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Archive for April 2011

The working-class and the left

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It’s easy to write a post like this and invite a barrage of accusations of hypocrisy. I’ve always been open about my background. I’m middle-class, full-stop; when I was growing up, my mother lectured at Salford University, and my father worked in economic regeneration at Sheffield Council.

My family did go through “financial hardship” (for want of a better phrase) for a number of years when we were based in Sheffield; but I was too young to remember this, unlike my brothers who spent years having clothes bought from jumble sales. In any case, it was for very different reasons than the thousands of workers in that city thrown on the scrapheap by Thatcherism’s vandalism of British industry: my dad spent years as a full-time official of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, and fomenting revolution doesn’t pay the bills.

Like most middle-class people, I can only remember financial security, even when my dad lost his job with eight hundred others at the fag-end of Tory rule. Long before I was self-consciously political, I was aware of the contrast in my circumstances to those of most of the people I grew up with.

So let me phrase my argument like this. There are too many people like me on the left. Socialists, like myself, often talk about a crisis of working-class representation; but that’s a phrase, I would argue, that could equally be applied to the left.

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Written by Owen Jones

April 28, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Why I’m voting no to AV

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I’ve held out from writing a post about the Alternative Vote referendum for a simple reason: electoral reform bores me to the point of tears. I’m far from being alone. Outside of a bubble inhabited by politicos and hacks, very few people have any real interest in the nuts and bolts of our electoral system.

Just because an issue generates widespread apathy doesn’t mean it isn’t important, of course. But I am frustrated about this referendum because it has proved an unwelcome distraction from fighting an aggressively right-wing government determined to take the Thatcherite project to its logical conclusion. I resent the fact we are all spending so much time on a sop thrown by the Tories to the Liberal Democrats in exchange for backing almost their entire domestic policy programme.

It’s also a distraction from the absolute outrage of the Tories gerrymandering the electoral system in their favour, as Nick Brown points out. Worryingly, we all seem to have forgotten about this.

Both the No2AV and Yes2AV camps have waged diabolical campaigns that have cynically manipulated people’s resentment of the political establishment. The amount of bile thrown has been bewildering and speaks volumes about the sorts of people who think that electoral reform is the most pressing issue facing modern Britain.

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Written by Owen Jones

April 20, 2011 at 10:16 am

OpenDemocracy: Cameron plays the immigration card in the run-up to local elections

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David Cameron is playing with fire, and he knows it. A much spun speech he will deliver today already dominates the headlines and the BBC’s UK news siteas he attacks Labour “not delivering” on immigration that he promises to “cut back”. There are huge numbers of people without secure, full-time work in Britain, and an election is looming. Out comes that old Conservative trump card: scapegoating immigrants.

Ever since the advent of the mass franchise, when the Tories realised they couldn’t win elections simply by being a political gravy train for the rich, foreigner-bashing has been a staple of Conservative electioneering. It’s a technique that stretches back to 1904 when they introduced the restrictive Aliens Bill, tapping into the then-growing backlash against Irish and Jewish immigrants.

“For too long, immigration has been too high,” Cameron says to party members today. Mass immigration has led to “discomfort and disjointedness” in neighbourhoods because immigrants aren’t integrating. As accusations of gutter politics fly, he will undoubtedly protest that he praises the contributions of immigrants, but this well-trained PR man knows how the right-wing press will present it (“Cameron: migration threatens our way of life,” says The Telegraph, describing his speech as “his most forthright on the issue”) and – above all – this is about timing as the Tories prepare for a drubbing in next month’s local elections.

See the rest at OpenDemocracy

Written by Owen Jones

April 14, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Posted in OpenDemocracy

What should the left say about crime?

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This article also appeared in the Morning Star

Being a victim of crime is no fun. My family’s house was burgled repeatedly when I was growing up. On one occasion – when I was 15 – it happened in the early hours when we were all in bed. I remember hearing the clunking noises downstairs and presuming (with some irritation) that my twin sister was up and about, until the intruder crept to my door and his hand rested on the handle. I coughed, and he stormed into my parents’ room. When my mother yelled: “Who’s there?”, he gave a quick-fire answer – “Father Christmas” (geddit?) – so at least he had a sense of humour.

Three years back I was beaten up and mugged on a bus in Tottenham: like many who’ve had that experience, my anger was more directed at the bystanders who did nothing than a presumably troubled drug addict looking for his next fix. And, just before Christmas, my flatmate and I had our bikes stolen: a few days later, they appeared in all their glory on Gumtree. Not that the police were particularly interested – but, to be fair, there’s bigger issues to deal with than nicked bikes in Hackney. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Owen Jones

April 13, 2011 at 4:19 am

Posted in crime, New Labour, the left

The Black Bloc – a dead end (response to Jonathan Moses)

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Jonathan Moses – a fellow UCL occupier (and in fact one of the main instigators of the occupation) – has posted a defence of the ‘Black Bloc’ tactic over at Open Democracy. Below is the response I left in the comments box

I agree that there needs to be a tactical, rather than a moral debate. But it is genuinely beyond me how the Black Bloc ‘tactic’ is anything other than an entirely counterproductive dead-end.

I was active in the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement of the early 2000s. I was kettled on May Day 2001 in Manchester as a 16-year-old, which is where I first encountered Black Bloc-style tactics. It is interesting how the anti-globalisation movement is barely mentioned even on the left today. That is because – as a directionless, amorphous movement – it lost momentum pretty quickly and made no real lasting political impact.

Black Bloc tactics strike me as a militant twist on consumer boycotts: the same underlying idea (inflict economic damage), but posing absolutely no threat whatsoever to the capitalist system, however good it might make the participants feel.

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Written by Owen Jones

April 5, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Government U-turn on the NHS? Don’t count on it

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This article also appears in the Morning Star

One of Tony Blair’s greatest regrets was a belief that he’d failed to use his first term in office to aggressively push forward what his key supporters labelled “public sector reform”, but should more accurately be described as “marketisation”. As the twilight of his premiership approached, Blair more than compensated with a near-obsessive drive to introduce markets into Britain’s public services. The unveiling of “Trust schools” in a White Paper just months after the 2005 election was one striking example.

Trust schools were to be independent non-profit making organisations. Private companies would be able to establish them. They were to be taken out of local authority control and would directly employ teachers themselves. Half the governors would be appointed by the Trust, watering down the power of local parents.

Perhaps unsurprisingly from the Party that had established comprehensive education, there was a backlash that wasn’t confined to those the media habitually writes off as the “usual suspects”. Former leader Neil Kinnock, ex-Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, and leading ex-ministers John Denham, Nick Raynsford and Angela Eagle all spoke out against the plans. All in all, up to a hundred Labour MPs joined this apparently gathering rebellion.

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Written by Owen Jones

April 5, 2011 at 5:26 am

My book choices for Red Pepper

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These are my book choices for Red Pepper‘s Booktopia, appearing in the latest edition

The Road to Wigan Pier – George Orwell (1937)
It’s mostly remembered as a classic account of the Northern working-class in the 1930s, but it had a major impact on me for two other reasons. Firstly, Orwell ferociously scrutinises the prejudices of his own class, reminding us how the absurdities of the class system are, so often, sustained by fear and hate. “…A middle-class child is taught almost simultaneously to wash his neck, to be ready to die for his country, and to despise the ‘lower classes’,” as he brilliantly puts it. Secondly, he looks at how socialists fail to win over working-class people because of a failure to communicate clearly, by revelling in their own eccentricities and by avoiding tackling bread-and-butter issues. Something for us to think about, no?

Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World - Mike Davis (2000)

British commentators rightly assail other countries for failing to come to terms with the barbarism of their past, like Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide. But Britain has yet to even begin acknowledging the crimes it committed in the dark days of Empire. Davis reveals how a fatal combination of the El Niño weather phenomenon, imperialism and laissez-faire dogma led to the deaths of tens of millions of people across what we now know as the ‘third world’. Nowhere was more devastated than India, a former economic powerhouse impoverished by colonial rule. As millions starved in the worst famines in India’s history in the last quarter of the 19th century, annual grain exports went from 3 to 10 million tons. After all, the market demanded it. It is still a national myth that British imperialism was somehow more humane than elsewhere, but this book reveals otherwise. If only books like this were studied in our schools…

Brother in the Land – Robert E. Swindells (1984)
If you want to guarantee your child is committed to nuclear disarmament for life, this book is your best shot. I was 9 when I read this story of a boy growing up in post-apocalyptic northern England, and frankly it had a devastating impact on me. It might be a children’s book, but it doesn’t shy away from the horrors ofthe Bomb: totally uncompromising and lacking in sentimentality as it looks at a civilization in meltdown. I’ve been haunted by the book ever since.

The Working-Class Majority – Andrew Levison (1974)
Levison punctured the then-hegemonic idea of affluence and the widespread myth that the American working-class had vanished. But this was also an assault on the new type of liberalism that had emerged in the 1960s, and he particularly directs his fire on liberals’ dismissal of workers as reactionary ‘hard-hats’. Levison argued that the Democrats no longer appealed to working-class America, leaving many of them to defect to the welcoming arms of a new populist right. It was a lesson that needed to be learned then; but I think it’s even more relevant today. Essential reading for anyone committed to building a progressive movement in the US.

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism – Adam Hochschild (1998)
Africa still suffers dearly from the legacy of Western imperialism. I’d bet that few have even heard of King Leopold of Belgium, but Hochschild unmasks him as one of the great tyrants of human history. After conquering the Congo in the late 19th century, Leopold’s forces raped the country of its rubber, copper and other natural resources. In the process, up to 10 million people – or half the population– perished. The West has always tried to justify its rule of the world with moral righteousness, but a book like exposes this as cynical deceit. Imperialism has never been held to account for the crimes it committed in this period. Thankfully we have the likes of Hochschild to remind us.

The Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848)
It’s become almost a cliché for right-wing commentators in the past few years to ask: ‘Maybe Marx was right?’ To the surprise of first-time readers, Marx and Engels almost eulogise the revolutionary role capitalism once played, arguing it “has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals.” But above all, there is something strikingly prophetic about the Manifesto: it very accurately describes the forces of capitalist globalisation we see today. Capitalism has changed a lot since 1848, but the foundations of any understanding of the system we still – tragically – live under begins here.

The Making of the English Working Class – E. P. Thompson (1963)
Thompson was determined to stop the working-class being seen as a static, homogenous, inhuman bloc, and that included by the left. Instead, he saw class as a process as he looked at how working-class identity emerged as bonds of solidarity, forged in opposition to “other men whose interests are different (and usually opposed to) theirs.” The sheer humanity of this book is moving: it shows how creative Marxism can be, in contrast to the turgid, stale way it has often been applied.

Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell (1938)
I don’t think I get more emotional reading about any other historical episode than the Spanish Civil War. Orwell brings it alive with his unique honesty: the boredom, the heroism, the dirt, the occasional amateurishness, and of course the betrayal. This is a chilling reminder of the shadow cast by Stalinism over the left in the 20th century.

Written by Owen Jones

April 3, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Posted in books, Red Pepper

Why I’ve joined the Workers Revolutionary Party (Britain Section of the World Party of Socialist Revolution)

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We’ve all been there. You stumble to the bathroom in the early hours after a night of shameless petty-bourgeois hedonism, stare into the mirror and find a sordid lackey of counterrevolution staring back at you. Sure, I know that’s how Sunny Hundal gets his kicks, but some of us have consciences.

Perhaps I’d grown numb to my criminal allegiance to capitalism and all its attendant horrors. But, looking back, the warning signs were always there. How I railed at my parents when I was grounded at the age of nine for subverting Marx’s dialectic, but in hindsight their tough-love historical materialism was justified. Yeah, sure, I was gutted at my end-of-year report in primary school year 5: “Basic arithmetic is coming on, and Owen has a real enthusiasm for creative writing, but he shows a worrying inability to grasp the impossibility of imposing reform on the bourgeoisie during the period of late capitalist decay. Cause for concern.” But maybe, just looking back, they were trying to save me from the reformist traitor I would later become.

It’s canvassing for the Labour Party that’s really ground me down. “Lickspittle of imperialist tyranny!” they yell, slamming the door in my obnoxious neo-liberal face. “Sorry mate, we don’t talk to running dogs of capitalist barbarism round here, you know that. Now f@&k off.” One Hackney resident even accused me of drawing the incorrect conclusions from Lenin’s ‘The Liquidation of Liquidationism’, and that one really stung.

So I’ve finally taken the leap. I’m going where the revolutionary masses are going in droves: the Workers Revolutionary Party (British Section of the World Socialist Revolution).

First off, they’ve got their priorities sorted. None of this tinkering about with the system: ‘Save the NHS’ this, ‘fight for free education’ that. Whatevs. “We support the struggle of Russian, Chinese, and East European workers to prevent the restoration of capitalism.” Yeah, that’s more like it: a battle that’s actually going from strength to strength.

Also, I note everyone’s slagging off probably the only leader of the international working-class still standing: Colonel Gaddafi. At least the WRP know what #solidarity actually means: “We urge the Libyan masses and youth to take their stand alongside Colonel Gadaffi to defend the gains of the Libyan revolution, and to develop it.” Too right.

If I had to sum up the WRP in one word, it’d be ‘loyalty’. When so-called ‘socialists’ turned on Saddam Hussein, overlooking his many revolutionary achievements just because he had one or two foibles, the WRP proudly stood by him. Not that they’ll get any credit for it.

And they don’t mess around. “All workers and youth who understand that the time for talking and making fake left speeches is over, and that the time for decisive action has arrived, must join the WRP and the Young Socialists at once, to make sure that the working class does not once again go down fighting, betrayed by its leaders, but rises to the historic occasion and takes the power to put an end to capitalism.”

Got that?

If I’m going to be honest, it’s probably their sense of fun that was the clincher. The night we danced to The Internationale in the style of the Macarena at the Libyan Embassy sure beats any Constituency Labour Party barbeque.

So, while you all roll around in the festering excrement of the capitalist beast, I’m off for a WRP bonding weekend in Butlins followed by military training on Dartmouth Moors. Then I’ll get cracking on compiling my ‘who will survive the post-revolutionary cull’ list. It won’t be a long one.

Written by Owen Jones

April 1, 2011 at 4:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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