My songs of 2019 are in no particular order except that I’d probably place God Control at number one. I think it’s one of the best things Madonna has ever done and find it remarkable she’s releasing music like this almost 40 years into her career. It’s a towering testament to what pop music is capable of and a necessary reminder of what Madonna brings to the game. If one of the current pop divas had released it I think it would be topping end of year lists everywhere, because it’s exactly what we need more of in these dark times: soaring, ambitious, political pop.
Britney Spears’ previous album, Britney Jean, staggered onto the stage as the pinnacle of ‘zombie pop‘ and was “one of the most depressing albums I have ever heard.” It was so wretched that I thought we might have reached the bottom of the barrel:
…pop isn’t taken seriously as an art form yet a trite populism means that it’s instinctively defended against any and all criticism. When the banal output of One Direction is celebrated as a joyful cultural force, the pressure to do something great is pretty much non-existent. Add to this the fact that record sales are in decline, resulting in labels increasingly relying on their star artists for revenue (which itself comes more and more from advertising and endorsement deals) and you have a recipe for conservatism. The results of this have been unavoidable this year in most of the big pop releases: Prism’s dry self-denial; Gaga and Justin’s need to smother their music in tortured conceits to lend it ‘worth’; Miley’s ‘will this do?’ singles-and-filler effort. There’s been a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring. If Thriller was the music industry’s Star Wars, it feels like we’re at the stage where the results are market-driven dreck akin to Pearl Harbour.
Reading this in 2016, it’s certainly more difficult to complain about ‘a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring” when the pop mainstream is dominated by artists like Beyonce and Frank Ocean. The former surprise released Lemonade with an accompanying feature-length ‘visual album’ while the latter, not to be outdone, preceded his second album with an entirely separate visual album and then dropped blond with international pop-up shops. Both ‘campaigns’ generated enough hyperbole to power a nuclear power station, massive critical acclaim and commercial success. On the more prosaic end of the pop spectrum, teen idols like Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik have been reinvented in collaborations with electronic and r&b producers like Skrillex, Diplo and Malay.
Britney Spears has kinda been paying attention. This week she releases a new album, Glory, and it’s a step away from the formulaic EDM which characterised her recent efforts into more diverse, but not unexpected, areas. It seems a major pop album in 2016 isn’t complete without forays into reggae, hip-hop, minimalist r&b and other ‘sonic terrains’ which would please the Pitchfork and Vice crowd. Glory is miles better than Britney Jean (it would be very difficult not to be) but it still feels dead behind the eyes without turning that quality into a dazzling strength, as Blackout did. More to the point, it feels very traditional, in this age of the pop arms race – it’s just a collection of songs with no particular theme, trailed well in advance and preceded by a single. Perhaps it was felt that ‘the return of Britney Spears’ was a big enough splash on its own but it seems doubtful that this will be the case.
Listening to Glory, a couple of things conspired to lend context and get me thinking about pop in 2016. Firstly, Madonna’s Cherish came on random play soon after Glory ended:
Madonna of course has had plenty of her own creative conceits and bold marketing moves but it struck me, listening to Cherish, that you so rarely hear pop music like it anymore (even from Madonna). It’s guileless, charming and feels unencumbered by an acute self-awareness or concern for a wider context. In an era when songs, videos and albums show an eagerness to launch a thousand memes and our popstars offer carefully curated connection via social media, it seems increasingly rare to hear pop songs confident enough that they themselves are enough.
Rare but not unheard of. My thoughts turned to what seemed to me the most obvious example of this kind of pop in recent years: Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION, which saw its worldwide release one year ago this week. This anniversary was fresh in my mind as Jepsen has announced a companion release, E•MO•TION Side B, to mark it. The five-day gap from announcement to release is as far into the pop marketing arms race as Jepsen has yet ventured and while Call Me Maybe launched a plethora of viral videos, they felt like a cute aside to the song rather than a calculated part of its appeal.
In a review of Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP I once wrote:
…Gaga lacks confidence in pop as an art form in itself, seeming unable to let a song breathe and instead overbearing it with very deliberate efforts to be seen as a ‘proper artist’. Throughout ARTPOP signifier upon signifier is piled on top of sometimes brilliant melodies, creating enough room for breathless readings of Gaga’s ‘art’ certainly, but failing on the more basic level as engaging pop music. One of her early statements was that ‘pop will never be low-brow’, a suggested understanding that the simple pleasures of pop songs like (for example) Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe or Gaga’s own Poker Face were a powerful and admirable art form in themselves. With ARTPOP, however, it instead seems that Gaga thinks pop needs to be smothered in the language and aesthetics of more traditional art forms in order to have ‘value’.
It strikes me that this manifestation of Poptimism, wherein there’s a significant audience which requires its pop to be heavily signposted before they take it seriously, has gone turbo, feeding directly into the arms race of works which drape themselves in signifier after signifier that they are a ‘cut above’ your usual pop. It’s instructive that, for a mass audience, Carly Rae Jepsen is a semi-ironic one-hit-wonder to be enjoyed alongside Gangham Style. For a relatively small but vocal group, however, E•MO•TION marked her out as a pop artist in the most classic sense – someone who takes pop seriously enough to let it do the talking. From that plaintive sax which opens Run Away With Me, E•MO•TION grabs the heart with a charming sincerity atypical of the current pop scene: there is no overarching conceit tacked on, the music is not hinged on ‘Carly Rae Jepsen’ as a personality or cipher and for all the involvement of cool hitmakers like Sia and Blood Orange, it feels like an artist’s labour of love. It’s telling that in an article ostensibly praising the record, Vice still feels the need to observe that “maybe being marketed as a leftfield-leaning pop artist in the vein of Robyn is what Carly Rae Jepsen should be striving for”. It feels like we are increasingly unable to parse pop which doesn’t either make clear that it is SERIOUS AND CREDIBLE or allow itself to be framed as something apart from ‘real music’ which you are very broad-minded for enjoying. We expect the artist, and the marketing, to do a lot of the work for us. Hence Madonna recently distinguishing herself from ‘pop acts’ and labelling herself as an ‘artist’ – the people have to be told!
This is a large part of why Glory feels like an album out of time. I think it’s largely going for the latter kind of appreciation, relying on Britney as the kind of popstar many will like in a performative way without any real belief that she is an ‘artist’, yet it was preceded by an atypically ‘mature’ single and advance word labelling it a ‘new era’. It’s a mish-mash which feels like it doesn’t understand the current scene or its dominant strain of Poptimism and it will probably struggle to make much impact as a result. If you want commercial success and critical acclaim in the arms race of 2016 pop, you gotta work, bitch.
No-one would have predicted that a Will Young video would inspire comment pieces at all, let alone in 2015. Yet Brave Man inspired two Guardian pieces in one day due to its depiction of a trans man, played by a trans male actor. As these pieces note, reaction to the video was mixed and it led to a (small) reignition of debate around the concept of ‘allies’ (the subject of Owen Jones’ column.) As a result, Paris Lees took to Twitter to praise some ‘trans allies’:
This list was illuminating for all of the wrong reasons. Aside from overwhelmingly being made up of celebrities and ‘the commentariat’ (which I’ll come back to later), it implicitly suggested a particular definition of ‘trans’. It did not, for example, suggest that any trans people could be harmed by Islamophobia (see Cathy Newman’s lying about being ‘ushered out’ of a mosque), racism (Grace Dent’s appalling take on teenagers who join ISIS, suitably deconstructed here) or the use of AIDS and ‘tranny’ as casual punchlines. The inclusion of the managing editor of The Sun, renowned for its bigotry and extreme right-wing views, was particularly breathtaking but perhaps unsurprising as Lees writes for it. What the list seemed to represent, then, was less ‘allies of all trans people’ than ‘allies of trans people like Paris Lees and Paris Lees’. Indeed, Owen Jones was included in the list and returned the favour by liberally quoting Lees in his column defending allies:
Paris Lees is passionate about winning trans allies through the impressive awareness raising project All About Trans, and is irritated when there’s “a big backlash against anyone who tries to be an ally”. They should be given space to grow and educate themselves, she believes. But she puts the anger of many trans activists in an important context: “I don’t know of any trans people not deeply damaged by discrimination, and so there’s lots of angry people out there.” An ally will get it wrong and upset those they want to support. But the reaction surely is to listen and understand an anger that erupts from a toxic mixture of prejudice and marginalisation.
Jones is savvy enough to anticipate the pitfalls of defending the concept of ‘allyship’ in his opening paragraph, suggesting you may get accused of ‘drowning out’ minority voices or ‘making it about you’. Yet of course this is what the column does, with its lengthiest paragraph being about Jones’ previous experience of writing about trans rights. Someone who identifies as an ‘ally’ to trans people writing in defence of ‘trans allies’ can’t help but seem somewhat self-indulgent, especially when you’ve been criticised for e.g. sitting on a panel called ‘How To Be Happy And Transgender‘. Even Jack Monroe’s column is angled as a defence of the video from those criticising it.
Yet if someone trying to be an ally should, as Paris Lees suggests, ‘be given space to grow and educate themselves’, why approach criticism largely originating from other trans people as unwarranted and unhelpful? The framing of ‘ally’ here is quite a typical one: it suggests that people deserve props for ‘trying’ and for ‘speaking out’. This implies that there is some place we arrive at where we are ‘enlightened’, whether that be with regards to gender, sexuality, race, disability or whatever. There is no such place. Whomever we are, we are always engaged in an everyday battle to overcome the mental barriers of what bell hooks calls white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. We cannot escape this and, as hooks’ term underlines, we particular cannot escape the myriad of ways in which these oppressions interact and intersect
The concept of ‘allies’ largely negates this idea of constant struggle, replacing it with the risible notion that you deserve praise for ‘trying’ not to be racist or transphobic or sexist or homophobic. For me it lessens the complex humanity of those at the sharp end of these kinds of oppression and positions them as abstract groupings. They are presented as learning tools, as chances to show how ‘good’ you are (note Lees’ ‘who’ve gone out of their way to be friends to trans people’ as if it’s a project) and at its most cynical, as marketing opportunities. It’s notable that, in the LGBT world at least, the term is most commonly applied to the kind of people Paris Lees listed: celebrities and those in positions of some power. Take this recent Gay Times tweet:
“A straight ally in every sense.” What does this even mean? It seems to boil down to ‘he says he thinks homophobia is bad, loves his gay fans and poses in his pants with a rainbow painted on his torso’. It’s absolutely nothing to do with oppression and everything to do with boosting his profile. In the process of celebrating this drivel, we are complicit in being patronised and erasing the many differences within our communities. Attitude gives an award called ‘Honorary Gay’ to straight people (who, if recent recipient Lorraine Kelly is anything to go by, merely say nice things about gays) while many lap up the self-serving ‘charity’ of Ben ‘gays love grooming’ Cohen or the Warwick Rowers with their UKIP supporting ‘leader’. It’s a neat bait and switch: having benefited (in varying degrees) from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, ‘allies’ then elevate themselves again by feigning to oppose aspects of it in the most weak manner imaginable. Yet we see ‘allyship’ actually serving to reinforce aspects of this by policing the kind of ‘minority’ we’re supposed to (aspire to) be – e.g. as a gay man ‘allyship’ tells me that I am supposed to fit into white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as far as possible rather than challenge it. “Look, this rich and successful white man thinks gays should be able to get married – and you complain?!”
Indeed, as we see in the columns about Brave Man, anyone who responds to ‘allyship’ with strong criticism quickly finds the limits of how much their voice is truly valued. They will inevitably be accused of being ‘cynical’, ‘ungrateful’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘angry’. The responses to Bahar Mustafa and the consent lessons at Warwick are prominent examples of people feeling attacked by having forms of oppression raised because they think they’re on the right side already. Celebrating ‘allyship’ does not lend itself to self-reflection or accepting criticism but instead places individual ego at the centre of social justice. When I wrote about the absurdity of Ben Cohen appearing on Newsnight to discuss homophobia, I was attacked by Antony Cotton (no less) who seemed to think I should be grateful for Cohen’s ‘activism’. Any criticism is accepted entirely on the terms of the ‘ally’ and supporters.
The question at the heart of all this, then, is inevitably ‘ally to whom?’ To return to Paris Lees’ tweets as an example, many trans people are clearly excluded by those she deems as ‘allies’ (particularly trans poc). When Jones writes that “trans people are basically where gay people were in the 1980s” it doesn’t seem to occur to him that many queer people are still there in many ways. The recent OUTstanding list of business ‘allies’, meanwhile, includes such luminaries as the union-busting, tax-avoiding Richard Branson and a veritable horde of execs at morally dubious firms. These people are certainly not my allies by any stretch of the imagination yet, in ally discourse, I am supposed to celebrate them because they have LGBT networks, have diversity targets or enable people to put rainbows on their Facebook celebrating ‘equal marriage’ (which was only ‘equal’ for some).
Only a robust, intersectional approach which recognises our full humanity can counter this. Of course representation matters but to suggest, as Owen Jones does, that ‘solidarity’ = ‘building coalitions’ = “allies” is wrong. We have to reject the idea that ‘trying’ is worth either our gratitude or our celebration. We try because we are human and because we care about other humans, not because it’s an ostentatiously ‘good’ thing to do. We should always be able to criticise and always open to criticism. We should not be complicit in our own reduction: do not celebrate being patronised by celebrities, do not rejoice when media companies worth hundreds of millions ‘amplify our voices’ without paying us, do not award executives who make positive noises on equality while enabling industrial scale tax avoidance and helping arm dictators. The kind of ‘allyship’ which has entered the mainstream bears little relation to anything of true value. Rather it brings a host of problems and few benefits. I am not an ally.
To call the image of Aylan Kurdi ‘tragic’ doesn’t seem to be enough. The word can’t carry the necessary levels of revulsion, horror, anger, upset, not only at the image itself but at the fact it has gone ‘viral’ today. To even write that in the context of a dead three-year old boy feels so, so wrong.
Aylan and his family, hailing from Kobanî in Syria, were attempting to get to Canada, where his aunt Teema and other family members lived. The authorities in Canada had already rejected an application for refugee status made by the family, with the fact that the UN does not register Syrian-Kurdish refugees in Turkey as refugees and the Turkish state does not give them exit visas cited as ‘complexities’ leading to the decision.
Aylan’s father, Abdullah, survived. We don’t know what he thinks about his son’s corpse making front pages around the globe and popping up on social media sandwiched between Buzzfeed lists and the Miley Cyrus/Nicki Minaj ‘beef’. Who knows if anyone has even asked him? He may plan to take the bodies of Aylan, Aylan’s brother Galip and their mother Rehan back to Kobanî but the image will endure long after even Abdullah is dead. It belongs to us now, weaponised as a means to ‘make people care’.
It’s said 11 other people died in the drowning which claimed Aylan. The UNHCR states that over 2,500 have died in recent months attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Fortress Europe. Amnesty states that over 1,700 died in the same circumstances in the period January-April. In Syria and Iraq alone, some 15 million people have been displaced (to elsewhere within and externally) in the past few years, while poverty, war and persecution has led millions to flee Libya, South Sudan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Myanmar, Nigeria, Ukraine and more. This is not a new problem – the UNHR stated in June that the number of people displaced in the world was at its highest point since World War II – yet Aylan’s image is being shared with a previously unseen sense of urgency and purpose.
Clearly some good will come from this, yet it is profoundly troubling that we as a society instrumentalise the image of a dead child in order to ‘make people care’. Without wishing to diminish the complexity of the situation, the countries contibuting directly to the refugee crisis are almost without exception ones which have been subject to colonial, imperialist interference by the countries now hand-wringing over how many refugees to take, scrapping sea rescue operations and whether to use gunboats to deter the people from coming. Decisions have been made in afternoon meetings which have wreaked havoc on the lives of people thousands of miles away. Now we replicate this mindset, taking it upon ourselves to share images of death in order to ‘help’. Whether dead or alive, it would appear that we like our ‘victims’ to be silent and subservient. Contrast the spreading of Aylan’s image with the response to images of the on-air news shooting in the USA or of Western victims of ISIS – the latter is widely seen as morally reprehensible and met with condemnation. The bodies of ‘Westerners’ are seen as worthy of dignity and respect, not to be used as propaganda in order to ‘raise awareness’ (a motive which, in a dark irony, ISIS almost certainly uses to justify its own sharing of brutalities). It’s a mindset and dynamic present in the ebola outbreak, where images of dying black bodies contrasted with ‘human stories’ of Western victims. The racism at its core of this mindset is underlined by its presence within countries like the USA when it comes to sharing images of black victims of violence:
Though these images highlight and often expose injustice, they show human beings at some of their most vulnerable moments. Personally, if I am ever murdered or beaten, I don’t want it to become a public spectacle for critique, entertainment and observance. We consume these images for public debate and recycle them as energy to push our protests, whether it is for a protest sign or to hear Peter King say, “If you can’t breathe, you can’t talk.” In our observance of incidents, we rarely stop to ask ourselves what the victim would think of our gaze.
The common thread here is that, however well-intentioned the sharing of the images are, the people in them are seen as ‘the other’, as fundamentally different from ourselves. They are seen as weaker, less able to speak for themselves, less complicated human beings, lacking in their own agency. They are seen as people ‘we’ need to save and if they keep quiet while we do it, all the better. One fundamental problem here is that it presents the problem as a humanitarian one, rather than a political one – we need to save them but there is far less focus on how we contribute to the creation of the issue in the first place.
Yet it’s clear that sharing such images can feel like doing something (and a common response to the above criticisms is ‘well what are you doing about it?) Their sharing may reflect a deeply-ingrained insidious mindset (which none of us are untouched by) but can come from a place of impotence, a sense of our own powerlessness. Here are some ideas for what we can do instead of sharing such images:
1 – If you want to post about this on social media, use that small platform to amplify the voices of those directly affected. There are interviews in newspapers, sites devoted to documenting the stories of those at the Calais camp, organisations led by migrants which seek to strengthen their own voices, events like Refugee Week and groups like Counterpoint Arts which seek to support the expression of people who have been migrants or refugees. Make an effort to find these voices – however imperfectly framed they may be (e.g. filtered through a Guardian interview) it is infinitely better in promoting our common humanity.
2 – Wherever possible, use ‘people’ instead of ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’. The latter terms aren’t to be shied away from but language matters here.
3 – Support and be led-by organisations already working in this field. Refugee Action, Migrant Rights, the Red Cross, Asylum Aid, Bail for Immigration Detainees, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, the Refugee Council, Refugee Legal Centre, Music Against Borders, Doctors of the World, Asylum Welcome, Calais – People to People Solidarity, Scottish Refugee Council, the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees, Refugee Women’s Association, Student Action for Refugees. There will be many more, including local groups. I’m sure all could use your donations but get in touch if you want to help and listen to what’s needed.
4 – Educate yourself about the facts of immigration and asylum. Some of the organisations above are good places to start with this but this brief book is a great primer. This is a brilliant read on the UK’s long, rich foundation of immigration while this makes a level-headed positive case for its benefits. There are already strong myths which have taken hold regarding the current ‘crisis’.
5 – Educate yourself about government policy on immigration and asylum. Understanding this exposes the stark hypocrisy of politicians like Yvette Cooper, who supported every aspect of New Labour’s regressive asylum policy. The Migration Observatory has a lot of good briefings while organisations like Liberty tackle the UK’s egregious policies. There are briefings on different aspects, such as the labour market, and pieces which tackle the common myths head-on. Understand the difference between ‘migrant’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ but ask reject the narrative of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’.
6 – Understanding the political context of immigration and asylum, make links to other issues. The current ‘debate’ is intertwined with Islamophobia and wider racism. It is linked to our foreign policy, with London Review of Books articles on our role in Syria and Iraq being a wealth of information. It is linked to the arms trade and our support for despotic regimes. It is linked to climate change. It is linked to our history of colonialism. It is linked to the politics of trade, debt and aid. Re-politicise the images we are seeing and understand our own agency here.
7 – With this knowledge, try and influence the ‘debate’ in your own way. Speaking up whenever the people around us are engaging in anti-immigrant sentiment is difficult and uncomfortable but one small way in which we can directly make a difference. Call out the media when it repeats myths, makes factually incorrect statements and perpetuates stereotypes. Write to politicians at every level demanding they fight the poisonous atmosphere around this issue. IfListen to and support those affected. Support those working in linked areas.
All of us living in countries such as the UK benefit from Fortress Europe. Understanding the violence inherent in that fortress is essential but it doesn’t mean we have to feel powerless and reduce our action to further dehumanising people or signing a petition. I probably wouldn’t have written this if the photos of Aylan hadn’t appeared everywhere but that doesn’t mean the photos should be uncritically accepted as ‘making a positive difference’. We need to educate ourselves and keep fighting this fight, long after these photos have vanished from the public consciousness into Google’s archives.
Post-crash politics may at times have been so bleak as to bring me to tears but it’s certainly not been dull. The financial crisis of 2008 briefly seemed to offer exciting opportunities for the left yet it quickly became obvious that the overriding response of elites was ‘let’s get back to normal asap’. Many are convinced we’ve done this, with the surprise Tory victory in May confirming that the ‘status quo’ was back in business. However there’s been a palpable sense of papering over the cracks, of those in power (across the establishment) sticking their fingers in their ears and saying ‘laaaaaaaaa laaaaaaaaaaaa’ very loudly. Whether it be the changing fortunes of the various political parties, the fragile economic ‘recovery’, the crisis in the European Union or the increased visibility of grassroots groups such as Focus E15, there’s been a real sense of flux; of an interregnum with no clear end in sight. The current storm (if it can be called that) around Jeremy Corbyn feels perfectly at home in this context. If you live in the UK and follow politics, it can’t have escaped your attention that the demonisation of Corbyn is in full swing. Ever since Yougov released a poll putting Corbyn in first place of the Labour leadership election, those who want to pretend that we’re ‘back to normal’ have been going feral. The Guardian in particular has been dismally hilarious with their endless attack pieces:
I don’t need to write how utterly absurd most of this is – many others have already eloquently done so. I did, however, want to write a few words about some of the stock responses the Labour right (exemplars of the ‘carry on as normal’ crew) have offered in response to Corbyn’s rise. Much of them are encapsulated in this truly terrible piece by Robert Priest, finger-wagging at the left for being out-of-touch with the electorate. Most people, he argues, aren’t particularly left-wing, although they are ‘surely to the left of the Conservative frontbench on many issues’. We are, it seems, in that ever mythical ‘centre-ground’ which the Labour right are absolutely obsessed with. Priest uses data from the British Social Attitude survey to make this argument. The following paragraph leapt out at me:
Most pressing for the Left is the big picture: the proportion of people in favour of higher taxation and spending has collapsed from 63 per cent to just 37 per cent in the ten years from 2004 to 2014. Support for welfare spending has plummeted. Those who remember Blair-era clichés about a ‘social-democratic majority’ should consider whether they still stand up to scrutiny.
It’s true that the proportion supporting higher tax and welfare spending has been in ‘long-term’ decline. Yet if we take an even longer view, the picture isn’t quite so clear-cut: Support for increasing taxes and spending more actually rose between ’83 and plateaued around ’91/’92 before beginning its (shaky) decline. If we look at this graph in 10 year increments, it’s clear that public opinion on this question can vary enormously in relatively short periods of time. The BSA argues that this variation may match public spending – ie when the Thatcher government was cutting spending, support for more spending rose and the converse under New Labour – but this seems too pat:
We can see, for example, that support for more tax/spending rose in ’90/’91 while public spending was rising, and decreased betwen ’98-’00 when public spending was still falling. We’ve also not seen any marked increase in recent support despite public spending falling since 2010. What we can take away from this, then, is that a) public opinion is fluid and not easily explained and so therefore, b) there is no such thing as a fixed ‘centre’ of opinion. It seems fair to surmise that government and wider politics plays a role in shaping public opinion; it also seems certain that the media plays a big role here. This seems to be underlined by this infamous study which found that the ‘British public (are) wrong about nearly everything’. It cannot be a coincidence that opinion on matters like teenage pregnancy, immigration and welfare closely echoes the misconceptions advanced by our largely right-wing media (and indeed government). This is why one of the key arguments of the Labour right, that “we must start by meeting the voters where they are, not where we would like them to be“, is a nonsense. This means making policy on the basis of opinion which is both fluid and often misinformed.
It’s notable, of course, that this argument is always deployed to defend reinforcing negative stereotypes about welfare and immigration rather than, say, supporting renationalisation or taxing wealth. In the latter cases public opinion is seen as complex, changing or just plain wrong (see also Priest’s attempts to parse public opinion on abolishing tuition fees). Right-wing public opinion, however, is presented as immutable. So we end up with the absurdity of Labour leadership candidates supporting clampdowns on ‘welfare migrants’ despite it being based almost entirely on misinformation and ignorance as to its actual impact. Similarly, Labour’s capitulation to the welfare bill was based largely on public ignorance, whether that be with regards to the ‘benefit cap’ (which doesn’t save much money and makes people poorer) or welfare spending overall (increase over past 35 years is overwhelmingly due to pensions, approx. 31% of spending goes to older people as opposed to 3.6% to the unemployed/those on low incomes and it’s not out of line with comparable economies). I don’t even have to go into how far from any reality our immigration ‘debate’ is.
The Labour right, then, would have us make the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens worse in order to satisfy public ignorance.This brings me to another of their favoured arguments: that if Labour don’t win an election it is “not in a position to help people in Britain”. Ironically enough, this argument betrays the kind of paternalism and lack of imagination which these people like to berate the left for. Politics and the change it delivers is not gifted from on-high by benevolent politicians – it is a constant terrain of struggle and ‘ordinary’ people fight every day to change opinion and to help each other. Public opinion on ‘equal marriage’, for example, was far ahead of our politicians, with a majority supporting it before even civil partnerships were introduced. In refusing to acknowledge the power it has as both the party of opposition and as a potential social movement, the Labour right abdicates the terrain of public opinion and perception to the right. I’m not suggesting for a moment that public ignorance re: immigration or welfare is easily addressed but imagine a passionate, vibrant Labour Party vigorously making those arguments. It would matter and it would help people. Would support for benefit spending have steadily declined over the past 30 years had New Labour not embraced the rhetoric that it was a ‘problem‘ and aimed at the feckless? Would welfare policy be as it is currently had Labour not introduced ideas like workfare, tougher sanctions and work capability assessments? Would Labour’s achievements in reducing (some) poverty be so easily reversed had it loudly made the case for a welfare state and redistribution rather than attempting to ‘redistribute by stealth’? Would we be seeing the current Tory attack on industrial rights had Labour rolled back Thatcher’s restrictions on trade union activity?
We need only look at tuition fees to see the reality of the Overton Window and Labour’s ability to actively shape public opinion – in under 20 years the debate has moved from ‘tax-funded higher education vs tuition fees’ to one on what the level of tuition fees should be, with the Labour right presenting Corbyn’s abolition policy as the politics of irresponsibility and fantasy. The great irony is that it is the attachment of the Labour right to its own fantasy which is repeating itself here. The modern Labour right is obsessed with the founding myth of Michael Foot and the ‘longest suicide note in history’. Again and again we are told that Foot (and people like Tony Benn) took Labour to the brink of destruction with their loony left-wing ideas. Yet one of the things which radicalised Benn was his discovery in office of just how little power the left had against the forces of the British establishment and global capital. The context of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ wasn’t profligate left-wing barons running wild but a global crisis in capitalism which led Labour to seek an IMF loan, with concomitant stinging cuts. Following Thatcher’s election in ’79, Labour was actually ahead in the polls:
As you can see, Labour support actually briefly increased following Foot’s election. It then begins to decline as soon as the Labour right broke away and formed the SDP. Note that Tory support continued to decline during this period – the decline was clearly overwhelmingly due to the SDP splitting the vote. As late as April 1982, the ‘unelectable’ foot was still ahead of the Tories in the polls. That same month, the Falklands War began and the Tories experienced a massive surge in the polls – in the space of 14 days they went from being behind to having a double-digit lead, clearly the beneficiary of inflamed nationalist sentiment (where have we seen that since, I wonder?) This is now an ‘alternate history’, rarely advanced due to the dominance of the notion that Labour under Foot was irredeemable. Yet it was the Labour right who delivered the initial blow and in that sense history really is repeating itself as they obsess more over the ‘positioning’ of the party than in fighting the Conservatives and articulating a positive vision of society.
Labour has real power now and it actively harms people now when it refrains to use it in the arrogant assumption that it can only effect change when in government. I think this is a large part of why so many have been enthused by the Corbyn campaign, which seems positively exploding with energy when compared to his three competitors. It is also, ironically, the one which seems most based in reality in its refusal to bend to ignorance re: issues like welfare. There can be no doubt that Labour faces an almighty struggle to return to power and that Corbyn would face an onslaught (including from his own party) if he were leader. Yet he grasps that being in power is not a goal in itself. He grasps that what Labour does now matters. That’s why his demonisation by the right is failing dismally and why a sense of real possibility is afoot. It is not Corbyn who is repeating the mistakes of the past.
I said yesterday that had Jennicet Gutiérrez‘s protest at President Obama’s Pride Month address been a work of fiction, it would have been widely viewed as being too on-the-nose in its symbolism. Jennicet, a trans latina woman who turned out to also be an undocumented immigrant, chose the moment Obama started to celebrate his achievements on LGBT civil rights to speak out, asking the President to end deportations of and violence against, LGBTQ immigrants. As the press release from campaign group Not One More Deportation described:
Jennicet Gutiérrez interrupted the President during the White House pride celebration shouting “President Obama, release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention and stop all deportations.” As a transgender woman who is undocumented, Gutiérrez said she could not celebrate while some 75 transgender detainees were still being exposed to assault and abuse in ICE custody at this very moment.“The White House gets to make the decision whether it keeps us safe, “explains Gutiérrez “There is no pride in how LGBTQ and transgender immigrants are treated in this country. If the President wants to celebrate with us, he should release the LGBTQ immigrants locked up in detention centers immediately.”
As I reflect on what just happened at the White House, I am outraged at the lack of leadership that Obama demonstrated. He had no concern for the way that LGBTQ detainees are suffering. As a transwoman, the misgendering and the physical and sexual abuse – these are serious crimes that we face in detention centres. How can that be ignored? It’s heartbreaking to see the LGBTQ community I am part of turning their back on me, and the LGBTQ people in detention centres: how can they tolerate that kind of abuse?
Jennicet is an inspiration with a bravery far beyond that which I possess and she succeeded in putting LGBTQ deportations on the agenda – her interview on Fox News Latino is essential viewing. Yet with sad inevitability, the lack of solidarity Jennicet speaks of was reflected in much of the wider media, not least here in the UK where the focus has been on Obama’s sassy ‘shutting down’ of a ‘heckler’:
It was in this context that the discussion moved onto UKIP at Pride, with the sole mention of racism by the four white men being an unchallenged assertion by the UKIP representative that the party ‘has no racist policies’. This absurdity meant that Michael Salter, the Chairman of Pride in London who is a Tory former advisor to David Cameron, felt able to claim that the problem wasn’t UKIP but rather those who opposed UKIP. With a hearty lack of self-awareness, Salter claimed that Pride was a celebration of ‘tolerance and diversity’ and said he wished to include UKIP because it was an ‘inclusive event’. Yet poor Pride had been forced into action by a brutish element:
What we saw during the general election campaign, unfortunately, was people being very aggressive towards UKIP representatives, throwing eggs, and when UKIP applied to be part of the parade there was quite a lot of antagonism expressed on social media and there were lots of new people commenting and making threats, whether it’s sit-ins, throwing things or even things more unpleasant than that towards UKIP representatives
Vine asked, ‘why don’t you ban the thugs who want to bully them?’ with Salter replying ‘if we could find out who they were, certainly!’ He then, incredibly, invoked Pride’s history as ‘a protest movement’ in defence of UKIP being able to march.
Coming the day after Jennicet Gutiérrez’s actions, this was a perfect storm illustrating the contempt in which ‘radical’ and/or ‘minority’ voices are held by those who lead the LGBTQ movement. The victims here weren’t those affected by UKIP’s disgraceful rhetoric and policies but rather UKIP itself! Once again, we have the calm, rational leaders debating while the irrational. angry outsiders threaten and provoke. We should also note Salter’s careful choice of words – he states that the anger erupted when UKIP applied to be on the march – yet the first anyone beyond the Pride board heard of it was when they were already approved. This is important because in one stroke Salter elides the opposition from within Pride in London itself – Jacq Applebee, the board’s BAME representative, resigned in protest at UKIP’s involvement:
“When I joined London LGBT Pride’s Community Advisory Board, I felt overjoyed that I could make a positive difference to such an important event. However, I felt very isolated on the CAB, with my viewpoints often dismissed by an almost all-white group of representatives.”
She says that no-one on the CAB was shown the list of participants before it went public and that she first heard about UKIP’s involvement through what she calls a “chance tweet”. She also says the role of the board has been “totally ignored with such an incendiary case”.
It has been, in short, a contemptible shambles which has showed that Pride as it currently stands is unfit for purpose (there is an R.I.P. Pride protest planned tomorrow). Together with the bravery of Jennicet Gutiérrez, it has also revealed the fault-lines of the LGBTQ movement, which mirror those of wider white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. It’s clear many neglect the fact that a legion of LGBTQ siblings before us have had to fight loudly, angrily, for the day when a President invites LGBTQ people to the White House or racist parties and amoral corporations seek to use our community to gain respectability. If we truly wish to honour this struggle, we continue it and we leave no-one behind. We remember that Pride is political or it is nothing and we fight against our own movement ignoring and oppressing LGBTQ people. We can still reclaim it.
— Janet Mock (@janetmock) June 25, 2015
This is Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall, commenting on the UKIP at Pride debacle which has unfolded over the past few days. You will search in vain for an actual position on this from the UK’s foremost LGBT charity, though it’s not difficult to gauge what Hunt’s own position is:
With a few exceptions (Peter Tatchell supports UKIP’s removal; the editor of Pink News opposes it and dug up Brian Paddick to support this view) you will similarly struggle to find many of the LGBT community’s prominent organisations, media outlets and figures taking a position on this. There seems to be a widespread terror of being seen to be ‘political’ and offending anyone, as if ‘politics’ is some strange thing which exists over there and isn’t inherent in absolutely everything we say and do. Hunt’s tweets at the top have been typical of this approach, which presents the matter as merely a ‘disagreement’ within the LGBT community rather than a case of political choices being made over which voices and whose interests to prioritise.
It was a grim irony that the UKIP story broke only days after I wrote about Barclays again sponsoring Pride and the ubiquity of ‘pinkwashing’. There I wrote:
Truly we are a long way from the days when social justice and ‘queer rights’ were viewed as inextricably linked but there’s still a huge continuum between that and our current gloopy, undiscriminating praise at any notion of support for ‘LGBT equality’. We aren’t a separate class of people – we are as likely to be affected by Barclays screwing everyone over as the next person. We can do better than this.
This could easily be applied to the UKIP situation, where many seem to believe that LGBT people supporting the party means that it is changing, more welcoming and thus should be allowed to march at Pride. The Chair of the UKIP LGBT* group was given a platform on Pink News to argue that case. Another Pink News column argues “we must remember that one of the core principles of Pride is that of inclusion of all LGBT people”. Twitter has been awash with (overwhelmingly white male) assertions that Pride is about ‘inclusion’ and ‘tolerance’ and so ‘different opinions’ should be welcomed. It’s notable that even Pride in London’s statement retracting UKIP’s invitation to march went to pains to endorse this line of thinking, stating that “we aim to unite our community, not divide it” and making the bizarre claim that the decision “has not been made on a political basis”.
This line of thinking presents those opposing UKIP as intolerant and divisive – a perverse framing of anti-racism which was seized on by the UKIP LGBT* Chair, who presented its members as a ‘brave’ victimised minority:
Oh the humanity! Won’t somebody think of the ‘kippers?! While many advancing this reasoning are at pains to stress that they don’t support UKIP, they commonly hold the view that UKIP are a legitimate political party, that its views are held by many people and that it deserves to be at Pride if LGBT people support it (this is usually alongside the deeply weird claim that UKIP’s LGBT* group, comprised of UKIP members and candidates and proposing to march under the UKIP name, aren’t actually UKIP).
I’m sure some brains will seize up here but this argument smacks of the (overwhelmingly white male) privilege which has dominated the LGBT movement for so long. These people think they are being coldly rational, defending a ‘right’ rather than any particular viewpoint. Yet in doing so they are choosing whose voices and interests matter to them. They are choosing to ignore the many people of colour, immigrants, HIV+ people, anti-racists and more who have spoken of their disgust, dismay and even fear at UKIP’s proposed presence on the march. “Your concerns don’t matter, we must be inclusive!” is the utterly self-defeating cry.
Yet invariably the people taking this line have been outspoken in their support for the banning of anti-gay bus adverts. They have been outraged by the refusal of a Christian baker to make a wedding gay for a gay couple. They have applauded the legal win against guesthouse owners who turned away a gay couple. They aren’t riding to battle for the ‘rights’ of the EDL and BNP to march in Pride, despite them being banned:
Let’s remember that the Pride march is not an open, public event for organisations – you have to apply, pay a fee and Pride in London reserve the right to refuse you. It is clear, then, that the issue is less that all these people defending UKIP’s ‘rights’ are hardcore free speech absolutists but that they are comfortable with the kind of speech UKIP represents.
It is no coincidence that, by and large, it is a rhetoric which poses no threat to a white, HIV-negative gay man, despite UKIP’s repeated and continued homophobia. By dropping its opposition to same-sex marriage, UKIP were tacitly embracing the totemic human-rights issue for many in the LGBT community and thus removing the major road block to LGBT support. They’re fine with gay people getting married: the end. Any consideration of how LGBT identity interacts with immigration, with HIV, with racism, with misogyny falls by the wayside: in dropping opposition to marriage, UKIP ceases to be a problematic ‘political’ case for many and just becomes another group which deserves to be heard, even if you personally don’t support it.
This is a political choice which clearly elevates some interests above others. It’s also a prime example of ‘white fragility’ where racism is viewed as an individual moral issue rather than a systemic ideology:
This is evident in many discussions of UKIP, where you will inevitably hear claims that ‘it’s not racist to oppose immigration’ and ‘you can’t label millions of people as racist’. ‘Racism’ is this terrible thing which you must never accuse someone of, an attitude which is endemic in the UK and beyond. To do so is to be divisive and worse, to be angry. You are ruining it for all of the lovely, rational, nice people!
Here’s the rub: UKIP is racist. It’s not racist in the sense that it has a few ‘bad apples’ or a few wacky policies, it is a fundamentally racist organisation. The founder of the party abandoned it stating (tw: racist language):
…the party ‘are racist and have been infected by the far right’, and that its leader Nigel Farage told him ‘we will never win the nigger vote. The nig-nogs will never vote for us.’
Its policies and support-base have had significant overlap with the far-right; it has been backed by the BNP, Britain First and EDL, with Tommy Robinson stating “they are saying exactly what we say in a different way”; its has countless links with the far-right and Farage has been photographed with prominent members of the National Front/BNP who viewed UKIP as allies; they have sat with fascists in the European Parliament and fought to retain funding for parties like the BNP; its tactics and appeal are a direct continuation of the far-right in the UK; it is opposed by every anti-racist and anti-fascist organisation you could mention.
The far-right thrive on attempting to divide communities and pose as the ‘common sense’ voice – this is why communities turn out in the streets to show united opposition to far-right marches. It’s also why unity of opposition to UKIP at Pride should have been a no-brainer: not only because we stand with the non-white, non-British members of the LGBT community but because we oppose all bigotry and all opportunistic attempts to use our community. Yet rather than engaging with critical, informed voices (I asked Pride in London if they’d spoken to a single anti-racist group about inviting UKIP and received no reply) we have people attempting to assert their dominance once again, telling themselves that they are being ‘liberal’ and ‘rational’ with (ironically) zero thought as to the choices and power imbalances which have brought them to this position.
It’s utterly shameful.
It’s interesting that there has been another, smaller storm around Pride this week as its plans to have Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners lead the parade fell apart when LGSM were informed they couldn’t march with their trade union comrades. This led me to discover that the TUC had suggested ‘Solidarity’ as the parade theme this year but the Pride Community Advisory Board chose ‘Heroes’ because:
…Pride is different things to different people and that the parade theme of ‘Heroes’ would provide a broad range of interpretations to allow all groups and people to find a way to engage with it. On a vote Solidarity received 1 vote and Heroes 7 votes with 1 abstention.
The irony here really is too much: solidarity rejected because it would involve actually leading and shaping what Pride is, rather than allowing every individual, including the racists, to ‘interpret’ however they want. With such cowardice it’s easy to understand how we got to the UKIP scandal. There is a glimmer of hope, however: the debacle has led to critical scrutiny of Pride which has only existed on the margins in recent years, with a burgeoning movement to ‘Reclaim Pride’. Even those defending UKIP have taken to highlighting the problem with a group like Barclays marching, or the racist immigration policies of the other parties (they do so thinking it’s a ‘gotcha’ moment rather than…a good point).
Pride is still held on the Saturday nearest to the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Despite historically illiterate attempts to portray these riots as being about ‘demanding a voice for everyone’, they were a revolt by people of colour, trans people, queers and the working-class against a racist, homophobic power structure. Radical, liberatory politics of social justice were absolutely central to the movement, which did not exist in a vacuum removed from Black Power or radical feminism. Inspirations like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera did not fight so that racists could march with Pride – they stood firmly with the marginalised against the oppressors. This is what changes society, not racist LGBT people marching for racist organisations. We honour them by continuing that fight and opposing UKIP with every fibre of our beings.
….for the 31% of the public who voted for Labour, they may not ring absolutely true. Those people may feel, as they haven’t for a generation, like aliens in their own land. Promised that social justice was a cause that would ultimately resonate with the whole country, they have instead been reminded that to vast numbers of people, their beliefs seem peculiar, their cause an unholy alliance of the snooty and the feckless. They could live with the disapproval of the newspapers they didn’t like. But now they must admit that the Mail was not a mouthpiece, but an amplifier.
I was fortunate enough to be on holiday when the dreadful election results were announced so that perhaps played a role in why this description of the aftermath, taken from here, so resonated with me. It’s really not over-stating things to say that the UK really does currently feel like an alien land. It was relatively easy to remain optimistic in the face of the cruelties and traumas of the past five years, as the Tories hadn’t been able to win a majority, no-one had actually voted for much of what the coalition did and it seemed certain that we would (at the very least) face an even wider (and thus more diluted) coalition after this election. I went off on holiday with a bounce in my step, creating a playlist called ‘All Things Seem Possible in May’ to mark May Day and my sense of optimism that better days were near. Yet it wasn’t to be: enough people voted for the horrors offered by the Tories to give them a full majority, free from even the moderately palliative influence of the Liberal Democrats.
The real kick in the teeth is that this didn’t happen, I believe, because most people are just unabashed dickheads. I could parse that and feed strength from my sense of righteousness. No, rather this result underlines the state of unreality our politics exists in, the sense that we are all wading through bullshit. As I mentioned in that piece most people, whatever their political identification (if they have one), have no idea of the reality of welfare, immigration, spending etc. It doesn’t seem to me that most people in this election chose a party because they felt they could support its policies; rather it was about emotional identification. This is, of course, always an important factor but the role of nationalism in this election has certainly been stronger than any in my adult life. The Tories pulled off their victory because they spent the last 3 weeks of their campaign not discussing their policies or articulating a vision for the country but rather invoking the spectre of a hobbled Labour government beholden to the SNP. Again, the easy and self-righteous interpretation here would be to believe that ‘England’ was terrified of the SNP dragging Labour to the left. A more honest one, I think, is to acknowledge that the SNP spent their campaign invoking the spectre of a hobbled Labour government at ‘Westmonster’ which they could exert influence on to amplify ‘Scotland’s voice’. There is, of course, no such thing as ‘Scotland’s voice’ and that rhetoric, along with digs about ‘writing the Labour manifesto’ and ‘making Labour bolder’ were aimed at appealing to Scottish nationalist ideas of ‘us vs them down there’ while equally inflaming a reactionary English nationalism which could only ever serve the Tories.
While on the left it’s been (and remains) easy to attack the Tories and Labour, casting a critical eye over the SNP remains a (very controversial) niche pursuit. The responses have been predictable: the left in Scotland largely keep telling themselves that Scotland is ‘different’, they are not nationalist and the Tory government is England’s fault; the left in England largely indulge this and keep fighting about how inadequate Labour is; the right swiftly gets on with things like removing the Human Rights Act which underline how facile the ‘they’re both the same’ or ‘Red Tories’ lines are. When I wrote about the #indyref I predicted that it would (further) divide the UK left, that the SNP would almost entirely mop up the spoils with the ‘Green Yes’ and RIC campaigns largely irrelevant and that we would disappear down the rabbit hole of nationalism. I think all these things have come to pass and, as I wrote in March, I think we’re going to be here for some time (as does Patrick Cockburn in this good piece placing nationalism in context). Certainly the fact that we now face the actual Tories means there will be no further parsing of Scottish nationalism, the myths of difference which sustain it or the fact that Scottish politics exists in a same-but-different state of unreality as the rest of the UK (a state brilliantly demolished in this blog). This is a particularly egregious example of what we can expect, portraying the SNP vote as against ‘colonial nationalism’ and explicitly mentioning Libya, clearly utterly oblivious to the fact that the SNP supported the ‘intervention’ there (as it did in Afghanistan and in the first Gulf War). I do, incidentally, think Scottish independence is far more likely – I don’t however think this will change the above situation for at least a decade. This piece shows why. Even after a surge in SNP support which literally started the week of the referendum result and has led to an almost one-party state in Scotland, prominent ‘Green Yes’ supporters are still arguing that this ‘isn’t about nationalism’, the Greens polling 1.3% in Scotland (less than UKIP) is a good thing and a ‘real left’ will emerge at some point in the future. The absolute need for these ‘progressives’ to feel dissociated from nationalism has completely blunted their critical faculties. They are forehead deep in the unreal bullshit.
The state of unreality trundled on as soon as Labour’s defeat became obvious and we’re already seeing the right of the party trying to capitalise on it. Make no mistake about it, speaking as a socialist the Labour Party manifesto was inadequate in many ways, sometimes indefensibly so. Yet there was also much to be excited about and it was in some aspects the most left-wing manifesto Labour has had in decades. This manifesto saw the Labour vote increase in England and Wales – not enough, clearly, but it’s important to remember this in the face of instant rhetoric about how this was a disaster comparable to 1983.
Nonetheless, just as the unreality of ‘Labour spent too much and wrecked the economy’ became quickly accepted as truth after the 2010 election (something Labour clearly has large responsibility for) we can already see the bullshit we will be wading through for the foreseeable future: on the right it will be cemented that Labour were too left-wing, that austerity is working, that the coalition’s legacy has to be accepted. The left will prove more fractious, as ever, but it will be cemented that Labour were too right-wing and that ‘Scotland’ voted for a more radical left-wing party and nationalism played little role. There will also be an increase in despair and the notion that electoral politics is a busted flush for the left, something which overwhelmingly manifests itself in attacks on the electorally-minded left-wing.
I feel despair too, of a kind I have rarely known politically. It does cause an existential questioning of what we’re doing here, exactly. Yet there are things I still firmly believe: that you can argue for and fight for a better government than the Tories without believing that it’s the be all and end all of politics or, indeed, abandoning opposition to much of a Labour government platform; that electoral reform is an absolutely crucial goal for the left; that the past five years have shown the power and brilliance of people joining together, whether locally or across the UK, to fight the Tories.
I also believe that it’s always easier to appeal to people’s base instincts and apportion blame to ‘others’ in politics and I believe that we (and I) on the left do this in our own ways, which we remain largely blind to. If the UK currently feels like an alien country, we need to start fighting against the bullshit unreality which dominates and get back to what kind of society we live in, what kind of one we want to live in and how we take ourselves there. It’s only with a keen understanding of now that we can begin to fight back. The fact we need to fight back now rather than indulge in hand-wringing doesn’t make this any less possible or necessary. That is the one thing I still believe which is keeping me sane: people largely do not vote any way in particular because they are intrinsically anything. They’re all just wading through the same bullshit as the rest of us and joining together to build movements is the one sure fire way to begin to change that.
The above is from Patrick Wintour’s breathless eulogy to the Tories’ ‘brilliant strategy’ of painting the SNP as dastardly puppet-masters pulling Ed Miliband’s strings. ‘No matter’ that it’s almost entirely based on falsehoods. ‘No matter’ that it’s an irrelevant spectacle. ‘No matter’. ‘No matter’. ‘That’s politics’, many will say. They wouldn’t be wrong. Yet there’s never been an election in my lifetime where the narrative of ‘broken politics’ and ‘failed democracy’ has been as strong as in this one, so you would expect/hope that the twilight world of unreality where most mainstream politics takes place would be under unprecedented scrutiny. Certainly there are some eloquently making the case that our current obsession with the deficit and ‘austerity’ is based largely on misinformation but this has had little effect on our politics. “But what about the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru’, some will cry? Even their ‘anti-austerity’ politics doesn’t push the envelope too far –the Greens in 2010 promised to “halve the deficit by 2013” and now promise to ‘end the current account deficit’ (albeit not as a main priority) while the SNP manifesto promises to enshrine deficit reduction in law:
Indeed, while independent analysis of the SNP and Labour plans for dealing with the deficit suggest the difference could be ‘relatively modest’, we have a situation where the two parties must perform a dance of exaggerated differences in order to appease their respective audiences. The Conservatives and Lib Dems, meanwhile, are able to push the narrative of ‘economic recovery’ relatively unchallenged with questions as to the nature of the ‘recovery’, the underlying state of the economy, the role of consumer debt and housing or the impact of austerity left largely unasked. Few in the UK will have read about how the coalition pulled back on its austerity agenda and how this impacted the economy. Many of us on the left are used to chatting about the pervasive right-wing myths which play such a large role in our political discourse, not least with regards to welfare and immigration. We gnash our teeth and wail at the pervasive, destructive influence these myths hold over our politics. We’re less willing, however, to examine the shortcomings of those we view as being on our ‘side’, something I’ve documented with regards to the left’s approach to nationalism and ‘The 45’ and evident in the need to portray The Greens et al as embodying a ‘real’, frustrated left-wing politics which we need only vote for to unleash. This week Richard Seymour wrote of the ‘anti-racist’ politics of The Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru, a claim which doesn’t stand up to any close scrutiny: This is politics as comic book, where bad things happen because of bad people and all we need is to get the goodies, our goodies, into office. This is the logic which lies behind the fixation, led by the left, on getting people to vote or the notion that PR will fix ‘democracy’. It’s the logic which lies behind the idea that ‘Scotland’ is inherently more progressive than ‘Westminster’. It’s the logic which lies behind the notion that if we can only defeat UKIP the battle re: racism is won. We think we can change things cos we’re inherently better than those other folk and in the process blind ourselves to the fact that we can’t reduce politics to such a facile level (something made clear in this great piece on the allure of UKIP in Grimsby). Politics is obviously a lot bigger than politicians, than parliament and than elections. This is why I have previously argued that we can afford to be less puritanical about who we vote for. The dispiriting spectacle of the election campaign and the discourse around it, from both left and right, is based on fighting moral phantoms. We pick our teams and go forth from that position, processing information accordingly. Nicola Sturgeon is villain or hero, identical immigration controls are terrible or great, the ‘need’ to tackle the deficit is indefensible or revolutionary, all depending on who is presenting to which audience. Structural considerations and any attempt to understand the relations of power are almost entirely absent. The idea, for example, that democracy serves a minority not because of our voting system but because of capitalism is one which you will only hear on the fringes of ‘acceptable’ politics. Yet it seems to me that it’s only by beginning down the road of such an analysis that we can begin to break out of this cycle of voting followed by disappointment and cynicism; it’s only with such analysis that we can begin to even seriously discuss the existential question of climate change and our future on this planet. God knows it’s more comforting not to do this; to keep picking our side, keep believing we’re the ‘goodies’ and keep wading through bullshit, whether that be cheerleading for our party or sitting at our keyboards bemoaning the futility of voting. These battles seem so much smaller, so much easier to win, so much less threatening to our identities. ‘No matter’ is a mantra for doing the same shit over and over and over. Aren’t we tired of live-tweeting Question Time and validating all of this? It matters. We matter. I don’t pretend to have the answers but we all need to start asking the questions and fight our way out of this shit.