Sunday, January 22, 2006

Convergence in the neoliberal 'centre'

One of the remarkable things taking place in British politics now is how the new Conservative leader David Cameron is repositioning his party in the 'centre' of mainstream politics and reducing the 'clear blue water' between himself and Tony Blair. Another remarkable thing is the self-delusion of many in the Labour Party and beyond who think Gordon Brown (pictured above) , Blair's likely successor as Labour leader, will somehow signal a return to old welfare, socialist democratic Labourism. And a third is that the Liberal Party, if as now seems likely Simon Hughes is elected the new leader, will confirm itself as being to the left of Labour - for the moment at least.

In the LRB Ross McKibbin's Destruction of the Public Sphere tells some home truths about the neoliberal convergence, namely:

"Gordon Brown, though alleged by the Conservatives to personify Old Labour, differs little in substance from Cameron. His, too, will be a businessman’s government – even if businessmen refuse to acknowledge it. His surprising decision to abandon the new corporate financial reporting rules shows how far he will go to assure businessmen that he is business friendly. And his fundamental order of priorities differs little from Cameron’s. He has always wanted to create an economic environment conducive to an American idea of business success: the aim of both major political parties in the last ten years. The way he has financed much of the country’s social infrastructure, via the PFI, could not be more business friendly. Bad for the country, but unquestionably good for business (and lawyers, and consultants). In two ways, however, he has acted differently from recent Tory chancellors."

And moreover "Does it matter whether Brown is prime minister rather than Blair, or Cameron rather than Brown? Does it matter, indeed, whether there is a Conservative or a Labour government? At the moment, not much. There are several reasons for this. The first is that the country’s political elite is now largely divorced from the country; probably to a greater degree than at any time since the 19th century. This elite is drawn from an increasingly narrow social range: primarily from the law, the media, political and economic consultancy and ‘research’. In the present cabinet, for example, there is only one former trade unionist. Whatever their formal political allegiances, they are all the same kind of people who think the same way and know the same things. Their authority has been increased by the way the prime minister runs his government – in an informal, ad hoc and disorganised manner that marginalises the administrative Civil Service."

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Morales Hot and Cold?

International Viewpoint (see Links right) today carries an interview with Evo Morales did with IV's correspondent two days after his poll victor on 18 December. In it Morales says the nationalisation of hydrocarbons (ie oil and gas) "will be our fist act" on the economic front. This seems not to correspond to what he has subsequently been saying to just about everyone else - that there will be no nationalisation of foreign-owned assets, and that he has no plans for the nationalisation of oil and gas. It seems self-evident that this central issue will be a good clue as to how his administration is going to evolve.
NB in most browsers the IV site updats once a day, so you may have to wait until tomorrow for the Morales interview.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Big Brother - the perfect neoliberal TV programme

There are numerous reasons why the sole MP of a political organisation should not hold her/himself up to public ridicule and deliver the pro-capitalist media endless opportunities to put the boot in. Most readers will be able to think of a long list of reasons why it is not a good idea for George Galloway to do what he is doing. Among the least discussed however is the fact that it is lending credibility to the perfect neoliberal TV programme - Big Brother itself. No programme so completely captures, in just about every conceivable aspect, the economics, politics and cultural banality of neoliberal capitalism. How so?
First, as Mike Wayne points out in his brilliant book Marxism and Media Studies (Pluto Press), Big Brother in terms of the hours of viewing generated and advertising revenue brought in, is wonderfully cheap TV. Together with Big Brother's Little Brother, hour upon tedious hour is generated and it is all 'new' - no problem of repeats, because the house's inmates will do something 'different' (or at least say something different) each day. Revenue is also generated by the high cost of phone calls to vote on which housemates should be evicted - on one evening seven million people rang in to vote. Further revenue streams are created by books, magazines, caps and T-shirts.

Ideologically Big Brother involves a series of vile elements. First and foremost is a sadistic element - delight in ritual humiliation. The programme can only work if the inmates make idiots of themselves. This is enabled by a second feature: the idea that people will do anything for money. To get large amounts of money in capitalist society you will give away your dignity and grovel - which of course is what numerous service workers in hotels, shops and restaurants worldwide do on a daily basis, but they do it because they have to, not out of ambition and greed.

Third, Big Brother - in its 'normal' as well as 'celebrity' version - is part of the cultural apparatus of late capitalism celebrating 'celebrity' itself. Non-celebrity contestants have the chance of becoming celebrities, if only - like 'Nasty Nick' - because they are famous for being regarded as hateful. Celebrity in this stage of capitalism is a uniquely debased and mystifying version of the Hollywood-created 'star system', generated in the 1920s and '30s. To be a 'celebrity' is to have charisma thrust upon you, even if you are the most uncharismatic Channel 4 horse racing tipster. In a grim caricature of Andy Warhol's prediction that everyone would become famous, but only for 15 minutes, people today become famous for being famous (the classic example is Paris Hilton).

"I would love to be famous" is the accepted outlook of millions of young people, because to be a celebrity is to conquer the apparent secret of happiness - to never feel financially insecure, to never be lonely and have lots of people who want to be your 'friends' at some level, to never be ignored or shunned or made to wait in a queue, and to have instant sexual access to lots of attractive people. Celbrities are 'magical', the capitalist spectacle's ability to deliver a Midas-like blessing and turn people metaphorically into gold.

I was particularly impressed by a document that Daniel Bensaid wrote in 1969 in which he proclaimed "the privileges of the bourgeoisie are no longer worth having". After thinking about it for the last 37 years, I don't entirely agree with him. Of course celebrities have things which make life easier, even if they don't guarantee happiness. What is entirely mystifying about celebrity is that it is like winning the lottery, a magical daydream, or rather a pipe-dream. The entire cultural apparatus of celebrity - from the millions of acres of newspaper coverage, dozens of celebrity magazines, endless amounts of radio and TV 'showbiz news', encourages a vicarious obsession with people you will never meet and living lifestyles that will never experience. By vastly exaggerating the merits of the few very famous, late capitalism devalues the merits of the multi-millions of 'ordinary' people who are by definition 'unimportant'. And of course it promotes the notion that the only solutions are individual work-based solutions which will make you better off, even if you can never aspire to fame or real celebrity. Collective solutions are not so much subversive as in the red-baiting past, but merely unthinkable.

Big Brother is political by banning politics (one of many miscalculations by George Galloway). To be sure, most young people in advanced capitalism are - for the moment anyway - apolitical. To be political, in fact to get worked up about anything and have serious opinions, is viewed in popular culture are seriously suspicious (which is why a lot of the right-wing media don't like George Michael). Big Brother allows controversy only about the most trivial of things within the house itself. Compulsory apoliticism is of course highly political.

In addition, Big Brother celebrates one of the most threatening aspects of modern Britain - surveillence itself. Britain is the most monitored and watched society in the world, even if post-Patriot Act America is catching up. CCTV cameras capture nearly every moment of your journey through major cities, surveillence of the post, telephones and internet use is extensive, and the surveillence/security ' indusrty' is burgeoning (for example MI5 has just opened 9 new regional offices).

And finally Big Brother comes into its own in its symbiotic relationship with the popular press. Part of that is the witch hunt. Contestants, particulalry women, are singled out by the popular press, as being hate figures because they are variously nasty, fat (a favourite), 'slags', gay, transexual and of course - finally we have it - left wing in the shape of George Galloway.

All these things suggest that for the socialist left, indeed all those making a radical critique of modern capitalism, any association whatever with Big Brother and similar shows is to make a pact with the devil - one you can never win.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Gilbert Achcar article - Iraq withdrawal

Today we've linked with a very long interview with Gilbert Achcar at the World War 4 Report. Not only is it an excellent presentation of the case for immediate US/UK withdrawal, but a good all-round exposition of the nature of the different conflicting forces within (and against) the Iraqi resistance. Go to the link at Marxsite.

Comment moderation policy

Comments have been received and published about yesterday's articles on the SWP and the Kennedy putsch. I chose to have the comments moderated rather than automatically published in order to screen out the international spartacist tendency, other similar cranks and extreme-right abuse. Comments other than these will normally be published.

Just by way of a reply on Moti's comment on the SWP, s/he will see that in fact I attributed the relative stagnation of the SWP primarily to objective factors, not to the political mistakes it has made.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Why hasn't the SWP grown?

Whatever the exact numerical facts, it's clear from the exchange between John Molyneux (pictured right) and the SWP Central Committee that in the last 10 years the SWP has numerically stagnated and even declined. Probably the decline is less than the 50% implied by Molyneux, if only because the real membership of 10 years ago was significantly exaggerated.
Before we get into the real reasons for this situation, let's make one comment on the tone. Leaderships get blamed for everything and minority critics often carp unjustifiably. But even if the author of the reply to Molyneux doesn't exactly take a sledgehammer to crack a nut, the reply is pretty shirty, and indeed doesn't acknowledge that John Molyneux has done anything positive in asking for reflection on some of these problems.
Also the reply reveals, in its dismissal of the idea that John Molyneux might become a member of the CC, the extremely small size of the SWP's CC (maybe 10 people) for an organisation of 4000+. A tendency towards a top-heavy regime politically is almost built into this conception of a very small and extremely homogenous central leading body. The SWP leadership should (but won't) think about this problem. The question of style internally is connected to how you function externally as well.

John Molyneux has raised a very important problem, and it is not one that just affects one organisation. Unofficial discussion hints that the Australian DSP, deeply involved in the anti-war movement and the Oz Socialist Alliance, has also stagnated. In my view there are objective problems, not of the SWP's making, but there are also some subjective errors which the SWP has made.

The objective problem, touched upon in the SWP discussion and by Molyneux's contribution in particular, is the nature of the radicalisation today. How is it possible that the SWP is the central leadership of a coalition that mobilises two million people on the streets, and yet the SWP itself does not grow? At first blush this seems extraordinary. Remember the recent anti-war movement was much bigger, much, much bigger than the anti-Vietnam war movement - a time when every left organisation, even the most bizarre Maoists, grew. So what's the difference? This radicalisation is much broader but much more shallow. That's why when, three years ago, members of my local SWP branch said "this is better than '68", they were talking nonsense (I don't claim the SWP leadership agreed with that, by the way). This shallowness of political vision, this distance from the workers movement and socialism, is true both of the global justice movement and of the anti-war movement. And its shows the exaggeration in dubbing this movement universally an 'anti-capitalist movement'. It clearly isn't.

Of course it's different according to geographical area and according to some fairly random variables. In Latin America, where the anti-globalisation movement has linked with mass revolt against neoliberalism, the situation is clearly different to the advanced capitalist countries. In any case, much of the anti-globalisation and anti-war movement never considers revolutionary socialism or Marxism as an alternative. This is not so much about the fall of the Berlin Wall which was much more important in countries where there was a big Communist Party.More important is the perceived lack of perspective in workers struggles, the evident organisational and ideological weakness of the workers movement, and especially the trade union movement, in the advanced countries. (Look at the ease with which the American ruling class swotted the New York transit workers strike.) That, together with the absence of an apparent major challenge to imperialism in the form of the Soviet Union and its allies, marks the major difference with the late '60s. People who come along and talk about socialism and communism seem to many young people today to be, well, fossils. Especially when a lot of the people who do that talking are indeed quite a bit older than them.

On the other hand this picture is partial, incomplete and therefore one-sided. There are examples where socialism has had the wind in its sails in the past period, for example the Scottish Socialist Party (even if that has been slowed by the Sheridan crisis); and of course the Left Bloc in Portugal, which has the advantage of deputies and a 'star' figure who get major and almost nightly coverage on TV.

At one time it seemed that the Socialist Alliance and maybe Respect could go in a similar direction. But with these formations the SWP has made major tactical mistakes, even if they are not the main cause of its failure to grow. First, the Socialist Alliance. If the SWP had been really committted to an open and pluralist approach, and had really driven the Alliance forward when there were 2 million people on the streets, the results could have been different. But they did not. On the contrary SWP members were forbidden to give out Alliance leaflets or march behind Alliance banners, amnd made instead to sell Socialist Worker. In the Alliance and Respect, the SWP have suffered from an unfinished cultural revolution, which now threatens to go back and not forward - just like what happened in the Militant/Socialist Party in the mid 1990s.

When the London Socialist Alliance election campaign was launched nearly 6 years ago there seemed a genuine enthusiasm among a layer of SWPers for working with the rest of the far left, and an openess towards the SWP on the part of the rest of the left, with the possible exception of the Socialist Party. Some of the smaller groups subsequently behaved in a stupidly factional way, in particular the unreformable Workers Liberty and Workers Power groups. The Socialist Party also angled for factional advantage and when it found none, walked out of the Alliance. Nonethless the SWP have largely failed to convince the rest of the far left, either organisations or unattached individuals, of its real respect for pluralism and democratic functioning. This is not just about the gut responses of the long-term SWP cadre at local level, trained in a rather limited propaganda routine. It is about overall perspectives.

The refusal of the SWP to countenance the Alliance or Respect moving towards being a party-type formation affected the political (and personal) relationships of everyone involved. Because the SWP's line that there formations were basically electoral fronts and indeed "united fronts of a special kind" said to everyone else "We are the real Marxist party, you are a subordinate part of our united front tactic and we will not allow you to get anywhereor have any significant influence; we will use of our majority to maintain an iron grip". In other words, far from it being the broad party idea that would have created anomalies, the party-united front relationship envisaged by the SWP as the relationship between itself an all the other socialists, embedded factional inequality into the sinews of these formationsfrom the beginning. The SWP's vice-like grip means that independents and even the ISG were feted so long as they did not develop differences; then brutally dumped from the SWP-organised inner-circle caucuses when they did.

The outcome for Respect is not yet clear, although the current unbelievable antics of George Galloway, and his preposterous attempts to justify them, do not auger well. The fight to build an alternative to New Labour has many twists and turns to go through before a broad socialist party is built.

Anti-Kennedy putsch is a right-wing coup

At the level of political skills Charles Kennedy is not the most impressive bourgeois politician around. Ming Campbell was freely telling people 18 months ago that Kennedy was a duffer. But don't be fooled into thinking his removal is solely about how much whiskey he drinks or his lack of oratorical ability. He would not have been removed if a considerable segment of the Liberal Parliamentary Party had not wanted a political shift to the right. This has in fact already been signalled by the Lib Dems abandoning their policy of increasing income tax by 1p in the pound to fund social spending.
The Liberal New Right (the authors of the so-called 'Orange Book') only sees the possibility of a share of power if their party abandons the 2005 general election profile of being to the left of Labour. In the shape of new Tory leader David Cameron (and of course Tony Blair) they see the political space which is becoming bourgeois 'common sense' in UK politics - to be economically neoliberal and socially liberal. Right-wing on the economy but socially open to multiculturalism and lifestyle diversity.
That of course is exactly where Cameron is taking the Tories. He is carrying out an effective 'Portilloisation' of the Tories, based on the rightwing common sense theory that the Tories have failed to be elected because they are 'out of touch with modern Britain' - ie they are old, socially conservative, too openly racist, homophobic, with a good admixture of old-fashioned mysogeny.
When Portillo made his famous Tory conference speech about inclusiveness (a speech which finished him politically) it went down like a lead balloon with the ageing Tory faithful.
Now Cameron wants to be seen as welcoming cultural diversity, defending (within strictly defined neoliberal limits) the NHS and coming up with a lot of rehetoric about the needs of the poor ("less well off" in Toryspeak).
Ming Campbell is an interim stopgap leader for the Lib Dems. Now the ideological fight will begin in earnest. If the Liberal New Right wins out Britain will have three political parties whose leaderships all essentially saying the same thing. But social 'liberalism' of the Blair-Cameron type has strictly defined limits too, mainly concerned with individual lifestyle choices. It is quite compatible with harsh police measures in the burgeoning security state that Britain is becoming.
Lifestyle openess combined with neoliberal economics suits a key electoral constitutency - the more conservative sections of the petty bourgeoisie working in the service industries, especially financial services, advertising, the media, education and the like. Many of these people have no problem proclaiming their love of black people, lesbians and gays, their support for better childcare for women professionals or even the need to give more to 'feed the world' - but please don't ask for a pay increase or have anything to do with trade unions (Love Bob Geldof, hate Bob Crowe).
Thus the removal of Charles Kennedy will help reconcentrate British politics around what the media laughably calls the 'centre', ie the neoliberal right. And at the same time it will deepen the vacuum to the left of Labour, which over time can begin to be filled by those fighting for the building of a new broad left party.