Wednesday, October 24, 2012


It gets more bizarre by the minute. The latest is the strange and very public decision of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to write to apologise for his behaviour in class to his old school teacher. Private contrition may be touching, but it does little for the profile of an ambitious man.

Now, a teacher replies.

And here is my effort:

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
Douglas Adams
He was lucky. As my book deadline looms, I stare paralysed at the on-rushing date, growing ever larger, more terrifying, and making an ominous rumble rather than a pleasing whooshing sound. What do do? Get on with writing the bloody thing? Of course not. You find something on the Internet to while away many an hour in amusing prevarication. This one is today's joy: the Daily Mail-o-matic.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Part-time blues

Here is the most unsurprising bit of news about student enrolment in UK universities:
... part-time enrolments are down big time compared with last year, by as much as 30% at some universities. And the overall fall in part-time enrolments is likely to be larger than the fall for full-time students in England.
No shit Sherlock. If you close most of the departments of lifelong learning in the country, ones that specialised in part-time courses for adults and taught thousands of students, you might find the numbers dropping a tad.

Of course the reason lies in the impact of the new funding regime and its failure to see universities as anything other than recipients of young people preparing for work. This blindness was matched by institutions, with some honourable exceptions, undervaluing the contribution that part-time adult education made to their universities and to the cities and regions they operate in. The result is an increasingly orthodox sector when the economic crisis demands greater flexibility, just as smaller family budgets are going to squeeze the money available to fund learning. So the combination of reduced capacity with higher fees is a killer.

Ah, I hear the mantra being repeated:
For the first time, some new part-time university entrants can get student loans for their fees, and so will no longer have to pay up-front ... These reforms aim to encourage more people to study part-time and to stem the general decline in part-time higher education study. 
Well, as this report makes clear, only 30% of students will be eligible for loans and besides you have to look at what the loans are replacing. First, fees were often kept low and so the rise in fees is disproportionate, simply pricing many people out of the market even if they can get a loan. The second impact is on low income students who previously had their fees fully remitted and were eligible for small £500 loans to cover the expenses of part-time study. They now have to take a loan to repay full fees unless there is a good bursary scheme that might cover them. They don't pay anything up front, but they didn't have to previously and didn't acquire a debt.

When funding changed it did so without any questioning of the purpose of higher education or of the role a university should play. It is a mechanism without a philosophy. The sheer lack of imagination is staggering, but the loss to thousands of adult education students is incalculable.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Desperately seeking Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm's death has produced a flurry of commentary, not because the quality of his books but because of his belated celebrity status as an historian who was ... shock, horror ... a Marxist.

He might have got away with it if he had not also been a member of the Communist Party and remained a member when colleagues of his resigned in the wake of the Russian suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. People are right to have reservations. I have posted before on his equivocal stance on the history of the nineteen thirties that borders on apologism, as well as his more recent descent into fashionable relativism.  Then again, his work on the nineteenth century is impressive, though I have no doubt that his political allegiance did shape some of his later work for the worse.

None of this is an excuse for some of the shoddy journalism that didn't try and engage with his academic merit, but instead flaunted a smug superiority masquerading as analysis. Some of his old friends have come out with flattery, others have given far more rounded appreciations, especially this one from Donald Sassoon, who balances the merits with the errors nicely. The tendency to lurch into simplistic bluster has also irritated Shuggy who put up a couple of good posts in response. Alex Massie also puts Hobsbawm's much misquoted interview with Michael Ignatieff in context in a well-judged piece.

What I want to argue is that the 'Hobsbawm was a Marxist and therefore a mass murderer' line of writing makes two cardinal mistakes. The first one is a misunderstanding of the term totalitarianism. Here is a typical, unoriginal and self-satisfied example. The old trick of substituting the word 'fascist' for 'communist' for effect is hackneyed and tiresome, yet still people fall for it. Of course what it is really doing is using the notion of totalitarianism to say that because fascism and communism were totalitarian they were both the same. I find totalitarian theory really interesting and useful, however the utility of any theory depends on the appropriateness and the precision of its use. Apply it too loosely or widely and it becomes meaningless. Totalitarianism describes a particular form of ideologically driven, illiberal, authoritarian state or movement that demands the complete subjugation of the individual to some form of common purpose imposed by a particular, unquestionable ideology. It doesn't say what that ideology is. Thus you can get very different totalitarianisms that appeal to different people for different reasons. What is more, it is clear that some totalitarianisms are preferable to others. Just ask a Cambodian whether there was a real difference between the post-Stalinist Vietnamese communism imposed on the country and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge it replaced.

Fascism and communism were both totalitarian, but they were very different variants. And if we want to combat totalitarianism we are beholden to analyse its appeal beyond the notion that all we need to know is that anyone who attaches themselves to any type is, of necessity, a partisan of evil. Whatever you think of Hobsbawm, the one thing that cannot be denied is that he was as determinedly anti-fascist, just as he was stubborn in his, not uncritical, attachment to the Communist Party.

The second mistake is another over-simplification; seeing Marxism solely as a form of political allegiance and not as a tool of analysis. Here is one example of its impact on his work. Just as enemies have emphasised his membership of the Communist Party, his admirers have tended to pick out his seemingly contrary role in the 'modernisation' of the Labour Party. In fact both share the same intellectual roots, a class analysis.  Hobsbawm's hugely influential expanded essay, The Forward March of Labour Halted?, does not argue, as many have said, that the Labour Party was losing its base support because of the disappearance of the working class. Instead, he was writing that Labour was still the party of the working class, but that the working class was changing and becoming fragmented. In becoming so, it developed a range of sectional interests that were sometimes in conflict with each other. One approach to the problem was to try and aggregate as many of those sectional interests as possible. Hobsbawm thought that this would merely encourage division and instead urged a policy that would speak for the core interests that united a fragmented working class - education, health, welfare, housing - at the expense of the pet projects of many party activists.  Though portrayed as moving right, it was an analysis that was rooted in his Marxism. He saw Labour's need to speak for the whole working class, not to move beyond it.

Hobsbawm's Marxism meant more than allegiance to the Communist Party. It was the starting point for his academic interests, including the study of history from below and his work in economic history. These will continue to be read and appreciated - and by non-Marxists as well. His political position was more problematic, mainly due to the tenacity to which he clung to the old faith, hoping for reform from within the party rather than accepting its demise. In this he was hardly alone, even if he was increasingly isolated. He paid for that isolation in hostile obituaries.

Friday, October 12, 2012

And the winner is ...

As austerity programmes dictated by the EU continue to bite, the news is relentlessly bad. Hunger stalks the poorest in the centres of Europe, fascist movements are on the march capitalising on the discontent, riots and protests shake the cities of the periphery and the search for scapegoats is feeding separatism, extreme nationalism, violent racism and growing intolerance. Countries that thought they had escaped the fascism of the past glance nervously over their shoulder at the growing social disintegration. In the face of all this, European leaders stand firm, expressing regret but insisting that there is no alternative to the politics of austerity as they congratulate themselves on their courage in making hard choices.

Just the right time to give them the Nobel Peace Prize then. Brilliant.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Appearance and reality

Decca Aitkenhead has written a rather enjoyable hatchet job on Michael Gove, the Tory Secretary of State for Education. The article depicts him as intelligent, articulate, conscientious and charming. Then it turned on him by examining his writings and opinions, pointing out that, unlike his image as a congenial centrist, he is very much a figure from the centralising Conservative right.

The piece's strength was that it looked at substance, not image. But, as it argued, this is not Gove's own way of operating.
Why, then, do so many colleagues and political opponents see Gove in this rosier, more moderate light? It has to be because of his debater's gift for according courteous respect to opposing views, creating the impression that he's taken them on board, when he hasn't actually revised his position at all. Everyone tells me how carefully Gove listens, but when asked to recall a single occasion when he has been persuaded to change his mind, to their surprise no one can come up with one. It is a case of manners maketh the impression of a moderniser, for Gove's Tories don't need to be "inclusive", or "tolerant". The important thing is to look as if they are.
There is nothing new about this, Graham Wallas wrote about the importance of image before the First World War. However, here we are looking at a chasm between image and reality. Rather than cultivating an emotional response to ideological and policy preferences, what is in effect being created is an act of deception. What is damaging about this is not just its cynicism, thinking that people can only see image and not notice the reality of their everyday experience, but that it also feeds into a cycle of cynicism - the popular view that "they are all the same" or that "they say one thing and then always do the opposite." This has always concerned me; I see it as destructive and alienating. Turning away from the political process with a sneer and knowing smile is a conservative impulse, denying the possibility of change.

Of course it can never last. Reality always wins out in the end, as the coalition is beginning to discover. It is just that it is depressing to see politicians doing their best to prove the cynics right.

Monday, October 08, 2012


A demonstration of the mystic powers of those with special gifts.

Thanks to John A

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

One nation

From New Labour to Benjamin Disraeli. The future of the Labour Party is the Conservative Party of the 1870s. We live in curious times.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Breaking stereotypes

When the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was murdered by a jihadi militia in Benghazi, the event prompted an outburst of apologia on one side and rage on the other. The rage was best demonstrated by the popular uprising against the militias, kicking them out of their headquarters and expressing sympathy with the USA. This is not what the apologists and pessimists were expecting.

That may have been the public response, but the private one has been less widely reported. Media intrusion into the grief of his family would not be welcome, but what of the reaction of his tribe. Tribe? Yes, tribe. Stevens was a native American. I wouldn't have known if it hadn't been for this piece from Terry Glavin.
If there were ever such a thing as a blue-blooded American, it would be Chris Stevens. He was a direct descendant of the great tribal leader Concomly, the senior chief of the far-flung Chinook Confederacy who welcomed the American explorers Lewis and Clark to the Columbia River in 1805.
What is the significance of this neglect? I honestly don't know. Except that just as the people of Benghazi did not conform to the stereotype imposed on them, so too Steven's life showed that consigning native Americans to the margins of the modern USA is wasteful as well as unjust. Perhaps the media, fine tuned to a dominant narrative, would have difficulty in recognising a different reality. And was it ignorance or embarrassment that has led to the neglect to celebrate the fact that as prominent a figure as Stevens had more right to be called an American than most?