Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Depravity of the SWP

Depravity is a strong word, but what else can describe the the latest batch of revelations regarding the SWP/Delta alleged rape case? Going through the document one is confronted with the complete indifference, the arrogance, and the bullying the alleged victim, 'Comrade W', and her supporters faced. There are many unpleasantries, but for me the below set of incidences struck me as especially appalling:
In her district she was simply ignored as if she ceased to exist. When she did see members and tried to talk to them, her experience was one of abuse and bullying. Geoff D informed her “It is not appropriate for me to speak to you”, while Bridget P who confronted her on the street near her home called her “a silly girl” stating that 14 year olds get groomed not 19 year olds. Comrades also accused her of going to the Daily Mail when the story was leaked, despite comrade W’s clear distress at the press coverage and fear of exposure. Some comrades even arranged meetings in the café area at comrade W’s workplace, despite her having asked them not to do so. This caused her great distress and considering the number of cafés in the city was cruel. Charlie, when confronted with this, argued it was not fair to the comrades to ask them to meet elsewhere, despite W’s distress – part of his argument was that it would appear that W’s allegations were true if he intervened. After repeated complaints the CC were forced to intervene and stop the comrades meeting there. There were even reports that she was a member of another political organisation and in league with former members deliberately trying to smash the SWP.
Cruelty about sums it up. What was going on in these people's heads? As they sat there ruminating over the next paper sale and working out how to wreck their local anti-austerity campaign group, was their intimidation rationalised as a step toward full communism? Were there any qualms at all? Did they sit rigidly, recalling Trotsky's Their Morals and Ours while whispering "the ends justify the means" under their breath? Or, Winston Smith-style, their unconditional and genuine love for the Central Committee's Big Brother meant their task was carried out with the utmost enthusiasm?

As Andy has pointed out on a number of occasions, as a small organisation with pretensions of being seen as a political party, the SWP can be thought of as many-layered. Whichever view of Lenin's theory of the revolutionary party you subscribe to, the common denominator across all interpretations is that it is an activist collective. In its own way, each group taking after the combat party model seek to intervene in the strategic sectors of struggle it has identified. For the bigger organisations, like the SWP and the Socialist Party it is across a broad range of campaigns. For smaller groups, like the cpgb and the Sparts it's each others' meetings on the 1953 split in the Fourth International, or whether Marx really had a theory of the Asiatic mode of production. The precondition for success, such as it is, is an outward orientation. This explains why the SP and SWP have done relatively well - whatever their faults they recognise there's more to politics than arguing on Facebook about the AWL's Zionism.

In the SWP's case, historically it has positioned itself as the 'best builders' of any campaign going. Theoretically, anyway. They have long been the Trotskyist equivalent of ambulance-chasing lawyers. Wherever there's a campaign, an issue, a strike, a demo the SWP would swoop in, campaign energetically around it for a month or two, badger anyone hapless enough to buy Socialist Worker to join, then move on to the next big issue - usually without warning. And the SWP wonder why they had an appalling reputation before the Delta case came to light. As such, the SWP "breathes" like a shark. So the piscine predator has to force water through its gills by swimming constantly, the SWP have to intervene and gatecrash non-stop to pick up the new members to replace those lost to each twist and turn. This revolving door method of party building is, of course, counter-productive. Their only lasting success is an ever-growing trail of burned out, bitter and disillusioned people who will, quite rightly and understandably, have nothing to do with revolutionary politics ever again.

The typical SWP of old then looked something like this. There was a constantly shifting periphery of new members - mostly youngsters, mostly students, who'd wink in and wink out with startling regularity. Then there were those who stuck the course and managed to stay members for longer than a fortnight. Some of these sought out positions in the trade union movement, and a few of them might have gone on to be representatives on leadership bodies. Another tranche focused primarily on narrow party-building work. Not for them was the regular contact of working people in workplaces, their political lives were the stalls, the paper sales, the demos, the party meetings. These two long-term constituencies were the front-facing representatives of the SWP. The need to be a good union activist, or even a good paper seller demanded that one is, to an extent, disciplined by the political conditions one comes across during the course of their activity. They had to have some kind of relationship with the reality that exists beyond their organisation in order for the SWP to function as a member accumulator. Behind these were a strata of "cadre" who were employed by the party in various capacities. I use the term cadre loosely, as very often the greenest, most unsuited people would be taken on and given leadership responsibilities solely because they ticked loyalty boxes, not because they were competent - let alone schooled in Marxism. Their life is/was the party. They are compelled by the central leadership to hit arbitrary paper sales, books/pamphlets orders, and recruitment targets, not engage in the long-term strategic planning of their district/regional parties which of necessity would demand a proper engagement with politics outside the SWP's bubble (to its credit, this always seemed to be the SP's priority for its regional full-timers, at least in my experience).

Beyond the full-timers is the leadership core of the Central Committee. All of them, with the exception of Alex Callinicos, are there by virtue of having worked their way up the apparatus as party employees. Not one of them are there as a leader of workers, as an exceptional militant. Loyalty, not leadership is the L-word most prized by the self-perpetuating undeclared faction that has always run the SWP.

What this in practice has always meant is that the further up the hierarchy you go, the more insulated from the vicissitudes of the labour movement the SWP's leading figures are. And when you have a leadership recruited almost exclusively from the almost-as-isolated layer of full-timers, you have a problem. As Andy previously argued, you are left with an outer shell of (semi-) normal and sincere socialists. But moving in the rhythms and demands of the cadre and the leaders are governed by the self-recursive universe of the SWP itself. It is this dysfunctional state of affairs that lies behind the SWP's notorious rapid shifts in direction. It is a party-like structure on the outside, and on the inside it's a cult-like set up in which responsibility flows upwards to the sheltered, out-of-touch and unaccountable self-selecting elite.

Herein lies the precipitating cause of the SWP's crisis. Arrogance is the natural bedfellow of unaccountability, so one should not be too surprised - even if it is viscerally shocking - that the SWP took it upon themselves to "investigate" Comrade W's claims, while green-lighting and blind-eyeing the campaign of harassment against her and her comrades.

But there is something else going on too. Class matters. But class has changed. The SWP, formally at least, recognises this. But not in their practice. The old solidarities of post-war industrial capitalism have been broken up, and they're not going to come back. The defeats of the labour movement in the 80s, the fall back of class conscious socialist politics (whether revolution or reform-minded), the changing face of work and the recrudescence of precarious jobs, the shift in culture to peer-to-peer networks via the internet; these don't just constitute unfavourable circumstances for the SWP's Leninist (Zinovievist) project; they are antithetical to how the SWP does politics both in terms of its political strategy (such as it exists without a programme) and how it can reproduce itself as an organisation. The pool it fishes from is drying up, and its modus operandi is severely out of step with the irreverent, horizontal trends that increasingly structure popular culture - youth culture especially. Such a crisis can only exacerbate the isolationist, cultish features that rule the SWP roost. And when a crisis comes along, as was the case with their disgusting treatment of Comrade W, the consequence is a membership that is less telephone box and more shoe box.

Like many on the left, I don't like the SWP. It has an unenviable record of ruining campaigns, screwing folk over and putting many people off labour movement politics for life. They are a wholly malignant influence no amount of dialectical sophistry can soft soap. The left - the unions, the community groups, anti-cuts campaigns, the whole shebang would be a much better place if the SWP was no longer there, waiting to ponce off other people's hard work. The only consolation is that their congenital inability to readjust to the "conjuncture" means the doom of a long irrelevance prior to the final expiration awaits. I hope that for as long as that takes, no one else falls victim to the SWP's depravity.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

25 Years of the Sega MegaDrive

Saturday 29th October, 1988. 25 years ago today the Sega MegaDrive (or Genesis if you lived in North America) got released in Japan. It promised high definition graphics, stereo sound, and had enough power to make the competition - the Famicom (the eponymous Nintendo Entertainment System in the West) and NEC's PC Engine melt before Sega's technological white heat. Unfortunately, both companies had the home Japanese market sewn up. It was overseas where the MegaDrive's sun rose high into the sky.

The North American gaming market was even more gaga than Japan for the NES. At one point Nintendo had a 90% share to brag about. This was because Nintendo carefully recreated demand for video games in the wake of the 1983 North American video game crash by pursuing two canny strategies. First, their system was marketed as a toy. Its accessories, its shape, the fact you inserted "game paks" (not cartridges) into a flip up front loader as you would a VCR were ploys designed to persuade sceptical parents suspicious of shoddy games consoles that it was anything but. Second, knowing the reason for the crash was down to the glut of appalling games on the market, Nintendo imposed strict terms on software companies publishing for their system. A licence restricted them to no more than five titles a year (though certain firms were allowed to circumvent the rule by publishing through front companies), and they had to buy the proprietary game paks direct from Nintendo. A further clause in licensees' contracts stipulated they were not allowed to republish games they had already released on the NES for other platforms within two years of issue.

These restrictive - and now illegal - practices ensured Nintendo's dominance during the latter half of the 80s. But it also meant the MegaDrive's predecessor, the Sega Master System, fell foul of the monopoly. Though technically superior to the NES, restrictive licensing meant virtually no one in North America apart from Sega themselves backed it. Matters weren't helped by Sega giving Tonka the marketing and distribution rights - a bit like making a special advisor with no teaching qualifications nor classroom experience the head of a school. And so, it sank.

Meanwhile, in Europe matters were rather different. The bottom did not fall out of video games in the early 80s. In fact, the scene was thriving and was dominated by home computers. First there were the much-loved Sinclair Spectrum, the Commodore 64, and the Amstrad CPC464 and from the mid-80s they uneasily co-existed with the more expensive 16 bit beasts: the Atari ST and Commodore's Amiga. Sega released the Master System across key European markets over 1986 and 1987 and, despite having games costing ten times as much as their Speccy and C64 competitors (and twice as much as ST and Amiga software) it did very well. By the turn of the decade Sega were the leading games console manufacturer in Europe. Nintendo, for once, were the also-rans.

Despite the two different markets, the MegaDrive went on to do very well in both. In North America Sega very aggressively marketed the machine with its infamous Genesis Does commercials. In Europe a slightly different tack was taken. Perhaps slagging off the opposition would have fallen foul of advertising standards, so the initial advertising run concentrated on the power lurking within the MegaDrive's supercool-looking case.

The truth was, technically speaking, the Amiga outclassed Sega's machine in the graphics and sound departments. But Sega knew how to make theirs perform better than software houses churning out floppy discs by the skipload. Side-by-side MegaDrive games looked miles ahead of anything available in American and European homes at that time, and the  'free' pack-in game reflected that. Altered Beast was a minor Sega arcade hit that had been converted to all the main computer formats (and the Master System). Compare. Here's the Amiga version. Now witness the Mega Drive game. An amazing difference. But it wasn't just this. Try Strider. See Out Run. Gawp at Ghouls 'n' Ghosts. And Golden Axe. The gap in performance is cavernous. In this regard, including Altered Beast was a smart move. It's an easy game to pick up and play. It's two player. It closely resembled the arcade original. And it hinted at the potential curled up in the MegaDrive's circuitry.

In North America, aggressive marketing and celebrity endorsements paid off. Nintendo had the software houses locked down, but Sega had a clutch of original titles, a library of exclusive arcade conversions and, crucially, the now-reviled-but-then-upstart Electronic Arts. Slowly at first, but then rapidly Nintendo's market share fell back to the point Sega became the predominant video gaming power. In Europe, and particularly Britain, the MegaDrive was much cheaper than its 16 bit computer competition. At launch the it was £199.99, quickly falling to £149.99 and then £129.99. The ST and Amiga at that time weighed in at £260 and £300 respectively. It would appear Sega's achilles heel would be the retail price of the games, which then ranged between £29.99 and £49.99 (Phantasy Star II was £60 upon its 1990 Western release!) Typical full price ST and Amiga games were £14.99 - £19.99. But the obvious leap in quality, and gaming press hype around arcade-style perfection (which was almost true) saw the home computers off in short order.

Two years after the MegaDrive's Japanese release, Nintendo replied by releasing its own 16 bit monster, the Super Famicom (Super Nintendo/SNES to Western gamers). And it was truly a beast. It had over 32,000 colours (compared to the Mega Drive's 512). Its sound was near-CD quality. It had hardware allowing Mode Seven effects. And most importantly, its initial wave of games were quite simply some of the greatest pieces of software ever written. In Japan, capitalising on the Famicom's installed user base Nintendo swatted the MegaDrive away as a minor irritant and latterly overtook the PC Engine. Sega were determined that would not happen in the other territories. The company had to up its game. On June 23rd 1991 it did.

Sonic the Hedgehog was specifically designed as a Mario-style mascot that would give Sega a marketing edge and a must-have reason for buying a MegaDrive. And it worked. From the moment "SAY-GA!" screams out of your TV to the final animation of Dr Robotnik at game's end, Sonic the Hedgehog is an absolute masterpiece of game design. If you wanted to be uncharitable, Nintendo's mascot - Mario, the fat moustachioed plumber - was tired and plodding, Sonic was all about sharp looks and speed. The upcoming Super Mario World was a sprawling game you could lose yourself in. Sonic was a fast, tightly plotted and superbly programmed joyride. Putting them together, Mario appeared samey. Sure, the graphics were an upgrade on the classic Super Mario Bros 3 on the NES, but it looked like there was little new. Sonic was a total departure from any platform game that went before it. Never before were levels designed around a speeding protagonist. And matching it was a supremely catchy soundtrack and absolutely sumptuous visuals. It has its sequels but none of Sonic's successors quite matched the beauty - yes, beauty - of the original. The vibrant colours, the brilliantly realised in-game sprites, the amazing sense of speed, the fantastic music, none of it would have mattered if it was a dog to play. But it wasn't. Left, right and jump are the only controls you need to get to grips with Sonic and off you go.

The screenshots in Computer and Video Games left my teenaged self amazed. When I saw it running for the first time at the local import specialist, I was agog. It was August 1991. I gave up all thought of saving for an Amiga and promptly splashed out on my Mega Drive (which came with Altered Beast as per), and picked up Star Control with it. My third purchase, however, was good old Sonic. It is a game one appreciates more as one gets older and it is still, for my money, one of the best-looking video games ever released on any format. And yes, that's inclusive of Skyrim.

It worked for me. It worked for millions of kids across Europe and North America. Despite the stellar launch line up, despite the full power of Nintendo's hype machine weighing in behind it, it was actually that year Sega carved out the lion's share of the video game market, outselling the Super Nintendo two-to-one that Christmas. By the start of 1992 in Europe the ST and Amiga were properly on their way out. Changing the pack-in game from Altered Beast to the new premium product really shifted the units - the SNES would never catch up.

I came to the Mega Drive while it was just entering the golden age of the 16-bit wars, where the tight competition with Nintendo produced brilliant title after brilliant title for both machines. And not forgetting a fair few stinkers too. But this is more than just a self-satisfied meander down memory lane. The MegaDrive was more significant to video game history than fodder for the wistful nostalgia of twenty, thirty, and forty-somethings.

In the first place, the MegaDrive's significance lies in its breaking Nintendo's stranglehold in North America. Not only did it topple them from pole position, it showed there was a viable, commercial alternative to restrictive licensing practices. Sure, Sega tried pulling the same trick, but intransigence from EA, a costly court case with unlicensed publishers Accolade, and judgements going against Nintendo meant an end to the restrictions. This may have happened if the MegaDrive hadn't been a success, but competition empowered third party software houses to get from under the licensing yoke and renegotiate terms.

The second, from a European point of view, was the death of the popular home computer. The MegaDrive's low price point and stunning-looking (and playing!) games were beyond anything available on the ST and Amiga. They might have had a few fancy fight sims and role playing games to boast about, but that was not where the mass market was at. When the Super Nintendo finally arrived in 1992 the market by then had shifted firmly towards game consoles as the platform of choice - a state of affairs that has carried on up to this day. Sega did this. The little black box is responsible.

Thirdly, Sega knew how to market their machine. Even when the SNES was establishing itself in North America, Sega kept the momentum going through yet more attack ads. In Britain it ran a slick, zeitgeisty marketing campaign. It may look hopelessly 90s now, but then, believe me, this shit was edgy. At least where video game advertising was concerned. Remember the Super Nintendo adverts from the period? Didn't think so.

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, Sega knew gamers were growing up. Another date. September 13th, 1993. This was 'Mortal Monday', ground zero of the home versions of  Mortal Kombat, the infamous and gratuitously violent fighting game franchise. Nintendo, in-keeping with their family-friendly branding demanded publishers Acclaim removed the blood and hilarious 'fatality' end moves from the SNES and Game Boy games. Sega kept both. This divergence played nicely into Sega's hands. Their machine was cool. It was black, swish, fast. It catered for grown-ups. The SNES was grey, blocky, slow, and was really for the kiddy-winks. This wasn't true, of course. The MegaDrive had more than its fair share of cutesy platformers. The SNES had plenty of violent video games. But perceptions matter. Sega had the hip machine. Nintendo didn't.

Unfortunately for Sega, their success with the MegaDrive was fleeting. Forays into costly add-ons and their panicky early launch of the successor console, the powerful but ill-fated Saturn inflicted severe reputational damage on Sega's brand among the buying public and third party software providers. The strategy of slick marketing and targeting older/adult gamers was a torch they ruinously passed to Sony. In this respect it is not the Saturn but Sony's PlayStation that is the Mega Drive's spiritual and cultural successor. Sega fans have been ruing the company's daft decisions for two decades. And we still do.

Today of all days is not one to mourn the ghost of hardware manufacturers past. It is about celebration. So, why not join the nostalgia fest? Whatever you're doing, if you've got a Mega Drive or Genesis at home dust it off like I did mine a couple of years ago, or, if you must, emulate! Raise a glass to 25 years of this highly significant bit of kit. Throw in Sonic. Throw in whatever you fancy and ride on the 16-bit wild side. You will not regret it.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Russell Brand on Scapegoats

Very quick one tonight. No time for a proper post. This from his New Statesman essay.
The system is adept at turning our aggression on to one another. We condemn the rioters. The EDL condemns immigrants. My new rule for when I fancy doing a bit of the ol’ condemnation is: “Do the people I’m condemning have any actual power?” The immigrant capacity to cause social negativity is pretty slender. Especially if you live in luxury in Hollywood and the only immigrants you meet are Gabby, my Mexican second mother, and Polo who looks after the garden. It probably seems more serious if you’re in a council flat in Tower Hamlets. Still the fact remains that an immigrant is just someone who used to be somewhere else. Free movement of global capital will necessitate the free movement of an affordable labour force to meet the demands that the free-moving capital has created. The wrath is directed to the symptom, not the problem.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Russell Brand and Revolution

"There is going to be a revolution, it is totally going to happen." So said Russell Brand in his widely-celebrated Newsnight interview with Paxo. It would be tempting to view this as the naive aspiration of a dilettante celebrity taking five minutes out from his lavish lifestyle for a political dabble. But this would be a grievous mistake, especially for those of us who spend too much time with our heads in the Westminster goldfish bowl.

Purposely, I've avoided all comment on Brand/Paxman. Except for Paul Mason's commentary. Why? Because Brand has articulated a disenfranchised but growing constituency that Mason has been tracking in his spare time. That is what Hardt and Negri call 'the multitude', or what you might call the 'disconnected connected'. But I'm running ahead of myself.

Accompanying Brand/Paxman is the editorial essay Brand wrote for his guest editorship of the New Statesman. And it is as you might expect - a lanky, disordered, careening piece picking up bits of ecological thinking, spiritual insights, postmodernism, left populism and anti-capitalism. Completely in-keeping with a hipster's fleeting tribute to retro chic, socialism gets an airing too. It is as vivacious and verve-ascious as a Brand monologue typically is. Funny. Weird. Interesting.

A couple of apéritifs before the main course. On spiritualism, Brand notes:
Throughout paganism one finds stories that integrate our species with our environment to the benefit of both. The function and benefits of these belief matrixes have been lost, with good reason. They were socialist, egalitarian and integrated. If like the Celtic people we revered the rivers we would prioritise this sacred knowledge and curtail the attempts of any that sought to pollute the rivers. If like the Nordic people we believed the souls of our ancestors lived in the trees, this connection would make mass deforestation anathema. If like the native people of America we believed God was in the soil what would our intuitive response be to the implementation of fracking?
There's nothing hippyish about linking the relationship we as a species have with the natural world to the ideologies our pre-industrial ancestors developed to come to terms with it. Nor does one have to become an advocate for the healing power of crystals to see the precursors of modern ecological thinking embedded within these beliefs. Brand's basic argument is mining this sort of thinking is useful for a new popular politics of the left.

Ah, the left. Of this, he writes:
It’s been said that: “The right seeks converts and the left seeks traitors.” This moral superiority that is peculiar to the left is a great impediment to momentum. It is also a right drag when you’re trying to enjoy a riot. Perhaps this is why there is currently no genuinely popular left-wing movement to counter Ukip, the EDL and the Tea Party; for an ideology that is defined by inclusiveness, socialism has become in practice quite exclusive ... When Ali G, who had joined protesters attempting to prevent a forest being felled to make way for a road, shouted across the barricade, “You may take our trees, but you’ll never take our freedom,” I identified more with Baron Cohen’s amoral trickster than the stern activist who aggressively admonished him: “This is serious, you cunt.”
Revolutionary identity politics. Movement identity politics. Whatever you want to call it, the self righteousness of the self-identified righteous is not an attractive quality. There might be "social conditions" that militate against militancy. The stars of the objective situation could well be out of alignment. But this does not excuse the deeply unattractive politics the left peddle. For the Leninists it's as if the world hasn't moved on since the invention of the printing press. In a radical mirror image to UKIP, anarchists denounce the world and want to get off, and the centre left are blown hither and tither between principle and expediency. For one lot it's the - I'm afraid to say - increasingly strange looking rituals us labour movement people practice; and for the other the dull diet of wonkery, focus groups, and managerialism. Political porn for some, political yawn for everyone else.

Brand is exactly right. Something is missing. Back when anarchism was fun, when Class War was almost sort of relevant they argued their immediate political objective was the diffusion of a culture of resistance. You don't have to subscribe to that kind of politics to realise that they were onto something. I mean, look at me. I'm very much part of the problem. My revolutionary impulse has long been safely diverted down the path of live tweets about Prime Minister's Questions. But what the left lacks as a whole is the idea it stands for something different. Or if it does, it cannot get that alternative over in ways that are relevant, engaging and - crucially - mobilising.

In his interview, the glimpse Brand offers of his alternative sounded a bit like the 1945 Labour government, albeit one that squeezes the rich until the pips squeak, as a former rightwing Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer reputedly put it. But this alternative is founded upon common-enough anarchist tropes of 'not voting'. His view is if the system isn't working for the majority of people then why should they give it any shred of legitimacy by voting? He's very quick to point out that this position isn't apathetic. Rather it is politics that is apathetic to the interests of working people - the example of Dave and Osborne taking the EU to court to prevent a cap on bankers' bonuses is a neat illustration of the fundamental disconnect that exists. Yet the problem goes deeper than politics "not listening". It's a symptom of a system in which the rich harvest the lion share of the rewards, a system set up to legitimise and defend that privilege, and a system that is only interested in the fate of those it governs insofar they remain passive and accepting, not hostile and belligerent.

What Brand has to offer is less a worked-out strategy of socialist advance and more a gut reaction. It's redolent of - remember him? - Herbert Marcuse's 'Great Refusal', albeit without the matching revolutionary struggle Marcuse knew such a movement depended on. Brand's revolution is very much one that exists in the realm of ideas. Capitalism is an idea. Racism is an idea. Religion is an idea.
To genuinely make a difference, we must become different; make the tiny, longitudinal shift. Meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power. Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster. We should include everyone, judging no one, without harming anyone.
At one level of remove, Brand is right. If we stopped believing in one set of ideas and became convinced of something else, then hey presto, social change and revolution. But it's not as easy as that. Ideology isn't a box of chocolates. It is never a matter of picking the strawberry cremes and leaving the nut cracknels. The ideas that weave in and out of the social fabric are bound to material relationships. In a society such as ours, riven as it is with conflict and contradiction, all ideas speak to and speak of certain sets of interests. Hence the very idea that ideas stand apart and are separate from their roots in the materiality of social relations is an articulation of the sorts of interests who have no interest in having society, its processes and mechanisms, its power relations and practices, laid bare to scrutiny. Therefore at another level of remove, Brand is wrong. Social movements require ideas. But ideas require social movements, and I'm not entirely convinced he grasps the indispensable and mutually constitutive interrelation between both.

You can (and some might) argue that Brand's political turn is another self-centred career shift. He offers nothing new, we've heard it all before, and no one is listening. That would be a mistake for two reasons. Firstly, he is an A-list celebrity. Thanks to celebrity culture, there are millions across the world who appreciate his comedy and take the little bit of politics he indiscreetly throws in seriously. Since Wednesday, Brand/Paxman has had almost two million views. Any other Newsnight interviews out there that have commanded such a large audience so quickly post-broadcast? Didn't think so. He reaches the parts no Labour election broadcast, no Trot paper seller, no publicity for an anti-austerity demo will ever reach. And that is why, incidentally, having him guest edit the New Statesman was nothing short of a master stroke.

Second, and more importantly, as I mentioned earlier Paul Mason recognises (as does Brand himself) that he articulates the desires, fears, anger and hope of a growing constituency of people. But of that more in the follow up post.

Friday, 25 October 2013

A Farewell to Liberal Conspiracy

And it came to pass that another star that once burned brightly has abruptly winked out. This time it's Liberal Conspiracy. Sunny sets out his reasons here. The blog will remain, however, as a remnant adrift in the cold space that exists between active political blogs.

I'm not going to write Sunny an obituary. After all, he's not kicked the bucket. If anything the transition he's made to the mainstream media increases the likelihood of readers bumping into him. But, if we're honest, I've had the sense Liberal Conspiracy had been eased out of its niche. CiF, New Statesman, Indy and the revitalised HuffPoUK for the last year have aggressively scooped up emerging writers and more or less cornered the market in centre left comment. Apart from group blogs attached in some way to Labour (LabourList, Labour Uncut, Progress, Left Futures, Left Foot Forward), group blogs firmly located outside of party political loyalties (Next Left Project, The F-Word), and a few stubborn indies with various affiliations; where was the audience now to be found for something as eclectic as LibCon?

As Sunny's reflection notes, Liberal Conspiracy (despite its strange name, from a UK perspective) was the launch pad for a whole tier of professional bloggers. Heavens, even I've had a couple of posts featured on there! LibCon came along at a time when there was no real multi-platform blog for liberal-left bloggers (remember, this was launched when the LibDems were posing as a leftish progressive party). Sunny's assiduous recruitment of a roster of relatively well-known Labour, LibDem, Green and Trot(ish) bloggers was an immediate pull factor that got bums on seats. This was especially important as, though it's difficult to believe now, the big Tory blogs of the time were seriously arguing that the internet was natural Conservative territory. Not that there was ever any truth to such a ridiculous notion, Liberal Conspiracy very quickly grew to challenge the dominance of Iain Dale's Diary, Guido, and ConHome and supplant them. There was indeed an internet-travelling audience receptive to social and political critique - a large one. It's place in the history of how blogging pulled itself up by the bootstraps and became an accepted part of British political commentary is assured.

There is one point I'd like to pick up on. Sunny notes "frankly, there is just too much opinion out there." Though I wouldn't phrase it that way, I know what he's getting at. Social media has lowered the barrier of entry even further. You don't have to spend ages crafting blog posts to get your views out there. In seconds you can tweet at the object of your ire, and circulate opinions to hundreds of Facebook friends. Social media is the great leveller. But ironically, it helps solidify the position of those who successfully made the transition from blogging to getting paid to write. We've previously noted that the path from nowhere to sustained and regular comment gigs has largely been choked off - those who have made it are not going to give up their berths unless they're forced to, or if they graduate onto something better and/or more rewarding. And why should they? If you was paid more than your current salary to write what you think about the issues of the day, would you drop that job lightly?

Endings in blogging are always difficult, and I'm sure Sunny brooded long and hard over the decision to pull the plug. But, as a whole, Liberal Conspiracy was a job well done.

Now, with the nice words done, how about directing that newly rootless audience my way?

Thursday, 24 October 2013


I write about the decadence of the British ruling class and then confirmation makes the headlines shortly thereafter. There is nothing I can add about the specifics, except to say this piece by Robin McAlpine is an excellent rundown of what's been happening at Grangemouth, as well as a condemnation of Britain's flexible labour markets - where flexibility is labour's responsibility and capital's rigidity is sacrosanct - and the appalling London centrism of our media and our politics.

I want to make some quick observations.

1) Ineos are the biggest privately-owned company in the UK. According to its corporate website, they enjoy a turnover of some $43bn/year. It also was in line for a £150m bung from the government under its infrastructure guarantee scheme (backed by the taxpayer to the tune of £40bn). This despite moving corporate HQ to Switzerland in a dispute over an unpaid VAT bill. Their feeling of entitlement to public money is not matched by their enthusiasm to meet their obligations, it would seem.

2) The dispute has been long in its gestation. Ineos tried coming for the final salary pension scheme in 2008, using almost identical rhetoric as today. The company claim Grangemouth is unprofitable and losing cash hand over fist. Despite figures claiming to the contrary, they maintain the health indicated by the balance sheet is a trick of accountancy and that major investment is needed for its continued viability. They say this investment (which is part-funded from the public purse anyway) is conditional upon the workforce accepting a significant diminution in pensions, wages and a no-strike deal. Their reason for playing hardball with the workers is not that the union is being irresponsible or "refusing to see reality" (reality is largely determined by the billionaire Ineos founder, Jim Ratcliffe, who happens to own two-thirds of its shares), it's because their opposition goes right to the heart of the business model the company operates with.

3) The political response from the SNP has been less than stellar. Criticising Ineos's appalling behaviour is one thing, but calling on them to sell Grangemouth to someone else who'll make a go of it merely kicks the problem into the long grass. The issue isn't that one company is nasty and that there are nicer ones out there, it's a matter of private ownership. The question Grangemouth raises is whether one man - Jim Ratcliffe - without any accountability whatsoever should have the right to close a strategic sector of the Scottish economy. I'm guessing most people's answer would be "no".

4) This could effect the politics of next autumn's independence referendum. Dave's speedy retreat from the Commons just as an urgent question was put down yesterday after PMQs says all you need to know about the government's response. Put plainly, the Westminster Bubble doesn't care. As far as they're concerned, not only is it somewhere no Tory will ever be elected, it's purely a matter for Ineos and its employees. Also, as inadequate as the SNP response is the Scottish government has only so many powers - I don't think outright nationalisation is among them. An uncaring national government and a relatively powerless devolved administration are just the pick-me-ups the floundering Yes campaign needs.

5) Crisis and opportunity are twins, and Labour has so far had very little to say about it. This cannot continue. Ed Miliband has a reputation for picking fights with the powerful - his brother, Murdoch, The Mail, Energy Companies. But this is a different kettle of fish. Criticising Ineos, attacking the unaccountable economic power Jim Ratcliffe has necessarily means impinging on the private ownership of industry. And that's before you even start talking about solutions. Yet that is what the situation demands. Will Ed grasp the nettle?

Image credit

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Trade Unions and Employment Rights

We built this city! But contrary to Starship's audacious claim, it wasn't on rock & roll. You see, Stoke-on-Trent is a city that rests on the proud history of our labour movement. And on October 31st the Labour Party and the trade unions will be coming together in a public event to celebrate that.

Organised by Joan Walley, the MP for Stoke-on-Trent North it will be an opportunity to mingle with trade union folk and take part in a question and answer session. This features Joan's fellow Stoke-on-Trent MPs, Rob Flello and Tristram Hunt; Chief Executive of local housing association Brighter Futures; and Ian Murray, the shadow for employment rights. It's yours and others' chance to quiz the panel about where employment rights are going, and what they would like to do to help working people if Labour wins in 2015.

It runs from 6pm until 9pm at Port Vale Football Club, Hamil Road, Stoke-on-Trent, ST6 1AW (true fact, the Vale were the first footy club to be sponsored by a trade union).

For those coming by car, park at the Lorne Street car park (Main entrance). Access through main entrance, up the stairs (there is a lift) and the event is in the concert/conference centre the first room on the right.

If the prospect of two shadow ministers, two well-respected MPs and the cream of Stoke's labour movement crop are not incentive enough, the author of North Staffordshire's premiere politics/sociology blog will also be there!

So what are you waiting for? Register on the Eventbrite here. It's 6pm for a 6.30 start. And it's free!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Labour and the Uses of Left Populism

A confirmed ex-Trot your writer undoubtedly is, I have kept a soft spot for jolly old left populism. Which is funny considering Britain's Trots have only episodically had mass audiences for their wares. That is before slipping back unremarked and little-remembered into obscurity. But populism is easy enough to grasp. It's us-vs-themism, the innocent, much burdened and suffering Great British public against the crooked arch-manipulators of the political class. Such simplistic appeals have readily found audiences. UKIP, for example, have been very good at portraying equal marriage and the European Union as the sinister hobbyhorses of an out-of-touch elite. Though they wouldn't have done it without a little help from their friends in the gutter press.

Roger Liddle of the Policy Network asks if a dollop of left populism can help rejuvenate the fortunes of social democratic politics in Britain. He notes that the Tories have been effective in using it to bash social security, which is par the course. But can it be harnessed for a positive political programme that actually wants to build things (literally and figuratively), and not just turn people against each other? Roger's views are mixed. I'm a bit more hopeful.

It's not controversial to say Ed Miliband's proposed energy price freeze is naked populism. It's not without its antecedents. The bleating of the energy companies themselves and the senior Tories that have rushed to defeat them merely adds more grist to the populist mill. They say a freeze will threaten investment, despite green investment getting hacked back from £7bn to £3bn while profits have soared. But it doesn't matter, really. Even if their books showed they were in dire straits, even if there was a scintilla of truth to their bloodcurdling promise of imminent blackouts if the policy was pushed through, it really wouldn't wash. This is because there's a diffuse but palpable sense of anger directed at the energy companies. People aren't stupid - they see the prices go up and up even when wholesale prices occasionally dip. They see rampant profiteering and a bonus culture among the execs that would embarrass a city boy. It's perfect for a bit of populist tub-thumping. If only populist angles could be found for some other Labour policies, eh?

There's a but coming. It does matter who's articulating the populism. Farage is as establishment as the government's front bench. But he is positioned outside the Westminster circus and has, over the course of his political career, carefully cultivated the countenance of the outsider. He says what others fear to say. He "speaks plainly". He can look natural drinking in the pub. Ed and most of the shadow cabinet are not. They're consummate insiders and few of them have had real lives outside the Oxbridge-wonkland-Westminster nexus. And people can tell that is the case too. Ed and most of his frontbenchers would look ridiculous if they tried striking a wo/man-of-the-people pose, and there's the danger that one populist push too many could come across as trying too hard. It's potentially their 'Gordon Brown's smile'. Better to use populism sparingly for it to retain its political bite.

Secondly, as Roger points out, there is a dismal reality to contend with. And mostly the deep rooted social problems we have require complex and nuanced policy responses that require the allocation of resources (this, incidentally, is why Trotsky's 'transitional method' is such an albatross for the far left - working people don't buy its "demands" because they're insufficiently class conscious, they don't ring true because they sound fantastical). Populism cannot do complexity. Just look at the state of government now - look at the chaos in education, the DWP, the economy; these are the bitter fruits of a light-minded approach to statecraft - and that's before you get to their hard right ideological core. So for a government-in-waiting, which is what Labour is in the business of presenting itself as, populism has to be tightly circumscribed.

Let's have another but. Limiting populism does have its advantages. The energy price freeze has pulled the political rug from under the Tories, and it keeps coming back again and again to damage them. Today it's the grey blur of prime ministers past that has given them a headache. Who will it be tomorrow? But as well as grabbing the headlines and seizing the initiative, it buoys up the activists and might, just might, act as a recruiting sergeant. There's also the small matter of firming up the vote and attracting new supporters.

It is a tricky tight rope to walk, especially so for Labour where pragmatism and principle has had an fractious relationship, historically. But if the balance can be struck and kept steady over the long term, the parliamentary majority it craves is there for the taking.

Monday, 21 October 2013

George Osborne and Ruling Class Decadence

If you think this is about the chancellor's youthful larks with Natalie Rowe, you will surely be disappointed. What's more important - and far more damaging - from the standpoint of British capital is his current game of footsie with the Chinese Communist Party. The very notion that not only is he letting the Chinese state build and run a cornerstone of Britain's electricity generating capacity at Hinkley Point C, but will also be shovelling hundreds of millions of taxpayers' cash their way as a sweetener is flabbergasting. Forget the EU and its silly rules about straight bananas, if I was a UKIP'er I'd be hopping about in a panic because the chancellor has handed over a large chunk of British sovereignty to a COMMUNIST power! In fact, what is interesting about this deal is how the hard right, those doughty defenders of this sceptred isle, that die-in-a-ditch-for-queen-and-country brigade haven't so much as raised a murmur of protest. Instead, it has been the liberal-left Keynesian Will Hutton to jab the boot in.

I don't want to spend any time condemning Osborne's obvious lack of aptitude, especially as Will does it so well. But there is one paragraph summing up what is wrong with British capital:
British energy policy, post-privatisation, is a mess. Centrica, which owns British Gas, was EDF's partner in building nuclear power stations. It dropped out claiming that the probable financial returns were not high enough and too uncertain, preferring to spend £500m buying back its own shares to support their price and thus the bonuses of its directors, the kind of capitalism Bambi refuses to reform.
Centrica had the money to build power stations, but concentrated on buying back shares instead. Read that again. Given the option to invest in new power generation and therefore the long-term health of their company, they blew half a billion quid on an immediately profitable but totally non-productive purchase.

Marx often noted that capitalist relations of production are fetters on the development of the forces of production, and today this is an almost banal observation. Even the dogs in the street know that people continually go hungry because there's no money in ensuring everyone's basic needs are met. But perhaps what Marx did not appreciate was the extent to which one country's bourgeoisie differed from another in the degree to which they acted as a brake on capitalist development. And that is Britain's curse, to be lumbered with the most decadent ruling class in Western Europe.

What do we mean by 'decadent'? Writing on China at the beginning of the last century, the classical German sociologist Max Weber observed that the Chinese nobility and mercantile class (sometimes, one and the same thing) were guilty of "irrational" behaviour. In their dealings with the West rather than invest profits in productive capacity so they could compete for emerging markets in manufactured wares, instead they put all their money into land. At that time in China, so went Weber's argument, status in ruling class circles was measured by landholding. So, internally-speaking, this was entirely rational behaviour. But externally this was not the case. Their shortsightedness condemned China to semi-colonial servitude until the Communist Party assumed power in 1949.

The British ruling class are guilty, as a whole, of exactly the same kind of behaviour. Short-termism, flogging off successful companies to overseas competitors, pushing billions into unproductive and socially worthless ventures for a quick turn around, toadying for gongs and royal fripperies - this is the pattern of behaviour our ruling class has grown accustomed. And it's nothing new at all. Will Hutton's political classic, The State We're In forcefully criticises British capital's inability to see further than the end of its nose. He talks about institutions that are par the course in Britain's competitors - state banks, planning, varying levels of corporatism - and how the British state has time and again either avoided these structures or implemented them in a half-arsed way. And this to the detriment of the long-term interests of our beloved bourgeoisie.

In a way, you can understand how we were saddled with the bourgeois equivalent of idlers and wastrels. Britain is where capitalism was born. Capitalism grew "organically" out of the class struggles that attended the final collapse of feudalism. The break down of the ties between landlord and serf under the impact of plague, monarchal absolutism, and war saw the emergence of freelance wage labourers in the countryside. Rather than produce a surplus for the manor out of obligation (backed up by the threat of a visit from the lord's heavies) the relation became an economic one. Gradually, landlord and peasant were replaced by the agrarian capitalist and the rural worker. Seeking outlets for new found wealth, some of these landlords invested in government bonds, but others in new commercial opportunities beginning to open up in towns and cities. Coupled with vast riches flowing into Britain through monopolising high seas trade routes and piracy, capital on a large scale was set into motion, ultimately providing the fund that went on to kickstart the industrial revolution.

This very rough and broad sketch of the emergence of capitalism shows one thing clearly - the bourgeoisie, the class of capital owners, more or less arose "spontaneously". They emerged from the wreck of feudalism as sections of the aristocracy that became something else. They retained their ties to other landed families and crucially the English, and then the British, state and, of course, the royal court. Hence, as Ellen Meiksins Wood has argued that the "backwardness" we associate with Britain - the monarchy, the lords, the unwritten constitution, the baffling pomp and circumstance remained intact because none of it acted as a fetter on the development of emerging capitalism. The French and the other republics that dominate the European mainland are, perversely, symptoms of an earlier backwardness, of a need to reset the states of those nations to enable catch up. Corporatist institutions, long-term planning, both these are characteristic of starting at a lower level and of having to take an interventionist, state-led approach to capitalist development. In Britain where the first bourgeoisie emerged they didn't need any of that. They emerged on the historical scene without the handmaiden of the state, which probably explains why the cretinous liberalism of small state thinking struck deep roots in our ruling class.

Unfortunately, this remains the ruling class conceit now. It doesn't matter that the real economy is beholden to the rapaciousness of finance capital, or that inequality is widening, or that the infrastructure is crumbling, or that London and the regions are dangerously imbalanced, or that their government has pursued self-defeating policies. As long as the dividends continue to pile in and they get their six or seven holidays a year they really, really don't care. This is the class that would sell their granny for a few extra quid, that would sink Britain to preserve their privileges. So much for patriotism, so much for loving their country.

The British ruling class are decadent and clueless, their privilege has made them stupid. They are unfit for purpose, to mangle a phrase.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Baddeley, Milton and Norton By-Election Candidates

10 candidates for the above council vacancy in Stoke-on-Trent is not a record, but it's pretty near. There's something here for every political persuasion:

Candi Chetwynd (Labour)
Adam Colclough (Green)
John Davis (Independent)
Gary Elsby (Independent)
Tom Grocock (LibDem)
Mick Harold (UKIP)
Anthony Munday (City Independents)
Liat Norris (TUSC)
Sam Richardson (Conservatives)
Michael White (BNP)

As everyone knows, Stoke-on-Trent is the pivot around which national politics revolves (as well as the world centre for global revolution). What happens here matters. So the by-election will no doubt have the news-hungry hounds of the national dailies wetting themselves. What will get the characters flying across their monitors is not only the fact that my comrade Candi (who is the current secretary of Stoke-on-Trent Central CLP) will be beating off a challenge from the former secretary and Newsnight celebrity, Gary Elsby; but that he too will be competing for votes against his former comrade-in-arms, Adam Colclough, who's moved in to bat for the Greens.

Dare I venture a prediction? Heh, last time I tempted fate in a Stoke-on-Trent by-election it bit me badly on the backside. But Labour are campaigning extremely hard while hide nor hair has yet been seen of the other candidates. A team is out everyday pounding the streets, knocking on doors, and delivering leaflets - helped in no short measure by Candi's boundless energy and irrepressible enthusiasm. So I will confine myself to saying that Labour have a very good chance.

The by-election will be held on Thursday 14th November.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Aphex Twin - Come to Daddy

Still one of the most terrifying dance tunes ever made. And the video ...

Friday, 18 October 2013

Anti-Politics and the Problem of Listening

By-election fever grips Stoke-on-Trent! Well, that might be egging the pudding a bit. But it's true enough that the biggest ward in the city, Baddeley, Milton and Norton is being put through its campaigning paces. This contest came about after the resignation of a Labour-turned-Independent councillor over serious fraud charges. Needless to say Labour are fighting to take back the seat and have a great candidate in the shape of my energetic and indefatigable comrade, Candida Chetwynd.

But it's not the by-election per se that interests me here. I can't say a great deal anyway as my new job and its delightful commute has ruled me out of most campaigning. But what does is a question asked of the Tory candidate, Sam Richardson by the March on Stoke group. They ask "What assurance can you give that you will listen to, and respect, the opinions expressed by members of your electorate ? If elected, do you undertake to represent these views in any and all council discussions, whether or not they may conflict with any ‘party’ view?"

Kudos to Sam for not saying what MoS would no doubt like to hear. But this question encapsulates so much of the anti-politics sentiment that sloshes about town halls and the wider political system like an open sewer. It is populist in that a pure mass of people are opposed to an irredeemably corrupt set of political institutions and parties. And it is a protest against the lack of dialogue, of "not listening".

In the first place, political parties are not de facto corrupt institutions. Parties remain, as they always have, as expressions of certain collective interests or, at least in the British contexts, alliances of interests. The Conservative Party is often referred to as the preferred party of the British ruling class, and that is because of its long-standing ties to various business and landed interests. But in addition to that it is also allied with a section of the middle class, the military, small business people, farmers and a layer of working class people. The Labour Party is a similar alliance. Officially it is the political wing of the labour movement, but it has always been an alliance between it and a section of the 'progressive' middle class. That is its bedrock, but it too encompasses sections of classes and class fractions straddled by the Tory party.

Anti-politics isn't the result of a few eternal misanthropes having a moan in their local paper. It is a phenomenon that is the direct result of a partial breakdown in 'traditional' communities of solidarity based around employment focal points, and the collapse or decline of institutions that used to thread these together. This reached its extreme point in the last decade when, qualitatively, there was comparatively little between the Tories and Labour in the sense that politics was about managing capitalism, not about what kind of capitalism (as it is presently). With little to choose and a palpable sense that core supporters were being ignored, many grew even more cynical toward and alienated from mainstream politics. To win people back to politics parties have to start taking their interests into account, and this, in my opinion, is what the Labour Party has started to do in earnest.

Hardened anti-politics types, however, are not that interested. And nowhere does their lack of interest manifest itself more in their protestation that they're "not being listened to". For example, in my previous job one of my duties was to reply to the occasional letter that bemoaned the state of the world - which usually extended no further than the city limits of Stoke-on-Trent. I remember a series of letters in which a number of criticisms were ventured of the local party's record which I responded to comprehensively and with supporting evidence. These were not point-scoring rebuttals. Nevertheless it didn't surprise me to see those replies being bandied about on local fora as proof their MP "wasn't listening".

And here is the fundamental error. Our anti-politics types cannot or refuse to differentiate between listening and agreement. In those letters I, on behalf of my employer, listened to what they had to say, thought their concerns were mistaken and unwarranted, and replied back stating the reasons for disagreement and supplying an alternative point of view. Likewise when I've stood on doorsteps listening to anti-immigration rants. I listen, then state why I disagree, and reply using the power of fact and evidence. The same is when the press goes on a populist binge on some issue or another and claims "no one's listening". Chances are they are, it's that they simply disagree.

Perhaps if they are genuine about mending politics and get their head round this simple point then anti-politics people might contribute something positive to a widespread and much-needed democratic renewal.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Ted Cruz and Rational Actor Theory

Putting 'rationality' and 'Ted Cruz' together in the same sentence feels like I'm violating a law of nature. But now the USA has stepped back from the precipice ... again, it's worth looking at "abnormal" and "irrational" forms of social behaviour But I would like to do so through the prism of rational actor theory. On the face of it, you could be forgiven for thinking there's no sociological perspective less suitable than one that pays strict attention to rationality, especially as Tea Party Republicans like Cruz subscribe to an irrational mix of conspiracy theory, Jesusland rapture-bothering; and think going off on a completely pointless 21-hour speech in the Senate before voting for the spending plan he opposed is smart tactics. But that is where you would be mistaken. Rational actor theory is well-positioned to make some sense of seemingly-evident nonsense.

Firstly, some words on what rational actor theory is not. One shouldn't pay much attention to received wisdom in sociology. After all, it frequently has it that Durkheim's a bit of a fossil and Marx was a crude economic, if not technological, determinist. In rational actor theory's case, it is frequently confused with one of its subspecies, rational choice theory. Rational choice is an importation from economics, and is particularly big in political science. It holds that individuals are instrumentally oriented and will act rationally in pursuit of their aims. For example, rational choice individuals in economic settings would seek to maximise their competitive advantage by judicious deployment of resource and skill. In political science, the rational choice actors are political parties as discrete entities competing within the bounds of their respective party systems. Their rational behaviour comes most into play in the cut-and-thrust of parliamentary manoeuvres, during election campaigns, and in the horse-trading that makes up coalition negotiations or arrangements that keep minority governments afloat.

The problem with rational choice is its limited applicability. It might be alright for political parties and firms, but it's not great for understanding social action. The problem is the individual in this schema is instrumentally-oriented toward economic or political reward, narrowly defined; and has all the information to hand they require to select an appropriate action. But the social world just isn't structured like that. Real, flesh and blood humans daily undertake the sorts of counter-productive, self-defeating and plain bizarre actions that leaves the individual of rational choice a poor abstraction that barely matches the messy reality it tries to describe. Small wonder that when rational choice and rational actor theory does raise its head in sociology it comes in for a bit of a shewin', as they say round my way. Hence rational choice can be safely written off.

Or can it? In his excellent if under-appreciated On Sociology, John Goldthorpe forcefully argues that the rational choice theory that has been the target of so much sociological ire is not the same thing as rational actor theory, with which it is usually confused. I suppose it's a bit like identifying Marxism with Stalinism - superficially similar but not the same thing at all. As far as Goldthorpe is concerned, there is a continuum of rational actor theory, from "hard" rationality to approaches that emphasise the rationality of the procedures a social agent goes through in the course of their action, to what he calls 'situational rationality' - a rationality that is a response to the situation an individual finds themselves in. This also allows for a bounded rationality, where an individual or a collective can pursue courses of action that are adequate enough, even if the information motivating them is incomplete. It follows therefore that rational activity can be founded on entirely false belief systems. This sort of approach for Goldthorpe is appropriate to what he sees as the sociological problematic:
... the phenomena with which sociologists are concerned are social regularities of some kind that can be established, on a probabilistic basis, within collectivities ranging from national populations, through variously defined subpopulations, down to the level of local communities, associations or households. The typical explanatory task is then to show how these regularities are created, sustained, or, perhaps, modified or disrupted through the action and interaction of individuals. (Goldthorpe 2000, p.116)
To paraphrase someone else, rational actors make their own history, but not under the circumstances of their choosing. And the way that individuals act is with enough rationality that at the aggregate level structures of inequality or patterns of behaviour are reproduced. Hence, from the condescending standpoint of the "new atheism", for example, people engaging in acts of worship are actin irrationally. But for the believers themselves, their traditions of rites and observance are perfectly rational within the terms of their belief and biography.

Which brings is back to Ted Cruz. His band of fanatics are hellbent on using whatever they can to derail a mild health reform that reduces healthcare costs for America's poor. Utterly baffling from a common sense point of view. But if you burrow into Cruz's position with rational actor theory, things start making sense. American Conservatism is on the wrong side of profound demographic changes. Republicans regardless of their positioning are rightly worried that a new Democratic majority could lock them out of The White House for a generation. The Tea Party goes one step further and do not like what's happening to their America. As the so-called flyover states slowly catch up with the rest of the Western world's cultural mores it's a case of trying to arrest those processes. Gay marriage, anti-abortion fanaticism, gun control, debt ceilings - each of these are flashpoint issues that require the Tea Party faithful to rally to save America from the modern world. Because they know their movement is ebbing, Cruz and co. are willing to use what limited time they have left to make a last ditch effort to pitch for the bucolic America they're nostalgic for, which, of course, has never existed. Hence within the terms of rational actor theory, drinking in the last chance saloon has meant Tea Party senators are willing to go to the wire - upto and including debt default - to fight for their priorities. It's a ridiculous position to be in, but is nevertheless a rational one taken within its own terms. And, of course, Obama and the Democrats' decision to front them out is also entirely rational, framed by the exigencies of the situation.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Durkheim and the Division of Labour

Poor old Durkheim. Picture the scenes in FE colleges, lecture rooms and tutorials across the land. For the best part of a century, generations of sociology students have been introduced to the discipline's canonical 'founding fathers'; Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. Unfortunately for Durkers, as programmes march on through a succession of modules chances are Marx will continue to get a look-in. Weber might as well. But Durkheim? He's left to bother classical social theory modules, or the opening sessions of methods and religion lessons. For all intents and purposes, he's a dead duck miscast as the conservative father of Functionalism, or worse - a hopeless naïf. For instance, writing of Durkheim's The Division of Labour in Society in his classic study of the deskilling process, Harry Braverman suggested that Durkheim was "determinedly avoiding the specific social conditions under which the division of labour develops in our epoch, celebrating throughout his proposition that "the ideal of human fraternity can be realised only in proportion to the progress of the division of labour", until in the last tenth of his work he discovers the division of labour in the factories and offices of modern capitalism, and dubs them "abnormal forms"." (Labor and Monopoly Capital, 1974, p.74). There you go, Durkheim can have his theoretical contributions filed away next to Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, only to be retrieved for bits and bobs on the history of ideas. 

Durkheim, however, is a far more interesting figure than Braverman and his various caricatures suggest.

The Division of Labour, which I'll be focusing on, is a cornerstone work and is concerned with the problem of social order. i.e. How a society integrates people into the established way of doing things and ensures these practices are reproduced over lengthy time scales. Hence why his focus on social order is erroneously contrasted with Marx and, to a lesser extent, Weber, who talked more about the constitutive role occupied by social conflict. Durkheim was especially interested in how complex and increasingly variegated societies like the advanced industrial nations of his day were able to hold themselves together when the pace of social change was so rapid. The root of the integrative impulse lay in the division of labour, which, depending on the character of the society, gave rise to two forms of solidarity: the mechanical and the organic.

Mechanical solidarity, Durkheim suggested, was a property of pre-industrial societies. He argued that societies ranging from primitive hunter/gatherer bands to the sophisticated slave empires of antiquity and the feudal social formations that preceded the rise of capitalism all rested on comparatively simple social divisions of labour. The tribes that ran around European forests millennia ago allotted tasks to different members of the band - child rearing, gathering berries, hunting game, clearing and cleaning living spaces, making clothes and weapons, etc. The Roman Empire, with its great cities, its citizen-farmers, its artisans, and its slaves was much more advanced. The division of labour saw to the basic material needs of a thriving civilisation, as well as the production of luxuries, prestige buildings and a vast military. Feudalism was more complex still. Semi-permanent conflict between squabbling barons and petty states rested upon a groaning mass of peasants tied by land and legal obligation to the tiny, warring landlord class. However, what characterised them all was a relatively undifferentiated division of labour. Hunter/gatherer groups barely differed from one another in their fundamentals. The bulk of Romans knew life as agrarian labourers or slaves. And the great mass of the mediaeval peasantry tilled their land, laboured in the landlord's fields, and generally paid little attention to events taking place further than the end of their nose. Because the bulk of humanity hold in common very similar immediate social conditions, it follows that the individual personality - as we understand it - does not develop. Individual peasants remain biological, social beings with a sense of self and a biography, but from the Durkheimian perspective any sense of individuality is stunted by their circumstance. The same is true for galley slaves and berry gatherers. As Durkheim puts it:
The individual consciousness ... is simply a dependency of the collective type, and follows all its motions, just as the object possessed follows those which the owner imposes upon it. In societies where this solidarity is highly developed the individual ... does not belong to himself; he is literally a thing at the disposal of society. (Durkheim 1893/1984, p.85)
Therefore Durkheim here treats individuals as molecules of a society. They have little scope for autonomous activity. Because of the underdeveloped sense of individuality, they are almost entirely animated by the collective consciousness. Through tradition, obligation, compulsion and necessity they grind out their daily bread and reproduce the social structures that animate them in the first place. They are unthinking, unreflective parts of the great, clunking social machinery. Theirs is a mechanical solidarity defined and driven by the comparatively unremarkable, mundane position they occupy in the division of labour.

The other kind of solidarity, organic solidarity, is very different. Again, the starting point is the division of labour. Time to get a bit Hegelian. Durkheim argues that the rise of industrial society had the effect of increasing social complexity. As old trades disappeared new jobs, sometimes based around a single repetitive task, took their place. The modern firm, the modern state, the expansion of institutions, the progress in scientific knowledge; the internal variation of the division of labour underpinning all this expanded and differentiated like no other preceding society. And out of this quantitative extension came a significant qualitative change to how the social order and social integration was achieved. Mechanical solidarity didn't so much as seize up as fall apart, and what replaced it was an order much less angular, more fluid.

Every place in the division of labour has a limited arena for autonomous action, which varies from occupation to occupation. This, of course, was true of pre-industrial societies too. But the greater variation of tasks defined by the division of labour, and their increasing specialisation means that, at the aggregate level, there is a greater range of possible autonomies in industrial societies. Each segment, each nook and cranny of the division of labour demands it is filled by people with particular aptitudes, motivations, and levels of culture and education. Hence whereas mechanical solidarity rested on similarity, organic solidarity, the different kind of collective consciousness it gives rise to, is founded on difference.
On the one hand each one of us depends more intimately upon society the more labour is divided up, and on the other, the activity of each one of us is correspondingly more specialised, the more personal it is (ibid.)
It therefore follows that the growth and spread of individuality is congruent with the unceasing division, subdivisions and specialisations of the division of labour. But if individuation is the new cultural dominant driven by the subterranean processes churning and splitting beneath the surface, how is it that it can give rise to any form of solidarity at all? Durkheim says,
... viewing from the outside the variety of occupations that the individual embarks upon, it may seem that the personality then develops more freely and completely. But in reality what he displays is not his own. It is society, it is the race, which act in and through him; he is only the intermediary through which they are realised. His liberty is only apparent, his personality is borrowed. (ibid, p.335)
It might be tempting to read this in a heavily determinist way, but all it means is that the autonomy our place in the division of labour grants us is functional for the whole. We carry out our tasks as a microscopic aspect of the social organism and, as such, we contribute to the health of the whole. We are bearers and engineers of social relations, we each carry a particulate of social matter at the same time we play our part in the division of labour as sentient, autonomous individuals. Individuation is the precondition for the mutual interdependence that glues complex societies together.

So far, so abstract, but generally uncontroversial. However, Durkheim goes on to argue that the division of labour gives rise to a different form of collective consciousness that points toward a 'universal humanity'. The functional mutuality "spontaneously" performed everyday as we go to work or see to our domestic responsibilities is suggestive of a potential commonality that may emerge. Our simultaneous individuality and dependence on one another can lead to the mutual recognition of our similarities. Whereas mechanical solidarity ordered the social estate "unconsciously", organic solidarity resting on and upholding an increasingly complicated division of labour opens the possibility for its conscious regulation. For those of a Marxish bent, does that sound familiar?

Where Durkheim falls down is perhaps taking his highly abstract rendering as too literal a reading of what is actually happening in the capitalist work place, as Braverman helpfully pointed out. But in his rush to rubbish Durkheim he did not consider the position with enough nuance. His dialectical fortitude was found wanting. Marx wasn't the only founding father to have eaten at Hegel's table. Because of the level of abstraction the theory operates at, it lacks an obvious political economy and notions of conflicts between different classes and social groups. Despite that obvious disadvantage, what Durkheim manages to do with his concept of organic solidarity is tease out the imminent potentiality of a different way of organising society existing within the contemporary division of labour, just as Marx discerned the growing possibility of socialism because of the spadework done by capitalism. As he stands, Durkheim's organic solidarity offers the basis for an abstract critical theory. The "abnormal forms" mocked by Braverman, for example, are not a case of the facts refusing to fit the theory, but rather a challenge to be criticised, deconstructed, and then reconstructed on the basis of deepening the actual, existing tendency toward organic solidarity. This is hardly a conservative position. Perhaps, instead, Durkheim should be considered the first Fabian.