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Sunday, 4 December 2011

Disappointed but not, alas, Surprised. Reflections on The Strike (In which I have a go at the Conservatives, the Labour Party, Jeremy Clarkson and the Unions, so something here for everyone.]

I went on strike last Wednesday (30th) – so let’s get the obvious gags out of the way first, shall we?  Was anyone able to tell the difference?  (Ho ho!)  That will have brought the capitalist world to its knees! (Ha ha!)  I quipped that I was going to tell the Leverhulme that I had been on strike so they could dock Tom Pickles a day’s pay.  (Hee hee!) 

I’m not normally in favour of strikes by my union (UCU) although that is a locally-ethical or tactical stance rather than a statement of a general principle.  On this occasion, though, I felt that solidarity with other public sector workers was necessary and important. 

More interestingly, perhaps, I went on the march in York.  It was well attended and it got a lot of support, with many cars pipping their horns in support and many bystanders applauding the march as it passed.  I heard of only one shout of ‘get back to work’ – I’m not sure who by, clearly someone in one of those hard-pressed ‘going shopping or otherwise wandering about in York town centre’ jobs.  There were good supportive speeches from private sector workers at the end, striking a further blow against the tactics that the government and its media allies have used.  All that was very encouraging.  Indeed it confirmed what the polls were saying about the strength of support for the strike across the country (even in a Daily Mail poll, amazingly).

All that apart, though, the overwhelming sensation I had with the debate around the strike was of disappointment.   Obviously I’m not surprised by the general unpleasantness of the government’s response.  They could be predicted to get their media friends (unelected people on massive wages, by the way, employing nasty people to intrude into and often wreck people’s lives) to vilify the strikers as lazy and try to foment a rift between the private and public sectors.  It is still disappointing though.  Disappointing too to hear Michael Gove coming out with statements about how this was a time for us all to pull together.  Surely all that ‘we’re all in this together’ stuff must ring hollow even in Tory Central Office’s propaganda department by now, it’s so obviously, transparently untrue – revealed by their blocking of real bank reform, the snivelling refusal to chase down tax-evasion and tax-avoidance by big corporations and the super-rich the grumbling about the 50% tax bracket, the blocking of a Robin Hood Tax, the continuing huge bank bonuses and executive pay-rises, and so on and so forth. 

Disappointing, but not surprising, that so many people appear to have been taken in with this rhetoric.  Yet, as the strike made clear, this was not merely about protecting allegedly gold-plated public-sector pensions; it was about protecting fair pensions for all.  Those comparing the public with the private sector to disparage the former have the telescope the wrong way round.  The issue is not that the public sector have it so good as much as that the private sector have it so bad.  Why do they have it so bad?  Because their bosses have cut back responsible, fair pension provision at the expense of vast executive pay-rises, shareholder bonuses etc.  Want to complain about the inadequacy private sector pensions?  Then get with the movement for taxation and banking reform.  Don’t try and bring the public sector down too.  That is the Conservative magnate class’ classic divide and rule tactic.

Nonetheless, it was not surprising, but still disappointing, to hear Jeremy Clarkson making his usual bullying ‘jokes’ about taking the strikers out and shooting them in front of their families, asking ‘how dare’ they strike with their gilt-edged pensions, etc. 

Let’s get this straight, shall we?  First, Jeremy Clarkson is NOT just an ordinary bloke like you; he went to Repton, the expensive public school; mummy (especially) and daddy bought him his education and his opportunities.  Clarkson is no more than one of those deeply unpleasant public school boys who occasionally make it into the national papers for their University Conservative Association antics, like burning Obama in effigy or making anti-semitic, racist, sexist comments/stunts.  And who, when confronted about their behaviour, retreat into mealy-mouthed claims that it was just a joke, a bit of fun, some banter.  At Poppleton University Department of History we, sadly enough, have more than enough of this sort.  They are rarely very bright.  Here is one of our distinguished old boys…  Clarkson is no different … except that, on the basis of being an independently wealthy, better-than-average, moderately witty car-reviewer (and that’s all he is, remember) he has gained access to an audience of millions.  Three million delusionals have even joined a Facebook group saying he should be Prime Minister.  Second, and related to my last comment, let’s remember that – apart from his inheritance – Clarkson’s wealth comes overwhelmingly from the opportunities afforded him by the publicly-funded BBC and its license-payers.  Third, how dare he set himself up as some sort of working man?  What’s his job?  Messing about with expensive cars at the license-payer’s expense.  Not that, with his inherited wealth, he needs to work at all, mind.  And yet, although he thinks it bad form to discuss his own money, he can go on air and state that he thinks people should be shot for demanding that they get a fair deal.  Fourth, at the front of our march were the reps of the Fire Brigades Union.  It is likely that these were from the very branch that sent the men who cut Clarkson’s friend and coat-holding side-kick Richard ‘the Hamster’ (he’s not even a real hamster) Hammond out of a tree when he drove (at the license-payer’s expense) a super-fast car into it.  Yet, according to Clarkson, these are the people who should be taken out and shot in front of their families. They should indeed - for not leaving Hammond swinging in his tree.  Hey!  It’s just a joke, Jeremy!  Who looked after Hammond afterwards, in emergency and later?  Oh, that’ll be the public sector health service for the most part.  I guess they ought to be shot too, eh, Jeremy?  For not leaving him brain-damaged.  After all, who knew he had a brain to damage?  Just a joke!  And who did all the proceeds from the book sold by Hammond on the back of his heart-warming near-death-crash-and-recovery-experience go?  That’s right, they went to the public sector workers – oh no, my mistake – they went to Hammond and his private-sector publishers, Weidenfeld and Nicholson (as Stewart Lee said; he didn’t even have the decency to publish it through the BBC).

Well, I don’t think Clarkson should be taken out and shot in front of his family; I think his family should be taken out and shot in front of him!  Hey!  It’s just a joke, Jeremy.

So, Clarkson’s irresponsible and unpleasant.  Disappointing but not surprising.  Disappointing, but not surprising, were the responses.  Unison’s predictable threat to sue just plays into his hands.  All those people (Cameron included) who played it down as just a silly joke, or as just ‘winding people up’ – it’s disappointing but not surprising that they don’t understand the power-relations involved in this sort of ‘joke’, and not even a very funny one in any case, let’s be honest.  Was it even a joke?  When rich and powerful people with access to an audience of millions make hateful comments about the people they are exploiting, that is not ‘just the same’ as when members of a Facebook group make equally ill-advised equally (in the abstract) hateful comments about the super-rich who are exploiting them.  When (objectively) the same joke is exchanged between groups of widely different social, cultural, political and economic power, that is not reciprocity.  When used by a member of a group that has the power to use jokes to create attitudes on the back of which real prejudice and violence can ensue, to reinforce the status quo, that is not just the same as when a member of the target of such a jibe makes the same sort of gag back, as resistance, as a defence, as a means of creating solidarity.  So, when a white comedian makes jokes about black people that is not just the same as when a black comedian makes jokes about white people (even if both jokes are ‘objectively’ ill-advised and offensive). 

The power of Grey Skull
Disappointing but not surprising that Tory climate-change-denier and Skeletor-look-alike, James Delingpole just doesn’t get it.  Have a read of Delingpole, if you can stomach it.  Against the evidence of public support such as I witnessed, and against the evidence of the polls, Delingpole constructs his argument about how the Left lost on the basis of an extrapolation from an anecdotal piece of evidence from Jeremy Vine about callers to his radio show.  Callers who, like Delingpole, are missing the point (made above) about having the telescope the wrong way round in comparing private and public sectors; callers who have fallen for Tory divide and rule tactics.  Delingpole, ironically, thinks he is ‘always right’ and writes books about how to win arguments.  Here, incidentally (with thanks to Jonathan Grove), you can see a fine example of Delingpole showing us just how to win an argument.  What, apparently, this involves is spluttering and then retreating into huffing and bluster when someone interrupts your rant with a pertinent question exposing your approach as the nonsense that it is.  Nice work.  Read the puerile description of himself on his blog and his own web-page; this is someone only a year younger than me.  This is the best, apparently, that the Right can do, by way of public intellectuals.  But I digress...

Many would say that this gives Clarkson more space and attention than he deserves, but I think his (and his like’s) role in British culture and ideology is quite important, and there were general points that I wanted to make.  Much more importantly, it was disappointing but, once again, not surprising that the gutless so-called Labour Party was notable by its absence on 30 November.  It failed actively to support the strike; indeed back in June it even condemned it.  That’s right, we have a Labour Party, a Labour Party (in Neil Kinnock accent), that will condemn public-sector workers for taking action to protect their futures (and those of generations to come).  This, as far as I am concerned, completes Ed Milliband’s and Labour’s move into complete political irrelevance.  For the past 15 years under Smith, Blair (unsurprisingly – he was a public school boy with no stake in the state; no privately-educated person can ever really be a socialist any more) and even Brown, the Labour Party has become little more than an excrescence, a cluster of barnacles on the hull of the Tory ideological ship, slowing it down slightly, impeding its performance possibly, but doing little actually to stop its progress.  When ‘Red Ed’ made what I thought was a good speech on the day of action against the cuts, which he did well to support, he was mocked in most of the press (most of the press being Tory-backers after all) and this seems to have spooked him and his advisers completely.  Now they are all so scared of media reaction that they have gone back to gutless Blairite triangulation of policy between what real labour supporters might want, what they think the media will say and what they think the media-influenced public will let them get away with (here is a prime example of this sort of thinking).  During the riots I criticised the poverty of political dialogue in the UK for its condemn:condone manichaeanism.  Here I think it was equally poor, but Milliband should have had the courage to support the action.

The 2010 election showed that the power of the old media is over-estimated. In spite of his slick ‘charm’ and well-managed operation, despite the support of almost all the media and almost complete lack of media support for Labour (even The Guardian supporting the LibDems), despite the bulging Tory election ‘war-chest’, despite Brown’s utter lack of charisma and foolish mistakes, despite the economic crisis and the mileage made out of the deficit myth, despite all this Cameron failed to secure a mandate.  The overwhelming support for the strike, in spite of the Tory media machine’s best efforts, shows that the days of the print media’s dominance of UK politics are over.  Hell, who even buys a newspaper these days?  Newspaper sales are at a critical low.  As a US photo, targeting a Time Magazine cover, which went viral on Facebook says: ‘You know we all have the Internet now, right?’   And yet Labour remain terrified of the 1992 spectre of it being ‘The Sun Wot Won it’ – terrified in spite of public faith in the Murdocracy being at an all-time low.  All of that concern about an over-inflated influence of old media on the 30% of the 60% and fewer who actually vote.  Most non-voters would be Labour voters; they are mostly from the least advantaged classes.  Why don’t they vote?  Because Labour and its policies are irrelevant to them; they don’t see any difference between the two.  And when Milliband fails to support the public-sector, when he fails to promise to end tuition fees – but simply to cut them to a ‘mere’ £6000 a year – when there is something in all seriousness called ‘Blue Labour’, they are absolutely right.  The problem with the calculations of Dan Hodges and his ilk is that, while they may convert some of the voters of Middle England, for each Tory-voter in Surrey converted to Blue Labour, there is another Labour party supporter switched off, who doesn’t turn out to vote or who makes a protest vote for the Greens or (in the past – I doubt anyone would be stupid enough to do it again) the LibDems.  Each Tunbridge Wells conservative persuaded to vote for New/Blue Labour is a step further towards a commitment when in power to pursue policies antithetical to the original ideals of the Labour Party: policies, in other words, acceptable to conservatives.  Another barnacle grown.  And, when that is the case, then of course large numbers of people don’t see a point in making a choice.

This rot goes through Labour from top to bottom.  It was a Labour council that recently used The Cuts as an excuse to close a local library (opened by Mark Twain) that it had been trying to close for years.  Labour have also been putting forward 19-year-old candidates (still, obviously, at University) for Parliament.  Here’s another, put forward as PPC for York Outer when only two years out of his degree, and now York council leader.  Such is Labour’s contempt for the electorate, and especially their own electorate, that people who have never worked are put forward to be the representatives of the working person.  It is symptomatic of the malaise of British politics that the two sides are now made up of essentially the same types of people, people like Blair, with no commitment to a particular political agenda, people who flipped a coin to see which side to support, which side offered them the best chance of advancement.  People barely out of college.  This is usually represented as a good thing, and maybe it is in some ways, but while I can see why an over-privileged Tory brat fresh out of university can work hard to preserve the privileges of class and wealth it is more difficult to see how someone who has done nothing except university politics and maybe an internship or two can really have a stake in left-wing politics.  There was a day when Labour MPs were ex-Union men and the Tories were land-owners and businessmen.  That was when there was a difference between the two parties.  Now they are all from the same, homogeneous mass of young, middle class, frequently Oxbridge-educated interns, PAs and PR-reps.  No wonder no one can tell the difference any more; no wonder that Labour no longer seems to have any connection with radical politics.  All this and Milliband’s statement about fees (fairer – really? – for parents and students, said he: but what about the universities and their traditionally Labour-voting staff?) are what made me recently cancel my Labour Party subs.

My unease at all this was sadly underlined by the speeches that followed the march, which, while quite good and occasionally quite rousing (actually the one made by ‘Isaac’ from ‘York Students Against the Cuts’ was one of the best, which was one of the most encouraging aspects of the day), were disappointing overall.  The UCU rep (from York college) was an embarrassment, reminding me to some extent why I voted against the AUT-NATHE merger.  He had some good points but generally he was one of those lecturers trying to be ‘down with the kids’, discourse peppered with expletives.  As you know, I’m hardly against swearing tout court – far from it – and my weariness of this character wasn’t because there were a lot of small kids in the audience (though that made me uneasy).  It was because, in a public-speaking context with a limited amount of time, a representative of the Universities and Colleges Union ought to be a mite more articulate than that.  Tactically what good does it do when people can point ironically at this as a representative of what the country’s so-called intelligentsia are like?  Or is that just me? 

Apart from that, the speeches all too often drifted back into old-fashioned ‘class war’ cliché.  Of course the Tories have unleashed a war on the poor, while protecting their rich friends.  But it’s not just the working class who are suffering; this, as OWS have put it, is a war of the 1% against the 99% and no old-style class analysis will work on that basis.  More to the point many people who (to sound briefly like a Stalinist) are ‘objectively’ working class (like some of my own family) do not self-identify as such; sometimes (like some of my own family) they even vote Tory as a means of convincing themselves and others of the fact.  Talk of the working-class ‘class war’ alienates them.  This tired old Marxist rhetoric is a tactical mistake for two reasons.  First, it alienates all those people who aren’t, or who don’t think they are, working class and who have been frightened off by years of press scaremongering about this sort of rhetoric.  Second, it allows the right-wing popular media to keep up that scaremongering and present a movement for fairness as another load of out-of-touch (here the press and the Tories will harp back to Arthur Scargill, the Soviet Union etc. etc.) hard-left extremists who want to strip you of your hard-earned cash.  And they will be able to do this at just the point when it is the ideology of capitalism that should be under attack as – obviously – failing.  For years the Left had the examples of the allegedly left-wing regimes of the USSR and Eastern Europe thrown at them as examples of ‘how socialism doesn’t work’; now we can see, from the evidence of our own eyes, not by pointing to bogey-men on the other side of an ideological fence, that ideologically-driven, greed-is-good, neo-liberal capitalism doesn’t work either.  This is when their position must be under attack.  This is when their ludicrous defence that the market fails because it wasn’t neo-liberal enough must be exposed for what it is.  What it is the structurally identical argument to that made, back in the day, by those who said that the USSR failed for not being communist enough.  Disappointing …

It is time for a different sort of radical politics with a different vocabulary.  The old party politics of Westminster are out of touch with what we might loosely call real politics – real politics of whatever political tint.  Take the Occupy movement, sure, and take the anti-war and anti-Cuts protests: these showed people on the streets together whose ‘party politics’ were diverse.  The same is true, in a different part of the political landscape, with the Countryside Alliance marches from back in the day and even, I suspect, the EDL and their opponents.  Part of the attraction of the EDL to some people (who would I suspect otherwise be Labour supporters) is the fact that, in a confusing time of economic and social uncertainty, there seems to be no party representing them, reassuring them, redirecting their anger towards the people it ought to be directed towards rather than at the Muslim scapegoat.  We return to Labour’s political irrelevance but it is clear from their failure to win a majority in spite of the best situation for their party in years, that the Conservative Party is viewed as almost as irrelevant.  Its subservience to people whose wealth lies beyond the imagination of most people cannot help but make it so, now.

A new radical politics, a new alternative to neo-liberal conservatism, does not mean either a return to old-style class-war rhetoric or continuing subservience to principle-lite Blairite power-seeking calculation and triangulation.  It ought to make use of the one universal that can bring people together, their shared humanity.  Avoiding confrontational polarities of the old sort, such a vocabulary can be contingent, ethical and politically committed.  Not ‘Us’ against ‘You’ or ‘Us’ against ‘Them’, but ‘why don’t YOU want to be with US?’  Because the ultimate ‘human’, ethical demand, the ultimate demand of the Strike, and of the Public Sector workers last Wednesday, is a simple universalising tautology: FAIR IS FAIR.