- Category: Culture
- Published on Thursday, 29 August 2013
- Written by Admin
Article published in the prototype issue of Cactus, 2013
Ben Watson calls for ‘cultural criticism’ that rejects reviewing the latest hits – and makes us feel alive
In thinking about ‛culture’, it does well to recall a statement Marx made in 1850. He was writing about the turbulent years in France after 1848, in an article for a political and economic review published in Hamburg, Neue Rheinische Zeitung (articles later published as Class Struggles in France 1848-1850). Describing the revolutionary socialist politics the bourgeois pundits of the time reviled as 'Blanquism', Marx wrote:
This socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessary intermediate point on the path towards the abolition of class differences in general, the abolition of all relations of production on which they are based, the abolition of all social relations which correspond to these relations of production, and the revolutionising of all ideas which stem from these social relations.
The phrase which sticks in my mind is: “the revolutionising of all ideas which stem from these social relations”. For 25 years I was active in the Socialist Workers Party, opposing fascists and supporting strikes, but found that when I attempted to revolutionise cultural ideas which stem from capitalism – the commodification of art, the manufacture of stars, the workings of the culture industry, the plunder and reselling of heritage, the ideology that only money makes real – I met a barrage of objections. Not from comrades in my branch, who were invariably willing to listen to the insights I gleaned from Marx and Guy Debord and Theodor Adorno, but from 'leading comrades' whose opinions were ensconced in the pages of Socialist Review. Marxism was fine if it meant commitment to a complex theory which party experts could explain down to us, but if it became a method of improvising responses to cultural matters they didn’t already know about – a film by a new director, a performance by ‛unknown’ musicians, a self-published pamphlet of writing which struck me as extraordinary – then the smear-machine went into operation: ‛elitist’, ‛Proletkult’, ‛obscurantist’, ‛avantgarde’, ‛weird’, ‛idealist’, ‛eclectic’, ‛a diversion from the struggle’, ‛eccentric’, etc., etc.
So what I propose in this inaugural salvo concerning the IS Network’s ‛cultural’ coverage is a genuine application of Marx’s idea: to welcome any writing which revolutionises ideas stemming from capitalist social relations, and is predicated on abolishing class distinctions and privilege. The last time Marxist ideas became widely fashionable in Britain was 1968-72, so much so that academia developed a new discipline called ‛sociology’ to accommodate and (eventually) to defuse it. Left wing activists who could stomach bureaucratic day jobs found significant niches. Over time, and in the wake of significant defeats of the working class in the 1980s, sociology gradually sloughed off its Marxism – both the dialectic and the rhetoric – and instead embraced the methods and categories of market research. ‛Social class’ started to define an inert social layer, a set of people about whom generalisations could be made, one to be set alongside other categories beloved of market research – race, age and gender – or even omitted altogether. Too often, those who defined themselves as ‛socialists’ were influenced by these categories, so if I became excited by something which appeared to me to ‛revolutionise’ capitalist ideas, I’d be told I’d got the demographic wrong: ‛working class people’ do not like abstract art, or squeaky- bonk music, or experimental literature – even though the working class people around me were thoroughly entertained by such a ‛freak’ approach. I realised I was in a Trotskyist party with a Stalinist attitude towards artistic modernism – despite the fact that if you draw a graph of the peak moments for these outrageous practices (the 20s, the 60s), they correspond precisely to the periods when international capitalism was rocked by insurgent populations.
Should a publication aimed at working class readers only cover cultural products which are familiar to them from the ‛mass media’ or are endorsed by official institutions (an argument I met countless times trying to communicate some cultural enthusiasm via party publications)? If revolutionaries applied this attitude to their politics, they’d be committing suicide. Of course, social media available via the internet have already answered this question: freak culture is ubiquitous. Politically aware parents at my daughter’s primary school download Max Keiser’s tirades versus Goldman Sachs and Rupert Murdoch from YouTube before I can sell them a paper, and the passion and accuracy of this foaming investment adviser put the left to shame. The battles over what was allowed in party publications, the strategic importance of ‛the centre’ and its offset litho printer, is over – because new technology has found other ways of putting us all in touch. When Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan says “Social media is the worst menace to society” he’s been outflanked by history.
“The revolution will not be televised, it will be tweeted,” said a placard hand-drawn in Istanbul during the mass demos of early June, and if you’re watching world events unfurl on social media, you have to agree. This is an internationalist urban politics Marx would recognise – a politics so revolutionary and total, the bourgeoisie find it hard to recognise as politics. It’s the opposite of some guy in a suit built up as an ‛expert’ by a TV channel like CNN, Al Jazeera or Press TV. Of course, I don’t think the Istanbul protesters will win if the mass of people ignore them and still go to work; on the other hand, if this kind of politics is rejected, no ‛Marxist’ sect is going to lead the working class to victory.
So why am I writing this article for a journal instead of just posting it online? Because there’s still a need for measured exposition of argument; well-edited sites and journals save us from the vanity, abuse and misinformation encountered elsewhere on the web; and it’s right for the IS Network to try and salvage a political tradition travestied by the blundering politics of an immobile bureaucratic leadership. But this kind of internet politics – peer-to-peer, grassroots, rank-and-file – demands in its turn a completely different approach to culture than that of either the capitalist mass media or the print-based left. For example, it is utterly pointless ‛reviewing’ major art exhibitions on a website when copyright considerations mean you cannot reproduce any images. All you provide is a pitch for wannabe ‛arts commentators’ with a lefty tinge – and a poor plug for the real thing. The internet means we can post the art we like directly on people’s screens. And that’s just what the IS Network should do.
Since Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal as art, it’s been demonstrated a thousand times that what demarcates post-war art as ‛art’ is power and money rather than any quality intrinsic to the art object. Up-to-date people know this. A large part of the humour in Iain Sinclair’s prose rests on the fact that the streets of London supply far more shocking and bizarre sights than anything served up in art galleries. Sinclair writes stunning art reviews…of charity shops and rubbish tips and choked canals. This irreverence isn’t some kind of ‛philistine’ lapse: it’s the starting point of a genuinely materialist approach to culture. Attention to personal aesthetic experience over and above art given a seal of approval by power and money. A revolutionary who hasn’t learned from Dada to trust their own reactions above authority is no revolutionary, and lags behind the mass of people in the world today.
The litmus test in all this has to be our attitude towards money. “Watch television, by all means…”, Frank Zappa told his children, “but always ask the question: how much is that guy being paid to say that?” In a draft for The Civil War in France (1871) reproduced in Eugene Gogol’s Towards a Dialectic of Philosophy and Organisation, Marx expressed equally 'bad taste' contempt for the Great and the Good. The great achievement of the Commune was that it shattered “the delusion that administration and political governing were mysteries, transcendent functions only to be trusted to the hands of a trained caste” (p. 84). “State parasites, richly-paid sycophants and sinecurists” were replaced by “removable servants … paid like skilled workmen twelve pounds a month … The whole sham of state mysteries and state pretensions was done away with by the Commune…all the posts hitherto divided between government, police and prefecture, now doing their work publicly, simply, under the most difficult and complicated circumstances, and doing it, as Milton did his Paradise Lost, for a few pounds.”
This is something like Jerry Hicks, in his recent electoral campaign for Unite general secretary, saying he’d take an average member’s wage to serve – and criticising the £2,000 a week Len McCluskey receives for the job. It demolishes the myth that top jobs are paid a ‛market’ rate. Marx’s reference to John Milton is apposite. Milton excoriated bishops who lived in palaces and said they should live in the same manner as their congregations. Literature has currently become so commodified that even the left consider ‛best sellers’ are worthy of attention in a way ‛worst sellers’ are not. But if you have grabbed somebody’s attention on a website or blog, or in the pages of a journal, you can tell your readers about anything – you do not have to worship the fetish of mega-sales which allows publishers to turn a buck. Those who believe only money makes real cannot grasp the social necessity which makes Paradise Lost a great work of art; nor can they understand how works of art can (and should) be measured by the ‛simple’ actions of a regular Communard, or a regular Unite grassroots activist. “Culture is the inversion of life,” proclaimed the Situationists. They were echoing Marx.
So a genuinely revolutionary cultural magazine would not curtsy before the ‛names’ which make up the current cultural fiasco, would not concede that money makes real, would refuse the left’s ‛sociological’ excuse for recycling news about best-selling drivel. It would seize on any writing or images or music which set us on fire, which make us feel alive, which gee us up to bring down capitalism. “Oh, you only want propaganda!” retorts the party hack, thinking thereby they’ve made a clever point. No, I want to save tradition from the conformism that threatens to overpower it; I want to read books which measure up to Milton, and music that measures up to Beethoven, and art that measures up to Kurt Schwitters. Culture that measures up to our activity as revolutionaries. I don’t want to read about Martin Amis!
A revolutionary cultural magazine would inscribe the words of William Blake over the desks of its editors in letters of flame:
Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have hirelings in the Camp, the Court & the University, who would, if they could, forever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters, on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fashionable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works” (Milton, 1808, Plate 2)
And if you respond by pointing out that Blake has only invoked men and missed out half the human race and so his words are profoundly reactionary, you have succumbed to identity politics and abandoned any historical imagination. You will only ever be led along by ‛correct’ postures made by slick politicians and wily liars. Blake was addressing the actualities of his time – paid artists were male – and he didn’t see this as a privilege to be coveted, but a betrayal of a human urge to create and communicate. His preface ends with the lyrics to ‛Jerusalem’ and a quote from the Bible: “Would to God all the Lord’s people were Prophets”. EP Thompson was correct: Blake was inspired by a radical democratic politics which had survived among London artisans since the English Civil War. Blake’s attack on Christianity’s denigration of sex would have to be the start of any politics for the emancipation of women.
As Alan Moore has pointed out, Blake was the first counter-cultural artist, pioneering the words-and-pictures mix of cosmology, politics and sex which has characterised all great popular comics since. Blake’s call to arms vanquishes at a stroke the pseudo-historical sophistication of the SWP’s John Molyneux, who points out that “art has always served the rich”; Blake was the harbinger of a new class with a new politics and new relationship to written and pictorial authority. Blake’s star rises whenever the left rises: in the 60s with Allen Ginsberg, in the early 80s with Jah Wobble and Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore. Witness of the birth of global capitalism – enclosures reducing self-sufficient peasants to landless wanderers, the noose for petty theft, deportation, the slave trade – reading Blake allows the modern revolutionary to draw breath, to understand that disgust with commercialism is not some kind of recent pose amongst avant hipsters, it’s part and parcel of revolutionary socialism. It’s a prophylactic against those who think you can sell socialism like double-glazing. The party managed like a call centre. Such ‛realistic operators’ will either dismiss Blake as a ‛mystic’, or honour him (falsely) as a ‛great artist’ whose achievements we should ‛admire’. At a distance. We shouldn’t: Blake’s great because he measures up to us, to the spirit of working class firebrands on Facebook like Paz Thompson or Paul Furness or Sharon Borthwick or Paul Seacroft (who they? not party hacks, for sure…get on Facebook and find out). When Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man, came to London, he stayed with William Blake.
Nothing stands still. The Russian Revolution of 1917 turned into its opposite, Stalinism, and sabotaged revolutions all round the world. In the post-war period, the artistic revolt of the 1920s and 1930s became a commodity shaped by a succession of empty fashions – Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Conceptual Art, Fluxus, Postmodernism. When Maurice Saatchi curated Sensation! in 1997, an advertising mogul who’d worked for Margaret Thatcher's re-election found that Dada techniques of shock and contempt could serve Tories and high finance. Young British Art: a slew of useless celebrities was born. Some Trotskyist sects, echoing the Stalinist positions they claim to criticise, saw this as proving the ‛decadent’ nature of Modern Art, something all true proletarians should reject. The point is that the anti-capitalist, anti-hireling nature of true expression had migrated into other forms than ‛art’.
The commodity relation is inimical to our species-being and denies our natural feelings for others, which have to be suppressed in favour of an abstraction called ‛self’ – realising true art in the money environment is like growing a watermelon in Easter hay, impossible. Peter Brötzmann and Alan Wilkinson, two saxophonists who reconfigure your experience of music into something like a primal animal reaction, both began as fine artists, but could not perform the ‛tame bear’ shtick of being an ‛absolute rebel’ who obediently cranks out objects for the rich to buy; so Brötzmann and Wilkinson became minor figures in the world ‛jazz’ scene instead — until you see them live, in which case they become something as overpowering and inspiring as Blake.
The argument between true expression and money is vast, highly detailed and intricate. I have never met two people who deal with it quite the same way – whether they’re artists or simply (simply!) people selling their labour power. The problem ‛artists’ face is the same thing we all face: we’re doing something useful (hopefully), but the money-relation doesn’t reflect that, it reflects our ability to create surplus value for an employer. Culture is the royal road to discussing this predicament, detailing nuances that reflect every fibre of our being. If cultural criticism is worth doing, it’s because it bravely flies in the face of cultural authority and sales figures – i.e. ourselves considered as a mere means for the accumulation of capital – and dares to articulate our initial, truthful subjective reaction before it has been dominated by concepts (or ‛political correctness’). A recipe for utter subjectivism, anarchist relativism, nihilistic solipsism? No, because our collective political practice and our commitment to historical materialism allow us to unpick our personal reactions and explain them as responses to the unchosen circumstances in which we make history.
So what should ‛cultural criticism’ in an IS Network journal look like? A sharing of hitherto unspoken truths. Recommending the purchase of one commodity over others, on the other hand, is not an activity worthy of socialists. Like free-improvising saxophonist and community-activist Jack Wright, revolutionaries should reject the culture-industry’s racket, and feel free to point out they get hold of their music via CD-R copies or downloads or library loans or second-hand. Or at a local pub or church. Or playing with friends. The whole idea of ‛covering new product’ is work foisted on us by sharks trying to make money out of our attempts to create life-changing situations. An excited post by someone who’s just discovered Etta James or Archie Shepp or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is worth a thousand ho-hum reviews of some duff celebrity’s latest album. The person who replies to the question “What music do you like?” by saying “Oh, I haven’t bought a CD for ages” is suffering from the worstest of curses. Conversely, there’s no safe haven from the commodity, no zone of worthy culture untainted by the problematic. Worthwhile pop music tackles this issue head on. Despite the airs put on by its consumers, the refusal of ‛Classical Music’ to recognise commodification makes it indescribably more stupid. The only answer is to criticise commodification from the point of view of the worker, ie., someone whose very life essence, their labour power, is treated as a commodity by capital. How do you get by yourself? The IS Network should like to hear from you.
Thanks to Keith Fisher, Daphne Lawless, Esther Leslie and Andy Wilson for suggestions. Ben Watson is a member of the Association of Musical Marxists and broadcasts a radio show on Resonance 104.4FM every Wednesday at 2pm.Add a comment
- Category: Reviews
- Published on Thursday, 27 November 2014
- Written by Stuart King
The day before I saw 'Hope', a new play about a council making deep cuts in services, I read a profile piece in the Guardian on the Labour leader of Newcastle Council, Nick Forbes. He talked in the interview about the "impossible" service cuts the council faced because of the government's funding cuts.
He said in just one area, social care, Whitehall grants had been cut by 32% while demand had increased by 40%. Having cut £37 million from the budget last year, Newcastle faces a £38 million cut this year, with a further £90 million cuts in the pipeline over the following three years! Little wonder that Forbes predicts social unrest with many public services becoming “completely untenable” in the years ahead. And Newcastle is not alone, the National Audit Office has recently predicted that more than half the councils in England are at risk of financial failure in the next five years.
Jack Thorne’s play, set in a northern English town, opens with the local Labour council leaders sitting down facing just such a scenario. But as with Nick Forbes it never enters the heads of Hillary, the council leader, or her deputy Mark, that there is any alternative to implementing the cuts. They settle down to picking the areas; libraries, street lighting, the swimming pool, museum, centres for the disabled, which they will cut or close completely.
But their plans quickly come unstuck. The proposal to shut the social centre for the disabled, run by Mark’s ex-wife Gina, is leaked and all hell breaks loose. An imaginative campaign to prevent the closure hits the national headlines, thousands sign a petition against it and Miliband is on the phone telling the council they are “polluting Labour’s message” for the election.
So they do what every council does when faced with serious resistance in one area, they retreat on the disabled centre and instead cut two SureStart centres in a predominantly Pakistani and Bangladeshi area of the borough. The resulting row and protests sees clashes between the EDL and the local protesting Asian community. A Pakistani shopkeeper is stabbed to death late at night. “Were the perpetrators white – EDL?” asks Mark. “We don’t know,” replies Sarwan, an Asian councillor, “It was where we had turned the lights off.”
The play follows the characters through both their political and personal crises. Mark, played by The Thick of It actor Paul Higgins, wants to be “a good man” and struggles with his alcoholism, his precociously intelligent son and his sometime partner who is also a councillor and daughter of the ex-leader. The play sometimes feels like a sitcom and makes you wonder why TV hasn’t taken up the challenge of a council-based sitcom; there is plenty of black comedy there for the taking.
The plot takes a dramatic turn when the councillors, pressed by Sarwan, revolt and decide to refuse to set a budget, provoking the government to send in an administrator. Sarwan is convincing when pointing out the class nature of the Tory-Lib Dem cuts “Hart council in Hampshire, the least deprived local authority – net loss of these cuts £28 per person – while in Liverpool district B, the most deprived local authority – net loss £807 per person. How does that make you not want to tear some ones throat out?” Indeed, because this is not just a script but real figures.
While this play is not a political drama of the standard of a David Hare, it certainly is a play of the moment, something the Royal Court Theatre is particularly good at, encouraging young writers and multi-ethnic casts, and pulling in young audiences absent in most West End theatres.
But don’t get your hopes up for a happy ending. These councillors turn out to be as useless in opposition as they were in power. Incapable of mobilising the town and obsessed with returning to “business as normal”. But why should we expect anything different – isn’t this the reality of the Labour Party today?
'Hope' runs at the Royal Court from 26 November to 10 JanuaryAdd a comment
- Category: Reviews
- Published on Saturday, 18 October 2014
- Written by Conor Kostick
Conor Kostick reviews The Event of Literature (Yale University Press) by Terry Eagleton
If The Matrix were a film about Literary Criticism, then Terry Eagleton would have been cast in the role of Morpheus. It’s easy to picture him, secure in a space of his own choosing, smiling and beckoning with a flick of his hand that his opponents should come and do their worst. And in the film version of The Event of Literature, every person seeking enlightenment by a different path than Eagleton’s would be sent sprawling by a good-natured clout to the head.
The Event of Literature might be a little less action-filled than The Matrix, but it has almost non-stop polemical confrontations to enjoy, even by readers, like myself, unfamiliar with the literary theorists addressed in the book. This is because Eagleton’s main concern here is to tackle the subject at a philosophical level and thus his comments typically have a relevance to all aesthetics, not just literary ones.
My friends over at the Association of Musical Marxists, for example, might take note of Eagleton’s passing observations on Adorno. Those who see the new as valuable in itself and the normative as inherently ossified easily fall into two errors, a blindness towards avant-garde forms that are sterile and a too-insensitive dismissal of all practices arising from well established norms.
While on the subject of the AMM, I once (a very long time ago) read an essay by one of its founders, Andy Wilson, on the compatibility of Wittgenstein’s epistemology with that of Marx. Evidence of such compatibility can be found in the writings of Terry Eagleton, which show that he has evolved a wonderful synthesis of the ideas of Marx and Wittgenstein.
An aspect of Wittgenstein’s work that is deeply appreciated by Eagleton is the sense that when reading the philosopher’s work, one is engaging with a mind in playful, ironic dialogue with itself, lucid in expression, but enigmatic in content (to quote from The Gatekeeper). It would not be right to say that Eagleton is enigmatic, most of the time his meaning could not be clearer if it were a slogan being chanted by thousands of demonstrators, but often Eagleton too writes in a playful and self-ironic mode. This is especially true when he approaches complex and multi-sided subjects; at these points a brusque, no-nonsense formulation would do as much harm as good.
As a case study of his methodology, Eagleton’s discussion of Realism versus Nominalism, with which he opens the book, serves well. Are general or universal categories in some sense real, à la Plato? Or – the Nominalist position - are abstract categories only ever the constructions of human minds? For the Nominalists, the real has to be particular. Comprehending the ideas of other writers and recasting them with brevity is one of Eagleton’s particular strengths and in this section he proceeds by examining the thoughts of Western philosophers through the ages, placing them on the Realist – Nominalist spectrum. Those philosophers who veer towards the extremes of either position, Eagleton takes to task.
So deft are Eagleton’s blows to the Realist tradition that at least one reviewer of The Event of Literature thought that he was here advocating a Nominalist point of view. But Eagleton metes out equally strong rebuttals to the one-sided Nominalists he discusses. Which leaves the reader where he wants us, thinking that universality and individuality cannot be antithetical. That this is Eagleton’s goal is evident from his approval of Marx’s writings on human beings in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. There Marx asserts that individual humans are distinct from one another, precisely because such individuation is a consequence of our ‘species-being’. One of the universal powers of homo sapiens is that of forming individuals.
This methodology, a series of zig-zagging critiques of first one side then the other, is crucial for Eagleton’s subsequent arguments concerning literature. The main body of the book is taken up with entertaining explorations of the limits of the – extraordinarily many – various schools of literary theory. His approach allows Eagleton to show that in many cases a theory founded on a mistaken definition of literature (definitions echoing the Realist – Nominalist debate), will collapse the living, multi-dimensional phenomenon that is literature into a (often dull) linear channel.
Now a lot of traditional Marxist aesthetics – say the meetings on art held at the UK SWP’s annual Marxism event (I was just now listening to the recording of John Molyneux’s talk on the subject) – understand art as in some way being a reflection of an historical moment. This, for Eagleton, is too simple-minded a dichotomy. A literary work is not a reflection of a history external to it but a ‘strategic’ labour, one that ‘paradoxically … projects out of its own innards the very historical and ideological subtext to which it is a strategic reply.’ (page 170) Trying to explain a person’s dream in terms of the state of global capitalism might yield an insight or two, but to ask what questions does the dream pose and address for the particular individual, and what does it reveal about his or her unconscious concerns, is immensely more fruitful.
Strategy is the key concept of The Event of Literature. Not in the sense of Napoleon’s generalship, but in defining a literary text as being a work whose efforts articulate a response to a particular historical or ideological subtext, a subtext that the work itself has fashioned and that does not exist ‘externally’. The strategic labour of a literary work is the way it sets to work on a reality that is contained within it. This sounds rather circular and perhaps those attuned to the dangers of post-modernism will now be hearing alarms, despite the fact that Eagleton is amongst the most militant opponents of post-modernism.
The circularity, however, is of the fecund, rather than sterile sort. The literary text is able to be something more than a resident in a closed world, due to the fact that it has simultaneously internalised something real and creatively reacted to this reality, to some extent forging a new one. It is possible, and seemingly easier (if it did not obscure matters at another level), to grasp at either side of this paradox by insisting that there is nothing beyond the text, or that the text is a direct reflection of an external world. In regard to the latter view, Eagleton quotes Jameson approvingly, ‘in order to act on the real, the text cannot simply allow reality to persevere in its being outside of itself, inertly, at a distance; it must draw the real into its own texture.’ Or, in his own words, ‘bodies and texts are self-determining, which is not to say they exist in a void. On the contrary, this self-determining activity is inseparable from the way they go to work on their surroundings.’ (page 209).
In the concept of literature as strategy, Eagleton believes he has a conceptual approach that allows us to see that some of the best insights of various literary schools, e.g. structuralism, semiotics, Freudianism, Formalism, etc are in fact related. Whilst they might not use the term strategy, each, when they are at their most insightful, approaches a similarly active understanding of literature. By elucidating this isomorphism and naming it – strategy – Eagleton has achieved something extraordinary, the equivalent of unifying quantum theory with gravitational theory, namely discovering a unifying literary theory.
Since he does not suffer from false modesty, this achievement is blown, like a triumphant fanfare of horns, by Eagleton himself at a number of points towards the end of the book. One might even call such a seminal book, if one were being playful, The Event of Literature. And why not? After all, despite his own repeated emphasis on what he himself sees as being the most important conclusion of his book, hardly any other review of The Event of Literature seems to have noticed what a major development of literary theory this is.
Eagleton’s potential allies on the Marxist left seem to have been in too much of a hurry to force the book into tired and decades-old formula. In Socialist Review, for example, we read that: ‘[Eagleton] berates those writers for whom theory is only about understanding the world, not changing it. Eagleton argues instead that literature is closely bound to its historical context …’ One can almost hear the repeated banging of a forehead against a table somewhere in Dublin.
This is not an easy work, but then books concerned with the philosophy of aesthetics are always going to be slow reads. And at least here the reader is in the hands of someone who writes with verve and wit. This book makes a huge contribution to literary theory and does so from a standpoint that we can gladly call our own.Add a comment
- Category: Reviews
- Published on Tuesday, 1 July 2014
- Written by Brian Collier
‘Orgreave: an English Civil War’, a production of Northern Lines, written and directed by Javaad Alipoor, reviewed by Brian Collier.
Well, the title tells you what it is about and the perspective taken, so I don’t need to go into much background detail. It was done in a small venue, Bradford’s ‘The Theatre in the Mill’, which seated about a hundred people around the acting area. Yet we were all still in the acting area, because on three sides of the room were projected iconic pictures of Orgreave: the miner with the joke policeman’s helmet, the woman apparently about to be hit by a mounted copper’s baton (she was on Woman’s Hour last week and she said that she was pulled out of the way just in time) and many others. The walls were covered by chalkboards with slogans and information graffitied onto them; the floor was radially marked by fragments from one of Javaad’s poems about Orgreave.
The scenery was sparse and merely made use of a series of boxes and shapes that were rearranged to form a living room, the House of Commons, the cabinet room, a Miners’ Welfare and the field of Orgreave itself. These boxes themselves had extracts from papers of the time printed upon them; there was no escape from the truth all this seemed to be saying.
The cast were a joy, amateurs all and disdainful of divisions of ethnicity or gender; Asians played white characters and women played men, any deficiencies of technique (few) were made up for by natural flair and energy, commitment and enthusiasm. The young Asian woman who played Thatcher, for instance, had her to a ‘T’, she needed no wig and didn’t need to try and ape that awful voice to convey the appalling arrogance and sinister disdain for democracy of the woman; just seeing and hearing her brought everything back and made me shiver.
The central character of the play in many ways was ‘Mr. Crossley’, the policeman who liaises between Special Branch and Special Forces, who had developed his techniques in Belfast, Derry, Oman, Toxteth and Brixton and was sent specifically to sort out the miners in South Yorkshire. He was played by David J. Peel, a prominent local community actor who was described in the programme as ‘actor/facilitator’, and it was a performance of much power.
Before going on to say something about the play itself, I must congratulate Javaad and his collaborators on their choice of soundtrack, comprising many songs that were used during the miners’ strike itself and others that commented upon it. One that became very important in the play was ‘Only You’ by the Flying Pickets, which David Peel himself sang during the portrayal of the ‘battle of Orgreave’ to great ironic and dramatic effect.
The play itself had at its centre a family in a mining village near Rotherham: Steve, his wife Pat (who was pregnant at the beginning of the play) and Steve’s brother Barry, who has become a policeman. The action shifts between 1984 and 2014; in the latter date Steve has died from a mining-related lung disease and Pat has become an FE lecturer. Their daughter Lisa and her friend Roman (who is the daughter of a policeman who made a lot of money out of the strike) are trying to find out what went on, but no one seems to want to talk about it. Back in 1984 Steve, initially very enthusiastic about the strike and its prospects, gradually, after many beatings and defeats on the picket line, is becoming disillusioned and is thinking of scabbing; Pat says that she’ll leave him if he does that.
Pat has become politicised and is very active in Women Against Pit Closures; she gives a very inspiring speech at the Miners’ Welfare, the miners having marched in singing ‘I’d rather be a picket than a scab’. Pat tells them of meeting women from Northern Ireland who had been protesting for human rights. ‘This is a human rights issue’, she says. The miners cheer. Steve goes to the meeting and Pat embraces him, he’s staying out!
Then there is the ‘battle’ of Orgreave and its aftermath. The first half of the play ends with Orgreave, and the way it’s portrayed with Crossley winding up the coppers and telling them what to do and how to forge statements, and then the policemen beating their shields with batons and stamping their feet was genuinely intimidating, even though you knew it was all just a part of the drama. I was on picket lines in 1984 and 1985 at Bold pit near St Helens in Lancashire (nowhere near like Orgreave) and it brought back the fear.
Steve disowns Barry because he’s a policeman, even though Barry resigns from the force. Thirty years later Barry turns up and expects to be welcomed with open arms. Pat and Lisa reject him, thus the play eschews some easy sentimentality. Scars remain unhealed. Crossley ends up in Bahrain, advising the authoritarian government there on counter insurgency.
This was a very powerful play. The actors were so committed and so powerful, playing against stereotype and making the public feel with them. I was moved almost to tears more than once and felt bitter anger quite a lot of the time. It was a brilliant example of how to present politics without overt politics being rammed down your throat. There was a fantastic ovation at the end.
After the play a former miner (accidentally portrayed in the play’s poster!) gave us a talk about what the strike felt like and how the campaign for justice was going, inspired by the Liverpool FC’s fans campaign over Hillsborough. The IPCC are inevitably dragging their feet, but he is hopeful that justice may be done in the end. I don’t know if this play will ever be produced again, but it should be and if it is go and see it. Javaad is an ISN comrade and a rare talent. He has another play, Hurr, produced at the same venue in mid July. I’m going to see that! Come if you can!
See the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign website for more information and events.
- Category: Reviews
- Published on Monday, 21 April 2014
- Written by Mark Boothroyd
Return to Homs – the capital of Syria's revolution destroyed
Directed by Talal Derki
Return to Homs was screened by Human Rights Watch on 28 March, followed by a Q&A with the producer Orwa Nyrabia.
The story told by Return to Homs is the story of the Syrian Revolution – from its start as peaceful protests against the Assad regime calling for reform, through the vicious repression of those protests and the ensuing militarisation of the revolution, to the present-day state of siege and total destruction of the country at the hands of the dictatorship.
The documentary, entirely filmed and directed by Syrians, is not the first to be produced by revolutionaries, but it is the first to receive widespread circulation across the world. It was filmed over two years from August 2011 to August 2013 as the revolution developed from peaceful protests into armed resistance.
The film tells the story of the revolution through the friendship of two young men from Homs, Abdul Basset Saroot and Ossama Al Homsi. Before the revolution began, Basset was the second best goalkeeper in Syria, touted for the national team. When the protests began they both joined the revolt, Basset leading the crowd with chants and songs against the regime, while Ossama became a media activist filming the protests and demonstrations.
The first scenes are a testimony to the genuinely popular character of Syria's revolution. We see crowds of thousands in the streets, singing and dancing for freedom and against oppression. Basset’s popularity and charisma are evident as thousands join him in song, and he is cheered and hoisted onto the shoulders of protesters wherever he goes.
The film is remarkable for its view inside the revolution. The footage of peaceful protests is interspersed with footage from the activists’ safe house where they upload videos, discuss the situation, give interviews to foreign journalists and sing songs against Assad. Basset rails against the regime, its violence and oppression and unwillingness to concede. We see the transformation of peaceful protesters into armed resistance fighters. As the violence against protesters mounts, the activists no longer wield just laptops and cameras, but AK-47s and pistols as well. Crowds no longer throng the streets, driven away by snipers and bombs. Instead they hold funeral marches for those martyred by the regime.
The resilience of the Syrian people is shown throughout. At one point the regime builds a barrier over the only road joining two pro-revolution districts in Homs, trying to prevent activists and supplies spreading between them. One of the media activists filming the scene remarks, “They don't know who they're messing with,” as a truck proceeds to drive over the barrier, and local youth on bicycles dig up the barrier with their bare hands, only stopping when they come under sniper fire.
The footage captures the desperation and isolation of the revolution as the repression mounts. Neighbourhoods are reduced to rubble, and Basset and his militia are forced to crawl house to house, waging a guerrilla war against the Syrian army’s superior firepower and aerial bombardment. Their isolation in their liberated districts, under siege and alone, reflects that of the revolution internationally.
During this Basset continues to sing and inspire those around him. His determination is phenomenal. Looking out over part of Homs completely reduced to rubble, he is asked: do you think victory is possible? Gazing out at his destroyed city, at miles and miles of destruction, he pauses for a moment, then comes the firm reply: “Yes, we will make them hate their lives, then they will leave.”
Death is frequent in the fighting. Many are injured, including Basset and Ossama. Ossama appears more visibly traumatised by his ordeal, but all the young men are affected. Despair and desperation creep in, how can it not. They have gone from being labourers, blacksmiths, factory workers, teachers and footballers, to fighting one of the most brutal and totalitarian regimes of the modern age, with a massive imbalance in firepower and support. And yet they keep fighting. And singing.
Basset is still in Homs. Still fighting under siege. Still trying to liberate his country. Orwa Nyrabia, the film’s producer, commented after the film screening, “There is a Basset in every town in Syria. I speak to many of them regularly, but the media does not talk to them or about them.” Orwa stated the mainstream narrative, that it is the regime versus Islamic fighters, is false, that the vast majority of those fighting are moderates, but they receive little or no coverage. This must change. But it will require action, action which has not been taken by many.
Orwa remarked during the Q&A, “When the West threatened to attack the Assad regime, which did not actually happen, tens of thousands marched around the world. When the regime used gas on Ghouta, and killed 1,500 people, not a single march was held anywhere.” Alongside the brutality of the regime, this memory will linger for a long time, the lack of aid given by much of humanity and its progressive forces to the Syrian people.
All progressive and anti-war activists must feel a deep shame at the lack of support for the Syrian Revolution which has left it isolated and battling the world superpowers alone. This feeling should be used to motivate, not as an excuse to ignore what is happening. There is much we can do, if we are willing to spend the energy.
The Syria Solidarity Movement is a new organisation formed to provide political and practical solidarity to the Syrian Revolution. Join it and get involved in its activities. The next action will be a global protest at the BBC on 10 May over its biased coverage of the Syrian Revolution.
Hand in Hand for Syria (HIHS) is a registered UK charity which provides humanitarian aid to refugees and those in the liberated areas of Syria. HIHS runs bakeries and hospitals and provides necessities to those in refugee camps. You can just make a donation, but Syria needs long-term commitment. Get involved in one of their regular Big Aid Drops by hosting a collection point in your area, or organising a collection in your workplace to take to one of the collection points.
If you’re an Arabic speaker and have practical skills, consider joining one of the aid convoys organised by One Nation UK. They deliver aid, medical supplies and ambulances to Syria on a regular basis.
For another view of the revolution in Homs, watch this Panorama documentary ‘Homs, Journey into Hell’.
- Category: Reviews
- Published on Friday, 18 April 2014
- Written by Simon Hardy
Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity by Micah Uetricht
Published by Jacobin/Verso 2014
Review by Simon Hardy
Read this book, I can't recommend it enough. In fact, every trade unionist and socialist worth their salt should read this book. It tells the story of how a rank and file caucus in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) won the leadership of the union, then led it in an all out strike in 2012 against budget cuts and attacks on terms and conditions that lasted 10 days before achieving significant victories. What makes this feat pretty amazing is that they went from a meeting of 5 people to leading an all out strike in less than 5 years, and the union itself hadn't had a strike since 1987.
When the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) was set up it was largely due to the defeats of previous attempts by the left to win the leadership and transform the union. Notably, after a disastrous "left" leadership in 2001-04 when Debbie Lynch signed a terrible deal with the Chicago Board of Education and then tried to sell it to union members as a "left" victory. The return of the old conservative leadership who were unwilling to do anything about school privatisations, closures and endemic racism across the city against young black students led to the formation of CORE, a rank and file initiative that hoped to learn the lessons of previous defeats. They started off as a small reading group discussing The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, within a few months they had pulled together a network of activists across the city who wanted to do something about the destruction of public education in the city.
When they won the leadership elections in 2010, CORE members set about transforming the union from top to bottom, turning it from a typical top down 'negotiation and services union' into a fighting union that coordinated actions from the bottom up. How did they do this?
- When they won the leadership they put every elected official of the union and organiser on the average teachers salary in the city.
- They reallocated resources from office based departments to activism, getting full timers out alongside members in schools to build joint meetings with parents and teachers about the attacks coming from the Democratic Party mayor (Obama's right hand man Rahm Emanuel).
- They held readers group for their organisers, discussing key texts from the history of militant trade unionism like Farrell Dobbs' Teamsters Rebellion.
- They politicised the strike (as much as they could within the limits of the anti-union ordinance of the city) and made sure that the members were engaged and driving the action forward.
- As soon as they were elected they prepared for their strike which happened two years later - they knew if they stuck to their convictions it would lead them into a headlong confrontation with the Mayors office and the board of education and they made plans for it from the start.
- When they were offered a renegotiated contract after a week of strike action they didn't agree it, they made sure every CTU member had a copy and read it and discussed it at their daily delegate meeting which ran the strike before anything was agreed.
The important lesson here is that they didn't just win the leadership, they used that position to transform union democracy from top to bottom. They didn't want to end up like Lynch, well meaning but trapped in the bureaucracy with no way out who ends up betraying her principles. How many times has this happened in our trade unions? Whilst the outcome was not a total victory, some concessions were won by the bosses, the ultimate feeling of the strikers was that the strike achieved its goals, because the members were mobilised, empowered and they forged bonds with local parents and community groups which turned around years of anti-teacher rhetoric from the media and the Democratic Party. it is very hard to win an outright victory in an age of austerity, but what the CTU showed is that you can hold back the tide and even win some victories, for instance they defeated an attempt to remove the cap on class sizes and they won higher classroom budgets.
The book is well written by Uetricht, it has a clear and accessible style and he carefully balances the political side of it with sometimes funny anecdotes (my favourite being about the first pamphlet that CORE issued with a disastrous typo on the front page) and really shows the tremendous solidarity that the people of Chicago had in support of the teachers strike. It is actually quite an emotional read, considering how working and poor people rallied to the teachers dispute years of teacher bashing and right wing propaganda in the press. It shows you what can be done with a rank and file movement that has a clear strategy and fights to win, knowing how to combine leading a union with grassroots activism by the members.
Clearly not every strike strategy can be replicated in every other place - but the CTU strike is rich with lessons which at the very least can inspire trade unionists that these kind of actions are possible. That the CORE led union managed to get a 90% turn out with a 92% yes vote for strike action demonstrates that they must have done something right to engage members and win the argument for action. The CTU strike of 2012 is an inspiration that we should all look to.
Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity is available from VersoBooks.com
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