Thursday, 13 November 2014

Notes for a cultural politics and a political culture - 25 subversive ideas

1. In the place that gets called 'left-of-Labour' or the 'radical left' or the 'alternative left', there have been all sorts of shifts and realignments. This is not as new as it looks. They happen all the time. The big ones happen when the most vociferous, most successful of the groupings goes through a crisis. 

2. The real crisis for the 'radical left' is that we have failed to dent the politicians-media agreement about how to present the economic crisis. This agreement runs something like this: some bankers did some silly things…the result was a lot of debt and a credit squeeze…Labour did some silly things…the only way out of it is for government to spend less…this means that we must all agree that to save our skins, we must cut public spending…and we must freeze or cut wages…the only people who can be trusted to do this are the Tories. 

3. We know that this is a hoax. Even quite right-wing politicians like Alan Johnson call it a 'fat lie'. In fact, there are several lies. The bankers (and all the other financiers) weren't just naughty. They smashed up big sections of the system that enables capitalism to operate. Through our governments'  actions all over the world, we have been taxed to keep that system solvent. Through our governments' actions we have lost large sections of our welfare, education and cultural institutions - hospitals, schools, social services, benefits. Through our governments' actions, people's wages have been cut and/or people put out of work. 

4. While this has been going on, the super-rich, the hyper-rich have got richer. The main reason why they have got richer is because the 'cost' of employing people has gone down. I say 'cost' in inverted commas, because it's only a 'cost' from the point of view of those who employ. For everyone else it's their 'income' or 'spending power'. People don't see themselves as a 'cost' nor should they!

5. So, 'austerity' is in fact, a realignment, a shuffling. It's the means by which the poor stay poor (or are made poorer) and the rich to stay rich (or get richer). It's nothing to do with the money that Labour did or did not borrow during its time in power. It's entirely to do with the decisions that are made by financiers, finance ministers and giant corporations. Having taken risks that failed (on a massive scale, involving all sorts of gigantic fiddles and cons), they are trying to claw back solvency through making the mass of people work for less money and have much less by way of public services and benefits. 

6. The 'radical left' has been saying this throughout the time of the crisis. However, we haven't dented the consensus. This argument is hardly ever heard. Or, when it's heard, very little happens. There are of course sporadic and brave efforts by people to defend jobs, wages and services. But, if we are ruthless and honest with ourselves, what has happened is that this hasn't spread far and wide. It hasn't become 'generalised', as the jargon has it. 

7. And, just as importantly, it hasn't enabled us all to see clearly that 'wealth' isn't really what turns up in the figures on bankers' computer screens. It isn't even really 'money'. Wealth is what we make and do with our minds and bodies. We work in places made with the past effort of the minds and bodies of our forbears. All the machines and infrastructure that enable goods and services to be produced and pass between us are made through the past and present effort of people's minds and bodies. 

8. When the 'economic' crisis happened, that 'wealth' didn't change. We all had our minds and bodies; the buildings, roads, machines were all still there. But they told us that 'we' were in a crisis. That the money that we had to spend would be less and that those parts of our wealth that we had created through government spending (health, schools, social services) would suddenly have to be less. Now some of us, me included, thought that at that moment, perhaps people would challenge this view by occupying their places of work and in so doing would be saying, 'No, nothing has changed. We make these things, we produce things. The only thing that has got screwed up here is the present system's way of financing things. We didn't do that. It's nothing to do with us. We don't run banks. We don't lend money. So we'll hang on to our wealth. We won't let you take that away from us, so that you can save your skins and save the system that goes in to these kinds of crisis.'

9. I was completely wrong. It didn't happen. The 'radical left' has of course supported people who've tried to defend their jobs, wages and services. But that's about it. 

10. Why? 

11. One argument says that it's because the 'left' - (not the 'radical left') -  is too much in hock to the banking system to be able to stand apart from it and throw rocks at it. So even as it talks about the 'cost of living crisis', it comes up with policies which also involve cutting jobs, wages and services. This is confusing, demoralising and ultimately plays into the hands of the real cutters and slashers. Why vote Labour to cut your jobs, wages and services when you can vote for the real thing with the Tories and UKIP?! 

12.  And this 'left' (represented in the UK by the Labour Party), so the argument goes, involves drawing millions of people in, into thinking that it is opposing the system that is cutting jobs, wages and services to save the bankers, whilst not actually doing it. 

13. My own view is that I agree, but I think there is something deeper going on too. These are to do with 'allegiance' and 'passivity'.

14. Our allegiance to the system is won. We are invited to believe in 'free enterprise', the 'market' or 'capitalism'.  However, it's clear that our allegiance is won not just because we are constantly told it's all lovely. There is the matter of our needs, wants and desires. Our basic needs are to do with being healthy and able to reproduce - have babies. Our wants and desires are complex matters to do with how we are socialised, conditioned and 'seduced' - that's to say we are coaxed, cajoled and massaged to long for many goods and services we may not actually 'need'. In fact, it's all so powerful that they often feel like 'needs'. It's obvious that capitalism is utterly brilliant at creating these desires. In the jargon, they are 'constructed'. Our longing for this or that shirt, or shoes, or film or phone can start to be the apparent 'meaning' of our lives: 'I am worthy because I have that particular phone.' My firm belief is that we on the left have failed in coming to terms with this. We have some strange schizoid attitude to it, where on the one hand we say 'Aha, look, the hidden persuaders and admen-conmen are at work, it's all a capitalist conspiracy' (that's our killjoy side). And on the other we say, 'Ha, look at me, I'm having fun, I'm watching a Bruce Willis movie and I had a good time…' (that's the guilty pleasure side). I think we need some other way of looking at this…and I have the feeling that it can only be handled and challenged 'culturally' - but I'll come back to that. Moaning about it from the lofty heights of a small left grouping or an academic department at a university has zero effect. 

The part of the allegiance matter that is most puzzling is the conundrum of why people who cannot afford what they desire are sometimes the people who express the strongest allegiance! Some of us, me included, naively thought that the 'contradiction' of the system, whereby the system creates 'desire' but cannot pay enough for those who 'desire' to have what they desire, would in the end destroy the system! Oh no, no, no, no, no! How wrong could I be?! Yes, indeed, the system throws people out of work, freezes wages, cuts wages, while it beams at us the desirability of this car, this phone, this perfume, this 'look'. Millions of people can't afford this stuff, even though it's coming at us every minute of every day through TV, film, newspapers and indeed through people we encounter who've got that stuff, or bits of that stuff. The 'lack' of it does not seem to detach people from the system that creates the desire for it. And yet it's that system that freezes the wages and takes away our hospital.  

Again, I don't think we have got anywhere near cracking this. One theory has it that the only (yes the 'only') way it can be cracked is when people take action to defend their jobs, wages and services. Perhaps that's right. Perhaps, though, there is a 'cultural' battleground here too...

15. Passivity - this is the tendency for people to prefer not to take action. I believe that passivity is created. It's not simply 'there'. It's not simply 'personal' either. Passivity is, if you like, a 'cultural product'. It is produced out of certain processes that take place 'socially' i.e. to many of us, in certain positions in society. It feels personal but is in fact social. 

I think there are two main motors that create passivity: debt and one particular aspect of education. 

16. Debt - one of the features of modern capitalism is the level of personal debt - whether through mortgages or loans. To my mind, this is the system's police force. Once we have debt, we have a legal system to terrify us with threats of non-payment. At any given moment in which we might feel that we have to (or want to) challenge the system, there is a voice in our head which says, 'But will this endanger my chances of paying my debts - my mortgage payments and my loan payments…?' This used to be a 'middle class' anxiety and was thought to only affect (or create) the attachment of the middle classes to the system. With the massive amounts of everyone's debt, the only people who can 'forget' or ignore or not care very much about their debts are the very rich. Large sections of those who earn a living solely through wages and salaries are now in debt. 

17. Education - one of the features of modern capitalism is its need for universal education (in one form or another) from around 4 years old to 18. For the system not to be rocked or undermined by this (which some people used to think would come about if you let the masses have education), then even as more and more education is 'given' so must systems be put in place which ensure allegiance to the system - even if the outcome (job or no job), is not guaranteed.  The allegiance is won, through two main processes: the testing, examining regime; the behaviour management regime. 

Under testing and examining the lie is maintained that 'anyone can succeed'. While it looks as if that's true, 'anyone' is not the same as 'everyone',  as all school and national exams are rigged so that a given percentage will get top marks, a given percentage will get medium marks and a given percentage will fail. (Compare that to the driving test, say, where you succeed if you can do the test.) So 'anyone' can pass a school exam but it will so happen that 'everyone' won't. However, saying that 'anyone' can pass is what wins the allegiance to the system. We all try to pass the exam. As we do that, we can't question the validity of the system which ranks and grades according to the narrow criteria of the test itself. The test must be 'right' to test us in these things because…well…it's the test! It's the test that they've devised to find out our 'true' worth. And 'anyone' can pass! If however, it looks as if I can't pass or am not going to pass, it must be 'my' fault! It can't possibly be 'social'. I can't possibly be failing because a percentage of us are already designated to fail. It can't possibly be because my kind of abilities are not rated as good. It can't possibly be because it's crazy to call people who don't pass exams 'failures' when it might all be about different kind of 'abilities' and 'capabilities'. 

I believe that all this kind of thinking is a great motor for passivity. Many people take with them from school a sense that 'I' am a failure, because 'I' couldn't pass. So, when in the outside world, people appeal to our capabilities, our ability or willingness to 'do', to 'make', to 'take action', it's difficult. Our first assumption is that 'I' am not good enough. 

18. The second area of passivity-creation (!) is, I think, through the systems of behaviour management in education. It is of course reasonable to think that a school is entitled to be run so that people don't hurt or bully each other. The question though is who runs the means by which this point is achieved? This is of course called 'discipline' and millions of pounds are spent each year by 'management' and 'management training' in inventing 'discipline' systems all the way from smiley face charts, to detentions, sanctions, classroom management, attendance and lateness rules, uniform transgressions, haircuts, piercings  etc etc. At the heart of it all is one simple rule: discipline is run by the school management, not by the pupils. For most children and students, this has the effect of leaving unquestioned the idea of 'unchosen hierarchy'. That's to say, for most of us, most of the time, our experience of the way things are run is that the people who run and control our lives are not chosen by us. The hoax is that we are 'free' and 'choose' our politicians who 'run' the country. In fact, our politicians are mostly doing what the huge corporations and bankers want them to do. Thus the cuts in jobs, wages and services.  We only choose them once every four or five years. And mostly the choice between them is about which of them will cut our jobs, wages and services the most, the most quickly, the most often…marginally. 

Meanwhile, in our places of work, in our institutions and our places of leisure, hierarchies  run our lives through unchosen managers. They are 'appointed'. Some managers do all they can to be 'inclusive' and to invite 'participation' and to be as 'democratic' as they can - particularly in institutions where we do work we enjoy doing e.g. in the theatre or indeed in some parts of education - hurrah for that and hurrah for them. On the other hand, the daily experience of most people is that not only are such people unchosen by the people 'under' them, but also that this layer of management has invented and created a massive cult of bullshit to justify the hierarchy. 'Discipline' in schools is largely a result of this. The best disciplines (if we want to call them that) are the systems by which people collectively agree to run daily affairs in whatever institution we find ourselves in - whether that's a tiny book group, a parents' association, a political grouping or whatever. It is only when we arrive in these other institutions and workplaces we have to buy into the idea that some special wisdom and authority lies in the hands of 'managers'. 

The way this feeds down into children and students is, I believe, fundamental to how most of us view power and authority. That is that power and authority have the right to rule simply because they are the power and have the authority! So, to take one example: every day we hear of the 'crisis' in leadership in this or that political party, or in this or that institution or workplace or firm. Then there is a debate about 'who' might or could be better. All this does is require us to go on thinking that whatever that 'crisis' is, that it can be solved by this or that 'leader'…and we aren't invited to think that actually the problem is with the hierarchy itself. The rule is: hierarchy must not be questioned, hierarchy is good, and hierarchy must not be chosen. As it happens, I think that in many circumstances we do indeed need hierarchies, but these must be hierarchies who are chosen by those who are organised or 'run' by that hierarchy. In other words, we should choose people to organise and run us - for a specific time and we have the right to withdraw them. (I do realise that in most circumstances in the present this is 'ideal' and 'utopian'!) However, in terms of 'passivity' our present state is one in which we are constantly in a position of accepting what hierarchies do and in so doing leave unquestioned the idea that we cannot run affairs co-operatively or collectively or through choosing our hierarchies. We have to be ruled. We are unruly if we are not ruled! 

I believe that these ideas are bedded down and reinforced every day we are 'run' or organised or disciplined by hierarchies that are unchosen and uncontrolled by us. And these ideas breed passivity: 'I can't do or make or take action because it's only managers, and rulers and bosses and clever people up there who can do that. I can't or 'we' can't…' 

19. So what does all this mean for the 'radical left'? Firstly, the mistake the radical left keeps making is that much of it thinks that it can oppose allegiance and passivity by creating organisations that have hierarchies that are in effect unmoveable themselves! Nominally, they are chosen and elected but in effect, they keep coming up with the same faces. This is enabled (or engineered?) through systems by which the 'members' are invited to vote for the same grouping as they voted for last year. If this package (or 'slate' or 'panel') is also packed with people whose wages are paid for by that organisation, then there is an in-built removal of initiative and activity from the members. The hierarchy is 'chosen' but not 'chosen'. And there is a lack of initiation into learning the ropes of how to run things, how to organise, and how to respond to events - with direction and activity of the members who chose you to do that. So, in a cycle of about once every 25 years, a left grouping will go through a crisis caused by this freezing up which will be triggered off by such things as some crazy party-line-changing, a financial irregularity, or shitty personal behaviour matter or some such. In fact, it's not the 'offence' itself that's the problem, it's the hierarchical system - which has turned out to be not that different from the kinds of hierarchies that are in place in our workplaces! 

20. The second big mistake is cultural. This requires a bit of definition. In daily speech, we separate out things into categories, like 'economic', 'political' and 'cultural'. By that we mean that 'economic' is money, political is Tory/Labour/LibDem etc and cultural is movies, theatre, music and the like.  Now, what happens if we think of these things for a moment as all the same: that's to say, what a politician says is cultural, political and economic all at the same time??? So, let's say, Miliband makes a speech in which he says that he would like to see such and such a kind of Britain. This will of course involve an 'economic' view of how we are organised to produce the things we need and want. It will be political in the sense that it contains a view in how Britain is run politically. And both the content and method of what he is saying is cultural. That's to say, 'Britain' is a cultural idea. It is in part created through Britain's cultural institutions. Culture proclaims 'Britain' as an entity and keeps on defining what is 'British'. What's more, the medium of the 'big speech' is itself a piece of culture. We can examine it in terms of why is it nearly always a man who gives it, why does he wear a suit and tie and a white shirt (in Britain)? Why do the people listening sit in rows, many of whom look at the backs of the heads of other people sitting in rows? What other cultural institutions are like it? Sermons, stand-up comedy, solo singing…And so on.

21. So what happens if we take this 'economic-political-cultural' way of looking at things and use it to look at what we do in the 'radical left'? Well, it becomes pretty clear immediately, that we go on doing almost the same things as those people we oppose! In the specifics of here and now, we keep on having meetings where one person stands in front of us (while we sit in rows looking at the back of people's heads) and talks at us for half an hour. We keep on distributing printed material that looks (to a Martian outsider just landing on earth) much the same as the very same printed material we say is full of lies and distortions - tabloid newspapers. We distribute leaflets that look very much like the leaflets that are distributed on those occasions that the main political parties want to convince us to vote for them. So, though the economic and political content may be different, the cultural quality of what's being offered is almost the same. 

22. Now, if we go back to my argument about 'allegiance', it's my belief that this matter of the 'economic-political-cultural' assault that we need to make is crucial. So, of course, allegiance to the system is won 'economically' (to accept that distinction for a moment) through the fundamental matter of the 'contract' i.e. we go to work, and agree to the financial and organisational deal whereby we will be paid i.e. I am a wage earner a salary earner or receiver of a fee and in so doing I am agreeing to accept that you the boss will pay me because you are the boss and - crucially, you will make a profit out of the work that I will do for you. 

As I've suggested, allegiance is also won through debt and fear of non-payment. 

But - according to my argument above - our allegiance (and our reasons for not taking action) is also won culturally through passivity. My argument therefore is that the 'radical left' must constantly look, review and change its 'culture'. It has to enable all who take part to take part in something that is new and different culturally. It must offer new and different cultural events. It must create ways in which people can control how things are organised - whether through hierarchies that are chosen or through other forms. 

23. If we put that together that means looking beyond the old ritual of meetings, papers, assemblies, conferences which reproduce what the people we oppose do - and therefore tend to reproduce the same kinds of behaviour. We have to offer people chances and opportunities to experience what it's like to not be in the kinds of situation that are the same as workplaces. In that way we challenge one of the key means by which the system wins allegiance - through passivity. In concrete terms this means looking back at what the radical left has done in the past for clues as to what we an do now and to get into thinking about new things. So, for example, there was Rock Against Racism. Was that useful, challenging, important? Did it have any effect? How was it organised? What can we learn from that? Are there any (past or present) festivals, groupings, entertainments, schools, courses, associations, political parties, assemblies, concerts, events…etc etc... which seem able to challenge 'allegiance' and passivity not only by what was on offer (i.e. what it put on show) but also through how it was organised? 

24. In doing such things, we also engage with the core idea of 'what does it mean to be political'. So, though many of us on the radical left say things like 'everything is political' more often than not we are uneasy with a notion like say, 'feelings are political'. Or, put it another way, we are uneasy with the idea that our empathy and compassion (or lack of it!)  aroused by a piece of music or a dance is 'political'. Or even if we are OK with that, it's not clear what we should do, if anything, about it. We tend to be much happier accepting the distinctions given to us by society that we 'do' politics by holding a meeting, and we 'do' culture by going to a concert. To take Rock Against Racism as one example only, it was clear that we 'did' cultural politics and political culture at the same time. And that's NOT because everyone who played or sang, produced explicit messages about anti-racism! Far from it, a good deal of the cultural politics and political culture was because, for example, bands of different cultural traditions played together…or that audiences were 'mixed' and many other subversive cross-currents were produced. 

I am far from saying that the only or the best thing we can do is just produce another Rock Against Racism….though a rock against austerity might have legs??? Perhaps…Much more important would be to think through what a 'cultural politics' and a 'political culture' could look like tomorrow, for any of us, wherever we are, and how might we link up or hook up these things. 

24. Please feel free to copy and distribute this wherever and however you want. Please feel free to discuss it wherever and however you want. You don't need to ask my permission to reproduce it or share it. It would be nice (i.e. feed my ego) if you said who wrote it, but I can't and won't do anything about it if you do. 

25. I'm on Facebook and twitter if you want to comment on any part of it. Feel free to create any other kind of forum to discuss it.