Monday, 4 November 2019
Wednesday, 30 October 2019
Saturday, 13 October 2018
Saturday morning with a new edition of the LRB, a pot of coffee and no dog-walking duties: pure comfort.
My work for the week is complete, my folders organised for a couple of hours’ work on Monday, so that I am ready for teaching on Tuesday. I can forget work for two days. Amanda is meeting a friend to walk Tia, so I have settled in my office chair, logged in to the Naxos muxic library with my Isle of Wight Library card, and have enjoyed an hour and a half of reading.
As often happens, although nothing leapt out at me from the cover of the current edition of the review, every article I’ve read so far has been engaging. The opener is a review of Bob Woodward’s recent book on the chaos of Trump’s presidency, Fear: Trump in the Whitehouse. It is difficult to know what there is to be said about Trump’s reign of confusion and hatred that has not already become cliché. Even Woodward’s book has been so widely reviewed, trumpeted and quoted in the month since its publication that I feel I have already read it. David Runciman, in reviewing it, picks on the idea of office politics; the bickering of the mundanely selfish, and observes the extent to which the current American administration has demeaned the role of government in the United States.
Sure…all workplaces contain their share of plots and vendettas, backstabbers and arse-lickers, people on the way up and all the ones they’ve trampled on to get there. But actual politics is about more than that: the power it brings extends well beyond the immediate working environment…
Except, he concludes, in the reign of the great orange pastiche, it doesn’t. Trump does not understand the forces he is supposed to participate in and does not care. His only tools of government are extemporised pronouncement, self-acclamation and hiring-and-firing. He has reduced government to something less, but we are all, Runciman included, struggling to find the correct image to explain the mess.
I had a strong sense that Trump reminded me of someone I had seen regularly on TV, but it wasn’t TV’s Donald Trump. Then I got it. The working environment this White House brings to mind is a reality show that displays a deeper level of truth by being entirely unreal. Woodward’s book reads more than anything like a mockumentary, and the person Trump most resembles is David Brent from The Office. He has the grating inadequacy, the knee-jerk nastiness, the comical self-delusion. But he also has something of the pathos.
The letters pages of the LRB are a slow-burn enthusiasm. I used to skip them, feeling that any pleasure they offered was of the voyeuristic, petty sort experienced by venturing below the line on online news websites. However, they are curated by the editors and are, as a result, always relevant to a regular reader of the publication.
That is not to say that a taste for pettiness goes long unrewarded. This issue, there is a further development – a reply to a reply – in the delightful feud between Rhodri Lewis, author of Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, and Michael Dobson, who wrote an eviscerating review of that book in the LRB of September 13th. The editors of the paper are wise; they let these academic spats blossom for just long enough for both sides to get a few digs in and then draw a veil over them, so I suspect Dobson’s current letter will be the final say. He has used it well. Taste the vinegar:
Lewis closes by observing that ‘on two or perhaps three occasions I have been seated in close proximity to Dobson at the theatre,’ and he is generous enough to speculate that my apparent obliviousness of his presence may have been feigned out of politeness. I am sorry to have to report that my obliviousness was merely genuine. However, now that I have read Lewis’s letter and his book and seen his image on a dust jacket, it will be possible for me to ignore him in future every bit as politely as he could wish.
Or, to put it another way: “That’s you, that is.”
Pleasurable as this is, there are several serious letters in this issue that extend the topics of recent articles without descending into vitriol, erudite as that vitriol is. In particular, I was interested in the letter from Steve Balogh about the article Neanderthals, Denisovans and Modern Humans, by Steven Mithen from 13th September, which reviewed Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past, by David Reich. The original review had made an impact on me because of the force with which it made the case that racial distinctions between humans are scientifically meaningless, and the stress that modern genetic researchers are laying on this argument. Biology has a dark history of -sometimes deliberate; sometimes incidental- racist interpretation. Now, even well-intentioned work such as Reich’s is laid open to examination in moral and social, as well as scientific lights:
Earlier this year, Buzzfeed published an open letter signed by 67 scientists and scholars in the social sciences, law and humanities about Reich’s treatment of race…The signatories recognise ‘the existence of geographically based genetic variations in our species’, but argue that ‘such variation is not consistent with biological definitions of race.’ Their position is not that human populations ‘have no biological attributes in common’, but that ‘the meaning and significance of the groups is produced through social interventions.’
The article left me with a view of a much more varied and sunny history of human and proto-human interraction, in which the boundaries of species definition are less sharp than we might imagine: an analogue to the answers we all wish racial absolutists would learn about racial definitions. However, this, according to Balogh, might be a misinterpretation. I quote his letter in full:
Steven Mithen steps carefully around the issue of the fecundity of the offspring produced by couplings between ancestral hominin species (LRB, 13 September). The initial sequencing of Neanderthal DNA was of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed only from mother to daughter. It proved to be entirely distinct from that of Homo sapiens: there is today no one on earth whose mitochondria comes from a female Neanderthal ancestor. This means that interbreeding produced fertile offspring only through mating between Neanderthal males and Sapiens females. Subsequent analysis of autosomal DNA showed that the Neanderthal Y chromosome went extinct as well. This means that of the hybrids, only the females were fertile.
The implications are clear: relations between the two populations must have been difficult.
Nevertheless, the developments in DNA archeology are rapid and fascinating. It is an area of study with which I want to keep up. We are a long way from truly understanding what it is to be human, and this new technology has a lot to teach us and a potential for misuse of which we need to beware.
It’s all about race, and its underlying impulse, hierarchicalism. All the mess of Trump’s misrule, and the broader darkness of capitalist inequality, come back to the separation of humanity into groups enjoying legitimacy and dominance and others excluded from that illusory social fortress. Two very different articles highlight this. The first is an account by Thomas Laqueur of a tour of Montgomery, Alabama, focussed upon the new Legacy Museum, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative. The second is a short, coldly angry article by Francis FitzGibbon about the destructive effect of austerity-led misrule over the U.K. justice system, of which, more later.
The Legacy Museum catalogues the scale of the horror of slavery, both when it was the basis of the U.S. economy in a legal framework, and in its reinvention as an extralegal economic structure, skirting the boundaries of slavery’s abolition. I recommend clicking on the link in the previous paragraph. On its home page, there is this:
The Story: Slavery Evolved. To justify the brutal, dehumanizing institution of slavery in America, its advocates created a myth of racial difference. Stereotypes and false characterizations of black people were created to defend their permanent enslavement as “most necessary to the well-being of the negro” – an act of kindness that reinforced white supremacy. The formal abolition of slavery did nothing to overcome the harmful ideas created to defend it, and so slavery did not end: it evolved.
Lynchings served as the enforcement arm of a parallel state in the U.S., and, in a way, they still do, although that parallel state now has one of its most enthusiastic denizens in charge of the greater nation. The sheer scale of the terror is dizzying: 150 deaths in a particular incident (more people than died on Kristellnacht), three a week through the 1890s and one a week or more for decade after decade, and well into the civil rights era. But it is the deliberateness of this sustained failure to concede the wrongness of one racial identity’s power over another that repeatedly shocked me throughout Laqeur’s article:
Lynching – charivari at its most violent, a murderous popular enforcement of majority community values – has nowhere else in the world been employed for as long or as often as in the United States. There are incidences of it in some Central American countries with weak governments; it is now on the rise in India. But it is indigenous here. Before the Civil War whites were the primary victims, especially but not exclusively in the relatively lawless west. After it, close to 75 per cent of lynchings were in the deep South; more than 90 per cent of the victims were black…But the story of African Americans constitutes a special case. No other post-slave society turned to terror lynching to maintain white racial dominance.
And they were horrible murders, as well: the atavistic desire to make the outsider suffer and to revel in his, or her, suffering.
In a 1909 article called ‘Lynching, Our National Crime’, Ida B. Wells identified another, unassimilable strangeness: ‘No other nation, civilised or savage, burns its criminals,’ she writes. ‘Only under that Stars and Stripes is the human holocaust possible.’ Europe had not seen public burnings since the Spanish Inquisition and the burning of heretics after the Reformation. Racial terror was more than instrumental: the hundreds of carnivalesque burnings and hangings were ritually constitutive of the white South, a holocaust in its Old Testament sense. Lynchings were sometimes responses to primitive fears of the sort we usually connect to the early modern European witchcraft trials and medieval pogroms: Charlotte Harris was lynched in Rockingham County, Virginia ‘after a white man’s barn burned down’; three people were lynched because the white family for whom they were working claimed to have been poisoned; seven black people were lynched near Screamer, Alabama for drinking from a white person’s well.
There was always a pretext for the random murder of black people, then as now; often spurious sexual accusations, but, among the many other lies, rejection of a business offer or trying to vote seem to pierce the crazed patina of pseudo-moral outrage of the murderers, just as traffic stops by modern, poorly-trained and heavily armed police forces make us see through the lying generalisations about black American criminality. We should not believe, however, that these pretences were (or are) anything other than rationales for power, because the murderers didn’t (and don’t). They knew (and know) what they were (and are) doing.
The so-called Wilmington Insurrection was, in fact, a coup; whites, furious at the victory of a mixed-race coalition in a local election, started a rampage. At least thirty blacks – the EJI puts the number at sixty – were murdered. ‘North Carolina is a white man’s state and white men will rule it,’ the local paper announced. ‘No other party will ever dare to attempt to establish negro rule here.’
The rape pretext, like all the others, can be linked to slavery: a metonym for the white fear of blacks in revolt. In her 1911 memoirs, Rebecca Latimer Felton, a leading Southern advocate of women’s rights but an inveterate racist, made the link blindingly obvious: ‘Southern fathers and husbands’, she wrote, remembered the fear of slave insurrections during the Civil War, and were ‘desperate as to remedies’. ‘It is the secret of lynching instead of a legal remedy. It was “born in the blood and bred in the bone”, and a resultant of domestic slavery in the Southern states.’
The other aspect of this terror-dominance is the misuse of formal legal structures to embed inequality. While the U.S. has seen a steady decline in overall crime over several generations, the imprisonment of black men has become its own holocaust. Neither is this a new phenomenon.
The museum shows how the Black Codes passed by Southern states after the end of the Civil War to restrict the occupations, movements and wages of former slaves led to the rise of incarceration of blacks for petty crimes, partly as a result of their inability to pay fines for small infractions. It also documents the advent of black convict leasing, when prisoners were hired out to provide labour to private companies. It is not hard to see the present in that past, and some of the continuities are almost parodic. The notorious 19th-century Louisiana State Penitentiary is known as Angola after the sugar plantation on the same site which was worked by slaves before the Civil War; after the war it remained a sugar plantation but was worked instead by black convict labour. Those not needed on the plantation were hired out elsewhere. But unlike expensive privately owned slaves whose lives mattered, leased convicts were disposable. In bad years the death rate among leased prisoners was roughly equivalent to that in the labour camp part of Auschwitz.
The final article I read this morning, and the one that made me put down the LRB and decide to spend another morning blogging, was a Short Cuts piece by Francis FitzGibbon on the deliberate, catastrophic dismantling of public justice funding in the U.K. When I stopped working (as a teacher) in the criminal justice system, in 2013, the prison system was at something of a high point. Much was wrong with it still, of course, and the creeping privatisation bode ill for the future. However, the generation of prison officers whose attitudes had been formed in the anarchy and violence of the 1980s (known within the service as ‘the dinosaurs’) had, by and large, been removed, or been sidelined, to be replaced by educated, professionalised officers of commitment and understanding. Suicide, self-harm, violence towards officers and other prisoners, and even reoffending across all types of crime were as low as they had ever been. While Disney had made an expression of interest in the next round of privatisations, and G4s and Serco were defying their incompetence to hoover up more and more of the funds available to prisons, the New Labour government, for all its varied and manifest failings, had managed to keep a lid on the U.S. style marketisation of prisons in this country, albeit a shaky one.
Today, five years later, we are in a state that is probably as bad as the worst period of the eighties, although, with the collapse of principled journalism, you would hardly know it. Prison unrest and assaults against staff; suicide rates that indicate it is becoming a tolerated norm for prisons to suffer regular self-slayings; staffing levels that make the delivery of even basic safety, let alone meaningful activity serving towards rehabilitation a wistful memory: the horror mounts up, virtually ignored by society at large.
Unusually, though, in this political and social disaster, there is a clear culprit. I have been amazed by the continuing power of a particular Tory Minister: Chris Grayling. He is a base, incompetent ideologue, with his eyes firmly set upon the dismantlement of a working U.K. FitzGibbon, focussing upon the effects his criminal uselessness have had upon the courts system, more than on prisons, has this to say about his tenure as ‘Justice Minister’.
Criminal justice has long been a sandpit for policy-makers, with the political imperative being always to appear ‘tough on crime’. It would be unfair to blame one man for the present state of affairs, but for casual ineptitude no cabinet minister comes close to Chris Grayling, lord chancellor and justice secretary between 2012 and 2015…Prison budgets have been cut by about 30 per cent. Grayling stopped prisoners receiving books. He cut the numbers of prison officers. He hived a large part of the probation service off to private companies, several of which have performed poorly and have had to be saved from going bust by the taxpayer. His legacy is the violence and anarchy that reigns in many prisons today.
I have long loathed Grayling. I find it hard to believe that he was not taking bribes or, at least, working in partnership with organisations in whose interests it is to asset-strip the justice system, on the promise of later favours. Otherwise, why, for fuck’s sake? Why?
Trump, interspecies rape amongst early proto-humans, lynchings, political corruption: all these horrors make it sound as though I have had an uncomfortable and angry morning. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a time when the BBC bases most of its news on the press releases of American corporate lobbying companies and The Guardian is lost in a trap of protecting its writers’ London property interests against all political good sense, reading the London Review of Books gives me a slight reassurance that, on many issues, I am on track, at least in general terms. I am outside the LRB’s social and economic class: the subscription is barely within my means now that my hours at work have been cut, but the recognition that I am not alone in my preoccupations is an important pleasure for me.
Tuesday, 25 September 2018
Anything I say about this speech would be inadequate. It is sublime.
Watch it, read it, remember it.
Emily Thornberry MP, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, speaking at Labour Party Conference today, said:
Chair, Conference, it’s a privilege to be opening this debate on behalf of my good friends Nia Griffith and Kate Osamor, their shadow teams, including Liverpool’s own Dan Carden, and my own superb ministerial team: Liz McInnes, Khalid Mahmood, Fabian Hamilton, Helen Goodman, Ray Collins, and my PPS Danielle Rowley.
And it’s wonderful to be back in Liverpool: a city we really thought couldn’t get any more Labour, but where last year, we won 37,000 more votes than in 2015, our biggest ever vote in this city. And next time round, under the inspirational leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, we’ll go one better.
It’s been 35 years since we kicked the last Tory MP out of Liverpool. And next time round, we’ll win Southport as well, and kick the Tories out of Merseyside for good.
Conference, as we all know, this is a year of important anniversaries in the history of the socialist movement – a movement always based on the unstoppable momentum of the masses, the incredible inspiration of courageous individuals and a core belief that injustice done to any of us is injustice done to all of us wherever we are in the world.
And in this year of anniversaries, we start by celebrating 150 years of the TUC: 150 years spent fighting for workers, not just in Britain but all across the globe, and stronger than ever today thanks to the leadership of Frances O’Grady, and thanks to a Labour leadership which now respects the representatives of our workers, rather than treating them with deliberate contempt.
And in this year of anniversaries, Conference, let’s recall it’s 130 years since a thin, humble, bearded socialist – it’s funny how those men can change the world – a Frenchman called Pierre De Geyter sat down and wrote a new melody for some old lyrics, and created the song we know as ‘The Internationale’, which inspired the working class of Europe and shook the ruling class, because it rejected war, rejected exploitation, and urged the human race to unite.
And of course, conference, it’s 100 years since the first women in our country won the right to vote and won the right to stand for Parliament. And don’t let anyone ever say that we were ‘given’ those rights, because the women who came before us weren’t given anything! They fought for those rights, they suffered for those rights, and some died for those rights. And everything we now enjoy was won for us by those brave, brilliant women.
But it’s also 100 years, Conference, since a young woman who never got the right to vote gave birth to her only son: a son who was refused permission to attend her funeral 50 years later because he was in a prison cell on Robben Island. Nosekeni Mandela never got to see her son freed. She never got to see him change his country and inspire the world. But he called her “the centre of his universe” so we owe it to her that he did.
And Conference, we also this year celebrate the anniversaries of some of Labour’s greatest achievements: 70 years since the Attlee Government created the NHS; 50 years since the Wilson Government helped create the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and 20 years, Conference, since Gordon Brown brought in the Tax Credits which the Tories are trying to dismantle; 20 years since Tony Blair secured the Good Friday Agreement which the Tories are trying to jeopardise; and 20 years since a Labour government started the Devolution Revolution which the Tories are trying to ignore as they hurtle towards a false choice between the ‘Chequers Deal’ and ‘No Deal’, either one of which will kill jobs and growth all across our country, and neither one of which we will accept.
But Conference, it is also a year of solemn anniversaries.
100 years since the end of the First World War, when young men from every corner of the human race united across Europe, Africa, The Middle East and Asia, not in the spirit of The Internationale, but – in the words of Keir Hardie – “to fill the horrid graves of war” in the name “of selfish and incompetent statesmen” who had failed to preserve peace.
And it is 70 years too Conference, since the assassination of Gandhi and 50 years since Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy: three men of peace, three men of hope, all shot dead because they believed in an alternative to violence and hatred and war.
And there is a final anniversary we must pause and remember today. Because Conference, it was 80 years ago this very week that the International Brigades were disbanded after their brave struggle against fascism in Spain, and their heroic final stand at The Ebro. And we pay tribute today to those brave men and women, including one of this city’s greatest sons, the legendary Jack Jones, who were prepared to sacrifice their youth, their futures and their lives to try and stop the rise of fascism in Europe.
And we need that same spirit today, Conference, because make no mistake, those dangerous forces are on the rise again in our world on a pace and scale not seen since the days of the International Brigades.
And it is not just the scenes from Charlottesville to Stockholm of masked thugs marching under Neo-Nazi Banners. It is also – far more dangerously – the rise of leaders projecting a form of nationalism not defined by love of one’s country and one’s people, but by hatred towards everyone else; by the erosion of democracy and free speech; and by the demonisation of any minority, any religion, and indeed any media outlet deemed to be ‘the enemy’.
And everywhere we see those governments today, we know they are contributing to the creation of a world which is the opposite of The Internationale’: a world where the human race is more divided, more drowning in hatred than at any time since the 1930s. And a world which is therefore utterly unable to deal with the problems that we all collectively face.
That is why our world leaders shrug their shoulders as the Climate Change crisis reaches the point of no return. That is why governments like ours continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia even when it is proven that those weapons are being used to murder innocent children in Yemen. That is why the war in Syria too remains so intractable and destructive, with the dozen major countries involved not striving to stop it, but playing their own lethal power games with other peoples’ lives.
That is why North Korea can happily continue developing their bomb; Iran can keep Nazanin jailed for a third year; Myanmar and Cameroon can slaughter their own citizens at will; Russia can act with impunity not just in Syria but in Salisbury; and Donald Trump can tear up treaties it took other leaders years to agree.
All because Conference, the world order has been turned into a global free-for-all, and the leadership to fix it is simply not there. But Conference, it’s here in this hall, it’s here on this stage, it’s here in Jeremy Corbyn. And we as the Labour Party in government must strive to lead the world in a different direction.
So with Nia Griffith’s leadership, we will support our forces, maintain 2 per cent spending on defence, invest more in peacekeeping, respect our international treaties, and never hesitate to defend ourselves, our allies, and our citizens abroad. But equally, we will never as a party go back to supporting illegal, aggressive wars of intervention with no plans for the aftermath, and no thought for the consequences, whether in terms of the innocent lives lost or the ungoverned spaces created within which terrorist groups can thrive.
And with Kate Osamor’s leadership, we will also rise to the challenge that Nelson Mandela set this Conference eighteen years ago when he told us that “one of Labour’s major political and moral tasks in the 21st century” was to “become once more the keepers of our brothers and sisters [all around] the world.”
And with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, we must and will lead the world in promoting human rights, in reforming the arms trade, in pursuing an end to conflict, in supporting not demonising refugees, and in turning the promise of a nuclear-free world from an impossible dream to a concrete goal.
And with the leadership of every single one of us, Conference, we must also honour the memory of the International Brigades, and lead the fight against the forces of fascism, of racism, and prejudice, and anti-semitism. Because that is what we have always done both at home and abroad, and that is what we must always do.
We were there in Spain fighting Franco in 1936. We were there in Cable Street that same year fighting alongside the Jewish community to stop the Blackshirts. We were here in Liverpool a year later, when Oswald Mosley tried to speak in this great city and was forced out without saying a word. And we were there in the 1980s – I was there myself – when we marched against the National Front.
And let’s remember Conference, we won all those battles! We beat the Blackshirts, and the NF, and the BNP, and the EDL, and whatever they call themselves today, however they dress up their racial hatred, we are there in the same streets telling the fascists: ‘No Pasaran’.
And when we look back on all those battles, stretching back 80 years, I make a simple point, it hasn’t been thousands of Tories assembling in the streets to fight the forces of fascism. It’s been the men and women in this room. It’s been Jack Jones and Jeremy’s parents. It’s been Jon Lansman and Len McCluskey, Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. So while I make a point of never disagreeing with John on anything, I disagree with him on this: we don’t need a new Anti-Nazi League, because the Anti-Nazi League is in this hall and on this stage.
But Conference, let me speak to you from the depths of my heart and my soul and say something I never thought I’d have to say in my lifetime as a Labour member and activist, and it is simply this: that if we want to root out fascism and racism and hatred from our world, and from our country, then we must start, we must start, with rooting it out of our own party.
We all support the Palestinian cause, we are all committed to recognise the Palestinian State, and I stand here with no hesitation when I condemn the Netanyahu government for its racist policies and its criminal actions against the Palestinian people.
But I know as well, and we must all acknowledge, that there are sickening individuals on the fringes of our movement, who use our legitimate support for Palestine as a cloak and a cover for their despicable hatred of Jewish people, and their desire to see Israel destroyed. Those people stand for everything that we have always stood against and they must be kicked out of our party the same way Oswald Mosley was kicked out of Liverpool.
And Conference, there is something more. Because if we truly want to realise the dream of The Internationale to unite the human race, and re-unite our country, then again we must start with uniting our own party, and ending the pointless conflicts which divide our movement, which poison our online debate, and which distract us from fighting the Tories.
Because as Gandhi said: “We but mirror the world so if we could change ourselves, the world would also change.” But if we can’t show the strength to change ourselves to change the way we behave to each other, how can we ever hope to change the country, and aspire to change the world?
But if we can do all that, just think what we’re capable of. Think what history we can create in government. Think what we can achieve that future Labour Conferences will remember as great anniversaries.
And I want to close with a story told by Dolores Gomez about the siege of Madrid in 1936, when every day she and her fellow citizens expected their streets to fall to the fascist forces surrounding the city. And sure enough, one day, they heard a huge army on the march
“Iron clad boots”, she said, “Men marching silent, severe, with rifles on their shoulders and bayonets fixed, making the earth tremble under their feet.” She and others crouched on balconies overlooking the street, rifles cocked and grenades ready to be thrown, just waiting for the order to attack.
But then she said, the army began to sing. “A thrill goes down the spines of the people, `Is this a dream?’ ask the women, sobbing.” But no, it was not. The men marching down the street had begun singing ‘The Internationale’, each in their own language – French, Italian, German, and English – the men of The International Brigades, all singing different words, but all with the same meaning, that when any of us is under attack from the forces of hatred, prejudice and exploitation, we are all under attack and we must unite and fight back together.
And if we can show that same unity today in our party, if we can root out prejudice and end division in our own ranks, then we can heal our divided country, we can unite our fractured world, and we can show that the greatest achievements of our socialist movement lie not in our past, but in our future. That is the kind of government we need for our country and that is the kind of Britain we need for our world.
Wednesday, 19 September 2018
A month or so back, a friend of mine who suffers from long-term, severe mental illness was attacked by a group of boys on her estate. They took photographs of that attack and posted them on social media.
They are pretty much immune from prosecution, thanks to the ‘viral’ response to their post. Granted, they are now pariahs in their close-knit community, and their ugly, stupid act will follow them into their adulthood, cropping up whenever they attempt to make any public progress in their lives. If you believe in mob-justice, then justice might be said to have been done. The state, however, because of the illegal publication of their identities on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, is powerless to take action against them. It can only attempt to protect them from the self-aggrandizing vigilantism to which they have opened themselves by their use of social media and their grotesque immaturity. The legitimate, accountable, democratically-authorised legal system has been short-circuited by a foreign-owned capitalist monopoly that uses the everyday indignities of humanity as grist to its algorithms and regards legal and democratic structures as barriers to wealth creation and the self-actualisation of the cleverest, luckiest and most amoral elite in history.
I saw my friend last weekend. She is terrified. She is not engaging with the community which piously leapt to her defense after years of treating her as a local embarrassment, and she thinks the police are trying to victimise her: their inability to give her a clear course of legal remedy for her ordeal has confused the issue beyond her ability to engage with it. She is also mesmerised by her Facebook feed, which seems to be confirming her long-standing belief that the world is purposed towards her destruction. Horribly, I think that her fear that the hatred towards the boys will swing back to her may be justified. That is the nature of restless, self-righteous, technologically-enabled groupthink.
The rule of law is a mainstay of democracy. Facebook undermines that rule. It is inherently anti-democratic.
A Short History of Social Media and Political Campaigning
The 2015 Labour Leadership Poll was a triumph for people who sought to manipulate social media in the service of meaningful political change: what Jeremy Corbyn called, “…a thirst for something more communal, more participative.”
By the 2017 general election, however, the political promise of the medium had begun to be diminished by forces other than the well-directed groundswell of public feeling that had empowered the Elect Corbyn for Leader movement. I am not an unquestioning fan of Momentum, but I think that the campaign to elect Corbyn as leader was a model of how to use social media to a positive purpose. What they achieved in ‘15 was to break the ‘echo chamber’ or bubbling effect of Facebook and Twitter’s algorithms, by pulling in unsympathetic friends of sympathisers, and engaging them in debate and exposing them to sincere voices of political hope. By the time of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and by 2017, the social media companies had realised that this was a loophole in their control of users’ media consumption and had adjusted.
Before Facebook became a publicly quoted company, focussed on advertising spend, it had been chasing engagement over content control, powering for growth, and there was a certain freedom of expression allowed to its users. By 2016, it was chasing the control of what its users were seeing to a far greater extent, refining their offering to advertisers and data-purchasers and trying to present a soothing, ‘mimetic’ (ie, reflective, flattering) experience to users which would make viewing Facebook a comfortable and reinforcing experience to which people would return without worry. That is why they bubble you. It’s not a service. It’s a mechanism of control.
Furthermore, the sophistication of the JeremyForLeader campaign, alongside the Occupy movment and the lessons learned from The Arab Spring movements, had caught the attention of other forces, both within the U.K. and outside it. Academic studies translated to media management policies which were adopted by right-wing forces and foreign intelligence services to undermine the impact of organised popular campaigns. Populism swings in many directions.
In short, the glory days are over for democrats who use social media. An open technology -the internet- that was designed to release knowledge, communication and democratic access from the establishment gatekeepers who had directed public debate since at least the 1850s, has been co-opted by a new capitalist, plutocratic, neo-liberal elite, to bind its customers into a tower of Babel, in which coherent exchange of ideas is anathema, labelled as TL:DNR.
The Limits of ‘Privacy’ Settings
Know this: a private Facebook group is not private. It is exclusive, in that the labour put into it is restricted to those who choose to sign up to it. This means that it serves as a mechanism of exclusion of those people who, for whatever reason, choose to not participate in social media. However, that ad hominen rant against a comrade to which you succumbed during the Owen Smith leadership challenge is available to the right level of advertiser, if they’re searching for dirt on the Labour Party during an election campaign.
And that situation assumes that you’re wise enough to restrict your rants to a ‘private’ group, and to not share your breathless prose in a moment of vainglory to your main feed. Or that all the members of the group have the best wishes of the party at heart. Or that the administrators have kept up with the constant changes to Facebooks privacy rules, and that the group is still actually set to ‘private’, rather than just ‘closed’. Or that no one is taking screenshots for malicious purposes.
But you know that, really. How else do the rumours of ‘green infiltrators’ get started?
Unless you delete your account -not just a single comment, but your whole account- and forego logging back into it for two weeks after you have deleted it, everything you have ever uploaded, written, sniped or ‘shared’, is sitting in a folder on Facebook’s servers, available to the highest bidder, and linked to you. Have you ever enjoyed watching someone try to backtrack on an opinion they expressed five years ago in a drunken moment? It could be you. Only the safety of the crowd protects you.
The Great Con
There is a rather mischievous argument doing the rounds in internet freedom circles that claims China actually has more politically effective internet access than the free West. I consider that nonsense: Chinese citizens have definitely scored real successes in changing government policy through internet activism, but they’ve been pretty well educated in staying away from economic, central government and foreign affairs topics. However, the state is not the only enemy of freedom, and in the West, it is not even the most powerful.
As John Lanchester puts it:
Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens…Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.
The sight of large chunks of a socialist party beavering away, providing free labour to create content for a few American monopolist corporations fills me with despair. It is as if the Chartists had had their discussions about citizens’ rights in the tearoom of the House of Lords. In the light of what we know about how Facebook played (or, as they claim, were played, during) the last American presidential election, we should understand that they have worked out how to neutralise justice movements’ energy and commitment. They want to keep you happy, yes; that is why there are cat videos, but angry people click as well, and division is incredibly easy to sow, if you know where to lay the seeds, and you own the field.
Know this also: social media, particularly Facebook, is as much a product of manipulative psychological theory as it is a product of technology. Zuckerberg actually pursued a dual degree at Harvard: Computing and Psychology. The mechanisms written into Facebook behavioural algorithms are rooted in the theories of conditioned response which underpin the most nakedly dishonest branches of marketing, propoganda and behavioural control. The desire for a ‘like’ or a notification of any kind on a social media app or browser window, is the same conditioned twitch seeking content-free reward as is used by the designers of gambling machines. It is the behaviour of the rat that has been trained to associate a button with pleasure and will starve to death seeking the signifier of that pleasure, even when the actual reward has been removed from the process.
Von Clausewitz said that armies lose when they try to re-fight the last war. The limited, almost-victory of the 2017 election was successful, as far as it went, not because of social media, but because Labour concentrated on what mattered: having control of its content and being clear about what it stood for. The brief flowering of commercial social media as a medium of democratic liberation is over. We need to create our own fields.
We need a CLP Facebook feed, but it should be treated as a shop window, only being populated with content approved by the CLP, in a professional manner: another method among many to spread our Labour ideals to the public. It should be curated, nurtured and controlled.
We do not need a public kvetching arena, which is what our ‘private’ Facebook group is.
Get off Facebook. Start creating our own discussion groups on secure media that we own: Diaspora is a good first step, but a Rocket chat server would be more instinctive for most users and would be easy to set up, and cheap to run, and we would own it in a way we would not own a Facebook page. It would also be free of the pressure to keep up, to keep chasing the approval of an algorithm. It would remove the competitive fury inherent in social media slavery, and it would allow us to discuss again, instead of constantly arguing.
Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power (1st ed), OR Books, New York & London, 2016,
Lanchester, John, You Are The Product, London Review Of Books, Vol 39 No. 16, Aug. 2017. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n16/john-lanchester/you-are-the-product
Miller, Patrick R., et al. “Talking Politics on Facebook: Network Centrality and Political Discussion Practices in Social Media.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 2015, pp. 377–391. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24371839.
Schroeder, Ralph, Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism Social Theory after the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization UCL Press. (2018) https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt20krxdr.6
Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, 2017, pp. 211–235. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44235006
- Cited in Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power, (1st ed) OR Books, New York & London, 2016, p143 ↑
- Nunns, p251 ↑
- Lanchester, John, You Are The Product, London Review Of Books, Vol 39 No. 16, Aug. 2017. ↑
- Miller, Patrick R., et al. “Talking Politics on Facebook: Network Centrality and Political Discussion Practices in Social Media.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 2015, pp. 377–391. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24371839. ↑
- Schroeder, Ralph, Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism Social Theory after the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization UCL Press. (2018) https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt20krxdr.6 ↑
- Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, 2017, pp. 211–235. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44235006. ↑
- Alcott & Geentzkow ↑
- Lanchester, ↑
Wednesday, 22 August 2018
I’ve subscribed to The Washington Post for the last couple of months and, on the day of Paul Manafort’s conviction and Michael Cohen’s confessions, it has paid off. Do not believe that Trump is unassailable: his poll numbers are at least 10 points below what a president with current employment figures and a bull market should expect.
Previous presidents who were in office during times of robust economic expansion, with low unemployment and a roaring bull market, generally had average approval ratings well over 50 percent. Trump’s egregious misbehavior consistently costs him at least 10 points in the polls.
Trump’s economic policies are, almost inevitably, going to lead to another huge economic crash, probably in the next twelve months. At that point, he is finished, apart from the prospect of a drawn-out, agonising criminal trial. While his incomprehensible moment of political power will, hopefully, lead ultimately to a redrawing of the structures of economic and political injustice in the U.S., I shudder to think what the immediate consequences of another 2008 will be for ordinary Americans, and, worse, poor people around the world.
Sickening and frightening as the apparent collapse of democracy and the rule of law in the United States is, the miasma of chaos that the ultra-rich have spun around politics is a global disease. In the video above, Christian Caryl, the democracy editor of The Post, gives a nice overview of the essence of inequality in politics: corruption.
Friday, 8 June 2018
The Candidate, by Alex Nunns
This title is available directly from the publisher, OR Books, as a print-on-demand paperback and as a DRM-free ebook. Click on the image to go to the order page. This review is of the first edition and all page references are for the paperback.
In the 2015 election, I didn’t bother to take part. In fact, I pretty much buried my head and avoided it. I did vote: of course I voted, and I voted Labour, believing that Ed Milliband was a decent man at the head of a lousy party, but I was, as I had been since at least the Iraq War, if not since Peter Mandelson demonstrated the Blairites’ real priorities in 2000, a reluctant voter, who felt he had no real representation within the official political system.
If you’d asked me at that time what my ideal prime ministerial candidate would have looked like, I would have said, someone who did not seek the position, who spoke clearly about the world, rather than dodging round ideas, who opposed war and injustice, who was not muddied by association with the Blair years and who was prepared to aim for a move away from the apparently unstoppable drift towards a free-market economic free-for-all. Thanks to the deafening hegemony of the press, business lobbyists and cowed or corrupted politicians, that position, even under three years ago, seemed like a naive dream.
That year’s election result, an increased majority for the Tories (although on a considerably increased Labour popular vote), contrary to the expectations of the media and their opinion polls, didn’t, therefore, take me by surprise, although I had seen one Guardian cover which had shown Milliband to have been catching up with the Tories, and my hopes had been lifted somewhat. Though a Labour government, as the party was then, would not have made much of a difference to the country, it might at least have wiped the smirks off the faces of Osborne, his lackey Cameron and their odious puppet master Murdoch. In the end, though, as we all expected in our heart of hearts, Murdoch got his way as usual, and the Tories got back in, apparently stronger than before.
It would have amazed me then to discover that, a little over a month after the election, not only would I have joined the Labour Party, but that I would be on Facebook (which I had left several years before) posting enthusiastically for a Labour back bencher to become leader, attending Labour meetings and arguing with Blairites about the leadership election, and even wearing tee-shirts declaring my allegiance to the leadership candidate.
I can remember sitting in our garden, late on a summer evening, after having returned from the Isle of Wight Festival, and deciding that this man was for real, and that it was time to put my money behind him. I joined straight away: I didn’t want to just be a £3 supporter; I wanted to be a part of the movement to reintroduce socialism into British politics, and to do my bit to bring together all the angry people who had had no way of finding a voice that could reach beyond the paywall the British establishment had erected around itself. Jeremy Corbyn was saying things that had been too outre for mainstream discourse: things like, poverty is bad and not inevitable: war is a manufactured evil, not forced upon us; the news media is distorted by vested interests and hatred and we should be fighting the racist anti-immigrant propoganda; we should be funding schools properly; we should own our vital infrastructure networks; we should be reversing privatisation of the NHS, rather than collaborating with the corrupt capitalist clique who are stealing our country while lying through their teeth to us. And, most amazingly, millions of people were listening. Within two years, I was campaigning for a Labour Party that was propelled by this man to reduce the Tories to a minority government, change the political dialogue and unseat the hegemony of the elite mainstream media.
It has been an extraordinary couple of years: from despair to hope. This book tells the story from inside the left wing circles of the national Labour Party and, if at times it feels a little confused, and a little too busy, that is because it has a lot of material to cover,
There had been some precursors to the Corbyn movement, but, living on the Isle of Wight, working in public service and dependent upon mainstream media for my information as I was, I had largely missed them. Principally, the anti-austerity movement had been standing for all the right things for a few years, and gaining some coverage, but had been unable to inconvenience the insulated political class. The anti-war movement was similarly strong in voice but still fairly weak in influence, although the greatest parliamentary success of Ed Milliband’s leadership of Labour was probably the defeat of Cameron’s plan to bomb Syria, although Cameron went ahead and did it anyway in his next term. The anti-tax avoidance movement had caused a certain amount of change of narrative among the Tories, but no real change of direction. Online protest movements like 38 Degrees had begun to draw together people who were not active protestors but felt angry about political conditions. Looking back, I think that, for me, the biggest nudge towards thinking I should drag myself out of hopelessness had been reading The Establishment, by Owen Jones, which was widely read in 2015-16 (I remember the enthusiasm of the bookseller in Waterstone’s when I bought it as a moment of political fellowship). In particular, I was fascinated by what is now a reasonably familiar concept; the Overton Window, which is the constructed restriction on what is considered permitted discourse within the political realm. This concept, new to me then, perfectly explained the previously incomprehensible way in which issues that I saw as urgent and real were contained and marginalised by the political classes.
I can remember a thrill of recognition when I read, “…as the late socialist politician Tony Benn would often put it, social change is a combination of two things: ‘the burning flame of anger at injustice, and the burning flame of hope for a better world’” Though I certainly didn’t lack the flame of anger at injustice, I had been lacking hope for a long time, and every event that seemed it should inspire hope would, after the first headlines, get dragged back down into the mire of politicians’ vacilations and newsreaders’ contemptuous headshaking.
After the 2015 election, the candidates who came forward to stand as replacements for Ed Milliband did nothing to remedy that. Instead of change, we faced more greyness and surrender to neoliberalism. My despair was shared by Nunns:
The whole narrative was ‘we need to move to the right’… This was getting to the point where you go, ‘I’m not sure I’ll be able to take this if this is the direction it goes in. We’ve got to at least have a go, through the debate, to pull it back.’
The standard profile of the politician to whom we had become depressingly accustomed by now was a professional technocrat, addicted to playing a game defined as much by its restrictions as by any desire to achieve anything beyond personal advancement. In the Tories, this created the dominance of, frankly, a class of corrupt second-raters, skilled at delivering power to their corporate sponsors in return for personal advantage, staying just within the rules they had, over decades, set for themselves. Tragically, the Labour Party had followed suit.
…within the ranks of the Blairite MPs there was a decline in quality over time…made up of spads-special advisors-many of whom had moved effortlessly from university to MPs’ researcher to ministerial advisor to a safe seat to being in government (this applied to Brownites as well as Blairites). It was a career path that produced technocrats, people who had never needed to fight.
As the candidates lined up to succeed Ed Milliband, this was exactly what we were offered: a line-up of identikit technocrats. Andy Burnham (‘soft left’), Yvette Cooper (Brownite) and Liz Kendall (Blairite) presented nothing of any substance to someone who wanted to be led against the corrupt orthodoxy of austerity and privatised public services.
They have probably been thinking for years about their unique ‘policy offer’; which combination of the words ‘future,’ ‘Britain,’ ‘forward,’ and ‘together’ they will adopt for their slogan; and how they will answer the question about whether they took drugs at university.
In that environment, the hopes of left-leaning Labour members were not high. Some even simply thought that the Left should simply avoid the contest. Owen Jones is quoted saying as much.
My view was that, in the midst of general post-election demoralisation, a left candidate could end up being crushed. Such a result would be used by both the Labour Party establishment and the British right generally to perform the last rites of the left, dismiss us as irrelevant, and tell us to shut up forever.
Had I been thinking about it, I would probably have felt much the same. I was not part of ‘the left’, but their views, as outlined in this book, were the very ideas I was dreaming of, and had been dreaming of for many years, thinking that they were politically impossible to believe in. I remember telling my sister that, at least, Cooper had been sound on the establishment of SureStart, but, given her bland, centrist campaign for the leadership, that felt like a quirky anomoly, rather than an indication of her radical, egalitarian politics. She, like Burnham, looked less like a campaigner who had sold out than a careerist who had a couple of slightly radical sales positions.
This very dreeriness and the weight of rightward-peering consensus was, however, what drove the left to search for a candidate. John McDonnell and Diane Abbott both ruled themselves out, Mcdonnell for health reasons and because he felt he was too abrasive and Abbott because she wanted to run for London mayor. Clive Lewis declined because he felt he lacked experience; “…I don’t even know where the toilets are”, but the desperation for a Left candidate to at least shift the debate away from surrender to capital was powerful. As McDonnell put it in a journal article,
That the candidates for the Labour leadership so far have failed to mount the slightest challenge to capital shows the abject state of near surrender of the Labour Party. No core Labour principle is safe in the rush to not only return to Blairism but even go beyond. Redistribution of wealth through taxation is denounced as ‘the politics of envy.’ Privatisation of the NHS is acceptable as long as it ‘works.’ Caps on welfare benefits and toughening the treatment of migrants are suppoerted because they were ‘doorstep issues.’
In this atmosphere, the idea of running to win was not really on the table. Merely fielding a candidate who could put the case for an alternative to servility to capitalist austerity was the only aim. Jeremy Corbyn was not even considered: “We suffered from a blindness to anything other than a conventionally acceptable candidate” Jon Lansman is quoted as saying.
The story that Corbyn tentatively proposed himself at a meeting of the Socialist Campaign Group is, according to Nunns, true. Despair had almost set in: “They discussed the alternative of backing one of the existing candidates in return for concessions…” and he put his name forward, assuming that he would be defeated, but unwilling to see a contest without a genuine Labour voice. In fact, Byron Taylor, the national officer of the Trades Union Liaison Organisation had suggested Corbyn to Lansman already, pointing out that Corbyn was “…the nicest man in politics…he hasn’t got any enemies.”
At this point, the Left’s highest ambition in the leadership contest was not to be wiped out. Nunns quotes one anonymous source as having said, “I don’t want the Left to fall flat on its face. The main thing is, we don’t finish fourth, or even worse than that, a distant fourth.” However, very quickly, a new factor became evident: people power.
The early signs were all good. Even before the campaign had any kind of central command, things were happening out in the wild. Throughout the summer what was known as the Corbyn campaign was actually an amalgam of spontaneous local activity, but in practice the official operation was often “at the reins of a runaway horse,” as Corbyn’s press spokesperson Carmel Nolan described it…[Marshajane] Thompson found an image on the internet with the #JezWeCan motif and paid her own money to have 100 t-shirts printed with the design…”We had a meeting in Newcastle where we literally advertised it 48 hours in advance and we got 250 people” says Ben Sellars. “This is in the first week of the campaign.” Meanwhile in London, an activist gathering held in a pub in Tottenham Court Road attracted 300 people wanting to campaign for Corbyn.
Jumping On Board
This must be around the time I came in, signing up to Facebook, partly because of a happy event around The Isle of Wight Festival and partly because I was, like nearly everyone I knew, amazed and delighted to hear a politician saying what I had been thinking, and speaking in terms that reflected the real world, rather than a photoshopped, PR-led mirage of ‘political reality’ that seemed divorced from the reality of my life and the world around me.
I’d found my dream candidate. Within days, I had joined the party, as a full member, not a £3 supporter.
The excitement of that time comes back to me now. I was far from the centre of things, on the Isle of Wight, going to my first constituency meetings, arguing for Jeremy, making new friends, voting in the constituency nomination poll, which overwhelmingly supported Corbyn. The local party here, like in many areas, was both excited and somewhat shocked by the influx of new faces, bringing an agenda that threw all the work they had done over the years up into the air. I must say here that the Island Labour Party, with a few exceptions, responded with great grace to the change. On Facebook, things looked rather different. A few very vocal figures were entrenched in their nostalgia for the Blair years and there were unpleasant and often circular arguments, which a couple of trotstkyite/leninist/whatever revolutionaries stirred with monomaniacal delight. However, the divisions were overwhelmed by the unanimity of the new voices, who leapt upon the opportunity to participate in politics that, at last, had some relevance to them.
This was the story nationally, according to Nunns. Local parties, by and large, were reinvigorated by the arrival of new members, while being, initially, somewhat sceptical about whether the surge in membership would translate to active participation. However, in the national party, the PLP, things were rather different. The best description is panic, and the most appalling example of the PLP’s failure to recognise the nature of their new support, and the change in the political landscape that it heralded, was interim leader Harriet Harman’s disastrous decision to not oppose the Tory government’s welfare reform bill.
Harman’s Horrible Blunder
The sheer barbarity of the Tories’ welfare reform bill, which Harriet Harman decided the Labour Party should not oppose, is well covered by Nunns.
It is a bill that piles the cost of the government’s austerity drive onto those in work on low pay-the very people Labour was founded to represent. But in her wisdom…Harman has decided not to oppose the bill. Labour will first table a ‘reasoned amendment,’ an obscure parliamentary mechanism for setting-out objections, and when that inevitably fails it will abstain…
John McDonnell, Nunns says,
has been sitting on the backbenches seething at the debate he has heard…With his first sentence, he cuts through all the vacillation: “I would swim through vomit to vote against this Bill, and listening to some of the nauseating speeches tonight, I think we might have to.”
He [McDonnell] continues:
Poverty in my constituency is not a lifestyle choice; it’s imposed upon people…This Welfare Reform Bill does as all the other welfare reform bills in recent years have done and blames the poor for their own poverty and not the system…I find it appalling that we sit here-in, to be frank, relative wealth ourselves-and we’re willing to vote for increased poverty for the people back in our constituencies.
That line-”…blam[ing] the poor for their own poverty and not the system…” gave me another new hero. It summed up the confidence trick that the Thatcherites had inserted into British politics in my teens and that subsequent governments, Tory and Labour, had embedded and refined as a cover for the blatant thievery of an establishment that regarded itself as above question: sneering at disenfranchised, abandoned people for their victimhood. The fact that anyone was prepared to speak with such moral certainty against the corruption of the Draco Malfoy of British politics, George Osborne, and his Pansy Parkinson, Cameron, gave me a little hope. The fact that the PLP bottled its duty in such spectacular fashion by not opposing this brutal, snide bill with every weapon at its disposal secured my certainty that supporting Jeremy Corbyn was not just an opportunity, but a moral imperative.
When the division bell rings at the end of the debate, 48 Labour MPs-over a fifth of the parliamentary party-defy Harman to oppose the Bill. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall are not among them. But John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn are.
The chapter on this inglorious moment in Labour history is particularly rich. Harman’s motivation for this career-defining blunder is discussed, and suggests that she was
…”traumatised” by her previous experience as acting leader after the 2010 election, when under her watch the Tories pinned the blame for the financial crash on Labour overspending.
According to Nunns, both Burnham and Cooper were desperate for Labour to oppose the Bill, but divided by a squabble over who should speak first in a Shadow Cabinet meeting, and therefore suggest the reasoned amendement. “But Harman was resolute that Labour would not vote against it. The Shadow Cabinet was fragmented.”
I remember being aghast and weary. Had Burnham or Cooper resigned the Shadow Cabinet and joined the rebels, I think the leadership contest would have been a lot closer, but they drifted into the disaster, tied to their belief that a facile show of unity trumped principles and, in so doing, lost my respect.
I wasn’t the only one.
There was…a perception of moral decay in Labour’s position, a feeling captured by Diane Abbott in an outraged op-ed published the day after Harman’s interview (on the BBC’s Sunday Politics on 12th July 2015). “How did a party that once promised to end child poverty in a generation become one that will shrug and vote for measures which will force tens of thousands of children into poverty?” she asked.
Stunningly, this is an argument that Labour won, to an extent. After Corbyn’s election as leader, Iain Duncan-Smith, the right-wing Tory welfare minister, resigned over further cuts, this time to disability payments.
“Fiscal self-imposed restraints,” said Duncan Smith while explaining his resignation on the Andrew Marr programme, “are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.” He might just as well have directly quoted Corbyn’s campaign slogan that austerity is a political choice not an economic necessity.
The (Over) Reaction
There was a quality of blinking disbelief to the media coverage of the leadership election. The over-ironed, open-necked shirts out of which comfortably Blairite skinny-necked ‘experts’ opined their certainty that a Corbyn victory was an impossibility were viewing the end of their cosy hegemony, and seemed to become shinier and starchier, simply denying it could be happening. Jonathan Freedland, Anne Perkins, Andrew Rawnsley, Michael White and Polly Toynbee, all of The Guardian, were notable columnists of the ‘left’ who circled their Priuses against the assault on the British media’s four-decade-long war against disadvantaged and marginalised people. Andrew Rawnsley lost his reason:
That Rawnsley should react with animosity rather than curiosity was perhaps understandable. Suddenly, the centre of gravity was moving away from the Labour elite to which he had unparalleled access, and from which he had mined the raw materials needed to fashion-with considerable skill-the books and journalism that had won him acclaim. Newbies were putting that all at risk.
I gave up buying The Guardian (I had been a twice-a-week reader, on average, for thirty years) and have only bought one copy since (although I am thinking of paying an online supporter fee, now that the anger it inspired at the time has settled).
A selection of the headlines from The Guardian website’s front page on 22 and 23 July gives a sense of the almost hysterical tone that thook hold: “Blair urges Labour not to wrap itself in a Jeremy Corbyn comfort blanket”; “Think before you vote for Jeremy Corbyn”; Labour can come back from the brink, but it seems to lack the will to do so”; “Blair: I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform.” On these two panic-stricken days alone, The Guardian website carried opinion pieces hostile to Corbyn from Anne Perkins, Suzanne Moore, Polly Toynbee, Tim Bale, Martin Kettle, Michael White, Anne Perkins (again), and Anne Perkins (yet again). There was no a single pro-Corbyn column…
But The Guardian had a problem: its readers [disagreed]…78 percent of the 2500 people who responded [to a Guardian poll] backed Corbyn…Such sentiment was often reflected on the letters page, an oasis amid the relentless negativity elsewhere. And anyone brave enough to venture ‘below the line’ into the netherworld of online comments could not mistake the strong feeling that Corbyn was being unfairly treated and his supporters patronised. Commenters showed themselves to be expert at puncturing pomposity and exposing illogic, but the most striking feature of their contributions was anger at The Guardian itself…The charge was that The Guardian was effectively trolling one particular candidate-one who had the support of many of its readers.
The long term effect on the press of the earthquake beneath the British political elite’s inward-looking fortress of privilege is a subject for another essay, but it is worth noting that The Sun, which before 2015 dictated popular political culture to a pathological degree, seems like an irrelavence two and a half years later. Who is The Sun’s current political editor? Any guesses? I don’t think it important enough to bother looking it up.
The New Statesman was particularly egregious. I followed it on Facebook and noted, as did many other people, that it became not dissimilar to The Daily Mail in tone. Indeed, when The New Statesman’s editor did “…stake out his position on July 22nd, [it was] in the Daily Mail of all places…”
The section on the press is, perhaps, the bit of the book which has had the most impact upon me. Part of the establishment’s great confidence trick is that it is supremely skilled at sidelining voices that are not in accord with its own. Its greatest trick in this regard is to accuse oppositional voices of being ignorant and deranged: think of how often you hear establishment lackeys like Melanie Phillips or Andrew Rawnsley describe criticism of power as ‘conspiracy theory’. They alone have the right to express opposition, because they alone have the inside knowledge which the ordinary democratic voter does not have a right to share, except through the filter of their power. In the Labour leadership election, this closed shop collapsed in upon itself as it realised that, for the majority of people, and, in particular, the people it thought it had effectively demotivated from political participation, their voices were innaccessible, irrelevant and ridiculous. The people who chanted Jeremy Corbyn’s name at a rock concert less than two years after the leadership campaign haven’t heard of Jonathan Freedland, Polly Toynbee, Max Hastings or Andrew Marr. They had heard of Laura Kuenssberg by then, but only as a figure of ridicule on Facebook and Twitter. The edifice of inward-looking, London-property-owning hegemony only really began to notice that the world had moved beyond it during this leadership campaign.
And this was not an accident. In the leadership election, the Corbyn campaign knew that it needed to reach around the fortress of hopelessly corrupted commercial and ‘public service’ news power and it succeeded.
Research carried out by YouGov in August 2015 found that 57 percent of Corbyn supporters cited social media as “a main source of news,” compared to around 40 per cent for backers of other candidates. “Part of the reason why they were spending so much time on social media was because they didn’t trust the traditional media any more.” believes ben Sellers. One of the main functions of the Corbyn For Leader social media operation rum by Sellers and Thompson was to circumvent the press, both by publicising the explosion of activity happening all around the country, and by curating the mainstream media to pick out the half-decent reports (“sometimes that was a struggle,” Sellers quips.
It was patently clear that some journalists felt threatened by the arrival of this new realm. A media narrative asserting that there is no alternative is much easier to sustain if there is no alternative media. The existence of a different point of view, forged among a network of people who would previously have been atomised, is what provoked the snobbish accusations of “virtue signalling” and “identity politics.” Being continually challenged about their bias and presuppositions brought howls of exasperation from journalists that congealed into a collective feeling of offence. It contributed to the general sense of consternation at Corbyn’s rise. Events were spinning beyond the media’s control.
Note: Spookily, as I write this, I have received a marketing email from O/R books for the second edition of The Candidate. This new edition is expanded to include the 2017 election and the email uses social media quotes by ‘Britain’s major political pundits,’ all predicting the demolition of Labour at the polls. The same quotes are used in this publicity video.
Hubris doesn’t get much better than this.
As John Prescott says, the heart of the Corbyn campaign was not tactical, but issues-led: they talked about policies. The true pleasure of recalling the campaign, for me, is the excitement I felt every time an issue I cared about, that had become codified, contained and sidelined by ‘the political process’ was dragged into the spotlight and became live and real. The horrible corruption of privatisations, the mental health care disaster, the cruel and sickening purge of poor people from the economy by ‘welfare reform’, the collapse of education, the barely-coded racism of ‘immigration control’, the designed chaos of Tory prisons policy: issue after issue would turn up on social media and, instead of being buried in establishment pundits’ headshaking, would be discussed, witnessed to by the people who were suffering from the policy and would drown out the lies that had been told about it with real, human truth.
The years between Jeremy’s first leadership election and the general election of 2017 included the doleful attempt by the right-wing capitalists within the Labour Party to challenge him with the corporate lackey Owen Smith’s pathetic leadership campaign. It only strengthened Jeremy as leader, although you wouldn’t believe it if you read the Guardian, for whom the only story was “how long will Corbyn last?” Even the stunning political earthquake of the general election, during which I campaigned with enthusiasm and blogged with fury, hasn’t blunted their hypocrisy and partiality. In that election, as during the recent local election campaign, manstream media has been on the attack, settling upon one particular lie, that anti-semitism is an attitude unique to the Labour Party and a characteristic of it. It has done harm, mainly through the old fascist trope of repetition and ubiquity, and I worry that the anti-semitism campaign, contrived and corrupt as it is, has done a certain amount to split the party at a time when it should be coming together.
Nevertheless, I am optimistic that we will see a revival of the enthusiasm when the current government finally collapses in on itself. The people who listened with interest when I was leafleting for Labour during the 2017 election weren’t members of the party, but they were careworkers, disabled people whose support payments had been decimated and blocked by JobCentrePlus target campaigns, carers whose elderly dependents had little or no support from a National Health Service being deliberately run into the ground, and they felt hopeful then, as I hope they will feel when Jeremy leads us into the next election.
I really can’t afford to buy the second edition of The Candidate much as I would like to read it. I read my copy of the first edition last summer, and going back through it to write this has revived my political fire a bit. I am still in the party, as the secretary of my local branch and, incredibly, I have been nominated to be assistant secretary of the Island CLP, which is a bit embarrassing. In March, I attended an economics conference hosted by John McDonnell, and I was awed by the depth of talent and energy that has coalesced around the Labour Party’s policy making: academics, campaigners, charity workers and, most importantly, people like me who just care enough to get involved, are all having their say, so that, come the next election, we will go in with policies even more deeply worked out and clearly thought through than those we offered the electorate, and so nearly delivered, in 2017.
There is still hope.
- Jones, Owen, The Establishment And How They Get Away With It London, Penquin, 2015, pxxiv ↑
- Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power, OR Books, 2016, p84 ↑
- Nunns, p235 ↑
- Nunns, p294 ↑
- Nunns, p 83 ↑
- Nunns, p85 ↑
- Ibid ↑
- Nunns, p86 ↑
- Ibid ↑
- Ibid ↑
- Nunns, p126 ↑
- Nunns, p127 ↑
- Nunns 191-193 (all three previous quotes) ↑
- Ibid ↑
- Nunns, p193 ↑
- Nunns, p195 ↑
- Nunns, pp194-195 ↑
- Nunns, p202 ↑
- Nunns, p219 ↑
- Nunns, pp213-214 ↑
- Nunns, p209 ↑
- Nunns p225 ↑
Tuesday, 3 April 2018
Another election, and another well-orchestrated campaign to drown out political debate behind lies about The Labour Party, using the well-known trope of screaming about prejudice that does not exist. The Guardian has reverted to London property owning type and has basically failed to cover the local election campaign, instead electing to smear Jeremy Corbyn with multiple articles about his being a racist every day.
I’ve written this letter to the paper and cancelled my direct debit.
I’d just got over the anger I felt towards the Guardian over its bias during the General Election, and even set up a direct debit to “support independent journalism”, when another important election came along and the paper reverted to its alt-right, fake news, anti-Labour faerie land.
There is not a newspaper that I can trust in this country. Having to give up on the Guardian feels like a loss, but the harm your alignment with a right-wing smear campaign has done will probably cost my job, my ability to live a decent life when I can no longer work and any sense that I am a welcome member of my national community.
Just to be clear, because you’re avoiding any meaningful reflection on the matter: you are pushing the lie that the Labour Party is defined by ideas and attitudes that are mainstream in the Tory party and are the very definition of fascist beliefs. What are they paying you?
You think you’re getting away with it, all you London property owners who are terrified of a just economy and a democratic movement. You are not.
To my delight, there is a decent, authoritative rebuttal on the letters page. I am posting it here, with no permissions whatsoever, to save having to state the obvious myself.
One of the main concepts in journalism education is that of framing: the highlighting of particular issues, and the avoidance of others, in order to produce a desired interpretation. We have been reminded of the importance of framing when considering the vast amounts of media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged failure to deal with antisemitism inside the Labour party. On Sunday, three national titles led with the story while news bulletins focused on the allegations all last week. Dominant sections of the media have framed the story in such a way as to suggest that antisemitism is a problem mostly to do with Labour and that Corbyn is personally responsible for failing to deal with it. The coverage has relied on a handful of sources such as the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and well-known political opponents of Corbyn himself.
It is not “whataboutery” to suggest that the debate on antisemitism has been framed in such a way as to mystify the real sources of anti-Jewish bigotry and instead to weaponise it against a single political figure just ahead of important elections. We condemn antisemitism wherever it exists. We also condemn journalism that so blatantly lacks context, perspective and a meaningful range of voices in its determination to condemn Jeremy Corbyn.
Prof Des Freedman Goldsmiths, University of London
Justin Schlosberg Birkbeck, University of London
Prof Lynne Segal Birkbeck, University of London
Prof Mica Nava University of East London
Prof Greg Philo Glasgow University
Prof Annabelle Sreberny SOAS, University of London
Prof Jeremy Gilbert University of East London
Prof Joanna Zylinska Goldsmiths, University of London
Prof Bev Skeggs London School of Economics
Prof James Curran Goldsmiths, University of London
Prof Julian Petley Brunel University
Prof Natalie Fenton Goldsmiths, University of London
Prof David Buckingham Loughborough University
Prof Gary Hall Coventry University
Prof Neve Gordon Queen Mary, University of London
Prof Michael Chanan University of Roehampton
Prof John Storey University of Sunderland
Prof Allan Moore University of Surrey
Jo Littler City University
Dina Matar SOAS, University of London
Bart Cammaerts London School of Economics
Tom Mills Aston University
William Merrin Swansea University
Catherine Rottenberg Goldsmiths, University of London
Richard Macdonald Goldsmiths, University of London
Milly Williamson Goldsmiths, University of London
Margaret Gallagher Senior research consultant
Jane Dipple University of Winchester
Peri Bradley Bournemouth University
Dean Lockwood University of Lincoln
Maria Chatzichristodoulou London South Bank University
William Proctor Bournemouth University
John Cunliffe Birkbeck, University of London
Zeta Kolokythopoulu London South Bank University
Becky Gardiner Goldsmiths, University of London
Jill Daniels University of East London
Seth Giddings University of Southampton
Maria Sourbati University of Brighton
Richard Smith Goldsmiths, University of London
Ruth Catlow Co-director, Furtherfield
Jonathan Eato University of York
Theodore Koulouris University of Brighton
Anti-semitism, like any politicized hatred, is anti-democratic, deeply irrational, immoral and anathema to the new left movement that has grown around Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The satanically cynical weoponization of that hatred as a meme with which to derail and shut down democratic debate in this country is a crime as great as the hatred itself.
If you’d like to let The Guardian know that they are not getting away with their toadying to the right-wing’s lies, this the place to do it. Be sure to include your full name, address and phone number. Also, keep your message to 250 words or fewer.
Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Saturday, 24 February 2018
For about a week now, the Tories have been trying to smear Jeremy Corbyn, not with some sort of misjudgment from his past, but with an absolute lie. Their sponsors in the right-wing press made up a story saying that he had been a communist spy, based on the fact that someone he had once met had included him on a list of people he claimed, falsely, to have recruited as spies.
There is absolutely no truth to this, and every informed source has stated so, including the foremost specialist in the Czech Security Service archives.
Nevertheless, the Tories are not going to let it go. They are stuck in the belief that if they can spread doubts and repeat a lie often enough, there are enough idiots who will believe it.
The Tory vice-chair, a loud-mouthed braggart with the sneer of a street racist, has had to pay legal costs and a “substantial” sum to charity after repeating the lie on his Twitter feed. Still the Tory scum are pushing the lie. [1 WARNING! Links to The Sun] [2 WARNING! Links to The Telegraph]
However, it is heartening to see that the British press is not without honourable representatives. I have had harsh thoughts about Andrew Neil in the past. There is little doubt that he is no friend of the Labour Party, but he has shown his journalistic credentials on this issue and gained my respect. Watch with pleasure as a snide Tory creep is skewered by Neil, as the journalist insists upon the truth over grotesque falsehood.
As ever, Jeremy Corbyn has responded to a ridiculous situation with calm, dignity and a rigid adherence to fact and good judgement. Murdoch and Rothermere fear rational, fact-based government in this country: they’ve had their own way for decades and they want to keep us desperate, divided and panic-stricken, chasing our tails over their lies. Corbyn threatens that.
For a broad discussion of the issue of political smears by tax-exile billionaires, the following embed, from the James O’Brien LBC radio show, is worth a listen.