Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Paedophile Next Door

Are we living at peak paedophile? No, we passed that a few years ago. But we do live in a culture saturated by paedophile panic. You're practically not allowed to have contact with kids unless cleared by the Disclosure and Barring Service. Nary a day goes by without a paedophile somewhere getting banged up. We've had dear old Rolf, ex-cuddly crying man for Animal Hospital jailed. The horrifying crimes of ex-Lost Prophets singer Ian Watkins and the beyond imagining criminal depravity of Jimmy Savile. Added to the mix is the appalling goings-ons in Rotherham and the historic investigation of paedophilia and murder allegedly involving Members of Parliament.

Thankfully, still, child sex crimes remain relatively rare. According to the NSPCC, there were 23,000 child sex offences recorded last year, of which 5,500 were against kids under the age of 11. However, they maintain that abuse is underreported and as many as five per cent of all children have been sexually abused. That's far, far too many children living in fear of (mainly) a parent or relative. Words just do not exist.

As sentences catch up with public revulsion, lengthy jail terms do not appear to be acting as a deterrent. How can we ensure kids are protected from abuse? This is something Channel 4 have asked a self-confessed paedophile this evening in their The Paedophile Next Door.

Headed up by Steve Humphries,the documentary filmmaker who uncovered child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, the programme turned around three stories and expert talking heads. The first belonged to Sarah Forsyth, an abuse survivor who was attacked regularly by her father from the age of three. What made her experience all the more harrowing was that she was sent to a children's home when it all came to light. And there she was abused by a gang of paedophiles who were supposedly her carers. When she was discharged she had the satisfaction of seeing her dad locked up, but subsequently ended up doing sex work in Amsterdam. It was unclear whether the gang were ever brought to justice. However, she is now retraining as a social worker to help keep at-risk kids safe from abuse.

Ian McFadyen has risen to some prominence in the media as one of the leaders of abuse survivors involved in Theresa May's botched enquiry into an establishment cover up. He attended Caldicott prep school where he came to the attention of a group of predatory teachers around the deputy head, George Hill. Again, in a series of graphic descriptions Ian tells of how he was groomed, initially treated with some tenderness and - at the time - felt he had become complicit with the abuse inflicted on him. As it carried on and more teachers became involved, Ian got heavily into drink and drugs, and used to skip to London at weekend to sell himself to other men. Ian, however, was fortunate enough to see his abusers imprisoned - Hill himself committed suicide as the net closed in on him.

The third guest was a man called Eddie. He is 39 and admitted that since his mid-20s he's been sexually attracted to children, sometimes kids as young as four. He was also quick to add that he has never acted on his feelings, has no intention of doing, nor ever wants to. Eddie typifies the "virtuous" paedophile - those who have sexual feelings toward children, but are simultaneously horrified/disgusted by their proclivities. He was also typical in the sense that your average paedophile is a heterosexual man who is also attracted to women. His preferences were "non-exclusive" allowing him and many others to carry on otherwise outwardly normal, law-abiding lives.

Asked why he had decided to come out publicly, he recognised he was leaving himself open to abuse and physical attack. Yet Eddie also thought that responding to him violently merely underlined the status quo, a situation where paedophiles are left to their own devices until they commit an offence and then the weight of justice and public opprobrium falls upon them. What is needed is help before an offence is committed.

Dr Sarah Goode, an expert in paedophiles and child sexual abuse concurred. She argued that paedophiles are moral people just like the rest of us who make moral choices. Instead of going overboard with the demonisation of paedophiles before they've abused a child, society needs to make that appeal and tell them that they can choose to keep children safe. They are not prisoners of their impulses, but this has to be balanced by society's recognition that it needs to make help is available.

Humphries, who began the programme with some scepticism came round to this view as well. The crackdown on the notorious Paedophile Information Exchange, the increased number of reports referred to police after 1986 (the year Childline was set up), the documenting and tracking of abusive images and films, and the opportunist campaign by News of the World to name and shame released paedophiles on the sex offenders register. Not only has this stopped an epidemic of abuse, the latter brainchild of Rebekah Brooks may have contributed to an increase of abuse by driving sex offenders underground and back into their networks, which increases the likelihood of reoffending.

If the old, draconian methods don't work, what can we do to keep kids safe? For retired copper Jon Taylor, a former specialist on child sex abuse cases, we need more online safety at home - parents must supervise the online world of their kids. Survivors like Sarah can also help in the detection of abuse. Yet, what the programme explored is a radical approach. One such initiative is Circles. Here volunteers monitor but also support released paedophiles to prevent them from reoffending. Acting as a friend/social support to these people had a reportedly 70% success rate (i.e. 30% on the programme reoffended). Again, this only engages with paedophiles after a child's life has been blighted. The programme briefly touches on a German initiative that does just this. It combines a residential course combining counselling and treatment, and it turns out that Eddie has enrolled on similar therapy regime. Interestingly, Ian Macfadyn agrees with this approach.

The Paedophile Next Door wasn't an easy watch. It was uncomfortable because the tone it adopted to Eddie was sympathetic, which is something of a cultural first considering only condemnation has hitherto been permissible. Perhaps there is a change in public attitudes though, at least if this hashtag is anything to go by. Nevertheless what Channel 4 have done is inject some much-needed debate into dealing with paedophiles and protecting kids. If we want to stop child sex abuse by any means necessary, it's got to mean just that.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Notes on #CameronMustGo

At the Stoke Central Labour annual fundraiser on Friday night, our guest Alastair Campbell argued it was absolutely necessary for Labour people to use Twitter, despite the "difficulties" Emily Thornberry had got herself into. For Alastair, social media was a platform by which we could reach huge audiences, shortcutting the gatekeeper functions of the press and TV news. Not an original musing it has to be said, but a truism borne out less than a day later with #CameronMustGo. Last weekend #webackEd achieved the similar, and many of the people who were behind that did the twitterly spadework to get this one off the ground. The key difference is #CameronMustGo is much bigger.

Since Saturday, it's been menacing - and occasionally capturing - the top trend spot. According to DataRank it's had about 300,000 mentions and has therefore reached the feeds of millions of users. Attempts at trolling and/or derailing have simply been swamped by the tidal wave of bad publicity pointing at child poverty, the victimisation of the disabled, and exponential growth of food banks, and other stories that tend not to get much serious treatment by the media. As I said last week, for virals to take off there has to be a palpable sense of grievance and looking at Twitter there are many, many tens of thousands who do feel aggrieved that the Tories get an easier ride than Labour do.

Nothing like this wouldn't be anything like this if it didn't attract its share of snarks. And one variation on a theme has made me bristle/shake my head. It goes something like this: "I bet Cameron's definitely going to resign now because bad things have been tweeted about him." You can almost see the superciliousness dripping off their tweets, and the smug grins of those who write them. Fools. Education about how official politics works in Britain isn't what it should be, but do they really, seriously suppose anyone is daft enough to think Dave will pack his bags because of a trending topic? That's almost as daft as thinking there are people out there who really think that. Second, they're missing what this political tweeting malarkey is about. Twitter has been used to draw in a web of loosely connected people around a common political project twice. It has cohered an online bloc that can and will be used to disseminate information and news during the election campaign. In this age of churnalism, of newsrooms cut to the bone and column inches paraphrased from social media outpourings, day after day of pro-Labour trending topics will inevitably ingress into the mainstream. What originally started off as a protest against the media might find itself nudging that coverage.

There is another aspect to this too. Not everyone tweeting about Dave is a Labour person. Yes, it was Labour activists behind both operations and they have been seized with much gusto by MPs and other party-related Twitter celebs. But what it gives the appearance of is a sense of community, a shared identity, and a common endeavour. Let the snarks snark, Twitter events like this raise awareness and, crucially, establish weak ties that can - and do - translate into real world action.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Neil Findlay for Scottish Labour Leader

Recall the Scottish independence referendum? Can you remember the panic when a few polls put the Yes camp in the lead? Politics is a fickle business but surely that was burned on every Westminster psyche. Dozens of Labour MPs should remember it. They tramped north of Hadrian's Wall to tell the fine people of Scotland to stay with us. We're better together because of reasons, etc. One of those MPs was Ivan Lewis, whose trip to Glasgow was serenaded by the Imperial March of Star Wars fame. I'm sure he looks fondly back on it now. I also suppose he remembers why he went. Scotland leaving the union would've affected us English and Welsh just as much as the Scots.

Writing for the Sunday Herald, Tom Watson makes the case for Neil Findlay's Scottish leadership campaign and recommends party members back him. Ivan Lewis disagrees. After Tom's article appeared, Ivan tweeted "It's essential that Scots decide best person to be leader of Scottish Labour. Others interfering not in the interests of the Labour Party." Tom tweeted back and it went downhill from there.

Whatever one's opinion on the leadership election, it's Ivan who's in the wrong here. It's an important contest not without consequences for Labour in the rest of Britain. Just like the referendum. Anyone who cares about our prospects in next year's election and the sort of direction the party should be taking need to pay attention. Just like the referendum. English and Welsh comrades, in the spirit of good neighbourliness, should be prepared to offer supportive arguments for their choice, if they feel so moved. Again, just like the referendum. Ivan's passive-aggressive "who could I be criticising?" tweet is symptomatic of all too many in the PLP who not just flee from, but fear political argument.

It's not hard to see why. Take the anointed candidate, Jim Murphy. He does have a number of qualities that recommend him. In the lead up to the Syrian intervention that never happened, he spoke for air strikes from his shadow defence brief on Assad's regime against the PLP's line which, at that stage, was a hopeless muddle. Ed Miliband did not appreciate the attempt to bounce the party into a hawkish position, and Jim was removed - ironically along with Diane Abbott, who made the opposite case. So with Jim you have someone who will speak up for what he believes in, even if you disagree with him. He's also a canny political operator and is probably the sharpest Blairite figure to have graced the shadow cabinet under Ed. That's one, not oft-commented contributing reason for his sacking and helps explain why the Scottish party machine is prone to oversights that favour Jim. Ed is happy to have a potential future rival tied up away from the centre of power. Lastly, what I especially like about Jim is a willingness to lead from the front. He is one among a clutch of sitting MPs who takes campaigning extremely seriously. He relishes the cut and thrust of doorstep politics, whereas most - and then not all - of Westminster's inhabitants do it out of grim necessity. To be sure, if Jim wins Scottish Labour will be shook up. His activist conception of politics will come front and centre as he remoulds a beleaguered and battered party independently of One Brewers Green.

The problem is Jim's politics and those of former Labour voters go together like cactus and cream. Were I not some weird ex-Trot pseudo-Gramscian pinko/Bennite sell-out but a hard-nosed Blairite who wants to see Scottish Labour bounce back instead, I'd still support Neil Findlay. It doesn't matter whether the SNP's social democratic turn is fake or not, the ex-Labour voters that have turned that way in their droves appreciate the party as a centre left alternative and treat it as such. Since Holyrood's foundation, Scottish Labour has been very New Labour, and that continued under Johann Lamont - albeit apparently imposed from afar. While it is true the leftishness of Scotland is somewhat overstated, a left platform that puts self-security at its heart stands a better chance against Nicola Sturgeon's SNP than a continuity candidate whose opposition is not backed up by popular policies. The Blairite playbook helped get Scottish Labour into its present difficulties, so why would more of the same produce different results? That way madness lies. Jim might, and probably would, tack to the left if he won but you, me, and Scottish voters know it wouldn't be heartfelt. Neil Findlay on the other hand is the real deal.

The "interests of the Labour party" in Scotland and the wider UK are best served by Neil's successful candidature. Jim, for all his qualities is the wrong man at the wrong time. If you're a member of the Scottish party, or have an affiliate membership through your union and/or socialist society, please vote for Neil when your ballot paper drops.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Who is White Van Dan?

There I was talking about the absurdity of British politics and it goes and takes an even sillier turn. After Dan Ware, or 'White Van Dan' as he'll forever now be known, became the unwitting figure at the heart of Westminster's most stupid resignation ever, the Currant Bun have now given him a 'voice of the nation' platform. Our Dan is the epitome of the working class London Labour luvvies only encounter at the checkout and when the cleaner comes round. Or so we're told.

Plastering Dan all over their paper, however, is unlikely to repeat a Gillian Duffy moment despite their best effort. Knowing a thing or two about the Sun-reading working class - it's where I come from, after all - I can tell you what their army of readers are likely to think. They see a skinhead with a thuggish appearance, a first impression they'll probably stick with when they learn he's a some-time cage fighter. Compounding the unfavourable vibes is his occupation - he owns and runs a used car dealership. And last of all, Ed Miliband might feel respect when he walks by a house festooned like Dan's. Most Sun readers on the other hand would barely notice, or at best think the resident is a bit of a nob. Contrary to what the hacks and the politicians think, the majority of working class people feel that showy displays of patriotism outside of European/World Cup tournaments is tacky and vulgar. So stick that in your pandering, patronising pipe and smoke it.

Let there be no doubt. White Van Dan is not typical of the working class. Nor is he typical of Sun readers.

Nevertheless, now The Sun have set him up as a voice of authenticity, he's been given room to expound his views in his pun-tastic 'Danifesto'. It's pretty much what you'd expect: bash the scroungers, keep out immigrants, a steel rod in the classroom, lock 'em up and throw away the key, sort out public transport and lower taxes. At this point, some fellow lefties might pour scorn on Dan as a racist ("I will continue to fly the flags. I know there is a lot of ethnic minorities that don't like it"), uncultured backwoods reactionary, but they would be mistaken to do so.

Atypical Dan may be, his views most certainly are not. Vilifying him as a knuckle dragger from the multicolour bubble of lefty identity politics is only going to alienate the millions who share these sorts of opinions from progressive politics. Leave the snobbery to the Tories and ex-shadow ministers, our movement should have no truck with it. The alternative is not to crawl before these views (please, please don't let Ed Miliband turn up on Dan's doorstep to offer an apology), but attack the common root of the problems he identifies.

You know what that is, right? It's insecurity anxiety. Dan is a small businessman and as such insecurity is part of his everyday life. Hoping that sales will be enough to keep his head above water. That the bank won't call in its loans. That the new dealership round the corner won't cut into his business. Is it any wonder then his wee manifesto is suffused with a rigid sense of order and stability? And this is precisely why these sorts of views are widespread among working class people. In fact, given the breadth of the housing crisis, low paid work, zero hour contracts, temporary working, unemployment and underemployment, the shrinking of tax credits and the capping of social security support it's a miracle UKIP's 1950s nostalgia-fest doesn't have greater support.

This is why Labour, if it wants to win the general election (which, admittedly, looks a bit sketchy at times) then the party and the labour movement have to put the fight against insecurity at the heart of its politics. That's how it can win over working class voters, petit-bourgeois types like Dan, and the much-genuflected-to swing voters of the "squeezed middle". If it doesn't, then we will lose.

Saturday Interview: Roxanne Ellis

Roxanne Ellis is a Labour and Cooperative councillor on Gedling Borough Council and a founder member of the Young Labour Councillors Network. From a Labour family and something of a geek on all things politics and Sovietology, you can follow Roxanne on Twitter here.

Have you ever been tempted to take up blogging?

Many times, I currently have a blog where I post occasional articles on women in Labour history. But it depends on when I get time to research and space to write.

Do you find social media useful for activist-y things?

Social media is one of the greatest tools around at the moment, you can get thousands of people aware of an issue, to sign a petition or even turn up for campaigning and protesting.

Who would you say are your biggest intellectual influences?

I'm a massive fan of Sheila Rowbotham, meeting her in person I was absolutely starstruck! Her book Hidden from History was one of the first feminist texts I ever read and is one I always have near to hand.

What are you reading at the moment?

I always have a number of books on the go, mainly cos I'm prone to putting them down and losing them. Currently I'm re-reading Terry Pratchett's Death Trilogy, We Will Not Go To War, about conscientious objectors in both world wars and also working my way through Every Secret Thing by Gillian Slovo as it is so heartrending I can only read it in small chunks.

What was the last film you saw?

J.Edgar, a film that achieved what I thought impossible, making me feel sympathy for Hoover.

Do you have a favourite novel?

I always find it too difficult to choose between them.

Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

There is no one text as I take things from many sources. But books which have influenced me include In Place Of Fear, Women, Resistance And Revolution and Long Walk To Freedom. Also Khrushchev Remembers as it taught me about just how unreliable memories are and how we all reinvent our past to fit in with our world view at the time.

How many political organisations have you been a member of?

I joined Amnesty International when I was at secondary school, we had an Amnesty club where we wrote letters and since then things snowballed. Obviously I’m a member of the the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party and I am or have been a member of the Fabian Society, National Organisation of Labour Students, Labour Women’s Network, GMB, TUC Midlands youth, and many others which I can't recall right now.

Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

The Lib Dems, I used to think they were mostly harmless.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. The most basic tenant of socialism and in my opinion the most important!

What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

Individualism combined with utilitarianism. We are all part of society and our actions have impact on each other. The idea that it is okay to do whatever you want as long as it doesn't harm others just doesn't stack up. We have a responsibility to each other as human beings.

Who are your political heroes?

Jennie Lee, she is a true inspiration for women in politics and rarely gets acknowledged
Nye Bevan
Ellen Wilkinson
Betty Boothroyd
Harold Wilson
Tony Benn
Clement Attlee
Nelson Mandela
And my Granny

How about political villains?

They are the usual suspects that you would expect from someone growing up near a former pit in Nottinghamshire (the site of which is currently being turned into a country park): Margaret Thatcher, Enoch Powell and this lot currently in power.

What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

Protecting people from the full effects of what this Government is doing whilst dealing with a severely reduced budget. Local Government is doing everything we can but constantly get dumped on. As part of this we need to get a Labour Government back in power as although they will have to make difficult decisions which will hurt, their ideology and hearts are in the right place and they won't prioritise millionaires’ tax cuts over people living in poverty.

If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

A lot more attention and support for mental health services, they tend to be the poor relation of health services and therefore are first in the line for cuts. These services can be just as vital a lifeline for people as any other health service. We don't like talking about mental illness and that is wrong, mental health problems will affect one in four of us. We also need to talk more about how things like being unemployed affect people's mental health and make them more likely to develop depression due to how we demonise the unemployed.

What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

The new “little father of his nation” President Putin. Russia suffered a lot after the collapse of the USSR, financially and in national esteem. Putin is aiming to revive that esteem but his behaviour and involvement in the crises in the Middle East and eastern Europe is dangerous to international peace. He is a powerful and dangerous man with his fingers in many pies.

What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Feel the fear and do it anyway. Some of the greatest things that have happened in my life have scared me to the core beforehand. As Mark Twain said “I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened”.

What is your favourite song?

Land: Horses/Land of 1000 dances/La Mer (de) by Patti Smith

Do you have a favourite video game?

Lego Batman or one of my old SNES games possibly Donkey Kong Country or Earthworm Jim.

What do you consider the most important personal quality in others?

Compassion and consideration. If we all showed a little more of both the world would be a much nicer place to live in.

What personal fault in others do you most dislike?


What, if anything, do you worry about?

Everything, I'm a total worry wart but I try not to let it hold me back.

And any pet peeves?

People who lightly touch you before they speak; the kind of touch where it feels like spiders are walking on your arm. I'm sure they mean it to be comforting but it makes my skin crawl, especially when they walk up behind you and do it.

What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Don't let other people hold you back. Don't feel like you have to hide who you are because other people don't like difference.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

Reading political books and doing handicrafts. I sew, knit, quilt and am learning to dress make. I also love listening to music and going to gigs.

What is your most treasured possession?

Items which remind me of people I love - my Nana's engagement ring and my Granny's Labour party badge.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

If I did I wouldn't admit them. But no, I'm not guilty about anything I enjoy.

What talent would you most like to have?

Singing, unfortunately I take after my dad vocally. We do a mean Beach Boys duet that can stop someone at 50 paces ...

If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true - apart from getting loads of money - what would you wish for?

To invent a time machine so I could visit all the places and listen to all the speeches and meet all my heroes.

Speaking of cash, how, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

It would make my plan of setting up a left leaning political library so much easier. Plus I would be able to indulge in my love of buying books more often without guilt; "it's for the library, honest". Luckily I have friends who keep their eyes out for books they think I would like in secondhand bookshops.

If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Patti Smith, Marianne Faithfull and Jennie Lee

Being a Labour councillor can be quite tough. Would you recommend it?

Being a councillor of any stripe is not for everyone.

It takes a certain kind of person, your will to make people's lives better must outweigh your ego or need to be appreciated. It is rare that you get thanked for what you do so you must get satisfaction from being of service.

If you are a woman you also have to deal with sexism.

But the sense of happiness when you can change someone's life for the better is worth all the tears, late meetings, personal attacks and mind numbingly boring speeches. That feeling is indescribable, which is why I'm standing for a second term.

Friday, 21 November 2014

The Absurdity of British Politics

We are living in the most stupid period of politics ever.

Emily Thornberry resigning over a tweet that might be - and was - construed as snotty. Absurd.

Then came UKIP's second by-election victory in Rochester and Strood. This was after Mark Reckless, lest we forget, called for the repatriation of EU immigrants in the event of UKIP becoming a governing coalition partner. One can channel the National Front's manifesto circa 1979 without any adverse effects to one's electoral prospects it seems. Absurd.

An ex-city trader up to his neck in neoliberal common sense having led a gilded life for 15 years on the taxpayers' dollar heads up a "people's revolt" against politics-as-usual. Absurd.

Mark Reckless, again, now MP for a hard right outfit that would like to see maternity rights and holiday pay be at the whim of employers evoked, with a straight face, the memories of the Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes to position UKIP as a radical workers' party. Absurd.

This is the same UKIP which is seeing knives out for its "pinko" economics spokesperson Patrick O'Flynn, recently of the revolutionary communist Daily Express. Absurd.

There's still more. Sensitive to the charge that Labour, at least its parliamentary component, is seen as out-of-touch and bourgeois, Ed Miliband is has moved to quash such concerns by making it easier for his chums in the leader's office to parachute in to nice, cushy seats at the expense of non-spaddy, normal party members. Absurd.

In Scotland, where a self-consciously centre left-facing SNP is trouncing Labour in the polls sees the latter about to elect a continuity Blairite figure as its new leader. Absurd.

Staying north of the border, an independence referendum that returned a no vote has seen support for the pro-independence parties surge, resulting in an apparent collapse of Labour support - the very organisation that arguably won the referendum. Absurd.

Out on the fringes, we've had one Trot outfit decamp from Scottish Labour right at the moment a battle begins for its soul, another splitting over "racist" master/slave S&M, and the largest revolutionary group - one that used to berate others for their less-than-stellar records on women's rights - destroyed by whitewashing rape allegations. Absurd.

And last but not least, we are saddled with a vicious government headed by an incompetent and vacuous Prime Minister and Chancellor who gamble with Britain's relationship to the EU and the economy in pursuit of shifts in the polls. Despite pushing really damaging policies harmful to their own interests too, they get a free pass every single day from both the press and, sorry to say, sometimes the opposition too. Absurd.

Taken in isolation, each incident of absurdism reads like political Forteana. Strange phenomena is now the rule, not the exception. But it is explicable. When a society is going through a period of recomposition, exacerbated by an acute sense of insecurity, things will get a little weird. And perhaps frightening. Yet these are symptoms of a new world struggling to be born. The choice we have is to be present and guide its birth, or sit in the waiting room snarking on Twitter and Facebook. What is it to be?

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Emily Thornberry's Mistweet

Oh dear. Earlier on this afternoon, Emily Thornberry, shadow attorney general tweeted this:

Before you could say "too many tweets make a twat", Emily's tweet was not so much seized upon as fixed to the ducking stool, hung, drawn and quartered, and fed to the pigs. In this apparently innocuous photo all kind of hypocrites - who were happy to rally to Matthew Parris's defence when he cast elitist aspersions on the good people of Clacton - said it typified the grilled quinoa snobbishness of London Labour metros.

Unfortunately, they may be right. Go on any working class estate in the country and sights like the one tweeted by Thornberry are not uncommon. I suppose it's worthy of note for her either because they're a rarity in Islington South or doesn't hit the doorstep as often as she might. Whatever, implying the owner of the house (with a white van no less) was an oaf with less-than-PC views is the sort of stuff that's absolutely toxic as far as working class voters are concerned. It's just as well then that none but a few thousand tweeters and serial haunters of press websites in the late afternoon picked it up.

There is a lesson or two here. First is social media management. Candidates lower down the politics food chain find their social media stringently policed by group whips, advisors, and the friendly neighbourhood press person at regional office. Yet somehow message discipline is beyond the ken of some who repose upon the green benches. And the second is we'd better get used to this sort of thing. Tomorrow is Tory meltdown day, when all the bile and reaction comes bubbling up through the fissures. The damage the UKIP victory in Rochester and Strood will inflict has the outside chance of putting paid to Dave's premiership. Whatever happens, come the election the Tories have nothing to offer but scapegoating, blaming, and name calling. So every little opportunity, every little slip made by a shadow minister or a backwoods candidates looking for their 15 minutes as a Twitter trending topic will get the Thornberry treatment. We've seen the near future, and this is what it looks like.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Herbert Marcuse and One-Dimensional Man

Here's a name you don't hear often in radical circles any more: Herbert Marcuse. Even in the hallowed halls of sociology, this important Frankfurt School thinker merits nary a mention these days. And this is a shame because his work represents a strand of Western Marxism that never gave up hope in something better. Whereas miserable old Adorno, suitably fashionable in these dystopian times, offers a philosophical counsel of despair the body of work Marcuse left relentlessly grappled with contemporary social trends to find the political exit pointing beyond capitalism. When hope is taking a lengthy breather, it's understandable why Marcuse has not so much fallen from favour but dived out of sight. It's time to rescue him and to be read afresh by new generations equally sick of the managerial politics Marcuse was. And as October just past saw the 50th anniversary of One-Dimensional Man's publication come and go, is there a better time to revisit his best-known work?

One-Dimensional Man is a sequel of sorts to Marcuse's 1955 work, Eros and Civilization. This books is a radical reworking and repurposing of Freud's use of psychoanalysis on the origins and possibility of civilisation. Freud theorised that civilisation depended on the reining in of the (sexual) instincts swirling about the unconscious, or the id. Human communities can only come together and build societies if the individuals comprise them have minds that are disciplined in a particular way so the eruption of instincts do not threaten the social order. Unconscious impulses were not denied, but rather their expression and fulfillment were deferred to the context of certain institutions. The most obvious being marriage, for example. For Freud as infants we emerge into the world as polymorphously perverse bundles of sensations and instincts demanding gratification. Through the process of socialisation (as controversially outlined in Freud's Oedipus Complex theory) we gradually learn to defer and reconcile, as much as is possible, the 'pleasure principle' of gratification with the 'reality principle' of the necessary need for discipline. This is where Marcuse enters his first corrective. He argued that in advanced industrial societies, the various means by which socialisation is accomplished (the family, schooling, interaction with peers) cultivate a kind of individual for whom their individual needs are identical to society's needs. The complex of instincts embedded in the id are reworked, reorganised and 'transsubstantiated' into requirements recognised and legitimated by society. Violent impulses, for instance, can be sated via violent video games and movies. The need for companionship finds a facsimile in gossip rags and celebrity glossies. And so on. For Freud however, society has to get the balance of repression just right. Too little and it will dissolve into a foam of asocial atoms. Too much and human beings will start rebelling.

As a historical materialist, Marcuse argues that while instincts are historical constants the modes assumed by repression are not. From one epoch to another, the forms repression takes varies. In the advanced industrial societies, like 1950s America, this has become an apparatus of 'surplus repression'. That is a whole machinery of domination has come into being that is unnecessary for holding society together (hence is surplus) but are necessary from the standpoint of the prevailing class relations. This domination is ubiquitous too: they comprise the 'external force' of the authorities (the armed bodies of men, as Engels put it), the colonisation of the mind by common sense inflected with systemic imperatives, and a certain habituation of the body to the rhythms of industrial society (a point that arguably holds for video games). What enables this is good old alienated labour. As we are beings separated from the meaningful control of social life, which is epitomised by and emanates from the wage relation, so surplus repression conspires to snare us in a gossamer web of happy submission to this state of affairs. Nevertheless, Marcuse maintained that another society was and is possible. A world is which surplus repression is done away with is a life that can allow for the non-destructive play of the pleasure principle. And the vehicle for this? It's not the working class per se but potentially everyone whose lives are caught in the antagonisms between libidinal energies that cannot safely be salted away by capitalism and the increasingly deficient and historically outmoded engines of domination. It's a vision of a society revolting against its elite.

Eros and Civilization's second part was given over to a consideration of this utopian vision. Curiously, considered it was published at the height of 50s Cold War paranoia, a sense of optimism suffuses the work. ODM is an altogether different animal and typifies the melancholic (if not despairing) strand of radical critique with which Marcuse's Frankfurt School stable mates are associated. At the heart of the book is Marcuse's concept of one-dimensionality. He takes the manipulations analysed and critiqued in Eros, but blows them up to gargantuan proportions. This is a pattern of domination from which all critical resources have been expunged, that renders all thought of an alternative to it impossible to imagine let alone strive for. The one-dimensional society is a terrifying world of full co-option. There are no seams marking differences between the instinctual drives and the needs satisfied by commodities. The subject has been objectified at the moment the objectified can speak and gratify every subject. This is still capitalism though. Profits and capital accumulation remain grounded in surplus labour and surplus value, but it's a system in which class struggle is so negligible it's hardly worth noting its existence.

One-dimensional society is a community of stifling conformity in which every aspect of public and private life is governed and subordinate to the demands of the system. Here, individuality is an effect of prescribed, commodified, and marketed lifestyles. Freedom is its opposite: the choice of workplace servitude and manipulated needs while one's mind is bathed in the glitz of a false, happy consciousness. Agonistic tendencies and contradictions are smoothed out. What ODM portrays is a society at the end of history, and it's one where capital won.

This system, which Marcuse describes as concretised alienation, is not as smooth as it appears. The mechanisms of repressive desublimation, of slaving individual needs to the problematics of domination, works across all groups and classes. "True" or "vital" needs are crowded out by false needs churned out by the system's material and cultural industries, but they deaden the minds of bourgeois and proletarian alike. The former as possessors of capital have an interest in system maintenance but comes at the price of stunting their human potential too. Creative individuality and new modes of life that would be possible between really free peoples unencumbered by alienation and, therefore, private property is as closed off for them as it is for the rest.

What of the libido? In Eros the sexual instinct was most likely to run up the petty hypocrisies of repression and become a resource for radical transformation. Yet by the time ODM came around, for Marcuse this possibility was closed. He was resigned to the idea that relaxing repression would allow for a safe dissipation of sexual energies rather than a climactic explosion. In so doing, the system as a whole appears much less repressive. And so it has.

How about abstract thought? Historically, social theory from even before Marx has had its subversive threads. Here too, alas, the possibility of bi-dimensional, critical thinking is choked off too. Of my disciplinary ancestors, Marcuse wrote
The therapeutic empiricism of sociology in exposing and correcting abnormal behaviour in industrial plants, [is] a procedure which implied the exclusion of critical concepts capable of relating such behaviour to the society as a whole. (1991, p.170)
The very instruments society uses to diagnose problems that beset it are framed in such a way to invisiblises its own arrangements. If there is something amiss, the problem lies in the peculiar (medical/psychological) pathologies of individuals and small groups. The fabric of society itself is taken for stain-free spotlessness. Philosophy, art, and science, those few repositories of critical thinking that can distinguish between the what is and what-could-be was reduced to and largely repackaged as self-help, prints, and manuals of technical know-how. Marcuse's vision of a totalitarian, nominally democratic capitalism has it as a closed loop system. And yet if there is hope, it lies with the holes. At once seamless, this is a capitalism that excludes as it integrates. Millions fall through the supposedly non-existent gapes in the fabric. As Marcuse puts it:
Underneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colours, the unemployed and unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process; their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus their opposition is revolutionary if their consciousness is not. (ibid. p.256)
The very existence of these people offends the society of surplus repression because they are a constant reminder of the system's limits. They are the horizon beyond which it cannot reach, and store up the promise of its shrinkage.

Social forecasting is always a fraught enterprise in the social sciences, and in short order after ODM's publication the contradictions of US society burst asunder. Turns out Marcuse was writing in the darkest part of the night, just before the first rays of radical future beamed across the sky. The outsiders in US society, and the supposedly quiescent and contented masses of Western Europe rose up as a radical wave that transformed those societies. None were as pleased with this turnabout than Marcuse himself, whose work saw him become a chief theoretician and guru for many a young radical. And yet, here we are in 2014. Global capitalism is still the only game in town. It seems that the system was able to weather the storms of the 1960s and 70s by easing off a bit on the repression. Sexual freedom is in. Some who were 'outside' are now embraced by official society, and that's about it. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Does that mean 50 years on that ODM is still a relevant book? In some ways, it's never been more up to date. In others, it's never been as obsolete and superseded. As far as official society is concerned, it's never been as denuded of critical resources. Politics is little more than the art of the technocratic management of capitalist societies. Education is purely about vocationalism and meeting the needs of employers. Aspiration is measured by how much one wants to conform to the middle class standard of a "hardworking family" with a nice house and an even nicer debt. And, explicitly, social life is heavily conditioned by how much you contribute as an employee and taxpayer, not as a citizen. If that wasn't bad enough, as unappealing as it was, the totalitarian capitalism of ODM was menaced by a powerful ideological rival that helped ensure there was an expansive safety net for at least some who fell through the cracks. The capitalism of now has no such opposition to contend with.

There is something very jarring about Marcuse's analysis that doesn't sit true any more. Conformity there certainly is. A crude set up of insider and outsider is lamely, stupidly repeated everyday by the rulers who rule us and the media that lies to us. Likewise there is a huge overblown of institutions that are completely unnecessary and totally socially useless except for the roles they occupy in maintaining our peculiar, particular capitalism. What is missing is the sense of stifling conformity Marcuse describes. When you read ODM, the society in which he was working seems so suffocating that you have to come up for air. But that has gone. There may be little hope and few signs of something better just around the corner, but nor is there a sense everything is directed; that capitalism here, there, and anywhere else forms a seamless social organism. Rather the opposite. The system is global and interconnected, but visibly chaotic and stressed by the weight of its own contradictions. Just as we are surveilled so the reach of social media has placed power itself under scrutiny. Its grubby deals are daily aired somewhere for public consumption. What we have a sense now is not of order, but of how society grinds on as a series of daily battles. It shows dominance up as a series of contingent relations that have to be consistently repeated to sustain itself.

Marcuse may have once thought that the future of the human race was a Cadillac on the driveway, forever. The future turned out to be pretty grim, but it's also more open than perhaps Marcuse dared to think even in his most hopeful moments.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Tory Higher Education Funding Farce

I never set out to be the blogging equivalent of Mystic Meg, but annoyingly I've had several predictions turn out to be true. Here's one of them. Two years ago, almost to the day, I argued that the new funding regime brought in by the LibDem-supported Conservative government would leave Higher Education with a yawning funding gap. Would you Adam and Eve it, this morning The Indy led with Tuition fees: three quarters of students won't be able to pay off their debt.

I appreciate the intricacies of HE funding is hardly tip-of-the-tongue stuff, so here's a quick overview. Universities are allowed to charge up to £9,000/year course fees. If one has money to spare, these can be paid up front. But the typical arrangement is that the tax payer effectively loans students the fee, which is paid over to the institution. The university gets its dosh, and the student leaves HE with at least £27,000 worth of debt. Then when our graduate is earning over £21k their debt is automatically deducted from one's salary and paid back to the government. Naturally, none of this takes into account debt accrued through student loans and overdraft facilities.

The obvious problem with such a system is that not all students will be in a position to repay. In fact, as the Indy notes, 73% of students are unlikely to have paid the debt off by the time the 30-year write off kicks in. Conceived narrowly, there is then a massive gap between what the government pays in and what it claws back. Meanwhile those fortunate enough to be in a position to begin repayments may feel aggrieved that they have another regular outgoing on a not-terribly-stellar salary, while others won't pay a bean. The policy, therefore, is kaput. Whitehall, we have a problem.

Or do we? The policy was originally designed to reduce the cost to the tax payer and make universities more self-sufficient. Yet it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that these arrangements were bound to fail. Perhaps that was the intention? Consider what life will be like three years hence with a Conservative or Con-led coalition in charge. Tory front benchers will be able to claim that HE is costing the taxpayer far too much because the government is projected to receive back only a tiny amount it puts in (conveniently forgetting how much HE contributes to the science/technology base, organisation design, service delivery, the knowledge economy etc.). Therefore much more radical action is required - and that will be the wholesale privatisation of the university sector. The American model of extortionate fees fixed to a (from Autumn 2015) free market in HE provision will take the "burden" off the state's hands entirely. The gradual chipping away at the system which begun under Thatcher but - disgracefully - accelerated under Tony Blair's tenure will have been entirely dismantled. Some universities face going to the wall, the range of HE provision is set to contract, and worst of all the chance to study for a degree will be a privilege.

Labour's answer to this - to cap fees at £6,000/year and/or, depending what day of the week it is, a graduate tax does nothing to solve the underlying problem. It's about time we started looking at HE like grown ups. Instead of adopting the narrow measure of taxpayer support, let's talk instead about the net benefits HE has. According to the government themselves, HE contributes to higher productivity, innovation, faster growth, more businesses, and greater tax revenues. Non-market benefits are listed as better health (physical and mental), less crime, greater social cohesion. In other words it has secondary benefits that reduces public expenditure.

Unfortunately, the existing nonsensical policy and the slippery road to privatisation might undo all this. Having debts of around the UK student average of £44k will be like a millstone around young graduates' life chances. They can kiss goodbye to any chance of getting on the housing ladder, for instance.

But it doesn't have to be like this. More investment in HE means more benefits for society as a whole. It's time for Labour to tear up received wisdom on this one and undo the damage it has done to the sector. Tuition fees should be consigned to the dustbin. Who knows, it might encourage enough Labour-leaning young people and their parents in swing seats to turn out for the party next year too.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Left Unity One Year On

This weekend saw Left Unity hold its first national conference. Well, not really. It was preceded by its foundation back in November last year, and a further national gathering in Manchester last March, but who's counting right? So 12 months down the line, where do things stand with Britain's newest leftist unity initiatives? Should Labour be worried another potential rival stands poised to bleed its voter base, or is that prospect remote?

You can tell something about a party by the character of its conference. Braving adverts for cruises, Netflix and the Murdoch press, the intermittent live feed showed a meeting much smaller than its predecessors. Though, to be fair, as a conference it was clearly they were operating a branch delegation system - a practice itself quite alien to standard far left procedure of mobilising ordinary members to attend and labelling them delegates in reports. Another major departure was public and, at times, heated debates. However, while it is scrupulously democratic to allow for debates that soft soap the so-called Islamic State terror outfit in the name of "anti-imperialism" and to hear another calling on Left Unity to not condemn ISIS and its co-mediaevalists as such, smart politics it definitely is not. That three or four votes were cast in favour matters not, valuable conference time was hijacked by a tiny, Spartoid fringe. Meanwhile, weightier issues were allowed to fall off the agenda.

On other occasions arguments brewed up about the order of the agenda, standing orders, procedure, chair's actions and the like. One of the most astonishing challenges to the running order came from a delegate who noted that the debate on LU's election strategy was near the back of the agenda and might not be covered if other reports and debates dragged on. He therefore requested it be moved up as a priority debate first thing Sunday morning. Amazingly, John Pearson for the Standing Orders Committee opposed the move on the grounds that "electoral strategy isn't a priority". Even more baffling was that conference backed his position by a large margin. Hello? What's happening six months from now? The debate however did take place but it goes to show that the far left's desire to create an electoral alternative to Labour isn't matched by their willingness to take such a project seriously.

Other points of note, unsurprisingly LU adopted the boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel movement, voted against austerity and for scrapping the disgusting work capability assessment and, on elections, has chosen to buddy up with TUSC and rule out a blank arrangement with the Greens. Though, I'm sure LU branches will make local pacts with Greens where they deem it appropriate.

All this considered, is it fair to say LU has made discernible progress? As I'm a Labour lackey, you might expect me to say no. And you'd be right. Since the March conference I've occasionally glanced at the development of the organisation (hat tip the Weekly Worker for following these things so you don't have to) and it's been a really weird experience. People suspended for "misreporting" meetings in the WW, for using intemperate language and saying unkind things on the internets, and - creepiest of all - one idiot for circulating a photo of national secretary Kate Hudson in her swimming costume. What is up with some people? And that's not to mention allegations about payments withheld to workers employed at a social enterprise run by an ex-principal speaker.

Sure, all organisations - especially new organisations - have teething troubles, but the biggest problem LU have is the approach it has taken to building itself. Quite understandably, a lot of the comrades involved have had fingers burned by the petty tyrannies that litter the left. A few might have suffered a proscription at the hands of the Labour Party too. Therefore the desire to build something that has nothing in common with toy town democratic centralism or bureaucratism is a noble one. The efforts to accommodate awkwards, the long-winded debates and equally long documents put before members, the tetchyness about personal conduct and whether the organisation requires safe spaces are attempts to refound a radical left on a wholly new basis. From the outside, however, LU appears little more than a Facebook group with conferences. I have no doubt many of its comrades are up to their necks in activity, but not, it appears, LU work. Branch meetings, yes. An occasional outing for the local group's banner, yes. But consistent work campaigning as Left Unity in a campaign or solidarity action? It would appear not. Take a look at the last year's worth of local council by-elections - no LU. It's as if they are trying to incubate the perfect organisation via resolutionary socialism and rounds of national gatherings before placing LU before the consideration of the wider public.

Nevertheless, LU do have luck on their side. The small political space for a left alternative to Labour is still going begging in England and Wales. The Greens might be putting membership and voter weight on if the polls and local by-election results are anything to go by, but there is a constituency of leftish ex-Labour anti-politics people they will never appeal to. LU - despite the indulgent 'in-group' name - can go places other radicalisms cannot reach. But to do so it needs to hang up its hang-ups and start organising as a party serious about being a party. Its window of opportunity for securing 2-3% of the national vote won't stay open forever.