Men standing beside gold chairs

2013: David Cameron says he wants austerity forever while standing beside a gold chair:

1792: Louis XVI says…who the hell cares what he said? But he had a pretty nifty chair to stand next to as well.

Louis XIV did say “It is legal because I wish it” and probably Louis XVI thought the same thing. Before the guillotine. Afterwards he wasn’t thinking much at all.

Selling off the Royal Mail is legal because we wish it, says Osborne, or that’s what he’s thinking.



Against Rebels

Please make it stop

Rebels are not just boring, they are dangerous. We’ve had decades of rebel-worship now and if I see Che Guevara on one more t-shirt I’m going to start shooting the hostages. Che Guevara was a dick. I know this because I have the Bolivian Diary in my toilet and every time I pick it up I have the urge to use it when I’m done. He was emotionally as well as actually committed to authoritarianism – and of a particular patriarchal stripe that didn’t shrink from programs of executions for the greater good. His death was no great loss, except perhaps to his family. If the CIA had any sense they would have let him live in order to discredit him. As for the Cuban revolution, it was mostly driven by Cuba’s own social movements and for all we know it would have turned out better without Che and his pal Castro.

The rebel is a brand in our society and brands can be used by anyone. Charles Handy, master management consultant, can pose as a rebel against monolithic corporate structures. Richard Branson can pose as a rebel against corporate culture. Boris Johnson can pose as a rebel against boredom.

The rebel is easy to turn into a brand for one simple reason: it is an individualistic image. The lone warrior fighting the good fight against the dark forces of corruption. Blah blah blah. What a load of nonsense. We should be more careful about whether we confuse myths with reality.

In left politics, where everything turns on working together with others, the image of the rebel is a mixed blessing to say the least. To work together successfully we have to align ourselves with others, not see ourselves as the biggest rebel in the room. Not only that, the rebel self-image encourages reaction. That is to say, the feeling that doing something, and doing it differently, is a subversive act in itself. As I have argued in previous posts about the use of consensus in activist circles, this is not necessarily helpful. If by romanticising the rebel we make it more likely that we have to look radical, that is, perpetuate the brand of the rebel through ourselves, then we are more likely to be simply reacting to those we are fighting and so are still controlled by them.

If we wanted to romanticise anything we should perhaps romanticise some other words. ‘Uprising’ is a good word because it loses the individualism – you can only rise up together. ‘Economic organising’ sounds boring but is kind of what a real counterculture needs to do to survive. ‘Critical’ is a good word because it can move us beyond reaction. Rebels? I’ve had enough of them. But if that’s your style you’re in luck: pre-ripped tights now cost only £10 at Topshop. Being a rebel is cheap.

Empty ethics: the dangers of a charity sector liberated from charity

A recent partner of charities who may not share a charity ethos.

Charities using coerced labour from workfare programs smells very off to the millions of people who see those programs as a poisonous attack on proper wages, on job creation, and on the right to eat whether you are working or not. These are charities, you hear people saying. Aren’t they supposed to be the good guys?

We could be charitable to the charities and assume they were being naive, thinking they would receive only genuine volunteers. In that case, they should relieve themselves of their naivety forthwith by reading the Boycott Workfare site and the personal testimonies of people coerced into work (for around £2 per hour) that can be found across the internet. They should also, perhaps, relieve themselves of their naivety about this government’s intentions. It fully intends to lower the cost of labour (i.e. make most of us poorer) for the sake of greater profits and anyone engaging with the government should understand this and ensure they are not playing a part in it. As an aside, workfare doesn’t work, if the intention is to get people into work. But the government is expanding the program. It’s almost like the main goal really is to provide cheap labour isn’t it?

But I think the issue is more than mere naivety. The charity sector has undergone two changes in recent years and both must have seemed like an improvement to the charities. One change was that with the growth of the EU, the arrival of the National Lottery and the (late) Office of the Third Sector, there has been more funding available from official sources. This has some apparently good effects but it also means – inevitably these days – the imposition of targets and monitoring. It is easy to mistake success against targets for success in making people’s lives better, particularly once your job depends on meeting the targets. It is easy too to start shifting your goals in response to the money.

The second change is the increased numbers of senior managers moving across, sometimes temporarily, from the private sector. This brings management ‘expertise’ into the charity sector but this is not a neutral expertise. Business-oriented managers are more likely to pursue growth for the sake of growth (since growth is all in the private sector) and they too are fond of targets. They are also more likely to make ‘rational’ economic decisions, like the alcohol dependency charity that takes money from alcohol companies. ‘We can make bad money good,’ the argument goes, blithely ignoring why the alcohol company needs them as a fig-leaf. The managerialism of big business frees those businesses from all responsibility to people – except the people they choose to please for sound business reasons. Is business management liberating charities from the need to show basic charity to people beyond their area of work?

The charities would claim, no doubt, that they have not lost their core ethics. And perhaps they haven’t. But many have lost their peripheral ethics, their all-round view. If you stick to a few ethical rules but decide to blind yourself to anything outside that then your ethics are empty. Charities should think hard about the damage this loss of a broader ethics could do to their reputation. They should think about the dynamics they are getting involved with when they agree to provide outsourced services for government, or when they partner with outsourcing corporations with goals very different to their own. They should think about more than just growth or targets. When someone offers them free labour from a pool of often-desperate people, they should perhaps take a moment to think about what they are getting involved in.

Meanwhile the rest of us should all think harder about who we give to. We now face a far worse prospect than targets-obsessed charities slipping into being feel-good employment schemes for middle class professionals. Some of them are in danger of becoming feel-bad unemployment schemes for us all.

Back to the 1950s with a sexist Quidco advert – an email

Another masterpiece from Quidco

Having not yet cracked under the relentless stream of crap adverts and paid up for Spotify I have no choice but to listen to the products of the nation’s best and brightest advertising executives. A recent ad from Quidco went beyond being merely irritating into the territory of the outright insulting. In response to their carefully thought out campaign ‘Fight the signs of thinning wallet’ I sent the email below to Quidco, to one Jo Roberts, head of marketing.

Hi Jo, the only conclusion I can draw from the Quidco advert on Spotify (in which you imply that women are largely attracted to a man’s wallet) is that you think your target market is sexist in a kind of 1950s Mad Men style. This may in fact be the case. I also have to listen to the advert and am not sexist but possibly I am not your target market (my membership of Quidco is pretty inactive but I do already have an account so need no persuasion). I was wondering if you have done much research to back up the assumption of your audience’s sexism. If so I’d be interested to see this. I admit to being surprised. If time-travelling back to 1950s gender stereotyping were that lucrative I’d expect more people to be doing it. I look forward then to hearing what it is that has led you to believe this is a good way forward.

I think that you are yourself a woman, so I’d also be interested to know your personal experience of choosing a man by the contents of his wallet. I’d like to know how that has worked out for you and so on. Perhaps you did not do this however. Perhaps instead you thought “What’s a little lighthearted sexism between friends?” But we’re not friends are we Jo? And most of the people who listen to that advert are not your friends. And you do not know how people will read the sexism. Because some people actually do believe women are just interested in a man’s wallet. I’ve met some of the British sex tourists in Thailand who thought exactly that in the UK and went to Thailand to find ‘girlfriends’ who would confirm all their prejudices. Come to think of it, was this your target market? The sex tourists of the future? That would make sense. If so I have underestimated your targetting.

You may however wish to have a word with Spotify about their targetting. I think the Baka Beyond fan/sex tourist crossover market is smaller than you might wish.



For those interested, Baka Beyond play West African/Celtic fusion. It isn’t really true to say I’m a fan – they’re a bit too easy-listening for me – but I listen to them from time to time.

Now I also copied Spotify into this email. They had a category on their contact form called, and I quote exactly ‘Share something fun :)’, so I wrote a little intro saying ‘Hi Spotify! I know you like us to share fun things with you! So below is a copy of an email I sent to Quidco. Enjoy!’

I had no particular axe to grind with Spotify. They are still struggling financially and would probably sell their grandmother’s corpse to a necrophiliac for a bit of extra ad revenue, so I sent off the email and thought nothing more of it. Until they served me up this slice of grating corporate chirpiness:

Hay (sic) Jacob,

Sorry. We might have got that one wrong please forgive us…. 〷◠‿◠〷

I have let our content team know and they will definitely keep an eye on this type of content.

Thanks for raising your points with us.

Kind Regards and a friendly smile,

John L

Spotify Customer Service – Cambridge

George Leonard:
At the root of all power and motion, there is music
and rhythm, the play of patterned frequencies against
the matrix of time, Before we make music, music makes us.

Now perhaps I should feel grateful that Spotify responded and said they’d pass it on. But here’s the thing John L, if I can call you that: I hate to dent your no doubt 100% genuine twenty-four hour effervescence, but a cute picture in company emails is a poor substitute for functioning brains and a sense of ethics. Isn’t it now? I rather feel that I should never have had to send this email.

I’ll update you all if the Quidco marketing geniuses get around to replying between bouts of patronising their customers.

A post all about our individuality. Sorry, YOUR individuality.

I didn't have a relevant photo for this post but I love Balinese temples.

It hardly makes sense to collectively describe individualism does it? Except that it is one of the problems of living in a society where people obsess about their individuality that the social constraints upon us are less transparent than in other times and places. These social constraints always exist, always place pressure on us, always influence our decisions, but because we are all pretending that we are heroic individuals we have to kind of blank out all this social influence in case we realise how little our choices have to do with ourselves.

As well as constantly talking of ourselves as atomistic individuals another weird way we use language is to refer to our ‘social lives’ and ‘work lives’ as different things. I know that by ‘social life’ people often mean what they do to relax with other people, but the distinction obscures something that would be obvious to an anthropologist or a native of a Brazilian basin tribe: that a work environment is a strongly social environment.

It follows then that a lot of the social constraints and pressures on us originate not from friends we chose, or from family or even the work colleagues we ‘socialise’ with, but from the constant social interaction in the working environment in which we spend 8-10 hours a day (less if you’re one of the new army of part-timers who can’t get more hours – this post should make you feel better).

But let’s think about what this working environment is: a top-down, internally authoritarian structure, often with a deliberately created organisational ‘culture’. It also has specific aims, and in the private sector and much of the targetted and monitored public sector, the aims are around constant efficiency calculations, constant cost-benefit analyses, and assumptions such as individuals needing to suffer for the sake of the organisation.

In conclusion, not only are we not as individualistic as we like to claim, but a lot of the influence on us comes from an essentially authoritarian environment that mandates particular ways of thinking and working. You can leave the organisation any time of course. But since most organisations – from charities through the public sector to academia – have deliberately adoped business methods in recent years, there aren’t many places to run to that would actually offer something different.

The point of this is not that we should all be more individualistic, simply that the hypocrisy involved in pretending to be individualistic while living most of your day in an authoritarian culture is enough to make anyone turn to working with trees.

The VICE guide to politics

Dicks writing for dicks?

For a magazine that covers a lot of political stories it is interesting that Vice magazine does not have a ‘politics’ category on the header bar of its website. Vice covers a lot of political stories but it does not do politics. And it absolutely never takes political stories seriously.

In defence of Vice, it doesn’t take anything at all seriously. There are reasons that our culture has fled from ‘truths’ and there’s something to be said for the Vice point of view, for its ability to rip the piss out of everything and everyone. It is the extreme end of particular attitudes that have developed in our culture in reaction to the failed authorities of the past.

People can no longer take seriously anyone who claims a universal political truth. Part of me is glad about that. I could never take them seriously either.

Against Vice it has to be said that it is run by reactionary arseholes and is firmly embedded in neo-liberal ideology. A lot of the reason its readers don’t want to take anything seriously is they are globalised rich little brats who think hardship is the emotional toll of having to ask their parents to help pay their London or New York rent.

It is fine to not take political ideas seriously. It is not fine to treat people’s suffering as another part of the joke. Sometimes, like, stuff is real? I read a tweet recently by an @DanStayte:

Some say the sun goes round the earth, some say the earth goes round the sun. I say it’s something in between #liberal

This excellently describes the nonsensical ideological space in which Vice flourishes. But I didn’t particularly want to challenge Vice with this post – the editors couldn’t give a fuck what I think. Vice will probably die a slow and agonising death as the western economies wither. We will be sad, oh yes.

The point for the future is: when people do want to fight back, they won’t be the slightest bit interested in adopting political ideologies but that’s the solution most of the left tends to offer them. I’m not suggesting a Vice-like left – putting photos of men snorting coke off women’s breasts on leaflets and placards – but here’s something Vice does, albeit within the framework of neo-liberal capitalism: it provides a way of interacting with the world and with other people. It does present a truth of a sort, embedded within the dominant ideology.

The truth is, Vice does politics better than you do. It knows what ideology is there for – to run in the background informing what you do without ever being stated. If you do have an ideology, fine, and I don’t think you should hide it, but the point is not to persuade people of it but to help create ways for people to act in the world.

You should probably also take yourself a bit less seriously. If you don’t laugh at yourself, someone else will.

Is the Shard good for London? Or will it simply make a good headquarters for a future totalitarian regime?


The Shard rising

I haven’t been able to join in with the admiration of the Shard going around. A lot of the admiration is focussed on its size, it is true; it is not a particularly beautiful structure. To some people it nonetheless symbolises the advance of progress, the proof that London has still got it. Having the tallest building in Europe on the skyline says something good about London. I have never been able to view it in this way. I have barely even been able to see it as a building.

The Shard is a profit machine. That is why it is being built. That is its purpose. “So what?” you say, this is capitalism, suck it up. But this is a profit machine being built in a particular time and place. Who is it providing more office space for in these grim times? According to the FT in a piece titled London banks ‘will need space of four Shards’ it will be accommodating “a strong rise in demand among hedge funds and private equity firms in the West End, closely correlated to the stock market recovery.” Expanding banks are also expected to be among the main occupiers. In other words, it is being built in anticipation of making the UK even more dependent on a financial sector that just screwed us.

Meanwhile who pays the price for a big concentration of new office space like that? It can surely only make property prices in Bermondsey and Southwark go even more stratospheric. This will be happening at the same time as the cap on benefits and increase in council house rents that is already expected to effect a sort of social cleansing of inner London. So the Shard will help to screw many nearby residents, possibly forcing the poorest out of London altogether. Great.

Oh well, at least it will help increase economic activity in a stalling economy. But for who? Since London is really a tax haven, and most of the money made there gets stored in tax havens, are we likely to see much in tax receipts from the companies working there? As for the profit from the building itself, the point is not that the investors in the Shard are Qatari and will therefore take their profit out of the country. It wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference if the investors were British. That money is not for us. It would leave the country anyway.

Even if we were to reap something in taxes from the companies working there, would it really be worth it when we consider what the next financial crash might do to us? When we consider that not only is the government not interested in weaning us off the finance sector, but they are really, really not going to regulate them either? The Shard is a time-bomb. The Shard is great pointy cock shafting London.

It isn’t an exciting and iconic building. It’s a profit machine. And it isn’t for the likes of you or I. So admire it on the horizon if you like. But to me it does look like the headquarters of our totalitarian overlords, and really, it isn’t that futuristic. Remember, in this country there will be no imposed coup to put the banking regime in place like in Italy or Greece. It won’t be necessary. The bankers are already in charge.

On the deification of utter bastards

A right bastard

I was inspired to write about the worship of not-very-nice people partly by the death of Steve Jobs, well-known bully, censor, exploiter and selfish bastard, and partly by the sight of ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ by T.E. Lawrence on my shelf. I say shelf. There isn’t space on the shelf so it is in a teetering stack behind my door, along with other books that are half-read or on their way into or out of my life.

The interesting thing about Seven Pillars of Wisdom isn’t that it is great literature (it isn’t) or that Lawrence of Arabia did great things in Arabia (well-known, if questionable). The interesting thing about it is that, unlike most biographies of political operators, Lawrence makes little attempt to make his actions or morals more palatable or to sell himself as a man who loves puppies. He makes it very clear what sort of person he is, and he is a bastard. He pushed armies around like expendable cattle, manipulated people, lied, tricked, betrayed, and although he felt bad about ‘unnecessary’ deaths in battle, it seemed as much a matter of technical pride as anything.

Perhaps it is unfair to pick on people in wartime, since it rarely brings out just good in people, but the point is that these people (Churchill for example) were admired as people, not merely for their sometimes dubious achievements. It’s one thing to say ‘This man is a bastard but we need his skills right now’, it’s another thing to then turn him into a hero.

There are, of course, always things to be said in defence of these much-admired figures. As the article above says of Steve Jobs: “He was a polymath, a skilled motivator, a decisive judge, a farsighted tastemaker, an excellent showman, and a gifted strategist.” But, and I can’t help coming back to this, he was also a bastard.

I also, personally speaking, question the need for his products – or rather, they have no relation to matters of ‘need’ at all. Since I’ve picked such an arbitrary historical figure to compare Jobs to I think I’m going to take it even further. Lawrence was involved in a highly dishonest campaign to fight Ottoman Turkey that (a) was never going to give the Arabs the independence promised and (b) had as much to do with maintaining the British Empire after the war as winning the war at that moment. It probably helped get the British Mandate for Palestine that has had such wonderful results since.

It’s not that I want everyone to be nice – in fact I’ve even argued that the niceness of politicians is irrelevant. Besides, sometimes I’m not particularly nice myself and I would never expect it of anyone all the time. I am however suspicous of the claim that some people ‘need’ to behave nastily. This argument is entirely dependent on certain power imbalances – the ones that allow them to be nasty without consequences – being in place and accepted. And I wonder about the causes and the effects of deifying these people who are known to have systematically screwed people over. What does it say about our culture? Or perhaps more to the point, what does it say about the people who decide who is important in our publicly shared culture? They value achievement, clearly, but not just any old achievements I suspect. They value achievements that benefit the right people, and accept unpleasant behaviour as necessary to the system of power because they personally benefit from that system of power.

As for us, those who aren’t the right people, in my experience it feels good to do yourself the favour of rising above the hero-worship of our lords and masters. Instead we can admire the achievements of those who threatened the right people, or admire people who achieved nothing, or not in the ordinary sense of achievement. I admire ordinary people I meet who know how to treat everyone around them with care and respect. One day I hope to be like them.

Until then, I’ll probably carry on being rude to people who admire Steve Jobs.

So you think you’re a radical?

This 1960s psychedelic peace sign is the first result for 'radical activism' on Google Images

I’ve always quite liked those essays and pamphlets that have from time to time been put out to confront politically active people with their own behaviour patterns. They tend to have a provocative edge and slightly supercilious note that I will attempt to emulate in this post. Because this one is for people who think of themselves as radicals. This is a post about how radicalism might not be radical, and you’re probably to blame. No, not you, obviously, I mean all the people behind you.

I should make it clear I’m not talking about spontaneous outbursts of action by people fighting for what they need. It’s not reasonable to discuss what is or isn’t radical about sudden mass movements of people trying to make space for themselves in the world. It simply happens. I’m talking about – and to – the people who sit around discussing how to change things.

Events like the demonstration on the 26th March have begun to bother me. Before it happened there was all sorts of talk about all the cool stuff that was going to happen, yet apart from UKUncut very little happened outside the march. Some people ran around in circles for a bit and had some barneys with the police, but no targets, no occupations, no serious disruptions. It seemed that people were waiting for someone else to organise the cool stuff and when it didn’t they just accepted they were riding on the back of a demonstration created by an organisation many of them despise.

What is the cool stuff anyway? What is radical action? Well we’re all agreed now that radical stuff should feel good. It should feel liberating as well as being liberating. It should be exciting. It should give you a buzz. It should give you some sense of inner release, or expansion, or connectedness. Having read a load of radical literature from the 60s and 70s I think I’ve found the roots of this attitude: the 60s and 70s. And its not only our attitudes we get from there, but also our rhetoric, and our theory, and most of our idea of what radical action is. A startling amount of it comes from the Situationists and if you haven’t read them, you should, because that’s who you’re following.

Problem is, that was a time of a great outburst of individualism among young people. It felt great. I’m sure many people had really interesting experiences of personal liberation. And the structures of society remained largely untouched. I don’t think that was just because the US government shot people at Kent State University or whatever other particular event you choose to blame. I suspect it is because you can’t really challenge large-scale structures – hierarchical collectives if you will – as individuals. And here’s the really horrible thing I’ve begun to suspect: in political terms your personal liberation doesn’t count for diddly-squat.

Yes, I know we’ve all come to believe that the liberation of society and our personal liberation are intimately bound up with each other, and maybe they are bound up with each other a bit, but they are different things. I think when eager young people (like me ten years ago) are inducted into what passes for radical culture, they are really inducted into a sub-culture that is very good at giving a sense of personal liberation. And that’s it. Not much more.

I think this helps to explain why some people in Britain in the late 90s and early 2000s were convinced they were part of an anti-capitalist movement. As individuals they were anti-capitalist. All their friends were anti-capitalist. The fact that 99% of the population didn’t care often seemed to escape their notice and they called themselves a movement. It wasn’t a movement. I don’t think there is an anti-cuts movement at the moment either. Just a few people who agree with each other hanging around with each other and not much will – from what I’ve seen – to try and break out of that bubble. So someone can make a claim like ‘everyone knows the NHS is being privatised’ and not understand how wrong they are.

The truth is, it’s hard work to set up organisations open to everyone. It’s hard to beat the mainstream media at disseminating information outside of twitter. If activism should feel fun, I guess we just won’t do it, because hard work isn’t fun. As for why I would focus on organising: I think the people in charge are really well organised at the moment. The reason every government is more right wing even than we feared is because there is very effective right wing organisation pulling in one direction and there is no organisation at all pulling in any other direction.

One of the problems with radical political circles is the failure to communicate with ‘outsiders’ and another, perhaps even more insidious, is that everyone agrees on what radical action is. Even though in our current social context (by definition, since each context is unique) these actions we are taking have no track record of success, this is what we do. This is radical action. Protest. Direct Action. Solidarity rallies. Occupations. I do these things myself too, but I’ve often been filled with doubt while doing them, and surprised by the certainty of others that they know the right way to fight for change.

Some of the actions are even actions known to have failed. I was surfing the internet while distracting myself from writing this post and I came across the Jarrow March 2011. A bunch of unemployed workers are planning to march from Jarrow to London to highlight their situation, in imitation of a similar march in 1936. Now, I don’t know how to point this out without sounding like the bad guy, but someone’s going to have to say it. Guys, you know it didn’t work in 1936, right? You know it made bugger all difference? I suppose the reference to history is supposed to create certain resonances with another time of austerity. But couldn’t we try something that might work this time?

It might seem counter-intuitive that I’m talking about a lack of hard-work organising and that people are organising things that don’t work in the same post. But they are related. They’re both about people pursuing their personal liberation along lines laid down in another time, by other people. And the personal liberation can be such a good feeling that people end up sure they know how to liberate others and throw themselves into ‘radical’ activism with all their might. And often what they’re really doing is continuing their personal journey of liberation. Don’t get me wrong: personal liberation is good, and the first direct actions anyone does can be amazing for that reason, but it should be the start of other things.

I really don’t want to denigrate people’s efforts within anti-cuts groups. But more and more I start to get the feeling that many people are campaigning within a bubble of them and others who agree with them. I think this is in part a consequence of the idea that activism is meant to feel good. And I don’t see much reflection on how we can bring change prior to taking action, or see enough thinking about how society is different now than in the past, and how we might have to adjust our methods to deal with that. I see very few people admitting that we aren’t sure how to be radical yet. And it may turn out we want to be as individualistic as mainstream culture – or even more so – but I don’t think we should just adopt that culture with self-fulfilment without thinking about it.

I don’t know how to be radical, but I would like to propose two ideas that might lead in that direction. The first is to analyse in detail the structural and social landscape in which you live. It is different to at any time in the past. Any radical actions proposed in the past may no longer be radical. Like the TUC march, they may be mere ritualised resistance, bothering the people in power not one bit. So let’s examine the possible routes to change as society stands right now. To do this properly doesn’t quite mean throwing away everything you know about radical action, but it requires you to bracket it while you imagine doing things completely differently. It might mean never going on a protest again. Probably not, but it might.

The second idea is for you to challenge your notion of yourself, the way you relate to the world, and what you expect of the world. Because I don’t think radical action will always feel good right now – though I agree that if it doesn’t feel good in the long run that’s a problem. I don’t think it will always feel liberating in the moment of doing it. And I don’t think how you feel about it should matter as much as most people seem to think it should. If we care about change we need to have an effect on the world, and that’s a very different thing from the satisfaction of individual desires. I certainly wouldn’t want people to engage in hair-shirtism for the sake of it, or return to the days of moralistic mutual discipline in political organising, but I wish at least more people would start thinking about – for instance – how we can really get organised outside of the traditional leftist modes and the boring legwork that will be necessary for it to happen.

I think the lack of self-reflection among people who consider themselves radical is so great that to some extent I wish people would stop doing stuff. Stop marching, stop occupying, stop publishing, stop tweeting, stop doing direct actions, stop everything. Just for a bit. As you become ‘radicalised’ you become inducted into a culture of ‘radicalism’ that is as individualistic as the culture it claims to oppose, and adheres as strongly to ritual forms as our would-be masters do. I think we still need to work out how to be radical: how to think radically, how to act radically, how to relate radically. I don’t think we know yet.

I think the assumption you know how to be radical is killing radicalism.

History is bollocks: moral politics and other fairy tales

Striking workers and police apply 'moral force' to each other

Oh dear, this one’s a bit long and factually based. I apologise for that.

I still remember a series of books in my school filled with morality tales for children. One that sticks in my mind was the story of some kids who, despite being told by their parents to stay away from the railway track, went and played on it anyway and were electrocuted to death. Why anyone thought a 9-year-old kid needed to read tales of sudden death I don’t know but if the aim of those tales was to give me nightmares they definitely succeeded. There was another one about a girl who put a garden fork through her foot because, against her parents’ warnings, she decided to work in the garden on a Sunday. A fork through the foot doesn’t seem like the end of the world now but it was made much more horrible by the fact that it was punishment. Those stories were extreme but Disney does morality tales too so we’ve all been exposed to them.

Morality tales all tend to have one major problem: they are mostly untrue and even actively dishonest. They are not true in a very particular way, in that there is usually little or no connection between the claimed moral cause and the ensuing effect. The girl didn’t put a fork through her foot because it was Sunday. Probably she did it because she was pissed off that someone was trying to impose stupid rules on her so got distracted while forking the garden. It’s easy to challenge the poor causal linking in morality tales. So it’s interesting that we are told a whole series of morality tales as kids that we mostly accept when we get older, even though they have the same basic structure as those specious frightener tales. We tend to take them more seriously because they are called ‘history’.

We are taught, implicitly if not explicitly, that a whole range of important historical decisions were made for moral reasons. Giving men the vote for example, happened because after the upper class cocked up so badly in the form of WWI they saw that there was a moral duty to share power with the people they had decimated. People cite similar beliefs about the institution of the welfare state after WWII. The start of WWII would be another – people vaguely imagine reasons from the desire to defend Poland to the desire to defend the Jews, or the necessity of self-defence. Or how about the Civil Rights Movement? And this is the one that really got me thinking, because there has been a small clamour of voices among anti-cuts campaigners to keep protests peaceful. And when asked what proof they have that peaceful protests works they always cite the Civil Rights Movement.

So, starting from the top, why did men get the vote after WWI. Well, it’s complicated. I suspect the forgotten Great Unrest might have something to do with it. There were even strikes during the war. The British ruling class had to fight while being undermined from within by its own people, who already hated the them so much before the war started that there was some serious revolutionary talk in the air. And they organised their hatred to oppose their rulers.

Similarly it could be said to be fear of the masses that caused the welfare state to be implemented. The 1926 General Strike was still pretty fresh in the minds of politicians, and here were millions of demobilised unemployed men who were pretty pissed off they’d had to go to war at all. Spending lots of money wouldn’t have come top of the list of a broke government’s priorites after the war for purely moral reasons. I’m not saying that politicians are bad human beings (that’s for another post) but they occupy positions that very, very rarely allow them to think in moral terms.

As for why WWII started, the British establishment didn’t give a toss about the Jews. They didn’t give much of a toss about the Poles either. As for the notion it was a war of self-defence, Hitler had not planned to take on Britain and was said to be rather surprised when the invasion of Poland brought Britain into the war. Hitler was a great admirer of Britain and didn’t plan to destroy such a fine example of the superiority of the Aryan race. So why did Britain join WWII? While Hitler didn’t plan to invade Britain, he did plan to build an empire. And as far as Churchill and his class was concerned, there was only space for one big boy in Europe. Britain went to war mostly to defend the empire from a competitor. The moral justifications came afterwards.

And so to the Civil Rights Movement. Firstly, let’s get the facts straight. This was not simply a movement of peaceful protesters against an oppositional state. Read the history of the Selma March and you realise that local and national governments were pitted against each other. The triumphant peaceful marches in the end got the protection of the state. In other words, they had the central government on side almost as soon as they began. The reasons for the central government’s stance? The moral upstandingness of the protesters? Maybe. Or maybe the Democrat party saw a massive voting block that would forever move the vote in their direction. Who knows? But is it true to say it was peaceful protest that did it? Perhaps it helped, but there was a lot more going on, including more aggressive black power politics and political shenanigans in Washington.

Here’s what they don’t like to teach us about history in school: it is mostly about power, not morals. All the above examples are about organised power blocks going up against each other. And the main reason to pretend it was morality that won out, rather than naked power, is that you can then claim that the current state of affairs, the status quo, is a result of a history of morality triumphant. The lesson of the morality tale is: this world we offer to you is a good and moral place, so all you have to do is behave well and a good world will become even better.

It’s a nice tale, but it’s a fairy tale. It may not be as pretty to believe that history is a consequence of power struggles, and therefore the status quo is the result of power struggles, but it is an important thing to believe, because it leads directly to an interesting conclusion: There is nothing inherently moral about the status quo, and if we want to pursue our own ethics, we will have to do so by the use of power. Behaving well so as to generate some mythical ‘moral force’ has nothing to do with it.

Some might go further and say that the idea we should protest within certain respectable limits is about preventing us from generating any power that would threaten those who have power right now. At the very least, lets think about the fact that if your form of protest is approved by those in power, it can’t be threatening their position very much or they would cease to approve of it very quickly.

I wonder if, somewhere at the back of our minds, as we consider asserting ourselves against the status quo, we are worried that, because we are abandoning the moral demands made by a fairy tale history, we’ll get a fork stuck through our foot. Lose your fear of a fork in the foot I say! (Or maybe it was only me that had that fear, but you get my point). If the fork gets stuck in your foot, it won’t be because morals demand it, but through a careless application of force that could happen to anyone. The moral of the story of the girl who worked on Sunday could equally have been: Apply force, but carefully.