overtly didactic. In short, the combination of critical pedagogy, television, and the website has vast emancipatory potential. It can form the pedagogical bridge connecting art and emotion with critical reason, leading on to action and transformation.

Crowd Watching Television at Kings Cross, 1955-56. Credit: ABC

Why now?

We are all living in a state of permanent crisis. Even capital’s high priests speak of long-term ‘secular stagnation’. Utopian promises have been superseded by endless austerity and disciplinary technologies of ‘responsibilisation’ and ‘resilience’. So many of us are ill – physically and mentally. So many are paralysed by what Mark Fisher calls a ‘reflexive impotence’: we don’t believe we can change anything; we prove ourselves right.

The crumbling of capital’s neo-liberal hegemony and the emergence of the internet makes the media a central site of political struggle. As the gap between our lived realities and the reality we see on our TV screens grows, the legitimacy of our media organisations and their ability to perform their ideological functions decreases.

It may be that the BBC is steadily abandoned as new media enabling more democratically-produced output emerge. However, with its near-universal broadcasting reach, the BBC is uniquely placed to attempt the kind of mass praxis envisioned here. Furthermore, its publicly funded and owned status means that the BBC has a legal duty to serve us. A central element of this service is education. I believe that the BBC’s tiresome defence of ‘neutrality’ has, in reality, meant a withdrawal from the field of political education, leading it ever rightward over recent decades till arriving at what Tariq Ali has called the ‘extreme centre’ of today.

Last year, I was in the audience at a couple of events featuring senior BBC journalists. What was clear was that they had abnegated any sense of a duty or even desire to educate in a crucial political sense. They poured scorn on the idea, for example, that they should educate their viewers about quantitative easing. ‘Who am I to insist that people should know about QE?’ one asked. ‘Who would watch a 45 minute documentary on that!?’, declared another. We desperately need our BBC to serve our needs for political education. As the model I sketch in this article makes clear, this must and can be done in democratic ways.

British telly has always been blessed with gifted satirists offering us what we might call a beautiful fatalism. Yet, if our goal is to build a better world, we need more than critique. Neo-liberal capitalism has decimated our belief in ourselves and our ability to change our world. It’s time to produce television that seeks both to empower all those involved in its production and viewing. For those seeking to produce culture in all its forms aimed at democratic transformation, our goal must be to cultivate our collective self-belief and educated hope.

 

Education/learning, Ideology, Media, Politics and economics

Knowing our left from our right, Part Four: Complexity versus simplicity

In this series of posts about the left-right divide in politics, I began in the first post by arguing that the media portrays anything even remotely left-wing as ‘extreme’, ‘hard’, or ‘far’ left. In the second post, I argued that the usual definition of left-right as expressing one’s economic preference for how scarce goods should be produced and allocated by either states or markets first reduced politics to a very narrow economism and second was a red herring. In reality, even supposedly ‘free market’ policies have always required a huge amount of state intervention: to construct new markets requires bulldozing in an ideological, geographical, and, sadly, physical way. We’re talking huge levels of coercion and, frankly, mass murder to create and maintain a market society. I also argued it wasn’t even the case that markets define our economy. They’re very secondary to the huge organisational power of corporations which increasingly block market dynamics.

In the third post, I argued that only left-wing thought understood the true nature of human and social freedom and proposed concrete visions and ideas for us to create a society in which maximal individual freedom could coincide with and sustain social peace and justice.

In this fourth post, I’ll argue that one main reason why right-wing ideas have had such success (beyond the obvious fact of their relentless daily propagandizing by the media) is because they offer simplistic solutions or promises based on superficial interpretations of reality. These are false, but they can satisfy and help avoid us doing the harder work necessary for our freedom – independent thinking.

iceberg

‘It [is] easier for [the superstitious] […] to remain in the state of ignorance in which they had been born, than to destroy that whole construction, and think up a new one […] Nature has no end set before it, [and all] final causes are nothing but human fictions’ (Baruch Spinoza).

Depth versus superficiality; Complexity versus simplicity

Right-wing ideas are generally based on superficial and simplistic interpretations of reality. In the sphere of economics, for example, the reality we experience is taken as the whole story. Money is just what we see it being: a unit of account, a store of value, a means of exchange. Right-wing thought doesn’t look below this surface to see the exploitative social relations hidden by monetary transactions. They say a cup of tea is a cup of tea. I say it’s a cup of tea, but it’s also disastrous agricultural monoculture; its colonial and neocolonial violence; it’s overflowing latrines and the distended belly of a starving little girl. In the social and cultural sphere, again economists reduce people to ‘homo economicus’ – a self-obsessed, unchanging, cold calculating shell of a human being. Right-wing thought generally sees discrete subjects and identities where there is really blurring, fluidity, and complexity: men are men, women are women; there are boys and girls, black and white, discrete cultures and nationalities. Left-wing thought challenges this superficiality and offers depth. Left-wing thought says that, while men or women might be different biologically, the reasons they might be different socially are invariably not natural, but are socially constructed; that race is totally socially constructed; that nations and nationalities are largely constructed and the closed, distinct cultures that supposedly traditionally define them are actually fluid, melded with and shaped by countless others.

The world is far more complex from a left-wing perspective. For me, this means, again, that only left-wing politics allows for true democracy, social richness, and human individuality. But the devil has the best tunes, it seems. When individuals or groups feel worried or threatened about their economic future or security, attempts at explaining the complexity, interdependence, or hidden structural reality of their situations can be futile at best or paternalistic and counter-productive at worst. In contrast, appeals to tradition – to the nation, the race, family values – can work best in societies with low education and high media power. In the economic realm, getting beyond the superficial is particularly hard. ‘They are taking your jobs, milking your benefits systems’ works much more readily.

Nonetheless, the fact is that reality is deep and complex and the simple myths the right uses to soothe, enrage, or blind you are myths. Myths enslave us; only truth is freedom. What this means is that critical thinking and, I believe, shared learning are the paths to individual and collective freedom. That’s why I personally focus on community education and doing blogs like this. But the broader challenge isn’t beyond left-wing political strategy at all. The strategy lies in combining evocations of community, empathy, solidarity, justice, and freedom – the qualities that only the left truly espouses – with eminently persuasive and attractive arguments and plans. Nor is it in any way true that the most oppressed groups in society are any less intelligent and cannot also very often see the true nature of their realities, the true roots of their oppression. Indeed, it is only really in the past four decades that a working class culture founded on and expressive of these left-wing ideas and values has been successful, yet not entirely, destroyed. What is true is that we have lost a huge amount of individual and collective self-belief, hope, and pride. Consequently, as I see it, there are two coinciding challenges. Convincing our fellow citizens that the values and strategies we espouse are not fanciful but are actually pragmatic and realistic is the first challenge, but since our commitment to democracy means that all should participate in designing and building our future, this challenge overlaps with the urgent need to help our fellow citizens, after decades of overwhelming material attack and cultural denigration, to rebuild their self-belief, hope, and pride. That, for me, is the focus. It really does come down to a politics of love triumphing over a politics of fear.

Thanks, again, for following this series of blogs. In the next post, I’ll follow on from this argument that left-wing thought offers a more complex and deep view of reality to argue that the utopianism many express is actually far more realistic than the ‘reality’ that the right tell us we have to get with.

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