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'In the struggle between you and the world, back the world' – Franz Kafka

Posts Tagged ‘Politics

The tyranny of structurelessness

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‘The idea of ‘structurelessness’, however, has moved from a healthy counter to these tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right…If the movement is to move beyond these elementary stages of development, it will have to disabuse itself of some of its prejudices about organisation and structure. There is nothing inherently bad about either of these. They can be and often are misused, but to reject them out of hand because they are misused is to deny ourselves the necessary tools to further development. We need to understand why ‘structurelessness’ does not work.’

As Jo Freeman detailed in the classic essay from which the above quote is taken, in social networks which are initally informal and horizontal hierarchies tend to emerge. If this is not acknowleged and its implications considered in all their seriousness, the current trend for decentred models of political organisation will lead up a series of blind alleys, and two excellent articles from the last few days make this clear beautifully.

In the midst of the swarm of networked intelligence, centres tend to form, which connect to other centres. For example, to know in advance about the Netroots event yesterday, you had to be connected to the right people on twitter and facebook. All nodes are equal, but some nodes are more equal than others.

Organisations develop their own interests, and the initial objective tends to be principally obfuscated by the need to survive. Bureaucracies and hierarchies inevitably emerge. Most social movement organisations go from informal non-hierarchical organisations towards becoming institutionalised and formalised as advocacy groups and mass membership organisations. As they do so, they inevitably slow down and become less reactive, putting more emphasis on their long-term survival and effectiveness, partly because ‘Bureaucratic organizations often are more successful at gaining access to established political channels, being recognized as legitimate movement representatives and at sustaining ongoing interactions with diverse constituencies including “allies, authorities, and supporters”’.

This represents a constant problem for the fashionable model of informal, hyperreactive, mobile, non-hierarchical organisations. New, informal movements will spring up more or less on a whim to replace those that become formalised and hierarchical, but for example in this country no sustainable or effective anti-cuts movement can be built on the basis of a new UK Uncut-style group suddenly springing up every two weeks, while preceding mini-generations of previously non-hierarchical groups turn to the slow and morbid business of lobbying and advocacy work.

As Richard Seymour also points out, the fetishisation of the power of headless decentred networked movements to overcome the ‘old centralised, top-down, upright, phallic feudal army without contradiction’ ignores the fact that power itself is diffuse, distributed, with a multiplicity of centres. The future of the struggle against power cannot be left to the whims of those who are better connected. There is a need for explicit political leadership.

The best thing is for that leadership to be open, elected and accountable, rather than pretending it does not exist. Hence the need for consistent political organisation around a democratically agreed shared programme, on a regional, national and international scale.

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Written by richwill

January 9, 2011 at 10:03 am

Me and Billy Bragg, Billy Bragg and me

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On my bedroom wall I have a signed poster of Billy Bragg. This suggests that I am a Billy Bragg fan, which is something about which I feel a certain awkwardness. To be a Billy Bragg fan is to associate oneself with someone always seen by many as gruff, proletarian, sexless, musically staid, and chippy. But nevertheless it remains a fact that the first single and album I bought were both his, his play ‘Pressure Drop’ was one of my highlights of last year, and I kicked myself recently on learning I’d missed his national tour, which ended last week. I’ve always felt an admiration with his seemingly boundless wit and warmth, and partly thanks to these qualities, and partly due to having, like that other group my fanship of whom has always occasioned a certain embarrassment, the Pet Shop Boys, he has managed to hang around just within public sight for over twenty five years without pissing off everyone too much and has in middle age been achieved the status of avuncular national treasure. Nevertheless like any uncle some of his pronouncements over the last few years have been somewhat dubious and increasingly conservative, especially around the questions of English national identity and tactical voting. There is an unpleasant element of both left-baiting in his relentless scorn for the far-left, and a not unrelated level of anti-intellectualism, both of which were evident in a Guardian interview published yesterday.

It is touching to read about his enthusiasm for the student protests, although predictably he also uses it as an excuse to indulge in some cheap digs at the far-left and anyone who tries to apply the lessons of the past to the present situation. There are signs that Bragg’s long-standing embarrassment with the legacy of socialism and communism colours his view of how things should develop, an awkwardness has always led him to temper his radicalism and try to sell it as instinctive, and organic, rather than intellectual. It seems churlish to point out that Bragg did not go to university and seems to harbour a certain resentment against those whose ideas for changing the world derive from detailed and patient analysis of complex ideas about society and how to change it. He is a proselytiser of what José Saramago used to call ‘hormonal’ socialism, although he now prefers to avoid the word itself if at all possible:

‘The people out protesting now, Bragg says, are the first generation ever to be able to talk about socialism without having the long shadow of Karl Marx hanging over them. If, indeed, they even describe it as such. “To be honest, I don’t care if it’s called socialism,” he says. “Anyway, what is socialism but organised compassion…They (the students) are making their own connections, and at the bottom of them all is an absolute sense of unfairness. That’s what’s politicised them. Not some abstract interest in dialectical materialism…We’ve got a lot to learn from them – their ability to join things up, take the initiative, not hang around and see what Marx would have said.”

He has also engaged in these debates in the last week or so, making very similar points on the already seminal Comment is Free piece by Laurie Penny:

“I now understand that what annoys you about Laurie and her generation is their refusal to be kettled in by either the Metropolitan Police or by the SWP and their ideological bedfellows.

Whether we like it or not, we are currently living in a post-ideological era. The language of Marxism is dead. Don’t mourn, organise! That’s what the students are doing – in a manner that is both different and challenging to those of us whose politics were forged in the 20th century.

We can either carp from the sidelines or join them as they take action.”

And is righteously smacked down:

“Laurie Penny, and in fact everyone ‘resisting’ the coalition’s education reform agenda, frequently draws on Marxism, even if she/they don’t know that that is what they are doing. And I don’t blame them, because if they want to talk about the ‘marketisation’ (i.e. commodification) of higher education, then they are de facto drawing on Marx! So to argue that the langauge of Marxism is dead is just a laughably ill-informed comment to make. It beggars belief.” (oxymoronic)

One wonders if Bragg has also been following that other debate about the meaning of communism and the role of Communist ideas in the struggle for a different world sparked off by Alain Badiou’s article in the New Left Review two years ago. The conference which that article inspired took place in the Logan Hall of the Institute of Education, the same venue as last year’s Compass conference, which Billy was at; but I suspect that the On the Idea of Communism event may have been anathema to him, given that it featured a series of Marxist intellectuals, two words guaranteed to provoke a spluttering splenetic reaction. It would be a shame if he hadn’t at least read Badiou’s article, because his aversion to the very names of Communism and Socialism is not uncommon, but to really think about what we do need to retain from the past, indeed to insist upon, and what we need to jettison, and who is this ‘we’ that needs to find answers to these questions, is an intellectual process, which demands that we analyse in depth revolutionary ideas and practices from the past. It is perhaps too easy to see Bragg’s dismissal of such debates of symptomatic of a British culture of anti-intellectualism, but it is highly likely that the experience of ferocious debates with SWP student firebrands on the Red Wedge tour in the 1980s traumatised the man and provoked this very evident revulsion at the very mention of revolutionary politics.

As I mentioned at the start, I love the wit and warmth at the heart of the best of Bragg’s music. Growing up I even preferred his poetry to that of Morrissey, someone who had a more grandiose emotional range which I as a teenager couldn’t yet aspire to. There was something in the combination of plaintiveness and gruffness in songs like ‘St. Swithin’s Day’ and ‘A Lover Sings’ which echoed my more stoical sense of myself. Morrissey seemed too much at home in his outsiderness, seemed to enjoy his symptoms too much, while Bragg was (for me) comfortingly gauche in his sense of romance and bitter at the world. I recognised myself in his songs, and admired his sense of engagement.

This heightened poetic sense can lead to political confusion, however. In yesterday’s interview he draws an analogy which seems to work beautifully at first, but quickly collapses when subject to further reflection. He rightly condemns the slavish devotion to market ‘dogma’ of all three parties over the last number of years (he clearly prefers this word to its near cousin ‘ideology’, which, given that he insists we live in a ‘post-ideological age’, would complicate things somewaht, but what the hey). But then he produces a metaphor which sounds apt, but isn’t:

“‘The market’s like fire, you know? Constrain it, harness it, and it’ll provide you with warmth and light and heat for your cooking … Let it rip, and it’ll destroy everything you hold dear.”

Now that is a fabulous image, but as I say it doesn’t work. Why not? Well, in a world increasingly subject to the iniquitous dictates of the so-called free market, billions around the world lack precisely that warmth, light and heat for their cooking. And this is not because the market is improperly regulated and managed, but because as reality shows quite clearly it is not an appropriate mechanism for providing the essentials of life. Warmth and heat and fuel for cooking are commodities exchanged for profit, but they are not, as Bill Clinton remarked of food, commodities like any other, or at least, they shouldn’t be. The market may one day have a role of some kind in a world ordered justly and democratically, but the essentials of life – housing, food, energy, transport, health, education – cannot be left to be distributed according to a system in which the winner takes all and the loser freezes or starves.

I very much hope that Billy Bragg continues to play a part in what appears to be a growing movement for radical change. But his aversion to intellectual and ideological debate may be an obstacle to his making a full contribution. The debates of the last week over the role of revolutionary organisations, and what new forms of media imply for how radical activists should and can organise have been very important and useful. The legacy of the reluctance of certain far-left groups to engage in honest and open debate in the past may be something that can be overcome, or it may be something that serves as an obstacle to greater unity, but at the very least people are now trying to have that debate rather than cynically bitching about the irrelevance and inadequacies of the far left, as Bragg has long been prone to do.

Written by richwill

January 2, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Posted in Politics

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Jack Straw, Zizek and UK Border Force

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An article in last week’s Guardian made it difficult for me to take Jack Straw’s liberal posturing on Question Time at face value. A ten-year-old girl tried to hang herself after being locked up for the second time and faced with deportation to Nigeria. She had recently been dragged screaming from her home by a team of UK Border authority officials. The ten-year-old’s attempted suicide was also an echo of an incident in 2005, when an Angolan man said goodbye to his son and then hung himself in the stairwell of a detention centre, in order that his son be able to stay in the country as an unaccompanied minor.

Perhaps when both families were being dragged kicking and screaming from their homes they were being filmed for UK Border Force. This is a Sky One programme, now in its second season, which is presumably made with the full participation and encouragement of the Home Office. It showcases the Government’s policy of sending out teams to hunt down and and round up ‘illegals’ and highlights the ‘tragic stories and challenges’ that they (the immigration officials, not the immigrants) face every day. Raids have recently been staged on a market in East London, dragging off immigrants whose only hope of survival is to work illegally given that the Government not only forbids them from working legally, but is also actively reducing even their most basic means of survival. Presumably in this way New Labour ministers hope to quench the thirst for brutal violence as a solution to the ‘problem’ of ‘illegal immigration’ which is, of course, a mainstay of Jack Straw’s favourite newspaper (see above).

Perhaps the Daily Mail is missing the boat somewhat when it comes to their bitter opposition to further British involvement in and cooperation with the European Union. Slavoj Žižek recounts the case of the Tunisian fishermen who face up to fifteen years of imprisonment for rescuing forty-four immigrants off the coast of Lampedusa. Other fishermen who have beaten off boatloads of people with sticks and left them to drown suffered no punishment. Zizek then quotes what Robert Brasillach, a ‘moderate anti-semite’, wrote in 1938:

‘We grant ourselves permission to applaud Charlie Chaplin, a half Jew, at the movies; to admire Proust, a half Jew; to applaud Yehudi Menuhin, a Jew; and the voice of Hitler is carried over radio waves named after the Jew Hertz . We don’t want to kill anyone, we don’t want to organise any pogroms. But we also think that the best way to hinder the always unpredictable actions of instinctual anti-semitism is to organise a reasonable anti-semitism. ‘

I can only presume that this is what Jack Straw et al are up to with their quasi-fascist hounding of immigrants. They certainly don’t want to organise any pogroms, but they seem to think that TV programmes which present pogroms as entertainment might serve as a means of pacifying violent racists, somehow making them less inclined to get off their sofas and round up ‘illegals’ themselves. Attempts to use similar means to combat racism and fascism in the 1930s met with limited success.

Written by richwill

November 1, 2009 at 1:15 pm

Posted in Politics

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“Let’s cross our fingers and hope he forgets not to turn up in Nazi uniform”

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Whatever happens on Thursday (and, perhaps more importantly, on Friday, on Saturday etc etc), Nick ‘well-directed fists and boots’ Griffin will come out of this whole sorry affair smelling of roses rather than shit and with a much higher national and international profile than before. To put it simply, he is absolutely not going to describe himself as a racist or nazi on national television. And according to the Guardian’s diary this week (can’t find the link unfortunately), the Labour Party is absolutely determined to avoid referring to him in this way in any case in case it makes them look, erm, anti-racist. Instead Jack Straw (that name pretty much says it all) is planning to attack individual BNP policies as unworkable and contradictory. Of course to do so is to absolutely miss the point. The BNP’s policies are, as Griffin himself has repeatedly and openly admitted, both a red herring and a smokescreen. The entire aim and meaning of the BNP is racist violence; there is nothing more to be said about them. I will certainly be there protesting on Thursday, but since we are dealing here with how these events are portrayed in the media, I fear that the protests will allow the BNP to present itself as an unfairly maligned and beseiged minority, given that, as I said earlier, when they are accused of being nazis their strategy is simply to laugh it off, thereby sidestepping and defusing the issue.

Written by richwill

October 18, 2009 at 10:49 am

Posted in Politics

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Mandelson’s lies about Royal Mail

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Peter Mandelson, friend of the filthy rich and aspiring Tory minister, is reported to be ‘beyond anger’ with the unions for ‘obstructing’ his ‘modernisation’ plans for Royal Mail. An obvious question here is about his notion of ‘modernity’; in the midst of the crisis earlier this year Mandelson himself was proposing the creation of a People’s Bank, constructed around the national network of post offices. Such an idea appeared at that moment to be much more ‘modern’ than continued slavishly adherence to an ideology which had led to social chaos, political repression, war, vastly increased inequality and a near total collapse of the economy. It was of course quickly forgotten in favour of continuing with the same policies of handing essential national institutions over to a gang of speculators, gamblers and crooks, thereby destroying the kinds of secure jobs that are fundamental to a functioning economy and laying wastage to public services.

It seems clear to me that promises have been made to the private sector with regard to the Royal Mail, promises that the Government is determined to keep at any cost. It all puts me in mind of Blair’s secret promise to Bush about the war in Iraq. Let’s be clear: we are dealing with a bunch of liars. Nothing that the Government says with regard to the present or future of Royal Mail can be trusted in the slightest, as this excellent LRB article makes clear.

A prediction: in just under a year’s time we will see this utter scumbag sitting on the stage at the next Conservative Party conference. The fact that the Labour Party is determined to spend its last few months in power on a hell-bent mission to destroy jobs and services as a favour to the private sector says it all. I would sooner vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party than this bunch of cynical f******* *****.

After the decimation of trade union power over the last thirty years, a lot of people simply don’t seem to have any understanding of why people in public services go on strike. Comments abound such as, it’s all very well to go on strike as long as it doesn’t harm the public, or, I don’t see why i have to suffer, I’m not responsible for the policies of the Government. I believe that the government is the government of all of us; we as citizens have an ethical duty to accept or to fight against the decisions that our Government takes. The most powerful tool the postal workers have in their fight to defend jobs and services (for them and for all of us) is the right to withdraw their labour, and I for one support them wholeheartedly, even though it may well mean that I suffer personally in the short term.

Written by richwill

October 18, 2009 at 10:47 am

Posted in Politics, Uncategorized

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Our own little mini-Pearl Harbour?!

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I remain very suspicious about the fact that the RBS, which is right next to the Bank of England, was left completely unguarded at the height of the G20 demonstration. The attack on it has already been used as an excuse to attack social centres around London and arrest a number of people, as this sickening report attests.

I spent a couple of hours yesterday arguing about this with a banker in Barclays and although he conceded that the demonstrators had a point, and that the police may have been a little rough, the main focus of his argument was that the protestors were there to smash things up and had to be stopped. This coincides exactly with the story that the police and the media have been telling, and the only evidence he had for it was the attack on the bank.

I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I am of the firm opinion that the attack on the RBS was essentially orchestrated by the police in order to provide the media with images of violent destruction of property. Just look at this photo: *dozens* of photographers, and *no* police. At the time, as anyone who was there knows, the police were *everywhere*. And, as this one shows, the RBS – the country’s most hated bank, and a blindingly obvious target – is *right next to the Bank of England*. In this video we can hear the news presenters trying very hard to convincingly explain to themselves and the viewers why it is that the police are standing back and doing nothing while the bank is trashed.

And according to someone who actually witnessed the attack:

‘There were a load of police further down from RBS who could have EASILY stopped the damage being done. Which for the record was done solely by about 10 people. The rest being a weird circle of cameras, waiting for the next kick. One guy started lighting the blinds on fire. I have footage also of a guy in a suit, maybe a bank worker, or police not in uniform, filming it, smiling, and laughing with another cop up above from the opposite building. They watched on amongst many other policemen with cameras as a fire was attempted to be lit. A photographer blew the small flames out before it got out of hand. Some protesters then went inside. Only after a while did the police then go into the building, and take a load more pictures of us all for their snatching operation later on in the day.’

Also, and I may be going slightly bonkers here, look at this clip, and watch the guys provoking the police from about 15 seconds in, two in black and one in white. They seem to be acting, acting in fact with a certain amount of impunity. The guy with the metal bar is by far the most violent of the protestors, and his identically dressed friend seems to be trying to egg the crowd on to more acts of bravado. The guy in white was on the front of several of yesterday’s newspapers, sneering in the faces of the police, covered in what appeared to me to be fake blood. Imagine that scene without those three guys, and then watch this. Ring any bells? I suggest that those three protestors are in fact police provocateurs.

I predict that given this kind of policing, and the ease of creating and distributing footage which exposes the lies of the police authorities with regard to who did what to whom, it is only a matter of a couple of years before the British Government follows the examples of China and Pakistan and clamps down on access to youtube!

Written by richwill

April 3, 2009 at 1:24 pm

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