18 Aug 2017

Donna Tartt's The Secret History

I finished reading this about five weeks ago and have been meaning to write something about it ever since.  However from indexing my own book (Elinor Ostrom's Rules for Radicals) to painting my little wooden home, the next thing has always come up.

It is of course a 'why dunnit' the murderer fesses up in the first couple of pages to murdering Bunny, the rest of book deals with why the crime was committed and the consequences.

It works as a very solid holiday read.  I will have to give you the cliches but the cliches are true, it is unput downable and yes the prose is very clear too.

Is this literature?  I guess this is a question that should never be asked, culture is so much about distinctions in taste which are perhaps arbitrary but used to establish class and other hierarchical social divisions (Read Bourdieu for the theory and most episodes of Frazier for comedy illustration).

It doesn't do anything experimental or dramatic, if you want experiment House of Leaves, Beckett and James Joyce are all good fun instead.

It does touch on a lot of classic literature from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment to campus novels, in a fairly entertaining way.

The moral if there is one is that little learning is dangerous but if you want to really fuck yourself up and brutally destroy the lives of others a lot of learning is more effective dangerous than guns and drugs.

Guns, drugs, incest alcoholism and, of course, acts of astonish violence do abound but studying Ancient Greek culture is the cause, these others ills are but symptoms.

Incidentally for good or ill, you will know a lot more about Ancient Greek culture having read the book.

I guess behind everything is the sin of entitlement, those who think because they can think, they have the right to exploit others.

Much to provoke thought here but, above all, despite or because of the rather grim tale of mayhem, a good read.

Lots of good lines, for example, ' 'Mrs Corcoran's age usually went in pretty heavily for the Valium and so forth but she had enough speed to send a gang of Hell's Angels on a cross-country rampage.'

3 Aug 2017

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

For I am—or I was—one of those people who pride themselves in on their willpower, on their ability to make a decision and carry it through. This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all—a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named—but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not. (Baldwin 2001:24)

I have been thinking of reading some James Baldwin for quite a long time; he looked so iconic and I am always interested in the intersection between literature and politics.  Politics is more than a language game I tend to think but it is certainly very strongly influenced by questions of identity that are shaped in part by language.  Our assumptions are shaped by the culture we live in and a key part of culture is literature.  So while I don't think that a more sophisticated understanding of Jane Austen will lead to liberation, I do think Jane Austen is important in shaping British culture, which in turn shapes British politics.

James Baldwin was an important novelist and writer, both gay and African-American, he might be seen as an early exponent of what is now called 'intersectionality', noting that both oppression and liberation have multiple aspects and one aspect such as class or sexual orientation is not necessarily the most significant.

So walking along the shelves of the literature section in Goldsmiths College library as I like to do, Giovanni's Room leapt out at me. I borrowed and read it.  It's a tale of an American in Paris, short, clear and somewhat grim.  It's maybe difficult to use the term enjoy for a book centred around a murder but it diverted and provoked me.

In the 1950s writing frankly about gay and bisexual lives was a scandal. It is said that the first publisher Baldwin approached told him to burn it; he should stick to being an African-American novelist, he was told, and not 'alienate' his audience.  He persisted.

I am looking forward to reading 'Go tell it on the Mountain', which I believe is semi-autobiographical, looking at Baldwin's youthful experience of the Pentecostal Church in Harlem, New York, as both a source of oppression and one of community.  Again we might note that religion both informs literature and is closely bound up with politics.  Baldwin was a teenage preacher before rejecting the Church.

The prophets in the Bible challenged established power and were usually killed or exiled for doing so, the role of the prophets inspired political preachers all the way from Thomas Muntzer to Martin Luther King.

I get the impression that Baldwin wrote much in the way of lectures and letters on social and political matters, significant in the USA of the 1960s and 70s but still significant today.  He was, of course, a key figure in the civil rights movement.

Baldwin is very quotable. I liked his words about free will at the top of the page, 'autonomy' is often delusion!  Understanding how we are shaped and determined is the best way, perhaps, of being able to participate in the process.

James Baldwin (2001[1956]) Giovanni's Room. Penguin Classic.

2 Aug 2017

Seumas Milne's The Enemy Within

I have just finished reading Seumas Milne's The Enemy Within, originally published in 1994, the fourth edition is from 2014.  It examines the media campaign against National Union of Miners leader Arthur Scargill during the 1980s

Its quite a read!  Highly recommended. And lets not forget Milne in 2017 is one of Jeremy Corbyn's closest political associates, an important mover and shaper...

1984-85 saw the bitter strike that pitted Britain's most disciplined and effective trade union against right wing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  After the end of the strike when the NUM was defeated, the television programme The Cook Report and the Daily Mirror newspaper, ran a campaign accusing Scargill of corruption, initially suggesting that he had used money meant for the trade union to pay off his mortgage.

When it was revealed that Scargill did not have a mortgage the campaign eventually collapsed!  Before collapsing the script was rewritten with new accusations against the NUM leader being proposed, revised and falling apart.

The complex story is discussed over 445 pages of lucid prose by Milne and is not easily summarized.

What it shows is a case study in how a right wing British media,  the Labour Party, a Conservative government and the security services, worked to discredit a trade union defending its members jobs.

I think anyone who wants to understand how Britain works and how the media is often part of active campaigns to discredit opposition voices should read The Enemy Within with care.

Seumas Milne is currently Labour Party's Executive Director of Strategy and Communication, very much Jeremy Corbyn's key advisor.  Milne is routinely attacked by the media and most Labour MPs, it is astonishing that such a key critic of Britain's media and security services is at the centre of Corbyn's campaigning.

It certainly shows that the Corbyn network has a shrewd understanding of the realities of power in Britain.  A key insight is that media attacks from the supposed left, in Scargill's case from the Labour Party supporting Daily Mirror, are more effective than those from right wing sources.

It is also clear that while conspiracies can exist, they often fail and events are the product of over lapping forces.  Thatcher wanted to get Scargill but from personal grudges to shifting Labour Party politics a variety of influences were at worked.  Events might be seen as 'over-determined'.

Milne notes ironically that in recent years evidence of secret state infiltration of environmentalists critical of coal has also come to light. This is covered by The Independent here http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/were-police-spies-behind-mass-arrest-of-activists-1668252.html

I am not uncritical of Scargill and I am happy to see a shift away from coal (but not at the cost of brutal closure without the construction of a workers plan for alternative production) nonetheless while a coal dispute is discussed, this is a case study in how power is exercise in modern Britain.

I bought my copy from the wonderful Peoples Bookshop in Durham and its published by Verso.

A review in Red Pepper noted:

It’s an account that is both persuasive and disturbing. It provided the framework for David Peace’s GB84, bringing together the two worlds of the strike. Central players in Milne’s account are the prime minister, head of MI5 Stella Rimington and the owner of the Mirror Group, Robert Maxwell. Those who opposed the miners were ably abetted by spies within the union and Labour Party.

As Milne puts it, ‘The government unleashed the full force of the state: a militarised police occupation of the coalfields, a commandeered and manipulated criminal justice system, mass sackings and jailings – and the use of MI5, GCHQ, the NSA and Special Branch to bug, infiltrate, smear, manipulate the media and stage dirty tricks against the union and its leaders.’

Milne is routinely vilified in the media but lurid accounts often ignore his authorship of The Enemy Within, Milne's role in the Labour Party shows that Corbyn is providing a radical break from Labour past.  Whether like me you see hope in this or like the mainstream express anxiety, if you want to understand Milne a starting point is The Enemy Within.  Well researched, beautifully written, nobody on the left in Britain in 2017 can ignore it.

22 Jul 2017

The Philosophy of Marx by Etienne Balibar

The Philosophy of Marx 
By Etienne Balibar (translated by Gregory Elliot and Chris Turner)
Verso, 2017
240 pp., $38.95

Etienne Balibar notes ‘The general idea of this little book is to understand and explain why Marx will still be read in the twenty-first century, not only as a monument of the past, but as a contemporary author - contemporary both because of the questions he poses for philosophy and because of the concepts he offers it.’ (p.1).  And with some reservations, I feel he achieves this goal.
While is a thought provoking book, it may disappoint readers who seek either an introduction to Marx’s philosophy or a straightforward account of how Marx’s ideas can inspire focussed political action in the 21st Century.  There is a very useful guide to reading more about Marx’s philosophy and some very clear panels describing key thinkers and themes from Gramsci onwards.  However Balibar discusses some very complex and subtle ideas, that demand a good knowledge of Marx’s key works, as well as those of such far-from-easy thinkers as Kant and Wittgenstein, along with structuralist, aleatory and post-modern thought.  In short, this is a sophisticated and in depth examination of the topic, but not the first place to look if you are new to Marxist philosophy and want to find a way in!
Despite being neither directly politically practical or an easy book, it is extremely stimulating.  It richly rewards the effort to read and is full of original insights and exciting notions.  Balibar has condensed the last fifty years of his work closely reading Marx’s text to very good effect.
Balibar hints that it is wrong to read Marx’s work and to extract one clear and unambiguous set of principles from it.  Both academics and sectarians are tempted to argue that they have the correct reading of Marx and that other readings are wrong.  Balibar argues that Marx was driven by a number of shared passions, advocating communism, class struggle, materialism and human liberation.  Marx sought to show how political change might be possible in a particular context.  Because the context changed, so did Marx’s philosophy; if it is possible to construct a Marxist philosophy (a task that Balibar rejects), this philosophy, far from being fixed, will change with changing circumstances.
Balibar argues that it is wrong to seek a Marxist approach based on the texts of Marx to all political, social and indeed philosophical questions.  It was once said that only religion pretends to know everything, a thesis strongly echoed here.  Balibar argued that attempts have been made to fix the meaning of Marx’s work, from Engels' synthesis after Karl’s death to Stalin’s Dialectic Materialism.  Yet Marx’s pursuit of liberation was, according to Balibar, a product of an open and ever changing system.
Two historical contexts are seen as particularly influential on Marx’s philosophical work.  The first is the series of uprising in the early part of the 19th Century, which shaped the construction of the Communist Manifesto.  The second was the creation and bloody defeat of the Paris Commune, when in 1871, the workers created their own self-governing society.  The defeat of the revolts of the 1840s made Marx focus on the emergence of capitalism.  The Paris Commune strengthened his belief that working class self-emancipation was possible.  Bailbar notes that Marx was always rethinking his ideas, so any fixed doctrine of Marxism does not reflect his efforts.  Equally Marx was not an academic but a communist; he kept rethinking because liberation requires a constant effort to recalibrate revolutionary thought.
Balibar, even though he rejects the concept of a philosophy of Marx as a complete set of ideas, identifies a number of important themes.  One is the notion of transindividualism, Marx rejected both structuralism and pure individualism.  We are not trapped by unchanging structural factors, this would make social change impossible, but we don’t act as pure individuals. We are influenced by wider forces.  Noting Marx’s use of the French word ‘ensemble’, Balibar stresses that human society is collective because it is the product of human interactions, thus transindividualism is an appropriate and useful concept.  The ways in which we come together in particular social classes, is also stressed as a continuous historical force in the book. 

Given this rather post-modern interpretation of Marx’s approach and the difficulty of many of the ideas, it would be easy to reject the book as irrelevant to the political tasks we face in a world of climate change, violently mutuating capitalism and right wing political monsters such as Donald Trump.  In fact, while it requires effort and doesn’t produce simple answers I would certainly recommend it.  The German Marxist scholar and prominent ecosocialist Frieder Otto Wolf provided a foreword for the German edition. It’s a shame it is not included in this edition; I am sure it would have been of interest to many Greens and ecosocialists.

5 Jul 2017

Elinor Ostrom's Rules for Radicals

My next book will be out in the autumn, its a guide to Elinor Ostrom, first woman to win the Nobel for Economics, published by Pluto.
Elinor Ostrom was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economics. Her theorising of the commons has been celebrated as groundbreaking and opening the way for non-capitalist economic alternatives, yet, many radicals know little about her. This book redresses this, revealing the indispensability of her work for green politics, left economics and radical democracy.

Ostrom has often been viewed as a conservative or managerial thinker; but Derek Wall's analysis of her work reveals a how it is invaluable for developing a left political programme in the twenty-first century. Central to Ostrom's work was the move 'beyond panaceas'; transforming institutions to widen participation, promote diversity and favour cooperation over competition. She regularly challenged academia as individualist, narrow and elitist and promoted a radical take on education, based on participation.

Her investigations into how we share finite resources has radical implications for the Green movement and her rubric for a functioning collective ownership is highly relevant in order in achieving radical social change. As activists continue to reject traditional models of centralised power, Ostrom's work will become even more vital, offering a guide to creating economics that exists beyond markets and states.'
 1. Elinor Ostrom's Radical Life
2. The Commons: From Tragedy to Triumph
3. Climate Change, Ecology and Green Politics
4. Beyond Markets and States
5. Deep Democracy
6. Feminism and Intersectionality
7. Trust and Cooperation
8. Science for the People
9. Transforming Institutions
10. Conflict and Contestation
Resources for Change

3 Jan 2017

Peace in Kurdistan Campaign OPEN LETTER TO THE TIMES

Peace in Kurdistan Campaign

Dear Sir,

We write in response to an article “Corbyn linked to Lobbyists behind Istanbul bombers” published in your newspaper on 17th December, 2016. See article here: https://peaceinkurdistancampaign.com/2016/12/23/article-in-the-times-corbyn-linked-to-lobbyists-behind-istanbul-bombers/

We appear to be the so-called lobbyists referred to in the title of the article.

Peace in Kurdistan is a voluntary organisation formed in 1994 by the late Lord Avebury, the playwright Harold Pinter and several other leading writers and journalists with the objective of campaigning for a peaceful political solution to the Kurdish Question, as is stated in its title.

This campaign has widespread support from independent analysts, lawyers and academics in the UK, Europe and internationally including Noam Chomsky. Our list of Patrons includes MPs and members of the House of Lords from a broad spectrum of trade unions and UK political parties including the Labour Party, The Liberal Democratic Party, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein and the Scottish National Party, including, as your article points out, Jeremy Corbyn and Kate Osamor. We note with interest that you highlight only those two names out of the full list of 30 patrons.

Peace in Kurdistan is pleased to work with the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK), an organisation based in Brussels and working for a concerted strategy for democratic solutions to the Kurdish question, within existing states. We are also pleased to work with the HDP which is a democratic political party in Turkey, which had 80 MPs elected in the general elections in Turkey in 2015.

For some 17 years now, we have supported the international campaign for the de-listing of the PKK.  We have also supported the release of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who we say is crucial to the success of peace negotiations with the Turkish government.

We continue to be convinced that there is a strong case for delisting the PKK. Since Ocalan was arrested in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison, he has become an advocate for peace and reconciliation among Turkish citizens, including those of Kurdish origin. Heralding the peace initiative of March 21, 2013, Ocalan wrote: “We reached the point where weapons should go silent and ideas speak.” We also continue to hold out hope that the peace initiative can be re-started as we believe that only a peaceful, political solution will be effective.  
Your correspondent, in the same article, reports that Mr. Salih Muslim, co-chair of the PYD (Democratic Union Party), not as reported the YPG (People’s Protection Units),  spoke at a meeting in Edinburgh University. The PYD is not a military organisation but a political party at the forefront of the political and diplomatic struggle against ISIS in Syria and campaigns for a political and democratic solution to the conflict in Syria.  The system of Democratic Confederalism, within the borders of the existing state, includes “recognition of cultural, national and political rights, and develops and enhances their peaceful struggle to be able to govern themselves in a multicultural, democratic society” (PYD).
Your correspondent also mentions that the Turkish authorities recently issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Muslim. However, she fails to mention that Turkey, following the failed coup attempt in July of this year, has witnessed a deeply disproportionate and authoritarian reaction by the authorities, resulting in the issuing of thousands of arbitrary arrest warrants against all manner of people, from health workers, school teachers, journalists, academics and judges, including the one against Mr. Muslim. 

Peace in Kurdistan was established to draw the world’s attention to the oppression of the Kurds and to seek a peaceful way forward to the Kurdish conflict. At the time, such oppression was intense. It seemed hardly conceivable that it could get worse. But it has – and PIK’s role in publicising the extreme violence and repression that the Kurdish people are living under in Turkey is as important today as it was in 1994.

There have been credible reports of widespread systematic human rights violations against Kurds in Southeast Turkey perpetrated by Turkish security services over the last year. The government continues to block independent  investigations into allegations of killings of civilians, mass forced displacement and the widespread destruction of property within a system of blanket, round the clock curfews on 22 towns and city neighbourhoods. Peace in Kurdistan reiterates its calls for the Turkish authorities to allow the United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights to enter and conduct an investigation. We would expect articles published by The Times to include at least some political context when discussing issues such as the Kurdish Question. We feel that both the tenor and content of the article in question did not meet the required press standards of accuracy and balance.

Yours sincerely

Dr Thomas Jeffrey Miley, lecturer of political sociology, Cambridge University
Thomas Schmidt, General Secretary, ELDH European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and World Human Rights, Germany
Professor Bill Bowring, Barrister, School of Law, Birkbeck College, University of London
Michael Gunter, professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University, US
Kariane Westrheim, Professor, University of Bergen, Norway
Mark Thomas, author and journalist
Alastair Lyon, solicitor
Christine Blower, NUT International  Secretary
Simon Dubbins, UNITE International Director,
Bert Schouwenburg, International Officer, GMB
Margaret Owen OBE, barrister and director of WPD
Dr. Jessica Northey, Co-International Coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales
Dr Derek Wall, Co-International Coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales
Lord Hylton
Lord Rea
Jill Evans MEP
Nadje Al-Ali, Professor of Gender Studies, SOAS University of London
Mary Davis, Professor of Labour History at Royal Holloway, University of London
James Kelman, author
Dafydd Iwan, former President, Plaid Cyrmu
Dr. Federico Venturini, independent researcher
Dr Johanna Riha, epidemiologist
Nick Hildyard, policy analyst
Patrick Huff, social anthropologist
Amber Huff, social anthropologist
Steve Sweeney, journalist
David Morgan, journalist
Jonathan Bloch, author
Melanie Gingell, barrister
Anne Gray, CAMPACC
Dr Les Levidow, Senior Research Fellow, Open University
Maggie Bowden, General Secretary, Liberation
Stephen Smellie, Secretary, UNISON Lanarkshire
Lilian Macer, Convener Unison Scotland
Margaret Gallacher, Chair Unison South Lanarkshire
Margaret Cook UNISON NEC
Dr Sarah Glynn
Lindsey  German, Convenor, Stop the War Coalition
Rahila Gupta, journalist and activist
Amrit Wilson, writer and activist
Sarah Parker, Haringey Left Unity
Dr Ibrahim Yahli , Psychiatry Doctor, Chair of Kurdish Community Centre
Robert Atkins, lawyer
Ruth Webster, senior manager in the charity sector
Joe Ryan, Chair of Westminster Justice and Peace Commission

3 January 2017

Peace in Kurdistan
Campaign for a political solution of the Kurdish Question
Email: estella24@tiscali.co.uk
Contacts Estella Schmid 020 7586 5892 & Melanie Gingell - Tel: 020 7272 7890
Patrons: Lord Rea, Lord Dholakia, Baroness Sarah Ludford, Jill Evans MEP, Jean Lambert MEP, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Hywel Williams MP, Kate Osamor MP, Elfyn Llwyd, Dafydd Iwan, Former President Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy, John Austin, Christine Blower, NUT International Secretary,  Simon Dubbins, UNITE International Director, Doug Nicholls, General Secretary, General Federations of Trade Unions, Bruce Kent, Gareth Peirce, Julie Christie, Noam Chomsky, John Berger, James Kelman, Margaret Owen OBE, Prof Mary Davis, Dr Thomas Jeffrey Miley, Mark Thomas, Nick Hildyard, Stephen Smellie, Derek Wall, Melanie Gingell, Steve Sweeney