Hi tech, the hyper-meritocracy and the rest

A lot of people think that investment in hi-tech will get the world out of the economic doldrums. Under the current system of distributing wealth I very much doubt it. Recently I read an April 2014 edition Prospect article by John McDermott titled You’re next. Will technology make professional jobs redundant? (behind a paywall) which reminded me that not only do I doubt it but I expect the opposite. It reminded me to leave myself a note here about the several things I’ve come across recently which point most persuasively and ominously in this direction.

From the aforementioned McDermott:

“Behind the voguish discussion about technology is perhaps a more important trend: the declining share of income going to labour than capital. And without a political response, the type of technological change discussed by [techno-optimists] Brynjolfsson and McAfee would only further such a divergence.”

McDermott speculates that “new machine age continues to regard capital at the expense of labour”. Because of what I’ll euphemistically call a distribution problem, that capital is concentrated in the hands of a few. For this reason he doubts that education can address the inequalities inherent in a hyper-meritocracy – even with the indignity of ‘venture-philanthropy’. I was reminded of the My Teacher is an App episode I wrote about recently – the Waldorf school in silicon valley where the Google and Yahoo employees send their kids to keep those creative little minds far, far away from the operation of a computer.

I often argue with one of my closest work colleagues. I think that, because of the way this society is organised, computers will take away jobs from more humans than they create jobs for. He is skeptical. Here is a concrete example of my being right. April 2nd was Autism Awareness Day. I’ve twice been thrown into the company of a student at work I’m almost certain is on the spectrum, and I’ve become quite interested in what I understand his challenges to be (and many others – autism is one-in-a-hundred), so I listened to an RSA recording titled Autism at Work: Releasing Talent and Harnessing Creativity. From it I discovered that people with autism tend to be punctual, like routine, are content to do the repetitive tasks their colleagues dislike – and, in passing, that they are losing precisely those jobs to computerised labour. Most people with autism would like to be employed but, squeezed out by machines and misunderstandings, most are not.

Certainly Luddites were right about the problem of machines. Why is technology so attractive to employers that they would prefer to render vast tracts of their potential custom without the disposable income to actually buy their product? Humans, as variable capital, are unreliable. When they go wrong, the employer pays twice – once for their sustenance as workers (their food, fuel, shelter i.e. their wage) and once for their replacement while they take their compassionate leave, maternity, sickness, industrial dispute, resignation or whatever. Machines only need maintenance and phased replacement. Philosopher of education David Blacker devotes quite a lot of the early part of his book The Falling Rate of Learning (sorry, it’s Zero Books – I received it as a gift otherwise I would have hesitated because of at least one of Zero’s authors) to this matter. Citing the economist Tyler Cowen (as does John McDermott above – she must be worth reading. Oh. He’s not a she.) Blacker doubts that hi-tech can sustain education beyond a basic level.

“The trouble is that once those initial large productivity gains have been reaped, the return on the human capital investment levels off – perhaps to the point of unfeasibility. Ironically, while technological development made human universal education possible, those same technological developments and subsequent productivity increases render further education for the masses mostly a waste.”

But surely workers are needed to actually make and run the machines? And here it gets very dark, but very plausible, and I will quote at length (pp47-47 of the 2014 Kindle Edition),

“As the machines get better, however, by definition even a smaller percentage of the machine-maintainers are ultimately needed. This level of expensive educational investment simply does not “pay” with regard to most people, because more and more of us are not exactly needed for much of anything. No longer needed as workers, the domestic masses are needed as open mouths into which to force feed as much consumption as possible, an irrational strategy that purchases short-term overconsumption at the price of long-term underconsumption (due to the inevitable ensuing debt overload) and hence is defeating of its very purpose. Domestically at least, neoliberalism really needs consumers and otherwise neutralized types (e.g. the incarcerated) rather than the industrial era of capitalism’s skilled and semi-skilled labor. For the dirty little secret of the high tech economy is that, despite incessant boosterism to the contrary, it does not need widespread technical competence; most jobs in the high tech environment demand stultifying activities that require nothing beyond basic literacy – if that. … For every “high tech, high wage” worker enjoying a cool workplace at google.com, there are many, many more who are “enjoying” the inverse proportion between high tech and their job demands: the higher the tech, the dumber the worker can be and, ultimately, in the best case neoliberal scenario, phased out altogether where possible (via outsourcing and/ or further automation).”

But even though so many of the biggest companies in the world are involved in peddling consumables (Google is primarily an advertising company, for example) nobody thinks a consumer economy is a good idea. In Blacker’s world very few people get paid sufficiently to consume, so his expectation is that they will be allowed to perish. Which reminds me of the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which temporarily sobered up the establishment for a week or so.

In the book Blacker distinguishes between old kinds of capitalists – upstanding, patrician, enlightened sorts – and new, socially useless kinds who avoid paying tax and when faced with healthy competition, instead, blob-like, attempt to absorb their competitors. He mentions in passing that Henry Ford, one of the old kind, decided to pay his workers $5 per day to create a blue collar middle class which could afford to buy his cars. For the first time I thought of him fondly. Then a bum note crept in – could this even work in a profitable industry? Apparently not – I read a right-winger insisting that Ford paid over the going rate simply to retain a particularly skilled workforce which was very costly to replace at a time – 1913 – when demand for labour outstripped supply.

Not like now. Even if there is growth, it doesn’t have much of a chance to touch the majority of us.

Bonus links:

  • On BBC Radio 4′s The Bottom Line, 29th March, Evan Davies interviews a panel of entrepreneurs who service the super-rich. I found them craven, venal, and generally revolting, and I had the impression that they even embarrassed their host.
  • And spitting in the eye of that, The Austerity Delusion, a May 2013 talk at the RSA by political economist Mark Blyth, who in answer to an audience question points out that, no, the world’s richest can’t buy enough services to flush a stagnant economy – (also available as audio only – but if you don’t really grasp Ivy League economics you may need his slides).

 

 

 

Vote in the UCU elections or kiss your Ts&Cs goodbye. But not for UCU Left.

I figure that if you are a UCU member who hasn’t posted their ballot papers yet, you may be somebody who is considering not voting at all. The deadline is February 28th – if you want to use your 2nd class freepost envelope you need to move fast.

Here is the case for voting at all, followed by a caution against voting for UCU Left. This is far from the best case that could be made, because it relies on my assertions as a long-time member, observer at first hand, but ultimately a common or garden member far from the inner circles of the union. As such I have a few very simple principles: this union is weak; it is weak because it is small; more and more active members will not mean a worse union; the most important thing UCU can do is grow an active membership; UCU Left is antithetical to this.

First, why vote?

Basically it’s about whether you think higher education should belong to its citizens or to a few wealthy owners of corporations. Are we going to collectively give it away and then as individuals buy it back, or is it ours to apportion according to principles other than whether or not you are rich and confident or hard-up and debt-averse?

I’d say that just a few recent issues of the Times Higher Education Supplement – a solidly establishment publication – contain all the indications necessary to convince you that a trade union is a necessity for a healthy sector. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has just appointed Peter Houillon from the for-profit provider Kaplan to the board. Nick Hillman, the new director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and special advisor to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovations and Skills, explicitly acknowledges that the proportion of student loans will never be repaid is larger than the government estimated. HEPI always said that privatisation of undergraduate education was more likely to cost the state money than save it. The implication was that its largest change would be to reposition higher education from a public good to a private investment.

If you’re still feeling lucky, and therefore grateful to be working in higher education (and maybe slightly guilty about your good fortune?) then look a bit further into the future. It’s not about you, so much as it’s about the wellbeing of a workforce and a sector. It’s likely that there will be an attack on terms and conditions for all UK employees – we need to understand this erosion on our own behalves and campaign against it jointly. The privatisation of higher education doesn’t end at allowing commercial ventures like Kaplan to compete for students. Those like the outsourced cleaners of the 3cosas campaign will know that privatisation brings an intensified downward pressure on wages and conditions towards the statutory minimum. The statutory minimum itself is increasingly meagre, a victim of the social cuts agenda. Holidays, sick pay, flexible working, pensions, paid annual leave, hours worked – in fact all the things the labour movement won for all workers over the past 100 years or so – are likely to be strategically scaled back by university managers who, impossible to forget, awarded themselves up to 12% in pay rises this year.

Trade unionism shouldn’t be taken as an attempt to gain exemptions from austerity for one group of employees – it needs to be understood as a defence against austerity itself. What belonged to us all collectively has been, and continues to be, taken from us and given to private citizens with money already. Creeping privatisation looks just like this: funding university teaching through the highest fees of any public university system; outsourcing university services such as cleaning, back office functions, language teaching; performance related pay; the sale of student loans, startling inequality of pay within a workforce. And all this in the context of a massive, status-quo-sustaining bank bailout. I am very angry and if I could only understand this technocracy, I think I’d only be angrier.

Second, how to vote

Firstly stay alert. UCU Left candidates dominate the ballot papers. Who are UCU Left? The first thing to say is that the political right does not exist in any meaningful way in UCU. I cannot confirm this, but I’m fairly sure that Labour supporters are by far the majority in UCU. At any rate all the candidates are progressive. For this reason I think we should consider UCU Left as UCU far Left.

Think twice about UCU Left for the following reasons.

UCU Left passes union cash to Socialist Worker Party front organisations. UCU Left’s website doesn’t say who they are but we know they were initiated by the SWP, a small ferociously well-organised revolutionary group with a very poor reputation for democracy and minority rights, along with Respect, an alliance with SWP and Islamist origins fronted (if not actually led) by the End Violence Against Women’s Sexist of the Year, George Galloway MP. Look back through your branch minutes. If your branch resolved to donate your subs to Unite Against Fascism or the Stop the War Coaltion, then that’s where the money has gone. The SWP is murky about the overlap between its own membership and that of UCU Left, but it’s widely thought to be high. As I have tried to explain in an earlier post, Unite Against Fascism is not what it says on the tin. Stop the War Coalition is not anti-war but – invariablypartisan and its alliance with Islamist groups has made it tolerate homophobia, misogyny and antisemitism.  This organisation is a disgrace – but UCU Left tables and votes for motions to affiliate with it. How much have they stripped from our already meagre funds for this? I am not sure but I’ve witnessed motions for £250 or more. It may stretch to many thousands.

UCU Left is not transparent. I take for granted close political party involvement in trade unions. What I object to is that  Socialist Worker Party and Respect candidates don’t declare their interests – they aren’t open about their affiliations. It’s not that I want or expect unaffiliated officers or committee members – on the contrary, the expertise and encouragement that outside groups can give trade union reps is very sustaining. The trouble is that the SWP is so famously authoritarian that I assume (in the absence of the aforementioned transparency it has to be an assumption) that any of its candidates are firmly briefed and disciplined to represent the SWP, and if representing the SWP conflicts with the interests of UCU members I have no confidence that those UCU members’ interests would win out. This should be recognised as a conflict of interest – though I can’t see the SWP acknowledging any such thing.

UCU Left is scared of a strong active UCU membership. Why is turnout so low? Why are meetings so rarely quorate? And how come so many motions are passed anyway? Once they gain officer positions, they tend towards a highly didactic, polemic, rhetorical, top-table style of engagement with other members. You get the impression they are frightened of democracy. They seem to think the main job of members is to vote in a strong leadership and after that shut up and do what you’re told. Themselves comfortable in authoritarian settings, they more or less mirror management – if anything they are less enlightened. Non-officer members mutter that they feel talked down to, not consulted, uninvolved. Sometimes it seems as if the worst threat for UCU Left is that members might come together under their own steam, unsupervised. UCU Left goes to some lengths to disrupt these egalitarian gatherings. If they can’t disrupt them, they join in and gradually crowd out other members with their own contributions. This leaves a membership used to being fed propaganda, but unused to actual debates with other colleagues. Quite simply, UCU Left ideas are left untested in a distinctly unacademic way.

UCU Left repels potential and actual members. If you go to a meeting where UCU Left assume they are in a majority, it soon becomes apparent that they operate in a bubble. In their bubble non-left members don’t exist or are discouraged. So if you are not on the left, you’re probably at the bottom of the UCU Left priorities – solidarity will only be extended to you if UCU Left decides it is useful to do so. If you try to get involved to change their balance of power you will have to work all the harder. You are only welcome insofar as you pipe down, keep still, cough up, and let UCU Left objectify you into a member they can turn into a statistic, and count on to do what they say. They do not care about your kind – they want to occupy your union and enlist it, bodies and monies, into their political movement, and they aren’t keen to hear your opinion about it..

UCU Left gives us a “fighting union” in the wrong sense of the word. To the aforementioned authoritarianism, add aggression. The bizarre and singular campaign to boycott Israel – which affected me deeply – was national news and extremely divisive. This is very much a modus operandi for the SWP, which is notorious for splits and have legions of disaffected former members. Although it’s quiet on that front now, UCU Left members still create a nasty atmosphere. At a recent meeting an SWP member called fellow UCU NEC members whose views he opposes ‘bastards’. I didn’t like the aggressive language in several of the candidate statements. It is not taken seriously by the employers and it tips hatred of social stratification into hatred of individuals. My supposition that those were UCU Left candidates was correct.

To sum up

I don’t want to be in a sect and I don’t want to occupy an officer position in order to keep a UCU Left candidate out. I am grateful to individual UCU Left candidates for their hard work and dedication – particularly their casework. But this does not entitle them to rope their branches into campaigns which are not in UCU’s interests, or to suppose that they know better what is good for their members than the members themselves. I do want an inclusive, active trade union and that starts with representatives whose message to their members is “You can make a difference” rather than “Hear me and do as I say”.

So, in this Single Transferable Vote election who gets your votes? All the other candidates are progressive, so look at the descriptions and vote for people who say they are interested in recruiting, engaging, representing all members. Think twice or more about these candidates.

Gender segregation on campus – “taken over” by the far right?

Bob From Brockley has a recent piece on Mandela as a mirror. It’s about how disparate movements can opportunistically hitch up to a campaign, a cause, or sometimes a person. To add another example, we have Southall Black Sisters invoking Mandela’s anti-apartheid struggle at an event protesting gender segregation, and then we get Spiked with a piece on the hyperbole of calling segregation ‘apartheid’ and the event explodes into a kaleidoscope of different angles on angles on angles. This here is mine, but on gender segregation, Sally Feldman and Laurie Penny.

Last week mainstream politicians finally found their voice and came out against religious gender segregation on campus. Predictably this functioned as a bright green go light to anti-establishment types. Here’s Times Higher columnist Sally Feldman’s weak satire on the opponents of gender segregation. I couldn’t have guessed the piece would end up defending the platforming hate preachers at the University of Westminster where she works - Haitham ‘apes and pigs’ al-Haddad and gender segregation in the same article – wow. She’s more worried about the calibre of the opponents of misogyny, antisemitism and homophobia than she’s worried about the views themselves. So, for the record, al-Haddad does preach hatred. And Sally Feldman should know that events that are carefully convened to ensure hateful views are likely be countered by other invited speakers tend to escape the kind of alarmed response she objects to – mainly because they are obviously ‘championing free speech’, rather than simply connecting haters with free premises and audiences and leaving it to the objects of their hatred to do the hard work of speaking against them.

How did we get here from gender segregation? Maybe the quality of the objections to gender segregation – the passion, the outrage, the hyperbolic exchanges – reminded Sally Feldman of the upset about al-Haddad and reminded her of her University of Westminster agenda. That’s my best guess. It’s also the most charitable account.

Which brings me to Laurie Penny’s recent Guardian piece, ‘This isn’t feminism. It’s Islamophobia‘. It’s about the pressure she has come under from ‘white men’ to condemn gender segregation. At its crux,

“…demanding that feminists of every race and faith drop all our campaigns and stand against “radical Islam” sounds more and more like white patriarchy trying to make excuses for itself: “If you think we’re bad, just look at these guys.””

But at the bottom you’ll find a note, ‘This article was amended to draw attention to the fact that many Muslim and Asian women were involved in the “gender segregation” protests.’ This amendment only came about because Twitter users like the Ex-Muslims Forum, Lejla Kuric, Alya, Ophelia Benson, One Law For All, Sarah Brown and others civilly alerted her to Asian and Muslim feminists defending secular space and pointed out the stark inaccuracy of claiming that the protest on December 10th was led by right wing men. By mid morning Laurie Penny had recognised the problem and was making efforts to correct it.

Which is typically big of her but I was interested in what had happened, which is this. A self-styled feminist found the ‘white patriarchy’ so much more interesting than all the feminists of Muslim or Asian background that she completely omitted them from consideration. In this she is no better than most of the other reporters party to the silencing of non-white voices, as This Is The End puts it. Or as Lejla puts it, “White western feminist ignore us and dismiss our struggle”. Or as Alya puts it, “The very idea that this debate has been “taken over” by the far right is both naive and insulting”. As such Laurie Penny gives us a classic example of reductio ad absurdum filtering an event through an existing agenda. It’s also a particularly self-absorbed piece; the poor feminist is not the woman affected by gender segregation – it’s Laurie Penny herself beset by ‘white men’ asking her to condemn something. This is a maddening change of subject.

A united front is needed to fight religious authoritarians on campus. They are not yet strong but they would like to be and they have a small foothold already. So congratulations any ‘white men’ of any political stripe who based your arguments against gender segregation on feminist principles and not culturally racist ones. Sadly for me I think it may be true that you are mostly to the political centre and right – but you got it right this time. Please carry on doing it, as often as possible, and don’t be put off by people telling you you’re the wrong sex or colour.

Finally, Laurie Penny is right that there is certainly anti-Muslim sentiment lurking within the debate about gender segregation, as Soupy explains – people with these views are also subtly changing the subject to further their own agenda.

Trade Union solidarity

From TULIP

I’m sure that you know, as I do, at least one trade union member who could stand to learn a little bit more about Israel and Palestine.

That person could be working at the desk next to you. Or it could be the president of your union.

If we are to effectively counter anti-Israel propaganda — and the growth of anti-semitism in the trade union movement — we need to get the widest possible distribution for the real news coming out of the region.

In the last month, TULIP’s website has told the story about the militant struggle being waged by Israeli workers — a struggle that is resulting in big union organizing wins that are hardly known outside the country. Here are some of the stories we ran in the last few weeks:

Meanwhile, our opponents keep saying that the campaign of boycotts, divestments and sanctions targetting the Jewish state is unstoppable, that unions everywhere are joining in, and so on. But TULIP is reporting that actually the trade union movement is deeply divided. Here are some of the stories we ran in the last month:

In other words — Israel has a vibrant, independent trade union movement that deserves the solidarity of trade unionists everywhere.

And in the international labour movement, a struggle is taking place between those like the German trade union leader Michael Sommer, a strong supporter of Israel, and South Africa’s Bongani Masuku, convicted of hate speech and yet still a spokesperson for COSATU.

For our side — those who support genuine peace and reconciliation based on a two-state solution — to win, we must get our message out to many more people.

Please forward this email on to trade unionists you know who need to be better informed.

Let’s try to change at least one mind.

Encourage people to sign up to join the TULIP mailing list at http://www.tuliponline.org/?page_id=4212 and to like TULIP on Facebook.

Unite Against Fascism

I write this because my trade union branch has diverted some of the branch funds to Unite Against Fascism. I feel Unite Against Fascism is an affront to its own name, and consequently that I should repair for my inadvertent complicity. I can say that I did speak during the debate of that motion but my trade union branch tends to attract a like-minded attendance at meetings and the outcome was not what it should have been.

Wrongs perpetrated against Britain’s Muslims have dramatically increased since poor Lee Rigby’s murderers invoked Islam as justification for their Woolwich atrocity. Support for their actions was virtually non-existent – although it’s worth pointing out that the disgusted British Muslim majority had to fight for British media attention. So, among other things, Woolwich has revealed a strengthening of social cohesion – for example, since the notorious YouGov poll of British Muslims conducted for the politically-right Telegraph after the London bombings of July 2005, which revealed worryingly high levels of support. However, the Faith Matters’ initiative Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) has recorded a newsworthy increase in attacks on Muslim people and property since Woolwich (it’s worth mentioning that questions about the credibility of Tell MAMA are to be expected for any group trying to raise the issue of racism – some criticisms will have their roots in reflex denial, others will have racist motivations, and others will be valid; that said, Tell MAMA isn’t yet very good at reporting its data). It’s clear that the British nationalist far right has moved swiftly to exploit the Woolwich outrage by blaming Muslims, organising intimidatory marches and – the criminal among them – attacking Muslim people and property.

When street activity is intended to, or has the effect of, intimidating people in minority groups, it’s commendable to take to the streets in solidarity. Unite Against Fascism has so far both convened and dominated street-based counter-protest against the British nationalist far right. However, on balance and for the following reasons, I think that Unite Against Fascism does far more harm than good. I’d also say it’s over-focused on the gratifications of street protest. The University of Northamptonshire and Demos both identify the EDL has a highly Web-enabled movement, but the UAF has neglected to organise against the far right on the Web.

UAF members are known for provoking and getting involved in charged, antagonistic exchanges on the street. As such, UAF contributes to what Roger Eatwell calls ‘cumulative extremism’ and Paul Jackson calls ‘tit for tat radicalisation’,

“‘Tit for tat’ radicalisation emerges when two radicalised perspectives
discover antagonistic features within each other’s ideology and actions,
leading to an escalation of radicalisation within two or more groups.”

The EDL was formed in response to an Al Muhajiroun rally in Luton in 2009. Clearly anti-facist organisations need to interfere with this reciprocal relationship between jihadis and the British nationalist far right – UAF does the opposite and actually feeds the division.

But by far the worst aspect of Unite Against Facism is its betrayal of its own name. UAF welcomes support from jihadis (militant fundamentalist Muslim totalitarians who comprise a tiny proportion of Muslims as a whole), and this has made it impossible for it to oppose fascism, racism and bigotry which is endemic to jihadism, particularly against Jewishness, women, homosexuality and Muslims who disagree with them. Critics of UAF on this count include Sunny Hundal, who wrote,

“…left-wing groups don’t mobilise against these religious extremists as they do against the far-right. Anti-fascists who happily march against the BNP or EDL rarely show that level of commitment against Anjem Choudhary’s group. Why? There even seems to be a reticence to admit that the EDL feeds off Muslim extremists …”

and Peter Tatchell (former – perhaps continued – supporter) who wrote,

“UAF commendably opposes the BNP and EDL but it is silent about Islamist fascists who promote anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism and sectarian attacks on non-extremist Muslims.”

UAF’s Vice Chair Azad Ali is a terrible choice – the opposite of appropriate for an anti-racist organisation. He opposes democracy if it prevents the implementation of sharia law in Britain. He also lost a libel case against the DM for calling him “a hardline Islamic extremist who supports the killing of British and American soldiers in Iraq by fellow Muslims as justified”.

Unsurprisingly, the UAF’s problems with analysing facism aren’t limited to blind-eye-turning. According to those who study them (see the aforementioned Demos and Northampton reports) the EDL is not fascist but populist far right. This is important because unless UAF is committed to an impartial analysis of the changing far right in Britain, we need to recognise that it has no chance of identifying effective opposition to fascism.

As well as undermining the ‘against facism’ part of its name, it also tramples the ‘unite’ bit. In case there’s any doubt by this stage, UAF is not a democratic organisation and has made it very hard for individuals and groups to influence its decision-making unless they are politically aligned. So, it becomes clear that UAF’s programme is not after all anti-fascist. It feels its own political ends are best served by leaving some fascists to go about their business.

Consequently UAF has no answers to social division along ethnic and religious lines. This is intolerable to me and I find the argument that these ills are outweighed by UAF’s contribution to street protest entirely unacceptable. I can only imagine the disorientation experienced by young people who come into UAF’s orbit and find a definition of anti-racism distorted beyond recognition.

I can’t bring myself to turn out under a Unite Against Fascism banner and I will be conscientiously avoiding its events. I’ll continue to support all genuinely anti-racist organisations, including  Hope Not Hate.

Update

Although I’m not capably keeping up with with commentary at the moment, there’s plenty more to say about this, including:

Welcomed visitors – Mahmoud Sarsak and Ian Henshall

Two pieces of bad news.

Unite (the ‘union’) have decided that welcoming ‘noble member’ of Islamic Jihad Mahmoud Sarsak (who is therefore, we may assume, women-repressing, gay-hating and murderously intolerant as well as Jew-hating) is a good way to stick two fingers up at Israel. Len McCluskey, Unite’s Secretary General, blesses their general thrust on this. Verdict: Unite has gone over, is lost in nasty and futile ideological territory, and therefore members should either leave or get very involved and marginalise the deranged ideologues. But they should definitely not just sit there feeding them subs. They’re spending members’ subs on jihadis, it seems. It’s worth noticing that Islamic Jihad and the jihadi murderers of that poor man Lee Rigby have a lot in common. This is a recent statement from an Islamic Jihad leader on the prospect of the Jews Nasser expelled returning to Egypt:

“We shall fight them vigorously if they return, especially the Egyptian-Israeli Jews,” said Mohamed Abou Samra, the leading figure in the Islamic Jihad movement. “Islamic Sharia says they deserve to be killed.”

“They will destroy the economy and foment sedition,” he said. “Their return will be over our dead bodies.”

And this extreme, murderous character, not to mention the standard antisemitism, is a very important thing to recognise about Islamic Jihad and any of its ‘noble members’. Unite has sunk so low that it cares very little about it.

And in my manor or thereabouts Alistair Kleebauer reports in the Ilford Recorder – without comment! – that  Ian Henshall will be welcomed into Woodford Green’s Village Bookshop. Ian Henshall has surrendered all reason to conspiracy beliefs about September 11th. He’s like this. Conspiracy beliefs are psycho-social phenomena which deserve a close look, but anything more that is a mistake. For example, hosting them in your bookshop.

I think of these two unwanted visitations as related – they’re both products of the kind of political dismay and disorientation which leads to desperate gropings for a neat cause and a quick fix. The particular reason I’m fretting is that those two have really weird and not at all warm views about Jews. I’m almost certainly understating. And yet they’re welcome.

HT @welshbeard and Richard at Engage.

The Spirit of ’45

Matt and I went to see Ken Loach’s documentary The Spirit of ’45 this evening. It is a series of excerpts from interviews with activists and trade unionists on different themes cut with photographs and footage of the post-war years of social democracy until Thatcher ended it. What I found convincing were the grievances of the interviewees, many of whom had watched loved ones die meaninglessly due to reckless profiteering in the mines or lack of adequate housing. Others had had brutal encounters with the police, who I thought were represented with restraint here but nevertheless as the enforcers of the rich and powerful that they have been and sometimes still are. Julian Tudor Hart, the GP who revolutionised blood pressure management (and on whose book I founded my PhD) was utterly convincing – it was great to see him. I wonder if David Widgery, the East End GP who wrote the very good memoir Some Lives would have been in it had he still been alive. I can probably tolerate John Rees if he sticks to the point – and he was well-edited here – didn’t seem at all malevolent.

Everybody in the film was white – reminding me of trade union support for the colour bar in the ’60s – and largely male. They were also practically all retired, but Loach successfully made a virtue of the fact that retired people carry the torch – they have stories to tell of how things used to be in the bad old days before the NHS. But it’s a real shame that Loach is not a reflective man because this film misses an opportunity. Others have observed with incredulity his omission to tackle the gap between the triumph of nationalisation and the rise of neo-Liberalism represented by Thatcher. That gap is precisely what the labour movement needs to get to grips with, because that is where the ground was lost. Loach prefers to point the finger at Thatcher. It is well known that Thatcher was voted in by disaffected Labour voters.

Personally it isn’t inspiration I lack – I’m entirely convinced by socialism. The film went too little into means or reasons. And it passed over how repellent the organisations in the backgrounds of some of the interviewees are. John Rees and the Socialist Workers Party, for example, and Ken Loach’s own anti-Jewish proclivities so common on the far left. These people don’t want me on their side, and I don’t trust them as far as I can throw them. Nor do I trust these workers of the far left’s imagination – they are as deluded and venal as anybody else, and I dislike seeing workers glorified. If, as one of the interviewees suggested, older people were to begin to explain what happened during the period of nationalisation after World War 2 ended, most would probably say that nationalisation was ultimately stymied by the trades unions of the time. I’ve read enough of Kynaston’s Austerity Britain to grasp that the prospect of nationalism divided the workers – most notably the mine workers – before it was established, and once in place many observed new inefficiences. As Rees says, nationalisation simply replaced a private elite with a state one. Clearly socialism could not have got off the ground in the UK without the successive devastations of depression and war. So the sense of self-righteousness, natural goodness and entitlement of the masses inculcated by parts of the left can only erode our moral fibre, and is certainly no defence against a political right which would pit migrant workers against established ones, men against women, dark skinned against light skinned. Flattering the masses is silly.

But nobody else made a film about  this, and a film about this is necessary to keep the memory alive not so much of socialism, but of what socialism hopes to keep at bay. Does this mean that Loach is the best we have? If so the organised socialist left is destined to remain out in the cold for a good deal longer. And for all Loach’s anti-Labour message, they are the people I see in my own borough, quietly and unglamorously getting on with what they can, for their communities, far from Miliband etc. Meanwhile the further left eddies.

Anti-Semitism in the left: an open letter to the ISG – National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts

One of the things that’s kept me going during periods of sustained antisemitism in and from various left-wing organisations I’ve been involved with was the knowledge that as well as Jewish support I also had the support of members who weren’t Jewish. I hope that goes for the Jewish members of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts who published Anti-Semitism in the left: an open letter to the ISG (International Socialist Group) today. It was a response to the posting of an antisemitic cartoon on the Facebook page of the ISG organ Communiqué featuring a demonic Jew deceitfully claiming victimhood in order to justify persecuting Palestinians.

Anitsemitic cartoon  posted by ISG, with notes

Antisemitic cartoon posted by ISG. Annotations are mine.

Shortly after being posted it was taken down with an apology which avoided using the word ‘antisemitism’ or taking the necessary steps to explain why the cartoon was “inappropriate”. There was also a comically unconvincing claim that the cartoon had been posted by “members of the public unaligned with Communiqué” who had got their hands on Aidan Turner’s account while the his back was turned, a Communiqué admin’s account and a hollow reiteration that “that there is not and will never be any space in the Communiqué project for racism of any variety”.

More accurately, whether or not Communiqué flirts with antisemitism depends on whether enough people notice it and object.

To look on the bright side, antisemitism remains something that few people on the left are proud to own up to. For now.

Update – traffic from Sarah at Harry’s Place has sharpened me up. The apology only says that it’s Communiqué’s Facebook account that was compromised. Not sure who the Facebooker Aidan Turner is.

Contrasting views of conspiracy theories

Three chapters on conspiracy theories in three separate books, two pursuing a Cultural Studies perspective and the other a rationalist one.

  • Chapter 7 – A few clicks of a mouse. In Aaronovitch, David. 2009. Voodoo Histories – the Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern Histories. London: Jonathan Cape. pp219-258.
  • Chapter 3 – Cultural studies on/as conspiracy theory. In Birchall, C. 2006. Knowledge Goes Pop. Oxford: Berg. pp65-90.
  • Afterword – Conspiracy theory, cultural studies and the trouble with populism. In Fenster, M. 2008. Conspiracy theories. Secrecy and power in American culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp 279-289.

Birchall is a theorist of popular culture who views conspiracy theories as “signalling a healthy scepticism towards official accounts” (p40). Her interest is the conditions under which the “knowledge producing discourses” of conspiracy become “necessary possibilities” to counter government secrecy veiled in “established and rational discourses” (p63), and what this has to teach her as a cultural theorist. So while she alludes to lack of substantiation and commitment in some theories, she is mainly responding to the prevailing invalidation of conspiracy theories as irrational, politically impotent, bad cognitive mapping done in ignorance. Drawing on John Fiske’s view that conspiracism can be “a method by which the negative experience of capitalism can be, if not rectified, then at least articulated” (p67), she argues that distaste for conspiracism on the part of the intelligentsia is symptomatic of a problem with the cultural analysis carried out by the academic establishment, threatened by other meta-narratives than its own. She argues that viewing conspiracism only in terms of political success or failure will fail to recognise “many aspects” (p69), namely that it is positively active and challenging of hegemony. She points out contradictions in scientific appeal to reason which simultaneously refuses to engage with the possibility that conspiract theories may be true (p71). She calls this phenomenon an example of Lyotardian ‘differend’,

“…a case of conflict between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both arguments. One side’s legitimacy does not imply another’s illegitimacy.” (p72)

From this point of ‘epistemic relativism’ she proceeds to Baudrillard’s view that knowledge is imaginary and plural, and from there to a Lyotardian criticism of consensus about ‘bad interpretations’ (p81) – consensuses which bear no inherent relation to the truth, are vulnerable to being hijacked for nefarious ends, and are used by ‘the system’ to consolidate its hold on power. This lays the ground for her to celebrate the hoax cultural studies essay successfully submitted by Alan Sokal to the (non-peer-reviewed) Social Text journal. She argues that rather than compromising the cultural studies project, the Sokal incident affirms it. The essay was accepted, she argues, because despite Sokal’s intentions the essay wasn’t bad. Moreover its acceptance demonstrates the admirable openness of cultural studies to the illegitimate. At this point Birchall, while acknowledging the defenciveness of cultural studies in the face of attacks on its credibility, begins to set out commonalities between the conspiracist ‘forgers’ of knowledge and cultural studies itself, for which “the legitimacy of knowledge cannot be decided in advance of any reading”. She then asserts the illegitimacy of cultural studies: “cultural studies may well be a con, a scam, a swindle” and cultural theorists “a bunch of charlatans” (p86), warning against enlisting metanarratives such as Marxism or Humanism in the hope that “the more respectable discipline’s credibility will rub off on ours” (p87). In a move reminiscent of the embattled conspiracy theorist she first announces that she may be branded a traitor, and then professes herself a sort of cultural studies patriot, putting her neck on the line for the sake of its integrity. She then retorts that everybody who works with knowledge is illegitimate, which she qualifies as ‘undecidable legitimacy’, which in turn implies the need for precautionary inclusivity. This leads to a surprisingly banal conclusion which reads like an appeal: because none of us can claim to know anything, academics should avoid offending the subjects of their inquiry, their colleagues, or anybody by ridiculing their point of view, but should instead be as affirming as possible. She alludes to the propensity of some conspiracy theories to harm politics and sometimes people but this is not her focus. She seems primarily concerned with appropriating illegitimacy as a dignified means to retrieve lost ground and morale in cultural studies. I think you have to be a cultural studies insider to fully understand this self-referential preoccupation.

Nobody seems to have notified Aaronovitch that his pursuit is illegitimate or that conspiracists are to be studied rather than countered. Taking a firmly political historical approach, he is uncompromising towards conspiracists from a position of deep and explicit familiarity with their anomalies and slants rather than prejudicial gut distaste. He views conspiracism as effectively and fundamentally unjust and a threat to some groups who are far from power and influence, most prominently Jews and Zionists. In this respect he takes conspiracy theories more seriously as projects in their own right than Birchall chooses to; his is a different – and you could say more substantial – form of recognition. His chapter begins by recounting a 9/11 ‘truth’ event in 2005 fronted by Susannah York. He points out the habit of ruling out better-evidenced, and consequently most likely, explanations in favour of perverse and convoluted ones. He notes that the speakers are unlikely to have encountered each other without the contact across the usual boundaries catalysed and enabled by the Web, which he views as a “mass of undifferentiated information” (p221) where sites – often self-characterised as ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ – which use new media to proselytise or amplify 9/11 conspiracism far outnumber those dedicated to debunking conspiracism. Aaronovitch moves into this gap with two approaches to debunking: he fully engages with several 9/11 conspiracy theories on their own terms and takes them apart factually, and he also examines the modus operandi of conspiracists. With respect to the latter he demonstrates the dangers of ‘cui bono’ reasoning as a means of identifying perpetrators by asking who benefited from World War. He also points out the double standards of conspiracists in their “lofty incredulity” about establishment accounts while simultaneously insisting that their own highly questionable accounts stand unless each part (for example, the assertion that the FBI benefited from 9/11) is conclusively refuted. Aaronovitch is responding to a “leaching” of conspiracism into popular culture.There is a subtext of concern about the hyperactivity of the conspiracists, and his meticulous attention to detailed debunking of conspiracies positions him as somebody who hopes to shore up facts against sustained erosion as the “theories formulated by the politically defeated [are] taken up by the socially defeated” (p292).

Fenster’s chapter is between these two opposing views. A fellow cultural theorist whom Birchall quotes approvingly before rejecting this final chapter of his book, he is concerned that while conspiracism is a manifestation of “often justifiable discontent with contemporary institutional democracy and governance” (p281), cultural studies must accept that far right conspiracism, which hurts and even kills, should not be valorised and empowered. He explores the difference between the experience of black Americans with a history of enslavement, systematic exclusion, exploitation (including their unconsenting involvement in the Tuskegee syphilis study), and the assassination of their leaders and supporters, and on the other hand the experience of white working class American men who adopt far right conspiracy theories, concluding that black Americans are more justified in tending towards conspiracism. However he disagrees with John Fiske’s view (p264) that ‘blackstream’ and ‘counterstream’ knowledge should always be championed as not only legitimate but also presumptively emancipatory simply because it actively and radically resists the dominant forms of rationality.  Fenster points out that conspiracism, being simplistically constituted round a monocause such as race, “precludes linkages to other movements of resistance” (p286) and can as easily be used to oppress as to empower. Instead he paraphrases Eve Sedgwick,

“…a paranoid hermeneutic may aid critical practice and yield important insights and strong theory but it will not necessarily lead to good theory, correct answers or better practice.” (p285)

He concludes, compassionately nevertheless, that conspiracy theory is political failure.