28 March 2016

Adam Johnson: Punophilia and Sex Crime in Britain

In March 2016, professional footballer, Adam Johnson, was sentenced to six years incarceration for sex-texting, snogging and touching up a fifteen year old girl.

I care nothing for football, nor for men like Adam Johnson. The core facts of his case are clear: a fifteen year old girl showed herself sexually interested in the professional footballer, and, rather than turning away, Johnson sex-texted her, snogged her and touched her up in his car. The age of sexual consent in Britain, not unreasonably, is sixteen, so what Johnson did was rightly a crime.

The issue in this article is not his guilt but his punishment. Sentencing Johnson to six years inside - a sentence normally awarded to robbers and rapists - reflects moral outrage, not justice or sense.

I have no desire to see the girl punished in any way, but the issue remains: if what happened is so serious, why is Johnson the only one responsible? Had the girl, instead, gone shoplifting - or committed any other crime - she was well within the age of criminal responsibility. Yet, in her illegal relations with Johnson, she is automatically constructed as a victim, a mere passive agent without responsibility.

Much of the establishment hullabaloo around the case is formulaic. For instance, reports were submitted to the court about the psychological harm that Johnson had done to the girl. Johnson may indeed have caused the described harm, but we cannot know for sure because it is unimaginable that a social service report would ever have concluded that no damage resulted from the affair. I suspect the psychological impact on her was little different from what she would have felt had she been some months older and over the age of consent. But the greatest psychological harm - we can be sure - resulted from the case being heard in open court: her anonymity was breached and she became (quite wrongly) an object of abuse from some quarters.

Why is the case interpreted and framed in these terms? Where does the moral panic demanding draconian punishment come from?

The leading reason is obviously the horrors of the sexual crimes committed by Jimmy Savile. Savile is dead and cannot be held to account, but prosecutors and courts can find male celebrities today who have had sexual relations with fifteen year old girls and punish them severely. That urge to punish is further driven by some feminists, aware of the cruel “career-or-start-a-family” dilemma, whose anger focuses, not on the structures of capitalism that throw up that problem, but on the ability of adult men to cheat on their partners in favour of younger women.

Nothing written here is intended to exonerate Johnson. But as this case came to trial, it is a pity that it couldn’t be dealt with privately, something both Johnson and the girl would have benefited from. A fine, community work and attendance on a sexual offences awareness course would have been suitable for Johnson. Six years of incarceration, the probable ban from professional football and the near total destruction of his life would not have been called for.

Sexual offences should not be brushed under the carpet. But the Johnson case did not involve a major crime, if only because, had the girl been some months older, no crime would have been committed - whatever one thinks of the morality of the man's behaviour. His excessive punishment - the mob's punophilia, the love of punishment - merely shows that Britain is in the grip of a moral panic regarding under-age sex crime.

23 March 2016

Facebook: posting links is no substitute for analysis

Facebook does provide a channel for political communication, but those who merely post links to online material are not providing the necessary analysis.

From the 1980s I recall an elderly left-wing gentleman, who raged against all forms of social injustice, with a particular emphasis on the betrayal of socialism by the right-wing leaders of the Labour Party. To make his case, he pushed his bicycle around the town, cloth carrier-bags dangling from the handlebars, shoving annotated newspaper cuttings though the letterboxes of those left-wing activists who might read them.

If you met him you would certainly get an earful, but if you didn’t you had to piece together his views from reading other people’s. Were he alive today, I am sure he would be on Facebook, writing little, but posting links to articles. And sadly, that is the communicative capacity limit for many of my Facebook “friends,'”  just a stream of posts consisting of links to other material. They don’t write much themselves, so all I know about their political views is garnered from the links to articles which they suggest that I should read.

Well, what’s wrong with just posting links? True, good material on the net needs to be passed around. But anybody who thinks that he or she is enhancing his or her political analysis by this method is as deluded as a carpenter who thinks he is developing his chair-making skills by sitting on them and recommending them to others. It’s only when you pick up your pen – or today, open a Word document – that you develop the range and consistency of your own thinking.

The best way to learn is to get things wrong unintentionally. Make a slip and a friend will correct you in polemic; post a link to an article written by a professional journalist for another audience and most likely there will be no response. Just by re-posting other people's writing and by "liking," the gaps in your own thinking remain and the ability to articulate an idea or point never develops.

Even on the net people need to make themselves known as political personalities worthy of being listened to. A political activist needs a field of activity and interest; the information in the articles of professional journalists and academics needs to be digested, re-interpreted and re-focused according to local political need, not just re-posted.

15 March 2016

Dialectics Explained Simply

In Marxism the concept of dialectics is often complicated and mystified. It needs stating simply.

Dialectical theory describes and explains the development of systems which exist in the world. Here I will try to explain dialectics as a conceptual tool for understanding society.

What society is: a sketch map

To start, we have to answer another question: what is society? For Marxists – and indeed most other sociologists – society is conceived as a system made up of a complex network of interactive causes and effects. A change in any one element in the social system affects the others. For instance, a rise in unemployment causes an increase crime, which in turn changes the role of police, which has further effects, and so on.

If society is thought of as containing all the causes of change in society, then it follows that change originates from within the social system itself. In other words, at any given point, society contains within itself tensions and pressures (often called contradictions) which are the cause of social change. And when a new situation has established itself, there are yet again new tensions and pressures which lead to further social change, and so on.

A metaphor for understanding all of this is to see society as a huge piece of fungus, constantly changing over time because of developments from within.


The traditional explanation of dialectical change (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) is only a linguistic re-organisation of the points above. The argument is like this. Everything in a social system at any point in time is either a something (i.e. a thesis) or not that thing (i.e. its antitheses). As a result of the interaction of thesis and antithesis a new situation in society (i.e. synthesis) emerges for which the original thesis and antithesis have interacted and merged.

I think, however, that the theory of dialectics is better thought of as a summary or abstraction of the rules for understanding change in a social system. Dialectical analysis identifies pairs of social elements which co-exist, are dependent on one another and which interact with each other. Let us take an example.

Human beings and nature. We can clearly conceptualise everything that exists as either human beings or as nature minus human beings. We cannot imagine society without people, nor could we have a society without things (food, cupboards, water, etc). Nature affects us and we affect nature through building dams, houses, etc. Thus, it is said that the relationship between human beings and nature is dialectical.

Marxists in their analysis do not identify dialectical pairs (i.e. theses and antitheses) on an arbitrary basis, nor do they see the direction of historical change as entirely arbitrary or accidental, but what drives history forward is beyond the scope of this discussion.

To sum up, a dialectical analysis of society recognises that social change comes from tensions or pressures within the existing state of things. And when a new state of affairs has been created, then that too is subject to change for the same reason. When explained like this, dialectical theory can be seen as something which is almost certainly correct, but if not linked to other theories and observations, it is not very revealing.

Why dialectics is a dirty word

The theory of dialectics provides a number of valuable observations about the functioning of a any living system - be it the social system, or of the cosmos itself. But during the years of historical communism 1917-89, and particularly during the years of Joseph Stalin’s rule from the end of the 1920s till his death in 1953, dialectics was misused to explain and justify the decisions and dogmas of the Communist Parties in the World. After that the dialectical baby was thrown out with the Stalinist bathwater and people were reluctant to use the term.

In many instances, to avoid summoning up prejudice unnecessarily, the use of the term interaction will effectively substitute for dialectical; and, in addition, it is more easily understood. Of course they are not quite the same: dialectics implies a whole theory, whereas interaction merely means that X affects Y and vice versa.

1 March 2016

The End of Politics in Britain

It is always interesting to look back into the past and see how one predicted the future wrongly. This short comment was published in March 2008. In it I rightly sketched the meaninglessness for working people of the then New Labour administration, though I underestimated the extent to which Cameron in government from 2010, with the Liberal Democrats in tow (2010-2015), would further slash the remains of the welfare state in the midst of the 2008-1013 recession, the longest in the post-war period. And I utterly failed to foresee the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015.

Social inequality is sharpening, while political parties are converging.

This week has seen the opinion polls giving the Conservatives a sufficient lead over Labour for an overall majority in the 2010 general election. Across ‘Middle England’ - for whose supposed benefit New Labour was designed - Cameron’s freshness, rather than any great policy issue, seems to be the driving force behind the Tory surge. Little now divides Britain’s two leading parties: both want to commercialise everything, both are middle-class oriented and led, both are devoutly Atlantist. Over the next couple of years the cautious Brown, who for ever will be Blair’s grey deputy, will try to emulate Cameron, flog the New Labour agenda to death, and will probably fail in everything.

The last termination of a Labour administration was in 1979. That defeat gave rise to two voices. One was fundamentalist: "let’s make a socialist Labour Party worth fighting for;" the other was to urge ‘moderation and unity’ in the hope that the Tories would trip up and the pendulum would swing. But nobody would have said then that a change of government hardly mattered. What might follow Brown’s 2010 poll defeat?

The Labour left, of course, no longer exists. Labour’s formulaic denunciation of the new Tory government’s further assault on the less well-off will ring hollow after a decade and half of New Labourism. Unless new political lifeblood flows from somewhere, (e.g. Scottish independence and a new politics there?) then in Britain we are looking to a new political age characterised by a collapse of party politics in full-blown American style.