Sunday, May 31, 2009


Nick Cohen has an article in Standpoint about paranoid political thinking. He fingers all the usual suspects, 9/11 conspiracy theorists and the like. He missed out one group though - Rochdale Hornets supporters. All referees and, at times, the rules of the game appear to a proportion of them as a vast conspiracy to deprive the Hornets of their rightful penalties, tries, goals and, obviously, victories in every game they play. As one particularly vociferous woman complained that if the rules were as she had just rewritten them, rather than as they actually are, a goal line drop out would have been a tap on the 20 metre line, I felt my brain start to slowly disintegrate. Rochdale were winning at the time too.

However, despite Swinton's best efforts to lose a scrappy, close encounter, a late fightback and a Holroyd drop goal secured a 23-22 win for the Lions. Holroyd was then sent off for abusing the Freemason, sorry referee, after he gave a last minute penalty to Rochdale and the Hornets fan next to me exploded with anger insisting that it should have been moved ten metres forward so that they could have kicked it and won the game. He didn't and they didn't. Thank god that one's over for another year.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Mutual aid

Well I never, Kropotkin may have got it right according to this research.
Scientists studying animal behaviour believe they have growing evidence that species ranging from mice to primates are governed by moral codes of conduct in the same way as humans.
And here is Kropotkin writing in in his last, unfinished book, Ethics: Origin and Development.
Our primitive ancestors lived with the animals, in the midst of them. And as soon as they began to bring some order into their observations of nature, and to transmit them to posterity, the animals and their life supplied them with the chief materials for their unwritten encyclopaedia of knowledge, as well as for their wisdom, which they expressed in proverbs or sayings...

And if we, with all our book learning, and our ignorance of nature, feel unable to understand how animals scattered over a wide territory manage to gather in thousands at a given spot to cross a river ... or to begin their march north, south, or west, our ancestors, who considered the animals wiser than themselves, were not in the least astonished by such concerted actions... For them, all the animals were in continual communication ... thus constituting one vast community, which had its own rules of propriety and good neighbourly relations. Even to-day deep traces of that conception of nature survive in the folklore of all nations.
Kropotkin was a natural scientist as well as an Anarchist, viewing the development of human ethics as part of a process of social evolution in interaction with the natural environment. In other words, he felt that we learnt the instinct for mutual aid from animals.

Via Norm

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Morality or inequality?

David Marquand has written about the current political and economic crisis. He locates it in the failure of neo-liberalism as a model of political economy and is perceptive when he links both the banking crisis and the expenses scandal to a crisis in the legitimacy of the state.

For the crisis of the economy is also a crisis of the state. Democratic Europe's miraculous recovery from the traumas of total war, genocide and defeat was underpinned by a tacit social contract between states and peoples. The state guaranteed full employment, rising living standards and social protection. In return, the peoples gave the states their loyalty. The contract was embedded most firmly in the social democracies of northern Europe and the social market economies of Germany and her neighbours. But there were local variations in France, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Now the state has been forced to renege on its part of the bargain. Full employment is no more, ­living ­standards are falling, and social ­protection is under threat. The rising tide of bitterness and anger that swept through ­London's G20 protests, and which has now broken over the heads of MPs – worthy as well as unworthy – is the result. But that is only its local, ­British manifestation. All over Europe, the people feel that the state has betrayed them. They don't know why or how, and they haven't yet found an effective way to vent their anger. But they do sense that they have been let down. And they are right.

However, he then takes one step further into the notion of a moral economy. I am more familiar with the concept as elaborated by the historian E P Thompson, who saw it as a popular view of a just moral economic order, enforced by ordinary people through custom and riot. Marquand draws on this but adds to it something that is much closer to the morality of 19th Century Christian socialism.

According to it, the unhindered, ­rationally calculated ­pursuit of ­individual self interest in free, competitive markets was not just economically efficient, but also morally right.

This provided a convenient self-justification to the rich that their vast earnings were theirs as of right. However, Marquand sees this as morally corrupting of the less well off as well.

House owners who gambled on ever-­rising house prices and took out mortgages they could not afford; credit card holders who borrowed more than they could realistically expect to pay back because realism that conflicted with immediate gratification had come to seem quaint and old-fashioned; and voters who thought they were morally entitled to ever-rising living standards without effort on their part, were all playing at the gaming tables of the ­neoliberals' casino capitalism.

It is an old trope, you can find it in Tolstoy for instance, but something still jarred with me when I read it. Then I heard an interview about some new research on BBC radio this morning. The TUC's ToUChstone blog has published a new pamphlet, Life in the Middle (pdf). It is an interesting pamphlet that argues that the political emphasis on winning the votes of 'Middle Britain' has been distorted by the use of mean, rather than median, income as the identifier of who is in the middle of the income range. As a result,

...the term ‘Middle England’ – more commonly ‘Middle Britain’ now – has changed its meaning over the years in the minds of politicians and journalists to mean a group that sits not in the middle but in the upper half of the income distribution. Middle Britain has become shorthand for the conservative, well-to do citizen. Subtly and gradually, it is this different Middle Britain that has come to dominate cultural and political debate.

Now, what the pamphlet argues is that their research shows that if you restore the meaning of Middle Britain to those literally at the median point of national earnings you will see that they have seen a real decline in their incomes. This wealth gap has been bridged by credit. So, according to the research, the growth in consumer credit is not about instant gratification, nor is it about a "moral entitlement to ever-rising living standards", it is about maintaining living standards in the face of falling real income, despite a vast increase in national wealth. Credit is a function of inequality and it is this that lies at the heart of the banking failures of today.

I am not a good enough economist to be able to judge the merits of the research, but I do still have my own concept of a moral economy and it is an egalitarian one. The pamphlet is another affirmation of my belief that New Labour's abandonment of an egalitarian political economy was a social, political and economic mistake of the first order and one for which they may be about to pay a heavy price at the polls.

In the meantime, if you want to know where you stand in the earnings league, try this neat widget from the TUC.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bad habits

Hot news from Greece:

Seventeen British men arrested for wearing nuns' habits and accused of offensive behaviour been freed by a court on the Greek island of Crete.

The men, who were also wearing women's lingerie, spent a night in police cells in Crete wearing their outfits.

If only the authorities had known cross-dressing is an old British disorderly tradition.

Mind you, they should have said they were weather forecasters.

Ta Will

Monday, May 25, 2009

Bank holiday fun

It has been a good weekend for an unathletic sports fan. OK, Swinton Rugby League Club lost again to Oldham and continue dropping down the table. Oldham were the better side. There a rather a lot of better sides these days. Oh well.

I was delighted to see Hull City stay in the Premiership (sorry Will) despite being totally outclassed by United reserves. It means so much to the city. When I first moved to Hull, all the kids wore Leeds, Liverpool and United shirts, now all you see are the black and amber stripes of the Tigers. Even the lamp posts on the main road at the bottom of my street have black and amber banners on them saying, 'Hull, home to heroes and champions'. (I originally mistyped 'home to herpes and champions' - an easy mistake to make.)

And, on a great day for nostalgics, Burnley have been promoted after thirty three years out of the top division. It marks the return of a small town with a fine footballing tradition. My first football watching memory is of Spurs playing Burnley in the 1962 Cup Final. Best of all, there is something deeply satisfying about seeing a team sponsored by a pie manufacturer reach the top.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


The best article I have read this week comes from the May edition of Adults Learning. Ian Ground is brilliantly angry about the near total demise of university adult education. He argues that the legacy of the present administration will be,
...the deliberate destruction of a great civic tradition, the systematic exclusion of the public from our universities and the end of lifelong learning as an object of public policy.
He thinks that there is something else lurking underneath:
The closures of public programmes at Reading and other universities are historic for this reason then: they are the sign of an intended seismic shift in the nature of the relation between the state and the universities about who will decide what can be learned. In this, lifelong learning departments are just the coalface canaries.
Let them learn skills.

The article is not available on line so instead of directing you to it I shall tell you a story.

When I worked in Manchester, I used to go with the students from my evening classes for long drinking sessions at a small pub in what was then an un-gentrified Hulme. In those days I had stamina. We used to gather in a room to one side of the bar and for a few weeks a group of workers from a nearby building site used the place. They bristled with hostility, leaning on the bar, making loud comments about "bloody students", that sort of thing.

One evening, one of them followed me into the gents. There was an uneasy atmosphere as he stood next to me at the urinal. Then he turned and said, "You're the person I need to talk to about education aren't you"?

"Yes", I replied.

"How do I do it? 'Cause there's got to be more than this".

So I told him where he needed to go for advice, gave him phone numbers and offered to meet him. He then went back to his mates at the bar and continued swearing about students.

It was a glimpse of the reality that lies behind lower rates of working class participation in learning. It is not caused by 'low aspirations' that need 'raising'. That patronising explanation individualises something that is systemic: exclusion and oppression, culturally reinforced, that smothers the desire for a satisfying intellectual life with a tragic contempt and a sense that it is impossible - 'not for the likes of us'. How convenient this is for the middle class educational worlds where a sub-conscious sign saying, 'no riff-raff', can be discretely fixed to those ivy-clad walls.

Here is the end of the story. I never saw him again. He didn't come to the college, phone anyone, nor did he meet me. His world won. However, I like to think that one day, perhaps many years later, he may have seen an advert and walked into a college or centre somewhere, found what he wanted and dared to live his dream.

And this is why lifelong learning is so important, why it should be an integral part of universities. It is the ever open door, ready for the moment when a chance encounter or a need for something more overwhelms the forces ranged against it. The tragedy is that today the doors are closing, they are being chained up, secured with formidable padlocks. The doors may have been small, but they were there. Where are the political forces that will pry them open once more?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Threat or promise

Marcel Berlins takes the opportunity to have one of his periodic digs at the internet. Because of the ease of copying and pasting he asserts that,
The easy access provided by the internet is a direct threat to individual and original thinking, writing and scholarship.
Note that it is the internet that is to blame, not the copiers, nor an educational system that prioritises instrumentalism and conformism, the internet. It is the same old reductionist argument. A whole technology can be damned by just one of its many possible uses, purely on the basis of what happens to be your latest irritation.

I wouldn't be without the internet. I have a realm of scholarship at my fingertips (as well as much rubbish, but that can be diverting in its own way too) and sometimes, like tonight, it can be magic.

I have been gripped by reading Emma Goldman's autobiography, Living My Life. Goldman's prose is pacy and vivid, her narrative drives you through the intensity of an extraordinary life. Her voice is distinctive. Her voice? As I started on Volume Two I suddenly thought, 'What did she sound like?'. So I went to the computer and within a few minutes I was listening to one of the few clips of her speaking that exists.

And now I am going back to the book with that distinctive intonation echoing in my brain and the powerful prose seems alive as never before. And, what is more, I can share my delight with whoever in the world happens to pass by this site. "A threat to scholarship"? Ridiculous.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

This time it's personal

I haven't really known what to make of the MPs' expenses scandal. Squalid, certainly, but significant? What has irritated me most is the whining of the privileged as they justify their actions - 'it is the system' and 'everything is in accordance with the rules' - as if rules and systems absolved the need for ethics and moral judgement. Then this happened.
MP David Chaytor has been suspended by the Parliamentary Labour Party amid allegations he claimed money for a mortgage he had already paid off.

He is the second Labour MP to be suspended and the latest from both main parties to face investigation amid continuing controversy over expenses.

The Daily Telegraph says the Bury North MP took nearly £13,000 for the flat in London after it was paid off in 2004.
I worked with David for several years in adult education in Manchester. We kept in touch and I visited him for a drink in the House of Commons just after he was elected. Though we haven't been in contact for a few years, I always liked David and considered him an able and principled man of the left.

His integrity was tested early. When, in 1997, the new Labour government decided to stick to the spending limits of the outgoing Tory administration it committed itself to policies that it had vehemently opposed only months earlier. The most egregious of these was a cut in benefit payable to single parents. The squirming sophistry as MPs tried to justify the unjustifiable was dispiriting to say the least. To his enduring credit, David was one of the few who rebelled and voted against the proposal. He remained a frequent rebel, holding to his principles when so many others caved in.

And now there is this, and I genuinely don't know what to think. Was it a "mistake" as he claimed? Does the defence of the living standards of the poor outweigh the abuse of expenses? Is it possible to be a good representative even whilst maximising your own personal benefit? However, perhaps Bakunin got it right:
Dependent on popular election, they are at first distinguished from the mass of the citizens only by the very qualities which recommended them to their choice and are naturally, the most devoted and useful of all. They do not yet assume to themselves any privilege, any particular right, except that of exercising, insofar as the people wish it, the special functions with which they have been charged ... Can this equality be long maintained? ...

Nothing is more dangerous for man's private morality than the habit of command. The best man, the most intelligent, disinterested, generous, pure, will infallibly and always be spoiled at this trade. Two sentiments inherent in power never fail to produce this demoralisation; they are: contempt for the masses and the overestimation of one's own merits ...

Is there not something in all that to make a man lose his head and his heart as well, and become mad with pride? It is thus that power and the habit of command become for even the most intelligent and virtuous men, a source of aberration, both intellectual and moral.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It's all in the genes

At least it is according to Chris Woodhead who "...says the children of middle-class professionals are likely to have 'better genes'". Thomas Hardy would never have bothered to write Jude the Obscure if he had access to this startling, scientific insight. Know your place indeed. And this should please Paulie and Shuggy
His answer is to teach all children the basics: to read and write, using phonics, and to be numerate. Then the solution is selection and grammar schools, and a voucher system whereby parents could buy their child's way to a better life.
Yep, vouchers solves all. This sums his position up:

Some children are born "not very bright" and education ministers will never be able to change that...

However, whilst ministers may not be able to change the "not very bright", they are able to appoint them as chief inspectors.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Conventional wisdom

Polly Toynbee writes sense about Thatcherism in her piece on the expenses scandal and Labour's record on equality.
This week marks 30 years since Thatcher walked into No 10, creating the myth that it marked an epochal change in attitudes. It didn't. It marked the day when Britain's dysfunctional electoral system allowed a small rightward shift to let in an unrepresentatively radical party. When unions over-reached themselves, 44% voted for her but 56% still voted against. British Social Attitudes showed year after year that people stayed wedded to the welfare state, the NHS, the BBC and social security. The majority always voted to the left of her, and her savage cuts made her the most unpopular PM to date, saved only by the left's exceptional disarray.
Thatcherism actually did mark a change in consensus. However, it was only the elite consensus that changed and it was one that smacked of opportunistic self-interest. Arguably, this was the central error of Labour's 'modernisers'. They mistook the views of the elite with the views of the populace as a whole.

However, my suspicion is that there is a bit more to it than that. New Labour despised the views of ordinary, left-leaning people, seeing them as ignorant and behind the times -'dinosaurs'. It was their own self-perception as being new, young and holding the secrets of modernity that was their undoing. And, as an enlightened elite themselves, they saw no reason why they, too, should not grab a piece of the burgeoning wealth at the top. Those of us locked into egalitarian ideas and shaking our heads in incomprehension were derided as 'the forces of conservatism'. Well, their nemesis is with us now and it gives me no pleasure, no pleasure at all.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Political scandal

Forget MPs' expenses. This is the real scandal.
Inequality at levels not seen under Macmillan, Heath, Thatcher or Major. Real cuts in the incomes for those at the bottom of the pile. No progress in reducing child or pensioner poverty. A record number of working-age adults without children living below the breadline. For the government, the release today of the annual Households Below Average Income data from the Department of Work and Pensions made desperately depressing reading.
Alienation? Are you surprised? Disillusion? What else would you expect? This is the true cost of Labour's slavish devotion to a conservative political economy, a cost borne by the poorest.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


Tanya Gold, in a piece about Jean Rhys, writes about Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre:
Jane Eyre is about a principled, virginal governess who falls in love with her employer Mr Rochester, but cannot marry him, because he has a wife, an insane and dangerous woman who lives in the attic, and appears only to start fires. It is a rescue fantasy - a book about how a plain woman can be saved by a powerful man.
In fact, this is the genre that Bronte subverts. It certainly is a rescue novel, only it is one about how a powerful man can be saved by a plain woman - but solely by losing his power and living with her as an equal. A far more interesting theme than Gold suggests.

Things we take for granted

And shouldn't

1. A shower - or bath if that is what you prefer. The bandage came off my leg today and I have just had a shower, feeling deliciously clean for the first time in a week. There is only so much you can do with a flannel.

2. The sheer niceness of most of the people who work in the health service, despite the occasional horror story.

3. The silly idea that you will see something that you want to blog about most days.

Friday, May 01, 2009


I haven't heard it since my childhood. Today, outside my window, there was a cry of "rag bone - rag bone", the words running together, the 'o' elongated and exaggerated, sounding like another language from another time. At the bottom of the street was a horse and cart. So they still exist.

Health and efficiency

As I sit here with my left leg raised, swathed in bandages, after the last instalment of the minor surgery I required, I have just discovered that Paul Anderson has taken up the cudgels again.

He couldn't resist after spotting an interview on YouTube with a Tory MEP, Dan Hannan, on Fox News. The main purpose of the interview was to trash the NHS with contradictory fictions. You can see it here. After my brilliant treatment it made me especially angry, my views haven't changed from this earlier post.

The other night a taxi driver was talking endlessly to me about how he wasn't a Tory but thought that Cameron would make a good Prime Minister. I then realised that the next election was all but lost. Watch this video and be scared, be very scared.

I leave the final words to Anderson and his understated comment.
What a stuck-up wanker. Lower than vermin. And what a cretin to do it now.