Friday, 11 February 2011

Compass New Year Lecture: David Marquand

Last night I attended the Compass New Year Annual Lecture delivered by David Marquand with responses from Ed Miliband, Caroline Lucas, Evan Harris and Francesca Klug. The title was "A realignment of the mind - what way forward for progressive politics?" While I’m not a member of Compass, I have some sympathy with the influence they are trying to exert on the Labour Party. I also recently saw Neal Lawson speak in favour of the Alternative Vote where his arguments, frankly, destroyed those of his opponent in the debate John Cryer.

Marquand’s main theme was the pernicious effect of capitalism on the public realm in the UK and the need to challenge the moral vision proffered by its advocates. He began by expressing his incredulity that, despite the recent crisis, the prevailing neo-liberal orthodoxies remain relatively unchallenged and the desire among most politicians seems to be for a return to business-as-usual. He contrasted this with very different responses to a previous crisis – the Great Depression – and Roosevelt’s proclamation that the “Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. ... The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization.”

Marquand dismissed the key assumptions made by many market fundamentalists – including, among others, the ideas of self-regulation and “trickle down”. He compared the aggressive expansionism of the market at the expense of the public domain with the way the latter was gradually annexed by the state in the early years of the former USSR. Indeed, using the justifications of “choice” and “freedom”, the cash nexus now pervades virtually all aspects of society, having recently made its way into higher education thanks to the flawed and misjudged Browne Report instituted by the previous Labour government.

Turning to discussion of the relationship between “democracy” and capitalism, Marquand made short work of the idea that there is a causal link – or at least a correlation – between the two by invoking several examples including, among others, contemporary China and Pinochet’s Chile. He suggested that, on the contrary, the relationship between democracy and capitalism is one of tension whereby the two ideas actually serve to undermine each other. Indeed, democracy has been defiled to the extent that there is no longer such a thing as the public good: citizens are merely consumers and the act of voting akin to shopping.

So the key task for the democratic left is to challenge the false and debased “morality” of capitalism that is destroying the public realm, something that can only be achieved by reintroducing the language of the public good as being clearly distinct from the logic of the market; this is the “realignment of the mind” referred to in the lecture title. While a great deal of Marquand’s talk seemed infused with pessimism, he ended on a more positive note, highlighting several areas where neo-liberal orthodoxies are being challenged, including the London Citizens campaign and the burgeoning movement against the cuts that appears to be gaining traction in the public consciousness.

The responses of the speakers that followed were largely predictable. Miliband concurred with large parts of Marquand’s lecture, though offered some defence of the achievements of the previous Labour government (Marquand had savaged New Labour’s fetishism of the market). Lucas also largely concurred but rued the fact that he hadn’t said more about the specific relevance of green issues. Harris had some harsh words to say about his current party leadership (though I imagine his position would be somewhat different had he retained his seat at the last election). Francesca Klug’s contribution was perhaps the most interesting; she echoed Marquand, arguing that we should challenge the current discourse surrounding the “big society” with an alternative vision of the “good society” that is based on something more than price competition and productivity. And while praising the effect that social networking and new media are having on political activism, she also warned against the “tyranny of structurelessness” that can often be problematic within movements that appear, sometimes superficially, relatively horizontal and leaderless.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Multiculturalism and progressive politics

This post was originally published on my old blog on February 2nd, 2011

David Cameron’s speech in Munich  at the weekend has once again put “multiculturalism” back at the top of the political agenda in the UK. While I think the timing of his speech was, at best, unfortunate (and at worst cynical), any opportunity for these issues to receive a more thorough airing in the public sphere should be welcomed. However, unsurprisingly, I have several points of contention with the content of his address – yet there were also parts of his speech which resonated with my own positions.

First, the good parts: Cameron was quick to dismiss the “clash of civilizations” thesis and its supporters. He correctly admonished those who support measures such as the banning of new mosques and argue that democracy and Islam are incompatible – these are indeed positions that fuel Islamophobia and racist extremism. He countered these arguments by highlighting the secular nature of the recent uprisings in Tunis and Cairo and their basis in an appeal for universal rights such as freedom of speech and free elections. And as a response to those that suggest extremism flourishes due to a lack of democracy, he raised the following question: “if it’s the lack of democracy that is the problem, why are there so many extremists in free and open societies?” Unfortunately however, his attempts to answer this very good question fell well short of the mark.

While I agree that the contemporary doctrine of multiculturalism has its shortcomings, I come at this from a different angle to both Cameron and others who would position themselves on the other side of the political spectrum from him. However, despite this, when viewed as a way of understanding the validity of our own and other cultural perspectives – and not as a political or philosophical doctrine – multiculturalism can offer us a range of valid and invaluable insights. In this respect, the thought of Bhikhu Parekh, the Anglo-Indian political theorist, is useful.

Parekh argues that a multiculturalist perspective can be instructive in three crucial ways. First, culture is unavoidable: we are all “culturally embedded” in the sense that the world we live in is structured by cultural norms and the significance of social relations is culturally derived. Second, he argues that since different cultures represent different ideas regarding what is “the good life”, no single culture can realize the full range of human capacities. In this respect, cultures need other cultures in order to better understand themselves and avoid the temptation to “absolutize” their perspective, so cultural plurality within societies is essential. His final point is that cultures themselves are internally plural and fluid, so all cultures are in some ways multicultural: they carry within themselves the result of historical interactions other cultures.

His second and third points are most useful to us here. The idea that cultures need other cultures to maintain their vibrancy points to the desirability of living in de facto multicultural societies such as the UK. Indeed, the search for cultural homogeneity precipitated some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century and, I fear, will likely do so again in the future. His final point regarding the internal plurality of all cultures serves as a useful counterargument to those that seek to present certain cultures as “monolithic”, unchangeable or intrinsically inimical to another culture or way of life.

Turning to my objections to Cameron’s arguments in Munich, and my issues with the some of the ways that the political doctrine of multiculturalism has been pursued by political progressives in recent years, the key issue is with recognition of different types of inequality. Cameron argues that the growth of extremism is down to a lack of a clear sense of national identity that is open to everyone; he says “we’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.” There is a sense in which he is correct: a common sense of belonging is perhaps a necessary part of maintaining a healthy polity. This does not have to mean a common set of goals, but it must entail a commitment to the political community and a desire to see it persist in its current form. However, this is not the key to understanding the development of violent extremism in our societies – and I would include both terrorism in the name of Islam and the growth of far-right “street movements” in this definition of violent extremism.

There is a tendency among advocates and opponents of the doctrine of multiculturalism to ascribe the alienation felt by certain individuals – and hence their turn to “extremism” – to a “lack of recognition” and a cultural inequality between groups. So we hear, from one side of the argument, that the white working class are being ignored or marginalized and, from the other side, that ethnic minority groups are not receiving sufficient recognition of their unique identity and contribution to society. However, while recognition of this type can certainly contribute to relieving some aspects of inequality between groups, it completely ignores a key contributor to much of the alienation felt by all groups in society: the polarizing and insidious effect of socio-economic inequality, or what some might term “class relations”.

The focus on group-related cultural issues has shifted attention away from the continuing significance of social class as the preeminent driver of alienation and disaffection within our societies. This is not to suggest that social class is the only driver of inequality – gender, race and ethnicity, for example, are all aspects of inequality that should be addressed – yet there is a danger that various struggles for cultural recognition are supplanting economic drivers of inequality as the primary emphasis for some political progressives.

I am not arguing that the fight for cultural recognition should be entirely subsumed to a class-based politics, but that the two are closely related and can complement each other in the struggle for a more progressive political landscape. Indeed, focusing on the relationships between economic domination and cultural alienation should give us a greater insight into the mechanisms that perpetuate inequality in liberal-capitalist societies and polities such as ours.

Some thoughts on UK Uncut

 This post was originally published on my old blog on February 2nd, 2011

As documented in a previous post, I recently witnessed the UK Uncut action targeting Boots on Oxford Street in London’s West End. While I imagine I share the broad aims of most of those involved in this nascent movement, reflecting on its strategy and goals led me to thinking about what I believe this campaign can and can’t achieve. What follows is a brief exposition of the arguments and ideas I’ve been mulling over.

The issue of corporate tax avoidance is, on face value, quite shocking, especially when viewed in the context of the ideologically-motivated violence currently being inflicted upon our society in the name of cutting the budget deficit. However, I have some reservations regarding the tactic of targeting individual companies on the grounds that they are behaving unethically. First, I’d question the idea that companies can be subject to moral judgements in the same way that people can. They’re not individuals possessed of conscience and therefore attempting to “shame” them into a certain course of action is doomed to fail. Companies act solely to maximize profit, so if there is a “loophole” – or a way of increasing profit – then it is perfectly normal that companies will act to take advantage of this and I don’t think they can be “blamed” for doing so.

In this respect Nietzsche’s parable regarding lambs and birds of prey comes to mind. We cannot condemn the bird of prey for killing lambs – this is what birds of prey do. For us to make a moral judgement there must be a doer behind the deed, but companies such as Boots are merely playing out the role ascribed to them by the system in which they operate. Of course, Nietzsche was actually thinking about individuals when making the comparison to birds and their prey, but the analogy still holds as he was still, in part, highlighting the absurdity inherent in castigating something for behaving in the very way that makes it what it is.

I agree it would be a better situation if Boots were to make a larger contribution to the Exchequer, yet they’ll only pull back their headquarters from Switzerland if it makes financial sense to do so. Their suggested savings from this move have been reported to be around £150 million per annum, so I’d say the current UK Uncut strategy will only be successful if they can generate negative PR for Boots that hits their bottom line to the tune of something like this amount. I don’t doubt that the publicity surrounding actions such as last Saturday’s – not to mention the cost of closing a flag ship store for several prime retailing hours – will hurt Boots financially, but whether it can ever hurt them enough is, I fear, unlikely.

So given the behaviour of entities such as Boots and Tesco is essentially systemic and largely determined by structure, what do I think UK Uncut can achieve? The movement clearly has a role to play in raising awareness of the injustices of the current programme of austerity measures and the economic system more broadly. Many of the passers-by who engaged with the activists in and outside Boots last Saturday (my own efforts were limited to taking photos and giving out a few leaflets) were genuinely shocked that this type of behaviour was going on and, I believe, may well now be more conscious of the fundamental injustices at the heart of the economic status quo. And it is this type of challenge to the prevailing hegemony which I believe should be the goal of such activism.

In this respect, building a broad-based coalition of movements that are able to gradually challenge and offer an alternative to the prevailing neo-liberal orthodoxy is crucial to fighting – and ultimately winning – what Gramsci would have called the “war of position”. This idea entails a gradual cultural and ideological struggle against hegemonic forces across all areas of the state and civil society including, therefore, not just institutions but also political and cultural practices and, ultimately, forms of political consciousness. Indeed, such “intellectual and moral reform” is a crucial prerequisite to successfully attacking the institutions – both government and corporate – that perpetuate the existing economic system and its associated injustices.

So without acknowledging and challenging the systemic issues at the heart of corporate tax avoidance, critiquing the actions of individual companies is akin to sharing Dickens’ ideas about capitalism; he believed, to quote Orwell, that if only “men would behave decently the world would be decent,” but failed to see that “men’s behaviour” – or in this case the behaviour of companies – is largely determined by the rules of the game in which they operate.

Racism and the contemporary far-right

This post was originally published on my old blog on February 2nd, 2011

Racism and far-right politics are, of course, no strangers. However, one aspect of far-right discourse that has undergone a notable shift in recent years is attitudes towards specific racial and religious groups – Jews and Judaism are clearly no longer (at least for now) the principle bêtes noires for most far-right organizations and individuals. Islam and its adherents have become the target of choice for many contemporary far-right movements. Indeed, we now have the spectacle of nationalist politicians such as Nick Griffin – a man who once referred to the holocaust as the “holohoax” – trying to reach out to Jews and Zionists under the banner of opposing a purported common enemy.

One particular strand of contemporary nationalist discourse that is, in this respect, clearly having a profound effect on how far-right political entities are positioning themselves is the “counter-jihad” movement. Counter-jihadism suggests that Islam is a threat to the integrity of (historically white and Christian) European and North American states. While most exponents of this type of discourse will make significant efforts to present themselves as being anti-“militant Islam” and not against Muslims per se, a cursory glance at the rhetoric used by some of the most high profile figures in this movement reveal that this is clearly not the case.

A common theme pushed by this movement is that European “liberal” elites have conspired to allow large scale immigration from the Muslim world in a deliberate effort to fundamentally alter the demographic landscape in their respective states (this is also an accusation that has been specifically levelled at the UK Labour Party in recent years by fringe far-right groups such as UKIP and the BNP). They suggest that “the left” seeks to appease non-white advocates of cultural practices that they would otherwise roundly condemn – for example, turning a blind eye to one type of religiously inspired homophobia while loudly castigating another. In this respect, the accusation of “dhimmitude” is often levelled by advocates of such ultra-nationalist discourses.

My interest in this movement is two fold. First, theoretically, what are the implications of this shift in emphasis in nationalist discourse for our understanding of far-right ideologies and, indeed, for our broader understanding of how ideologies are constructed? Second, what are the practical implications of the emergence of movements such as the English Defence League (EDL) for community cohesion in de facto multicultural societies such as the UK’s – and what strategies should be deployed to counter their spread?

Regarding the first issue, my thoughts are far from coherent or crystallized and, anyway, it may be too early to tell – the counter-jihad strain of nationalist discourse may well have a limited shelf life and it is entirely possible that the fascist right will soon revert to type and return to promulgating hackneyed conspiracy theories regarding Jews and world domination. Indeed, this issue is already causing splits among ultranationalists between those who wish to exclude former neo-Nazis and those who are more forgiving of their past – as well as among “moderates” and those who are completely unwilling to renounce their anti-Semitism even at the cost of building broader support for the core tenets of their political programme.

However, even if this movement has only a short-term effect on far-right ideology and strategy, its impact on relatively mainstream ways of thinking and talking about Islam and immigration are, unfortunately, already being felt and are unlikely to disappear any time soon. The frankly ludicrous idea that Islam is set to supplant Christianity as the principle faith in the UK and that we may soon all be subjected to Shari’ah law (the Muslim population of the UK is around 3%) – as well as more sinister and insidious beliefs, such as those regarding the targeting of white girls by Muslim “paedophile gangs” – are already common currency in some parts of the tabloid and mid-market press. This is leading to the gradual entrance of such ideas into popular consciousness and is certainly driving the growth of movements such as EDL.

This brings me to my second concern: the practical implications of the growth of such movements and the development of strategies to combat them. While I believe confronting these people on the streets – by organizing counter-protests and protecting those communities most at threat from violence – certainly has a role to play, this is a battle that needs to be fought and won at an ideational level. And in this respect, I am not optimistic. Alarmism and dog-whistle racism sells papers and this isn’t going to change any time soon. The next atrocity on European or North American soil committed in the name of Islam, and there will undoubtedly be more, will just be grist to the mill of the racists that wish to promote disharmony between different faith and race communities within Britain – a goal that, somewhat ironically, is shared by the extremists of organizations such as Islam4UK. Indeed, the strategies and short-term objectives of people such as Anjem Choudary and “Tommy Robinson” are, in many ways, quite similar: sow discord and recruit followers on the basis of the strife that inevitably follows. And even their long-term objectives are not completely dissimilar – they both seek a type of homogenous community where pluralism is absent and dissent from certain founding myths is not tolerated.

So regardless of whether counter-jihadism continues to grow as a political movement or begins to fizzle out – and regardless of whether or not Jews and Judaism return to their “privileged” position at the heart of far-right discourse – while the right-wing press and racist groups continue to enjoy such a symbiotic existence, I believe the situation looks rather bleak. Popular attitudes towards multiculturalism and immigration are likely to undergo significant changes over the coming years and I worry that we are now seeing the emergence of a new racial/religious-based politics that will be part of the landscape for some time to come.