“At least facetiousness is funny.”

So says Russell Brand:

Brand condemns some rather old problems, among them inequality and “political disillusion”: only then, with the same swiftness, to dismiss some relatively useful questions about how on earth they might be addressed. Which is rather to miss both the point and the long intellectual history to have spent time struggling with it.

Socialism makes the modest suggestion that welfare should not depend upon the charitable donations of the rich and religious to the deserving poor, a view that holds petty paternalism and charity as insults to human dignity – what Marx called the soothing of the heart-burned aristocrat. It’s why charges of hypocrisy are so ludicrous: “champagne socialism” is an attempt to vomit egalitarians out of public discourse with a pithy remark, alluding, apparently, to the miso soups and lattes over which they denounce the bourgeoisie. (I can only afford cava myself but we’ll let that pass.)

Is this really “hypocrisy”? Compare socialism with the sickly utopianism of so-called “compassionate capitalism”: a view – usually of the wealthy and often of the masochists whom they exploit – in which the accumulation of money by private individuals can only and inevitably operate to the benefit of wider society. It’s why the liberals who befriend this fatuous verdict are usually such chillingly dull specimens.

Now: whatever questions might be raised about the viability of economic rationalisation under socialism (usually envisaged as being without a monetary system), or the popular tyranny that any “revolution” would risk stirring, there’s at least a sense of commitment to this ideology. On the practical level, you might say, there’s the nationalisation of production; and more romantically there are distant visions of equality and internationalism. Neither scientific nor humanistic impulses can be separated from socialism.

Brand, on the other hand, has nothing to say on this tradition: he’s an anarchist of the most vacuous sort. It’s the political activism of weed and hedonism: he was arrested for public nudity in 2001 as though ventral modesty and complicity in child labour were inextricable allies. As a rule, anarchism doesn’t impress me; it’s a commitment to distaste rather than principle, the populism of idiocy and intellectual dishonesty plagued by the frivolous hypocrisy of which socialists have the right to be dismissive. In 1968, thousands marched through London demanding Harold Wilson take a moral lead in his foreign policy; while the Occupy Movement, four decades later, would say nothing beyond vaguely austere denunciations of capitalism and Wall Street suits somewhat overly overly-sharp for the primate species that we are.

If we don’t confront social crises, they’ll defeat us: it is not enough to complain about flooding in winter and then to stay silent when people march against building the flood gates in spring. And that is why Lenin and Brand should never be mentioned in the same sentence.

Goodness. How on earth did I become this left-wing?

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Nigel Farage Is The King of the Castle

There is no more painful an unrequited love than that for history. Nevertheless, someone should tell Nigel Farage that the days of the Motte-and-Bailey are long over. He is not our hero; and the barracks he purports to champion, that refuge of well-civilised romantics standing stoic against a hoard of European barbarians, is no more realistic a concept than toddlers throwing balls in a playpen.

The surge in support for UKIP is then, we might then say, alarming not so much for the troubles it might present to the Commons but for the delusions it legitimises as a constitutional party. It would almost certainly lose every seat it were to contest at a general election; but if the Tory party is to defend itself then it too will need to slur out some drunken nonsense. The task of the political party should be to justify the direction in which to take the nation, not to embody its most irrational and populist psychologies.

“National sovereignty” has become as much an oxymoron as the “global world” a tautology. Once political authority had passed from the Crown to Parliament it was always presumed that the people had gained some control over their lives; and with the coming of nationalisation, and of the welfare state, it seemed guaranteed. But however cliched it might be to say, these days are over. In order for Britain to maintain its influence over both its foreign policy and indeed internal affairs it has to align itself with other powers. Free trade, for a start, is in itself incompatible with isolationism; and in contrast there is nothing to stop a government upholding trade links both with South America and with Europe. Now it is true to say, of course that London’s dependence on the financial services would give it a merry position from which it could grow outside of the EU. The government could cut corporate taxes and make the City favourable to foreign investors.

But so fluid a river as that of global capital would leave Britain not a barge but a raft resting nervously on its surface. The investors it attracts would not, after all, be from within Britain – a slap in the face to the cultural isolationism of the UKIP voter. In this context, though, the implications should also concern the socialist for whom there can be no defence against tyranny of capital through only domestic machinery. From the perspectives of both socialists and capitalists, then, it is fundamental to (virtually) all British people that we remain a part of the European Union.

None of this is to demean what are very powerful criticisms of the EU, of course. For a start, any convicted neoliberal should be seriously concerned with the Common Agricultural Policy. At the price of a third of the EU’s budget, the CAP is in effect a method of subsidising French and German farmers at the expense of those in underdeveloped nations. And herein lies a frightening moral conflict that we’d rather ignore: the British middle-class contenting itself with buying Fair Trade no more alleviates the poverty in rural Africa than clapping loudly to make contact with aliens. Perry Anderson’s The New Old World concurs; radical ideas gave momentum to the EU’s shape but ultimately it has an exploitative history, the trading relationship between France and West Germany mutating into a bourgeois authority over the less equipped.

And here I return to the question of sovereignty. Can an essentially undemocratic bureaucracy offer any autonomy to a nation, either in its economy or its political process, if such a nation is shaped by a group of unelected figures in Brussels? Clearly not; and fortunately that is not the situation in which we find ourselves. The EU has a tiny bureaucracy; it has only a few thousand employees. It has no methods of collecting taxation, and its control even over its own currency is not a lot more persuasive. In no fewer words, I might therefore suggest, the we are looking at a transitory state. A right-wing project, Anderson describes it, with radical potential.

It’s times like this that we must return to those principled ambitions when the hope of European unity was nascent and urgent. Orwell, 1947:

When I think of these and other difficulties, when I think of the enormous mental readjustment that would have to be made, the appearance of a Socialist United States of Europe seems to me a very unlikely event. I don’t mean that the bulk of the people are not prepared for it, in a passive way. I mean that I see no person or group of persons with the slightest chance of attaining power and at the same time with the imaginative grasp to see what is needed and to demand the necessary sacrifices from their followers. But I also can’t at present see any other hopeful objective.

If Europe is growing then it needs the participation of Britain. It’s perfectly possible for us to get a political – and economic – Union favourable to the principles to which UKIP claims, however falsely, to uphold. But the weight to mature rests not only with the Right: what cannot be allowed to happen in defenses of the European Union is for left-wingers to abandon their commitment to the democratic process. An obvious point, we might say, but in recent days that old favourite of mine Glenn Greenwald decided, one again, to equate liberal democracy with Islamic jihad.

And then the image of Nigel Farage in his grand armor of chivalry returns to me. If he had his way, we’d be repairing the wooden stockades while France and Germany build citadels. He needs to drop the drawbridge and enter the fucking world.


When Socialists Kiss and Make Up

(Again.)

The Alliance for Workers' Liberty

Workers’ Liberty – a small Trotskyist group, whose website can be found here – today sent out a letter to fellow far lefties. Out with the zealotry of working-class comradeship and treachery, they cry, and in with some good old-fashioned unity:

There are real differences between the different groupings on the left, about real and important issues. For the labour movement to be able to win socialism, we will need to thrash out those issues and develop a coherent strategy.

We need a framework which allows unity in action where we agree, and honest and serious debate where we disagree. The best way would be to establish a transitional organisation.

This would be a coalition of organisations and individuals, organised both nationally and in each locality, which worked together on advocating the main ideas of socialism, working-class struggle, democracy, and welfare provision; in support of working-class struggles; and in such campaigns as it could agree on (against bedroom tax? against cuts?), while also giving space to debate differences.

It would have a newspaper, a website, and leaflets, based on the ideas its components agreed on, but would allow for debates in the newspaper and website, and for groupings within it to publish their own journals and websites.

It would deliberately allow its components to continue their own special activities — some in the Labour Party, and some not; some in this campaign, some in that — but also provide for debate on those choices.

I like the AWL. One of my best friends is a member, and it’s always struck me as sincere, pragmatic and ultimately collective in its approach to socialism – a far distance from the organisational Stalinism of the SWP or the high-minded delusions of Richard Seymour’s splitter party.

Take Iraq. When Blair threw in his lot with Bush, the AWL said at the time what many people only feel justified in arguing with hindsight. They were critical of American motivations – with apparent correctness. But they were fully conscious of the dangers of immediate withdrawal. Had that myopic paranoia triumphed, it is perfectly possible that what now is engulfing Syria would then have spread through Iraq like cannabis plants in wildfire. The organisation frequently expressed support for Iraqi trade unionists – whose principle enemies first were Baathists and second were Islamists – while holding anti-American sentiment firmly in perspective.

Bring on the Socialist Workers Party, whose central platform is built upon advocating policies so ludicrous that no right-thinking government official would ever seek to enact them. This they then use to masquerade as truthers struggling by dusk against authoritarian imperialists. Rather than writing tirades against those who veto Iraqi peace with bombs they excuse them as symbols for desperation struggling against that apparent non-oxymoron of an occupying democracy. Their rationale appears to be that an enemy of America is an ally, no matter how flippant they are towards human life. All this as their Central Committee protects potential rapists from the terrors of bourgeois law.

But it requires a faithless pessimism to believe that this is in anyway reflective of the SWP’s membership base. The biggest far left organisation in Britain, it’s inevitable that young people sincere in their conviction in the failures of capitalism will be drawn to it. There is, after all, no logical reason why significant numbers of people would translate disgust with poverty into the dogma of anti-Americanism. Add to that Richard Seymour’s new party – International Socialism, whose name it shares with a party from a better age – that cries renewal while clinging desperately to its former insanity.

If all these parties came together in an open space, then I don’t think it would be an entirely removed dream that grassroots of, say, the SWP would see the awkwardness of their more irrational doctrines. Perhaps they’d see that it isn’t at all necessary to conflate left-wing with anti-establishment; that some socialists do not feel everything that is wrong with the world is due to Israel or Tony Blair.

It’s the sectarian’s faithful battle for hearts that in the end alienates so many. I couldn’t label myself a Marxist – but I’d have no trouble backing the sort of left unity organisation for which the AWL is hopeful. Socialist humanism was the general ideology of the New Left in the 1960s; but it was this very rejection of orthodox, dogmatic Marxism that prevented any party emerging from it. The intellectual sincerity of many of its proponents emasculated any popular potential they might have dared to win. What the AWL proposes is the best for which they might have hoped.

If it comes to anything, of course. It probably won’t.


Why Liberals Should Oppose Academic Boycotts

The Teachers Union of Ireland has unanimously passed a resolution endorsing the boycott of Israeli academia. Heartened though I was by the hostility towards Galloway’s walkout at the Christ Church debate (his opponent, as he discovered, was – gasp! – born in Israel), it’s not an attitude matched in a lot of left-wing circles.

The much-quoted precedent was that of the anti-apartheid boycott in the 60s, one which was never as widely supported as pseudo-historians would have us believe. Whatever the case it would be ridiculous and illiberal to apply it to Israel:

  • No matter what the soundbites splutter, Israel is not an apartheid state. Arabs can vote for the Knesset. Gaza and the West Bank are excluded from the political process because they are not part of Israel, and that is the injustice here. A people without a state have created another: in Edward Said’s phrase, the Palestinians are the “the victims of the victims”.
  • The inevitable boycott is therefore indiscriminate towards political outlook: its characterisation of everyone in Israel as pro-occupation and anti-arab is itself a form of racism.
  • The result of this is counterproductive: it equates academics who are critical of the government’s policies – like Gideon Levy or Avi Shlaim – with Eretz Israel racists like Habayit Hayehudi. Israeli academics in Britain would lose their security based simply on the nation of their birth.
  • Even if these motivations were somehow purified, and the boycott became unambiguously anti-expansionist and anti-racist, it would still be a battle for censorship. Freedom of expression is the most liberal principle any society has ever had: it is the starting point of all intellectual progress. If you cannot beat a Zionist in debate then step aside and let someone else. Silencing them achieves nothing.
  • And it doesn’t work. It’s easily avoided and had virtually no impact on ending South African apartheid. Much like the frivolity that is the Gaza flotilla, it can only be understood as a symbol. And, as I say, a racist one at that.

The opposition to racism, to censorship and to the marketplace of ideas – chief emblems of liberalism – is made a mockery of. There are far better ways to express solidarity with the Palestinian people, one which achieves more and abandons less.


The Splitters are Splitting: Monty Python Style

(Credit to Harry’s Place.)

Firstly, context: in the last few months, the Socialist Workers Party (Britain’s ever-shrinking bastion for Stalinism) has been torn from within following the decision of members of the Central Committee to conceal allegations of sexual assault, treating itself to the occasional show-trial of the accused and condemning them to the terror of reading books on feminism and such nonsense. Apparently, said woman did not want the police involved. Law is too bourgeois, you see. So the CC has fallen into Stalinist fighting feminist tendencies, in other words. Rough men and women slinging socialist mud at each other (not a very attractive image).

In a rather funny twist of events, Richard Seymour – modestly self-styled as “Lenin” – and a group of others have left the party and set up their own International Socialist Network, a rather depressing reflection to the International Socialists of the generation of 60s radicals. History really does repeat itself (first tragedy, then farce). Modern radicals – disproportionately student-led – are, I have to say, pathetic. But they’re so irrelevant that I think it’s to be encouraged, purely for its comic value. Memories, anyone?

Monty Python’s Life of Brian:


Climate Change: What if we create a better world for nothing?

What if we create a better world for nothing?

This has been making its way around the internet for a few years now. It sums up my attitude towards the debate over greenhouse gases. Although one should never take scientific consensus as proof (take Copernicus), if in the modern age 97% of scientists agree that humans cause climate change, there’s not a lot of point denying it. But even if we’re wrong, what exactly have we lost?

(Image source.)


Israel Boycott Rejected at Oxford

I missed the college vote and have no role whatsoever in the federal University, but the Student Union has rejected, by 7-to-1, a motion calling for a boycott of Israel. A great deal of confidence has been restored:

[David Townsend] said in a statement after the boycott debate at OUSU: “Tonight Oxford students showed that their commitment to intellectual freedom is unshakeable.”

Because a boycott of what, exactly? Jaffa oranges? Anything written by an Israeli? The anti-occupation parties in the Knesset too? Intellectual freedom should always take priority; it is not “radical” or “progressive” to oppose freedom of speech with racial sectarianism.

Fairly sure I met this guy at the Oxford “Radical” Forum last week. But more of that later.