Tuesday, August 09, 2016

From Bob's archive: Loving the people

Away for a couple of weeks, so one from the archive. This is from September 2008, on the eve of Obama's first election, and seems kind of relevant in this American election year. 

“I love the Jews really only en masse, en détail I strictly avoid him.” – Wilhelm von Humboldt, quoted by Hannah Arendt
Luckily, Alice Walker will almost certainly never read this post. “Sometimes, reading a blog, which I do infrequently, I see that generations of Americans have been crippled, and can no longer spell or write a sentence.” Oh well.

Ms Walker provocatively opens her recent piece on the American presidency like this:
I remember seeing a picture of Fidel Castro in a parade with lots of other Cubans. It was during the emergency years, the "special period" when Cuba's relationship with the Soviet Union had collapsed and there was little gas or oil or fertiliser; people were struggling to find enough to eat. It was perhaps Cuba's nadir, as a small Caribbean island nation considered a dangerous threat by its nearest neighbour, the United States - which, during this period, tightened its embargo. Fidel, tall, haggard, his clothes hanging more loosely than usual from his gaunt frame, walked soberly along, surrounded by thousands of likewise downhearted, fearful people... 
However poor the Cubans might be, I realised, they cared about each other and they had a leader who loved them. A leader who loved them. Imagine. A leader not afraid to be out in the streets with them, a leader not ashamed to show himself as troubled and humbled as they were. A leader who would not leave them to wonder and worry alone, but would stand with them, walk with them, celebrate with them - whatever the parade might be. 
This is what I want for our country, more than anything. I want a leader who can love us.
Now, I have some admiration for Fidel Castro and what he has achieved, against all the odds. And I think that the American trade embargo on Cuba has been a cruel, counterproductive, vindictive policy, which has done nothing to further democracy and only helped immiserate the people of Cuba.

However, Castro’s regime has been a brutal authoritarian dictatorship. If Castro loves the people of Cuba, his love does not extend to letting them choose who should rule them, or letting them listen to or read any dissenting voices, or letting them access the internet or have a free press or borrow books from their libraries which challenge his worldview. If Castro loves the people of Cuba, his love is expressed through a system of neighbourhood informers who ensure political conformity, through the imprisonment of dissidents, through the outlawing of homosexuality, through allowing the sex tourism industry to flourish to bring in hard currency. If Castro loves the people of Cuba, he does not love them enough to let them form free trade unions, to let them go on strike or to let them travel abroad.

Whatever Bush’s faults, none of these things can be said about him. But Bush, Walker says, is all about “killing, under order, folks we don’t know; abusing children of whose existence we hadn’t heard; maiming and murdering animals that have done us no harm.” That, she says, is how we know Bush loves neither us nor himself.

John Kennedy, in contrast, Walker says, did love the American people. Maybe I’ve read too much James Ellroy and Gore Vidal to have a clear view of Kennedy, but he was the man who ordered the ridiculous Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow Castro’s government, the man who declared a war on Communism and turned a tiny military operation into the Vietnam war, the man who authorising the bombing, burning and napalming of Vietnamese civilians. In other words, sending Americans to kill folks they don’t know, abuse children, and, yes, maim animals.

Regardless of which picture is more accurate, though, I don’t think it is right to ask for a president who loves the American people. As soon as someone invokes The People, with that definite article, I get worried.

Hannah Arendt was famously rebuked by her friend Gershom Scholem for not loving the Jewish people enough. She replied (addressing him in her letter, I think, by his original German name Gerhardt): 
“I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective – neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons… I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.”
As I’ve said before, those who most love Humanity en masse, as von Humboldt puts it, in the abstract – The People – are those who least love actual humans en détail, in the flesh – who care least for real people, including real Americans. In fact, those who most love The People in the abstract are often those most able to kill and abuse and maim real people in the flesh.

Alice Walker, it seems, is a woman who cannot love her own daughter or grandson, yet loves the whole American people, despite their inability to write a sentence, despite them being “racist and sexist and greedy above all”. If I were an American, I would not want a president who loved me as Fidel loves the Cuban people or as Alice Walker loves the American people. I would want a president who loves her friends and her children.

If I were an American, I would vote for Barack Obama, but, as Noga says, his strongest supporters don’t make that easier.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


Detail from Alun's map of British Trotskyism, 2015, Revolutionary History
A menace is apparently stalking the Labour Party, that of the "Trots":

It is often said, with some justice, that Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters cleave to the politics of the 1970s and 1980s and are still fighting the battles they lost then. However, it seems to me that the Labour right, in fantastically over-emphasising the menace of the "Trots", are similarly fighting old battles, battles they won in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the 1980s, a couple of quite large and well-organised Trotskyist sects, as well as a few smaller ones, did indeed seriously carry out well-disciplined operations to enter and take commanding positions in the Labour movement. (For a very enjoyable history, see John Sullivan's classic As Soon As This Pub Closes.) These included the Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party, whose electoral front is TUSC) as well as the smaller Socialist Organiser (now the Alliance for Workers Liberty). Such groups managed to get a controlling influence in the Labour Party Young Socialists (where I cut my political teeth in the late 1980s) and municipalities such as Liverpool, before being expelled in the 1980s. Mainstream Labour activists too young to have fought these battles will have encountered the legacy of them in the student union movement (where the full spectrum of Trot sects have grappled for influence), and been inducted there into the Party's collective memory of the "Trot" menace.

The membership of these groups, however, peaked perhaps in five figure numbers, and may barely be close to that now. (Paul Mason, a former member of the Trotskyist groupuscule Workers Power, told the BBC yesterday that there are only 1500 British Trotskyists, but I think that might be a very conservative estimate.)

Now, 250,000 people voted for Jeremy Corbyn's leadership in 2015, including 121,751 actual Labour members - of whom a good many were soft left long-term party members and far from Trotskyist. We have been told that this week alone 180,000 people paid £25 to sign up as registered supporters in order to vote in the leadership election, and a good number (though definitely not all of them) are Corbyn supporters. And then there are members of Momentum who haven't joined up, plus an army of Corbynista keyboard warriors.

Are all of these - perhaps half a million - Trots? Of course not.

It is true that there are a couple of Trotskyists high up in team Corbyn. (Simon Fletcher, who, while working for Ed Miliband, designed the leadership voting system that gave Corbyn his victory, is a veteran of the cult-like Socialist Action, who used to be Trotskyist but have evolved in a Stalinist direction over the years - see Coatesy.) And then there's Seumas Milne, whose roots are in the Stalinist rather than Trotskyist left. But what about at the grassroots, in the party branches?

Reports of pro-Corbyn rallies always mention the presence of SWP banners as proof that his campaign is full of Trots. Anyone who has been to any demo, however, knows that a tiny number of SWP members bring huge numbers of SWP placards along, which they hand to the naive and gullible innocents who like the message and don't think about the brand. The SWP placards are evidence of the foolishness of some of Corbyn's followers, not of their Trotskyism.

As for Momentum, it is clearly quite a heterogeneous formation. Its leaders and organisers include long-term Labour non-Trotskyist left-wingers such as Jon Lansman, as well as new party members like former Green James Schneider, and a few actual Trotskyists such as Jill Mountford. (See this scurrilous "exposé" by Andrew Gilligan, and this more sobre account by John Harris.) It's true that various Trotskyist parties have been reported at local Momentum meetings (including the appalling Socialist Workers Party) - although the Momentum organisers have told them to sling their hooks. Most reports I've heard of Momentum meetings talk about a few Trotskyists, far outnumbered by young socialists relatively new to politics and un-encumbered by any history of sect membership.

In a way, of course, it is a good thing that the menace of the "Trots" is partly a figment of mainstream Labour activists' imagination. Trotskyism - like Leninism in general - is an inherently anti-democratic movement, which subordinates working class self-activity and democratic socialism to the vehicle of the vanguard party. The concept of the vanguard party is one of the core precepts of Trotskyism, and it is a concept incompatible with support for a broad-based, mass, democratic party of labour (which is why Marx always argued that communists should not form ideologically pure vanguard parties). Most rank and file Corbyinists clearly desire (and have an idea that Labour once was) a broad-based, mass, democratic socialist party, not a Leninist vanguard party.

On the other hand, the fact that the Corbynist movement is not Trotskyist also speaks to one of its weaknesses: its ideological eclecticism and incoherence. Beyond a few phrases about fighting austerity and supporting public ownership, Corbynism is a movement that lacks a unifying vision, lacks a concrete sense of how its aims could be achieved, has so far failed to articulate how its vague socialist ethos could be translated into policy ideas.

Two recent articles illuminate this well, in different ways. The radical economist Richard Murphy describes here (h./t Paul C) why he went to work on helping to flesh out "Corbynomics", and why, sadly, it came to nothing:

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Lenni Brenner says Ken's wrong

As a footnote to yesterday's post, below is a scan of two pages from the book Ken Livingstone claims is his source on Hitler and the Zionists.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Undigested thoughts on Labour's antisemitism problem

These thoughts are are the most undigested I've ever put in a blogpost, but I just wanted to get them down. They're based on an email I dictated into my phone while walking this morning, so blame Apple's auto-correct for any typos. Actually, why not blame Apple for any errors of judgement on my part too. 

The start is responding to Asa Winstanley in Electronic Intifada, but it could just as equally be responding to Jamie Stern-Weiner in OpenDemocracy, Graham on Twitter, the Jewish Socialist Group or half my left-wing friends. 

Basically, I have two problems with this. First, I find the whole idea of an all-powerful "Lobby" smacks of conspiracy theory thinking, which is reminiscent of right wing fantasies about "Eurabia", "creeping sharia" or "white genocide", and specifically reminiscent of old antisemitic fantasies of secret Jewish tentacular power.

Second, it requires a highly selective sampling of the recent antisemitism allegations in Labour. Some of the allegations can be dismissed or at least aren't that serious. Others, however, are harder to dispense with in this way. The list of allegations is just so long that it is unsustainable to say they don't add up to something worrying and significant. I think, as Owen Jones says, we need to really take this seriously and try to understand it.

I'm tired of seeing Labour councillors and local Momentum branches retweeting active Holocaust deniers. I'm sick of hearing that the accusation of antisemitism is used to "shut down criticism of Israel" - as if joking about deporting Jews or saying that Hitler's early work was good "before he went mad" is simply "criticism of Israel". 

Sure, not all anti-Zionism is antisemitism - but some is. When a Ken Livingstone social media acolyte who dismisses antisemitism then calls George Soros (who has basically only ever criticised Israel) a "Zionist" you know that "Zionist" means something other than what it used to mean for that person. When John Mann (who has never, to my knowledge, actually expressed a view about Israel and is not a member of Labour Friends of Israel) is routinely called a "Zionist" because he cares about antisemitism, then something is wrong.  

The response that it is a question of "crying antisemitism" is a dangerous one, and we see it too when the right talk about the "Islamophobia industry" or about black people "playing the racism card", women "playing the sexism card" etc. Leftists (eg OpenDemocracy) would not consider giving the time of day to this kind dismissal of other racisms, and shouldn't here. (Imagine if they defended UKIP on the basis that it's just a few rotten apples that are actually racist.) 

I'm not saying everyone who ever utters an antisemitic comment should be sent to the gulag or silenced - or even necessarily kicked out of the party. (I think Naz Shah's apology, for example, is heartfelt and serious and she should be welcomed back to the party.) But I think there needs to be a really serious, difficult process of working out where things went wrong and actually stamping this shit out.

However, I do feel that a kind of hysteria has developed around this. A few untruths, half-truths and exaggerations have diluted the authority of those calling out antisemitism. Baroness Neuberger's bizarre allegation that Militant were antisemitic would be one example; Boris Johnson's description of antisemitism as a "virus" in the party is also absurd. 

And all too often people calling out Naz Shah for her antisemitism on social media would, quite quickly, descend into making racist generalisations about Muslims,  thus forfeiting their right to lecture anyone about racism against Jews.

And clearly the agenda of Andrew Gilligan or Guido Fawkes (those doing the muck raking) is deeply distasteful. It sickens me to hear Cameron and Johnson lecture Labour about this - not least while Lynton Crosby runs Goldsmith's dirty, dog whistle racist campaign against Sadiq Khan and Tory Brexiteers drop ominous warnings about "uncontrolled immigration".

And I'm sure there are some Labour "moderates" fanning these flames out of resentment at Corbyn. (Although the widely circulating idea that they have orchestrated this to undermine Labour's election chances next week is frankly absurd - unless you think that Ken Livingstone's motor mouth is secretly under their control.)

It's also clearly true that some of the strongest antisemitism allegations relate to people who joined long before the Corbyn win (e.g. Downing) and/ or to members who have nothing at all to do with his movement (e.g. Khadim Hussain). However, there does seem to be some overlap between the pro-Corbyn keyboard warriors and the most vociferous defenders of antisemitism. (If you look at the Twitter scene around Scott Nelson for example.) It's important to distinguish this milieu from the people who are actually active offline in Momentum - and clearly it serves the interests of both Tories and Labour "moderates" to blur that distinction - but it does disturb me, given the numerical dominance of the Corbynites in the new Labour Party.

So, I would strongly defend Labour from those who say that this stuff is "rife" in the party. It's not, contra Boris, a "virus" in the party. Most party members are appalled by it. But I do think that Labour, and the left as a whole, does have some kind of a problem with antisemitism. And it needs - we need - to face up to it.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Merle Haggard z''l

I was very sad to see last night that the wonderful Merle Haggard has passed away.

I've collected here some of the times I've blogged about him over the last decade...

Untamed hawk

Johnny Cash coined the term "dove with claws", talking about the Vietnam war:
This past January we took our entire show, along with my wife June, we went to Long Bien Air Force Base near Saigon. And a reporter friend of mine asked, said, "That makes you a hawk, doesn't it?" And I said, "No, that don't make me a hawk. No. No, that don't make me a hawk." But I said, "If you watch the helicopters bring in the wounded boys, then you go into the wards and sing for 'em and try to do your best to cheer them up so that they can get back home, it might make you a dove with claws."
Wade Tatangelo characterises Cash's position as "anti-war/pro-soldier", which is not a bad place to be.

Merle Haggard takes it one step further. Asked "Do you feel like a dove with claws these days?" He replied:
How about an untamed hawk? I’m not going to be a part of the mainstream ever. I’m an American, and I think America is about differences of opinion, and it’s also about integrity and honesty and all those things. We need to gain that respect and that reputation around the world again, as well as in the middle of this country. I think the average American is in a state of confusion as to what to do or who to turn to for help.
By strange coincidence, Haggard's beautiful song "I wonder if they ever think of me" has just come on my shuffle. Although the sound is a little schmaltzy, the opening line is "There's not much a man can do inside a prison", pretty raw for the time. After lamenting the prisoner's loneliness for a couple of verses, you suddenly get this:
I wonder if they know that I'm still living
And still proud to be a part of Uncle Sam
I wonder if they think I died of hunger
In this rotten prison camp in VietNam.

Norm and Karl

In 2008, the late Norman Geras, a big country fan as well as a life-long Marxist, did a Normblog profile of Karl Marx. One of the best bits:
If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be? > Johannes Kepler, Philip Roth and Merle Haggard.
 Being Norm, this was footnoted. The footnote went to the chapter in Capital on the length of the working day. The YouTube link from Merle's name is now dead, but I think we can presume it's this song, which rates, with Dolly Parton's "9 To 5" and Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It", as among the best ever Marxist country songs:

Politically uncorrect

Back in 2006, Chris Dillow wrote something about the complicated politics expressed in songs like those, and how the gap between their sentiments and today's left tells us something depressing about the latter. Here's an extract:
Haggard – and the millions of people he sings for – is regarded as a right-winger simply because the left ceased to be comfortable with conservative (small c) working people. And the discomfort, I suspect, is reciprocated: many working class people (on both sides of the Atlantic) don’t want anything to do with a “left” that consists of multi-millionaire managerialists who hate their way of life.
Healing that gap, healing the left and connecting it with the humanly concerns of the people Haggard sang for, is of course a (necessary, impossible) task that Norm set himself and the rest of us. On that note, I'll leave the last word to Merle, and one of his last songs:

More: Bob's Beats; Merle Haggard on Barack Obama's inageration; Haggard defends Obama

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

From Bob's archive: When the LRB whitewashed Europe's shame over Bosnia

Continuing my posting from the dusty archives.

This one, from July 2008, was originally entitled "An Extraordinary Claim". It seems extremely relevant now for a few reasons. The "realist" foreign policy line which it describes, pursued in the 1990s by George Bush I and by John Major, has become the dominant foreign policy position against since 2008. With Bush II and Blair having toxified interventionism's brand, Both Obama and Cameron (despite the latter's occasional empty Churchillian rhetoric) have largely pursued "a policy of disapproval" in relation to Syria, the great moral change of our time. Sadly, Samantha Power, to whom this post owes a lot,  has played a part in running PR for our tolerance of atrocity. Most recently, David Owen, one of the most awful practitioners of a do-nothing "policy of disapproval", has popped into the UK's Brexit debate to say that the EU is responsible for Russia's aggression in Ukraine and that we should let Russia get on with it in their sphere of influence. Anyway, here we are:

I read slowly. I subscribe to the London Review of Books. I'm currently reading the 10 April edition. On the bus this morning, I was reading a review by Henry Siegman of two books about the Israeli settlements in the Occupied lands. The review is a sharp indictment of the settlement movement, and the wider Occupation policies of the Israeli state.

About half-way through came this extraordinary claim:
the driving force behind the settlements is a small religious-nationalist group, whose members are widely considered the most savvy, well connected and effective political operators in Israel. Their ideology combines an intense form of religious messianism with an extreme nationalism that has far more in common with the religious and ethnocentric nationalism of the Serbian Orthodox militias of Mladic and Karadzic than with any Jewish values I am familiar with. That Sharon and some of his settler friends were virtually the only politicians in the West (other than Serbia’s Slavic supporters) who opposed military measures to prevent Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo was not an accident.
As a lifelong opponent of Ariel Sharon and even more so of the religious-national movement with which he has sometimes been uneasily allied, I have no wish to defend him. But this seems to me an example of an anti-Zionist so deeply enmeshed in hostility towards Israel's leaders that any criticism will stick.

Let's take a look, in this week when arch-cleanser Radovan Karadžić has finally been arrested, at Serbian ethnic cleansing. First, Bosnia, where ethnic cleansing took place mainly between 1992 and 1995 (that is, more or less exactly coinciding with the Rabin years in Israel, when Sharon was in the political wilderness). The first significant action by "politicians in the West" took place as war clouds gathered: the 1991 arms embargo, which was a great boost to the Serbian forces who had inherited most of the Yugoslav national army's arsenal, and a great threat to the future victims of ethnic cleansing, who were unable to defend themselves and thus left, essentially, at the mercy of "politicians in the West". Politicians in the West then stood by during theFoča massacre and the Prijedor massacre before UN troops were committed: to defend the international airport. The rest of the story is essentially the story of Western politicians' utter inactivity: a refusal to name what was happening as genocide in order to avoid the legal and moral responsibility to act, and literally standing by while massacre after massacre occurred.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

From Bob's archive: Brass

Continuing my postings from the archive with another music post from June 2008. The mp3 links seem to still work, to my surprise, although now you have to register to hear them, so I've added in alternate links and where possible YouTubes. I haven't checked all the other links - I suspect they're mostly dead. 

Acid Brass "What Time Is Love?" Version K (mp3) 7 MB
I'm not sure if I've blogged about Acid Brass before, the brainchild of Jeremy Deller, my second favourite contemporary artist, which married together the two quintessential working class arts of the British Northwest, acid house music and the colliery-style brass band (the latter as featured in the lovely movie Brassed Off, which I will blog about some day). Here, Stockport's Williams Fairey Band (a factory band rather than a colliery band), take "What Time is Love" by neo-situationist house pranksters the KLF - a song whose wikipedia page rates as a classic of citizen scholarship. Blog links: Music Like DirtcyberinsektcubikmusikBuy Acid Brass.
Goran Bregovic "Get The Money"(mp3 4 MB/Youtube)
To me, Acid Brass sounds kind of Balkan. Balkan artist Goran Bregovic has featured heavily in the weird films of Emir Kustirica. Sarajevo-born, he is probably one of the former Yugoslavia's biggest exports. Although I prefer him when he tones it down a bit, in "Get the Money", Bregovic brings a kind of punk/ska sensibility, and a hint of Lionel Bart, to the proceedings. The first version of this song was for the Kusturica film Arizona Dreams, and featured the vocals of Iggy Pop. Bregovic did a version without Iggy for the albums Songbook and P.S., but this comes from his Greatest Hits, and I assume that's Goran singing and not Iggy, but am willing to stand corrected! Buy any of these.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band "Ain't nothin but a party" (mp3) 9 MB
Rebirth Brass Band "Do Whatcha Wanna" Part 3 (mp3) 5 MB
New Orleans deep and dirty brass band funk. Dirty Dozen "Ain't Nothin'" from Medicated Magic 2002 (buy). "Do Whatcha" fromMardi Gras Party 1991 (buy). Blog links: Lil Mike 12 and 3Mainstream Isn't...Funkjester.

Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra "Indictment" (mp3) 11 MB
Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra "I.C.E." (mp3) 16 MB
Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra "Si, Se Puede" (mp3) 14 MB
Super intense political pop in the tradition of Fela Kuti, Manu Chao or Ozomatli. Antibalas come from Brooklyn. Lots of their live music is available at the amazing Archive.org. Blog link: Swan Fungus.

MarchFourth Marching Band "Crackhaus" (mp3) 3 MB
MarchFourth Marching Band "YiddishBlues" (mp3) 6 MB
Like Antibalas, MarchFourth (website/myspace), from Portland, Oregan, are heavily influenced by Fela and the Rebirth Brass Band, but these two tracks highlight their more Balkan/Jewish side. "Yiddish Blues" is a 1919 composition of Lieutenant Joseph Frankel, also recorded by early klez-revivalists Klezmer Conservatory Band (featuring Don Byron) and more recently the CzechPrague Klezmerim, the fantastic Shirim Klezmer Orchestra and a German band actually called Yiddish Blues (mp3 of their version). The Frankel song is important and interesting because he came from Kiev, where he was classically trained, and then wound up involved in theatre music in New York. According to Mark Slobin, the song takes "the Mi Shebeyrekh cantorial mode" ["May he who blessed" - a healing prayer] and combines it with a ragtime rhythm, illustrating the crossover between urban immigrant Jewish music and the "Oriental foxtrot" genre dance bands were playing then, and which black bands like Duke Ellington's and Fats Waller's would develop more ambitiously later. Blog links: Guess I'm FloatingSoundRootsBuy.

Mariachi Brass featuring Chet Baker "These Boots are Made for Walking" (mp3) 7 MB
1966. Lee Hazlewood's "These Boots..." was a hit for his muse Nancy Sinatra. According to Wikipedia, along with Chet's version, many other versions came out the same year: Hazlewood's own version, The New Christy Minstrels on the album New Kick!Mrs. Milleron the Mrs. Miller's Greatest Hits, Jane Morgan on the Fresh Flavor and The Supremes on Supremes A' Go-Go. But the Chet Baker version, produced by the great Jack Nitzche, surely stands head and shoulders over most of these. The idea, obviously, was to replicate the commercial success of "musical mensch" Herb Alpert. Unbelievably, Chet churned out no fewer than four albums of this stuff. Info: Ace, and the Chet Baker Tribute site. Blog links: WFMU (also check out Al Tijuana & His Jewish Brass - DowntownThe Yellow Rose Of TexasNever On SundayTsena, Tsena, etc etc), Lil Mike, and Lil Mike again.

Slobodan Salijevic "A Moj Babi" (mp3) 3 MB
I think I must have taken this from SoundRoots, from where I get all the information I know about Salijevic, a Gypsy musician from Prekodolce in Serbia (a town lacking a wikipedia page if there are any Balkan experts out there). Anyway, I thought it followed on well from the Chet Baker/Mariachi brass music, as the band has a nice bittersweet, kitschy feel ot it, above which the lead (presumably Salijevic) soars in a slightly Chet Baker-ish way. Buy Slobodan Salijevic.

A Hawk and a Hacksaw "Ihabibi" (mp3) 6 MB
A Hawk and a Hacksaw are a hipster faux-Balkan band from New Mexico. I disapprove of bands starting their names with the indefinate article, but there you go, at least they're not called something like "Architecture in Helsinki", "Radio 4" or "British Seapower", names of which I very strongly disapprove. I also mildly disapprove of the fact they did the soundtrack for the Slavoj Zizek documentary. On the other hand, I strongly approve of the fact they feature Willie "The Lion" Smith's "Echoes of Spring" on their website. Smith was a black and Jewish god of pre-war jazz. "Echoes of Spring" echoes the European romantic movement's interest in the folk musics of Eastern and Central Europe (thus influencing Duke Ellington's later work in this tradition) and as such has a kinship with klezmer and Balkan music. Anyway, "Ihabibi" is from AHAAH's 2007 collaboration with Budapest's The Hun Hangár Ensemble and sounds, to me, quite klezmerish, like a Romanian doyna.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

From Bob's archive: Against rockism

Apologies (in the unlikely event that you're bothered) for the lack of posting. I'll post a couple more oldies to fill the void. This one is from May 2008, and ever so slightly re-written to tighten the argument (although argument is probably too grand a term for a throwaway gripe). One observation: in 2008 working at home was a way of avoiding the internet and telephone, which is so not true eight years on. 

Today, taking advantage of the glorious London weather, I worked from home, sitting in my garden. (I had a piece of work to do that required concentration, away from the distraction of the internet and telephone.) Unfortunately, however, the evil rentier property magnates who own the freehold of the house next door to me have decided to turn the tiny garage at the end of their 20 foot garden into a two-floor “luxury townhouse”, conveniently blocking out half the light that reaches my small garden. So, today, the builders (one of whom is appropriately called Bob) were there. Although likeable blokes, they played Virgin radio.

Virgin radio, originally part of the Richard Branson empire (but now, I think, owned by Chris Evan's Ginger Media, or the conglomerate that now owns that), was, I believe the second national commercial radio station in the UK, arriving fairly early in the period when FM radio gained dominance over LW/MW. For those of you lucky enough never to heard, it was the UK pioneer of the format broadly known as Adult Oriented Rock. My hatred of Virgin stems from my years as a warehouse worker, when Virgin tended to be the least hated station amongst the workforce, and hence the default choice of station. (I would do my best to sneak it on to BBC London, then known as GLR.)

Subjected to it all day today, it brought back the suffering, one of the factors, I think, which motivated me to switch to a white collar profession, a choice vindicated in the age of the mp3, when I can now work to the accompaniment of whatever I want to listen to.

Virgin features all of the bands I hate: U2, Brian Adams, REM, Oasis, David Gray, Counting Crows, Alanis Morissette, Coldplay, Radiohead, INXS. The artistes (is that the right word?) on the playlist today were, without exception, white. Most were male. There are earnest hoarse-voiced troubadours, swaggering long-haired types, lots of sweat and leather and testosterone, “classic” tracks that bring back bad memories, “new” hits that are recycled versions of the old ones. The only moments of respite were a couple of lite-metal songs (Guns ‘N’ Roses, Bon Jovi) which at least have a sense of irony and fun (or am I imagining that?)... and a couple of lovely pop songs during the “eighties hour” (ABC “When Smokey Sings”, something by Madness).

When ABC came on, it came into focus what is wrong with Virgin FM: rockism. Pop music aspires to nothing other than providing the soundtrack for having fun, dancing and falling in love; rockism thinks rock is above the trivialities of pop, thinks it is more serious, more “adult”. Rockism thinks rock is more “authentic” (epitomised by rock’s preference for “real” (i.e. electric) instruments over electronic sounds). Hence rockism’s masculinism: rockism thinks pop is only good for girls.

Pop, though - in its honesty, in the universality of the affects it evokes and provokes - actually reaches a poetry that rock rarely manages. Compare “When Smokey Sings” to Virgin FM staple “Isn’t it Ironic”. The former describes, with utmost simplicity, what it is like to listen to a beautiful pop song. The latter claims to be pondering seriously on deep metaphysical issues. Which one is actually the more profound?

Friday, January 22, 2016

From Bob's archive: on defectors from the left

I don't have time to blog right now, but I wanted to keep the place alive so I thought I'd follow my normal habit of fetching something up from the archive to fill the space. We're up to April 2008, when George Galloway was the Respect MP in Bethnal Green and Bow and Hamas had taken control of Gaza. 

It struck me how much we've moved on in some ways: the SWP and Galloway have been in steep decline,  but with Corbyn's ascendency the far left has edged from margins to mainstream; the alliance with Islamism is a far less significant feature of the British far left; the increasingly discredited Stop the War have if anything swung towards secularism and taken up the Bush/Blair-style War on Terror narrative on the Middle East, hysterically blaming Sunni fanaticism for all the evils of the region while celebrating the allegedly secular dictator Assad. 

In other ways, it remains disturbingly relevant. While Corbyn has energised many on the further left, others on the centre- or decent left are tearing up their Labour party cards and abandoning their left-wing identity. Nick Cohen's What's Left has had a new lease of life, and Nick has taken the final step out of the left. The term "Regressive Left", to indicate the indecent Verkrappt features of the mainstream left, is trending among today's defectors. Others are holding on in, and even calling for realignment

I've edited the old post a bit here, to trim some of the more ephemeral stuff and bring out the relevance's today, and added a brand new ending. The original is intact here.

This post is a contribution to a number of inter-related debates that are currently exercising the blogetariat: David Edgar's response to David Mamet's desertion from "brain-dead liberalism", Marko Attila Hoare's claim that the defining axis in politics today is West v anti-West not left v right, and the premature announcement of the demise of the Euston Manifesto.

Here, I mainly want to write about the David Edgar essay on defectors from the left. Being something of a defector myself, I was very prepared to get irritated. However, the piece was actually quite thoughtful and interesting. However, there are four things things I wanted to take issue with.

I. Leftism ≠ Stalinism
First, and least important, Edgar appears shockingly ignorant of the existence of a "decent" anti-Stalinist left prior to 1956. He seems to think the only alternatives to celebrating the radical and progressive achievements of the 20th century (even when they come in Stalinist uniform), becoming conservative or abandoning politics. I mean, I can't expect him to be familiar with the likes of CLR James and Victor Serge, but we can expect him to have heard of Leon Trotsky and certainly George Orwell. In fact, long before the "Kronstadt moment" (he's lifted that phrase from anti-Stalinist Daniel Bell, who started out in an anarchist milieu, who famously said his Kronstadt moment was Kronstadt), there were leftists who opposed Leninist authoritarianism, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Britain's own Sylvia Pankhurst.

This might seem trivial and pedantic, but its significance is in the dangerous effect of the equation of leftism with Leninism. This is two-fold: it allows Stalinists to portray any dissident leftists (e.g. Orwell) as evil renegades for the true cause, and it allows the right to dismiss leftists in general as Stalinist nutters.

II. Islam ≠ Islamism

Weirdly, Edgar lumps defectors from Islamism (Ed Husain) along with defectors from the left (Christopher Hitchens), and he attacks the decentists attempts to "brand fundamentalist Islam as brown fascism", which he says is tantamount to "abandon[ing] an impoverished, beleaguered and demonised community" to racist assault. There's lots of problems with what he's saying here. To start with, Hitchens don't call Islamism "brown fascism"; when they talk about a "brown-green alliance" the brown stands for the classical far right and the green for Islamism. By raising the idea of "brown fascism", Edgar is highlighting the ethnic identity of Muslims rather than the political ideology of Islamism.

Entwined with this is the vexed question of Islam versus Islamism. Edgar is right to note that there is a slippage in the language of some of the defectors and decentists between the two terms: Martin Amis was a bit sweeping, Nick Cohen can be, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali thinks all Islam is irredeemable. But most of the "defectors" are pretty clear on the difference.

And even if they weren't, it wouldn't excuse Edgar's slippage:
Cohen is careful to point out that "Islamism has Islamic roots", and, clearly, the group that he dubs the "far right" goes beyond the adherents of Jamaat-e-Islami. It's also a group that - defined in the old-fashioned way as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis - remains at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap. As Trevor Phillips pointed out in his "sleepwalking into segregation" speech, made after 7/7, a Pakistani man with identical qualifications to a white man is still going to earn £300,000 less in his lifetime.
In fact, British Asians defined as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis is an entirely different thing from either Islam or Islamism, and to claim otherwise is disingenuous. Are Saudi residents in the UK at the bottom of the heap? Are Turkish Cypriots even? Some Islamic states are amongst the richest in the world. Islamist politics is a movement more of rich Muslims than of "impoverished and beleaguered" Muslims. Defending Muslims from racism can never be an excuse for tolerating far right Islamist ideology.

III. Alliance ≠ capitulation
The third thing, which follows directly from this, is about the politics of alliance. Edgar compellingly makes the case for the left to make alliances, even unsavoury ones, with the oppressed - in this case, with the Islamist oppressed. He cites the Civil Rights movement, when white and Jewish Northern middle class leftists joined forces with Southern blacks who were led by Christians, and he cites the Black Power moment, when white radicals allied with Black Power people, despite the latter's dodgy sexual politics.

This claim, though, is problematic in three ways. First, it glosses over the tensions and critiques that went on in those historical alliances. Within the Black Power movement, for example, there were different positions: on the one side were people like Huey Newton, who were moving towards more emancipatory sexual politics, and on the other side were the likes of Eldridge Cleaver (mentioned in Edgar's article as a defector) who had very brutal sexual politics. And the white radicals who worked with the Black Power movement had different positions on this. Some, like the posturing ideologues of Ramparts magazine (such as David Horowitz, another defector), were slavishly uncritical of Cleaver and his bullshit. Others, such as Jean Genet, pushed away at the contradictions within the Black Power movement. There are many white liberals and radicals nowadays, like George Galloway and Madeleine Bunting, who decry any criticism of Islamist sexual politics as orientalist and Islamophobic; they are the David Horowitzs of today - we need more Jean Genets.

Second, Edgar's "left", here, is a white, metropolitan left. In fact, weren't Huey Newton and Stokely Carmichael as authentically part of the left as the whities at Ramparts were? And similarly today there a viable mass left in the Islamic world, which cautions against alliances with the Muslim Brotherhood: forces such as the Iraq Freedom Congress or the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan - or, more recently, the Syrian democratic movement. In Britain, too, there has been a black left as long as there has been black presence, most recently represented by groups like Southall Black Sisters. It is with them that the white left should be making alliances first.

Third, there is the crucial question about which issues one makes unsavoury alliances. In the fight against racism, yes, I believe it is correct for anti-racists to work closely with the targets of racism, including those who might have unpleasant politics. However, the groups from the Bangladeshi and Pakistani populations in the UK who are actively fighting racism are not the Muslim Association of Britain, but groups like the Southall Black Sisters, the Monitoring Group, the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism and the Newham Monitoring Project - groups who also caution against an alliance with Islamism. If the SWP was making close alliances with these groups, instead of with the Muslim Association of Britain, then I'd take Edgar's point more seriously.

Fighting an unjust war might also be a cause worth making alliances for too. But here, the Stop the War movement has not just made a tactical alliance with Islamists, they have allowed Islamists to set the agenda. Hence the yoking together of protest against the Iraq war with causes like the Israeli occupation, defending the Iranian regime, and solidarity with Hamas and Hezbollah. Here a naive 'anti-imperialism' has been used as an alibi for antisemitic conspiracy theories.

At any rate, forming a political party with Islamists goes way beyond mere strategic alliances. Respect and its successor Tower Hamlets First - which far leftists in TUSC still support - are not strategic alliances against racism or war, but attempts to reshape the whole political agenda.

IV. Pathologising defection ≠ fighting the good fight

The fourth thing is simple. It may be the case that there are certain pathologies of defection, which Edgar analyses very well, with a play-wright's understanding of character. But this does not necessarily make defection wrong - any more than the undeniable existence of pathologies of leftism makes leftism wrong (as people like David Horowitz would have us believe). As Tom Freeman notes,
Edgar says that he’s “interested in the politics of defection”, although he seems to be more fascinated by the psychology of defection (or rather, the psychology of changing your mind when political cliques of some sort are involved). 
The psychology of defection may be of all-consuming interest to those who have been through it or are contemplating it. But it is the politics that should concern us. Mindless loyalty to the identity of leftism is literally insane. Loyalty to the values - the values of internationalism, of solidarity and equality and humanity, of fight against inequality, discrimination and lack of opportunity - is what matters. For some, that means giving up the identity label of leftism; for others it means staying and fighting.