Reflections on ‘A Rebel Rant: Owen Jones on PEOPLE POWER.’

  • Political heritage
  • Stories: telling and sharing
  • Fragmentation, disconnection, defeat.

Journalist Owen Jones came to Liverpool’s WOW (Writing on the Wall) Festival to present WOW’s annual Rebel Rant (15 05 2014), at which a speaker is invited to talk on issues of serious contemporary interest and concern, and in a way that informs, stimulates and challenges the audience. Owen had previously spoken at the WOW Festival in 2011, to mark the publication of his book, CHAVS: The Demonization of the Working Class. The initial title for his Rebel Rant was: ‘What we’re up against and what can we do about it?’ The necessarily shorter title for the programme was: ‘People Power’.

Political heritage.
After establishing his credentials and status as someone northern, with ancestors/family who derive from Liverpool city region (always helpful if you look like an outsider for some reason), he started by going back in time to make the case for his initial theme that social change and improvements in people’s lives, workplaces and society had never been a ‘donation’ from those in power, but always conceded in the face of articulated and organized dissent, anger, aspiration, etc., by those with the least apparent power: whether economic / industrial, and / or social assets, and/or cultural capital; those who discern and/or experience disadvantage consequent upon inequity, inequality, social injustice.

Owen’s history lesson spanned events over several hundred years, as he highlighted how these historical challenges and achievements have always been a result of collective effort, and that today “we stand on the shoulders of those who were part of that heritage”.

I suggest the evidence also shows that the identities, ‘victims’ and visionaries (whatever their social class), were/are both separate and overlapping categories in these historical processes of challenge and change, and that co-ordinated action and political solidarity have habitually crossed social class and ethnic differences, perhaps increasingly in C20 and C21 campaigns and movements in the UK.

Owen’s introductory exposition was a timely and valuable contextualization of the crisis we now face in the UK, four years into the most vindictive, rightwing, aggressive Tory government ever, and its vital ‘human’ shield, the Lib Dems. It was a reminder of what we, the people, have already contributed to history, to social formations and institutions in our society: and the values that have driven so much of that social and political change over time, including C20 and C21 uprisings.[i] As such, I suspect his words induced political pride and personal hope!

In 2014 we are struggling in the face of acute government-induced personal suffering, social dislocation, environmental disarray, and political despair, specifically orchestrated to demolish the achievements and consequential social security put in place by post 1945 Labour governments. The ambitious Tory goal since 2010 has been twofold: first, the speedy fragmentation and privatization of the public sector (e.g. the NHS, education, social care, probation, prisons, the fire service, child social services, transport), expanding opportunities for personal profit, in particular for the already very wealthy; second, to set ‘different’ groups and constituencies, not just in opposition to each other, but to engender hostility, even hatred, thereby destroying any basis for mutuality, social compassion and political solidarity.

Owen’s audience of several hundred people gathered at The Black-E in Liverpool that evening, was no doubt comprised mainly, if not exclusively, of those most acutely aware of the severity of the current crisis, and desperate for forging a way out of what feels like imposed social and political demise, experienced as the deterioration and slow death of individuals, families, communities and democracy itself.

Stories: telling and sharing.
Owen’s historical panorama thus served to bind us together in the moment; to both acknowledge and perhaps mitigate the sense of injury and injustice, the frustration and anger this Tory world has stoked up. His implicit recognition of the significance of differences and divisions on the Left (the historical record of sectarianism, internal strife, personal animosity and ruthless competitiveness), prefaced a caution and a warning. But first, he developed a second key theme, that of narrative: the importance of our stories, of who gets to speak and who gets to be heard.

Hard data (statistics, tables and graphs) is of course important, and can be used to construct and present ‘facts’ about society, organisations, institutions, populations and governance. Such material can be compelling,[ii] and help make visible both the big picture and corners within the bigger picture. For example, Danny Dorling, previously Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield, now at Oxford University, has built up a body of work, “deftly taking apart seemingly impenetrable statistics and using them to shine a light on some of the starkest wealth and health disparities round the UK and globally”.[iii]

Owen Jones contrasted the political strategies adopted by politicians and media on the Right and Left: the latter put out the stats, hoping the power of the numbers, the ‘facts’, will convince people about issues of inequality, injustice, inhumanity, etc.. This is the honest, evidence-based approach, but we know the disconnect that can remain for people between what the stats say (e.g. re. crime in an area) and what their own experience, or their own experience filtered via a relentless rightwing media, guides them to believe.

By contrast, he pointed out how the Right tells stories (mainly lies) with demonized lead characters (e.g. families with 50 children living in a mansion in London on benefits), designed to create feelings of horror, disgust, fear and hatred. He went on to suggest that the Left would do better to tell its own (true) stories, instead of simply parading statistics, i.e. to take a more qualitative, narrative approach to its political messages and its encounters with public and media.

Academics have been doing this for some years. Dorling’s brilliant statistical work on inequality, which has built his reputation, is undoubtedly powerful in its analysis and passionate in its concerns.[iv] But, introducing his next book, hard on the heals of Injustice in 2011, he notes:

I’ve always preferred numbers to words, but numbers do not make an argument.[v]    [Emphasis added.]

And this is exactly Owen Jone’s point. The result for Dorling is a text that is more widely accessible, not through dumbing down, but through his vivid handling of the data via discursive techniques and narrative strategies. And his passion and compassion continue to shine through: it is clear his concerns are not just academic.

Paul Mason is an economic and industrial journalist who also combines stories and analysis in his work (both written and investigative TV programmes) of corruption and the financial crisis, for example in what has been described as “a page-turning account”.[vi] Similarly, Guardian journalists Polly Toynbee and David Walker rushed out a short but vivid account of the government’s policies during its first two years,[vii] described as:

Combining meticulous research and interviews, bringing to light the experiences and attitudes of ordinary voters.[viii]
[Emphasis added.]

Guardian journalist, Aditya Chakrabortty, works in the same way, regularly producing incisive, original and passionate pieces on the state of society, communities, economics, corruption, etc..[ix] Also outstanding is the work of Cambridge University economist, Ha-Joon Chang, occasional Guardian columnist. His brilliant, number 1 international best seller (2011), 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism, was mentioned and recommended by a speaker from the floor during the follow-on discussion at Owen’s Rebel Rant. The speaker said he was is in the process of reading Ha-Joon Chang’s book and was obviously bowled over by both the information and arguments presented.[x]

There has been a stream of brilliant, useful books since the Tories and Lib Dems hijacked parliament and started to trash democratic process itself, and in the wake of the tsunami of major political, economic, media and sexual scandals in the UK.[xi] These recent texts variously encompass narratives, people’s stories, vital experiential data, thereby building on earlier experiential and narrative accounts.[xii]

So Owen’s emphasis on the role of stories and narrative within political discourse, within communities, as a way of renewing and refreshing our politics and social relationships, illuminates methodology on the Left as a key issue and strategy as we approach local elections and EU elections this month and a General Election in 2015. And it should be noted that, while stories involve telling and sharing, they also, importantly, entail attentive listening, not least to the stories of those who are different in some way from those doing the listening. So the ‘telling’ is not a form of domination or authoritarianism, but contributes to a conversation that enacts peer process.

Politicians could learn a thing or two from the best socially aware academics / researchers / writers / journalists with regard to both political courage and how to communicate beyond the circle of policy wonks. Knowledge production has been qualitatively changed over the years by such practitioners, including their theorization of the importance of narrative and storytelling, and their democratic and political significance.[xiii]

Fragmentation, disconnection, defeat.
Both in his presentation and in response to contributions from the floor afterwards, Owen re-iterated the importance of not allowing the Right to divide us, so that they (some combination of the BNP, UKIP, Tories, Lib Dems) slide back in for a second term. This was his third major theme, alluding to the importance of not attacking each other, not rejecting each other, not splitting up; the difference between critical engagement across our differences, that necessary, difficult conversation, and a brawl or withdrawal that disperses our political power and influence, and which gives up on solidarity, condemning us to a level of personal and social despair and depredation utterly out of place in an affluent, democratic society, with human rights and social justice as core values.

We know that many people will choose not to vote this year or next, for reasons that include evident élitism, not enough women, men-as-boys behaviour in the House, broken promises, lies, corruption, greed, etc.; and the feeling that all politicians are the same, i.e. greedy, dishonest, out of touch with ‘ordinary’ people, posh careerists who don’t care. . . . [xiv] Some of these, perhaps many, would never ever (normally) vote Tory.

Out canvassing on Saturday in Gateacre, Liverpool, we encountered people for whom a single issue, a single local cutback, for example, looked likely to keep them from voting or voting in a way that would, for example, ensure that we never again elect a member of the BNP to be our MEP in the NW. I also felt the grief and anger of individuals arising out of very specific experiences. And that’s personal.

At the post performance discussion at The Playhouse recently, after the NHS play, This May Hurt a Bit; in the discussion from the floor after Owen’s talk; on the door while canvassing on Saturday; and in the comments and verdicts recorded in the G2 survey of non voters this Saturday, certain issues stand out. There is evidence of people confusing anger and personal revenge with political strategy, either because they wish to (and imagine they can) give a particular political party ‘a bloody nose’, or because they “are not political” and do not care about the social and political consequences of not voting/how they vote.

But politics, like life, is messy. First, delusion: there is no such thing as ‘not voting’ (your absenteeism helps secure the success of a candidate on the Right); second, the abandonment of ‘romance’: the ‘protest vote’ sounds ‘cool’, but is largely a misnomer and rarely hits its intended target. Third, grief and anger generally corrode, derange, isolate and immobilize us, except where they become fuel for collective and co-ordinated action in the public domain, as with Liverpool’s Hillsborough campaign.

In a consumerist, neoliberal society, in which the Thatcherite discourse of ‘choice’ is all pervasive and the virtue, while simultaneously watchword, scam and illusion, it is hard to protect our politics from descending to the level of the supermarket shelf (or gutter). Choosing and contributing to our politics in these circumstances involves divesting ourselves of the idea that we have free ”personal choice” to vote for our ‘perfect’ candidate or Party. Facing up to ‘no choice’ as such, to withdrawing from individualist, self preening, consumerist values, in order to contribute to collective responsibility and achieve a politically strategic stance that could make a difference, is like being asked to wear or use out-of-date gear. Yes it sucks. It’s hardly an electoral sweetener.

Many of us have grown accustomed to the idea of ‘personal choice’ and shopping as the exercise of power, and as the feel good factor that takes minds of lack, dis-ease, disappointment, despair, coercion, and worse. But the alternative, of not bothering to act together this week and next year, will kill off friends and family faster than we thought possible. As two NHS medics (one young man part way into his career, the other after 30+ years in the NHS, declared last week in Manchester at a Labour Party gathering of several hundred, at which Ed Milliband and Andy Burnham spoke about the NHS and responded to questions, experiential testimony and comments: “If we don’t get this government out in 2015, there will be no NHS left.” And their evident grief was personal and political. They were also angry at the possibility that such a wonderful creation could be allowed to fail.

To return to the WOW Rebel Rant: there had been a roar of welcome at the start of the event. There was a longer and louder roar of appreciation at the end. Owen had informed and stimulated his audience, and set a serious challenge for us in the weeks and months ahead. So much is at stake. Above all, he urged us not to leave after an ‘enjoyable’ evening reflecting on the issues raised, and do nothing. He urged us to take action to rebuild our political culture, so that it doesn’t just work for the top 2%. And it was clear he thought that requires us to forge some kind of genuine, effective political alliances and togetherness, a genuine conversation, rather than indulging in the scrapping, snapping and fisticuffs in our separate corners that too many on the Left (particularly the guys?) are so used to and seem to enjoy. But in 2014, at whose expense?

val walsh / 19 05 2014

[i] See, for example: Paul Mason (2008) Live Working or Die Fighting. How the working class went global; and Richard Sennett (2013) Together: The Rituals, Pleasures & Politics of Cooperation.
[ii] For example, see Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (2010) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone; andDanny Dorling (2011) Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists.
[iii] Mary O’Hara review (2011), The Guardian.
[iv] I’m sure this particular creative facility is at least in part a function of Dorling’s dyslexia.
[v] Danny Dorling (2011) Acknowledgements. p ix. So You Think You Know About Britain?
[vi] Will Hutton in his Guardian review of Paul Mason (2010) Meltdown: the End of the Age of Greed.
[vii] Polly Toynbee & David Walker (2012) Dogma and Disarray: Cameron at Half-time.
[viii] From review in London Review of Books.
[ix] For example, a special report, Aditya Chakrabortty & Sophie Robinson-Tillett (19 05 2014) ‘The remaking of Woodberry Down’, combines the narrative testimony of individuals affected by the changes (‘regeneration’), with description and analysis, and is the result of 6 months they spent talking to people on the estate. G2, The Guardian.
[x] Ha-Joon Chang has a new book due out in 2014: Economics. A Handbook. It occurred to me after the WOW event, that probably one of the best ways of for audience members to keep track of brilliant new books useful to everyone, and especially the concerned Left, is to regularly browse the shelves and displays at our precious independent community bookshop in Liverpool’s Bold Street: news from nowhere.
[xi] Including Dan Hind (2010) The Return of the Public; Susan George (2011) Whose Crisis, Whose Future? Towards a Greener, Fairer, Richer World; Bruce Nixon (2011) A Better World is Possible. What needs to be done and how we can make it happen; Andrew Simms (2013) Cancel the Apocalypse: The New Path to Prosperity.
[xii] Leading the way on the significance of stories as evidence and process was Ken Plummer (1997) Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds; and stories focusing on sustainability issues have also been exemplary, such as Jan Martin Bang (2007) Growing Eco-Communities: Practical Ways to Create Sustainability.
[xiii] This May Hurt a Bit is a brilliant play by Stella Feehily about the crisis in the NHS, and the Out-of-Joint production is a good example of how research-based dramatization can communicate powerfully to a wide audience: providing information, raising consciousness and engendering political conversation and debate. As well as being ‘a good night out at the theatre’. See ‘This May Hurt a Bit: Post performance discussion and reflection’ in Articles & Statements section of togetherfornow.wordpress.com
[xiv] See Susanna Rustin (17 05 2014) Big picture. Non-voters by Felicity McCabe. The Guardian Weekend. Full series and longer interviews in an interactive version at theguardian.com

Advertisements

‘This May Hurt a Bit.’ Post performance audience discussion and reflections.

I attended Stella Feehily’s marvellous, important play, This May Hurt a Bit, at The Playhouse, Liverpool (09 05 2014). Another outstanding Out of Joint production, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, it is a well researched, powerful script, beautifully dramatized, and staged with conviction and imagination.

The terrific cast made the most of their different characters and situations, and delivered lines that simultaneously wove multiple, complex narratives and relationships that crackled with the human and political issues raised by the current ‘reorganisation’ of the NHS, and which were of course relevant to every audience member. It was a challenging as well as very moving experience (as was noted from the floor afterwards)

The play is hopefully raising awareness of the issues arising out of the latest Tory NHS reorganisation (read Cuts, fragmentation, privatization, deterioration, damage)[i] to a wide audience across the country. One young woman said afterwards that she was one of those who always assumed the NHS would be there. Many audience members stayed behind for the post-performance discussion with the cast, which could have extended further into the night, as individuals rushed to speak, comment and share experience.

Post performance discussion.
I came away quite distressed and awoke in the very early hours the following morning with thoughts racing round my head. A sense of desperation and frustration prevailed. On the basis of my experience of the post performance discussion the previous evening, I emailed some of the following thoughts to friends / NHS activists I knew would be attending the play the next evening:

  • There is likely to be at least one person who shares their story of how the NHS ‘killed’ a loved one and/or failed to provide effectively for someone / those affected by dementia. This is of course disturbing for everyone, and hard to manage within the context of such a discussion.
  • There is also likely to be at least one person sharing their experience of changes in NHS conditions of service, working practices, as a result of burgeoning privatisation and the Cuts. After one such contribution, I asked the speaker (working in mental health practice) which union he was in, and he waived my question aside, without identifying the relevant union, remarking that they were either rubbish or irrelevant – I didn’t catch which, but I got the gist.
  • There will be those admitting (some shamefacedly) that they had not realised what was happening, what had already happened. And how were they supposed to know?[ii]
  • There will be those affirming that they definitely do not want to lose the NHS to privatisation.[iii]
  • There will be those who wish to share their vehement refusal to vote for the Labour Party.
  • There will be those who re-iterate that “all politicians are the same” and none can be trusted, etc..

The logic of the latter views is to step aside and not vote, and let through whoever/whatever. . . . I found this alarming. Their inaction will have consequences for everyone else: and most significantly, people with disabilities, chronic conditions, those on benefits, the homeless, those suffering trauma-related conditions, etc.. I understand the sense of powerlessness and defeatism, faced with a government implementing wide-ranging and destructive policies that none of us actually voted for, but I cannot accept that there is nothing we can do if we act collectively. I cannot accept defeat.

On the other hand, I was greeted with applause when I argued that the NHS was not just a service, that the issues were not just technical or organisational, but that it represents the core values of our society, in terms of what kind of society we want to be. I also found myself sitting next to a young NHS activist. We talked at some length, and she seemed really aware of the dangers.

But there was no time to say that this is not just about the NHS, but that the Tories’ (long planned) aim is to destroy / dismantle / privatise the whole of the public sector.[iv] It struck me that there will be people who do not know what the public sector is (NB its not-for-profit values, and how it was developed in the postwar years), and why it is so important (such anathema) to the Tories in their search for more and expanded markets and sources for profit for their friends and relatives. I did not manage to say why marketisation is wholly inappropriate and dangerous for the public sector; that there are areas of human activity and endeavor that should not be privatized / marketised, such as healthcare, social care, education, probation and prisons.[v]

Envisioning the future, instead of bemoaning the past.
I tried to point out the contradictions arising from comments that lump all politicians as one kind, disreputable, etc., as a reason for not voting, by asking: Did they think voting for Thatcher had made no difference?[vi] Voting for Blair? Voting for Cameron, etc., etc.? I also mentioned the BNP’s Nick Griffin’s squeaky pass as MEP for the NW 5 years ago, because some people who think of themselves as perhaps more ‘political’ than others, decided that preventing a fascist acquiring the status and money that went with the EU job, was less important than asserting some personal vendetta against a candidate/Party who realistically would have stopped him. 

So, my main disappointments and worries were the look-back-and-blame-Blair stance, because it has consequences for now and the future. I don’t disagree with that as a point of view, but find it counter productive in terms of a strategic way forward at this desperate time. It is individual, a private indulgence, rather than a politics; akin to the obsessive, personal blaming you see people stuck in in private life, as they try to ‘win’ the argument about their shared past, destroy the Other, and cleave to revenge tactics that prevent any forward movement, any letting go in favour of a more creative, productive strategy that will actually yield a decent future.

Whatever else he did, Blair poured money into the NHS (as was pointed out) and raised the quality of service provision and working conditions in line with other European countries. The amount of destruction since 2010 under this Tory government, with further plans for lethal next steps, seems more significant for all our futures, than harping on about that particular perma-tanned ego on legs.

But of course it is easier to obsessively repeat those old grudges and griefs, than to put our heads and hearts together to imagine and work (together) for something else. It’s the least skilled, lazy option, as well as the most unwise. Allowing Blair/New Labour to continue to consume our political energies, and thereby block our social and political imagination, including our ability and willingness to build effective alliances between the many constituencies disadvantaged and/or ruined by this government, is immature, unproductive, socially irresponsible, and a total gift to the real opposition: the Tories and those they will always represent [vii]

On reflection, what was disturbing on this occasion was the sense that I was witnessing a wholesale retreat from collective action: unions are rubbish or irrelevant; the Labour Party ditto; electoral process ditto. Well, let’s all just jump off the cliff now, rather than bother to try to impact and change any of these institutions. It felt like proof positive of the success of the neoliberal individualisation / fragmentation agenda. Alternatively, shopping, even if short-lived, will anaesthetize us, will suffice as a life substitute: less demanding, intellectually, emotionally and organizationally. And offering instant, uncomplicated gratification. . . . while we can afford it.

The historical rightwing scam has long been to get people to vote against their own class interests, to vote to be ruled and managed, by voting for the Right (the Masters). In the wake of the last 30+ years of neoliberalism, as more people in the UK retreat from identifying with each other socially and politically, beyond individualist, ethnic and/or nationalist identities and consumerist categories, the easier that rightwing agenda becomes. And the neoliberal discourse of ‘choice’ masks corporate coercion as it encourages social competitiveness and fragmentation, at the expense of social cohesion and political solidarity. As a society, as a people, we need to get our act together and quick.

[i] See Jacky Davis & Raymond Tallis (2012) NHS SOS. How the NHS Was Betrayed and How We Can Save It.
[ii] See Colin Leys & Stewart Player (2011) The Plot Against the NHS.
[iii] They might like to read Roger Taylor (2013) God Bless the NHS: The Truth Behind the Current Crisis.
[iv] See Oliver Letwin (1988) Privatising the World.
[v] See Michael Sandel (2012) Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?
[vi] See http://pcwww.liv.ac.uk/~alexss/thatcherism.pdf
[vii] To draw on consumer culture for an analogy: if there is no toothpaste that suits your taste and you find them all unacceptable for some reason, what do you do? Refuse to compromise and make a purchase? Let your breath smell and your teeth rot? While feeling good about your ‘ethical’ stance and superior taste . . . .