10 December 2012

Popper by Bryan Magee

Karl Popper's philosophy makes a valuable point, but is fundamentally flawed.

This is the best selling book by Bryan Magee (born 1930), the articulate broadcaster of programmes explaining and popularising philosophy.

Magee provides a clearly written and enthusiastic account of the ideas of his personal friend, the philosopher Karl Popper (1902-94). The book proceeds from Popper’s view of science (a rejection of induction in favour of falsifiability), to his view of human knowledge as an ever-provisional attempt at problem solving, and concludes with how Popper applies these ideas to the defence of liberal democracy and of a pragmatic problem solving method of doing politics.

Though Popper is often correctly labelled as someone out to clobber Marxism in the post war period, there is much sense in what I understand him to be saying. However, for me his philosophy of knowledge (epistemology) is marred by problems.

Popper recognised the historical distinction between analytic and synthetic statements. Analytic statements (e.g. All bachelors are male.) are necessarily true by logic alone. In contrast, synthetic statements, (e.g. The cheese is on the table.) are contingent: that means they are dependent on how the world actually is. Popper regarded science as consisting entirely of synthetic statements.

Popper’s central contention was that a synthetic statement can only be held to be scientific if it is capable of being empirically falsified. There is much sense here; i.e. we should be cautious of statements which claim to remain true irrespective of what happens. Yet, I fail to understand why the truth of a statement is necessarily dependent on the ability to potentially falsify it. For instance, if for some reason, it were impossible to the test the proposition that water boils at one hundred degrees centigrade, that would not prevent the proposition from being either true or scientific.

Many synthetic statements involved in the foundation of science are incapable of being tested at all; for instance the axioms that objects exist in space and time, and that every change has a cause. In fact, following Kant, we could argue that without such so-called synthetic a priori statements we cannot think at all.

Popper is of course right to say that if an extrapolation from a theory is falsified in an empirical test, it’s not the reality which is wrong, but the hypothesis. Yet it seems mistaken to argue that that the theory (a collection of interdependent statements) must be abandoned wholesale, and there isn’t a case on occasion for modifying the theory and its concepts rather than immediately junking them. Popper says he is using practical human solving procedures as the basis for his theory, but, to use a crude analogy, if I have a new car and find the ignition doesn’t work one morning, I am more inclined to have the car repaired than consign it to the scrapheap.

One final point is whether Popper’s theory applies to his own theory of falsifiability. Quite clearly not, so we have to regard the notion of falsifiability as a postulate justified by logic, not experience. So not only does Popper's logic fail to hold up in all cases, as discussed above, but Popper is forced to justify his tool for doing science by the very logico-rational methods that he wanted to oppose.

Karl Popper saw his writing as an attack on the whole Kant-Hegel-Marx tradition in social science (and was certainly lauded by the establishment in Britain for doing just that). But in my view he failed in knocking Kant, Hegel and Marx from their position in Western thought. What he has certainly done is to hold up ‘warning signs’ which serve to alert us to dogma and nonsense in thought.

MAGEE, Bryan – Popper, Fontana 1973

2 December 2012

Historical Materialism: a short working definition

Historical materialism, the theory of society developed by Karl Marx (1818-83), needs a clear practical definition.

Historical materialism is a theory about and a method of studying human society. In the first instance, it is a theory about the workings of society as a whole; i.e. it is a macro theory. Its starting point is that human beings live on the planet Earth, are part of the Earth and extract the means to life from the Earth. Human beings live socially: i.e. not as Robinson Crusoes, but in society. They produce and reproduce their lives socially. Historical materialism is a theory of technique: i.e. it asserts that how we socially produce the means to life, and how we have historically produced the means to life, determines what we are as a society.

Historical materialism is an inclusive, not an exclusive science. Aspects of life are also governed by geography, human physiology, psychology, etc. These sciences are related to and are enriched by historical materialism, but are not deducible from it. Historical materialism is a macro-sociology; i.e a study of human behaviour in the whole of society.

Historical materialism stresses history because what exists today is the result of the past. It stresses materialism because at root human society is the complex result of people producing the means to life from nature. Some people produce but everybody lives from what is produced. What people think they are doing and the ideas that they have in their heads are important in determining what happens, but are necessarily secondary to what actually is happening.

Historical materialism thus recognises the basis of human existence as a collective production of society from nature in a process which develops over time. This fundamental point plays two roles in the further development of historical materialism.

First, it is a core statement of meaning about what society and human existence is.

Second, it provides the first tool for viewing the world, asking research questions and developing concepts to interpret and understand the social world.

Observations underlying historical materialism

Moving beyond the short working definition above, historical materialism can be seen to draw on three simple observations from human history. These should be spelled out.

First, as stated above, human history is the result of humans beings socially working on nature to produce the means to life. In that sense, humans aren’t different from other gregarious creatures like ants or bees. But what makes human society unique is twofold: first, human beings get better at conquering the natural world by means of developing their technology and skills, and in so doing change not only nature (e.g. the building of dams) but also change the kinds of lives they live. Second, human beings are unique in having the ability to think about, reflect on and express in language, art, music, etc. what they are doing and what they think and feel about it. Hence, for instance, the theory of historical materialism itself.

Second, all hitherto existing society has been characterised by a division of labour. Those divisions may stem from efficiency considerations (e.g. electricians not doing the work of plumbers and vice versa), cultural roles (e.g. men’s work, women’s work) or from different access to wealth and income, (e.g. factory worker, leisured gentleman). As society changes, so the divisions of labour change.

Third, all human society is based on a scarcity, or perceived scarcity, of desired things, such as money, wealth in the form of material assets, status and power. Therefore, there is a struggle for these things, which means that the principles governing their allocation are usually a matter of dispute.

The labour theory of value

The labour theory of value is an integral part of historical materialism, and needs to be stated in such a way that it applies to all human history, not just to capitalism. And for the sake of easy comprehension, the theory should be explained without mathematics.

The core idea is simple. Most of the things which we need in order to live are the products of human labour, e.g. food clothes, houses. That is, of course, not true for everything; for instance the air we breath is available without any effort. But crucially, we cannot live without those products which can only result from human labour; and that is true even in modern times when many products are manufactured by machines, because those machines have to be built and maintained by human labour.

It is a observable fact that throughout history the vast majority of people spend a huge part of their lives involved directly or indirectly in the making of useful products - or else are engaged in services to support that production. But by contrast only a minority own and control what is produced and the means of producing it, and this minority hugely benefits as a result.

In the terminology adopted by Marx, the value of a good is equal to the amount of labour time that went into making it. (And here it is vital to avoid a misunderstanding: do not confuse the value of a good in the Marxist sense with its market price because the price of a good is determined by several factors, not just the labour time that went into making it.) Some of the value resulting from produced goods is given to those involved in its production; another part (the so-called surplus value) is given to people who have legal ownership or other rights over the product, but who did not participate in the work to produce it - the landlord, factory owner, banker, etc. The higher the proportion of surplus value, the greater the level of exploitation.

The terms value, surplus value and exploitation should be understood as technical expressions, and do not always mean the same as they do in everyday speech.

The superstructure

Not everything that happens in society is directly about economic production, distribution and exchange. What lies outside the economy is termed the superstructure because, using a spatial metaphor, non-economic institutions and activities are seen as being located on top of the economic base. The superstructure consists of two elements: organisations and ideas.

Organisations, sets of relations between people, include governments, militaries, churches, schools, pressure groups, etc. Of course some organisations may be mainly based in the economy, for instance multi-national companies, but others less so, and some hardly at all. Organisations mould people’s ways of thinking and help form their identities and therefore play a key role in determining what people do and what happens in society.

Ideas include the whole way in which people see the world, both in terms of how the world is and how it ought to be. Some ideas, for instance the view that the world is round, are held by almost everybody, while other ideas are held by some but not all of the people. Like for organisations, some ideas concern the economy, for instance marketing, while others are not related or are more distantly related.

A word of caution should be introduced here. The two superstructural elements, organisations and ideas, are interconnected. Ideas are promoted and articulated by organisations, for instance schools, churches, the media; and conversely, ideas play an indispensable role in binding together organisations (e.g. militaries, governments).

The key question now is: what is the relationship between the superstructure (i.e. organisations and ideas) and the economy? Clearly, the relationship varies from place to place and over history, but here we are answering the question, not for any specific historical period or place, but universally.

First, although organisations and ideas play a key role in what happens in society, they have limits set for them by the economy and what is materially real. Organisations are things and do things; they cannot be something made impossible by the economy: for example, a twenty-first century army in a primitive tribal society. Likewise for ideas: goals, plans assumptions, if they are not grounded in what exists, have limited effectiveness. Yet - and this point needs stressing again - because organisation and ideas have boundaries set by the economy, it does not mean that organisations and ideas cannot play a vital role in determining what happens in the economy.

Second, it is possible to talk about a relative correspondence between superstructure and base. Quite clearly, if the economy, organisations and ideas were completely uncoordinated, society could not function. Some level of correspondence is needed for society to exist, but equally the absence of absolute coordination creates social tensions, known as contradictions; and these contradictions are an important cause of change in society.

Third, the economy involves people doing things with some benefiting more than others from the results of human production. How people relate to the economy - through their position in the functional division of labour (e.g. electrician or plumber) and through access to the rewards of economic activity (e.g. factory owner or labourer) - plays the biggest part in determining the social position of people in society. And from the position people find themselves in, so they see the world. Their socio-economic position, in other words, determines their interests and perspective; thus the different social outlook of the senior manager and the office cleaner. Through this analysis, we can identify a clear line of causality: from the economy, to social classes and other social divisions, and then to people's viewpoint and outlook on society.

To sum up, we can see the economic base of society setting limits to human organisation and thinking. We can see the need for some degree of coordination between economy, organisations and thinking. And finally, the economy gives people interests which affects the way they think.

Of course in particular periods of history (e.g. advanced capitalism), more can be said about the relationship between the superstructure and base (i.e. economy). The comments above are intended to provide (i) an understanding of what the superstructure is, and (ii) give an overview of how it links into the economy.

1 December 2012

Incarceration & Punophilia in Britain

Britain has a blooming love affair with punishment

I can remember in 1977-78 delivering newspapers (mostly the Telegraph, Mail and Express) around leafy lanes in Surrey. One outraged headline demanded what was happening to Britain with the prison population exceeding 40 000. The 1970s, after all, were a time when class discontent was supposedly making Britain ungovernable and law and order was breaking down. Mrs Thatcher, then on the verge of office, was preaching authoritarianism and shock capitalist therapy.

Today, more than three decades later in a richer but more unequal Britain, government boasts a prison population of over 80 000, representing the highest incarceration rate in Europe. Maybe the dreck of society is always present, but the size of a country's lumpenproletariat and the proportion of it dumped into jails are determined by social and political factors.

Two factors stand out in explaining this. One is the increasing inequality in British society in which any sense of a community-of-equals is ebbing away, with the result that the shared public morals binding social behaviour have weakened, particularly so in the junk estates and inner cities.

The other, and perhaps related, factor is Britain’s current addiction to punophilia, the love of punishment: a person sent down for six months for stealing a bottle of water, or another receiving three months for making a sick joke on Facebook. Increasingly, imprisonment is used not as an unavoidable last resort, but to “send a message” by government and the judiciary grabbing a headline.

On a more positive note: if Britain imprisoned the same proportion of its population as the US there would 400 000 people rotting in Britain’s jails. But America aside, if you judge a country by the proportion of its population in jail – not a bad measure – then Britain performs very badly indeed.

Writing about Sex

Much writing about sex goes wrong because an author suddenly shifts gear and starts describing a physical process.

The point can be made by taking, as an example, another process, not sex. If you write, say, a description of a person becoming depressed on the street and then opening her front door, you might compose something like this:

“She easily extracted the key from its usual place in her handbag and inserted it into the lock.”

Now if you expand your description of unlocking a door, even with some attached memories and feeling, into a five hundred word text, you will probably find yourself writing utter drivel. Quite simply, the well-known mechanics of unlocking a door do not need such an extended description.

The same is true of writing about sex. The mechanics of having sex - even of perverse kinds - is pretty much shared information, and attributing evermore over-flowering metaphors to the sexual excitement is what makes it absurd. The way out of this dilemma is not to make the topic of the paragraphs the sex itself, but instead make the theme of the paragraphs the feelings and thoughts and then use sexual activity to illustrate the point.

In short, don't focus on sexual acts, but use sexual acts demonstrate what you are trying to say.


13 November 2012

Free Comment Criminalised in Britain

In the accelerating attack on free speech in Britain, a Facebook user has been arrested for displaying a captioned image of a burning poppy.

In the twentieth century comment was outlawed because it was subversive or indecent. Free speech finally won against those arguments. But today, there is a new threat: increasingly comment on the internet is threatened and prosecuted because it is allegedly offensive to someone.

Expanding the notion of offence is a great ruse for the state: government is not saying we are banning comment because it threatens us, but because it threatens “you the people” and to prove its point a lynch mob of people, spurred on by the gutter press, can always be found to demand judicial sanctions against the commentator. Yet the end result is the same as in the previous century: people fined or imprisoned for expressing their opinions.

1 November 2012

Serĝo Elgo - Ŝia Lasta Poŝtkarto

Eksita romano pri malaperita junulino

Tiu romano, originale verkita en Esperanto, estas mia unua tutlonga fikciaĵo, kiu mi legas en la internacia lingvo. Ankaŭ estas la unua fojo, kiam mi ĝuis fikcian libron, kiel libro, kaj ne nur kiel esperanta praktiko.

Temas la historio pri deksepa knabino de riĉburĝa familio, kiu malaperis dumnokte dum vizito ĉe sia maljuna avino. Tordas la historio en ĉiu ĉapitro, dum disvolviĝas la intrigo. La lerteco de Elgo eĉ superas la romanojn de Agatha Christie. Ĉe Christie oni trovas nur artefaritajn romanrolojn, sed ĉe Elgo oni trovas realrolojn. Vera estas tio precise pri la malaperita Izabella, kiun oni montras kiel inteligenta kaj libervola junulino.

Malgraŭ (por mi) malfacila lingvo kelkloke, la romano al la leganto donas multe da plezuro. Mi forte rekomendas ĝin al la esperantistoj.

ELGO, Serĝo - Ŝia Lasta Poŝtkarto, Kooperativo de Literature Foiro 1988


6 October 2012

74 Old Tiverton Road

Memories from a shared student house: 74 Old Tiverton Road, Exeter (1982-83).

In 1980 I left my parental home in Haslemere in Surrey to take a three year degree course at Exeter University. By far the most memorable year was my last, 1982-83, in which I shared 74 Old Tiverton Road, Exeter with seven other students. This short article was originally written in May 1998 with some small amendments made in October 2012.

He, that his whole youth denies,
Is surely dead before he dies.

From a poem by M. Dewar

Milan Kundera once said that there was no future or past, only the present. As far as the past is concerned, there is a process of remembering and forgetting; we remember individually, or do so with others through mutually reinforced myths, but always seeing the world through the tinted spectacles of the present. Even if we don't distort, we select; and those events from the past which do not bear on our current worries and concerns are largely forgotten.

The selective and distorted memory pictures from our past are bound together to form personal myths – what we believe about ourselves. We would like to believe that these narratives form continuity in the form of an unfolding and blossoming of our lives and that they have a meaning which forms the basis of our life, and therefore the foundation for our immortality. If we believed that our lives were merely a series of disconnected and irrelevant events, our immortality (i.e. ourselves as an idea) would be impossible.

The memories of our youth are highly significant here. Most of us, unless we were extremely unfortunate in our youth, tend to idealise that period, stretching from puberty to our launch into the adult world, as our personal Garden of Eden, which existed before age and compromise dented us mentally and physically. While it is axiomatic that the past determines the present, the chequered path of material causes is forgotten in favour of a narcissistic adoration of our youthful period. Our memories tell us that the summer nights were longer, warmer and more beautiful than now; and it is because of such adoration for youth that the 'growing up' novel is so popular. Often such is the strength of our memories of youth that they bring forth the sickness and delight of nostalgia.

Our personal myths consist of defining moments in the form of events or series of events which changed our lives. Both now and at the time I felt that the year 1982-83 which I spent at 74 Old Tiverton Road was one such defining moment.

We were eight university students, 20-22 years old, living in a shared house: six men and two women. We were human science students studying politics, psychology, ecology, law and drama. But in those ten month there was a semi-conscious drive to forge a new set of values, the effects of which have remained to some degree with us to this day. Some of us were more involved in that process than others; and no doubt the role that Old Tiverton Road plays in our personal myths varies between the people involved. But that time was important for all of us.

In the first place our lives were a deliberate reaction against the then prevailing values of lower middle-class Thatcherism. Despite most of us originating from just that lower middle class, we rejected Thatcher's individualism, Puritanism, materialism and aggression in favour of co-operation, hedonism, self-recognition and pacifism.

The most significant example of co-operation was the cooking rota. Without fail the person whose turn it was always bought the food, did the cooking and washed up. It always surprised me how among so many other students (or indeed other people living together) each cooked for himself. Shared meals bring people together and it brought us together.

Hedonism was endemic. If somebody didn't hurt somebody else, then s/he was free to do as s/he wished. Thus much of the house had a pleasure maximisation design, subtle lighting, large low beds, beanbags and wall hangings. The demarcation between sleep and consciousness, work and play, and sex and friendship was narrowed.

If the world outside was becoming more materialistic - what you had was more important than what you were - the reverse was true in the house. Scorn was poured on material possessions; and value placed on 'being.' To that end whole nights were taken up with mutual introspection with the purpose of self-understanding, the removal hang-ups and self-improvement. It was largely through the desire for self-improvement, rather than employment, that we interpreted the education we were receiving and giving ourselves.

The external world was aggressive - both individually and collectively - with speed, profit and aggression destroying slowness and understanding. By contrast our self-realisation was based on sensation and comprehension and could not be centred on an individual physical or materialistic conquest of the external world.

These values, plus other thoughts and experiences, became the spectacles through which we saw ourselves and the world. Now we have forgotten much; e.g. how dirty was the bathroom basin? We can't remember because it was not important and it doesn't define us. Yet, it was with 74 Old Tiverton Road in our heads that we were launched into the adult world. For some of us that adult world was so ugly that we withdrew from it into the world of receiving social security payments in order to live, and in rejecting Thatcher's universe, we tried in vain to create a community based on our values. We failed, but learned and moved on. Yet those values remain with us and we evaluate so much with them in mind.


1 October 2012

Offensive opinions: challenge but don't censor

Labelling an opponent's argument offensive does not win an argument

It is becoming increasingly common to find commentators both on the web and in face-to-face discussion arguing in the following way. A point is made with which they disagree – for instance one critical of religious belief or concerning the definition of rape – and the commentator feels that his or her opponent’s argument can be dismissed simply by labelling it offensive.

What the commentator is de facto saying is that the “offensive” argument simply shouldn't exist. The logic is that if the allegedly offensive argument, which contradicts his or her own views, is taken away, then the remaining argument is strengthened and legitimised. That is not so.

No argument can be deemed illogical, incorrect or morally wrong simply because somebody else finds it offensive. Labelling an argument “offensive” only says something about the people using that label, namely that they don’t like it. It does nothing to qualify or demolish the allegedly offensive opinion.

At one time people found it offensive to suggest that the world was round, or that the earth circulated the sun; their feeling of offence couldn't change a fact. At one time a majority of people found homosexuality offensive, but their bigotry couldn't prevent the development of the idea that human beings, whether gay or not, should have rights.

Nobody should be prevented from saying something simply because someone else finds it offensive. Offensive opinions (and of course they exist) need challenging, but that is not done simply by labelling them offensive.


21 September 2012

Being offensive on the net

In Britain there are an increasing number of arrests and convictions of people who have expressed “offensive” opinions on the net.

At a moral level it is utterly impossible to defend people who gratuitously insult others on-line. For that reason many otherwise right-thinking people will remain silent in Britain when idiots who scribble illiterate insults end up in police stations, courts and prisons.

Yet we should stop and raise two issues: one a matter of principle, the other of policy.

As a matter of principle, no-one should face legal sanction merely because s/he has said something offensive. If you harass people, threaten them, blackmail them etc., then, yes, you do something everybody would recognise as a crime. But merely expressing an opinion, however obnoxious, should not in itself be a crime. That is an essential ingredient of free speech.

Let us ask a question about state policy. Why is the state so pro-active in clamping down on Twitter insults, when it cares so little about the economic well-being or political liberties of ordinary people in general? The answer seems to be that what motivates these prosecutions and the consequent imposition of disproportionate punishment is a state strategy of intimidating free expression on the net.

Twitter and similar technologies are highly effective means of communication for ordinary people, but they are also excellently tailored for state surveillance and state intimidation of all who use them.


20 September 2012

UKIP on the rise?

UKIP is raising its profile as Britain’s fourth largest political party.

The growth of UKIP is an aspect of the increasing fragmentation of political identity among voters that has been taking place in the last half century.

What seems to be happening on the right is that the Tory Party, as an alliance of business interests and nationalistic/chauvinistic prejudices, is coming apart, with the Union Jack wavers now gravitating to UKIP.

The left, too, might fragment, if the Green Party moves out of its current niche.

If political fragmentation proceeds apace – boosted by PR in the EU elections – we might wonder at what point the current first-past-the-post electoral system for the House of Commons becomes utterly dysfunctional.


1 August 2012

A Personal Journey to Marxism

Marxism is a powerful explanatory system; and the moment in life when one acknowledges that is seldom forgotten.

It was in an autumn evening in 1978, some time after dark and sitting alone at my desk, that I became a Marxist. It was not a consequence of an act of class struggle, nor of any concrete event in the political sphere, but purely the result of an intellectual decision. The books in front of me were Peter Worsely’s Introducing Sociology and the decidedly non-Marxist writer Raymond Aron’s Main Currents in Sociological Thought. As I read I had been throwing up objections to Marxist theory and then at one point I stopped resisting and accepted the general thesis, as in all probability, correct.

The next five or six years, which saw me through my A-levels and a politics degree at Exeter University, were years of fervent exploration in the secular faith. I don’t propose in this essay to proceed methodically through my personal intellectual progression, but rather to answer the following questions. Why did I become a Marxist? What are the fundamental tenets of that belief system which became programmed into my brain? And briefly, what remains today?

My childhood was one of confused and conflicting class consciousness. I grew up in Surrey, a rich part of England. We had our own house, but otherwise my family was relatively poor for the 1970s. Mother (born 1928), whether more out of principle or necessity, stayed at home and my father (born 1908) retired when I was eleven. We had no car, no washing machine, no central heating and we only acquired a TV and telephone in my later teenage years. Yet, we were considered middle class on the grounds that my father had never done a manual job, we did not live on a council estate and my sister and I were brought up to speak BBC English.

From an early age I developed an insight into social class and experienced a dislocation from my peers. My infant and junior schools, which I attended 1967-73, were within the catchment area of a council estate. Most of my early friends were working class kids whose families, unlike mine, had lived in the town for generations. These were the southern skilled working class people, mostly richer than my own family, who would turn so decisively to Mrs Thatcher in 1979. Already alienated from much of the popular culture with no television at home, I was reminded of the class issue every time the council estate kids mocked the pronunciation my mother had instilled me, or whenever in the playground the kids talked about the goings-on at the youth club which I was not allowed to attend.

Yet if the working class did not see me as one of their own, nor did the middle class kids who went on foreign holidays and to barbeques – and at this stage performed so much better than I did at school. Later in my secondary school, when academically I had pulled ahead, I was accepted into the group, but was always made to feel different and grateful for their company. When I out-performed them academically, they felt the injustice because their foreign holiday hadn’t boosted their French test result, and because it was I not they who was going to the ‘better university’ In the ‘now open now hidden’ class struggle that Marx wrote about, my experience was of the concealed and hushed class stratification of England, not of strikes and confrontation on the street. Yet, these experiences and perceptions helped me along the path to Marxism.

My father played his part. Aged seventy when I was sixteen, he was in many ways more like a grandfather. He was someone to talk to, not a father to play football or even go walking with. His interest in politics was not intellectual, but practical. Nominally a Liberal, but with a penchant for history’s strong men, he had been elected onto the town council in 1968 and ten years later was ceremonial mayor of the town. Though kind and gentle at home, he was a manipulative loner for whom intellectual honesty meant nothing. About his first sixty years of life before I could meaningfully talk to him, I knew very little. But those years had instilled in him a dislike of Toryism and the arrogance of the English haut bourgeoisie. Much to my mother’s irritation, my father and I talked politics endlessly, but his lack of reading and his recourse to false ‘facts’ meant that we seldom advanced. Yet I did grow up in a family in which politics was the common currency of conversation, even with my poor mother who hated it.

Religion was only important in my early life in that I came to reject it. Both my parents were nominally Protestants who had attended Catholic schools. Until I was ten, I believed religion was like the story of Santa Claus: not believed by adults, but told to children. Though church goers, my parents displayed little piety: mother felt praying ‘all rather silly,’ and father always presented religion as something that existed rather than something that was true. My metaphysical views of the universe have always been religion-free.

Studying was neither a family tradition, nor did it come early in my life. Mother left school at fourteen and equated academic success with correct elocution and neat handwriting; father, though university educated, had little sympathy for intellectuals. Until secondary school, my association with the lads from the council estate had kept me in remedial classes. But on entering secondary school at eleven in 1973, I joined the upper stream and by the time I was sixteen I was near the top in most subjects. Obviously, the change to the middle class peer group was a factor, but so was a change at home. Now freer of my mother’s psychological control (but without much opportunity to mix independently with my peers), I separated myself to my room with my radio and books as my main companions. Left largely alone by my elderly parents, I discovered the town library and started to read.

From my father’s attitude and my experiences of class division at school, I tended to be anti-Tory, but not specifically socialist. My reading of pop-psychology and politics generally reinforced notions of liberalism and individual freedom. At this stage I had made no sociological analysis of society, but merely made a shopping list of demands against it. In particular, I saw young people unfairly constrained in their lives: parental control, school uniform, corporal punishment, but most of all with regard to their sexual expression.

The summer of 1978 was a roller coaster year for me. My love affair with a classmate, which had started the previous autumn, deepened and unbalanced my teenage brain. I became more estranged from my parents, particularly my mother. I left school in June after my O Level examinations and worked throughout July and August in a factory where, apart from my paper delivery round, I earned my first real money. By the end of August my love affair was in tatters, but my studying was not. And in the more academic environment of the college, which I started in September, I was able to start devoting myself seriously to my sociology, economics and history courses.

I could make not claim to be particularly learned at that time, but I wanted to study the society around me. The summer had seen me in love and in depression, taking every opportunity I could day and night to get near one girl. In the two years at college before I went to university I attended one drunken teenage party, and once on a sociology excursion to Birmingham I took a girl to my hotel bedroom. Otherwise those two years were devoted to the discovery of Marxism, getting good A-level results and little else.

It would be quite wrong to only consider personal factors and not look to wider social and political context in Britain in which I living. I don’t want to present in this essay a retrospective political analysis of the late 1970s, but rather paint a picture of how the politics of the 1970s filtered through into my Surrey town.

The crisis that enveloped Britain in the 1970s was multi-dimensional. The main economic effect hitting the working class, rising unemployment, had not yet arrived in Surrey, but the increasing number of strikes, double digit inflation and the consequent deepening economic pessimism had undermined faith in the economic and political system. By 1978 Britain had seen three general elections in the decade and was about to see another. Uncertainty and crisis was the order of the day, so it was not an idle question whether the future would herald in greater social equality, democracy and industrial planning, or whether, as actually did happen, capitalist power, inequality and discipline would be fully restored. For me, from as early as 1977 when I was fifteen years old there was no doubt that I was on the ‘left’ side of the debate to the extent that I understood it, though of course I lacked any kind of sociological analysis of the issues.

The crisis of political authority ran parallel with debates surrounding the so-called ‘permissive’ society. The decade or so before 1978 had produced many meaningful reforms in Britain: abolition of the death penalty, the legalisation of abortion, the pill and homosexuality, relaxation in censorship, the lowering of the age of majority to eighteen. All this had been accompanied by cultural changes: in fashion long hair for men, musical innovation; e.g. punk. Nowhere was this wave of freedom more a battlefield than in schools: school uniform or not, caning or no corporal punishment, girls doing metalwork or not, Latin or sociology. The cohort of ex-military teachers and their wives in secondary schools was giving way to a more liberal breed. At fifteen I remember the rant of our retiring headmaster in an assembly lashing out at striking pickets and pop stars and informing us that our generation would never have won the Second World War. Two years later I was sitting in my jeans and drinking coffee in my sociology class discussing Marxist perspectives, while the teacher interrupted to tell tales of his hitch-hiking experiences.

The question really was a simple one: were you on the side of Mrs Whitehouse and Mrs Thatcher’s reaction or were you a progressive. I was a progressive, but in the autumn of 1978 I lacked the sociology to explain the society which was throwing up these issues, and on that autumn evening sitting at my desk (which actually is the desk I am typing this essay on now twenty-nine years later) I thought I had found the answer in Marxism.

Today, three decades later and in a totally changed political situation, I still judge Marxist theory to be largely correct. True, there are aspects of classical Marxism which I’ve rejected; and today I allow many non-Marxist explanatory systems to co-exist in my understanding of society. Of course the fact that my personal and social circumstances put me in a position of discover Marxism in no way diminishes the accuracy or otherwise of Marxist explanations of society.

The core of my understanding then as now was the theory of historical materialism. In essence the theory holds that human society has the characteristics that it does on account of the way human beings throughout history have made it that way through their collective but largely uncooperative and unintentional activities. The economic base of society frames and co-exists with the superstructure of institutions and ideas; and the way human beings relate to the economy through ownership, possession and control establishes social classes and many of the divisions within social classes. These simple observations provide the basis for a rich and powerful explanatory methodology, but sadly, as this is not an essay on Marxist theory, I will have to move on.

The next half decade of my life at university and for a period afterwards was dedicated, sometimes successfully but often not, to further understanding and elaborating Marxism. I frantically believed that all legitimate politics had to be based on full understanding of Marxism and class struggle. I set out as best I could as a student and then as an unemployed man to recruit others and to fight the Thatcherite reaction. Even when I largely gave up at the end of the 1980s, the precepts have remained engraved in my mind rather like one remembers one’s multiplication tables. Though I made mistakes, I do not regret my main decisions; and even today it on my ‘to do list’ to attempt to update historical materialism for the present age.

So who was responsible for my attachment to Marxism? My mother who instilled no religious belief in me; my father who talked politics instead of football; my schoolmates who ridiculed my accent; the middle class kids who snubbed me; my primary school teacher who made sure I got into the top stream at secondary school; my liberal minded sociology teacher; or perhaps my girlfriend who left me? Or was it the spirit of the age: those years in the late seventies when the stability of the post war consensus was coming to an end? Could one element have changed, and if so would I have become a born again Christian instead? I don’t know and in the end it doesn’t really matter.


5 July 2012

Why study Marx?

Marxism is the key to understanding the society we live in today

Marxism is first and foremost a mode of analysis of capitalist society; its aim is to tell us why society is how it is. In my view Marxism is broadly correct and is worth studying in depth; but that is something that each person must do for him or herself.

The crisis which erupted in the late 2000s is not just economic; it is systemic, and it sledge-hammered the claims and assumption of the neo-liberalism which gripped the ruling elites from Thatcher to Blair. As insecurity pain and poverty mushroom, it is understandable that people, particularly the young who are the worst affected, need to analyse the society in which they live.

Understanding the cage you are in does not give you the key to the door. Marx died in 1883 and his sketch-map solutions can only be a starting point for thinking about the way forward.


15 June 2012

Supressing more than protest in Britain

Civic and political freedom in Britain is declining. More and more political activity is considered a nuisance or a threat and something to be controlled.

Many have argued that the state is attempting to suffocate dissent and protest, but what is worse, the suppression political activity.

Police, government and state action is indeed directed at suppressing protest (i.e. people who shout or hold placards to emphasise their point), but state surveillance is also more widely deployed against people who engage in political activity more generally.

For instance, people fall victims to police FIT photographing, not only because they demonstrate, but because they attend meetings. Police informers infiltrate not only street protests, but attend the most sedate of meetings to gather information. Teachers and youth workers are encouraged to report ‘anything of interest’ said by their students or charges to the police.

Little comes to light of the probably extensive police surveillance of the internet and telephone communication, because, unlike the monitoring of demonstrations and meetings, the victims have no means of finding out about it. For the most part, people-on-line are merely exchanging opinions; yet many of them will now have police records.

Almost certainly the vast majority of people on police records, not only have never committed a crime, but have never or have rarely engaged in street protest. What they have done, like me now, is sought to communicate politically and so have been branded as domestic extremists worthy of police surveillance.

Sadly the only protection people have is that the large numbers of people now on record as domestic extremists make the active surveillance of everyone a logistic impossibility.


15 May 2012

Bonfire of Illusions by Alex Callinicos

In 2008 the world changed both economically and politically.

In the autumn of 2008 Alex Callinicos saw the world going through a major transformation with the three decade long era of neoliberal consensus coming apart. His book is a succinct analysis of, and intervention in, that situation. The book contains two theses (the so-called twin crises) plus a conclusion.

The first thesis, the economic argument, is that 2008 saw not merely an unsolvable rupture in neoliberalism, but the opening up of a fundamental fault-line in capitalism itself. Callinicos sketches the now familiar contours of the crisis: a credit-fuelled boom across the world which came to a sudden halt when the assets constituting bank securities, such as the now infamous sub-prime mortgages, nosedived in value. After the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank in September 2008, further banking insolvency was prevented only by a wide-ranging nationalisation of losses and the provision of state subsidies to banks, all of which led in turn to burgeoning state deficits, requiring tax rises and government expenditure cuts. These measures, in tandem with diminishing credit to business and consumers have led to sustained recession across the world.

While the features of the immediate financial crisis are well known, Callinicos wishes to stress the crisis of capitalism itself. In short, he argues that the rising organic composition of capital in the last half century has pushed down the average rate of profit. In conjunction with that, he argues that the increase in the power and independence of finance capital has made the world economic system less stable with ever more frequent credit booms and crashes.

Turning to his second thesis, the political argument, the year 2008 also saw a symbolic event which ended the neoliberal “end of history” myth, namely that only those states adopting the Washington consensus could succeed in the modern world. In the summer Russia used its military superiority to reverse and humiliate Georgia’s own military attempt to re-establish rule from Tbilisi in the two breakaway Russian speaking regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Despite Georgia’s sycophantic pro-Americanism, the Bush administration shied away from a confrontation with Russia in the bear’s own backyard. The US might be the most powerful state in the world, but the continuing vitality of authoritarian state capitalism - principally in Russia and China - proved the future not to be entirely American.

The financial implosion of 2008 plus the growing power of states not committed to neoliberalism all signalled the rebirth of the the proactive political state. Neoliberalism had sought a state that would only enforce contracts and suppress militant opponents of capital, but otherwise the market would rule. Yet, in 2008 the capitalist financial system could only be saved by the state, in the US, but particularly in Britain.

The rise in the proactive state in both West and East has proved the weakness of the world’s other form of state formation, the confederal system of the European Union. The financial crisis has shown that it is the state, not pan-European structures, that has the power to decide and intervene; thus the future of Europe will be more determined in Berlin than in Brussels.

For me, the weakest part of the book is the conclusion where Callinicos argues that the solution to the world's woes is the complete abolition of the market in favour of planning directed through workers’ councils, even if he does admit, citing Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, of some gradualism after the working-class has seized political power. In such a slender volume Callinicos does not have the space to back-up his argument and his conclusion appears more like a piece of propaganda. And while I don’t in principle oppose the outcome Callinicos wants, I think his binary choice - crisis capitalism or rule by workers’ councils - simplistic and unrealistic for people today.

That said, I think the book is well worth reading and learning from.

CALLINICOS, Alex, Bonfire of Illusions, Polity Press 2009.


1 May 2012

Exeter Labour Briefing 1983-84

Exeter Labour Briefing, a magazine published by a group of mainly young people in the mid 1980s, was the first step in a socialist project in the south-west of England.

The evenings were already drawing in when in September 1981 two second-year university students huddled around a cheap radio set in their room in a shared house. Both were anxious to hear the outcome of the first item of business of the Labour Party Conference of that year: namely the election of the deputy leader of the Labour Party. For the first time in Labour Party history, instead of Labour MPs alone electing the leader and deputy, the newly created electoral college, which opened the vote to the constituency parties and trade unions, would decide the outcome. The result was read out by a party official: the right-winger, Denis Healey, had defeated Tony Benn for the position by a whisker of less than one percent of the votes. I felt the pain like a punch in the face.

Joining the Labour Party

I had joined the University Labour Club the year before and found it politically ineffective. Unusually for the early 1980s, the club was led by Labour right-wingers who harboured a bitter knee-jerk dislike of everything vaguely progressive from CND to public ownership. Their idea of student political activity was skittle matches with the Liberals and afternoon tea with the Tories. They, and there were only two or three of them, retained control of the club solely because they were unchallenged. Taking power away from this small clique proved as easy as cutting through warm butter with a knife: four or five of us organised a motion of no-confidence; they were out; and we were in. I became the club secretary.

Student politics itself was of little interest to me. However that did not mean students were of no importance: they could become political activists and articulate socialist ideas both among and outside the student body. In the autumn of 1981, the target of my interest became the Labour Party itself. Inside the University Labour Club little was known about its politics, though we knew the Exeter Party had supported Benn against Healey in the deputy leadership contest.

Joining the Party proved technically more difficult than I had imagined. From a leaflet I found the address of the HQ and went off in search of 26 Clifton Hill. Unfortunately, there was also a Clifton Road nearby to distract me and number 26 turned out to be an ordinary terraced house. In the end I wrote a letter to the address on the leaflet, and a month or so later the membership secretary of the Pennsylvania/St. Davids branch turned up at my student house. After a further wait while my membership was approved by the branch and the Exeter GMC (General Management Committee) I was given my first party card which in those days still carried a red flag rather than a red rose.

The university itself, plus much of the student and staff residential quarter of Exeter, was in the Pennsylvania/St. Davids ward of the town. For this reason the branch was one of the largest and most vocal in Exeter, although its Labour vote was amongst the lowest. The SDP faction had already left, and the branch, consisting disproportionally of university employees, was in the process of moving its meetings from the houses of a clique of middle class party members to the party headquarters in Clifton Hill. The view of the leadership of the branch was clear: the movement to the left in the past had been justified, but now it was time to stabilise and if necessary move to the right tactically, if not in principle.

My second or third branch meeting was held in the faded grandeur of the Mardon Hall of residence at the university. It was here that I made my first intervention in Labour Party politics. I agreed to second a motion calling for Labour, in the event of no party having overall control in the May 1984 municipal elections, not to form a coalition with the Liberals. The right-wing moved a successful amendment to replace the words “will not form a coalition” with “has no intention of...” And of course when the council was hung, they did indeed form not a coalition but a working arrangement with the Liberals.

As a Labour Party member, I was now able to occupy one of the two places on the GMC allotted to the University Labour Club; hitherto these seats had gone unfilled. Strangely, I had entertained the idea that the members of the GMC would sit around a table, debate matters of political importance and listen to one another. I expected local and administrative matters to be discussed, but that these issues would be tied into national political narratives. I was in for a shock: delegates sat slumped around the inside of a Nissan hut, several the worse for drink. The meeting consisted mainly of endless unstructured and often incoherent reports of what had been said at city and county council meetings and what had been going on in the branches and in the executive committee. Exchanges between delegates were mindlessly aggressive, particularly so given that it was often hard to discern any coherent political differences between the speakers. Within minutes of watching this shambles I saw the limitations of trying to promote left-wing politics there and of course I largely lost respect for Exeter Labour Party as an institution.

Nonetheless this configuration of people and of attitudes was the reality of the Labour Party in Exeter, and I was there to learn how it worked. Though there were a number of miscellaneous characters and people who straddled both sides in their sympathies, it was not hard to discern two factions. One was what we would refer to today as ‘old Labour;’ local working-class people, often connected to the trains and buses, for whom the Labour Party meant advancing the well-being and status of just that group. And second, middle class people, usually connected to education and the public sector, who were either associated with various causes (e.g. nuclear disarmament) or just saw themselves as charity workers for the less well-off. The number of people who could be classified as left-wing socialists could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

My political thinking in the early 1980s

I should now pause and sketch in the political analysis which I held in the early 1980s, which then seemed reasonable, but was later shown by events to be in part mistaken. Like everybody else at the time, and rightly so, I saw the coming into office of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory Party in 1979 as marking a profound shift in the direction of British society. Thatcherism, heralding in an age of market fundamentalism and re-consolidation of capitalist power, signalled the end of the years of political consensus which had prevailed in Britain since the Second World War. Monetarist policies, cuts in public expenditure, attacks on the trade unions and local councils were leading to increasing social inequality, poverty, mass unemployment and a sharpening of class conflict.

I was mistaken in believing that two, and only two, alternatives lay ahead. One possibility was that the socio-economic conditions of the early eighties would be a permanent fixture of British society, with ever increasing class and political polarisation. Or, in the alternative, the Labour Party would change itself into an instrument of socialist transformation, win office and then in a mass popular struggle abolish capitalism. Obviously, I hoped for the latter over the former and wanted to be part of the new socialist politics. But if recession Thatcherism were to be a permanent feature of life, then I would play my part in working class politics and the counter culture of the age. It never occurred to me at the time that an upswing in capitalism was possible, and that neo-liberal capitalist development would transform the working class and then propel Labour Party politics away from socialism.

The consequence of holding these views was that I regarded the majority of the existing currents of opinion in the Labour Party as irrelevant anachronisms and impediments to progress. The working-class trade union Labourites, symbolised in Exeter by Chester Long leader of railwayman’s trade union, harked back to an era when the working man was treated with privileged indulgence. Market fundamentalism and political Thatcherism would throw him and his ilk off their high horses as indeed they actually did. Equally irrelevant in this period of intensified class struggle were the middle-class social ameliorators who saw Labour as a polite pressure group for good causes. That was how I saw things at the time; and being in possession of this analysis, of course, led to the inevitability of conflict within Exeter Labour Party. And being twenty years old I was not prepared to soft peddle.

The birth of Exeter Labour Briefing

The origin of Exeter Labour Briefing came out of a very simple event which proved to me that the struggle within the Labour Party had to conducted at least in part outside its official organs. The new chairman of the branch was an affable politics lecturer from the right of the party who was regarded as somewhat politically naive. His proposal on taking the chair was the establishment of a branch newsletter, a suggestion which was unanimously adopted. Without any complaint form him, I put in a small piece arguing that the party should move leftwards. What I hadn’t predicted was the censorious reaction.

Freedom of debate was not appreciated. The reaction against my piece at the next branch meeting threw up two pseudo-arguments which would be repeated again and again by Exeter Labour Party throughout the whole Briefing saga: first, that people, in this case party members, might confuse my arguments for Labour Party policy; and second, that the existence of differences of opinion would divide and confuse. Since restrictive and illiberal policies such as this made any internal opposition in the Exeter Labour Party impossible, the only option was to establish a journal outside the Party structures. That this journal would run into problems with the Exeter Labour Party leadership was of course inevitable, however much some of the founders of Briefing wanted to avoid this outcome. Yet, the situation in Exeter was a strange one. Admittedly, throughout Britain in 1982-83 the march to the left was being halted and made to retreat, but publication bans on party members, particularly when the people involved were unassociated with Trotskyist groups, was rare, if not unknown.

In the early summer of 1983 my last university examination was behind me and I was a free man with time on my hands. In July the first issue of Exeter Labour Briefing appeared. Initially we were four: myself, a university friend, the membership secretary from our local Labour Party branch who worked as software developer and finally a teacher from the technical college. Within a few months, the other three had left Exeter, but it is worthwhile looking at the politics behind the first issue which appeared in July 1983.

Several issues had to be sorted out early on. First, it was decided that we were setting up, not a political faction, but a discussion magazine for which any Labour Party member could write. In practice, that meant little: we didn’t expect contributions from our opponents and the distinction between acting as a faction and as producers of a publication was more theoretical than real. The second issue was the name. We adopted the name Labour Briefing, not because we had any connection with the London magazine of that name, but because we wanted to talk to the Labour Party from inside the Labour Party. Later we developed a partnership with London Labour Briefing, but it was never a relationship of dependency. Thirdly, and this was the most hotly disputed issue, we had to decide whether to sell the magazine to the public or somehow restrict it to party members. The first issue published in July 1983 was theoretically limited to party members only, but later this rather limiting and unrealistic policy was abandoned.

Managing Exeter Labour Briefing on Welfare

My personal situation changed in the summer of 1983. In September, no longer a student, I moved into a bedsit and the main source of my income became welfare benefits. The outlook for Briefing appeared grim as my three associates left Exeter one by one. Yet two sources of recruitment remained. The first was the University Labour Club now under the control of three left-wing mature postgraduate students who played some role themselves, but also encouraged Club members to involve themselves in Briefing. The second was the the pool of unemployed university leavers who remained in Exeter with time on their hands. Most were angry that recession Thatcherism had robbed them of an opportunity to work and loathed the narrow-mindedness and cultural debasement of Tebbit-ridden Toryism. The Thatcher regime was only four years old and they did not believe it would entrench itself for a generation. Instead, they believed something more radical and principled than the Labour Party establishment of Denis Healey was both necessary and possible. Briefing was something local and practical to give expression to those feelings.

One immediate need of every political project then as now was funding. In those pre-internet days, it was not even possible to publish anything without access to funds for typewriters, typewriter cartridges and print shops. All required money as did the hire of rooms, usually above pubs, to hold meetings. Smaller meetings among comrades who were friends could be accommodated in bedsits.

As nobody was going to fund us, we had little choice but to finance the project ourselves. And given that nearly everyone lived from dole money or on a student grant, the task was not easy. I purchased a small brown paper cash book, which soon became known as the "shit-coloured book," and gave everyone a page. It was basically a means of taxation: each Briefing supporter was given a weekly sum based on his or her income, ranging from some thirty pence to two pounds. Throughout the week I did the rounds to bring in the money and deposited it in our account at the Cooperative Bank on the High Street.

Initially I had thought that my taxation rounds would prove unpopular, but the opposite turned out to be the case. The politically induced recession of the early eighties hadn’t just cut through England’s manufacturing north, but had also sharply diminished the number of graduate employment opportunities across the land. There was thus an inflated pool of discontented educated youth who were either unemployed or on the verge of it. Market fundamentalism as an ideology was far from entrenched and many believed in the possibility of change. Briefing, based on the educated young, had a strong minority appeal, and more people than I had thought possible wanted to discuss politics with me and hand over small quantities of money.

The biggest difficulty was not tapping into the pool of support but activating it into participation in Exeter Labour Party. The whole ambiance of the Labour Party in Exeter was undoubtedly depressing and made worse by the barrage of insults that met the young who did participate. Among the most vindictive was that coined, or at least most often deployed, by the Exeter party’s only employee, Dorothy Parker, that “these are just transitory people” - with the implication that the young and unemployed constituted some sort of Untermensch. The reaction tended to produce one of two responses: the young person wanted nothing further to do with Exeter Labour Party - and many in the party were happy with that result. Or a relationship of hate developed and he or she threw everything into Briefing. That latter reaction was the basis of our strength.

Poverty of itself does not produce virtue; and only discipline and a sense of purpose can overcome the debilitating effects of the cold in winter, poor diet and exclusion from much of normal life. Why I was motivated enough to put in fourteen-hour days to what amounted to voluntary work remains a mystery to me even a quarter of a century later. At around ten my typical day started with a journey to Exeter University Library. Though I was no longer a student, I had no practical difficulty in getting in and was able to continue my studies in academic Marxism and much else in peace. In the late afternoon I visited comrades around the town raising funds, collecting articles and selling the publication; and most evenings there were meetings: of the Labour Party, Briefing itself or of associated groups, e.g. CND. For some reason the massive job of assembling Briefing for the press was always done through the night.

My own control of my limited money was crucial to my survival. My normal social security income was some twenty-seven pounds a week. I budgeted for two pounds a day with nearly all of that being spent on food, mostly vegetables and bread - and on those days when I had the money, a small piece of cheese and a chocolate bar. I spent nothing on heating or travel: I walked or hitched. Curiously enough I never bought second-hand clothes, so they were either in tatters or very occasionally new. The remainder was spent on political activity or saved.

Among us there was a camaraderie, mostly male, but not exclusively so. The women were either in relationships or more often were the partners of male activists. One girl, though, remained singularly aloof from the crowd. When and how she joined Briefing now escapes my memory. She lived alone in the most spartan of bedsits; her bed, covered with rags, took up most of the tiny room and on a small scratched and stained chest-of-drawers was some bread and a piece of cheese. She was different from the rest of us: she had been privately educated and was only eighteen years old. Seen as taciturn and as hard as nails, she fitted in with difficulty; and were I not entrusted with collecting her subs, I too might have passed her by. Yet sitting next to her that day on her bed, for there were no chairs in the room, I sensed that behind her intense penetrating green eyes, a gentleness.

A clear choice faced me: either try to learn something about her or else take the money and simply leave. I chose to listen to her and slowly she opened up. She had found the company of her overbearing mother intolerable and had chosen instead the poverty of bedsit land. Entitled to next to nothing on social welfare, she lived a hand-to-mouth existence utterly and completely alone. I too was alone. My arms went round her thin body and I kissed her. Her eyes continued to stare unmoved with a depth of pain that I could not reach. We moved apart and continued to talk, cordially and even in friendship, but with no intimacy.

Opinions within Exeter Labour Briefing

Briefing was never a monolithic body of people. Differences ran through the group: militant reformism commanded a majority, but there were attachments to other sets of ideas too. I will consider the three most important here: radical feminism, Trotskyism and anarchism.

Briefing had been set up by men, and it was unlikely in that age and in that milieu that women would have started the project. Nonetheless a significant minority of Briefing supporters were female, though they were never numerous enough to take control of the Exeter Labour Party’s women’s council even when it lay there for the taking. Most of the female supporters described themselves as feminists and most of the men supported them in most of their demands. Yet there was a clear dividing line between what can be defined as socialist feminism and fundamentalist feminism. The former focused on those processes in society, the Labour party and Briefing itself which discriminated against women. So in the spirit of the time, language was changed so as not to carry sexist connotations, thus the chairman was always a chairperson. Positive discrimination to boost the representation of women in leading positions was also supported; and the principle of the separate organisation of women, in addition to their general participation, was also endorsed. For the early 1980s Briefing was undoubtedly more progressive on feminist issues than the Exeter Labour Party, a situation which was unanimously applauded within the Briefing group.

A minority though was influenced by a fundamentalist feminism which saw the source of female disadvantage not in society in the fist instance, but in the sexuality of men. Male sexuality, the act of penetration in particular, was responsible for creating patriarchal power structures, detrimental to the interests of women. At its most extreme the organised political meeting and reasoned argument were seen as patriarchal inventions which should be abolished. This kind of dysfunctional political nihilism had much in common with the anarchism which I discuss below.

Trotskyism, curiously enough, did not impinge much on Briefing. In its manifestation in 1980s Britain, Trotskyism was associated with small groups of people, predominantly male, who shared a political analysis which all members of the group were required to propagate. Though Trotskyist groups differed on whether to participate in the Labour Party, and if they did for what purpose, they all maintained three unshakable positions: first the imposition of political uniformity on their members (democratic centralism); second, that only a disciplined party like themselves could lead the working class to socialism; and third, that the transition to socialism would require the forceful overthrow of the existing regime in Britain. These almost apocalyptic and religious-like views made them incomprehensible to most inside Exeter Labour Party, making them an exotic irrelevance.

Two Trotskyite groups had a marginal influence in Exeter. Inside the Labour party there were a handful of Militant Tendency supporters who might well have been the target for disciplinary action, had it not been for the presence of Briefing. We had very little dealings with this moronic collection of people, except in the sense that from time to time we found ourselves voting the same way. A branch of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party also existed in Exeter; for the most part they were concerned with their own internal debates, though later several of the activists in the WRP joined the Briefing group, but not the Labour Party. Trotskyism at best provided people with whom we could discuss politics and were important in that sense; or at worst they were irrelevant to everything that Briefing was doing.

At least Trotskyism, even if its adepts worked towards a totally unrealistic political agenda, could, in so far as they were involved the Labour Party, work to bolster the position of the left. That could not be said of the anarchist contingent who saw politics entirely differently. The guiding thread of many anarchists in Exeter was that the correct response to recession Thatcherism was to undermine, and if possible destroy, all political organisations by actions which were often illegal and usually anti-social. The only freedom worth having in their view was within a space created outside the law and routines of established society; decisions inside this disorderly collection of people were theoretically made by consensus in informal structures, but were in fact the dictats of a few charismatic and seemingly mentally ill people.

As a serious political programme ideas of this kind were an utter nonsense. However more than radical feminism or Trotskyism, anarchist sentiments were problematic for Briefing for two reasons. First a few of Exeter’s anarchists involved themselves in the Labour Party for a short while, but far more dangerously many anarchist ideas had a resonance inside the Briefing group among otherwise intelligent people.

Briefing’s association with anarchism acquired farcical dimensions in the so-called ceremonial chair incident. An ornate wooden ceremonial chair (The Freddie Tarr chair) adorned the main committee room at Clifton Hill and its allusion to authority had angered some of the Young Socialists who met once a month in the room. We were one of the few branches of the Young Socialists in those years not controlled by the Trotskyite Militant Tendency. The branch supported Briefing and sent two Briefing supporters to the GMC; I was chairman of Young Socialists but avoided sitting in the ceremonial chair.

After one meeting I was asked by a couple of people on the periphery of Briefing for the key to room as, they claimed, a pullover had been left in the room. Only after the key had been handed back did I realise something didn’t ring true. On returning to the meeting room I discovered that the chair had been removed.

My first thought was to separate myself and Briefing people from this incident. Quite obviously an expulsion from the party based on theft of party property would rest on sound ground; and indeed getting us expelled was precisely what the anarchists wished to bring about. I immediately reported the incident to the party leadership, who in turn notified the police. Although I refused to answer any police questions, I was nonetheless branded by the anarchists, and to some extent by the their sympathisers inside the Briefing group, as a police informer and scab. Though these attacks left me somewhat vulnerable for a while, in the end result was positive as clear water was created between us and the anarchist contingent.

Matters took an even more absurd development as it then turned out that the whole theft had been witnessed by a right-wing member of the General Management Committee. Immediately opposite the Labour Party headquarters in Clifton Hill was a town park. Unknown to me the park was a meeting place for gay men, and apparently this party member had been in a bush when the chair was unceremoniously dragged into the park before being taken away in a van. What actually happened to the chair is not clear; several anecdotal accounts speak of it being religiously burnt by the anarchist fraternity.

The incident ended with me being summoned to the Executive Committee, but on this occasion I was on the leadership’s side. Strangely, the committee members did not see the theft of the chair as seriously as I did. In my petty-bourgeois thinking the mindless theft and destruction of the property of another was an unforgivable sin, even if it belonged to Exeter Labour Party. For many on the executive it was a piece of horseplay. Perhaps they hated me so much that they even started to identify with the anarchists.

Avoiding violence

It is a tribute to both both Briefing and Exeter Labour Party that in the whole conflict not a single punch was ever thrown. Yet the hatred was such that violence always lay suppressed just below the surface. One associate of Briefing, who involved himself in the group but not in the Exeter Party on the grounds that he was active in another constituency Labour Party, once approached me with a novel proposition. He offered, if I thought it helpful, to put one particular member of the Exeter Labour Party in hospital for a while. He was not joking because I had witnessed his tactics being used elsewhere and I hated them, not just on the grounds of a moral prohibition against initiating violence, but in a belief that the end doesn’t so much justify the means, rather the end becomes contaminated by a rotten means. Declining his offer was not so much a self-sacrifice, but done in recognition that, even if I had supported violence, I could never have carried a majority of Briefing with me. Had our opponents ever used violence against us, no doubt the situation would have changed, but fortunately they never did.

The open structure of Briefing meant that these different strands of opinion discussed above could easily be accommodated. I never even thought of censoring different views but supported their articulation into articles in Briefing. In any event we could always out-write them. Typing and compiling Briefing was hard work and it tended to fall to me and a couple of other people to do the work. Most Briefing meetings were discussion groups which aired views but did not have to reach decisions. The only Briefing meetings which did have to come to clear conclusions were the pre-meeting meetings. These need explaining.

Working inside Exeter Labour Party

Soon after Briefing grew from a couple of people, it became obvious that some form of Briefing pre-meeting was required before branch and GMC meetings. Many Briefing supporters were young and politically inexperienced, so the bullying and bureaucratic procedures of the Labour Party were baffling and intimidating. Several functions were served by meeting up in a pub beforehand. We could discuss the issues and structure of the meeting on our own first, so people didn’t go in blind. We could check that everybody was there; a pre-meeting drink was quite an incentive to turn up. Also we could distribute our interventions in the meeting between us. As there were always some neutrals in meeting, we found it helpful not to be so obviously functioning as a group because individual arguments, rather than group chorus, were more effective in bringing neutrals over to our point of view.

As an organised force Briefing hit raw nerves in Exeter Labour Party and violated their comfort zones. Anger against us intensified as time went on. The intention of the right-wing was simple stop Briefing from publishing and/or rid the party of these irritating new young activists. In the early summer of 1984 the GMC asked the Executive to investigate Briefing and I and a third year university student were ‘summoned’ to the Executive Committee. Ours were two of the named editors of the magazine; the others had already left Exeter. The main accusation against us was that Exeter Labour Briefing could be confused as a Labour Party publication.

The official charge against us was plain silly. But when an organisation has insisted on an ‘official truth,’ the more absurd the belief, the more it is clung to. The truth was that not even a moron in hurry could have muddled Exeter Labour Briefing with an official Labour Party publication; it carried no Labour Party emblem and it spoke to not for the Labour Party. Yet, this absurd accusation also provided an escape route for us if we wanted it: if the name were changed, then the leadership of Exeter Labour Party would surely have no objection to it. And that was precisely what happened: we changed the name to Devon Labour Briefing.

The compromise of changing the name divided the leadership of Exeter Labour Party. One group led by Chester Long shouted loudly that the name was the never the issue, but it had only been adopted as a stick to beat us with. He wanted to proceed with expulsion whether we changed the name or not. A majority, though, were unhappy to take the heavy step of expulsion and saw the expulsion threat as an attempt to silence us, not take away our party cards. Long’s hand was also weakened by something else. While the issue was dragging on, Tony Benn from the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party had written to the leaders in Exeter stating with certainty that in his opinion were Exeter to proceed with an expulsion the national party would overturn it. And indeed in 1984 they would have done.

Changing the name also divided Briefing. Some argued, wrongly as it turned out, that defusing the conflict by changing the name would bring on board much of the supposed centre ground of the party. Others, including myself, felt we would avoid expulsion even if we kept the same name and if the dispute went up to London our profile would be enhanced. At the end of a packed sardine-can bedsit meeting, two decisions were made. One was to change the name of the publication to Devon Labour Briefing. The other was an obscure issue: to change the editorial from issue to issue rather than repeatedly reprinting the same political statement. On both issues I was part of the minority.

On that note Exeter Labour Briefing came to an end in the summer of 1984, merely a year after its launch. Altogether, it produced a mere five cheaply printed issues, but brought into existence a movement of people in one town in the south-west of England. Within the decade, Briefing in Exeter would fail and disappear, but first reincarnated as Devon Labour Briefing it would experience expansion beyond students and the young unemployed. It would contain more pages, involve more activists and have more money; two more expulsion attempts would be launched against its editors and writers. Yet the core of its political analysis would remain fundamentally unchanged as it first expanded and then fell apart.


2 April 2012

Adverbs and Adverbials

Adverbs are the most complicated part of speech to understand. All adverbs and adverbials modify other elements in sentences.

Adverbs and adverbials

Adverbs and adverbials are essentially the same thing. We use the term adverbial when referring to a group of words and adverb when talking about a single word. E.g.,

Yesterday, we saw Helen. ADVERB
The day before, we saw Helen. ADVERBIAL

In this text I shall use adverbial to cover both adverbs and adverbials.

Defining an adverbial

In grammar an adverbial is word or group of words (phrase, clause) which modifies or tells us something about the sentence, the verb, adjectives, prepositions or other adverbials. Look at the examples below:

Danny speaks well. (telling us more about the verb)
She is quite stupid. (telling us more about the adjective stupid)

Two levels of adverbials

Adverbials operate at two levels: those that are a sentence element, as in the example below:

Lorna ate breakfast yesterday. (SUBJECT + VERB + OBJECT + ADVERBIAL)

and those that are contained within sentence elements, as in the following example,

A very tall man entered the shop. (SUBJECT + VERB + OBJECT)

In the above example the adverbial is contained within the subject.

Types of adverbials which form sentence elements

Adverbials which form a sentence element in their own right fall into four classes

(i) adverbial complements: these are adverbials that render a sentence ungrammatical and meaningless if removed, e.g.

John is in the park.

(ii) adverbial adjuncts: these are part of the core meaning of the sentence, but if omitted still leave a meaningful sentence, e.g.

John helped me with my homework.

(iii) adverbial conjuncts: these link two sentences together.

John helped me. I was, therefore, able to do my homework.

(iv) adverbial disjuncts: these make comments on the of the meaning of the rest of the sentence.

Surprisingly, he passed all of his exams.

Types of adverbials which are within sentence elements

Adverbials within sentence elements fall into four classes:

(i) verb modifying:

He jumped up. (within the verb phrase)

(ii) adjective modifying:

A very heavy bag. (within a noun phrase)
He is rather ill. (within a predicate)

(iii) adverb modifying:

She ate her food exceedingly quickly. (within a sentence adverbial)

(iv) preposition modifying:

She sat very near the door. (within a sentence adverbial)


1 April 2012

A Police State?

Is Britain a police state? Well it depends what you mean by police state.

Britain has a vast and growing web of laws to restrict individual freedom and action by civic organisations. State surveillance is mushrooming. Police and other law enforcement agencies are inadequately held to account by political and judicial authorities, and within limits enjoy almost a free hand. Imprisonment and other sanctions are often unduly severe.

While Britain falls short of the standards expected in a liberal democracy, it is not a police state. First, it is still possible to form organisations and ‘speak out’ as my posting of this comment shows; and neither are the courts or political authorities under police control.

It’s better to use language carefully because when we actually live in a police state we will have cried wolf. Using the expression "police state" to describe what exists today devalues language. That may be no comfort to the increasing list of victims of state repression. Yet facts and emotions are separate things.


27 March 2012

Twitter criminals: useful idiots

The prosecution of writers of racial and gratuitously offensive comments is a cover for the British state in its attempt to stiffle free expression on the web.

At a moral level it is utterly impossible to defend people who gratuitously insult others – and make matters worse by adding racist abuse. For that reason many progressive people will remain silent when idiots like Liam Stacey are jailed for doing just that.

Yet we should stop and raise two issues: one a matter of principle, the other of policy.

As a matter of principle, no-one should face legal sanction merely because s/he has said something offensive. If you harass somebody, threaten them, blackmail them etc., then, yes, you commit a legitimate crime. But merely expressing an opinion, however obnoxious, should not in itself be a crime. That is an essential ingredient of free speech.

Let us ask a question about state policy. Why is the state so pro-active in clamping down on Twitter insults, when it cares so little about the economic well-being or political liberties of ordinary people in general?

It is far more credible to think that what motivates this kind of prosecution and the imposition of disproportionate punishment is a state strategy of intimidating free expression on the net. The claim to be fighting racism is the pretext.

Nothing makes that point more clearly than a case which came to light just as Stacey began his prison sentence; London police officers were recorded racially abusing a black suspect, yet the IPCC and CPS have dragged their feet and have so far declined to prosecute. The contrast with Stacey’s case could not be starker.(see details)

Twitter and similar technologies are highly effective means of communication for ordinary people, but they are also excellently tailored for state surveillance and manipulation of all who use them.

2 March 2012

Fermina Marquez by Valery Larbaud

This strange romantic book is the product of a fantasy from a previous age.

The book is set at the turn of the century in a strict but liberal French school largely made up of international students. The boys become fixated on a South American girl who is staying in the area with her aunt and younger sister because her younger brother is at the school.

The protagonist sets out to win the girls affections through his intellectual prowess, but his intellectual arrogance loses her. While he holds himself in such high regard both she and reader sees his idiotic pomposity. Interwoven into the text is a comment on social class: the aristocratic girl and the lower middle class boy.

This book is probably worth reading once and then forgetting.

LARBAUD, Valery - Fermina Marquez, Quartet 1988


1 March 2012

The Ultimate Intimacy

Ivan Klima’s book rises above its setting in 1990s Prague to embrace universal questions of life and moral existence.

My favourite contemporary writer is Ivan Klima, and his latest book, The Ultimate Intimacy" (387 pages) brings into sharp focus all the themes that he has developed in his work: moral choice, emotional confusion and lives constructed in given social environments. The book is a long read consisting of narrative, diary excerpts and letters, but, despite several side plots, always homes in on the central character, the protestant pastor, Daniel Vedra, who can only find intimacy in adulterous love. In a theme, much appealing to me, Vedra moves away from his religious beliefs. In a final letter to his lover, Bara, he writes:

"I told you and others that God's love will redeem us, but I think I was wrong. I don't think there is anyone who would one day judge our faults, forgive us and give us absolution. There is no higher justice than our own. Nothing lasts forever, except forgetting maybe."

In the same letter he reflects on what remains of his previous religious conviction.

"Maybe just the conviction that love is the greatest thing we can encounter in life and the most important thing we may strive for. I'm talking about human love; if God's love doesn’t exist then only the human sort remains: fleeting and imperfect."

While the book is set in a Czech setting and some familiarisation with background events is helpful, the meaning of this book is much greater than any comment on Czech society post Velvet Revolution.

KLIMA, Ivan - The Ultimate Intimacy, Granta 1998.

23 February 2012

The death of city centres in Britain

The death of town centres in Britain is gathering pace.

Across Britain, at least outside the centre of London, town centres are dying as commercial locations. The number of empty shops is around 6% in the richer south, but 40% in some of the ex-industrial cities of the north.

The causes are several. The financial crisis has reduced the spending power of all social classes, but particularly that of the poorest. In addition, there has been the growth of out-of-town shopping centres and an increase of shopping on-line. For city centres a vicious circle results: fewer city centre shops, fewer potential customers and vice versa.

As a result, in many parts of the centre of cities are becoming new slums consisting of boarded-up shops over and around which are found decrepit flats and rooms rented to the unemployed. The out-of-town shopping centres – often only easily accessible by private transport – provide only commercial wares. There are no public spaces here and permission to enter is in the hands of the shop owners.

The abuse and loss of public space is a loss for democracy, liberty and equality.