Tag Archives: Pierre Bourdieu

Open Letter To Sarah Champion

Dear Sarah Champion,

Let me salute your dedication to the cause of equality for women and children. Bravo. You’ve done some excellent work. However, your use of the word ‘culture’ is deeply problematic and indicative of the kind of ignorance I see being displayed by the far-right, who seem to believe that culture is determined by skin colour. I realise that, as a Psychology undergraduate at Sheffield University, you were unlikely to have encountered the work of sociologist, Raymond Williams – especially his seminal book, Keywords. Let me enlighten you.

Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language

Williams, 1988: 87

The determinism behind your use of the word suggests to the gullible and the terminally bigoted that there is a unique culture of paedophilia among men of Pakistani origin. There isn’t. Did it ever occur to you that is the kind of language that plays into the hands of the far-right? I doubt it. You’ve written articles on this subject for The S*n, a paper that lied about the Hillsborough Disaster and has spent the past 40 years attacking the party of which you are purportedly a member. Today, you’ve given an interview to another Murdoch paper, The Times, which takes a similar line to your party. Maybe you don’t care. Maybe you’re not really a person of the left and, given your complaints about the left in the Times, perhaps it’s time to reassess your political position? Just a thought.

Let’s return to the issue of paedophilia and culture. What’s interesting is how quick you were to claim that there is a culture of paedophilia, which is perhaps unique to Muslim men or men of Pakistani origin. What’s revealing about these statements is that they ignore the white male paedophile grooming gangs or lone offenders, whose ‘culture’ is never mentioned.  Take Jimmy Savile, for instance, whose depravity was frequently stated but whose ‘culture’ was never once mentioned. Let’s be clear here: Savile did not act alone. The VIP paedophile gang continues to operate in plain sight. Their ‘culture’ is never once referred to.

The far-right, to whom you have unwittingly handed a stick with which to beat your party, are also frequently in court charged with child sex offences. Again, their ‘culture’ isn’t once mentioned.  For your information, the Malatesta blog has regular updates on far-right sex offenders. I would suggest you at least take some time to look at it.

Channel 4’s Fact Check has also questioned your statement, which I shall quote here.

“Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls”.

Britain has a problem with paedophiles of all backgrounds. The VIP paedophiles are most likely white – just like you.

Channel’s Fact Check concludes:

Self-evidently, sexual abuse of children and young people by groups of men – including Asian men – happens in the UK.

According to the best available data, Asian men make up 75 per cent of “Type 1” group abusers, who target children and young women because they are vulnerable.

But white men make up 100 per cent of recorded “Type 2” group abusers, who target children because of a longstanding paedophilic interest.

From the information available, we know that actual number of group abusers who are Asian is around three times higher than the number of group abusers who are white.

However, it’s worth remembering that child sexual abuse by lone offenders is more common than abuse by groups. What we don’t know is how many of those lone offenders are white or Asian. We should be wary of drawing too many conclusions.

May I draw your attention to the final paragraph?

In 2014, a grooming gang of white men in Sydenham, London were gaoled for child sex offences. They were all members of the local CofE church. There was no mention of their ‘culture’. Interestingly, the story was ignored by the national press but published in the local press. Even the far-right ignored it, but that’s no surprise: they don’t want to draw attention to their own sex offenders. Here’s a quote from the article.

Five members of a Sydenham paedophile ring who systematically abused boys from a church in the 1970s and 1980s have finally been jailed.

Four young members of St Bartholomew’s Church, aged between eight and 16, met their abusers after being introduced by choirmaster Tony Brockhurst.

Maybe the story was ignored because the victims were boys (there seems to be a blind spot where the abuse of boys is concerned – especially among the far-right).

A few weeks ago, I sent you a couple of links on Twitter to a couple of books by Pierre Bourdieu. One of those books was Language and Symbolic Power (2011). Did you get a chance to even look at the first page? I doubt it. Language isn’t uttered innocently. Ferdinand de Saussure, the ‘father’ of linguistics said that “language is a system of signs”. This tells us that the words we use open a window into our unconscious world.  Bourdieu claims:

“Utterances receive their value (and their sense) only in relation to a market, characterized by a particular price formation. The value of the utterance depends on the relation of power that is concretely established between the speaker’s linguistic competences, understood both as their capacity for production and as their capacity for appropriation and appreciation.”

Bourdieu (2011: 67)

Power is expressed through language. Indeed, as an MP, your use of words carry more weight than those of the pub bore. Why? Because you’re in a position of relative authority. That means you have a duty to choose your words carefully. It is obvious, that such a consideration is far from the front of your mind and may not even be located at the back of it.

So, paedophilia is not specific to one culture or another and it is not confined to skin colour or religion. Child sexual abuse is an abuse of power. Nothing more, nothing less. However, it is perfectly acceptable to claim there are paedophile subcultures, for these things do exist.

Finally, the role of the local police in the Rotherham scandal has rarely been questioned. When girls went to the police with their complaints, they weren’t taken seriously. You need to ask yourself some questions: is that because the police were colluding with the grooming gang, or was it the case that they don’t take the complaints of working class girls seriously? This is from The Guardian,

The agreed facts show, at best, an alarming level of police indifference in relation to these vulnerable children, several of whom had drug and alcohol problems and who were from broken homes.

One of the officers named in the trial, Kenneth Dawes, had a string of misconduct offences recorded against him. He is still on the force, although suspended pending further investigations following the allegations by two of the women in the trial. He denies any wrongdoing.

You’ll notice that I didn’t rely on The S*n or any of the Murdoch papers, nor did I make use of anything from The Express or The Daily Mail.

The Sheffield Star reported last December that police officers stood accused of sexually abusing children in Rotherham. I find it strange that you haven’t once mentioned that or their ‘culture’.

Stephen Watson disclosed this week that a number of police officers are the subject of probes by the Independent Police Complaints Commission into allegations that they abused children in Rotherham. The exact number has not been disclosed, but Chief Con Watson made the admission during a discussion about the child sexual exploitation scandal in Rotherham, which was laid bare in an independent report which found that 1,400 children were abused by men of largely Pakistani heritage while those in authority failed to act. Professor Alexis Jay’s damning report, published in 2014, found that police ‘treated victims with contempt’ and failed to investigate while Rotherham council failed to protect vulnerable children.

South Yorkshire Police have a history of criminal misdeeds from the Miners’ Strike to Hillsborough and now this. I suspect the reason the police haven’t been mentioned is because they’re white, and that doesn’t make for the kind of sensationalist headlines the gullible public and the far-right so desperately crave.

Have a think about those things, though I suspect I won’t be hearing from you.

Yours faithfully,

 

The Cat

References

Bourdieu, P. (2011). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press

Williams, Raymond (1988). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana

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Filed under Child sex abuse

Some Thoughts About The Copeland And Stoke Central By-Elections

It’s axiomatic that the Blairites, the media and the Tories hate Jeremy Corbyn and all that he stands for, so when the by-election results came on early Friday morning, it was accompanied by the predictable chorus of “I told you so”.  Yet there are those who are so obviously blind to what’s happening that they refuse to see it for themselves and will believe every lie that comes from the mouths of media commentators and the stuffed Blairite shirts that dominate the television studios.

The Blairites knew that mounting another leadership challenge would end in failure, so they resorted to their other tactic: encourage two of Corbyn’s most prominent critics to resign and force by-elections.  Their latest phase began when Jamie Reed resigned on Christmas Eve (how symbolic) and a couple of weeks later, he was followed by Tristram Hunt. Both MPs were in marginal seats. The timing of their resignations was, just like everything else the Blairites do, blatant. If these were generals on the battlefield, they would be defeated and captured by their enemies. Why do I say that? Because unlike good generals, they telegraph every move in advance.  Let’s face it, these people aren’t chess players. These are poor leaders and equally poor strategists, who have no other interest than to self-aggrandize and grab power for themselves and their class.  Be in no doubt, for all their complaints about Corbyn’s alleged incompetence, they’re not much better and their previous attempts to unseat him are a testament to that. Bereft of real ideas, they can only resort to insults and temper tantrums in the television and radio studios, where they know they won’t be challenged  by supine interviewers, who are in on the game.  It’s a proper little stitch-up, folks.

For many people, the recent attempt to destroy Jeremy Corbyn looked, on the face of it, like a couple of very ordinary resignations by disgruntled MPs,  which had little or no connection with the ongoing Blairite plot to seize control of the leadership. Yet even a cursory examination of recent events reveals that there are coordinated efforts on behalf of the state, the media, the Blairites and the Tories to ensure that a left-wing Labour party is eliminated from mainstream politics. Hence the frequent use of phrases like ‘hard left’ to describe the mild democratic socialism of Corbyn.  Moreover, smear stories don’t appear in the media all by themselves; someone has to plant them there. From the stream of “Labour is anti-Semitic” stories to the fabricated “brick through the Wallasey constituency office window” story, each and every one of these has been fed to the media, which for its part, has failed to verify the claims.  Thus the press has abdicated its first duty to its readers: check and double check the story.

In Copeland, Labour’s share of the vote had been in steady decline from the heady days of the Nu labour landslide of 1997. The figures below put this into perspective.

2017 37.3%
2015 42.3%
2010 46.0%
2005 50.5%
2001 51.8%
1997 58.2%

As you can see, since Reed’s election in 2005, Labour’s share of the vote went into freefall. The reason for this is obvious: Reed wasn’t popular; Blairism even less so. Yet neither of these things featured in the supposedly expert analysis of the media commentators who painted the loss of Copeland as the fault of Jeremy Corbyn.

For the last couple of years, the Blairites have been openly collaborating with the government and the media in undermining their party leader. Indeed, for all their talk of wanting to “save” the party they apparently care so deeply about, their actions say the opposite. Take Peter Mandelson’s words on last week’s Andrew Marr Show.

“I work every single day to bring forward the end of [Corbyn’s] tenure in office. Every day I try to do something to rescue the Labour Party from his leadership.”

People like Mandelson aren’t interested in governing the country for the benefit of those they claim to represent, because if they did, they wouldn’t spend so much time undermining the party’s leader. They are, for all intents and purposes, little different to those they ostensibly oppose. For the likes of Mandelson, it’s all about power for its own sake. They can talk as much as they like about “needing to be in power to change things” but while they were in power, they did very little beyond producing headline-grabbing gimmicks.

These days, they are little better.  Blairites offer no alternatives to the Tory government and they said as much during the 2015 Labour leadership election, nor do they have any vision. For them, it’s business as usual: more cuts to public services and more foreign wars waged on a false prospectuses. The economic orthodoxy must never be challenged.  In the entire 13 years that Nu Labour was in power, it did nothing to tackle the structural problems facing the country and concerned itself only with superficialities.

During the 2005 General Election, rather than challenge the Tories’ dog-whistle racism campaign head-on, they chimed in with with words of their own. Today, the discourse surrounding issues of immigration and national identity have been colonized by the far-right. The Blairites see nothing wrong with this and have instead engaged in the same kind of anti-immigration rhetoric as UKIP and the Tories.

Worse still, are the legions of fair weather Corbyn supporters who flake off as soon as a negative story appears in the media – planted by the Blairites. This is how the Gramscian (2003) concept of cultural hegemony works:  by getting the public to turn against themselves and join in the condemnations.  Bourdieu and Wacquant (2003), on the other hand, called this “symbolic violence” and it works in much the same way as cultural hegemony. This is “the violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity”. Often people don’t realize the existence of this violence or they may collude in it themselves. We can see this at work everyday we turn on our televisions and watch the news, which has become increasingly about creating news rather than reporting it. To this end, the news media actively facilitates the narcissists that want to do us harm.

We can see this in action whenever a Blairite or other Nu Labour drone appears on television or radio. They will talk about how they want to be “a credible opposition”, which is used interchangeably with how “[they] must be in power”. The problem with this line of argument is that the Blairites would oppose precisely nothing. The Tories also claim that they want a “strong opposition”,  but they sound insincere whenever those words tumble from their lips. The last thing the Tories want is a strong opposition, and the Blairites say it because they think it’s good for their public image.  Oh, the Tories may claim that having a weak opposition is “bad for democracy” but their words are as empty as their claim to be the “party that governs for all of Britain”. Why the Blairites and the Tories don’t form a new party between them is down to the size and fragility of their egos rather than anything pragmatic. Token opposition is all the Blairites can offer and even Francoist Spain had token opposition parties to lend a veneer of democracy to the dictatorship.

Remember that in the 13 years Nu Labour was in power, they refused to repeal the anti-trade union legislation enacted by Thatcher in the 1980s. The state and the Tories have never wanted a parliamentary party that represents the working class, let alone a left-wing party that promises to redistribute wealth fairly. This is anathema to the state and the corporatists in the Conservative Party. It also sticks in the craw of the Blairites, who want to crush trade unions for having the temerity to fight for better working conditions.

The Blairites were hoping that Labour would lose both by-elections. In the end, the party only lost Copeland. That doesn’t say much for the Blairites’ organizing skills. Copeland remains a marginal seat. The new Tory MP has a similarly small majority to the last MP. This can easily be overturned in a General Election.

If Corbyn is removed as leader and the party is returned to the hands of the Blairites, it will lose hundreds of thousands of members overnight and its electoral chances will be ruined forever. So what is the solution? Clearly, there is no chance of Labour disciplining the saboteurs because the mechanisms that control internal party discipline are in the hands of the Blairites. So what is left? I wish I had an answer. If I were Labour leader, I’d be exploring ways to rid the party of its fifth columnists or bringing them to heel.

Today, David Miliband, the failed candidate in the 2010 Labour leadership election chipped in with his tuppence worth.  The extreme centrism espoused by the likes of the senior Miliband the the media is essentially right-wing and all the talk about the voters not being concerned with what’s right or left is wishful thinking. These Blairites are as predictable as clockwork. Tomorrow on the Andrew Marr Show and The Sunday Politics, we can expect more sound and fury from the Blairites and their Tory handlers.

Finally, if May and her Tories thought the Labour Party was really so weak, why are they so reluctant to call a General Election? Instead they make excuse after excuse and all the while the media refuses to interrogate them on their apparent disinclination to put their money where their mouths are. Perhaps they’re waiting for the gerrymandered constituency boundaries to take effect?

Actions always speak louder than words.

References

Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L.J.D. (2003). Symbolic violence. na. Available at: http://cges.umn.edu/docs/Bourdieu_and_Wacquant.Symbolic_Violence.pdf  Accessed 29/2/16

Gramsci, A. (ed.) (2003). Selections From The Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence & Wishart.

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Filed under BBC, Conservative Party, Government & politics, Labour, Media, propaganda, Society & culture

Culture for the Future (Note #1)

The cultural critic, Raymond Williams (1976), once said that “culture is one or two of the most complicated words in the English language”. Many people use the word “culture” to refer to specific artefacts or use it to refer to a set of rituals and customs that are practised by primitive tribal societies in the rain forests of South America or Central Africa. Some people use words like “cultured” to describe someone who has “good taste” in music and the arts. Such people will invariably come from upper middle class and upper class backgrounds and are acculturated at an early age to appreciate only those forms of culture, like classical music, opera and Shakespeare’s plays,  which have been consecrated by a legitimating authority (Bourdieu, 1989). Any cultural form that is produced outside this narrow band of cultural production will be regarded as vulgar by those people who regard their culture as something sacred. Hence the term ‘subculture’, which describes any cultural form that is produced by ordinary people and regards them as inferior. While it is tempting to think that such views are limited to the bourgeoisie, this narrow view of culture can also be seen among groups at the opposite end of the socio-economic scale, who have been educated to think that the culture they create isn’t culture at all or it is inferior. Other people, often those whose cultural interests never stray beyond bourgeois art, insist there should be nationally approved forms of culture. But the people who call for state-sanctioned culture pretend to know more about culture than they do in reality.

In the last four or five years, there has been a succession of politicians and political commentators who have remarked on the need for some kind of British national culture. Douglas Murray, for example, demanded that the government create what he called leitkultur to snuff out other cultures as a means to prevent young British Muslims from joining jihadist groups (sic). Such an idea is naive as it is dangerous. If the word leitkultur looks German, that’s because it is. It was coined by German-Arab sociologist, Bassam Tibi in 1998 to refer to a “core culture”. Unfortunately, whenever this word is used it tends to be cited in the same breath as monoculturalism and national identity. Like nationalism, monoculture regards all forms of culture that do not have the state’s seal of approval as a possible social contaminant. In Murray’s world, anything that sounds or looks Middle Eastern would be banned, as too would hip-hop, Bollywood and even West African high-life music.

A national monoculture has to be constructed by hand-picked cultural experts (presumably chosen by the government of the day or some other state body) who then project this construction onto the people. Here’s an example: when the state of Israel was created in 1947, its cultural nationalists rejected Yiddish as the national language and chose Hebrew (modernized)  instead. This is despite the fact that the majority of Israelis spoke either Yiddish (Askenazim) or Arabic (Mizrahim). Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews, wasn’t even considered. Hebrew was the language of religion and of the law, it was not the language of everyday life. Yet it was imposed as the Israel’s official language.

Monoculturalists, the vast majority of whom are ethno-nationalists (some of whom are in denial), rail against the idea that immigrant groups should continue their cultural practices once they’ve moved to Britain. They constantly complain about multiculturalism, citing it as the principle reason for Britain’s economic and social decline, and for incubating ‘terror’. Yet, much of what we consider to be British culture was brought to this country by immigrants. Fish and chips, pizza and tandoori masala are a few examples of cuisine that had origins elsewhere in the world. Words like ‘bungalow’ and ‘pyjamas’ are examples of Hindi words that are now part of the English language. We have listened to jazz, R&B, soul, rock ‘n’ roll and other forms of American music for decades, often to the dismay of the Britain’s self-appointed cultural cognoscenti. When rock ‘n’ roll first became popular in the 1950s, the BBC’s initial response was to ignore it.  The BBC Light Programme grudgingly commissioned The Saturday Club to cater for this new youth market but sometimes, the songs played on this programme were performed by the BBC’s house band rather than by the original artists. The BBC eventually yielded to pressure but only when it was too late. By then, Radio Luxembourg and the pirate stations had stolen a march on the fusty old Beeb, who had to petition the government to outlaw the pirates. Radio One happened ten years too late and even then, it wasn’t much good.

So when I say that there needs to be a cultural intervention, some people will be confused and others will ignore me, believing culture should come a distant second to marching, demonstrating and signing petitions. Some people don’t think twice about culture and others will see it as irrelevant. According to Gramsci (2003) the dominant ideology maintains its grip on power through cultural hegemony rather than outright coercion. The dominant class controls mass cultural production and is thus in a position to influence the way people think of themselves and others. Simon Cowell is a member of the dominant group (he votes for and supports the Tory-led coalition) and is an exemplar of cultural hegemony. His cultural production line creates boy and girl bands who sound and look the same. This kind of standardization can also be found in fast food outlets like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. Cowell produces music that is bland, but catchy, yet says nothing about real life. You will never find Cowell’s acts commenting on poverty, inequality or anything that the audiences who watch X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. It is the worst of the ‘bread and circuses’ notion of culture, which reduces arts to commodities.

According to Theodor Adorno (1991), each cultural product is produced industrially (like tins of baked beans) and bears the stamp of the dominant ideology. This is a rather crude way of looking at mass culture, which is produced by the same class that runs the country. The claim made by the artists who labour under this system is that all art should be free of politics. This suits governments and those who support them. The last thing they want is people asking questions and making demands. However all art is political, even if it denies it, because the artist has made a political decision to take an apolitical position. The old style stand-up comedians of the pre-alternative era would often claim that they weren’t political. This is absurd. The racist and sexist jokes they told expressed dominant social positions, whether they admitted it or not.

Whenever an authoritarian regime takes power, the first thing it does is arrest artists and musicians. Then they arrest academics and intellectuals who disagree with them. The authoritarian-libertarian Thatcher government effectively starved Britain’s political fringe theatre companies out of existence, not only because they were being subsidized but because they opposed the cultural status quo. Cutting off their funding wasn’t as violent as the brutality meted out to musicians, say in Pinochet’s Chile, but it was a form of what Bourdieu refers to as “symbolic violence”.

Finally, I spotted this article by Guardian columnist, Suzanne Moore, who asks if right-wing people are “more uncultured” and then adds that they (the right) “don’t “get” culture”. It’s not that the right doesn’t get culture, they have their own view of culture, and they tend to view it as something created by people who have “taste” and who possess the right kinds of qualifications.  In other words, culture should only be created by people who have been sanctioned to do so: the offspring of the rich, for example . As I said in this blog, the right’s idea of culture is heritage, which isn’t a living being but a corpse. The event discussed in the Moore piece mentions celebrities, who may be cultural, others are not.

So they had Michael McIntyre and Kirstie Allsopp providing youth and edginess with some interchangeable TV presenters, and those stalwarts of light entertainment Cilla Black and Bruce Forsyth. What a rum do. The Tory brand still appears toxic.

I’m not surprised to see the anodyne comedian, McIntyre, listed here. In some respects McIntyre’s ideologically neutral style is exactly what the right-wing view of culture is all about: it’s politically disinterested and socially disengaged.

Culture for the future. Culture for the 99%.

References

Adorno, T. (1991). The Culture Industry, London: Routledge.

Adorno, T. and Horkheimer, M. (1996) The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception in Durham, M.G. & Kellner, D. M. (Ed.) Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks. Oxford: Blackwell

Bourdieu, P. (1986) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge.

Gramsci, A. (2003) Selections From The Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Williams, R. (1976) Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana

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Filed under Arts, Ideologies, Society & culture

Culture For The Future?

People are fond of gazing back at the past through rose-tinted spectacles.  I remember reading somewhere that no one ‘does’ nostalgia like the British.  I love the 70sI Love The 80s and Dominic Sandbrook’s lightweight, but subtly ideological history series The 70s always present the past as the ideal time in which to live. In Sandbrook’s case, the blemishes, lumps and bumps that define eras and epochs are simply burnished or given a right-wing twist.  “Thatcher arrived to save the country from the unions” was the unspoken message at the end of Sandbrook’s series, which ignored the fact that management ineptitude and a chronic lack of investment was mostly culpable for Britain’s economic and industrial decline. In the case of the I Love… series, talking heads from showbusiness were interviewed on camera to talk about how wonderful Kickers and Kappa tracksuits were. “I really loved Kickers and you had to wear the key ring that came with them” opined one talking head. Just great. As I sat watching I Love 1980 on BBC2, it struck me how much about that year wasn’t mentioned. It was as if the people forced onto the dole queues by the Thatcher government never existed and the St Paul’s riots in Bristol never happened. This was an age of social and political turmoil. Thatcher was determined to destroy what remained of Britain’s countercultures- the permissive society she called it – and she had no time for those who disagreed with her.

Sure there were some good things about the 1970s but the decade wasn’t entirely good. This is, after all, the decade that saw the end of the post-war consensus. This is the decade that witnessed the rise in extreme right-wing activity on our streets, when people of colour were randomly attacked by neo-Nazis for merely going about their business. The National Front were emboldened by electoral gains they’d made in the local elections. Its splinter, the National Party, won two seats on Blackburn council in 1976. One of the reasons why punk arrived at the moment it did was because there  was a need for an antidote to the near endless stream of cultural nostalgia. Everywhere you looked, there was some romanticized reminder of the past, whether it was on The Black and White Minstrel Show or in the pop charts with bands like The Rubettes and Mud rehashing the 1950s with songs like Sugar Baby Love and Tiger Feet respectively. Nostalgia was in Britain’s pop cultural driving seat in a car that had one wheel stuck in the ditch. Britain could not move forward because cultural magnates were too busy gazing longingly into their collective navel.

The toxic sludge of nostalgia that was current in British mainstream culture and political discourse in the 1970s seeped into the thoughts of some of Britain’s prominent rock stars. In June 1976, David Bowie returned to London and gave a press conference to waiting journalists at Victoria Station. Standing in an open top Mercedes, he appeared to give a Nazi salute and was whisked away, flanked by outriders. In a later interview, Bowie told a journalist that

“Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars. Look at some of the films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger.”

A couple of months later a drunken Eric Clapton addressed a stunned Birmingham audience with this message:

“[I think] Enoch’s right … we should send them all back. Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!”

Roger Daltrey and Rod Stewart were just as vocal as Clapton. For the millions of kids who bought their records and wanted nothing to do with the views they espoused, this was a slap in the face and a kick in the teeth.  Clapton, in particular, had made a living by playing the blues, an African-American musical form. Ironically, Clapton had recorded a cover of Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff two years earlier. This was a point that was picked up by Red Saunders and Roger Huddle, who responded to Clapton and Bowie’s musings by writing an open letter to Britain’s music press. The letter read:

When we read about Eric Clapton’s Birmingham concert when he urged support for Enoch Powell, we nearly puked. Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist… We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music… P. S. Who shot the Sheriff Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!

Rock Against Racism, formed in response to this letter, was the most successful cultural intervention in living memory. It successfully brought together left-wing politics and youth culture, and marginalized the right-wing elements in rock music and beyond.  While it is tempting to think of Live Aid and even Red Wedge in similar terms, we must remember that RAR was a rank and file movement that began with a simple letter to the music press. Red Wedge, for example, was founded to attract votes to the Neil Kinnock-led Labour Party. Live Aid, however, can be read in two ways: first, it was a naive project that responded to a news item on the Ethiopian famine, which had been created by the Eritrean separatist war against Ethiopia. This part of the story was ignored. Much of the aid sent to Ethiopia was diverted to warlords. Second, it was a vehicle to revive the fading career of Bob Geldof. Yes, I’m a cynic but take a look at Make Poverty History and tell me how that has succeeded in eradicating poverty. Poverty can only be eradicated by destroying the current capitalist system, not by liberal hand-wringing and buying cucumber sandwiches at premium prices (a fraction of the profit made on these sandwiches goes towards buying a bucket). Make Poverty History temporarily assuaged liberal guilt and nothing more.

Since the global economic crisis of 2007/8 and the installation of a deeply unpopular Tory-led coalition government in this country, a number of political initiatives have been launched to counter the government’s austerity policies. There’s the Occupy movement and UK Uncut to name but two. What has been missing from these political movements is culture. If you have a Left idea, then you need something cultural to go along with it (qv. Roland Muldoon). For most of the political parties, be they mainstream or fringe, the idea of culture often takes second place (if it happens at all) to their respective ideologies and if culture appears within these parties, it is used as a means to have a laugh and unwind after a hard day of selling the party’s papers on the street, but not as means to contribute to real structural change. This kind of culture that speaks only to a small group of people.  The Conservative Party has never made any real use of culture because they’re too concerned with the past: their idea of culture is stately homes, old bones, statues of war heroes, and possibly the West End theatre of Cameron-Macintosh. Culture is a living thing that’s been created by ordinary people. It was revealing that, instead of creating a Ministry of Culture, John Major created something called The Department for National Heritage in 1994. He may as well have called it The Department for Mausoleums and Tombstones.

The situation that we currently face is dire and, in some ways, it is similar to what we faced in the 1970s. The need for a cultural intervention in Britain is now greater than ever. The rise of UKIP, the appearance of street groups like the English Defence League and Britain First are a cause for concern. Over the decades, the far-right has modified its language and now wishes to be seen as respectable.  Yet the sentiments in Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech are never far from the surface.  Powell himself was never subjected to rehabilitation, though his legions of admirers (some of whom weren’t even born when he made the speech) continue to claim that he was “right”. The normalization of racist, sexist and disablist discourses in the media are partly due to the rise of UKIP and are uttered under the rubric of free speech (or I speak and you shut up). The coalition government’s policies blame the economic crisis on – in no particular order –  benefits claimants, the disabled, single parents, immigration etc. You name it, they blame it. People like Katie Hopkins, who have no formal qualifications in the subjects on which they pontificate, are granted hours of airtime and are rarely, if ever, challenged on their repugnant views. Bullying and deliberate cruelty have become the new lingua franca of mass entertainment and the government alike. The phrase “political correctness” is used pejoratively to marginalize anyone who defends tolerance and fights for equality. This must be challenged at the cultural level as well as the political level.

We should not let Labour off the hook. When  Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister, he claimed that he wanted to see the kind of patriotism he saw in the United States. Three years later, he gave a speech that contained the phrase “British jobs for British workers”. These words could easily have come from the mouths of Nigel Farage or Tory MP, Peter Bone. Instead, they came from a Labour Prime Minister, who was desperate to appeal to floating voters whose political sympathies were defaulted to the Right. In doing this, Brown unleashed powerful forces that he could not control. Let’s not forget that during the Wilson-Callaghan years the Labour government failed to deal with the rise of the far-right and hid itself inside its Downing Street bunker, oblivious to what was happening on the outside. Callaghan had already called time on the post-war consensus when he applied for an International Monetary Fund loan in 1976 to deal with the Sterling crisis, which was precipitated by the Heath administration’s massive balance of trade deficit. The conditions of this loan led to massive public sector cuts and helped to pave the way for Thatcher’s victory in 1979. Once she had won, Thatcher then draped herself in the Union Jack and repeated the phrase much beloved of nationalists and bigots everywhere: the country is “swamped with immigrants”. These days the words used are “mass migration”. The old right-wing cliché that the country is “full” has also been resurrected. The NF may have been marginalized as a political force, but their anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric lingers in the speech of UKIP and others.

The leadership of today’s Labour Party is just as bad as their predecessors, because they have failed to learn the lessons of their past. In the aftermath of the local and European elections, Ed Miliband and his shadow cabinet kept repeating the line “We got it wrong on immigration”. This plays into the hands of ethno-nationalists and, of course, UKIP, and shows us that the Labour Party’s leadership is too scared to say anything positive about immigrants and immigration for fear of a press backlash. If we go back to the beginning of the current economic crisis, Labour’s political enemies, the Tories and UKIP, couldn’t claim that Labour was “soft on crime”, so they attacked the party on a different front: immigration. Since 2007/8, there has been a steady stream of anti-immigrant stories in the media in which all immigrants are misleadingly referred to as “migrants”. However, many of us living in the  United Kingdom are migrants. If you move home within a city or town, you are a migrant. If you move from Stoke-on-Trent to take up a job in Manchester, you are an economic migrant. The recent British Social Attitudes Survey claims that most people are against immigrants and immigration, with a many more people claiming that immigrants come to this country to take advantage of our benefits system. Yet there is no concrete proof that people come here to live on a measly £72.40 a week. Benefits are more generous in other European countries, so why would anyone want to come here just to claim benefits? If you point this out to the average immigrant-hater, they have no argument. What the British Social Attitudes Survey actually tells us is that people are quite prepared to believe the lies and scare stories that come from the press and the self-appointed experts of Migration Watch UK . Perhaps worst of all, the data from this survey could be used to bolster the Right’s claims that immigration is bad for the country and immigrants are taking British people’s jobs. The Tory-led coalition’s ‘reforms’ are killing people and making many more homeless. They are pitting worker against worker and neighbour against neighbour.

Not a week passes by without some minister or other, repeating the phrase “hardworking families” and smearing those who are out of work. Television also plays its part in these attacks with the near-endless stream of poverty porn that oozes from our screens. Benefits Street, On Benefits and Proud and Filthy Rich and Hungry are a few examples of the media’s bandwagon-hopping tendency to demonize and stigmatize benefits claimants. The latter programme was actually shown as part of the BBC’s Sport Relief season. People’s poverty should not be a cheap source of entertainment; a sort of two minutes hate for bullies and self-styled ‘hard workers’.

Like the 70s, there is a great deal of nostalgia present in mainstream political discourse. When the Tories came to power in 2010, Michael Gove wrote of his affection for the Victorian age. The party itself repeated 19th century mantra of ‘self-help’ and resurrected the phrase “deserving and undeserving poor”.  Ethno-nationalists gorge themselves stupid on nostalgia. They’re constantly dreaming of a Britain that existed in fairy stories. UKIP, for example, wants a return to the 1950s and grammar schools, which it claims are essential for social mobility.  Yet during the 1950s, social mobility was fairly limited. Moreover, people knew their place.  Confusingly, UKIP also wants a return to the 19th century, but their idea of the 19th century is one without the poverty, disease and high infant mortality rates, which proceeded hand-in-glove with the ‘classical’ liberalism that is much loved by today’s Right. ‘Classical’ liberalism is also loved by American neo-confederates, who never tire of telling people that slavery “wasn’t that bad”. It was under a classical liberal economic system that the Irish Potato Famine took place. The mantra then was “it’s God’s will”. For the Right believes that inequality is “natural” – a God-given.

The Tories have always hated the comprehensive education system and want a return to the old system that effectively excluded anyone without the material means to pay for a decent education. In our current education system, by rote learning is threatening to supplant the teaching of critical thinking skills. This is particularly the case in Higher Education, where the former polytechnics (or post-1992 universities) are cutting courses and expunging those courses that include the teaching of critical thinking skills from their curriculum. The government likes people who can’t ask questions, because people who don’t ask questions are easier to manipulate. This the neoliberal idea of education: to train people to be mindless consumers, who question nothing and are unaware or refuse to believe that they’re being oppressed. This is what Gramsci calls “contradictory consciousness” and what Bourdieu refers to as “illusio“. The message from the top seems to be “You will love us while we kick the shit out of you. It’s for your own good”.

Neoliberalism, apart from creating false economies on a grand scale, forces people see themselves as consumers; customers of a particular service.  Healthcare and education, for example, are reified; magically transformed into commodities. Neoliberalism produces illusions: illusions of freedom, illusions of wealth, illusions of choice. Neoliberalism exists to defend the power of the already wealthy and powerful. It pretends to be meritocratic, but in reality it diverts ever more power to the same people who have controlled things for centuries. Neoliberalism is nothing but feudalism in a Savile Row suit carrying a smartphone. If we aren’t careful we will find ourselves in a technologically advanced version of the Middle Ages, where ignorance and superstition rule unchallenged and trump reason and evidence-based solutions every time. We want a modern country that isn’t afraid to look forward. Nostalgia is a comfort blanket for those who fear what the future might hold.

Recently the government has insisted that schools teach “British values”. Aside from being a woolly, ill-defined concept on two levels, this is nothing less that a rush to inculcate forms of nationalist thinking in our children, and risks unleashing dangerous forces that cannot be controlled. For the Right, British history is marked by the dates of battles between royal houses and the births, lives and deaths of monarchs and their acolytes. Britishness only came about with the 1800 Act of Union that brought Ireland into the realm against its will. Moreover, Britishness (like any form of national identity) is entirely constructed from a selection of myths and half-truths. You create your own history.

We know what we’re against: we’re against neoliberalism, inequality, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism, anti-Ziganism, anti-Semitism, corporate greed, slum landlords, inflated travel costs, lazy grasping MPs, war, etc. Therefore, we need to define what we’re for. We are for the 99%, because the current form of capitalism helps to enrich greedy people and sustain a hatred of Others. We must create culture for the 99% that addresses social and political concerns rather than tug on people’s emotions like the bourgeois theatre that dominates London’s West End, or the Hollywood movies that place style over substance. Much of today’s art doesn’t seek to engage with people’s lived experiences, instead it speaks only to itself. It is self-indulgent drivel. The artist must reject the dead space of the bourgeois art gallery, which demands disinterest and contemplation instead of engagement, and use the street as their palette and exhibition space instead.

We should adopt RAR as our model but include all forms of art and culture.  Much to the anti-immigrant parties’ disgust, Britain is a multi-cultural country and that is not going to change. All the multi-coloured cultural strands of this country need to be brought together under one umbrella in celebration of our diversity and in opposition to a cultural industry that is run for the benefit of accountants and media moguls, and says nothing about life as it is lived. We want artists of all kinds to take part in a new grassroots cultural movement for the 99%. Painters, sculptors, musicians, DJs, comedians, dancers, poets, rappers, writers, actors, jugglers, stilt-walkers, puppeteers, clowns and others that I haven’t mentioned. We must create cultural artefacts that look forward, not backwards.

History is a teacher, but nostalgia will teach you nothing that you don’t already know. In the words of Johnny Thunders, “you can’t put your arms around a memory”. That’s true, but you can embrace the challenge of the future.

We are the many, they are few. Culture for the 99%!

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Class: the issue that some people wish would go away

The Cat was immediately suspicious when the BBC announced the findings of a new report into social class in Britain. The new social hierarchy being proposed, which is based on research conducted by the London School of Economics’ Mike Savage and Fiona Devine of the University of Manchester and was commissioned by the BBC, has been concocted to deflect attention from the reality of everyday life. Since the Blair years, there has been much eagerness on the part of the dominant culture to redefine class broadly along lines of consumption, but some of this eagerness also comes from a desire to claim that we’re “all”, as John Prescott once put it,”middle class now”.

This idea that everyone, or most everyone, is middle class has worked well in the United States, where the promotion of the image of a classless country serves to obscure the day-to-day economic reality of the lives of many Americans and their true relationship to capital. Indeed, the fantastic idea of the much-promised American Dream is a nightmare for the vast majority of ordinary people.

The BBC commissioned research into social class has determined that social hierarchy be reconstructed thus,

  • Elite: This is the most privileged class in Great Britain who have high levels of all three capitals. Their high amount of economic capital sets them apart from everyone else.
  • Established Middle Class: Members of this class have high levels of all three capitals although not as high as the Elite. They are a gregarious and culturally engaged class.
  • Technical Middle Class: This is a new, small class with high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged. They have relatively few social contacts and so are less socially engaged.
  • New Affluent Workers: This class has medium levels of economic capital and higher levels of cultural and social capital. They are a young and active group.
  • Emergent Service Workers: This new class has low economic capital but has high levels of ’emerging’ cultural capital and high social capital. This group are young and often found in urban areas.
  • Traditional Working Class: This class scores low on all forms of the three capitals although they are not the poorest group. The average age of this class is older than the others.
  • Precariat: This is the most deprived class of all with low levels of economic, cultural and social capital. The everyday lives of members of this class are precarious.

The idea behind this kind of social realignment is nothing new. Pierre Bourdieu (1989) proposed that taste, or the judgement of distinction, should be reconstructed according to a person’s levels of non-material capital. These were: social, cultural, economic and symbolic forms of capital; there are also subsets of these forms: for  example, subcultural capital (Thornton, 1997) is a subset of cultural capital. These forms of capital are employed on fields and some can used as a medium of exchange: consider the example of the old school tie, which is a form of social capital that can unlock many doors (think of John Lloyd and how he sold Spitting Image to Central Television and you’re there).

Naturally, the BBC nor the researchers, don’t tell us how capital is used on the field nor do they mention habitus or doxa. Instead, we are given new social designations – the ugliest of which is “precariat”. But “Emerging service workers”?  What does that mean, exactly?

The BBC has the summarized findings here. The page also invites you to assess your social class but using its handy class calculator.  I’ve used it twice now and each time, it’s told me something different. Oh, but it’s a bit of coffee-time fun, surely?

Well, I’m not so sure.

What this report has done is to add new strata to an already stratified British society. It makes no attempt to discuss or even apologise for the way in which the same stale ideas circulate on the field of cultural production and how cultural production is controlled by a small group of people who project their ideas of taste on the public. Furthermore, the report fails to take into account how political power remains in the hands of the dominant ideological group, nor does it offer any explanations about how the power of the dominant culture is reproduced in its educational institutions: Oxbridge and the public (independent) schools.

The authors of this report and the BBC should hang their heads in shame for gutting and filleting Bourdieu’s concepts and presenting them as a silly parlour game. Catherine Hakim, who was also at the LSE, did a similar thing with Bourdieu’s ideas of capital by proposing the slippery concept of “erotic capital”. This idea falls apart when one interrogates the claim that anyone can use their erotic capital to advance in life. It is clear that working class women will only be able to use their erotic capital to make it as a stripper or sex worker. There is no social mobility involved in a working class deployment of erotic capital.

Try as they might, the ruling class cannot reorder the class structure of this country. By isolating the issue of class from the production and reproduction of power, any attempt on their part is mere navel-gazing. Furthermore, the fact that this research was commissioned by the BBC tells us that, for all its pretensions to inclusivity, the corporation remains stubbornly bourgeois and works to reproduce the power of the dominant culture.

I was listening to Radio 4’s Today programme a month or two ago when I heard the very bourgeois Harry Mount (I think it was him) declare that class was dead and we should be identified by what coffee we drank. Oh, how I laughed.

References

Bourdieu, P. (1986) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge.

Chester, L. (1986) Tooth and Claw: The Inside Story of Spitting Image. London: Faber and Faber

Thornton, S (1997) Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Cambridge: Polity Press

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The Comedy of the Spectacle (and its alternative)

 

MacIntyre. Spectacular comedian?

Alternative comedy is dead. Maybe it never actually existed. After all, none of us referred to ourselves as “alternative comedians”. Some of us never liked being called “comedian” either. Comedians wore dinner suits, bow ties and frilly shirts. They told paddy jokes and sexist jokes. They told Paki and coon jokes on prime time telly. It wasn’t funny. Alexei Sayle had an interesting line, “I’m alternative comedian. Which means I’m not funny”! But he was very funny.  A breath of fresh air. We needed it then and we need it now.

Whenever someone asked me what I did, I would often offer “plumber” or “exorcist”. Sometimes I would tell them I was a “shaman”.  I thought of myself as an artist who painted or sculpted with words.  This was the 1990’s. Alternative comedy was dead. Some people said alternative comedy died because it was too “politically correct”. I don’t know what “politically correct” means. Others said it was “outdated” while others conceded that it was “necessary”. The frilly shirts and bow-ties returned to the shadowy world of the CIU circuit. They became the alternative comedians.

When I started doing comedy in 1986, it was called cabaret back then. It was fresh, exciting, dangerous and innovative. Sometimes it wasn’t funny. The audiences knew the score. They came for something different. They were fed up with frilly shirts and bow ties too.

The frilly shirts and the bow ties are back. Well, the attitude has come back. It started around 1992.  Loaded appeared and the jugglers and poets disappeared. The lad was here. Well, the lad never went away. What was alternative was transformed into something mainstream. Something more television-friendly. The clubs became factories that produced commodities. The commodities were fetishized by television companies and magazines like Loaded and is imitators. This is comedy on an industrial scale.

Then some journalist declared that “comedy” was “the new rock and roll”. Avalon took this seriously. They even booked Wembley Arena for their star performers. Kerrrrching! Even the comedy tours of the eighties didn’t take in such massive venues. This was the sort of venue that only the likes of Queen or Dire Straits played. This was stadium comedy to go with your stadium rock. “Welcome to the machine” is what Pink Floyd said on their album Wish You Were Here. Welcome to the machine.

Guy Debord said

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that is directly lived has moved away into a representation.

The lived experience of the alternative performer was gone. Representations of life appeared in their place. The master discourse was renewed and articulated through the comedian. Observations of nothing-in-particular came to signify la comédie nouvelle. The new jokes needed butts. They were found in the Welsh and people with red hair. One was a ‘sheep shagger’, the other a ‘ginga’. People paid good money to hear this stuff. But you can go to a playground on any day of the week and hear that stuff for free. Save your money.

The girlfriend was substituted for the wife or the mother-in-law. The frilly shirts and bow-ties owned those two. Homeless people became the new niggers at the hand of the hack. I once heard someone do a load of stuff about “smackheads”. It was tiresome. Tedious. Unimaginative. Pointlessly cruel. The weak became the focus of the new cruelty. Not the powerful. Not career politicians. The weak. But it’s just a joke. Can’t you take a joke? You have no sense of humour sometimes! It’s political correctness gone mad!

No, it isn’t.

Carr. Cold and clinical

It’s worse than that.

Much, much, worse.

Today’s comedian is like a vending machine. They produce perfectly formed gags like cans of Coke. Each one is the same as the last one. Put coin in, get a can of Coke. Repeat the process.  If we take Jimmy Carr as an example, we see a comedian who is more of  a technician than an artist. Arthur Smith once said of Carr that  “He makes jokes like little clocks. He has no interest in their context or meaning, only that they cause an explosion of laughter. I want a comedian to have a hinterland”.  Even Carr’s shows reflect a certain sterility to his approach. One show was titled “Joke Technician”. You really cannot get more technocratic than that. Such an admission is revealing, it shows us how some acts view their profession: not as art but as a science or a bloodsport. His current show is titled “Laughter Therapy”, which is not only unimaginative, it is also highly clinical.

Nelson David wrote an interesting article for Chortle a few months ago. He says,

I’ve often wondered why many younger generation comedians seem less politically and philosophically engaged with the world around them than their predecessors of 25 years ago, especially as times are so turbulent.

So where is the reaction? Maybe audiences are more interested in observations of naff all.  A promoter once asked me “Why do you do all that political stuff? Why can’t you just stick with your impressions”? Nelson David,

It does seem that exclusively political comedy has become the preserve of the more mature performer in Britain. Sadly for me their number is few, certainly far less than I’d need to be able to nickname them the Grecian 2000. But Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel, Mark Thomas, Arnold Brown and Rob Newman for example remain inspirational.

More recently, Bob Slayer, writing for the same website, said this,

Fuckin’ A! It’s been a quarter of a century since alternative comedy turned the industry on its head and it is long overdue another shake-up. Comedy may be booming at the top but there are many signs that it is becoming more than a little middle aged around the middle, it is increasingly choked with clubs promoting generic comedy, established comedians delivering interchangeable material and new acts, that only want to be the next Russell Howard, trying stand up as a career choice.

Bob rightly puts his finger on the industry’s lack of adventure. Pierre Bourdieu reminds us that,

Old style intellectuals monopolise legitimate cultural practices due to the inertia of the institutions of cultural production.

The “old style intellectuals” here are those who control the industry. They are the ones who produce tastes and project them downwards to the masses. These intellectuals come from the public schools and Oxbridge. Many of them are employed by the BBC.  Political satire is one area where production is controlled by former public school and Oxbridge types. A good example of this can be found in Channel 4’s  Bremner, Bird and Fortune, a series that is patchily amusing and often full of obscure parliamentary in-jokes that need to be decoded with the aid of Hansard.  It is a programme for those who have been initiated into the political system. Those who have not been initiated will feel alienated.

The comedy industry like the rest of the  culture industries is not concerned with innovation or inventiveness. It concerns itself entirely with safe ideas, safe products and safe comedy. When it offers danger it tends to be produced without thought or analysis and is done to shock. Recently there have been a series of article about the number of rape jokes being told. Emma Poole, writing for the blog site, Liberal Conspiracy writes,

I watched a recorded episode of ‘Russell Howard’s Good News’ this week – I couldn’t even enjoy the funny bits. The show was fragmented by the host’s jokes about rape and paedophilia. I don’t find them funny. They make me feel sick. They give me nightmares.

Rape and paedophilia jokes have become the new comedian’s stock-in-trade. Rape jokes can be funny but only if the perpetrator is the butt of the humour. More often than not, it is the victim who is the butt of the joke. Alexei Sayle says,

Offence doesn’t reside in the subject matter, but in the power relationship between the comic and the audience.

Perhaps some of the newer comics should take this on board. But the phrase “power relationship” is not one that many of them will understand. Some will try and claim that they are being ‘ironic’ but this is the last refuge of the coward and the bully. The behaviour that would have once been left at the school gates has now accompanied these comedians into adult life.

There is a need for a new alternative comedy. We live in turbulent social and political times. The economic crisis, peak oil and war would have featured in many an alternative comedian’s set in the 1980’s.  Today’s comedians would rather talk about their dicks or talk about disabled people as though they were subhuman. The only way to ensure that there is an alternative to the new mainstream is to create the space for it. But with most pub landlords interested in short term gains, finding a sympathetic landlord is a very difficult task indeed. I should know, in the last three years, I tried to set up an alternative cabaret club and each time,  pub management was the obstacle to progress. The old mainstream acts still had places to play when alternative comedy emerged.  They still had audiences. The alternative acts had nowhere to play once the new mainstream took control but surely they still have audiences? The only real way forward is to have your own space where you are not subject to the capricious whims of a pub landlord. You control the means of production, not the landlord, the brewery or a lads mag.

When alternative comedy arrived in 1979, it disrupted the spectacle. In 1992, the spectacle recuperated comedy and transformed it into a product of the hospitality industry. It’s time to take it back!

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