Monday, February 28, 2005

Conservatives and socialists

... the liberalism that haunts the imagination of fevered conservatives is nothing other than the liberalism of Hollywood and the culture industry, where glamorous fun-loving youth perpetually defy authority figures with moral scruples.


Were not the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s bent on the destruction of malevolent traditions and inspired by the prospect of new systems of meaning? One reason for the success of backlash conservatism is that it has managed to portray the advance of gay and women’s rights as the unleashing of hedonism rather than the construction of a new moral and cultural universe. And, to be honest, the Left has often allowed itself to be painted into this corner, evoking the language of rights as if what was at stake was merely self-expression or the opening up of a new market niche.

From 'It’s not the culture, stupid: Interpreting the US election' , by Ken Hirschkopp in Radical Philosophy, 129.

Hirschkopp is onto something, here, it seems to me. The Conservative Right in the US (and indeed, elsewhere) is motivated by many concerns which aren't, in the end, totally alien to the Left. Indeed, there's a good deal of common ground. The Conservative (particularly, the religious) Right are often concerned above all else about the breakup of 'moral standards', the disintegration of community and the rise of narcissistic, individualist selfishness. As Hirschkopp suggests, when conservatives think about the 'liberal elite', they picture irresponsible 'hedonists' grinding away at communal moral values and seeking to plunge society into somekind of nihilistic anarchy, in which the only good is that of self-gratification. They associate the rise of Gay Rights and so on, with the destruction of social solidarity, rather than with the attempt to create new, more inclusive and more just, social values.

The fears of rank and file conservatives seem, in many ways, to echo (in some very distorted sense) socialist criticism of the alienation and individualisation generated by capitalist social relations. Conservatives and socialists identify the same problem - the breakdown of social solidarity and communal values and so on - but locate the source/cause of this breakdown in different places. The conservative blames 'permissive' culture and 'hedonists' who undermine institutions of social and moral authority. The socialist, however, understands that individualism, selfishness and individualism are generated by capitalism's particular exchange relationships.

Hirschkopp implies that there is, perhaps, something in the viewpoint of many who regard themselves as conservatives which could be tapped into by the Left. Is it possible for socialists to show working class conservatives that they, too, oppose individualism, selfishness and irresponsible hedonism? Could they turn conservatives' anger away from the minority groups the Right tends to scapegoat and towards the real source of these problems? In order to do so they must demonstrate they seek to construct a new and better society grounded very firmly in a set of univeralist values - a socialist morality.

Of course, the Religious Right is not wholly incorrect in associating movements of the Left with nihilistic hedonism. Hilary Wainwright (I wish I could remember where - perhaps it's in Recaim the State) argues that the ideas of the 'New Social Movements' for liberation in the 1960s and 1970s slid, far too easily, into individualism. These groups often emphasised personal freedom to the exclusion of almost everything else. Campaigns against authoritarian, patriarchal and deferential social relations though immensely liberating at first, were not based on a clear, worked-out sense of social (socialist) solidarity.

In fact, because emphasis tended to be centred on the self and the individual's 'right' to be free from social bonds, the politics of 60s and 70s 'counter-culture' was often deeply ambivalent. Wainwright argues that as socialist communal values were not consciously placed at the centre of these campaigns, the ideas of the various movements were easily incorporated into the ideology of free market neo-liberals. Reagan and Thatcher adopted the NSM's demands for freedom and 'personal autonomy' and articulated these concerns in right-wing anti-collectivist terms - privatisation, cutting welfare, competition and so on. These policies, of course, did much more to undermine social values than the NSMs ever did, but the point is that that NSMs effectively (though unwittingly) helped to clear the way for this destruction.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Paul Foot

Guardian Unlimited seem to be having a Paul Foot season at the moment. See here for yesterday's extract from Foot's book The Vote: How it Was Won, and How it was Undermined, and here, for today's.

I get to teach the Suffragette movement (or at least, I get one tutorial to cover it along with two other subjects) to first years - most of them highly uninterested Economics students. It's amazing that many of the books on the course reading list imply that the Suffragette movement was a failure and claim that womens' suffrage came because of the First World War - as a reward for womens' contributions to the 'war effort'. Foot's position, however, seems to me the right one:

Can we say that votes for women would have been granted anyway, as women's economic conditions changed?
No, the victory of 1918 would not have been achieved without the long years of struggle that preceded it. The militant activities of the suffragettes loosened the ideological hold of men over women. They gave women a real sense of their equality, and a determination to put it into practice. By their actions as much as by their thought and argument, the militant women from 1906 to 1914 liberated themselves and hundreds of thousands of their sex from the condescension of past ages. By their actions, they erased for ever from the political record the monstrous prejudices of male ministers.

Just as the vote for most men was won when large quantities of them stepped outside their routine lives and fought for political representation, so, even more certainly, votes for women would never have been surrendered had it not been for the arguments of the Millicent Fawcetts and Lydia Beckers, the tireless propaganda of the Ada Nield Chews, the Eva Gore-Booths and Esther Ropers, the Selina Coopers and Helen Silcocks, the formidable, single-minded courage of all the Pankhursts, of Annie Kenney, of Emily Davison and of the hundreds of thousands of women who fought for their cause more relentlessly than had any of their male predecessors, and won it.

Foot doesn't get carried away in his praise for the Suffragettes, however. It's important to remember that key figures within the movement collapsed into a pathetic and reprehensible jingoism at the outbreak of World War One.

Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel declared that the supreme priority was the need to win the war. Both women toured the country using their oratorical skills to shovel young men into the charnel house.

To their credit, a minority of the Suffragettes (including Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst) did fiercely oppose the war - joining with radicals in the British labour movement such as Kier Hardie. Their voices however, were pretty much drowned out by the roar of the tidal wave of chauvinistic pro-war feeling sweeping through the British left (and through the wider European left too) at the time. There are, of course, certain historical parallels to be drawn here with the situation today - but I'm sure I don't have to spell it out.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Ex-Ambassador on Uzbekistan

There's a fascinating piece on the Socialist Unity website. It's an interview with the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, who has been suspended from his job for speaking out about what he sees as UK complicity in the torture of Uzbeks. Murray claims that Uzebikistan's totalitarian governmet tortures thousands of people every year and that information extracted from detainees/prisoners under torture is passed on to the UK and US governments. Uzbekistan, is of course, one of the allies of the UK and US in its 'war for democracy and human rights'.

Here's an extract:

Q: .... Obviously the main reason for you leaving was that you spoke out against the torture situation. There were reports of prisoners having their nails ripped out and being boiled alive. Are such extreme cases a rarity, or are they quite systematic?

CM: It's completely systematic, and not rare at all. Thousands of people are tortured every year, undoubtedly. Attention always focuses when people are tortured to death, but that's a tiny minority of the cases. The people who are torturing are doing so to extract information and confessions usually. In the cases of the guys who were boiled to death, they were trying to get them to sign a recantation of their faith, which is a slightly different situation. Most of the torture goes on to try to extract so-called confessions. But the last thing the torturer wants is a dead person. It gives them a lot of explaining to do, and you can't get any more information out of them, they can't sign anything when they're dead. So the torture deaths only happen by accident in a tiny minority of the cases.

There are thousands of cases every year of people being tortured. In the Uzbek courts, in both political and criminal cases, the conviction rate is over 99%. Over 99% of people who come to court are found guilty. I know that the conviction rate's over 99%, it's not a kind of estimate. We did a project on court reporting, where we worked with a lot of courts throughout the country for a couple of years. Now I can't give you as precise a figure, but in over 90% of cases - and I would guess over 95% of cases - the accused person signs a full confession. Now you have to ask yourself why? And the reason is, the way the criminal justice system runs is the police decide who did it, then beat the hell out of them, suffocate them, dip bits of them into boiling liquid or whatever until they sign a confession. Then they're convicted. And the same applies in cases of political and religious dissidents. About a quarter of all so-called criminal cases in Uzbekistan are actually political or religious in their motivation.

Q: A controversial accusation you made was that MI6 was using information extracted from tortured Uzbek citizens. What evidence did you actually have to lead you to this conclusion?

CM: I've got no doubts about it whatsoever. I'm 100 percent sure of it, and in all my dealings with the British government about it - and I've been called back from Uzbekistan to have meetings specifically on the subject - they have never denied it. The British government has never denied it, and scores of British reporters have phoned up the Foreign Office and said, "What is the line?" and they always come back with the same line. It's that "it would be irresponsible to ignore useful evidence in the war against terror". They have never said, "No, we're not gaining evidence from torture." The British government has never denied it. They can't deny it.

Remember kids, the war in Iraq was fought for human rights and democracy.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Party Slogans

Martin Wisse is dead right about the Labour Party's new slogan - 'forward not back'. It's utterly meaningless. They must think we're complete idiots. Actually, thinking about it, they do think the electorate are idiots - that's the operating assumption of Blairism.

I imagine that the General Election campaign will involve various sub-slogans along the same general lines. Perhaps they'll even vary the background colours again like they did before to keep the easily bored sheep happy. This week it's 'Forward not back' on a red and green background, next week it's 'Sideways not downwards' on lilac and tan, the week after it's 'Clockwise not widershins' on orange and cream and the week after that it's 'Walking sensibly not running down the corridor' on peach and avocado.

The Tories appear to be appropriating lines from an Elvis song - 'Less talk more action'. The slogan is suitably macho, to go with the new 'blood and soil' rolled up sleeve and torch logo.

The Lib Dems don't appear to have a slogan for us yet, but they may well lead with Mark Oaten's 'Tough Liberalism'. The Lib Dem canary logo gets a number one grade crew cut and Doc Martens.

And... blimey, I was just googling UKIP's site for their slogan ('We want our country back' - Albion? Wessex?) and I saw that they've got Rustie Lee as a supporter! Has anyone told Nigel Farage?

He's right you know.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the hunting ban:

For Labour MPs, hunting has become a displacement activity, a means in which they try to persuade themselves - against all evidence - that they still belong to a radical movement. For the government it has been a vital sop to buy off discontent in the ranks, up to and including the most appalling betrayal of what the party once stood for.


For those who don't know the figures, by the way, more than 700 hours of parliamentary time were devoted to the hunting ban, as against seven hours spent on the decision to invade Iraq, a comparison that sums up the way we are governed.

On the evening the ban was passed, Martha Kearney on Newsnight described the political background, and the government's motives last year in taking up the hunting bill once again. As she said quite matter-of-factly, "it was brought back to restore morale after the war in Iraq".

So there you have it. This was a crust thrown to Labour MPs to thank them for supporting an unnecessary, illegal and immoral war, which Blair took this country into simply to demonstrate his uncritical loyalty to the most reactionary American president in living memory, and which has killed at least 20,000 and possibly 100,000 innocent people.


This doesn't mean that I won't permit myself a little smug smile of satisfaction when/if hunting is finally banned. After all, pissing off the toffs seems, to me, very much a good thing. However, Wheatcroft is undoubtably right to argue that this government's (half-arsed) effort to ban hunting is not motivated by real political or moral conviction. It's little more than a calculated, managerial manoeuvre on the part of New Labour. It's a bone to be tossed to the backbenchers and to 'core' Labour voters, to keep them on side. And while Old Labour do their best to convince themselves that this rather measly and fleshless bone is in fact the greatest of feasts, the real business of Blairism carries on unchecked - cutting benefits, creeping privatisation and war for oil.

Ken Livingstone

Ken Livingstone refuses to apologise for remarks made to an Evening Standard reporter.

Associated Newspapers (publishers of the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail) refuse to apologise for pumping out putrid, reactionary bilge on a daily basis.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

I'm Not In

I'm sorry I'm not here right now, but if you'd like to leave a message I'll get back to you later.


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