Wednesday, March 23, 2005

When Mormons Attack

I was minding my own business, walking through a quiet area of York this afternoon when someone hailed me. I didn't hear what he said, so I turned to face him - a dapper bloke in a suit with a neat leather carrycase under his arm. 'Bollocks', I thought, it's either a drunken office worker looking for trouble, or, worse than that, a fucking Mormon'.

'How you doing today, sir?' This time I heard it properly. It was delivered in a breezy American accent. Bugger - it is a fucking Mormon.

'I'm fine.' I replied, desperately trying to think of some way of getting out of the inevitable button holing to follow.

'I'm from the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints' continued the impossibly cheerful voice, 'and I wonder if I could have a minute of your time today?'. His eyes had the unmistakable half-insane gleam of the religious fanatic.

Now I'd stopped walking and the besuited god-botherer was facing me square on. The last time I was accosted by an Evangelical in the street, I'd gone through the usual motions and found the usual escape strategy - 'sorry, can't stop. Got an urgent appointment somewhere' - but I'd left thinking, 'the next time I meet one, I'll try and argue. Surely, the cold blast of some form of rational argument would knock the buggers for six'. But now, in the presence of that mad-eyed stare and that terrible, insistent mid-West accent, I felt my knees going to jelly and a surge of something between fear and anger sweeping through my chest. There was no way I could engage in a proper argument with this man - my mind was somewhere near blind panic. What is it about Evangelicals that has this effect on me? I can argue quite calmly with Tories, liberals, UKIP supporters - but Mormons scare the living shit out of me.

'Have you ever considered the big questions in life?' the Mormon goes on 'I'd like to talk to you about Jesus and the promise...'

'I'm sorry, I'm a socialist' I blurted out as I tried to walk off (why was I 'sorry'?). I must have hoped that this would get the guy to back off. He seemed taken aback for half a second. He was probably thinking 'Yeah this guy's one of Satan's disciples all right'. But he rapidly gathered himself together and launched back into the attempted conversion.

'Oh, well, you know, Jesus accepts everyone, no matter who they are..' etc etc

What I should have done at this point was ask him whether the Church of the Latter Day Saints had anything to say about Third World poverty, US Imperialism, the war in Iraq and so on. I should have asked him whether The Church of the Latter Day Saints fights against starvation, oppression and the disgusting inequalities of wealth presided over by the Bush administration and all the rest of it. But I didn't. I just got mad/scared and I couldn't think straight. I mumbled something about having to be somewhere else and started to walk away very quickly.

'Well, you have a great day now won't you?' the man called after me. Maddeningly, there was no option but to return the pleasantry over my shoulder.

Next time, I'll try to hold my nerve.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Chavismo and Poulantzas

No, nothing to do with 'chavs' - that rather unpleasant and snobbish term of abuse used to describe urban, underclass kids. I'm referring to the political phenomenon in Venezuela. I must admit that I've not been following political events in Venezuela very closely recently, but I occasionally pop in to Venezuela to get the latest (S.U.N., too, is good for Venezuelan info). I'm quite a big fan of Chavez and, although there are clearly faults in the politics of the movement that surrounds him, I can't stand those holier-than-thou European and North American lefties who constantly snipe at him (as I'm sure I've mentioned before somewhere).

One article that caught my attention recently was this one, which discusses, amongst other things, the nature and structure of pro-Chavez mobilisation. The central idea seems to be that Chavismo seeks to combine struggle both within and outside the established institutional structures of the Venezuelan state. It makes use of the structures of 'bourgeois'*, representative democracy while, at the same time, it seeks to encourage the proliferation of decentralised, grass-roots forms of participatory democracy (what us socialists might call workers' councils or soviets if we're feeling like sticking our necks out) . Chavismo is then, in some ways, a very interesting attempt to by-pass the hoary old reform/revolution dichotomy - an attempt to combine direct (council) and representative (parliamentary) forms of democracy in the transition to a socialist order.

In fact, the strategy of Chavismo is strikingly similar to the strategy proposed and theorised by Nicos Poulantzas in his last book, State, Power, Socialism. The greater part of the book is taken up with an analysis of the capitalist state - its form, functions and the mechanisms through which it helps to ensure bourgeois domination and the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production. SPS advances a theory in which (to some extent at least) Poulantzas’ earlier Althusserian structuralist rigidity (see Political Power and Social Classes for example) is relaxed and which offers an analysis of the capitalist state in which state power is regarded less as the effect of the particular place of the political ‘level’ within the overall structural matrix of the CMP and more as the (indirect) expression of the relations of power between classes. The last Chapter of SPS advances a possible strategy for the socialist transformation of society which flows from many of Poulantzas’ conclusions in earlier sections of the book about the nature of capitalist state power.

The central point of Poulantzas' analysis is that the state is ‘the specific material condensation of a relationship of forces among classes and class fractions’ (Poulantzas, 2000; 129). It is not a ‘thing’ or an instrument, but a social relation between classes. The state is, in effect, the ever changing material reflection or expression of the balance of class forces - it is the institutional accretion of the effects of past class struggles. The state’s structure and internal organisation, that is, is constantly modified and re-shaped by struggles between classes and between class fractions. It follows that the state is not a monolithic, unified bloc - it is a fractured apparatus, riven with contradictions, fissures and divisions. Neither is it an apparatus which is entirely controlled by, or which exclusively represents the interests of, the ruling class. The struggles of the working class shape the state’s structure and, therefore, working class power (to a certain extent) is manifested and embedded within the state and their interests are reflected in various aspects of state policy.

His strategy centres on the exploitation of the fractured and fissured nature of the strategic terrain of the state and the presence of working class centres of resistance within it. The working class, Poulantzas argues, should ‘bring itself to bear on the internal contradictions of the State’ (Poulantzas, 2000; 257). He claims that:

In the democratic road to socialism, a long process of taking power essentially
consists in the spreading, development, re-inforcement, co-ordination and
direction of these diffuse centres of resistance, which the masses always
possess within state networks, in such a way that they become the real centres
of power on the strategic terrain of the State.
(Poulantzas, 2000; 258)

Poulantzas argues that the Left should seek to combine struggle within the capitalist state though forms of representative democracy with struggle outside the state through forms of direct democracy. Socialist forces should seek to elect a left-wing government and to win the support of a large section of the state personnel so that government and state employees can act together within the heart of the state apparatus. At the same time, the Left should seek to encourage the proliferation of organs of grass roots direct -democracy (such as factory and office councils, neighbourhood committees, university councils, committees of the unemployed and so on). These two forms of struggle and organisation, Poulantzas argues, would complement and support each other.

In opposition to Marxist orthodoxy, then, Poulantzas does not consider rank and file democracy as a sweeping alternative to representative democracy. He does not think that the two forms of democracy would be radically incompatible with one another, or that they would become opposed poles of attraction for different social classes as in the Leninist conception of dual power. Instead, Poulantzas talks of an ‘organic relationship… between citizens’ committees and universal suffrage assemblies that will themselves have been transformed as a function of the relationship’ (Poulantzas, 2000; 262).

Of course, there are lots of major problems with Poulantzas's suggested strategy (many of which, I think, also plague the Chavez approach). Colin Barker rips many of Poulantzas's ideas to shreds in an article in International Socialism 4 (though I think Barker is unfair to Poulantzas on a number of issues) as does Bob Jessop (in a rather more genteel fashion) in his book, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy. I don't want to go into these problems in much depth here - but, basically, they concern the long-term compatibility of representative and participatory forms of democracy, the problem of the perpetual deferment of the 'final and decisive break with capitalism' implicit in this approach, the concomitant danger of a gradual slide into social democratic crisis management on behalf of capital and the problem of organised ruling class violence.

However, the general approach - the combination of struggle within and outside the established structures of the state and the creation of an ‘organic relationship… between citizens’ committees and universal suffrage assemblies that will themselves have been transformed as a function of the relationship’ - seems, to me, a promising one. Or, at least, it's promising as long as the process of transition is not seen as a smooth and gradual one. A serious rupture must come sooner or later.

* I've put this word in scare quotation marks, because I'm reluctant to term parliamentary democracy 'bourgeois democracy'. This idea, I'm afraid, is nastily reminiscent of the 3rd International's position on western, capitalist democracy - that democratic rights under advanced capitalism are unreal, purely formal and wholly illusory. The phrase 'bourgeois democracy', for me, goes hand in hand with the blanket dismissal (Lenin I'm afraid was just as guilty of this as his successors) of parliamentary democracy as a straightforward 'swindle'. On the contrary (and I'm sure this is what Paul Foot writes in his recent book) democratic rights and liberties under capitalism are real - just necessarily partial, truncated and manipulated in order that they do not undermine the power of the ruling class.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

An Unfocused Ramble About School Uniform

The recent court ruling on Shabina Begum's right to wear the Jilbab at school has caused a bit of stir in the national media and, also, in the political blogging world. I'm not going to go into the rights and wrongs of the Begum case, here, because Meaders and Lenin have already covered the issue in a great deal of depth and much better than I could. For what it's worth, I agree with those two bloggers that the court decision was right and that socialists should support the right of Muslim women (and, indeed, people from other religious faiths) to choose whether or not to wear religious garments. There is an agressively secularist section of the Left which tends to slide into authoritarian thinking on this issue - a social authoritarianism which seems completely at odds with fundamental socialist principles.

The debate over the ruling, however, got me thinking about an issue (peripheral to the Begum case) which has bothered me for quite some time - whether or not socialists should support school uniform policies in schools at all. OK, this is hardly a major issue, but neither is it a completely insignificant one. For those of you who don't know, I was (briefly) a teacher in a comprehensive school a few years ago and I still (occasionally) work as a supply teacher* when I'm desperate for cash. I wasn't a particularly disciplinarian teacher and I always hated having to enforce the my school's unform policy. I remember many other teachers being incredibly strict about their students having their shirts tucked in, their top shirt button done up and their ties pulled tight - I could never understand it. I think my inability to get worked up about infringements of uniform policy was one of the (many) reasons that the school principal loathed me - I was was once hauled up in front of the principal, told off like I was a naughty Year 7, and threatened with dismissal. God I hated that woman.

Anyway, I digress. The main point so far, is that I just don't think that it is particularly important that children should dress with impeccable neatness and formality. I would be quite happy if students did not have to wear any kind of uniform at all. Having said that, I can see that there is an egalitarian argument to be made in favour of uniform. Many left-wing teachers are in favour of uniform because they feel that children may come under intense pressure from their peers to wear expensive designer clothes and trainers etc if no uniform policy exists at school and that this is a particular problem for kids from poorer backgrounds. In fact, I had an argument with a socialist friend about this the other day (after watching a news report about the Begum case). My friend argued that all state schools should have a uniform policy, rehearsing the argument I've just outlined above. He said that he was bullied at school for not wearing the 'right' trainers and for not wearing brand name clothes and said that, having experienced this, he was convinced that socialists should support uniform policies as a bulwark against the encroachment of commodification and competitive, materialistic pressures into childrens' lives.

He has a very powerful point, I think. However, there are counter-arguments to be made from a socialist point of view. It should be remembered that schools are not 'neutral', non-capitalist institutions. The education system is, of course, largely (though not wholly) geared towards the reproduction of labour power for capitalist exploitation. Capitalism requires obedient, docile workers, socialised into accepting, without question, relations of domination and subordination, hierarchy and so on. Uniform policies seem to me an essential part of this process - they help to turn children within school into an undifferentiated mass of (formally free and equal?) passive 'pupils' who are taught, instructed or trained by their adult superiors. I'm not arguing that discipline isn't necessary in school (God knows I've been at the receiving end of some pretty bad behaviour in my time and it isn't pleasant** - and remember that stress levels are particularly high amongst teachers, largely because of the continual morale sapping grind of trench warfare type conflict in the class room). I do argue however, that many (most?) of the discipline problems experienced by long suffering teachers in the class room stem from the capitalist context in which this education takes place. It seems to me highly unlikely that in a socialist society, children would be forced to wear uniform and treated like passive, subordinate objects to be instructed by their elders and betters.

What about the egalitarian argument in favour of uniform? Well, as I've pointed out, it is quite a powerful argument - however, I don't find it convincing. Of course many children are under incredible pressure to wear the 'right' things and this can put a terrible strain on those kids whose parents are unable or unwilling to buy them designer clothing. The thing is, though, that in my experience, school uniform policy does not eradicate these pressures for children in school time. You can still buy more or less expensive black or grey trousers, you can still wear designer shoes or even dark trainers and keep within the dress code. You can still carry your books in designer sports bags and wear expensive football boots during games lessons etc etc. Consumerist pressures still encroach on school life when a unform policy in is place.

* As an aside, I taught for a couple of weeks in a predominantly Muslim school in Bradford about a year ago now. Interestingly, a lot of the girls wore designer Calvin Klein hijabs! They were dark blue with discreet little CK logos. Capitalism gets everywhere huh. I wonder if they do CK skull caps or crucifixes - I wouldn't be surprised. How long before FCUK do vicars' cassocks?

** One of my students let off a firework under his desk in the middle of a lesson. The same student jumped out of a window some time later (luckily I taught in ground floor classroom!) I remember thinking, 'I know Julius Caesar is for the most part a rather dull play, but it's not that boring you little bastard'.

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