Sunday, December 31, 2006

Hacking Democracy - again

I have posted on this documentary before when it was first released in the USA. Written and co-directed and produced by my nephew, Simon Ardizzone, it provoked a certain amount of avuncular pride. The Christmas break gave me the opportunity to watch the DVD Simon sent me. This was shared with my friends in their house high up overlooking the village. I suppose it was its Greek premiere.

I was nervous about viewing it for the first time with friends but needn't have worried; it is a gripping film. It contains the key ingredients for a good documentary, painstaking research, an intriguing topic and a star. In this case, in contrast to the egoism of the increasingly unconvincing populist Michael Moore, the filmmakers have simply provided the vehicle to allow their subjects to shine - the extraordinary Seattle grandmother and writer Bev Harris and her fellow activists from Black Box Voting.

The film exposes one aspect of the layers of alleged electoral fraud in the USA, the use of computer voting machines, specifically those manufactured by Diebold. It shows how, contrary to the corporation's assurances, the voting machines can be easily hacked to allow the falsification of the vote. Given the closeness of the last two presidential contests, and especially the importance of Florida and Ohio where some of the more controversial practices were identified, the issue could hardly be more apposite.

The remarkable part of the film is the picture that emerges of the obsessive democratic commitment of the activists who have come together to expose these flaws. It is a picture of extraordinarily diligent and courageous citizens seeking to defend their democracy from corruption. Though there is malicious pleasure in watching squirming executives searching for the weasel words to escape the truth, the real inspiration comes from the enthusiasm of these dedicated activists who personify the nature of a democratic society seeking a form of governance that matches their own expectations. It is an excellent, lucid and disturbing film – (OK I am biased but it is good). It may well be shown on Channel 4. Watch out for it but in the meantime follow the links in this post.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Good digestion ...

This is how my Greek friend greeted the local taxi driver on a stroll round the village after a large Christmas meal. Greeks are big on well wishing and what could be a better seasonal salutation for those of us in the world fortunate enough to be able to feast.

The future's bright?

Will Hutton in Sunday's Observer had an optimistic list of the ideas that will reshape the future for the better. I would quibble with some of his points. The techno-enthusiasm certainly seems overblown. There is only one thing that projections of a technological future have in common - they all turn out to be wrong. His take on foreign affairs is decidedly alarming. I do not see how a forced necessity to do a deal with two of the worst regimes on earth, Iran and Syria, in order to escape the mess left behind after removing a third, ushers in a wonderful new world of interdependence. However, he is better when he picks up on Richard Layard's work on happiness.

Layard has opened up some interesting discussions on public policy, though his neo-Benthamism is hardly convincing. I really don't think that modern psychology can make the "felicific calculus" a practical reality. What I do like though is the way he uses happiness as a concept to pertinently question conventional wisdom. For instance, why should the interests of producers not matter as much as those of consumers? After all, we are both at different times of our life. Then there were the awful clichés that flooded the media about the "sclerotic" German economy needing a good "dose of reform" and of how Germans had to learn to live without their "generous" pensions and benefits. The big question that is begged is why? Why shouldn't German wealth be used for the comfort and security of Germans? As for the over-generosity, governments are frequently over-generous with my money (see Nick Cohen's latest piece) but rarely towards me.

However, I would take this further and suggest that the notion of happiness could usefully be used as a tool for the analysis of ideologies. We are cursed with a whole range of political beliefs that are designed to make us miserable. This is arguably a form of pathological thinking. There are soft versions, for instance, Margaret Thatcher wanting to make Britain less "cosy" and more "invigorating" and management-speak that goes on about "challenges" (how I do not want to be challenged). What seems more important at the moment are those beliefs that seek the general imposition of unhappiness on the world. This 'hard miserablism' takes two forms, those that would make others unhappy and those that would promote unhappiness as a universal condition of humankind.

Racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of mass persecution inflict misery and horror on others purely because of the fact that they are the other. However, some ideologies seek to impose unhappiness as the normal state of human existence through ubiquitous violence, the celebration of struggle or enforced asceticism. They urge self-sacrifice and deride comfort, ease and ordinary private lives as "decadent" or as examples of "false consciousness". Fascism and Islamism loom large in this respect.

In facing this ideological confrontation, perhaps it is not enough to counter with the liberal concepts of liberty, tolerance and economic security. Maybe we should become militant hedonists and in the relentless pursuit of a happy life for ourselves make others as happy as can be given the complexities of life and the universal tragedy of mortality. Is it now time to celebrate pleasure as a form of liberation?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

It's Christmas Eve

And the promised sunshine has not arrived. A low grey mist hangs over the village. The raw cold attacked my fingers this morning as I gathered in the day's firewood. Costas, our local butcher, has made his usual modernist display by crazily throwing strings of lights over the tree outside his house. Sadly, now he has finished the second floor, there is no illuminated plastic Santa climbing his chimney as usual. There are Christmas lights in the village by the sea front, but it is virtually deserted with only a few locals gathering in Nikos' café. All is quiet …

So, as I escape the commercialism of an English Christmas all I can say to the friends and strangers that may pass by this blog is,

Καλά Χριστούγεννα
Ευτυχισμένος ο καινούργιος χρόνος

(And if you can't guess what that means look at Brian Church's excellent book, "Learn Greek in 25 Years". You may not pick up much Greek but you won't stop laughing.)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Oh Mr Porter …

Into Volos yesterday for some Christmas shopping and there in a newsagent was a three-day-old copy of the Observer crammed with blogging material.

I am ignoring the customary provocative feature on diet books. Instead, I was drawn to comment on a number of articles. First, was a really poor piece by Jasper Gerard on heroin use, inspired by the serial killer in Ipswich whose victims were all in prostitution to feed their habit. He argued that there is a need to eradicate the Afghanistan poppy fields (humanely, he at least suggests buying the stuff and funding crop substitution before it became necessary to "bomb the buggers") in order to take heroin off the streets. He could do with some simple lessons in market economics. The demand from an addict is inelastic. Once supply drops, the price will rise. That means more crime and more prostitution to pay for it. Heroin addiction is not a supply problem; it is demand led.

In the wake of the crimes, the media has focused on the impact of drugs and the consensus is that drug use is a response to misery, a very real opiate of the masses. But my current wine consumption is not due to wretchedness; it is to reinforce my unbounded pleasure at being here. It helps that I can buy half a kilo of "loose wine" (for some reason it is nominally sold by weight rather than volume in Greece though the quantities are the same) for €1.50 but even if it was more expensive I would still be drinking it. Any drugs policy that does not admit that taking drugs is actually pleasurable, until it becomes a tyrannically urgent necessity through addiction, is doomed to fail.

The Ipswich murders are also helping to fill the column inches on prostitution itself. The liberal consensus seems to rest on some form of state control and regulation. How they need to read the great 19th Century campaigner on prostitution, Josephine Butler, whom I have blogged on before. Her humane, deeply moral libertarianism needs to be rediscovered, not least by the columnists turning themselves into instant 'experts'.

The sanity in the paper was provided by the consistently excellent Nick Cohen on conspiracy theory in the wake of the Stevens Report into the death of Diana. Reinforcing his conclusions, and taking them further by showing how they can be used by governments as a tool of repression, was the report on the desperate plight of the foreign medical staff in Libya facing the death penalty, having already spent seven years in prison, for a conspiracy to deliberately infect patients with AIDS, despite the evidence pointing to poor hygiene practice as the cause. There is an excellent article on the case in Open Democracy. Michel Thieren writes,

"Today, a judge trumped science to protect non-humanitarian interests, condemned six innocents to deaths, and made ignorance prevail over justice in fooling hundreds of parents into believing that their children had been poisoned and/or murdered by their nurses and doctor".

However, the crowning glory was Henry Porter abandoning the issue of civil liberties to write an idiosyncratic "radical manifesto to revitalise Britain". What a curious agenda this is. He makes the standard point about the lack of choice due to the current centrist consensus, though I would demur and point out that the political consensus is actually right wing. In fact, Cameron's attempt to drag the Tory Party back to the centre ground it once occupied is making it look decidedly leftist. A bewildered electorate can only look on and abstain.

Porter's five suggestions didn't appear that radical to me, nor did I find myself reinvigorated. The piece read like a school project on "what I would do with …" Parliament would be "totally reformed" simply by having 145 fewer and better paid MPs. His suggestion for a means-tested NHS ignores all the research on the failings of means testing and then, completely without any empirical basis, comes the following charge,

"It must also be said that NHS staff can be slapdash, rude and disdainful of people's need for personal dignity and privacy. Paying customers would soon put an end to that."

All I would just ask if he has ever been a paying customer trying to get sense out of a customer service call centre?

And so it continues. The idea of a statutory sabbatical once every fifteen years of work would be welcome but hardly earth shattering. As for preventing foreign companies or individuals owning a controlling interest in more than two national newspapers, I take it that means that as long as the mega-rich fascist is British it is OK to own as many as they like. How long do you think it would be before Rupert got his citizenship?

Perhaps the bit on prisons is most indicative of the way that good sense can be brought down by shoddy thinking.

"First-time offenders and those under 25 years of age would be given the chance to attend physically and intellectually testing courses".

What do second offenders get? What about the over 25's or are they past it? At least I know something about this, as my University is proud to run courses at Higher Education level in prisons. The work is fantastic, the ability and dedication of the students are legendary. Rarely do they fit into the under 25 first offender category. Higher Education in prisons can transform lives at whatever age and how ever many offences have been committed. Wouldn't it be nice to see columnists actually do a little research before proclaiming their brilliant new ideas?

Sorry, Henry. 4/10. Must try harder.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


That is the state of my brain at the moment. Greece is more colourful than England, even on a chill misty day. The rains have left the ground covered with lush grass, the olive leaves are silvery whilst the olive harvest is in full swing, the citrus trees are covered with fruit - bright oranges and lemons contrasting with their dark green leaves.

A brief scan of the Guardian web site, some interesting posts at Harry's Place and despair at Normblog's Ashes triumphalism have failed to rouse the blogger in me. Instead, I am more interested in Sophia and Stathis' fine for placing an illegal canopy over the outside of their taverna, the repairs to the paraleia after the damage caused by torrential rain and land slips in the Autumn, progress on the new harbour and the way that Iannis has pruned my fruit trees in return for harvesting them and grazing his sheep in the garden when I am away.

This is a time of small things, something we all need.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Bliss ...

This is the best stress relief in the world. I am in Greece, in a small village in Pelion in the most extravagantly beautiful corner of this wonderful country. Posting may now be sporadic!

English newspapers do net get to the village in the winter and there was little in the English Language weekly, the Athens News. Much depends on how much I want to follow the world on the Internet. Sipping wine in front of a roaring log fire, yes Greece does have winters, calms my urgent need to communicate so I shall just indulge in some blatant, if unpaid, product placement. My friends Tim and Aphroula run a wonderful little holiday company out here. Check out their web site, and if you are sensible, buy a holiday this summer. Pelion is one place few can forget.

I intend to write an article on Individualist Anarchism, but there is also a vine to trim, a garden to be dug and trees to prune, let alone the enticements of Sakis and Soula's taverna. When one enters a small community the world shrinks and the little, individual things become more important, as does the great pastimes of sitting and looking. I shall be doing much of both. This is my version of an activity holiday. To paraphrase the dying words of George Vth, "bugger skiing".

Friday, December 15, 2006

Stoutism - again

I just heard a piece on radio 4 talking about proposals published in the BMJ for health warnings on clothes over a 40" waist for men and a size 16 for women. Obesity is such a problem apparently that it could "bankrupt the NHS". Well, how about siphoning off the savings on pensions from our early demise to pay for us disgusting fatties?

The whole thing is ridiculous, we may be fatter but we are living longer and longer. This is not about health but morality, a specious Puritanism that loathes the image of pleasure and subversion presented by fat people. Not that this image is true either. We just put on weight. So what?


Apologies for the lack of posts. This is one of the busiest weeks of the year as I clear up work before Christmas. This is compounded by three days of interviews for new tutors. This process is as amazing as it is tiring with some astonishingly talented people applying. One of them made a comment that stuck in my mind, "there are no bad learners, just bad teachers". Instinctively, I want to agree though I doubt whether I can shoulder that degree of guilt. It is indicative of the idealism that still burns despite the best attempt of authority to smother it with a blanket of bureaucracy. There is still hope.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Inside every thin person …

The old cliché has always been that inside every fat person there is a thin one trying to get out. Now we apparently have Tofis. Yes, thin outside, fat inside. Is this a sign of successful undercover work by the Stout Liberation Front? Or are these thinnies are just jealous?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Ho, ho, ho

Really nice piece here by Oliver Burkeman on the myth of the abolition of Christmas, 'winterval' and all, by the PC lobby.

None of this exists. No one at all is abolishing Christmas, banning Christmas decorations and all the rest of the things that get the tabloids hot under the collar. It is all made up. The article is excellent on the combination of idleness and malice of the right wing press and the unholy (or should that be holy?) alliance of Muslim and Christian religious fundamentalists at war with secularism who are pushing this fabrication.

Actually, they all miss the root of secularism at Christmas; it's called Christmas. Overspend, overeat, overdrink and quarrel with your family. What could be more secular than that?

Spam, spam, spam ...

This site is being spammed to death so I will probably be turning off comments. I was tolerant of it until one of the many waved a red rag to this somewhat rotund bull:

Adipex is considered one of the most effective weight loss drugs of our times.

I am not putting up with this exploitation of body-fascist induced neuroses so the comments box will be off unless I get some real comments.

Apologies to anyone who reads this blog who actually wants a fake Rolex, selection of porn or Viagra. A tip, download your email, there will be plenty more links there.


I have just been told of word verification. It is now on for the site. Let's see if it works.

Funding Hedges

There is a snide piece in the Guardian diary by Jon Henley about Oliver Kamm. He writes,

But what with the excellent Iraq Study Group finally publishing its long-awaited encomium to Mr Tony's action-packed Iraqi adventure and all, we would imagine this column's favourite hedge-fund-trading leftist and staunch advocate of the war, Mr Oliver Kamm, will be mighty relieved he's already pledged not to update his important and influential blog for the whole of December. A shame, really; we were rather looking forward to Ollie's condemnation of the report's misguided authors as a pernicious bunch of Chomsky-reading Muslim-huggers.

Notice how he neatly avoids dealing with any of Kamm's carefully made arguments, with which I do not fully agree, instead Henley uses sarcasm and a sideswipe at Kamm's profession as a way of de-legitimising his comments.

Of course the whole point about Kamm's critique of the left is that it has abandoned its long tradition of internationalism, of the kind that sent volunteers to fight fascism in Spain, to become identical with conservative, isolationist appeasers, the very people who make up the Iraq Study Group. I think his case is proved. One-nil to Ollie.


I always thought that Melvyn Bragg bluffs his way through "In our Time" and isn't quite the polymath he tries to seem to be. This week there was a programme on something I know about and my suspicions were confirmed. It was still a good programme on Anarchism with nice contributions from Peter Marshall and Ruth Kinna. There was nothing about the Individualists though, a sad omission from Anarchist history that I am trying to correct at the moment.

Good advice, which we will all ignore

Apologies for the lack of posts, work pressure is intense at this time of year. Never mind, escape is near.

The latest Normblog profile is of Geoff Robinson and he has a tip for us bloggers:

What would be your main blogging advice to a novice blogger? >
Refer to facts rather than expressing opinions; don't just quote silly statements by people you dislike.

Geoff, that is the whole fun of it!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A lonely impulse of delight

Last night I had one those moments of delight that would be familiar to anyone who loves reading. I had tortured myself by watching the second half of Manchester City's dire 0-0 draw with Watford and then scanned my shelves for something to read. There was Bohumil Hrabal's novella, 'Too Loud a Solitude', bought some time ago but unread. For the next two hours I disappeared into Hrabal's world, lost in prose, unable to surface until the last page. Fighting the temptation to read it all again, I went to bed.

A little while ago, I made my daily journey to Normblog and there was one of his writer's choice features. Chris Simms had chosen to write on M.R. James' classic ghost story 'Oh, whistle and I'll come to you, my lad'. I love James' stories and they too are reminiscent of my childhood. Simms reckons that, "At its heart, the tale addresses the dangers of surrounding yourself with books and leading a solitary life that retreats ever further from the outside world".

That is the theme of 'Too Loud a Solitude', but rather than being about an archetypical bookish professor its main protagonist is a worker, a man who pulps books yet loves them. You can begin to glimpse the complexities. The basis is profound social comment, but this is a book whose humour, pathos and beauty stand above meaning. It is perfect art.

Here is just one passage from the beginning and I defy any reader to fail to recognise this experience.

"… when I read, I don't really read; I like to pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel."

The novella has now infused me. I won't forget it.

Monday, December 04, 2006


Oh dear, I seem to have 'not-another-phobia-phobia'.

How many phobias can you have these days? Russophobia seems to be the new one. The seemingly litigious Neil Clark makes his customary relativist argument that we should overlook the sins of Putin (the flat-rate tax; the "partial marketisation of Russia's education and health systems"; his "bloody campaign of repression in Chechnya"; the "chasmic" gap between rich and poor) because "an independent Russia stands in the way of their (neo-conservatives) plans for global hegemony". This theme of my enemy's enemy is my friend is a well worn one that I reject in favour of a consistent left liberalism. I suppose I am tyrannophobic.

This isn't my main point though. There is now a tendency to add the suffix phobia to any critical political stance in order to discredit it. It is a casual, unthinking habit, much in the same way that "gate" was appended to any scandal. However, phobia normally means an irrational fear. What happens if your fear is rational? Are you still phobic? What if you don't fear but hate? Perhaps The Plain English Campaign should stop targeting Germaine Greer's use of Kantian terminology and pick up on this. Let's face it, fear of Muslims is ridiculous, hatred of Muslims is dangerously prejudiced, fear of terrorism is rational, hatred of tyranny is human. The use of the phobic suffix throws a derogatory blanket over a number of completely distinct positions and, in doing so, reduces debate to sloganising. Let's get rid of it and return to critical thought and the use of English.

Democracy or dumbing down

Two views on blogging:

First, Jasper Gerrard:

"Vodcasts and blogs are to the noughties what graffiti was to the Seventies: mindless scrawls reading: 'I woz ere.' It says: 'I'm a moron, but worship me anyway.' …
Bloggers are the codgers who used to write letters in green ink banging on about speed humps or Judao-Freemason conspiracies".

In contrast, Robert Tait in Tehran:

"With some 7.5 million surfers, Iran is believed to have the highest rate of web use in the Middle East after Israel. The net's popularity has prompted an estimated 100,000 bloggers, many opposed to the Islamic regime. Some blogs are substitutes for Iran's once-flourishing, but now largely suppressed, reformist press".

Instinctively, and obviously, I approve of the latter and I don't like the snobbish rubbishing of any open method of communications that does not require the moderation of an editorial board.

Jasper Gerrard does qualify his remark by, rather patronisingly saying, "They probably include gifted amateurs whose vodding and blogging will earn them a proper job. As for the rest, well, everyone has a right to write; but a right to be heard still has to be earned". Presumably, this means that amateurs like Norman Geras might get a proper job, just like those erudite masters of the English language who sometimes lurk on the Guardian's opinion page, and then we might be able to read him with respect.

Blogging is for me a simple form of self-indulgence, but I have also learnt much from a number of distinguished bloggers, all anyone has to do is to exercise their judgement. I am certain that I am as capable of making my own mind up about the quality of the blogs I read, just as I am of abandoning another ghastly Guardian article about the travails of being middle-class in London after the first few lines.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


The new edition of Democratiya is out. As always it looks excellent, even more so this time as there is an article by me!

I am really proud to be included in what is one of the best political journals around. There is a lot of good reading in there.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


Oliver Kamm has a couple of posts about Mark Kurlansky's new book, Non-violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea. It is full of Kamm's trademark forensic dissection of faulty source material. There is a lot in these posts that I agree with, some defences of non-violence verge on the embarrassing. Pride of place goes to Michael Moore's dire book, Stupid White Men, associating Nelson Mandela with non-violence, when it was Mandela who broke with Luthuli's Gandhian pacifism to organise armed resistance to the Apartheid regime. I haven't read Kurlansky's book, and don't think that I will, but I am currently ploughing my way through Jonathan Schell's The Unconquerable World. It has the same faults, huge unverifiable sweeping statements that would make any historian cringe and exaggerated claims for the potency of non-violence. I am finding it deeply disappointing, even as a polemic.

All of which is a shame, as non-violence is much more interesting, both in its practicality, and in the ideological counter it provides to the eschatological and murderous concept of the utility of violence, which is the underpinning of terrorism. This is where books that make hyperbolic claims for non-violence do a real disservice. By doing so, they are replicating simplistic discourses, only swapping the myth of violence with that of non-violence. They also engage in cringe-making exercises in wishful thinking, "if non-violence had been used instead …" "Well it wasn't, so we don't know", is the only real answer to such pointless speculation.

The standard criticism of non-violence is Orwell's that it would fail if used against a ruthless dictator. This is true. However, as, for example, the rebellions against Saddam showed, violent uprisings also fail in most of those situations, but with a higher cost. Any rebellion has to choose its moment as well as its opponents. Success is down to timing as much as tactics and the nature of the regime.

Where non-violent action is most useful is when it is small-scale and ameliorative; it can be effective in conflict resolution and community building and it is often better at testing the loyalty of the military to a regime (who are less likely to be sympathetic to those who are trying to kill them!). It can undermine the consent on which any regime rests, implicitly recognising the State's monopoly of violence but exposing its lack of legitimacy, and, above all, it can make a nuisance of itself in a way that is not as easy to suppress as an armed rebellion. Perhaps its greatest function is that it is a viable way of keeping hope alive. Charter 77 did not bring down Communism, but it always offered the prospect of its defeat, as did samizdat publications and a myriad of other small acts of dissent. The Burmese junta certainly do not share the moral values of their opponents, nor do they seem to be the on the point of collapse, but they have at least felt unable to murder Aung San Suu Kyi, and she remains as a symbol of the possibility of change. None of this suggests in any way that it is a potent tool in international affairs or a replacement for concerted international action, especially against totalitarianism, nor that it could have defeated Nazi Germany if it had been but tried. The flaw in Schell's and, presumably, Kurlansky's argument is that they have a heroic vision of non-violence as a universal panacea and twist their evidence accordingly.

Oliver Kamm's marvellous demolition of Kurlansky's pretensions to scholarship still leaves me with a sense of unease about him being overly negative about a tactic and philosophy that should be a part of the toolbox of the left. A more eclectic and less romanticised picture of the use of non-violence emerges from a new publication, People Power and Protest Since 1945: A Bibliography of Nonviolent Action. It too has some dubious entries, for instance the Ulster Worker's Strike was notorious for its use of violence and intimidation. However, it does give a wider picture of the use of non-violence in a number of conflict situations and contains hundreds of references. Many of these protests failed, as Islamism will undoubtedly do, however, none of them left the shattered remains of human beings on city streets. For that reason alone, we should be grateful that there are those who are willing to resist using the methods of non-violence and view it more generously.

Peace and reconciliation again

Norm is still posting from Australia, showing the truly addictive nature of blogging. This one reflects an earlier post of mine

He links to an article reporting on the use of empirical history as a vital tool in building a peace process of mutual understanding and reconciliation in the Middle East. I fully endorse this suggestion but with the caveat of wondering about how we are to overcome the mutual loathing of historians for each other.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Adult Education - again

I have posted about Dennis before . His presentation is now on You Tube here. One of the things I like is when students feel comfortable taking the mickey. He certainly stole the show.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Walter Langley

Today was one of the unexpected delights of my job. I have to carry out tutor observations of our part-time staff and this morning I observed the art historian, Tim Stimson. The class was on the Newlyn colony of Victorian artists and focussed on the social realist, Walter Langley. The second half of the class was gripping as Tim explored the extraordinary mastery of Langley's watercolour technique, its astonishing detail and perfectly balanced composition. The class opened my eyes to Victorian Art and focussed on just one painting, "But Men Must Work and Women Must Weep". The title is drawn from Charles Kingsley's poem, "The Three Fishers". Tim is a champion of Langley's work and I think that he is right.

I was gripped by the painting. It was the face of the old woman that was haunting. Cloth links the flowing lines of the figures in a near perfect composition, a circular image that clearly gives us the idea of a life cycle, hence the three generations (did you spot the babe in arms at first?). Could it mean that each generation is condemned to repeat the same fate? I think not. The first clue is that the hand on the shoulder is too light to be more than consoling. It is not the embrace of a passionate shared grief, it is a gesture of solidarity. It said, "It is our fate, it is woman's lot".

Everything draws you to the old woman's face – and what a face! It bears an expression of profound sorrow, deeply etched, but it is also complex. Most importantly, it breaks the circle. It looks out, not back. It looks to the light. In its sorrow, it gazes to the sea and the past, but I saw more in it, determination, anger. And the poem is an angry poem.

Charles Kingsley was active in the Chartists and was a founder of the Christian Socialist movement. His early novels, notably Alton Locke (1850), written in the aftermath of the defeat of Chartism, are explicit explorations of social injustice. The Three Fishers is an obvious expression of this political sentiment.

The Three Fishers
Charles Kingsley (1819–75)

THREE fishers went sailing out into the West,
Out into the West as the sun went down;
Each thought on the woman who lov’d him the best;
And the children stood watching them out of the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And there’s little to earn, and many to keep,
Though the harbour bar be moaning.

Three wives sat up in the light-house tower,
And they trimm’d the lamps as the sun went down;
They look’d at the squall, and they look’d at the shower,
And the night rack came rolling up ragged and brown!
But men must work, and women must weep,
Though storms be sudden, and waters deep,
And the harbour bar be moaning.

Three corpses lay out on the shining sands
In the morning gleam as the tide went down,
And the women are weeping and wringing their hands
For those who will never come back to the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And the sooner it’s over, the sooner to sleep—
And good-by to the bar and its moaning.

It is because the circle of the composition is broken that I do not see three generations intrinsically locked into the same tragedy. We can see a circle as being past pain, current pain and future pain, accepted with bitter resignation. In this case, the figures would represent that resignation, the shattering of illusion and innocence to be betrayed, a complete circle. However, I see the figures differently as past, present and future. The past is experience, the present is despair and the future is hope. The old woman is certainly looking to the past and has clearly experienced the same hurt; she is feeling her pain rather than the grief of the young woman. However, she is staring into light from darkness, a common form of socialist iconography. Is she looking to the future as well as the past, seeing a new future where this will not happen again? Is she seeing a sign that a new dawn will break the cycle? Is she a visionary? This would fit into the climate of Victorian thought, which was ultimately optimistic and progressive. There was a common belief that the world could and would change for the better and this is expressed in all the arts. I cannot see Walter Langley, especially given his working class background, escaping this and this is the way Kingsley would have seen it. That Langley consciously referred to the poem in the title surely means that he meant to reflect Kingsley's anger and his politics.

The Victorian "cult of death" was, to me, part of the daily experience of a new mass society, of squalor and cholera in the cities, of dangerous and arduous work, and above all of the terrible heartbreak of high infant mortality and the death of women in childbirth. The cult of death produced kitsch, mawkish sentiment. This painting is not kitsch, not even masterly kitsch. Its style is social realism and I was struck by its lack of sentimentality, once again because of the old woman. The painting offers something more, and that is what I saw in it, a sense that the world will change and the circle will be broken. This is the message that the painting gave to me.

On a broad front

Apologies for the recent lack of posts but I have been having great fun setting up my new computer - I like new toys.

Well, we fatties are in the papers again.

First the bad news, Blair announces a new social contract. Of course it is nothing of the sort. Rather, it is like the kind of list you get with your insurance renewal documents headed, 'amendments to your policy schedule'. There, in impenetrable prose and near invisible print, are the clauses that mean that your property is no longer insured for simple everyday events such as fire, flood or theft. So worried are they by the future prospect of rising sea levels that they will now only pay up for a flood if it is caused by a prehistoric sea monster coming up the Humber. What this social contract really is is a new set of conditionalities for citizens to be able to get the services they have paid for and, up until now, have had a reasonable expectation of receiving.

So what sins should prevent the automatic receipt of health care? Dead right, being fat is prominent amongst them…

"Examples include an expectation that a local health authority will only offer a hip replacement if the patient undertakes to keep their weight down".

So what will they do if you renege on the pledge? Kidnap you, whip out the new hip and put your old one back? Of course, what it really will be used for is to refuse people the treatment they need. Someone like me who has struggled with his weight all his life will approach a whippet-like doctor who eats like a horse and can't put on an ounce who will then use this chance fact as evidence of his moral superiority to condemn those who have committed the sin of gluttony to a life of pain as suitable punishment.

I have a different idea. How about basing it on contributions paid. All teetotallers will have to pay a surcharge due to the amount of tax they avoided by drinking carrot juice all their sad lives. Non-smokers have paid even less … hold on … I don't smoke … better start again.

On a more serious note, as a left libertarian, I believe that collective action is necessary to ensure security. It is only when we have that security that we can be really free to make different choices, to take risks. Security can only be achieved if it is unconditional. The welfare state was always meant to be the source of our security but the more it is hedged by conditions, the less it can act in that way. Worse, as conditions are shaped by middle-class conventional wisdom or even downright prejudice, the more likely it will be that the welfare state will be an agent of social control rather than liberation.

Well, that has given the new keyboard a bashing. Now for the good news.

Top of the NME's cool list is a substantial singer, Beth Ditto. I had never heard of her, or incidentally of the cool list, until the other morning. There she was on stage; ample, dimpled flesh bulging from a swimsuit. The headline? "Fat, out and proud". Good on you Beth. A hero for our time. Just don't get a bad hip.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Great Libertarians - Josephine Butler

If there is anyone who deserves the epithet "great", it is Josephine Butler (1828-1906). However, she is not often described in the same breath as "libertarian". As we are in the year of the centenary of her death there has been a renewed interest in her. Durham University has now opened a new college bearing her name. There was also a feature article in the Guardian by Julie Bindel, "A heroine for our age" published on September 21st of this year. It isn't a bad piece at all but something is missing, Butler's libertarianism. Even Jane Jordan's fine biography, criminally out of print even though it was only published in 2001, does not quite get to grips with it, presumably due to the author's lack of familiarity with Victorian Individualism, undeniably an obscure movement today but widely known at the time and partly emerging from Butler's campaigns.

Bindel's position is different; if I read her correctly she tends to see Butler as a proto-radical feminist and as a forerunner of current anti-prostitution campaigns. There is more than enough material to justify this. Butler is remembered as the leader of the campaigns against the Contagious Diseases Acts and against the sexual exploitation of children. Not only that, but Butler was an ardent and outspoken feminist whose demand for female equality was as much economic as legal and social. In addition, her approach to sexuality was conservative and rooted in her Christian evangelical beliefs. She was as appalled by the moral degradation of prostitution as much as by the physical exploitation. However, this doesn't tell the whole story; Butler was a complex figure.

Julie Bindel quotes the radical feminist and anti-pornography campaigner Sheila Jeffreys on Butler.

Jeffreys considers Butler one of the bravest and most imaginative feminists in history. "She told men they must change, rather than having the male-dominated state set up systems of prostitution that would protect the male customers and give official approval to their behaviour," she says. "This is hard to imagine now when governments around the world are once again calling for legalisation of the industry."

This is where something jars. Surely Butler would have supported the legalisation of prostitution? After all, its illegality renders large numbers of women criminals. She certainly would have bitterly opposed a process of legalisation that involved regulation, which she felt caused prostitution and abuse, but the removal of laws altogether would probably have met with her approval. She wanted to abolish laws not replace them with others. Secondly, when Jeffries said that Butler "told men they must change", she is not wholly right. Butler certainly believed in moral reform but she explicitly distanced her own campaigns from it.

Jane Jordan makes it clear that Butler opposed purity crusades - arguably intellectual forerunners of a strand of contemporary radical feminist thought, especially when given a feminist slant by Christabel Pankhurst - saying that it was "fatuous" to force people into moral behaviour. She defended those implicated in notorious sexual scandals, such as Parnell, Dilke and Oscar Wilde. Jordan writes that "Josephine considered the idea of converting Wilde to Christianity (goodness only knows what Wilde would have made of such overtures)". It seems that both Butler and Jordan were unaware of Wilde's devout Christian socialism, another neglected aspect of the thought of famous Victorians.

In fact, Butler opposed all forms of government regulation, even legal reductions in working hours. As she put it, "the ostensible purpose … is to reduce the hours of women's labour from ten to nine a day; but it, in fact, merely provides for reducing the paid labour of women by that one hour daily, and as one of the chief reasons given for this reduction is, that 'the comfort of the home is greatly affected by the prolonged absence of the mother from the family', it is fair to infer that the one hour spared from paid labour at the factory, is spared in order that the mother may employ it in unpaid labour at home". Butler constantly argued for female economic independence and it is this that is the key to understanding how she proposed to end prostitution.

Butler did not want to end prostitution by morally reforming men. She wasn't concerned with men; she was a feminist after all. She wanted to end the economic destitution of women. Women would not be trapped into prostitution and children would not be sold by their parents to pimps if they were not forced to do so by poverty, degradation, chronic illness, alcoholism, etc. Male desires were irrelevant compared to the economic and social condition of women that made them exploitable. Hers was a crusade against injustice and what she called "tyranny".

This tyranny was the tyranny of State regulation; a State which was certainly patriarchal, based on the legal exclusion of women, but also, just as importantly, one that only represented the rich. Yes Butler saw State power as patriarchy, but she also saw it as class rule. The Contagious Diseases Acts not only institutionalised the abuse of women, but of poor women. Her analysis was based on both class and gender. Government inevitably meant simply the imposition of the desires, interests and values of wealthy men on the poor and on women. It was in her pamphlet, "Government by Police", that she came closest to making a complete political statement.

"The more absolute a government is, the more will the police be developed; whilst the freer the country is, the more it will follow the principle that everything which can be possibly be left to care of itself should so be left."

A radical republican, she argued that power can only be exercised by the excluded through a process of drastic decentralisation, allowing a direct local democracy to flourish. Moral reform will come from people having the liberty to choose to be moral and through the absence of coercion. Universal individual economic security and independence will end the abuse of women, regardless of male morality, simply because they do not need the money. Decentralisation will end the tyranny of wealthy men.

What Butler achieved in a lifetime punctuated by debilitating illness and family tragedy is breathtaking. As well as political campaigns in Britain, Europe and India, she was a practical activist running refuges for those escaping prostitution and a voluminous writer. She also had a long and happy marriage to an astoundingly supportive husband, to whom she paid tribute by writing his biography after his death.

Julie Bindel's article did mention some of the personal price to be paid by such a public life, especially in the loss of friendships from her challenges to Victorian respectability. However, the greatest alienation from colleagues was due to her uncompromising libertarianism. This led her to adopt unfashionable positions. The most notable example was her stance on the Boer War. Unlike the liberal left of her day, she supported the British. This might sound eerily familiar. Whilst colleagues were vehemently opposed to British Imperialism and supported the Boers, Butler was acutely aware of the consequences of a British defeat for the black South African population. She held no illusions about the British, but detected a quantitatively crueller racism in the Boers. She saw Apartheid coming. Thus, in some way, she can be seen as a forerunner of the current-day anti-totalitarian left.

Josephine Butler was an exemplar of the values of Victorian Evangelical Christianity, values I do not share. However, my admiration for her lies in the fact that, in distinction from many of her contemporaries, she acted on her beliefs. She behaved as a real Christian, perhaps to reaffirm her faith against periodic surges of doubt, but more likely because her compassion and righteous anger was as much a part of her personality as her intellectual convictions. It led her to an un-patronising identification with, and respect for, the underdog. This consistency of belief made Butler a feminist and a libertarian. She deserves to be remembered as much for the latter as for the former.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Peace will come

Normblog has a post on an amazing new suggestion, a global orgasm for peace. Check out the organisers' web site. Apparently, "The mission of the Global Orgasm is to effect change in the energy field of the Earth through input of the largest possible surge of human energy."

On December the 22nd this year we are all supposed to have an orgasm whilst thinking about peace. Norm delicately points out that this isn't the best thing to have on one's mind at the time to ensure success. However, I now realise the real meaning of what I took as an anti-peace activist banner held up by Iraqis in the background as Saddam's statue was toppled. It simply said, "Human Shields - Wankers."

Monday, November 20, 2006

Grunt, howl; grunt, howl

Some items of joy in today's Guardian.

First, Madeleine Bunting starts an article with, "It seems churlish to complain". Dead right Maddy, it does and it is.

Secondly, Yana Buhrer Tavanier provides a witty defence of the free movement of people in the wake of Bulgaria's accession to the EU. " … there should not be any worries regarding Bulgarian plumbers. Why? Because they don't exist. I recently bought myself an apartment and the people calling themselves plumbers were anything but".

Third, and most importantly, is Sunny Hundal's launch of the New Generation Network, an attempt at democratising and liberalising the politics of communalism. "We reject the increasingly common sight of extremist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir being feted by anti-racism organisations and politicians on common causes". Read the manifesto here.

Finally, there is a review of the return of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Forget the Stones and the Who, who cannot swoon to their amazing rendition of The Sound of Music, thrill to My Pink Half of the Drainpipe, meditate on the profundity of Can Blue Men Sing the Whites? Jollity Farm is the only music I want at my funeral and to all my friends lucky enough to outlive me - you will have to sing along.

Truth and reconciliation

When I started this blog I didn't intend to comment on the Israel/Palestine conflict, despite it being an area of personal and academic interest. My research had moved on and the web is plastered with observations. However, I read David Grossman's impassioned sense of war weary despair and Ahdaf Soueif's response - an insightful, if imperfect, dialectic between two distinguished writers - and decided to write this post.

I do not intend to enter their debate. The arguments are too well rehearsed. Grossman despairs at successive Israeli governments' failure to realise the promises of the peace process whilst reaffirming his deep commitment to Zionism. Soueif argues that the Zionist dream was flawed from the start due to the realisation of Jewish statehood necessarily being at the expense of the indigenous population. Though an advocate of a single, secular democratic state as a solution, she interestingly places a "truth and reconciliation" process at the centre of the creation of peace and this is what I want to focus on.

It will not be an easy task. The mutual incomprehension of the national aspirations of both sides has never been greater, nor has it been more understandable. Palestinians see dispossession, violent death, military occupation, land confiscation and the wall - behind which their economy crumbles. Israelis see a political movement elected which has a covenant that contains the European genocidal myth of the Jewish world conspiracy and who has sent its bombers to inflict random slaughter on its streets. Every day is an experience of violent mutual negation.

Reading the comments on the Guardian web site is deeply dispiriting. Scrolling through the historical misrepresentations, half-truths and outright falsehoods is a depressing experience and a prime example of the misuse of history. A proper understanding of history is a precursor to truth and reconciliation and so this post is an appeal for intellectual liberty and empirical research, the subject of my first guest spot on Normblog.

The power of a process of mutual recognition is more than a liberal fantasy or idealistic aspiration. I have seen it happen in person. In the early 1980s, I was a young volunteer teaching English to Palestinians on the West Bank. It was an experience that has lived with me ever since. The most memorable and moving occasion was the time I was the recipient of more than typical Arab hospitality in a refugee camp outside Ramallah. My groaning stomach was rivalled by the crushing sense of Western guilt and humility as my fellow volunteers and I were taken for a tour of the camp. Amongst us was a Jewish woman volunteer. Islamism was just beginning as a movement and we were introduced to a young man who was an early recruit, challenging the dominant nationalist ethos. The Islamist suddenly said, "I understand one of you is Jewish". My colleague didn't hesitate and stepped forward. The young man smiled nervously and slowly shook her hand, withdrawing it with a hesitant, semi automatic wipe on his trousers. Nevertheless, he shook the hand of a woman and a Jew in a Palestinian refugee camp. In that moment, I saw the possibility of reconciliation, that the gap between even a radical Islamist and a Jewish woman could be breached by recognition of the suffering of the other and a gesture of support.

Soueif feels that Israeli historical understanding of Palestinian suffering would lead to the abandonment of Zionism. I am certain she is mistaken. Even an instinctively anti-statist writer as Helen Willis, could assert her Zionism, most notably in this essay on "anti-anti-Zionism" (via Engage). Edward Said recognised this tendency to underestimate the strength of Israeli identity and society in his "The Question of Palestine",

So effective have Zionist ideas about Palestine been for Jews … that what these ideas expressed to Arabs was only a rejection of Arabs … The internal solidity and cohesion of Israel, of Israelis as a people and as a society, have for the most part, therefore eluded the understanding of Arabs generally".

Much the same could be said of the other side, many of the posts critical of Soueif were denying the existence of a Palestinian nation. We have seen these two nationalisms locked in a process of mutual denial, recrimination, war, murderous violence and retaliation contesting the same territory. Could it now be possible for them to engage in a process of mutual recognition and development in that territory, even in these dark times? Empirical truth has a part to play and if you doubt the possibility of reconciliation just remember that handshake.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Me Fatman ...

Catherine Bennett has got me bang to rights. I keep photos of my Greek house above my desk at work. I thought it was because I liked to look at them and dream. But she knows better.

"As for the alpha male, a large office needs filling with something. A useful rule, I think, is that the more ruthless, and work-life unbalanced the individual concerned, the more ostentatious will be the photographic testimony to family values, or if there is no family, of a lifestyle - a house, a yacht, a fish."

Now I realise that I only do it to show that, despite the fact I am incapable of mending even the most basic household object, I am a real man. Grunt!

Drink up

Nick Cohen tackles the licensing laws and comes down in favour of the cosy traditional pub (I'll drink to that). When he has written on this and on gambling he gets to the heart of a dilemma of the left. The old cliché of Labour owing more to Methodism than Marx is never truer when its puritanical, regulatory streak comes to the fore. However, when it discovers its liberal side, Cohen points out that the beneficiaries are frequently the big corporations out to exploit our weaknesses. Despite this, I am with the liberals. This comment neatly sums it up:

"… were our licensing system abolished … it is highly probable that drunkenness might temporarily increase ... But in the end it would doubtless lead to far more general temperance, and indeed it is probably the only way whereby the drunkenness of our towns can be permanently diminished".

It was written by Albert Tarn, a little known Individualist Anarchist, in 1891. Come on New Labour! Catch up with modernity - you are only 115 years late.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Adult learning - loving it and losing it

There is a nice piece here by Mike Cushman on the value of non-vocational adult education. I agree wholeheartedly with the article and the significant role he gives to adult learning, particularly within discrete adult education centres. Though he provides an excellent defence of the utility of non-vocational learning, I feel the need to make the case should be superfluous. The sheer enjoyment of learning for its own sake is one of the hallmarks of a civilized society. The fact that millions choose to study, enjoy studying, and make it a centrepiece of their lives should be enough for it to be supported and celebrated.

Cushman is right about the narrowness of the New Labour agenda on lifelong learning, though I actually think that he lets them off too lightly. Recent changes to the funding regime through the Learning and Skills Councils are threatening an act of cultural vandalism of greater magnitude even than that experienced in the 80s and 90s. Fine institutions are at risk of near demise. Though my own department is doing well, much University Adult Education has disappeared.

The most important comment that he makes is about the importance of the long-term commitment learners can give to institutions. Writing of the difference between individuals seeking specific qualifications and liberal learners, he makes the following point:

This is in marked contrast to centres where students return year after year, where they feel involvement and ownership and where many of their needs for social interaction are fulfilled. These needs are addressed in a centre where they can meet people very unlike themselves.

I used to work at the former College of Adult Education in Manchester, which closed in 1990 despite its huge enrolments. I still mourn it. The love which the students held for the institution was breathtaking. I cannot forget the moment when an elderly holocaust survivor sat in my office and wept because he was losing his College, his lifeline. Despite what he had seen in his life, this loss could still reduce him to tears. The College had rescued him and now he was being cast adrift.

And here lies the important point. The students certainly felt ownership, but it was a mirage. Everything could be taken away from them at the whim of a politician. They owned nothing. The College had a history going back 250 years. It had not started as a municipal institution, it had been built up through voluntary organisation, subscriptions, gifts and sheer hard work over generations before passing into the hands of the local authority. All that investment was thrown away overnight.

This is the challenge to left thinking. There was a lazy assumption that collective goods could be owned and managed through the state. What we at the College found out was that state ownership is no ownership at all. How in the future do we develop structures of collective ownership of collective goods that makes ownership a reality, that prevents citizens from losing what they most value and feel is rightly theirs? One thing is certain, the mechanism is not the Blairites' beloved 'choice'.

Hacking Democracy

The use and misuse of computerised voting machines in the USA is the disturbing topic of this new documentary currently being screened in America. It has ignited much interest and got cracking reviews. There is a long report on

I am biased, and proud, as it was co-directed and produced by my nephew, Simon Ardizzone. I still think that the attention it is getting is important especially for democrats and luddites everywhere. Never has a paper and pencil appeared such a good idea.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Speaking the bleeding obvious

This comes from The Wrap, the Guardian's email news digest, "Our new friends in the Middle East," splashes the Independent sardonically above a picture of the Iranian and Syrian presidents, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar Assad. "[They] were demonised to justify the invasion of Iraq. Now Britain and the US want their help sorting out the mess."

Once again I see that we have gone into the business of demonisation, which I suppose means describing an oppressive theocratic regime as an oppressive theocratic regime and a Ba'athist police state as a Ba'athist police state.

But Iran and Syria were the justification for the invasion of Iraq? Surely the justification for Iraq was – Iraq?

Off to prepare my class on the Nazis – must make sure I don't do any more demonisation. A terrible habit.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Christmas hampered

Two quick thoughts about the Farepak collapse, which do not seem to have attracted much notice in the media coverage.

Firstly, this is a perfect illustration of the benefits of mutualism against commercialism. A commercialised savings scheme, even with the Blairite mantra of extensive market choice, offers no protection compared to a plan owned and controlled by its members.

Secondly, the pressure on relatively low income families to have an extremely expensive Christmas disturbs me. OK I have Scrooge-like tendencies but doesn't a festival that requires such a high entry fee to participate and targets children's pester power smack of exploitation rather than celebration?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Before I die ...

It is a current trend to publish lists of what you should see before you die. Most give between 60 and 100 sights; all are possible if you have sufficient income. I have two. Neither seems likely. However wealthy I become they are totally outside my control. I want to see Swinton beat Salford and Great Britain to win a series against Australia (though a Tri-Nations Trophy will do). Yes, it is Rugby League. Allegiance to sporting teams is curious and irrational but life would not be the same without it. However, sport can be problematic for the left.

Marxists long had an antipathy to sport as a form of false consciousness, deflecting the workers from their historical revolutionary path. Chomsky is unsurprisingly the most banal modern writer in this school. New Labour may have adopted football as a badge of their "New Laddishness" but, with some exceptions, it smacks of opportunism and a visible act of rejection of the anti-competitive leftism of the Seventies and Eighties, rather than the devotion of the true fan. Working class histories often completely omit organised sport, despite it being central to so many lives. Rugby League's very existence is rooted in the social history of class and regional identity. Its sense of solidarity was formed against a century of persecution by Rugby Union, everywhere other than in Wales a sport of the elite.

The best book ever written on sport, C L R James' Beyond a Boundary, takes on this antipathy, relating it to the redefinition of his own political position from his earlier orthodox Trotskyism. A good cricketer, fine historian and brilliant writer, James could not ignore the significance of sport. "A glance at the world showed that when the common people were not at work, one thing they wanted was organised sports and games. They wanted them greedily, passionately". For James sport is a form of popular aesthetic, of assertion and inclusion, a drama of popular democracy. It is art. He writes, "We may some day be able to answer Tolstoy's exasperated and exasperating question: What is art? – but only when we learn to integrate our vision of Walcott on the back foot through the covers with the outstretched arms of the Olympic Apollo".

As for the Rugby League, after exhilarating victory against Australia Great Britain lost to the Kiwis yesterday morning. My best hope is now for longevity.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Lamentable Lamont

There is a Galloway-lite piece by Norman Lamont in the Telegraph. Though broadly unexceptional, there are some startling throwaway remarks.

This is one is particularly striking:

…while the invasion of Afghanistan was necessary, the bombing campaign was excessive. Mr Rumsfeld's remark - "There aren't enough targets in Afghanistan" - explains much of the motivation for the invasion of Iraq.

I had to read this several times to get over my incredulity. Is he really suggesting that the Iraq war was fought because the Americans didn't have enough to bomb in Afghanistan? "That wasn't much fun. Why don't we go somewhere else where we can blow a few more things up? So much more satisfying and we can use up our surplus ordinance." So, the dilemma of how to resolve the ongoing tragedy of Iraq, suffering from both sanctions and containment, living under the murderous tyranny of Saddam and locked into an unsustainable position by the failure to reach a resolution of the previous war - let alone broader regional, political and strategic concerns - counted for nothing. It was just a place to do a bit more bombing. I don't think that even a Pilger or Galloway could have dreamt that one up. At least they think that the USA had rational, if malign, self-interest as its motivation rather than a casual ennui.

This is too is typical of his style.

The failure of Messrs Bush and Blair and the neo-cons to understand Arab grievances has been translated into a "clash of civilisations" and a threat to Western values "by people determined to destroy our way of life", as the Prime Minister put it. We are not going to live under a universal caliphate. Osama bin Laden and his gangsters have not the faintest chance of destroying our way of life, unless we do so ourselves.

It is undoubtedly true that the Islamists will not create a global caliphate, but the real question is how many people are they going to kill in the attempt? It is not much consolation as your life ends prematurely in a spectacular act of arbitrary violence for your last thought to be, "I would have preferred to have died peacefully in my bed at a very old age but at least they won't destroy our way of life in the long term. What a shame Bush and Blair misinterpreted Arab grievances". Here he simply mixes up determination with the prospect of success. It is the determination that makes them dangerous. Just because they are unlikely to succeed does not make them any the less murderous and he cannot see that Islamism is an alarming utopian fantasy rather than a symptom of rational demands

The parallel with Suez is dragged up again. This suits his tendentious claims to a grasp of history, though he appears to come from the sweeping and unverifiable statement school rather than the empiricist one. Leaving aside my inherent dislike of the use of historical analogy as a form of explanation, this statement is revealing

Eden, like George W. Bush, mistook "the enemy" for a new form of fascism.

Lamont, a keen supporter of General Pinochet, is unlikely to win many awards as a fascist spotter. Actually, most on the anti-totalitarian left thought Ba'athism to be rather an old form of fascism. What Lamont means by fascism though is a movement that threatens us, not 'fascism in one country', which is an unfortunate but tolerable state of affairs that time will resolve - tolerable because it is happening to others. For me, one of the agonising political questions of the day is about how to confront tyranny, for Norman Lamont it seems to be how to find a rationale for not bothering.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

An unsung hero

My friend and colleague, Daniel Vulliamy, has written the obituary of a remarkable man, Ken Tullett, agricultural labourer, trade unionist and scholar.

Through his experiences as agricultural labourer, philosopher and trade unionist in east Yorkshire, Ken Tullett, who has died aged 87, was a fine example of a lifelong learner. He spent all his working life on the land around Brough. As a young man ploughing with a horse, he would fix the cards from a correspondence course on to the plough so he could read while he walked, changing the cards at the end of each row. …

Read the rest here

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The power of education

Whenever I feel despondent, stressed and exhausted in my job then there is something that turns up to remind me how worthwhile it is. Today it was Dennis. Loud, disruptive, kind, generous and clinically manic. Follow the link. Adult education saved his life, literally. He arrived in my office bearing a cheese board as a gift, disrupted everything and then left for his evening class leaving me exhausted but smiling. He has, at the age of 63, discovered a genuine artistic talent. Those in government who harbour prejudice about adult education purely being about equipping a workforce with level 2 skills should meet people like him. Those who talk about 'leisure classes' and who denounce learning for its own sake as "a bit dodgy" should shelve their thoughtless instrumentalism and realise the value of the phenomenal power of transformation and rescue for individuals and groups. And jaded professionals like myself should sometimes stop and remember that we really have the most privileged jobs in the world. Thanks Dennis, for more than the cheese board.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Rural affairs

Ruth didn't do it ...


Tally Ho!

Another triumph for prohibition. Makes the war on drugs look like a howling success.

Kamm and Cohen

Oliver Kamm gives a plug to Nick Cohen's new book – and it isn't out until February! Cohen is one of the most stimulating and entertaining journalists writing in the mainstream media, how can I wait? My pre-order is in.

This gives him the chance to comment on Cohen and to elaborate on his own theme that he wished "to document the convergence of a type of left-wing thinking with traditional conservative isolationism and reaction". I would wish to nuance this without substantially disagreeing. In fact, there is a strong liberal tradition, if not of isolationism, then of non-interference. It goes back to 1795 and Kant's essay, Perpetual Peace. His fifth preliminary article for the establishment of peace is that "No state shall violently interfere with the constitution and administration of another. For what can justify it so doing? … The erring state can much more serve as a warning by exemplifying the great evils which a nation draws down on itself through its own lawlessness". This position is perfectly represented by the columns of Simon Jenkins and it is very easy for it to morph into some form of conservative 'realism' and isolationism. This is not the view of this section of the left though. It is locked into an activism of a different kind.

I would argue that their confusion, and boy are they confused, is not down to the abandonment of internationalism or morality, nor a retreat into liberal non-interference or conservative isolationism, but rigid habits of thought. I grew up with the left through the late 1960s and 70s. There were three strands to the thinking of the time. First, there was the desperation of some to either believe that Stalinism was an aberration or simply that it did not really exist outside the fevered imagination of Cold War propagandists. Those that accepted the reality of Soviet oppression sometimes argued that all would have been well if Trotsky had succeeded Lenin or tried to find examples of Marxism that promised something more successful and humane. This search flirted with Maoism (unbelievable as it seems today) but eventually settled on Cuba. Secondly, there was the support for anti-colonial national liberation movements. But the dominant theme was a sense of moral outrage at the governments of the West. There was much to feel outraged about too, particularly in the unifying event for all three, the Vietnam War. Given the strength of the peace movement and a genuine hatred of the barbarities of modern warfare a position was forged.

However, it was not just the left that settled into an unquestioning ideological rigidity. I remember being in a motorway service station in 1978 and being swamped by coachloads of braying young fogies. They were the storm troopers of the coming Thatcher revolution travelling to London to demonstrate on the tenth anniversary of the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring. The irony of Tories gathering to celebrate "socialism with a human face" was not lost on me. But still the question that troubled me most was, "where was the left?" This was our cause not theirs. We had abandoned it, leaving liberty and anti-totalitarianism to the right.

Once locked into Manichean thinking there is a huge difficulty adjusting to the fact that the satanic power, which people have spent their life opposing, just might, this time, be on the side of the angels. This shows in the bewildering argument that somehow the actions of the United States in opposing Saddam are illegitimate because they supported him in the past. To correct an error does not seem to be a sin to me. The real problem is that the worldview of both left and right cannot easily accommodate to a situation where one side can behave despicably in one part of the world and honourably in another. Taking a position is easier than thinking. Neither can handle ambiguity.

This was the theme of an earlier email exchange between myself and Oliver Kamm in response to a piece of his on John Pilger. Pilger's career is an exemplar of the difficulties of political commentary based on a fixed position. He always writes with stylistic clarity and he can produce some incisive pieces, but he can go wildly wrong and is prone to vivid overstatement. This is what I wrote about his journalism on Cambodia:

Pilger is incapable of ambiguity and so the evil of one side is always set against the good of the other and his apologism for the Vietnamese Communists is consistent with his earlier writing on the Vietnam War. Where there are clear faults in a regime, they tend to be brushed aside with comments such as this on the Hun Sen government, "Authoritarian and at times brutal, yet by Cambodian standards extraordinarily stable" (New Statesman 17/04/2000). The really interesting, and highly ironic, point is that he exposed the horror of Cambodia at a time when the deposed Khmer Rouge were still being officially recognised as the legitimate government of Cambodia, held the Cambodian seat in the United Nations, and when Margaret Thatcher actually talked about dealing with "moderate" elements in that criminal movement. Pilger supported the Vietnamese intervention as it brought about the end of the mass slaughter and felt that the Vietnamese-installed government should be recognised. In those distant pre-Iraq days, here was Pilger acting as the advocate of humanitarian intervention and castigating its opponents for refusing to accept it for the very reasons that he opposed it in Iraq - that it came from the wrong side!

The trouble is that he is so locked into an anti-Western Manichean view that he could not express this as a choice between the lesser of two evils. Certainly, an oppressive Vietnamese post-Stalinism had considerable advantages over a psychotic, genocidal Maoism. But Pilger cannot say this. Instead he picked up on a wholly disreputable piece of Western realpolitik and used Cambodia as a stick to beat the West. As a result, he argued for an unconditional recognition of the installed Vietnamese regime rather than for the ending of the tacit, and scandalous, Western support for the Khmer Rouge and a democratic, internal settlement based on a Vietnamese withdrawal (with passing thanks for ending the horror).

This meant that once the Cambodian peace process was under way, rather than welcoming it, but rejecting the inclusion of the Khmer Rouge, he castigated the whole process itself. He wrote with typical inaccurate overstatement, "My own investigations in Cambodia recently suggest that the American imposed 'peace' has left Cambodia more divided, more ethnically volatile, more politically unstable and at greater risk to Khmer Rouge takeover than at any time since Pol Pot began his final push for power in the early 1970s." (New Statesman 21/7/95).

His earlier position, though flawed, can at least be recognised as humane and liberal. However, and this beautifully illustrates the perils of Manichaean anti-Western thought, by the time of the peace process he was slipping away into a whole-hearted support for the Vietnamese puppet regime in preference to a UN settlement. This prefigures his later career when he went on to commit the very sins which he condemned. He acted as an apologist for Serbian ethnic nationalism and, even worse, for the barbarism of the Iraqi 'resistance' - Khmer Rouges in the making. This need to take sides is the central flaw in his work. Rather than basing his emotional humanitarianism on consistently applied liberal values, he relies on support for whoever is currently opposing the West, a recipe for disaster.

When thinking or writing on this I am always reminded of Solzhenitsyn's prescient essay "Peace and Violence", where he argues that the proper role of a peace movement is to confront violence rather than condone it to prevent war. It is very symbolic of the times are that the only web references that I can find to it are on conservative sites.

(thanks to Mike Tyldesley for spotting my deliberate mistake - Simon called Peter - now corrected)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Tyrants with one-track minds

There was an interesting piece in Guardian Weekend this Saturday (just how often can you write that?) on conducting a love affair in Iran.

One of the best descriptions of totalitarianism came from my late University tutor back in the early 1980's, Alex Shtromas. He described it as the abolition of the private. In reality, it is the attempted abolition of the private. People always resist. The revelation of Iran as a nation of young people addicted to mobile phone sex as a way of circumventing the morality police is an intriguing picture of oppression and resistance, the creation of a realm of the private that runs against the whole principle of totalitarianism. In a rather odd way, it is a picture of hope.

Libertarian movements have often seen sexual liberty, political freedom and women's emancipation as inseparable. I enjoy the work of the Individualist Feminist Wendy McElroy. Her book challenging the radical feminists, XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography, provocatively argues that the suppression of pornography and the suppression of women go together as part of a movement of insidious personal social repression. The book is out of print but is available as a free download here. I imagine that many will dispute McElroy's thesis but it is a wonderful example of research and writing that challenges conventional wisdom and is an articulate defence of individual liberty in all facets of life, especially the private. In the age of Islamism, it seems particularly apt.

What always strikes me is how this concern with the control and suppression of sex is so prevalent in some authoritarian political thought. They are all obsessed. Don't they think of anything else? Freud could have had a field day. As the latest American evangelist to drop his trousers (in a way that he vehemently insisted that God had forbidden) shows, it is doomed to failure. Personal morality is just that, it is related to our private relationships and not something to be imposed and policed by a State ideology. In this way, the personal is not just political; it is anti-totalitarian.


I have always opposed the death penalty. I still do - consistently. Sometimes that opposition is hard.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Friday, November 03, 2006

Defending the good life

Normblog raised the following dilemma in relation to a piece by Melanie Phillips:

"Can there be a robust defence of liberal and secular values? Or are these, as Phillips thinks, too infected by the good life for their adherents to be willing to put up a fight for them?"

Let's not get taken in by this conservative pessimism. Melanie Phillips' views are not as strange as they first appear, they have a long pedigree, but this does not make them convincing. All she is doing is digging up the old cyclical view of history, obsessed with the fall of the Roman Empire, that sees history as a process whereby the rise and fall of civilisations are intrinsically tied, to use the terminology of the late American historian Christopher Lasch, to "republican virtues". These are what Melanie Phillips sees as being embedded in her newly re-Christianised Europe. Prominent amongst these virtues is the idea of self-sacrifice. In this view, the cause of decline is "decadence" as communal ideals collapse into a form of selfish individualism. Softened by luxury, the old world would be unable to resist the challenge posed by the "virtuous", self sacrificing challengers and would be crushed by their vigour. The problem with Melanie Phillips' view, as with many other theories of history, is that it is hard to reconcile with reality.

Lasch, in The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, argues that Adam Smith was consciously writing against the cyclical tradition with his assertion that a modern civilisation could be developed through the self-interest of individuals in the free market, that it was selfish individualism rather than virtue that was the key to a sustainable civilisation. For a follower of Smith, a defence of liberal and secular values is inherent in the development of commerce, in much the same way that the Manchester School saw free trade as an instrument of global peace. We do not willingly abandon prosperity.

The reality is that successful totalitarian and illiberal challenges are actually not the result of the psychological softening through comfort, but of the failure of the good life. It is in crisis that we suffer a loss of faith. If we are living the good life and being challenged by violent, self-sacrificing, hardened outsiders offering us the bad life instead, what will we do? Will we say, "I can't be bothered, let's have the bad life, it is so much easier"? That isn't what happened in 1939.

At heart there is an assumption that a range of belief systems, from Fascism to Religion, are somehow positive and vigorous, whilst secular liberalism is negative, an absence of belief. Commitment to secular liberalism can be as fierce as that to totalitarianism and, when challenged, all the resources of successful, prosperous societies can be mobilised to defend it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The horror, the horror

I was over on Harry's Place today and there was a discussion of the play Perdition and its major historical source, Lenni Brenner's Zionism in the Age of the Dictators.

Rather than add to a debate perfectly covered in the post it made me think of a series for this blog. This would be on the worst books I have read. Not just the toe-curlingly, embarrassing novel from the library that you abandon after the first few paragraphs, nor the turgid academic prose that brings you to a deep sense of existential despair, but something worse. I mean the books that you have bought. The ones you have parted with cash for, carried home intrigued at what may lie between the covers, turned over in your hands relishing the tactile pleasure of reading, eagerly sat down with, before the slow realisation dawns that it is all complete bollocks.

Then, and this is the mark of a truly awful book, you continue reading not with any hope that it might get better but out of a combination of horror and exhilaration that you are reading something so terrible that you are enjoying the revulsion and anger it causes. You vigorously scribble insulting marginal notes in pencil, curse and swear, throw the book aside and mentally trample on it. But you have to finish, it drives you on to the last page. Then you set it down and think, "That wasn't as bad as I first thought … it was far worse". And so dear readers (if, in fact there are any), I have to confess. I once bought a book by Lenni Brenner.

I took it from my shelf, still with a sense of grievance at the £5.95 I parted with in 1984. It was as I remembered it. The Iron Wall purports to be a history of "Zionist Revisionism from Jabotinsky to Shamir". In fact it is a sustained rant with the usual targets – Zionism as racism, a tool of imperialism, and counter-revolutionary simultaneously. It contains sentences like, "Zionism was the utopian exponential of a beleaguered caste of chrematistic religious fanatics". It is unable to make up its mind whether Revisionist Zionism is a form of messianic revivalism or fascism. Its conclusion describes the leaders of Peace Now as "incurable racists". It also posits a fantastical Leninist solution to the conflict in that Israeli refusenik soldier will come to a "correct" (a favourite word of his) analysis and join with Palestinian guerrillas to create a revolutionary secular state of Palestine! Its prose is breathless, full of judgements without empirical foundation. Take these, all drawn from just one page about the First World War (p.52): "The Republican and Democratic Parties in America, the Tories and Liberals in Britain, all social democratic parties … marked themselves for ever as betrayers of civilization. … not a single one … has redeemed themselves in the succeeding years" (so the defeat of the Nazis doesn't count as even a little redemption?); " … these factions represent classes fundamentally antiquated and antagonistic to the interests of humanity"; " … Zionism …, through Jabotinsky's Legion, harnessed itself to the juggernaut of imperial carnage"; "there is only one word to describe Jabotinsky during the War; a traitor". And so it continues - endlessly, angry rhetoric without any coherent analysis.

So far so bad. However, there is a crowning glory that makes this book special. Brenner knows the root of this perfidy. It can be understood through "the universal formula later laid down by Freud". Zionism "derived from the religious baggage of the Jewish male's super-ego". As for Jabotinsky, his determination to revive Hebrew is a clear indicator of his failure to develop beyond the oral stage. His treason was rooted in his oral fixation. What more can I say? A classic.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Now which one shall I have? Blair at Euston again

One of the more bewildering aspects of the language of New Labour is its penchant for picking two irreconcilable concepts and saying that Labour is neither, yet is also both - simultaneously. This is what happens in Blair's defence of choice.

It is more subtly stated here but is present none the less. The first phase of public sector reform is described by Blair as being based on "strong central direction and public targets". The current phase is now, apparently, a process of "transfer of power from providers to citizens". Note the language here; it is a transfer of power from providers not government. Implicit in this is a view that the public sector behaves as a monopoly with, at best, complacency, and, at worst, an intrinsically hostile attitude towards its users. In this way there is a supposed unity of interest between government and citizens against the recalcitrant providers of public services. The circle is squared. Centralised government direction can happily co-exist with the devolution of power to citizens whereas I had always assumed that increasing the ability of people to decide for themselves had to result in a reduction of central power.

This analysis would be fine if it were true. Those of us in Adult Education, which has long operated in a genuine market with provision solely driven and determined by consumer choice, are acutely aware that there is currently a shared interest between providers and users against the government as it uses its powers of funding to effectively impose a narrow model of instrumental education to be delivered at NVQ level 2, regardless of the choices of citizens. A swathe of popular adult education provision is disappearing across the country because it does not match the government's funding criteria.

In reality, choice is a very limited form of power compared to ownership, control and democratic governance. This is even more so in a model based on central direction and targets. What results is not a choice of provision, which will remain centrally directed, but a choice of provider. In other words, "you can have any colour as long as it is black - but you can choose from all these showrooms where you buy it". This is hardly, "Power to the People".

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The forces of conservatism strike back

Tony Blair's sally into the world of Euston certainly has all the hallmarks of a classic, using the techniques that Jamie Whyte mercilessly pilloried. There are instances when banality poses as profundity - what on earth does "We are a much older people than we were" actually mean? These are supported by generalisations asserted without empirical foundation - I am sorry Tony, but being employed in the public sector feels more like being a participant in a continuous revolution than working in institutions that "were established in something like their current form in the 1940s".

However, the heart of his appeal for the support of the left in his programme of public sector reform is more important and is contained in the following statement.

"There is always a progressive case for reform. What progressive case is there for the status quo, except in utopia?"

The obvious question that arises is what reform? The introduction of compulsory human sacrifice to propitiate the Gods would certainly be a reform, but hardly a progressive one. The debate is not about reform versus stasis; it is over which out of a range of reforms are preferred. Trying to make a case for reform per se is not enough to convince.

There is more though. There is a progressive case to be made against change. This was beautifully put by Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook:

We began to wonder if the reason why parties advocating radical change were so unsuccessful was because they were striking against the resistance of people who had changed, who had been compelled to change, too much. … In this context the desire to conserve, to protect, to safeguard, to rescue, to resist becomes the heart of a radical project. A form of conservatism – to be most sharply distinguished from its multitude of imitations, its travesties and caricatures, and scarcely know to those who carry the banners of conservatism in the modern world – becomes indispensable to this work of resistance. This conservatism leads us to search for all those valuable resources that have been thrown away in the process of eager industrialisation. For the greatest casualties in this version of development have been human, perhaps even more than material, resources.
(The Revolt Against Change. Towards a Conserving Radicalism. Vintage, London. 1993. pp.3-4)

Part of the reason for the decline in Labour support does not lie in those issues that the media obsesses over, notably Iraq, but in an inchoate desire for a more stable and kinder future. Blackwell and Seabrook saw these 'forces of conservatism' being the centrepiece of a left project. They were ignored. Instead, they are David Cameron's secret weapon. Labour take note.

A stout defence

As if it was not enough for us persons of girth being seen as responsible for global warming now the Euston Manifesto site has Tony Blair citing us a reason for the need to reform the NHS (more on that later). I have news for them, we actually live longer so stop obsessing about our weight and deal with the pensions crisis caused by the extra longevity of fat, happy people.

Fatties of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but ... OK a few pounds here or there wouldn't go amiss.

Life and Fate

No, I cannot hope to encompass these themes in one post. Vasily Grossman has done so though in 800 pages of prose that, at times, leaves the reader breathless at its brilliance, even in translation.

I have just finished reading this magnificent novel. It is to be relished, read slowly, and absorbed. Its theme is totalitarianism, set against the background of the Battle of Stalingrad. The power of the novel lies in its moral clarity whilst exploring the human origins of the brutalities of the Twentieth Century. In a self conscious literary reference to Chekhov, Grossman celebrates individuality. It is a book of hope set in the most despairing of times. At its heart lies an evocation of "The private kindness of one individual towards another; a petty, thoughtless kindness; an unwitting kindness. A kindness outside any system of social or religious good."

The theme of human liberty is also strong; "Man's innate yearning for freedom can be suppressed but never destroyed. Totalitarianism cannot renounce violence. If it does, it perishes. Eternal, ceaseless violence, overt or covert, is the basis of totalitarianism. Man does not renounce freedom voluntarily. This conclusion holds out hope for our time, hope for the future."

This is an astonishing novel, both intelligent and moving, and one of striking relevance for the current day.