Strategic and ethical adjustment: The emerging opportunity to dismantle neoliberal Austerity politics. Together.

This is an expanded version of member presentation for CAT (Centre for Alternative Technology) members’ conference, 100 Good Ideas: Sharing Solutions (06-08 10 2017), Machynlleth, Wales.

  • The persistence of inequality, the promise of ‘sustainability’.
  • Social degradation and environmental politics.
  • Digital technology: innovation or domination? Liberation or coercion?
  • Co-creativity and alliance.
  • BREXIT: A nail in our coffin? Or an opportunity?

I argued at last year’s members’ conference at CAT (Centre for Alternative Technology) that in view of the events of the previous 12 months, for environmentalists and progressives it could not be business as usual (see ‘Promoting fair and sustainable co-habitation: exploring grounds for progressive politics as the political landscape implodes’ [1-9 10 2016], in category Presentations 2016, togetherfornow.wordpress.com). A rupture had occurred: a daunting intensification of social, cultural, political and environmental upheaval and challenge, which could no longer be seen as just ‘backdrop’ to the ‘main event’ (lives, species, habitats, ecosystems, sustainability).

Here, I suggest that responding to the further social and political upheaval of the last 12 months requires a recalibration of ‘environmental’ politics, which combines critique with optimism. Recent evidence of intensifying inequality, accelerating climate breakdown, political turmoil and opportunity expose fault-lines in environmental politics and Zero Carbon discourse: the problem of reproducing privilege, disadvantage and social exclusion. But fault-lines can be productive, and in turn prompt a critical rethink beyond environmental politics, in what amounts to a vision of major social and political transformation: strategic and ethical.

Transformation begins in the imagination, but:

“Hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. . . .       Hope is an ax you beak down doors with in an emergency; because hope should       shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future     away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the            grinding down of the poor and marginal” (Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold           Histories, Wild Possibilities, 2004, reprint 2016: 4).

Writing in 2003, Solnit assumes the inextricable entwining of these three issues, which must remain our driving focus, and in 2017 we can agree that this is irrefutably an emergency. Historically, there have been distinct political ‘territories’ or movements: the politics of peace, environmentalism, and equality and social justice politics, such as socialism. Unprecedented social and political disturbance, surprise and violence high-jacked reality in 2017 and could have wiped out hope. The startling result of the UK general election in June 2017 proved otherwise, and suggests that previous demarcations and divisions are open to a political and strategic re-imagining.

The persistence of inequality, the promise of ‘sustainability’.
As long ago as 2010, economist Ha–Joon Chang warned about the acceptance of inequality, and how it rested on “assumptions that ‘free markets’ make us all richer in the end” (‘We lost sight of fairness in the false promise of wealth’, The Guardian, 30 08 2010). But “growth figures tell it differently” (ibid.) He argued that “we have to question an assumption that has dominated economic thinking over the last three decades – namely, the belief that maximizing market freedom is the best way to generate wealth” (ibid.). “After three decades of deregulation and tax cuts for the rich, growth has slowed down, rather than accelerated, in almost all countries” (ibid.).

For environmentalists and social progressives, it is not just a question of wealth creation. In fact, the economistic drive towards ‘growth’ and profit (defined in monetary terms) is seen as problematic, as in itself extractive, exploitative, irresponsible, and producing a power hierarchy of dominance, submission and subjugation, which generates, embodies and perpetuates inequality, injustice, indignity and suffering. Further, if sustainability as a paradigm includes the diminution of inequality and its injuries, such as poverty, malnutrition, ill health, racism, homophobia, misogyny, lack of access to decent housing, education and opportunity, and an overt drive towards their elimination as acceptable or inevitable byproducts of our economic system, this shifts environmental discourse towards social and redistributive justice, equity and human rights as core values.

Ha–Joon Chang concludes that, “if we cannot assume free-market policies to be the best at generating wealth, the British debate on equality needs a total rethink” (ibid.). See also Michael J. Sandel (2012), What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, which five years after publication, and post the EU referendum result (‘Brexit’) in the UK and post the election of Trump as president in the US, seems an even more powerful critique and warning. However, as late as the 1980s, environmental issues were focused on ‘nature’, rather than inequality. Social class issues, social justice, sexual politics and gender power relations, for example, were deemed ‘political’ intrusions, as were vocal feminists. This has changed somewhat.

Change happens. Experience comes first: poverty, hunger, homelessness, sexual abuse, floods, devastating storm damage, drought, for example. Over time, under pressure from citizens, activists and academic researchers, experiences can become issues: i.e. subjects for social and political consideration and action, rather than examples of personal failure, crisis, or ‘natural’ disaster. This social and political process may lead these experiences to be identified, on a spectrum of concern, as negligence, avoidable catastrophes, as violations, as social violence: as ‘crimes’.

The concept of public health, originally rooted in critical new awareness of poverty, hunger, squalid housing, insanitary water in the C19, by the first public health inspector, Dr Duncan of Liverpool, redefined previously disregarded, ‘natural’ facts of life, as no more natural than clean water or hate crimes. This process gave us the concept of the social determinants of health (and everything else), and so public health was born and burgeoned in Liverpool, the UK and then beyond. An example of this process of changing public awareness and politicisation, is provided by Professor Joanna Bourke’s recent statement describing her new five year Welcome Foundation project, ‘Sexual Violence, Medicine and Psychiatry’, which aims “to take sexual violence out of the little box called ‘crime’ and into the huge field of public health” (cited Zoe Williams, ‘Why did no one speak out about Harvey Weinstein?’ The Guardian, 10 10 2017). Award-winning historian, Bourke is well known for her work on rape, fear, pain, killing; and the history, science and ethics of weaponry (see Wounding the World: How military violence and war-play invade our lives [2014]).

On a more modest scale, at a very well attended workshop on ‘The Environmental Benefits of Housing Co-operatives’, at CAT members’ conference (06—08 10 2017), ably facilitated by Mim Davies and Rich Hawkins of the Machynlleth Housing Co-operative, it was instructive to witness the efforts of a group of environmentalists to disentangle, isolate and agree a definition of ‘environmental benefit’ as opposed to ‘social benefit’ in relation to a housing co-operative. I suspect this was a valuable consciousness-raising process for the group, as well as exemplifying the experiential and conceptual dilemma of the boundary between environmental values and socially progressive values for some environmentalists.

Environmentalists are more diverse than they were 40 years ago (when CAT was established), and what is understood as an environmental issue or value in 2017, and how it may be best promoted, will be impacted by fast-moving social, political and technological contexts, which position people differently, and about which people may disagree. The concept of ‘family’ (the label) was one such contested term in this workshop.

The initial trigger for my poster presentation at conference, and for this related essay, was reading the various case studies in recent issues of Clean Slate: The Practical Journal of Sustainable Living (2017). Originally trained as an artist and sociologist, and having carried out feminist research into women’s lives, I am fully aware that case studies make important contributions to research and understanding. However, unless they are properly contextualised and theorised, they can risk individualising a situation or issue, instead of illuminating the shadows: the unfamiliar, the ‘strange’, the disturbing, the ‘Other’. The challenge itself.

The Clean Slate case studies are informative stories by/about affluent people improving the environmental footprint of their homes (often situated within a fair amount of ground) variously via renovation and/or installing expensive and complicated gear, or as environmentally-conscious new build. The address is therefore exclusively to home owners or would-be home owners, and the (much) better off. These case studies document middle class aspiration and project management, as do long running TV programmes, such as architect Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs on C4, and architect George Clarke’s various renovation programmes and best sheds series, also on C4.

The latter’s new series (starting on 18 10 2017) is entitled Ugly House to Lovely House with George Clarke, immediately followed by Grand Designs, in which an ecologist and his partner, a communications manager, “start building their new family home in the Peak District”. In the current national context of poor housing, not enough housing, unaffordable housing, and alarming increases in homelessness and house prices, these entertaining (and usually dramatic) TV programmes, with plotlines as suspenseful as a crime thriller, display and celebrate affluence, not just architecture. Budgets involve eye-watering sums, and often overrun. Maintenance and sustainability are not really addressed: for example, how much these mostly very large houses cost to heat is rarely mentioned; and who will (be employed to) clean the extensive expanses of beautiful wooden floors never comes up for discussion.

As CAT conference, entitled 100 Good Ideas, approached, I started to reflect on what looked like a problem in the light of what was happening in UK society since my previous presentation at CAT in 2016. I noted CAT information officer, Mim Davies’ welcome caution:

“We need to work together as a society rather than split off into lots of individual off-grid households” (Mim Davies, ‘On grid or off grid? Which is greener?’ Clean Slate, The Practical Journal of Sustainable Living, No 105, Autumn 2017: 23).

This is not simply a technical assessment, but a political statement. Her words express the original CAT philosophy, not just regarding the practical importance of co-operation and collaboration, mutuality and reciprocity at a personal level, but the spirit that yearns for a fairer, more humane society. The Zero Carbon Britain report expands on this point:

“While changes in individual behaviour are essential, it is vital that they are supported by the broader policy changes that are required at social, industrial, political and international levels” (‘Zero Carbon Britain’ report, ibid.:14).

Social degradation and environmental politics in 2017.
Since 2010, UK society has been exposed to the full force of turbo capitalism: a neoliberal orthodoxy that, in the hands of Tory administrations, has relentlessly punished the most vulnerable and rewarded the already secure and powerful, as an explicit political strategy, described by film maker, Ken Loach, as “calculated cruelty” (see my comments on his recent interview with Jo Coburn in ‘Journalism as entertainment and entrapment’, togetherfornow.wordpress.com, category Letters to the Guardian, 2017). The features and consequences of this onslaught have been gradually documented and analysed during these years, not so much by the MSM (mainstream media), as by individual activists, academics, artists, performers, writers and researchers. By contrast, the MSM have played a decisive role in promoting TINA (‘There is no alternative’) and the neoliberal mindset over the last 30+ years.

Liverpool-based activism, in the form of protest, concerted resistance, community creativity, academic research and artistic production is evidence of a rising, explicit power struggle between very different sets of values and priorities. Liverpool-based film makers, Hazuan Hashim and Phil Maxwell, provide a compelling overview in their documentary film, Austerity Fight, which is currently doing the round of UK and international film festivals, before being made available online. It provides powerful evidence of how active campaigners have been in challenging and exposing government policies and their consequences.

At its Liverpool premiere (15 09 2017) at the packed Plaza community cinema in Waterloo (after its London premiere), it was preceded by a book launch of The Violence of Austerity (05 2017), edited by Vickie Cooper, former LJMU academic, now Lecturer in Social Policy and Criminology at the OU, & Dave Whyte, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Liverpool. This edited collection exposes the many ways in which Austerity policies harm and precipitate breakdown and death of people in Britain. It brings together a wide range of case studies and analysis, and should be read by everyone, those with and without power and influence, including those who identify as environmentalists.

While Austerity politics has consequences for almost everyone, for example through its attack on essential public services, in their introduction the editors argue that:

“Austerity is a class project that disproportionately targets and affects working-class          households and communities and, in so doing, protects concentrations of elite                   wealth and power. The policies levelled at working-class households have barely                 touched the elite” (Cooper & Whyte, 2017: 11). Added emphasis.

The Violence of Austerity has the potential to cross that divide. The violence of its case studies stands in sharp contrast to the Clean Slate case studies mentioned, and the TV programmes on housing, which foreground innovation, ambition, agency, personal control and comfort. These buildings are identified as beautiful, secure, even ‘virtuous’ (low carbon) private homes. Such elite case studies badged as TV entertainment, serve to obliterate the inequalities and violence of contemporary UK society, for example the brutal reality of our ‘broken’ housing market. In the circumstances, this is entertainment that fetishises home ownership and property development (two key features of the neoliberal project which have become synonymous). This is thus entertainment as a covert political act.

Historically, the issue of social class was the elephant in the room for the early white, middle- class environmental movement in the UK, which identified it as ‘political’, i.e. belonging to Labour, trade union and socialist politics. Cooper & Whyte’s collection can help environmentalists reframe issues of concern (such as fracking and state violence, environmental degradation, homelessness and the production of hate) within the larger political and economic framework that is Austerity and neoliberal politics. The Violence of Austerity is thus an example of an academic project as an overt political act.

The society and politics pictured in Cooper & Whyte’s collection must surely be taken into account, not left to one side, as something outwith or beyond the social and political consideration of environmentalists. Indifference to what is a moral shift in how society is organized is in itself a political stance. As well as being morally repugnant, inequality and brutality as government orthodoxies (i.e. political choices and practices) are obstacles to social, economic and environmental ‘sustainability’, certainly; but also to survival, as the Grenfell Tower fire in London this year proved so horrifically.

Steven Poole’s review of Peter Fleming’s new book (2017), The Death of Homo Economicus, is entitled ‘Zero-hours contracts, debt and “crap jobs” – a sardonic polemic on C21 capitalism’ (Guardian, 30 09 2017). The book and Poole’s review are indicative of a rising rejection of neoliberal policies and Austerity politics. The Labour Manifesto, For The Many Not The Few, published in June 2017, as part of the general election campaign, is part of this shift. It may be a first draft, but it is substantial, and with its 12 clearly labeled chapters, it has already made a huge difference in helping set the political agenda, inside and outwith parliament.

Environmentalists can check out, for example, sections on ‘Infrastructure investment’, ‘sustainable energy’, ‘environment’, ‘a more equal society’, to see the extent to which sustainability values, zero carbon ambitions, renewable energy technologies and community energy projects are now at the heart of the Labour programme, entwined with its preoccupation with public health issues, such as air pollution, health and safety at work, mental health and social care; food production, job creation, employment rights and practices that do not destroy individuals, communities and our natural world.

“The next Labour government will reverse privatisation of our NHS and return our health service into expert public control” (For The Many Not The Few [June 2016]: 69), “restore the Education Maintenance Allowance (ibid: 40), ban fracking and is “committed to renewable energy projects, including tidal lagoons, which can help create manufacturing and energy jobs as well as contributing to climate-change commitments” (ibid:21).

“The EU has had a huge impact in securing workplace protections and               environmental safeguards. . . . A Labour government will never consider these rights        a burden or accept the weakening of workers’ rights, consumer rights or             environmental protections” (ibid: 26). [Emphasis added.]

As one trade union delegate declared as he finished speaking in support of environmental legislation at Labour party conference in Brighton (23-27 09 2017): “There are no jobs on a dead planet!” (I should have noted his name and his union.)

Also published in 2017, Just Transition and Energy Democracy is a 39 page civil service trade union perspective from PCS (the UK’s Public and Commercial Services Union). It draws on a wide range of research and evidence to make the case that “climate change is an issue for trade unionists and workers” (p4) and that they should be active participants in environmental debates and initiatives. It includes a UK energy plan for public ownership (p24, based on Prof. David Hall’s 2016 report, ‘Public ownership of UK energy system – benefits, costs and processes’. It highlights the problem of “conventional market-based solutions of climate agreements” (p13) and the problem of “the transnational corporations and financial elite who dominate the world” (p4). And it argues, with Naomi Klein, that:

“The real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much         more enlightened economic system – one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens           and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work and radically      reins in corporate power” (cited p13).

A further indication of the convergence of environmental activism and progressive politics has been evident in opposition to “the three radical trade agreements being promoted by political elites on both sides of the Atlantic, in an effort to preserve the current economic model (see Nick Dearden, Director of the world Development Movement, ‘The Transatlantic Trade Deal: a project of the 1%’, Clean Slate: The Practical Journal of Sustainable Living, No.93, Autumn 2014: 26-27). Dearden argues, in a statement that enjoins environmental values and progressive politics, that, “Taken together, these agreements represent a massive attack on democracy, public provision and the environment, in the name of transnational capital” (ibid.: 26). Environmentalists should note this triple whammy.

The PCS document argues that:

“Demanding a transition to a zero carbon economy based on energy democracy –         public ownership and democratic control of our energy system – is the only way to             ensure that the transition will be both just and transformative” (Just Transition and    Energy Democracy [2017]: 35).

The document concludes with “Our ten demands” (p36), including “A civil service for people not capital” (ibid.). The geographer, David Harvey, “has introduced the widely cited concept of ‘accumulation by dispossession’” (cited Cooper & Whyte: 17). He claims that “the transfer of state assets to private ownership always implies a process of dispossession and general loss of rights” (ibid.) and that “the accumulation by dispossession is the driving force of capitalism, and that this process of capital accumulation has become more predatory and violent under Austerity programmes” (ibid.: 18). In line with Harvey’s analysis, the PCS document emphasises “the need to remove capital from the driving seat of energy transition” (ibid: 35) and as a trade union, to make the case across all sectors:

“We will succeed if we are convincing in our arguments, not just on the science, but    the politics and economics of climate change” (ibid.: 36).

Environmental politics, to be relevant and responsible in 2017, cannot ignore evidence of the incompetence and violence of the unregulated power of the market economy, including literally life-changing technological innovations:

Digital technology: innovation or domination? Liberation or coercion?
“It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended negative consequences” (Justin Rosenstein, cited Paul Lewis, ‘Scroll, refresh, repeat, delete’, The Guardian Weekend, 07 10 2017).

Justin Rosenstein, Tech exec and Facebook ‘like’ co-creator, is one of those who “put in place the building blocks of the digital world from which they are now trying to disentangle themselves” (Lewis, ibid.). Lewis’s report illuminates how digital technologies are reshaping lives, relationships, consciousness, and possibly intelligence itself, as more people move into a world of “continuous partial attention”, in which technological manipulation may be harmful or immoral (ibid.) in its psychological impact, for example in fostering addictive behaviour, i.e. “reward-based behaviour that activates the brain’s dopamine pathways” (Chris Marcellino, cited Lewis, was one of the inventors in his early 20s hired by Apple to work on the iPhone, and is now in the final stages of retraining to be a neurosurgeon).

“It’s not inherently evil to bring people back to your product”, Marcellino says. “It’s capitalism” (cited Lewis). But “if we only care about profit maximisation, we will go rapidly into dystopia” (Rosenstein, cited Lewis). In other words, dystopia is the logical destination for unregulated turbo capitalism and its neoliberal values: which amounts not just to self harm, but to self destruct. (The cliff edge / no deal being contemplated with apparent equanimity by the UK ‘Bexit’ team serves as a one such scenario.) It is the symptoms and consequences of this system that have so preoccupied social progressives and environmentalists over the years, though environmentalists have been reluctant to actually name that enemy, and this reluctance is my concern here.

For example, Alan Cunningham, a Liverpool-based researcher on poverty and low carbon pathways to health, found that, while Liverpool FoE and MET (Merseyside Environmental Trust) had campaigned on health as linked to sustainable living, “other local and national NGOs continued to deal with separate silos undermining the process of decision making” (Cunningham, ‘Low Carbon Pathways to Health in the Liverpool City region’, 12 11 2013).

“When the Transition initiative started we tried to set up a Wellbeing Group but we   were told that other Transition towns and cities, other local and national NGOs and          local Community Enterprises did not accept the link between sustainable living and   health. The Wellbeing Group was in an impossible position because it was sharing             structures with Groups which had a different view of health and a different world             view” (ibid.). Added emphasis.

These are cognitive, intellectual and political differences, not dissimilar to those noted by Guardian letter writers in response to long term environmentalist, George Monbiot’s recommendations in no less than three recent articles: ‘How do we get out of this mess? (Guardian, 09 09 2017); ‘A lesson from Hurricane Irma, (Guardian, 13 09 2017); and ‘How Labour could lead the global economy out of the C20’ (Guardian,11 10 2017). Monbiot proposes “private sufficiency” and “public luxury” as conceptual contributions to ways forward:

“Private luxury shuts down space, creating deprivation. But magnificent public               amenities should be owned and managed by neither state nor market, but by communities, in the form of commons” (Monbiot, 11 10 2017).

However, some Guardian readers think he’s skirting. Dr Patrick O’Sullivan comments that Monbiot “seems unable to acknowledge that the only real solution to the problems he identitifes – climate change, globalization, poverty, overcrowded cities, social fragmentation, mass extinction, destruction of valued habitats – is socialism” (Guardian letters, 14 10 2017). O’Sullivan concludes: “George, now that you are finally slouching towards socialism, it’s time to read [William] Morris’s News From Nowhere” (ibid.).

The convergence of environmental and social progressive/socialist politics may be speeding up inside the petri dish of post ‘Brexit’ and post Trump politics, but new risks and dangers have already ensnared those taking up digital ‘opportunities’. James Williams, 35, an ex Google strategist who left Google last year, sounds a warning:

“The attention economy incentivises the design of technologies that grab our                  attention. In so doing, it privileges our impulses over our intentions” (Williams, cited       Lewis, ibid.) . . . . That means privileging what is sensational over what is nuanced,       appealing to emotion, anger and outrage” (Williams, cited Lewis, 07 10 2017.)

A month before Trump was elected to the White house, Williams blogged that the reality TV star’s campaign had heralded a watershed in which “the new, digitally supercharged dynamics of the attention economy have finally crossed a threshold and become manifest in the political realm” (Williams, cited Lewis). Williams explains:

“The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the        human will. If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective     levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that         democracy rests on” (cited Lewis, ibid.).

Capitalism has always been anti-democratic, as democracy does not serve the interests of capital, and latterly, modern turbo consumerism, which of course drives the attention economy. And the neoliberal drive towards deregulation is designed to constrain, undermine and circumnavigate democratic values and accountability. But could this latest twist prove terminal?

Given how central new technologies are to both environmental politics, progressive politics, and electoral process, as both ‘problem’ and ‘solution’, activists and politicians have a struggle on their hands to keep up with the ramifications of the transformations so many of us are already part of, as well as trying to anticipate how to proceed in a future world, for which previous experience may provide little guidance as to what is relevant to the planet and societies’ next steps.

If you have watched any of Jacques Peretti’s hair-raising TV investigations, e.g. his recent 3 part series, Billion Dollar Deals and How They Changed Your World (BBC2, 27 10 2017, 04 10 2017), the last episode (screened on 11 10 2017) on how the concept of work has changed, including the impact and ‘promise’ (or threat) of AI (Artificial Intelligence), may have jolted your awareness of the importance and fragility of all the rights and protections secured and defended by Labour, the trade unions and the EU in the past, and which require our renewed vigilance and collective organization in the face of technological changes with fundamental consequences for lives and employment: uncertainty, insecurity, social control, impoverishment, individualism, feature prominently in the western gig economy, for example, as well as in our increasingly underfunded public services (see Who Deserves a Pay Rise? C4 Dispatches, which investigates the personally life-changing impact of pay caps on public sector employees over the last 10 years [23 10 2017]).

Co-creativity and alliance.
The months since CAT members’ conference in October 2016, have shown us both the violence and entrenched power of those opposing social creativity, collective action, social justice and a multicultural society, as well as people’s potential and power (as seen in the film Austerity Fight), when we are roused to act collectively against violation and injustice. It is a process, not a single, final fix. ‘Victory’, as Solnit understands, will always be a work in progress.

“The absolutists of the old left imagined that victory would, when it came, be total and permanent, which is practically the same as saying that victory was and is impossible       and will never come” (Solnit, 2016: xxii).

During the 2017 general election campaign, we were told (without let up) by politicians (on all sides) and the MSM, that the Labour party was finished, that Corbyn was a joke and unelectable, and that those who thought otherwise were variously ‘hard left’, ‘Trotskyite’ morons and dreamers. The subsequent Labour vote can thus be seen as an act of non compliance, of bold civil disobedience (for other examples, see ‘Non compliance in the face of affront, bullying, coercion, and violation’ at togetherfornow.wordpress.com, in category Commentary 2016). As Solnit notes:

“And then every now and then, the possibilities explode. In these moments of rupture,       people find themselves members of a ‘we’ that did not until then exist, at least not as an entity with agency and identity and potency . . . ” (Solnit: xxiii).

The political landscape in the UK erupted in 2017, the general election result making the Labour party the opposition party, which can now be viewed as a powerful progressive alliance, rather than the proverbial ‘broad church’. Voter registration soared and young people stepped out of the shadows to register their values, concerns and aspirations, alongside the many older voters who had previously withdrawn their long term support for Labour, returning to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s reinvigorated Labour party; and those who had never voted or chose to switch their vote from other parties to Labour.

“And yet, and of course, everything in the mainstream media suggests that popular       resistance is ridiculous, pointless, or criminal, unless it is far away, was long ago, or,         ideally, both (ibid.: xxiii).

But, as Josiah Mortimer, editor of Left Foot Forward, witnessed: “Non-political people turning out in droves. Seemingly switched-off friends proud of casting their vote” (‘Talent from Corbyn to Chuka: why I left the Greens to join Labour’, Labour List, 28 09 2017). After being a Green member for 6 years, Josiah voted Labour in June 2017:

“It now feels clear that the changes within Labour are much more than temporary –    there has been an internal culture shift. With around 600,000 members, Labour is        now the great movement of the left. A broad church, but one that was resoundingly     united around an inspiring manifesto this year” (ibid.).

This emergent political conversation is well under way: it’s cross-class and cross-generational, and embraces our cultural diversity as a basis and driver for a renewed democracy. None of these developments were anticipated, predicted or understood by the MSM and neoliberal politicians. The revived Labour party, while not sufficient in itself to do what is needed, has already shown that it can be a vital instrument and catalyst in helping shift values and practices in society and its institutions, in collaboration with others who care, including other EU citizens.

And in 2017, the issue of EU membership and citizenship is not peripheral to environmental or progressive politics in the UK. Nor can those campaigning over the loss of EU citizens’ rights in the UK post ‘Brexit’ be seen, or self define, as a special interest group pursuing ‘single issue’ politics. They are now party to what is a substantive social and political transformation.

BREXIT: A nail in our coffin? Or an opportunity?
The EU referendum vote in 2016 has caused uproar, mayhem, grief and despair in people’s lives and relationships, and across party lines. For many young people in the UK, used to identifying as European citizens, the threat of ‘Brexit’ is alarming and real: their lives will be wrenched out of their control.

Another set of case studies attests to the speed and extent of the consequences of the ‘Brexit’ vote. In Limbo: Brexit testimonies from EU citizens in the UK, was launched at the Croxteth Manor symposium (14 10 2017), ‘What has the EU ever done for the North West region?, organised by the Merseyside branch of European Movement UK, Britain for Europe, Liverpool For Europe and Regional Rallies. It makes harrowing reading. The EU citizens in the UK who tell their stories are from: Italy, France, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Austria, Greece, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Lithuania, Belgium, Slovakia, Sweden, Ireland and Britain. They variously came to the UK for a week’s holiday, or as a student or for work. They fell in love with UK society and stayed for a lifetime (some as long as 26, 32, 40, 49 and 50 years). In their grief, they speak of their broken hearts, not just broken lives, after the ‘Brexit’ decision. Their testimonies evoke precious features of UK society, alerting us to what we are in danger of throwing away as a society:

“What I have always loved so much about this country is its openness, its acceptance, its liberty” (Andrea Carlo, Italy: 15).

“I came to this country because of its tolerance, its diversity of ethnicity and cuisine, its great music and art, its thriving science and technology and its vibrant multiculturalism” (Professor Bruno G. Pollet, France: 21).

“I soon fell in love with the society’s openness and tolerance, the industry’s meritocracy, the people’s pragmatism, and the loveliness of the English countryside” (Philip, Greece: 34).

The ‘Remaining of Liverpool’ campaign, seen in action at the anti Brexit demo in London in September 2017; in Manchester (outside Tory conference, 01 10 2017); and most recently, Liverpool, at the Croxteth Manor symposium (14 10 2017), emanates from a new grouping LfE (Liverpool for Europe), which brings together previously disparate political actors, from those whose interest in politics (especially party politics) has been previously minimal or conservative, to political activists, practised in campaigning, protesting, resisting. Steve Gavin (LfE) told the London rally that “Brexit will be disastrous for working people”, adding:

“European nationals living as family, friends, neighbours and work mates in our             great city are being used as pawns in negotiations that the Government clearly        doesn’t understand” (cited ‘”The Remaining of Liverpool!” – Latest mass protest           against Brexit gets a Liverpool Twist’. Press Release for Europe, 10 09 2017.

For example: “My family is multi-national, a 3-passport concoction, a mini EU. I’m Italian, of Greek-Italian parentage; my husband is Dutch, our daughter is gloriously, incongruously British; or as she puts it, ‘half-Dutch, a quarter Italian, a quarter Greek – and 100% English’” (Elena Gualtieri, Italy, In Limbo: 76).

And: “It never occurred to me that at the age of 75 and having lived here for 50 years, being Dutch could one day make me ‘the other’. Not because I felt different, but because others might start to see me differently” (Elly Wright, The Netherlands: ibid: 79).

Heartbreakingly: “Until June 2016, English was the language of liberation, freedom, respect and equality” (M.T., Italy: ibid: 4).

Now, as Rafael Behr puts it:

“’In David Davis, Britain has a schoolboy in charge of the moon landings’” (The  Guardian, 18 07 2017). A reckless bluffer who is wildly out of his depth. . . His skills are      suited to a peculiarly British mode of advancement: the celebration of swagger and bluff over due diligence.”

If only this were ‘funny’ and incidental to the future prospects of UK citizens, but Davis’s every appearance at the EU podium this year bears out Behr’s assessment: the sloppy arrogance of his body language, his near permanent smirk as he tries to ‘look the part’, his rambling ill preparedness. Behr nails the gendered and classed nature of a problematic political culture:

“Davis has benefitted from Westminster’s generosity to men who gamble and busk    their way through scrapes born of their own ill preparation – overgrown schoolboys         who shirk their homework, then talk their way out of detention” (ibid.).

At the London rally, Gavin nutshelled the disturbing combination of ignorance, arrogance and political incompetence on display (our lives in their hands):

“Brexit is being done by a minister for Exiting the EU who doesn’t understand what a   customs union is. A foreign secretary whose negative judgemental views about        Scousers are so well known, but who will negotiate with the world in our name. And    the lifeblood of trade that runs up and down the Mersey is being ignored by a Trade           Secretary who doesn’t understand economics” (LfE press release, 10 09 2017).

A spokesperson from the Europe Movement Merseyside (EMM) declared:

“The Mersey nation was not hoodwinked by the lies of the leave campaign last year      and will not be fooled now by a government passing legislation to give itself              unprecedented powers to make decisions without meaningful Parliamentary                  scrutiny” (ibid.) See info@liverpoolforeurope.org

Behr warns: “When designing a weapon, it is a good idea to imagine it falling into the wrong hands” (‘The EU withdrawal bill is nothing less than an executive coup’, The Guardian, 05 09 2017). Claude Moraes, Labour MEP, who chairs the European parliament civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee, is concerned that “Brexit will be a betrayal of the UK’s fight for equality” (The Guardian, 11 10 2017). And Dr Marcin Barszczewski, an EU citizen, originally from Poland, living joyfully in Northern Ireland for 11 years, says: “I have always felt welcome and accepted here – a place where I could spend my entire life” (In Limbo, 2017: 99). But he notes: “What makes me most concerned is the fact that few people with whom I spoke about this saw the EU institutions primarily as peacekeeping mechanisms” (ibid.). Free to leave Poland after 1989, when the Berlin wall came down, he understands the continuing significance of the EU for peace and non-violent internationalism in Europe.

Similarly, and despite his powerful critique of the EU, Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis “remains convinced that the EU must be confronted from within, rather than through a series of exits” (Varoufakis, And The Weak Suffer What They Must? Europe, Austerity and The Threat to Global Stability [2016]: xi). And in his forward, he highlights the importance of seeking out common ground across differences:

“When capitalism’s crisis deepens, as happened in the 1930s and is happening again         today, people from opposite ends of the political spectrum find common ground. . . The prerequisite for this precious common ground is a willingness to look for it and build alliances that confront the monsters that have a habit of crawling out of the fault lines in the crisis: the Le Pens, the Golden Dawns, the AfDs, the BNPs, the UKIPs and indeed the bureaucrats, politicians and opinion-formers that insist on business  as usual when it is business as usual that is tearing our societies apart” (ibid.: xii). Emphasis added.

 This is politics, not shopping: conscientious collective action, not individualistic, competitive consumerism. What distinguishes Varoufakis’ political stance is not just the depth of his analysis and historical understanding, but that he “strives to find common ground when this is possible without betraying my opposition to the hideous dictum, ‘And the weak shall suffer what they must’” (ibid.: xiii). This ethic is what should concentrate minds at this point in our shared history.

So, if the problem is hetero-patriarchal turbo capitalism and its neoliberal practices as threats to democracy, people’s wellbeing and dignity, and the planet, through privatisation, fragmentation, marketisation, commodification, individualism and deregulation, for example, fuelling inequality, human / environmental degradation and (resource) wars, then any serious environmental or socially progressive politics has to identify as non neoliberal and anti Austerity.

As evidence of the full horror of a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ ‘Brexit’ starts to pile up from so many different constituencies, interest groups and corners of society, can we muster the political will to rescue the UK from the Tories’ jaws and their determination to continue to enforce Austerity politics, to wreck meaningful links with the EU, including the lives of EU citizens in the UK, and instead align the UK with Trump’s white supremacist and misogynist vision for the US?

Can we rescue the UK, in order to fulfill an ambitious double role?  Shifting the UK government towards anti Austerity politics, informed by socialist and environmental values, as well as helping the EU enact its own transformation from within, recommitting itself to:

“a fundamental territorial expression of the principle of social democracy and of a      European social model that advocates reinvestment in people and places facing      development and regeneration changes” (Olivier Sykes & Andreas Schulze Baing,          ‘The impact of EU regeneration and structural funds’, in Essay series: Does the EU               work for working-class people? CLASS [Centre for Labour and Social Studies], June           2016: 21).

Only together.

Three further questions to conclude:
In aligning with anti Austerity activists, can environmentalists bring nourishment to the Labour movement, via the Labour party and the trade unions, in a genuine peer process, thereby augmenting the environmental count inside the Labour movement, as well as widening the Labour party’s electoral impact at the next general election?

Can anti Austerity politics, led by the revived Labour party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, provide the umbrella of hope and courage about the kind of society we want to be, as a continuing member of a reforming EU, and committed to working together across our differences?

And given that this Tory government has shown that inequality and brutality are not enemies to be vanquished, but weapons to secure political dominium and private profit,   can the Liverpool for Europe movement and the Remainers across the UK, find and expose their anti Austerity hearts as part of their pro EU and anti Brexit campaign, and in alliance with Labour help remove the Tories from office?

Authors cited:
Rafael Behr
Joanna Bourke
Ha-Joon Chang
Vickie Cooper
Alan Cunningham
Mim Davies
Nick Dearden
Peter Fleming
David Harvey
Paul Lewis
George Monbiot
Josiah Mortimer
Jacques Peretti
Steven Poole
Michael J. Sandel
Rebecca Solnit
Andreas Schulze Baing
Olivier Sykes
Yanis Varoufakis
Dave Whyte
Zoe Williams
                                                                                                                   val walsh / 25 10 2017

 

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Promoting fair and sustainable co-habitation: exploring grounds for progressive politics as the political landscape implodes.

 

(Written for Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) Members’ Conference, ZERO CARBON: Making It Happen, 7-9 10 2016. Extracts presented to conference, 08 10 2016. Some additions made after conference.)

  • Learning the hard way: the social and political climate
  • Significant complications: women, feminism, neoliberalism, environmentalists
  • Grounds for progressive politics: agreeing the basics.

It is two years since I attended the annual CAT Members’ conference, and presented an abbreviated version of my submission to the Liverpool Mayor’s Commission on Environmental Sustainability (posted at togetherfornow.wordpress.com in Category: Conference Presentations 2014).

The reflections presented here start with the story of those years, October 2014-October 2016, a period of unusually intense and dramatic electoral politics in the UK. Such storying presents a linear chronology of highlights that invite interpretation, ‘assembling’ and interrogation, in the effort to better understand their collective significance. But in the middle section, the ‘smoothness’ of linear narrative breaks up, becoming disrupted by what I refer to as ‘significant complications’ sparked by the initial narrative. Despite the intellectual and political turmoil created by this unfolding process, the assumption is that progressives must pursue the possibility of piecing together the means to sustainable co-habitation, as opposed to mutually assured destruction. It is a case of one or the other.

Learning the hard way: the social and political climate.
The Scottish referendum in 2014 was the first political upheaval, as the population, including a high percentage of young people, decided politics was interesting after all, and that something important was at stake. Electoral action started in 2014 for me, when my local Constituency Labour Party (CLP) was set the task of choosing a new parliamentary candidate. He was elected in the 2015 general election with an increased constituency majority. The LP general election defeat led to Ed Miliband immediately standing down as leader, which in turn precipitated an unanticipated leadership contest, involving four candidates, including two women.

Jeremy Corbyn was a late entry to the candidate list. His victory was gob-smackingly unexpected; in addition, the margin by which he won (just short of 60% of the votes) was unprecedented. His success was the result of a surge of new Labour voters, together with older, long term Labour voters, both those who had stayed in the party for many years (despite sometimes grave misgivings) and those who left (some for the Green party) and have now returned (in joy, relief, hope – and wonder). A national organisation, Momentum, was immediately set up to build on the surge of enthusiasm and optimism unleashed by Corbyn’s election.

In Liverpool, Merseyside Momentum was ahead in the autumn of 2015 in bringing together the diversity of Corbyn supporters, and in the last 12 months has held many public events (meetings, rallies, conferences, political education events, and demonstrations / parades), variously involving hundreds and thousands of enthusiastic Corbyn supporters, often at very short notice. Each time we took ourselves by surprise, both at the numbers participating, and the confident, serious and ecstatic atmosphere. Across the UK, LP membership has gone through the roof, and CLPs have seen greatly increased numbers attending their meetings, sometimes so many they have had to hold ‘serial’ meetings in order to include everyone (see Greg Hadfield [September 2016] ‘Brighton and Hove: epicentre of the battle for the soul of the Labour party’. Labour Briefing: 10/11), where “the annual meeting included three sittings to accommodate over 600 members”.

Merseyside Momentum has had a similar experience, with half of those attending upstairs and half downstairs at Jack Jones House, and the speakers swopping round halfway so everyone was included and got the chance to contribute. Alongside the euphoria of Corbyn’s supporters, his political opponents in the Labour party and beyond immediately set about what has been a relentless process of vindictive personal and political manoeuvring. It should be noted that these attacks were triggered by the fact of his election as leader, not by his subsequent performance as leader.

Jon Trickett, Labour MP, was a panel speaker at a packed event, hosted by Jacobin, ‘What Can a Left Government Do?”(27 09 2016), part of Momentum’s The World Transformed (four days of politics, art, music, culture and community at the 2016 Labour Party Conference Fringe, held at the Black-E Community Centre in Liverpool). Other panel speakers were James Meadway, Laura Horn and Aditya Chakrabortty. Trickett spoke of his 50 odd years as a Labour member, who had seen how Labour leaders always faced concerted criticism and attack, but he said that he had never witnessed anything as ferocious as the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn: from the Tories, from the media, and from inside the PLP. He added, quietly: “But he is not defeated, he is not broken, he is not bent. And he will not be bought off.” Trickett’s sombre assessment triggered a standing ovation from the several hundred attendees, who roared their appreciation.

The political landscape in 2016 has been dominated by the EU referendum, which turned out not to be a referendum on the EU, but, on the one hand, David Cameron’s (unsuccessful) attempt to resolve divisions within his political party and re-assert his authority as leader, and more widely across the country, the chance for people to howl in rage at national politicians (“They’re all the same!”) and London’s perceived neglect of the regions, in particular coastal areas, the midlands and the north. It was social class grievance calling out what has been a class war engendered and ignored by parliamentary politicians and the media for too long.

TV and video coverage of the campaign and its immediate aftermath (e.g. Faisal Islam’s film for Sky News), bore witness to a surge of anger, together with evidence of feelings of abandonment and fear (of migrants), fear of the Other / the stranger, and for many of those who had never voted before, an ignorance of history, society and politics – of facts, processes and institutions. These were people, many of whom looked overfed and undernourished, who had endured punishing economic poverty over many years, almost certainly food and fuel poverty, education poverty and experiential poverty (e.g. of diversity and difference, via travel and intimacy).

The indelible impression was of people who had been deprived of safety/security, dignity, opportunity and reward; and then been punished by politicians and others for their deprivation: not just publicly stigmatised, but materially further deprived of the means of dignified survival, wellbeing and social / cultural participation by Tory Austerity politics. And “people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made” (FDR, cited Ben Fountain [17 09 2016] ‘How Donald Trump feasted on the corpse of the American dream’. The Guardian Journal: 40). This is not news, but since 2010, Tory Austerity politics has delivered hunger, unemployment, homelessness, social isolation and desperation on an ominous and reckless scale.

The UK EU referendum campaign was vicious, manipulative and dishonest, variously inviting contempt for politics generally, as well as, on the Brexit team, explicitly inciting fear and hatred of migrants, asylum seekers, Muslims, people of colour, foreigners, for example. And ‘experts’ (at the behest of Tory MP, Michael Gove). It was conspicuously relevance and evidence-light on both sides. The Brexit result exposed a sorely divided, fearful, angry and resentful country. There was an immediate spike in hate crimes and racism: 46% in the week following the Brexit vote, and the rate of such attacks has continued to escalate since (Andrew Solomon [17 09 2016] ‘Wall stories. From Mexico to Calais, why the idea of division is taking hold’. The Guardian Review: 1-3). The duplicity of the Leave campaign in particular, was immediately exposed, as well as the alarming fact that there was no plan in place, or even part-imagined. As Ian Birrell, former speechwriter for David Cameron, observed after attending Tory party conference, following the EU referendum result:

Most dismaying is the mixture of naivety, arrogance and rank hypocrisy found behind the Brexit bravura. No one seems to have a clue as to what sort of agreement can be achieved with our closest trading partners in Europe (‘The delirium of these Tories: it’s like a UKIP convention.’ The Guardian, 04 10 2016).

The EU referendum process confirmed that turbo-capitalism / neoliberalism is a gendered project: the “bravura” of which Birrell speaks is elite patriarchal masculinity and male dominance in action; brokered by mediocre men (several already well known as dishonest public figures) with an inflated sense of entitlement and power. For those fronting the Leave campaign (as opposed to those funding and organising it behind the scenes), it had been a ‘game’, a bit of fun, as Tory MP Boris Johnson’s stricken grey face revealed on hearing that they had won. Nigel Farage’s reaction, by contrast, exposed his deeply personal exultation, as he triumphantly berated MEPs in Brussels, identifying UK rejection of the EU as a one-man, personal victory: his. Formerly discredited Tory MP, Liam Fox, now appointed by Prime Minister, Theresa May, as one of three Tories responsible for negotiating the actual conditions of UK withdrawal, would vie for that accolade.

In Liverpool, the EU referendum was quickly followed by the selection of party candidates for the new role of Liverpool Metro Mayor (elections to follow early 2017). This ran alongside the second Labour leadership contest, as a result of the PLP deciding that the organised attempt to remove Corbyn as leader should be brought forward after the Brexit result, rather than turning their fire on a Tory government in disarray after the referendum and the resignation of their party leader, the Prime Minister, David Cameron. The result of the second Labour leadership contest was announced at the start of Labour party conference in Liverpool (24 09 2016): Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected as leader.

At a CLASS (Centre for Labour and Social Studies) Evening Reception and Review of the Year fringe event (25 09 2016) at Labour conference, chaired by Dr Faiza Shaheen, writer and journalist Paul Mason observed that one of the differences between now and last year is that a year ago Corbyn was “an accident”; this year, re-elected after a gruelling campaign, with an increased majority and strengthened mandate, everyone (the media, the Tories, the PLP, together with his own supporters across the country) know he is not an accidental leader.

Throughout this period of electoral activity, as well as anti Austerity candidates, I was looking for those whose political platform demonstrated awareness of environmental issues and feminist values, and their interconnections. I found greater awareness and acceptance on both counts than previously. However, there were also . . . .

Significant complications: women, feminism, neoliberalism, environmentalists.
Like philosopher, Nancy Fraser:

I’ve always assumed that by fighting to emancipate women I was building a better world – more egalitarian, just and free. But lately I’ve begun to worry  that ideals pioneered by feminists are serving quite different ends (Nancy Fraser [14 10 2013] ‘How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden – and how to reclaim it’ The Guardian).

Since October 2014, I have helped elect a series of white males to office: as my MP, as leader of the Labour party, as candidate for Metro Mayor, and again as Labour leader. What my experience has revealed is the dearth of suitable women candidates. I know loads of brilliant women in the public domain (feminists, social justice champions, anti racists, environmentalists, running organisations, leading campaigns): but all unwilling to enter the male-dominated bear pit of English parliamentary politics.

The 2015 Labour leadership context exposed my dilemma: the two women candidates espoused neoliberalism, which I understand to be incompatible with feminist and social justice politics. So I had to vote for the only anti Austerity candidate: an older white male with a beard. Adrienne Roberts, Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester, draws attention to:

a neoliberal ‘common sense’ that assumes that greater access to the financial       market, like other markets, will automatically lead to the erosion of discrimination – undermining gender inequality while simultaneously improving profitability. They also assume that there is no alternative to neoliberal finance-led capitalism, which imposes important limits to critical feminist praxis (Roberts, ‘The limitations of transnational business feminism:  the case of gender lens investing’. Soundings: A journal of politics and culture, Issue 62 Spring 2016, Alternatives to neoliberalism: 69). Emphasis added. See also Stuart Hall & Alan O’Shea, ‘Common-sense neoliberalism’, Soundings 55, Winter 2013.

Elisabeth Prugel argues that:

The neoliberalisation of feminism occurs as feminism is increasingly co-opted        into neoliberal projects (‘Neoliberalising feminism,’ New Political Economy 20 04 2015, cited Roberts, Soundings Issue 62 Spring 2016: 78).

The only Labour woman candidate for Liverpool Metro Mayor was a neoliberal MP, with problematic views of the Israeli / Palestine conflict, as well as having signed up to remove Corbyn as Labour leader. So again, I had to vote for one of the men. There were not just not enough women offering themselves for political positions, they were the wrong women, even those adopting the label ‘feminist’. What a cruel world. I returned to Nancy Fraser’s critique with renewed awareness and despondency:

In a cruel twist of fate, I fear that the movement for women’s liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society. That would explain how it came to pass that feminist ideas that once formed part of a radical worldview are increasingly expressed in individualist terms (Nancy Fraser [14 10 2013] ‘How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden – and how to reclaim it’. The Guardian). Emphasis added. [See also Nancy Fraser refs in ‘The learning curve that is the 2015 Labour leadership contest’ at togetherfornow.wordpress.com in Category: ‘Essays 2015’.]                            ).

The liberal-individualist scenario, which emphasises “individual autonomy, increased choice and meritocratic advancement” (ibid.) – how personally seductive and politically virtuous does that sound? – uncritically endorses a free market society, within which participatory democracy and social solidarity fall by the wayside as political priorities, and the limitations of equality as a discourse are cruelly exposed.

Never mind that the reality that underlies the new ideal is depressed wage levels, decreased job security, declining living standards, a steep rise in the number of hours worked for wages per household, exacerbation of the double shift – now often a triple or quadruple shift – and a rise in poverty, increasingly concentrated in female-headed households (ibid.).

The last 30+ years have provided irrefutable evidence that neoliberal individualism cannot be endorsed as liberatory, fair or just: nor as embodying either Labour or feminist values of equality and social justice. But it has fuelled consumerism, which has variously (and differentially) fed, clothed, shod, employed and housed women in ways that have felt personally liberating for many women in the West. Much of the ‘neoliberal common sense’ that seeks to align gender equality with finance-led capitalism as ‘smart economics’, “reaffirms a particular Western version of liberal feminism” (Roberts, op cit: 74), and within this discourse:

The incorporation of women into the workforce does not have to involve    identifying and challenging historically constituted gender power relations, because the issue is framed around ‘diversity’ (ibid.: 75/76). Emphasis added.

In 2016, divisions on the Left for feminists have hardened:

Transnational Business Feminism seeks to work through neoliberal capitalism rather than to challenge it (op cit: 74).

And the ‘business case’ for gender equality “legitimises the growing power of corporations, and naturalises and normalises the fusion of gender equality to participation in the capitalist market economy” (ibid.: 72, emphasis added). But as Roberts reminds us:

From a critical feminist perspective, however, gender equality is important for reasons that surpass corporate profitability (ibid.: 75).

In addition, neoliberalism (or free market fundamentalism) is powerfully implicated in the destruction of habitat and species, climate and community, social and economic security, and the privatization and fragmentation of the NHS. As well as being hostile to democracy itself. As feminist activism, research and increased participation in the public domain got under way in the 1960s and 1970s, and as the neoliberal project later hit town and started to swallow all in its path, women did not anticipate the significance of this new source of difference and division, and its consequences for feminist, Green and Labour politics in the UK.

In the early years of the UK environmental movement, variously taking shape as the Countryside Alliance, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, for example, social justice issues were not part of environmental discourse and debate; social class issues were embodied by the (all white, middle class) membership, but power relations were not examined as theoretically or politically significant; and while women were members, feminist values, critique and analysis seemed off limits.

To speak of gender power relations was to speak in an incomprehensible ‘foreign’ tongue, and be identified as a ‘troublemaker’ ruffling feathers. To an extent, early environmentalism in the UK embodied middle-class apolitical decorum. It did not count itself as ‘politics’, which was seen as something intrusive and contentious – ‘party political’. It felt as if environmentalism was ‘safely’ in its own, non political box, and was for people who did not ‘do politics’, or at least anti establishment politics.

And this may still be part of its attraction. Young female students, on being asked by a TV reporter how they intended to vote at the 2015 election, replied: “I’m not political. So will probably vote Green”. For these young women, ‘political’ seems to mean party political, and that means Labour or Conservative or Lib Dem – the parties of government, and perhaps, by implication, scandals, corruption, deceit, broken promises, and older, elite white men in suits.

In the UK, the intellectual and political standing of both early feminism and women’s environmentalism, echoed women’s social and political position more generally, which meant we were Other to ‘mainstream’ (i.e. elite white male) ideas and action; and women activists and scholars in the West were almost exclusively white.

CAT embodied gender awareness and gender parity in its early working practices on site, and more recently explicit political analyses have begun to emerge in Clean Slate, CAT’s practical journal of sustainable living. For example, ‘Why zero carbon needs women’ (Jenny Hawley, pp27-29) and ‘Equality, diversity and the creation of a zero carbon future’ (Helen Atkins. pp3-31), both in Clean Slate, No 100, summer 2016. And the latest issue, No. 101, Autumn 2016, is headlined, ‘Brexit: What now?’ and includes articles on poverty and climate change. Amidst political turmoil and social carnage, environmentalists and feminists could do with mapping some serious common ground in the context of anti Austerity politics, which post Brexit look set to become even more challenging.

Paul Allen, CAT’s lead on Zero Carbon, notes how the Tory government has rolled back on practical support for renewable energy and zero carbon building, while encouraging fracking, and the potential significance of the fact that many of the leading Brexit campaigners are climate sceptics (‘Climate policy’, Clean Slate No.101 Autumn2016: 21). The reduced influence of the UK on EU climate policy as a result of leaving the EU is also a serious concern. Dr Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), surveying a year in which climate policy has gone backwards in the UK, finds further disturbing evidence in a Committee on Climate Change (CCC: the UK government’s advisory body on this issue) overview of research comparing ‘production’ emissions and ‘consumption’ emissions (‘How big is the average Briton’s carbon footprint, really?’ Clean Slate No 101 Autumn 2016: 16). He concludes:

So there is absolutely no justification for the UK government cutting back on climate action. Quite the reverse – we need to accelerate transition. Much more ambitious policies on energy conservation, energy generation from renewable sources and sustainable consumption urgently need to be pursued (ibid.). Emphasis added.

Katherine Knox, Policy & Research Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, currently leading the JRF’s programme on climate change, social justice and community resilience, re-iterates that:

Recent policy has been moving in the wrong direction. We also need to start thinking more holistically about climate change mitigation and adaptation (‘Poverty, disadvantage and climate change – finding solutions’, Clean Slate  No 101 Autumn 2016:19).

Josh Fox, film-maker, playwright and environmental activist, offers an even more explicit verdict: “Fracking is a form of climate denial” (11 10 2016, The Guardian), at a time when the evidence is in: “climate crisis is upon us” (ibid.). He argues that:

Courage is what the movement fighting climate change and fossil fuels needs most now. Lack of courage by western governments is having devastating consequences (ibid.).

It is courage that can move us, individually and collectively, beyond narrow vested interests and beyond our personal comfort zones. Fox cites activist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, who estimates that:

We have 17 years to replace all fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy. That means no new fossil fuel projects. Period. We burn down what we have, and we build renewable energy sources as fast as we can. That means no new pipelines, no new fracking fields, no new offshore drilling, no new tar sands or coal mines (cited Fox, ibid.).

As Fox summarises:

The neoliberal promise that we can both prevent catastrophic warming and allow energy companies to get rich extracting and burning more fossil fuels is a fallacy. We can’t (ibid.).

In 2016, it is resoundingly clear that facing up to climate change is a national and international political project, a challenge for the Left and progressive politics. What will be the contribution of the environmental movement, the Green party, the Labour party and the trade unions to this political process now that the EU referendum decision to leave the EU has been taken? In 2016, facing up to climate change entails challenging neoliberal assumptions, values and practices, undoing the internalisation of that ‘neoliberal common sense’ that there is no alternative, and developing practical alternatives.

At a national and local level, Knox cites the importance of tackling social justice issues, such as poverty:

The issue of low-income households paying disproportionately more towards the costs of policy measures paid for through energy bills has been widely reported. But the answer is not simply to avoid taking policy measures; it is an argument for a fairer application of the costs, and the use of taxation as a more progressive route to fund policy measures (Katherine Knox, ibid.: 18). Emphasis added.

This is politics: parliamentary and international politics. Political action at the local level is also an essential part of national and global change. However, as you participate in environmental events, such as the CAT members’ conference, you can find yourself caught up in discussions that are fundamentally consumerist, predicated on lifestyle options and choices; sharing information and experience, for example, regarding insulation, passive solar heating, photovoltaic (PV) technologies, heating systems, energy consumption and costs, ‘waste’ (excess) disposal, recycling, composting and personal zero carbon ambitions, etc..

This sharing is important, but it is not environmentalism as politics, but rather a lifestyle discourse mainly by and for those who have some material prosperity (land, property, disposable income, capital, etc.), relevant education and training, and a measure of independent control over their lives, plus disposable time. This demographic and its accompanying culture could constitute an obstacle to the sharing and social co-creativity required if we are to develop an effective progressive politics that goes beyond the constraints (and pleasures) of neoliberal individualism. This cohort may occupy a (privileged) comfort zone that they (understandably) wish to maintain and/or defend. As one woman explained in a small group discussion: “I don’t want to be harangued or told what to do. I already do a lot of things”.

The issues raised in the last two issues of Clean Slate highlight the significance of the relation between environmental action and environmental politics, on the one hand, and electoral politics and parliamentary action on the other, at a time when, post Brexit, the UK political landscape is imploding, social relations are in upheaval, and our relations with other countries and cultures could be on the skids.

Grounds for progressive politics: agreeing the basics.
The events of these last months have left progressives tearing our hair out in despair (and fear) at the sight of such polarisation: politics as unregulated vested interest / greed / male dominance / triumphalism; and politics as grievance / self harm / defeatism / helplessness: incoherent and coherent rage. John Harris has offered this ominous summary:

The rising inequality fostered by globalization and free-market economics manifests itself in a cultural gap that is tearing the left’s traditional constituency in two. Once, social democracy – or, if you prefer, democratic socialism – was built on the support of both the progressive middle class and the parts of the working class who were represented by the unions. Now, a comfortable, culturally confident constituency seems to stare in bafflement at an increasingly resentful part of the traditionally Labour-supporting working class (John Harris [06 09 2016] ‘Does the left have a future?’ The Guardian Journal: 25).

By contrast, film-maker, Ken Loach, asked about the criticism that Jeremy Corbyn is more interested in growing the movement than in winning power, replies:

I think that is nonsense. The stronger the movement, the greater chance of winning an election. It has to be a movement, in that it isn’t just an electoral machine . . . . What the Labour movement is about is a broad mass of people actively engaged in a democratic process (cited Simon Hattenstone interview, ‘Here comes trouble’ The Guardian Weekend, 15 10 2016: 48).

Loach compares the present situation to his experience in the 1960s of small groups just talking to each other, and “he loves the fact that there are now so many people engaged in the debate” (ibid.).

Age and social class can certainly be mapped on to the divisions mentioned by Harris, but education has emerged as a distinctive factor, and not just as a function of age and social class:

            Voters with postgraduate qualifications split 75 to 25 in favour of remain.   Meanwhile, among those who left school without any qualifications, the vote was almost exactly reversed: 73 to 27 for leave. A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last month confirmed that ‘educational opportunity was the strongest driver’ of the Brexit vote (David Runciman, ‘Degrees of separation’, The Guardian, 05 10 2016: 32).

Drawing on a report on the 1983 general election, Runciman notes:

Graduates, even in the 1980s, tended to be much more concerned about the         environment than other sectors of the population. They were also strikingly more internationalist in outlook (ibid.).

And this constituency certainly congregates within environmental groups and organisations, for example CAT members. It appears that higher education introduced “values distinct from class experience” and “related to issues that were not straightforwardly economic” (ibid. 33). Runciman concludes that the significance of education is that:

Education does not simply divide us on the grounds of what is in our interests. It sorts us according to where we feel we belong (ibid: 33).

In the autumn of 2011, I attended three national conferences in quick succession: I had an urgent need to be among crowds of people with whom I felt I had some values in common, and with whom I felt some sense of belonging. In the event, I noticed that the Friends of the Earth residential conference in Nottingham was overwhelmingly white and middle class, but there were plenty of women. The CAT members’ conference in Machynlleth, Powys, was exclusively white and middle class and rather male dominated. The Labour party conference, held that year in Liverpool, was gloriously mixed: all ages, backgrounds, sexual preference, ethnicities, and a real mix of women and men. I remember thinking that this was because it was national, and that if it had been a local event, it would have been exclusively white. The Labour party experience was exhilarating and filled me with hope. (Perhaps I should explain that I had moved to Liverpool in 1973 from multicultural south east London and had missed that diversity.)

The demographics of our groups and organisations have social and political consequences that, if too monocultural and fixed, constitute an obstacle to building a sense of sufficient ‘common cause’ and ‘shared identity’ beyond ourselves. It is clear that it is the Labour party that already embodies and represents our diversity as a people and society, across differences of social class and ethnicity, for example. Environmental groups, and even many women’s groups, have some catching up to do, and too often reproduce the structural differentials of social class, race and sexuality for example, that operate as divisions in wider society.

But crisis – and this is surely a time of social, economic and political crisis – can afford opportunity and clarity; new determination and courage; new strategies and alliances: co-creativity. Ceri Hutton, human rights researcher and activist from Ulverston, Cumbria, offers this neat summary:

The Corbyn campaign for me is about changing social and political tack. Unless we do, we will sell off more public assets, lose our NHS, turn our children into automatons, devalue art, watch more and more people lose support and dignity, trash more human rights and keep pumping money towards the rich in the laughable hope that somehow, some day, they will hand it back. And we continue to thunder towards the cliff of climate change (cited, ‘Cumbria for Corbyn’, Labour Briefing, September 2016: 6).

John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, attests:

It is unimaginable that Labour could ever go back to supporting austerity; to            endorsing attacks on benefit claimants, supporting aggressive wars or scapegoating migrants (‘What does the Labour leadership election tell us?’ Labour Briefing, September 2016: 5).

He concludes that the campaign to remove Jeremy from office wants:

a return to a politics where Labour leaders may make bold statements about changing society but are easily incorporated – a return to a politics where elections are simply a rotation of political elites (ibid.). Emphasis added.

What is therefore required is a substantial change of political culture – custom and practice – a rebuilding of trust:

banishing the era of spin, triangulation and sharp suited politicians saying   whatever they think we want to hear (ibid.).

The other Labour leadership candidates in 2015 all tried that and were roundly called out. Many in the PLP failed to understand why Jeremy was favoured above those other candidates. They had only to listen to the voices of his supporters, old and young, experienced and inexperienced, across the country, who, given the chance, demonstrated understanding and could explain with straightforward eloquence. Like victims of childhood sexual abuse, many had waited a long time to be heard and believed, instead of disregarded, blamed, exploited, managed and/or suppressed.

In 2014/15, The Kilburn Manifesto (2015) team (headed up by the Soundings journal founders, Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin) defined the central problem as the “character of the entire neoliberal system, with whose advance the New Labour government (this is not to deny its achievements) had been complicit” (Michael Rustin ‘Alternatives to neoliberalism: a framing statement’, Soundings, Issue 62, 2016: 13):

We did not think it useful to be engaging in debates over ‘policies’ when what needed to be addressed were the fundamental assumptions on which any specific policies needed to be based (ibid.).

Examining fundamental assumptions can produce a list of obstacles and barriers on the one hand, and ‘solutions’/services/practices on the other, about which agreement could be reached, first in terms of their importance/priority, then in terms of how to tackle the obstacles and barriers, and how to fund and organise the ‘solutions’/ services/practices. Such a process can work to avoid waffle, spin, power play, sloganising and abstraction. Internal Labour debates and cross party conversations could usefully address attitudes to the following:

  • poverty (economic, food, fuel, education opportunity) NB children
  • inequality (see above + attitudes to difference and disadvantage)
  • gender power relations
  • social class disadvantage NB children
  • scarcity (clean air, water, food, energy, land, housing)
  • climate change
  • violence & violation: abuse / conflict / terrorism / war NB children
  • violence & violation: misogyny, homophobia, racism, disablism
  • fundamentalisms
  • militarism, the arms industry
  • neoliberalism
  • corruption & exploitation.

‘Solutions’/services/practices could include attitudes to, and social and political practices regarding:

  • tax: revenue, regulation, fairness (redistribution)
  • investment
  • economic policy and practice NB power relations
  • employment issues: conditions, protections, rights NB power relations
  • public sector: values & services
  • privatisation
  • technology
  • energy: renewables & nuclear
  • digital citizenship (users as citizens not just consumers)
  • education for life & democracy, not just employment/work
  • land: ownership, use, responsibility
  • housing
  • arts
  • NHS
  • public health, mental health, social care & welfare support
  • regulation, e.g. H & S, social justice, inequality, corruption
  • food: production, distribution, regulation
  • transport
  • social justice & human rights
  • democracy / the body politic.

None of these ‘headlines’ occupies its own discrete box, but partakes of a range of conjunctions and scenarios. Exploring fundamental assumptions and priorities together, as part of peer process, helps establish areas of potential consensus, controversy and practical political action, as well as the lines in the sand for individuals, constituencies and political parties. It can help generate a meaningful and honest conversation, a different political methodology, which is genuinely capacity building.

For example, do we want a society in which poverty, inequality and climate change are accepted as unavoidable and immutable? By contrast, do we want a society that is organised in ways that alleviate, eliminate or arrest economic poverty, inequalities and climate change? Or one in which poverty and inequality are used as political tools, a form of control, dominance and punishment; a source of personal, public shame? These are political decisions for us to make.

Pursuing this approach, do we see tax as an imposition and burden, a curtailment of individual freedom, or as “about how to make collective choices that work best for the communities we all live in” (Richard Murphy, The joy of tax: how a fair tax system can create a better society, 2015; cited Doreen Massey, ‘Tax: a political fault line.’ Review, Soundings, ibid.: 161). Massey argues:

At the broadest (and deepest) level, tax and tax policy should be, explicitly and politically, about constituting the society we want. It is about the constitution of our collectivity (Massey, ibid.: 163. See also Tax Justice Focus [2015], The greatest invention: tax and the campaign for a just society.) Emphasis added.

Each of the obstacles and barriers listed here can be fruitfully interrogated in this way, moving us towards greater transparency and potential mutual understanding. This process also has the effect of democratizing the political parties, organisations, communities and groups that take part. More people understand what is at stake; and more people feel they have a stake in decision-making and parliamentary policies. More and better information circulates as a basis for understanding and decisions. Complexity is more likely to be acknowledged than denied. (The Carbon Conversations project described by Rosemary Randall and Andy Brown sounds like something similar. See Randall & Brown, ‘In time for tomorrow?’ Clean Slate No 96 Summer 2015:30/31).

Compare this methodology to the ‘post truth’ politics of the populist Brexit campaign.
Progressive politics in 2016 must encompass an anti-populist strategy, not least because:

Populists deny, or wish away, the pluralism of contemporary societies. When they say equality, they mean sameness. . . (Jan-Werner Muller [03 09 2016]  ‘The fantasy of populism’. The Guardian Review: 5). Emphasis added.

Fear of difference, hostility towards the Other, and the emphasis placed on purity, drives racism and its violations.

It is a profound illusion to think that populists . . . . can improve our   democracies. Populists are just different elites who try to grab power with the help of a collective fantasy of political purity (ibid.).

Step up Nigel Farage with his talk of “the (little) people”, and he is one of them, in opposition to the establishment!

But liberals also have to tread on the dangerous territory of identity politics.They have to argue against the populist fantasies of a ‘pure people’, and instead fashion attractive and, above all, pluralist conceptions of Britishness and Americanness (Jan-Werner Muller [03 09 2016] ‘The fantasy of populism’. The Guardian Review: 5).

On the central concern of this commentary, the relation between environmental issues, feminist values and anti Austerity politics, and their productive conjunction as a basis for progressive politics and a new political methodology as suggested above, there is a further complicating factor that has become visible during these politically charged months.

Education has historically been a key feature of the Labour project: hence the importance of free postwar state education and later the introduction of comprehensive secondary education that was meant to supersede the tripartite system of grammar schools, technical schools and secondary schools, which divided and categorised children at the age of eleven. Politically, education was seen as a core right within equalities campaigns, for all marginalised and oppressed constituencies. It has been seen as central to self-determination, economic and social advancement, and creativity. In practice, however, children attending technical schools and secondary schools (i.e. the overwhelming majority of children – 98%?) were generally not expected to apply for university, and in the main were not allowed to know such places existed. Ignorance about higher education opportunities may have been more common in the north of England, where poverty was more extreme and the comprehensive revolution took longer to establish.

Formal education in a class-based society in which the instruments of social class hierarchy (public schools) were left in place by the 1945 Labour government, could variously be conceived as the shedding of disadvantage, as ‘empowerment’, ‘escape’, as ‘access’, as part of the ‘knowledge is power’ discourse. But notice how the language of escape, upward mobility and access connotes entry / getting in / gain, and a move away from working-class lives and values, perceived as in ‘deficit’.

Hardly surprising then that there always remained working-class communities that resisted the charms of education, seeing it as ‘social makeover’, as a giving up of and disowning of working-class culture, values and practices. Education as middle class would remain hostile territory, and many working-class children would experience disadvantage and damage within the system, at the hands of white middle class teachers, for whom they represented ‘lack’ and/or ‘deviance’. (See references at end.)

It is October 2016, and David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, offers a summary of what could prove to be a cruel new twist on English anti-intellectualism. With more graduates than ever before, after years expanding higher education and access to it, he speculates whether education has mutated to become a mark of privilege; knowledge a perk of power; a moral assumption of superiority; self interest dressed up as expertise, an expression of self righteousness (see ibid.: 33). If this is the case, our society is in big trouble, and progressive politics just hit another buffer. The public political conversations envisaged above test levels of shared conceptual language and analytical skills. And these are skills, aptitudes and practices (research, analysis, communication, debate) associated with creative early years and secondary education, but in particular post 16 education, and especially good university education. A vivid example of this political challenge post ‘Brexit” is food.

Noting that “in the UK . . . our food system is fractured by gross inequalities of access, cost, health and culture”, Tim Lang, of the Centre for Food Policy, conjures the technical, intellectual, diplomatic and political complexity facing government (and the rest of us) in the wake of the referendum decision to leave the EU, and the incredible complexity of “unravelling decades of food law and regulations” (Tim Lang, ‘The food system’, Clean Slate No 101 Autumn 2016: 20) amongst other things, at a time when:

The UK, European and global food systems ought to begin a complicated process of restructuring to reduce food impact on climate change, biodiversity loss, water and food waste, at the same time as shifting the diets in the rich and poor worlds (ibid.)

These are public health issues, as much as environmental and economic concerns, none of which were discussed during the referendum campaign, despite the fact that the UK imports 30% of its food, and migrants are established and prominent workers in farming and horticulture . This whole-society process requires a host of experts (and there is serious doubt that these actually exist in the numbers required, not least because of entrenched Tory mistrust of intellectuals and experts, who exert critical intelligence that can cause political discomfort). It also requires wide-ranging public participation, understanding, consent and behaviour change. Lang calls for us “to get our act together, to be calm and analytical” (ibid.)! You sense he dreads further uproar and widespread panic. There is both a sense of crisis and urgency in his observations and analysis, as he asks: “What are our tasks right now?” (ibid.).

Faced with such complexities, Lang emphasises the importance of “creating new working alliances” (ibid.), which speaks to the central challenge those of us face who are politically active in whatever way and to whatever degree. But if, as Runciman speculates, education, previously prized on the Left as a right, power and pleasure, as nourishment for mind and soul, has become commodified as an instrument of neoliberalism, as a mark of privilege and superiority, then rising to the challenge of building new working alliances will be harder, not least because neoliberalism is quintessentially hierarchical and sets us in competition with each other, rather than nurturing the skills of cooperation and collaboration.

To be effective, new working alliances must be heartfelt, meaningful and strategic: and they demand our best efforts and expertise. Ken Loach provides a relevant example. He is still a member of Left Unity, not the Labour party.

But since Jeremy Corbyn took over as leader, it hasn’t stood in elections. It is not standing in opposition to Labour (cited Hattenstone, ibid: 48).

And it’s possible that Loach might leave Left Unity and rejoin Labour: “Because that’s where the big discussion will be happening” (ibid.). (Emphasis added.) Lang’s concluding counsel and sense of urgency and opportunity clearly have relevance beyond the politics of food:

We need to talk widely. . . We have much work to do and there will be many who share our concerns. This may be a time for unlikely bedfellows and unholy alliances (ibid.). Emphasis added.

This cultural shift towards what Loach describes as “a broad mass of people actively engaged in a democratic process” (cited Hattenstone, ibid.48) will take personal and political courage and stamina, as well as discrimination and organisation. The current Tory government, with a leader neither elected by her party nor the country; with a majority of 12; escalating internal divisions, acrimony and disorder, variously arising out of unbridled ambitions, personal laziness and political incompetence, should not be viewed as unassailable. To challenge and overcome the government demands a process of togetherness and co-creativity on the part of opposition parties, and we need to imagine and begin to forge this movement well ahead of the next general election.

val walsh / 17 10 2016

References re. state education and social class in the postwar period:

  • Mary Kennedy, Cathy Lubelska & Val Wash (eds) (1993) Making Connections: Women’s Studies, Women’s Movements, Women’s Lives.
  • Val Walsh, ‘Terms of engagement: pedagogy as a healing politic’ in Louise Morley & Val Walsh (eds) (1996) Breaking Boundaries: Women in Higher Education: 187-207;
  • ‘Interpreting class: auto/biographical imaginations and social change’ in Pat Mahony & Christine Zmroczek (eds) (1997) Class Matters: ‘Working-Class’ Women’s Perspectives on Social Class: 152-174;
  • ‘Digging up tangled roots: feminism and resistance to white working-class culture’ in Pauline Polkey (ed.) (1999) Women’s Lives Into Print: The Theory, Practice and Writing of Feminist Auto/biography: 197-215;
  • ‘From tangle to web: women’s life histories and feminist process’ in Pamela Cotterill, Sue Jackson & Gayle Letherby (eds.) (2007) Challenges and Negotiations for Women in Higher Education: 73-94.

end

 

 

 

 

 

Trident debate in 2016: catalyst or just protest?

 

  • Preamble
  • What’s different for CND in 2016?
  • Changing political / technological / environmental pressures
  • Trident: old technology
  • Trident as a feminist issue
  • Making connections, building alliance
  • New politics? Or just resistance?

Preamble.
The well attended public meeting (100+, with other attendees hanging in and outside the doorway), ‘Stop Trident. Decision Time 2016’ (16 02 206 @ 19 00-21 30) was organised by Merseyside CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). Peter Wilson, Co Chair of MCND, expertly chaired the lively comments and discussion that followed the presentations by the panel of four speakers, two national, two local: Bruce Kent, Vice President, CND, Chris Nineham, National Officer, Stop the War Coalition, Liverpool Councillor and Green Party Mayoral candidate, Tom Crone, and Kim Bryan, General Secretary, Socialist Labour Party. The panel of four speakers included no representatives from the Labour party or Momentum.

It was agreed that this is a moment of political opportunity regarding the replacement or cancelling of Trident, and attendees, especially longstanding CND campaigners, were pleased at the increased media coverage and debate taking place nationally. More explicit acknowledgement of the role of Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in creating the space for this shift towards open public debate on nuclear weapons and defence, after years of virtual silence and political suppression, would have been just.

Cost was seen as a key strategic concern, not just a moral issue. The need (for the Labour party, for example) to spell out how the money saved from cancelling Trident could be spent, was stressed, and how important it was for displaced workforces to be redeployed, for example in expanded areas of green technology, alternative energy projects and other social and technological innovations. The escalating and apparently incalculable costs of replacing Trident, are actually useful to the Tories in their determination not to spend on health, social care, welfare, education, and infrastructure projects (such as technological innovation and supporting employment beyond city finance) that probably most of those in the room wanted to see. The language used to effect the political scam is also key:

 When the 2008 economic storm hit (a metaphor which itself does ideological work, implying an act of nature rather than a   crisis of human folly) the then shadow chancellor Osborne reached for a tried and tested script. ‘The cupboard is bare’, he sternly announced, likening bankrupt Britain to an over-indebted home (Tom Clark, ‘We need a new language to talk about the economy’. The Guardian, 19 02 2016).

Eight years later, Osborne sticks with the ‘storm’ metaphor, as he prepares to outsource his own economic incompetence and brutality, now as chancellor: ‘Osborne warns of further spending cuts as global “storm clouds” loom’ (Nicholas Watt, The Guardian, 27 02 2016). He seeks to prepare the electorate for his economic failure, but wants to make sure we don’t attach blame to his policies since 2010, but instead identify the responsibility for any disappointment or disaster as ‘out there’, beyond our borders, where ‘foreigners’ reside.

At this ‘Stop Trident’ meeting in Liverpool, people were aware of the need to challenge language, rhetoric and lies: the oft-repeated presented as ‘truth’ / ‘facts’, for example, the questionable posture that Trident is a ‘deterrent’; and the mantra that security and defence depend on weapons. Evidence suggests otherwise: that aggression and violation begat more of the same, and that in 2016 security and defence are not secured by weapons and militarism, let alone weapons of mass destruction. The safety of societies and communities are better served via education, economic investment (not exploitation), skilled diplomacy, professional spies, cultural exchange and other peace-making initiatives.

But as a CND supporter since being taken to my first CND rally as a girl by my father, on this particular occasion my interest centred on how CND discourses have matched and responded to the dramatic developments of the intervening years. At the end of the evening, not very well was my worried conclusion.

What’s different for CND in 2016, compared to the 1950s or 1980s?
This is a new crisis, not a rerun. We haven’t been here before. So what are the distinctive features of the contemporary context for the Trident debate? And what’s new in our experience, in our thinking and understanding? And in our politics.

New political / technological / environmental pressures:

  • UK society has suffered 40+ years of neoliberal brutality (spun as economics), and its consequences for lives, communities, the economy and democracy itself (see my blog: togetherfornow.wordpress.com).
  • The UK Tory government is on its way to dismantling / privatising the NHS and what remains of the welfare, public sector values put in place in 1948 by a Labour government, after a war that had devastated society’s institutions and infrastructure, as well as traumatised its people.
  • Without the NHS, without social housing and affordable homes, and without access to free education, for example, democracy in the UK will also collapse, for democracy depends on health and wellbeing, access to education, the economic viability and dignity of the general population, as well as the rule of law, not as commodities or purchases, but as human rights. Democracy depends on and is a function of, national efforts towards equality and social justice, in a non-militarised society.
  • The NHS is not just a service provider, not just about our bodies/minds, but embodies the core values of our society. (See, for example, Michael Sandel [2012] What Money Can’t Buy. The Moral Limits of Markets.) As such, the NHS is foundational, for example, to the mitigation of poverty, social class differences and disadvantage: to survival, dignity and opportunity of the poorest and most vulnerable, not just the richest and most powerful.
  • The latest neoliberal turn of the screw is the discourse of Tory Austerity since 2010: the Cuts being made to services and social support, ostensibly to pay down ‘the deficit’ produced by bankers’ misbehavior (see the film, The Big Short, 2015). This is not economics but Tory politics. The general population is meant to internalise this scam as ‘necessity’ and as ‘right’, and a reason why there is less and less money for the public services and institutions we had come to accept as central to a civilized and fair society. Meanwhile:

In the US, the top 1% grabbed more than half the total growth in the first five years of recovery, while in the UK, George Osborne, a chancellor who saw no choice to imposing the bedroom tax, still found room to trim the tax rate on top incomes (Clark, ibid.).

Mistakenly, free education and healthcare, sufficient and affordable housing, were assumed as ‘natural’, ‘normal’, permanent: unquestionably part of our social reality. In fact, they are political commitments made by social democracies, as opposed to militarized, totalitarian states. Discussing “water rights and water fights”, Susan George concludes:

 Privatisation means nothing more than handing over the results of the work of thousands of people over decades with virtually no guarantees. The word itself is a lie, and the phenomenon should be called, rather, ‘alienation’, or simply a ‘sell-out’ or ‘give-away’ (George [2010] Whose Crisis, Whose Future? Towards a Greener, Fairer, Richer World: 151).

The break up of the NHS is important for a neoliberal Tory government, not just because of the range of business opportunities made available by ‘privatisation’, but because of ‘collateral damage’: its impact on democracy, on the population’s ability and motivation to participate as active, critical and effective citizens, who believe they have power to influence events and their society.

  • Neoliberalism has not just contributed deregulation, privatization, financial corruption and growing inequalities in this period. Its invasions and wars have contributed to a rise in terrorism rooted in religious and political fundamentalisms. The nature of inter/national conflict and threats to national security has altered since the inception of CND in the 1950s. (See BBC1 adaptation of John Le Carre’s 1993 novel, The Night Manager, in which the action has been shifted from a drama about Columbian drug barons, to Middle Eastern warlords. Being screened from 21 02 2016.) The rise of terrorism, of extremist jihadist groups, presents threats to the UK that Trident can play no useful part in combatting, as opposed to increasing the risk of the UK as a terrorist target.
  • In addition to refugees fleeing terrorism and war zones, these years have seen a growing awareness of the plight of environmental refugees (see George [2010: 182-184), and “the resource scarcity issues guaranteed to provoke conflict” (ibid.: 188). Food, water and shelter must figure prominently on that list. (See George, chapter 4, ‘The wall of conflict’: 161-193.)

These structural issues, such as what and who governments choose to fund, foster, starve or destroy, position and shape individuals differentially and collectively, as well as hierarchically, as social constituencies attributed with different social and political value and status. The rising power of the Davos class during the neoliberal years (named after the Swiss resort where they congregate to discuss futures) encapsulates these issues: George deploys the prison metaphor as a guide:

 You can find the Davos class in every country – . . . . They run our major institutions, including the media, know exactly what they want and are much more united and better organized than we are. . . . The Davos class, despite its members’ nice manners and well tailored clothes, is predatory. . . they are also well versed in prison management and they hire the best-trained and most clever guards to keep us where we are (George [ibid]: 7 & 8).

Trident: old technology.
There are other key ways in which 2016 is not a rerun of the 1950s or 1980s: technological innovation is overtaking Trident. Trident is already old technology:

 Forget Trident. Modern warfare means a country can be brought to its knees with little more than a finger on a mouse (Julian Borger [16 01 2016] ‘One false click’. The Guardian).

Pretending otherwise could be a dangerous as well as disingenuous stance. Politically inept and corrupt, when the future is “hybrid warfare”, “cyber warfare”. Borger is not alone in arguing that: “This is the new reality” (ibid. 23). “Big subs can be picked up” (ibid.: 26). Given that secrecy, undetectability have been supposedly key features of the efficacy and power of Trident as a ’nuclear deterrent’, this puts its claim to fame under severe strain. (For more information, see scientist, Dr David Hookes, ‘The truth about Trident’, power point presentation at Merseyside Momentum Political Education event , 09 02 2016.)

As the UK parliament approaches a decision on Trident’s renewal in 2016, Green MP, Caroline Lucas, argues:

Britain must now take this opportunity to use evidence, rather than bravado, as the basis for this historic decision (Letter to The Guardian, 16 01 2016).

And in 2016, new evidence and understanding relevant to the Trident debate extend beyond the impact of neoliberalism, technological innovation, fundamentalisms, terrorism, climate change and environmental crisis. The meeting in Liverpool exposed orthodoxy and conservatism; generational and political issues internal to anti-Trident discourse and activism. The meeting, while alive with knowledgeable, impassioned and concerned participants, nonetheless constituted problematic evidence of significant oversight, absence and ignorance, as if time has stood still.

Trident as a feminist issue.
As well as no Labour or Momentum presence on the panel of three men and one woman, none of whom were young any more (the generational make-up of the panel may be significant in relation to my next questions), there was no evident feminist presence on the panel.

  • Does this mean that the organisers fail to see Trident as a feminist issue?
  • Are they unaware of relevant feminist critique, analysis and activism from the last 40 years?
  • Or, aware of the latter, do they prefer to ignore and exclude these perspectives and insights, in which they have played no part, and therefore have no platform: to silence these (mainly) women’s voices and carry on as before?

For example, Bruce Kent argued that Trident was all about British nationalism, and he cited the initial desire by the UK government to obtain nuclear weapons after the 1939/45 war, and to stick a large union jack on Trident. But Trident is not just about British nationalism, or rather nationalism is not a gender-neutral phenomenon, but represents manliness and elite masculinity as the emblem of power internationally. Nationalism and its invasions and wars are these men’s favoured fighting projects / games. In 2016, we have the means to better understand these patriarchal structures, behaviours and projects, in ways not publicly possible in the 1940s and 1950s, when women’s voices and feminist insights were largely unheard in the public domain, and in particular within politics, militarism, foreign policy and defence.

The murder of civilians, the majority of whom would be women, children and elderly men (as a speaker from the floor pointed out) should make the immorality of the enterprise indisputable, and help us make the arguments for not renewing Trident. This fact alone identifies nuclear weapons as a feminist issue, for:

  • incorporating premeditated violence against women and girls (as ‘collateral damage’), as military policy at an international level and
  • training men into a predatory, violent hetero-masculinity that will do that job without demur. (See Val Walsh [10 02 2016] ‘Trident: Are you manly enough?’ togetherfornow.wordpress.com, ‘Presentations 2016’ category.)

In Wounding the World. How Military Violence and War-Play Invade our Lives (2014), Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, examines:

not only the most direct and brutal mechanisms of military power (as seen in times of war), but also the processes by which soldierly values and martial organisations wield progressively more power within civilian society (Bourke: 7). See also Bourke (1999) An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to Face Killing in C20 Warfare.

It is critical voices and feminist analysis that have helped us see war, terrorism, militarism, religious and political fundamentalisms, capitalism, and neoliberalism, for example, as feminist issues: involving the cultivation of a predatory, misogynist masculinity, producing institutionalised violence against the most vulnerable in a society: unarmed civilians, not soldiers or mercenaries. And these cross-disciplinary and holistic critiques and analyses help make connections between, for example, social organization, environmental sustainability, economics, peace, democracy and social justice, thereby breaking orthodox demarcations that prioritise, for example, weapons, war, ‘defence’ and sovereignty, and widening public discourse to the larger questions:

  • What kind of society do we want to be?
  • What kind of world do we want to help create and sustain?

These questions and issues require a probing, interdisciplinary approach; multifaceted, holistic awareness; peer process rather than hierarchy: co-production. The tick box mentality promoted by consumerism, for example, will not do this political job. The depth of the probe required is conjured by Katrine Marcal (2015) in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story about Women and Economics:

We can criticize economic man as much as we like. As long as we can’t see that he is a gendered theory of the world based on our collective fear of the ‘female’ we will never be free (Marcal: 184). (Emphasis added.)

In her ambitious historical overview of the workings of patriarchy in C19 and C20, German journalist and feminist activist, Marielouise Janssen-Jurreit, critically considers ‘Women without a platform’ in Part 3, starting with a chapter on ‘The fathers of socialism”. She notes:

Marx. . . never directly criticized women’s legal incapacitation, which John Stuart Mill, in 1869, characterized as nothing but bondage legally sanctioned (Janssen-Jurreit, Sexism: The Male Monopoly on History and Thought. Originally published in German in 1976; reprinted in a shorter English translation in 1982: 104.)

In a chapter on ‘Socialism and feminism’, her accounts:

 illustrate the value attributed to the situation of women in everyday life by male party comrades, Social Democratic editors, and labour functionaries. For socialist men class liberation was primarily a liberation of men; women’s emancipation was a secondary promise of historical development [as opposed to politics]. In the more than hundred-year history of the European workers’ parties this has not changed (Janssen-Jurreit, ibid.: 115). (Emphasis added + bracketed insert added.)

Has this orthodoxy softened at all since Janssen-Jurreit wrote these words in 1982? (See Walsh [10 10 2012] ‘Sexism and activism: What’s the problem?’ and Walsh [10 10 2012] ‘Thinking through and beyond sexism: Reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others)’, both on this blog in ‘Essays 2013′ category.)

Katrine Marcal, a young Swedish journalist, writing 40 years after Janssen-Jurreit, i.e. after 40 more years of feminist activism, research and analysis, re-iterates and further illuminates the historical dilemma underpinning how working-class women and men are positioned within these debates, and in particular in relation to feminist projects and politics:

 Dependency has for centuries been seen as shameful. It was something that slaves and women were. When working-class men demanded the right to vote they did it by arguing that they were indeed independent. Before, dependency had been defined through ownership. Those who were owners were independent. Those who worked for someone else were dependent. But the workers’ movement redefined that which was previously called wage-slavery as a source of   pride. Independence came to be defined as having a job with a salary that could support a family. Then one was doing one’s duty. So one could also demand rights.

        Woman, on the other hand, couldn’t do this – because she was still dependent.

 That for working-class men to be ‘independent’ by working full-time they had to depend on women to take care of the  home was not part of that history. Just as Adam Smith failed to tell us about his mother (Marcal [2015]: 185/186).

How this narrative positioned gay working-class men, as socially and politically Other / ‘invisible’, implicitly ‘deviant’, also remained unspoken, unexamined.

Social class positioning and working-class politics do not have to exclude or override feminist analysis and politics. Issues of social class stigma and disadvantage, gender power relations, homophobia, misogyny and racism (the fascist package) are entwined issues, not least because we are all more than one thing, we are all hybrid and multiple in our identities. Yet in contributions from the floor at this meeting, from women and men, it was working-class ‘family’ men’s lives and prospects that underpinned comments and concerns, though the word men was not used.

Making connections, building alliance.
The heavy industries that are mourned locally in Liverpool, such as engineering and dock work, were traditionally men-only working environments. The talk at the meeting of re-instating manufacturing and industry seemed to look back and echo that. Yet the reality of new, high tech industries (such as digital, sustainable energy) will not involve a return to those working environments, even if some of the existing skills, such as those of the Barrow nuclear workers, are transferable and can be a basis for redeployment. Nor will the numbers ever be replicated, due to technological changes (see ‘The trouble is. . . . Economists, economics and the Left’ on this blog: togetherfornow.wordpress.com in the ‘Commentary 2016’ category).

The challenge is, for example, to:

  • restructure the UK economy, including
  • reducing the financialisation of the economy
  • decommission Trident
  • redirect finance towards economic and social investment that supports job creation, communities, the environment and democracy
  • reduce the militarization of society
  • reduce / eliminate the privatization and commodification of public services.

[See Walsh (25 06 2014), ‘A shared “somatic crisis”: Enough common ground?’ Presentation at INTAR conference, University of Liverpool. Also, submission to the Mayoral Commission on Environmental Sustainability (05 2014): ‘Reflections on climate change, sustainability and democracy: prioritisng renewal, equity and justice in the Liverpool city region’. Both on this blog in ‘Presentations 2014’ category.]

The underlying narrative of the ‘plight’ of (heterosexual) working-class men, and by extension their wives, partners, families, and communities, is a significant component of these debates and changes, not just in their own right as a question of economic and political equality, but because of the call of UKIP in 2016, as it targets angry, disenfranchised, mainly white male, unskilled and unemployed voters, promoting misogynist, homophobic and racist attitudes, towards muslims, for example, as part of its rhetorical flourish. Will non political and political working-class women both choose UKIP in 2016? Or will they split?

In 1976, Janssen-Jurreit saw women’s historical lack of feminist solidarity as self-inflicted social and political disadvantage:

 From a feminist point of view, the splitting of female human rights into class interest and special women’s interest is unacceptable and in effect discriminatory (Janssen-Jurreit [1982]: 124).

And:

This comparative presentation of the early socialist movement with the early women’s movement shows how two political currents, both based on emancipation, on liberation from oppression, and on the conquest of human alienation, failed to unite their efforts (ibid.: 127).

These statements still have relevance for UK progressive politics today, not least in relation to the need to build effective alliances across our differences of origin, upbringing, identity and circumstance. As Susan George shrewdly observes:

 And, let’s face it, progressives love to bicker and create fratricidal factions so that they become incapable of confronting power other than rhetorically (George, ibid: 9). (Emphasis added.)

Towards the end of the ‘Stop Trident’ meeting, Bruce Kent, Vice Chair of UK CND, drew attention to the importance of involving other campaigning groups and organisations in anti-Trident activism, such as the forthcoming march and demonstration in London. He lamented their apparent resistance to joining the struggle. Conversely, on the night, the speakers’ panel appeared to be untouched by feminism (in 2016!). When I spoke from the floor, I was faced, not with hostility, but gentle incomprehension, and unwillingness or inability to engage with the feminist issues I raised.

It seems that too many experienced anti-war activists can ‘include’ racism, fascism and the plight of asylum seekers on their agenda, but avoid feminist-initiated campaigns that implicate men’s power and misogyny (on the home front, on the street, in the workplace and in war zones), such as against violence against girls and women, the trafficking of girls and women, supporting equal pay and access to free childcare. Is this a form of political decorum that leaves feminist issues and sexual politics aside, not just as uncharted territory, but taboo?

It reminded me of attendance at CAT (Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Powys, Wales) members’ conferences 15+ years ago, where I encountered an exclusively white, middle class, male-dominated culture, in which considering social class issues, gender power relations, sexual politics, masculinities, etc. in relation to environmental issues was apparently literally unheard of: an insubordinate act. At the time, environmental issues were strictly demarcated, and seen as unconnected to social justice, poverty, public health, oppression or social class. Eco discourse was ‘apart’ from the politics of everyday life it seemed. The narrowness and compartmentalization of its ‘specialist’ concerns have since shifted, and I now feel less of an intruder / trouble maker! (At the CAT members’ conference in 2014, I presented a shortened version of my submission to the Liverpool Mayoral Commission on Environmental Sustainability, which was well received: ‘Reflections on climate change, sustainability and democracy: prioritising renewal, equity and justice in the Liverpool city region’. In ‘Presentations 2014’ category on this blog.]

The culture of CAT has responded to the participation of a more diverse membership, including feminist-aware men, and the instigation of a listening culture has produced development, creativity and innovation, that are not simply technical or technological. These developments have in turn enabled CAT to reach well beyond its original base and remit, to influence individuals, communities, organisations and institutions in the UK and beyond, while also benefiting from what is a reciprocal learning process. CAT has proved itself more relevant now, than when it was set set up 40 odd years ago.

New politics? Or just resistance?
Tory Cuts (packaged as Austerity) are designed to divide, subordinate and derail us. We must resist repeating history, and work to establish and strengthen our bonds, our shared humanitarian values and purposes. To do that, we need to acknowledge and understand the problematic history alluded to above.

Social class, gender and ‘whiteness’ have been key, if unacknowledged, determinants of the culture of environmental, peace and social justice groups in the UK from their inception. And in the wake of revelations over the years, we know that the sexual politics of some of these groups has been less than impressive. In 2016, these groups have to confront that history and their own purpose, if they are to attract new, younger and more diverse members, for example. In the light of turbo capitalism and the changes and new pressures described above, CND, along with other oppositional groups, also has to work out its political identity and allegiance, and how best in 2016 and beyond, to contribute to the social and political transformation that can be kick-started by the decommissioning of Trident. This is not a technical matter. Nor are we, as a society, on a leisurely stroll into the future. The enemies are real, rich, organised and militarised.

Like identity politics, single issue campaigns serve both a revelatory and developmental purpose , personally and politically. But they don’t have to stop there. At the moment there exist a plethora of campaigns: including VAWG, trafficking of girls and women, anti-Austerity, Keep the NHS Public / Save our NHS / mental health / Stop the War / Palestine, and campaigns against homophobia, fascism, racism, sexism and misogyny, amongst others. I have argued elsewhere for recognition of the interconnections between various social issues, as well as for the strategic importance of building alliances across differences, seeking common ground. (See Walsh [25 06 2014], ‘A shared “somatic crisis”: Enough common ground?’ posted in ‘Presentations 2014’ on this blog). The Davos class, of course, is content to see us remain in those discrete activist silos. It makes managing and controlling us a doddle.

The growing inequalities in our society and internationally are increasingly visible inequalities, due in large part to the advent of digital and social media. The expanded availability of this evidence has the potential to foster resentment, anger and conflict. Or, it can provide a basis for organised alliance and political action. Meanwhile:

All the elements of the systemic crisis – casino economy, massive inequality, the environment, resource shortage, ‘failed states’, and so on – increase the dangers of military response (George: 182).

Add “risk-increasing European responses” (George: 184-186) and “risk-promoting international financial institution policies” (George: 186-188), of which there have been more than a few since George offered her analysis in 2010, and the context of CND activism becomes differently and distinctively complex, compared to the 1950s or 1980s. George cautions that powerful nations:

 are not focusing on the real sources of future conflict and are consequently spending their military budgets in the wrong way and on the wrong things. . . . Defence budgets are more a part of the problem than of the solution (ibid: 180). (Emphasis added.)

In her introduction (2010), George looks back and ahead:

My own list of public or common goods would start with a new kind, which would not have appeared a decade ago: a climate fit for human beings (George: 14).

The male dominated Davos class will never deliver this, nor do they care to. But in 2016, it is surely a key focus for all those activist silos mentioned above: not separately, but together, in political co-ordination.

After the ‘Stop Trident’ meeting, and the evident energy and optimism it generated, I was nonetheless left with the weary feeling that peace activism / anti-Trident activism / CND suffer the same limitations as those I have identified as still entrenched within the orthodoxies and conservatism of Labour party and trade union cultures. These limitations pertain to resistance to taking women’s lives and experience seriously as a basis for theory, politics and organisation; resistance to power sharing; the resistance of heterosexual men to changing their attitudes and behaviour towards girls and women; the continuing evasion of the critical self reflexivity feminist critique and analysis require of women and men, if we are to build effective political alliances between environmental and social justice activists, including feminists, that are sufficient to the task of decommissioning, first Trident, then the current UK Tory government, as we continue to work to mitigate and overturn neoliberal orthodoxy and its mantra: TINA (There Is No Alternative).

val walsh / 22 02 2016

For follow up, see Selected Recommended Reading list, Joanna Bourke (2014) Wounding the World. How Military Violence and War-Play Invade our Lives: 294-297.

 

 

 

Food blogger Jack Monroe joins Greens

Frances Perraudin reported this news in The Guardian (18 03 2015).

The following is an expanded version of my unpublished response/letter to The Guardian.

As individuals relentlessly trained into neoliberal individualism and consumerism, the act of joining a group, a team or a club can be seen as a personal choice, an expression of preference, values and/or interests. A mark of your individuality and ‘freedom’. If it doesn’t work out to your liking, you can leave to do something else. Not unlike returning a recent purchase because it doesn’t fit / work, or you have just changed your mind (because you can).

Voting and power relations.
Voting in a UK general election is distinctly different from consumer activity. It’s a political process, not shopping (around). It’s more complex, with considerable consequences, not just for you as an individual voter, but for others, including all those you have never met, who live alongside you in society. The politics of the Left is never about personal vested interests, but about power relations and society as a whole, which is why Labour voters routinely over a lifetime, find themselves prioritizing the need to get the Tories out or stop the Tories getting in. However much the Labour party falls short of your hopes and expectations, you know you have to vote to block the Tories, because you recognise these arrogant, greedy, heartless vandals as survivors and the enemy of the majority: the people.

This fact of life will never change, because they know who they are and what they stand for; and they are very well placed and funded. Whereas on the Left, we are not simply ‘one thing’: we are diverse, dispersed, and underfunded, for example. Historian, Selina Todd, has drawn attention to the diversity of working-class life in C20 Britain, for example between Liverpool and Coventry, and she observes:

 Class is a relationship defined by unequal power, rather than a way of life or an              unchanging culture. There can be no ‘ideal’ or ‘traditional’ working class. Instead    there are individuals who are brought together by shared circumstances and experiences.[i]

In an economy that ostensibly promotes ‘choice’ as the consumerist/political offer, it is hard, perhaps particularly for those born into the neoliberal irreality (as opposed to those who experienced the ‘managed capitalism’ of the preceding years), to accept that at this level, actually you have no choice. It will feel like more than constraint, more than a curtailment of ‘freedom’, even coercion. “I don’t want to vote again for the least worst option”. But actually, that makes sense, doesn’t it?

The alternative is to let through the party you really, really don’t want to get in again, to form the next government alone or in coalition. 30+ years of neoliberal rhetoric and coercion leaves you feeling dissatisfied, indignant that you are being corralled by events and circumstances beyond your control. This doesn’t feel ‘modern’ and you don’t feel independent. But voting strategically is a function of how much you care and what/who you care about. It’s not a free for all.

Our electoral system decides which of the two main parties, with the requisite overall majority, will govern the country for the next 5 years; or which of the two main parties, without an overall majority, will govern in coalition with a smaller party or parties; and which party leader (of the two main parties) will become Prime Minister. That’s the system we have and what we have to work with until we change it.[ii]

In an election that is probably the most important, far-reaching and scary since 1945, if you want to help prevent the further dismembering of the NHS, the further ravaging of communities, the undermining of the lives of those with disabilities or ill health, and the continuing exploitation of the environment, the further privatization of everything that moves, including education, probation and social care, voting Green or SDP is not the way. Both will leave the Tories and UKIP smiling. The awkward truth is that you cannot punish the Labour Party without betraying all those who need the Tories and Lib Dems to experience outright rejection, paving the way for a Labour or Labour-led government that will work hard to remove the stain of the neoliberal years.

The Labour Party since 2010.
Since Ed Miliband became Labour Party leader in 2010, membership of the party has risen and diversified year on year, and has become more diverse and more representative of our society. At annual conferences, new and longstanding MPs, councillors, prospective parliamentary candidates and activists demonstrate their political passion, critical skills, determination, compassion, stamina and humour. It’s heartwarming and inspiring! Reaching into communities across the country, and drawing from communities, has been prioritized by the Party, not just as an election strategy, but because in opposition (and post New Labour) it is re-engaging with Labour’s historic back story and purpose: its raison d’être.[iii]

 As a historian from a working-class background, Selina Todd exposes and explores the complex social and political journey travelled by the British working class between 1910 and 2010. Opening her introduction, she writes:

Class has united and divided Britain since the Industrial Revolution. United, because                class is widely accepted as a quintessentially British fact of life, a heritage and language that we can all share. Divided, because class is no romantic tradition or amusing idiosyncracy, but is produced by exploitation in a country where a tiny elite has possessed the majority of the wealth.[iv] Emphasis added.

This understanding is part of the Labour Party’s DNA. Following chancellor George Osborne’s final budget (19 03 2015) before the general election, a Guardian letter writer comments:

A suggestion for the rich of a legal way to pay less tax: pay yourself less and pay workers a living wage. This way we would all pay less as the benefit bill would reduce. Fortunately, it is also Ed Miliband’s policy, so all we have to do is vote Labour (Brian Keegan, Guardian letters. 20 03 2015).

The place of women within the labour movement, on the other hand, has been both significant and contentious, not least since we developed our own social critiques and politics as feminists, which go beyond accepting men in power as role models and aspiring to upward ‘social mobility’.

Labour, women and social change.
Women have been historically prominent as social and political activists, inside and outside the Labour party, including across environmental, social justice and peace campaigns. The one day LP women’s conference, inaugurated in 2010 by Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader, has seen hundreds of women from across the country turning up a day early to attend (in Liverpool, Manchester, Brighton), and participation has doubled year on year. We fall over each other in our eagerness to speak from the floor; we queue patiently to share experiences and ideas; we listen attentively; we clap and cheer and wave to show support for each other. We smile and laugh and hug.

Labour’s Commission on Women’s Safety was set up in November 2011. In 2014, Labour MP Seema Malhotra was appointed by Ed Miliband as first shadow minister for preventing violence against women and girls, to work alongside the shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper. In 2014, the new panel Malhotra now chairs was launched at a packed meeting at the Labour women’s conference. The panel’s membership brings together longstanding, leading activists in the field, such as Vera Baird, QC, former Solicitor General and Northumbria’s current Police and Crime Commissioner; Holly Dustin, manager of EVAW (End Violence Against Women) coalition; and Marai Larasi, Executive Director of Imkaan, a black feminist organisation dedicated to addressing violence against women and girls, and joint chair of EVAW. In fact the only member I didn’t already know was the new Chair herself.

This is a panel of substance: established feminist activists, invited to bring their expertise and passion to this controversial, neglected and urgent area of social and political concern, and embed these issues at the heart of Labour politics and “at the heart of our modern welfare state” (Yvette Cooper, shadow Home Secretary). To see this specific all-women line-up was momentous, even before anyone spoke. It was emotional: how long have we worked and waited for this recognition?

Already, proposals from Northumbria’s own panel, for a minister for VAWG, a commissioner to tackle domestic and sexual violence, and a new National Refuge fund, have all been accepted by Labour. For more detail, see Labour: Placing Women’s Safety Centre Stage (December 2014).

How are the other parties contributing to change in this hugely significant area, which is not just about protecting and enhancing the lives of women and children, but about improving gender power relations across society?

Challenging power, voicing discontent, enacting hope.
Award-winning British singer, Paloma Faith, brought up in a politically aware environment, with a mother who took her on demonstrations as a child, when asked about voting and the coming general election, took a very different stand to actor and comedian Russell Brand, who told young people not to bother voting. She vociferously recommended:

“Vote first. Then complain!” (Channel 4 news interview, 19 03 2015).

This, I suggest, is not the time to walk away from the Labour Party, thinking:

In an ideal world we’d have a Labour/SNP/Green coalition. . . . (Jack Monroe, cited Frances Perraudin. The Guardian, 18 03 2015).

Given the contradictions inherent in such a threesome – for example, fundamental disagreements about the importance of maintaining or breaking up the union (the UK); very different priorities regarding the NHS, poverty, welfare and gender issues, for example, versus ‘green’ issues, this is not a coherent political suggestion, never mind “ideal”. Membership of the EU may be the only area of accord.

We need to vote Labour’s expanded diversity and expertise into parliament now, to effect changes in our democracy and society. Only the Labour Party, under Ed Miliband’s leadership, offers these opportunities, and only the Labour Party is in a position to consolidate women’s feminist presence and men’s feminist consciousness within our political culture, and across supportive parties, in ways that will change lives, improve women and children’s safety, social justice and cohesion, and enact environmental sustainability. These being connected projects.[v]

val walsh / 20 03 2015

[i] Selina Todd (2015) The People. The rise and fall of the working class: 7.

[ii] For in depth discussion see: ‘Friends, comrades, strangers: especially those feeling apathetic, cynical, confused, disillusioned and/or angry. Pre-election reflections as May 2015 looms’, at togetherfornow.wordpress.com under the category ‘essays 2015’.

[iii] See Harry Leslie Smith (2014) Harry’s Last Stand. How the word my generation built is falling down, and what we can do about it.

[iv] Todd (2015): 1.

[v] See Val Walsh (09 08 2014) submission to Mayor of Liverpool’s Commission on Environmental Sustainability: ‘Reflections on climate change, sustainability and democracy: prioritizing renewal, equity and justice in the Liverpool city region’. In category ‘conference presentations 2014’ at togetherfornow.wordpress.com

 

Intercultural co-creativity: More than liminal adjustment.

  • Introduction
  • The problem of the status quo:
    social class
    gender inequalities, misogyny, homophobia
    ethnicity
  • ‘Beautiful Words for Difficult Times:
    We are the sum of our parts.’
  • The relevance of Liverpool’s social, cultural and political waters.
  • Poetry as community, as partnership.
  • Interculturalism and identity.
  • On the night.
  • Art as experience, art as behaviour.
  • Engaging as intercultural communities.
  • From ‘gift’ to gifted, to gifts. The significance of women for social recovery and renewal.
  • Appendix 1: Our founding statement for the poetry event.
  • Appendix 2: From first version of the poster for the event.
  • Appendix 3: Two poems:
    ‘High Wire Act’
    ‘The Politics of Love’.

An edited version of this paper was presented as a keynote address at the EUROPEAN FORUM of the Platform for Intercultural Europe Conference (08 06 2009), The Distinctive Contribution of the Arts to Intercultural Dialogue: A View from and on the Arts. Brussels, Belgium.

Introduction

The paper opens with some scene-setting, regarding the entwined factors of demographics, political culture and equality issues in the UK City of Liverpool. These provide the backdrop to a community poetry event (05 04 09), which is discussed and analysed as a process, and as non-violent intervention. The issues of identity, empowerment, women’s lives and purpose as poets are considered; the significance of claiming our multiple identities; and performance as embodiment of both poetic and political purpose.

The paper moves on to identify the shifting ground of art and aesthetics, art and community, art and politics, and the more recent challenge posed by interculturalism. It cites the multiplicity of both the arts and interculturalism, and their synchronicity in the public domain, as virtues; as well as the central significance of women’s participation and creativity, in what are seen as core peace-making and community-building activities, rather than optional, cultural add-ons or ‘entertainment’ as distraction.

The problem of the status quo.
“A sense of belonging in an intercultural society cannot be based on race, religion, or ethnicity but needs to be based on a shared commitment to political community. Such a commitment requires an empowered citizenry.”[1] 

In the wake of identity politics and multiculturalism from the 1970s, which were both important stages for social constituencies challenging marginality, oppression and subjugation, in the pursuit of equality and social justice, the concept of interculturalism provides key concepts and guidelines for the shift from multiculturalism, with its emphasis on acknowledging and celebrating difference and separation, towards intercultural dialogue, with its emphasis on what can be shared.[2]

Leonie Sandercock confronts the reader with two key concepts: a shared commitment to political community, and empowered citizenry; as prerequisites for a sense of belonging in an intercultural society. These do not happen by accident, or automatically through the mere passing of time. And to be clear about their urgency, think about the opposite: a lack of shared commitment; the proliferation of vested interests and conflict; a disempowered population, that feels subjugated or at least marginalized. Implicitly, Sandercock highlights the importance of political and cultural awareness. This suggests that citizens are knowledgeable and educated, as well as experienced. As opposed to subjects (as in the UK monarchical system), who are technically only required to be compliant and obedient.

Using the City of Liverpool as my starting point, I take as read that Liverpool is distinctive, as a port city, historically at the centre of the industrial revolution and empire; yet always ‘on the edge’; and not quite an English city. At the same time, it typifies some of the challenges of C21 cities, and is therefore instructive in relation to the concerns and ambitions of the Platform for Intercultural Europe, and Sandercock’s analysis and vision.

  • social class

Out of twelve industrialised countries, the UK now ranks as the second most unequal society, after the USA, calculated by how many times richer are the richest fifth, compared to the poorest fifth.[3] This intensifying social inequality is stark in the Liverpool city-region. Liverpool’s identity as 2008 European Capital of Culture, and the extensive inner city regeneration projects that were a feature of this process, only serve to underline the neglect of its outlying estates, where previous inner city populations now find themselves.

The city-region is 97% British white. Does this make it a C21 monoculture?

It includes many areas that are solidly white working-class: what might be described as another ‘layer’ of monoculture. This intense singularity promotes a sense of territoriality: marked by feelings of powerlessness / abandonment / defeat; manifested variously as apathy, defiance, violence, in the context of some of the worst levels of poverty, unemployment, ill-health and educational attainment in the UK.[4] Gangs, drug culture, violent crime and murder also feature.

‘Strangers’ are easily identified in these areas, and can be a cause for concern rather than interest. By definition, monocultures lack diversity and complexity; are more likely to be standardised, unstable, and fragile; need a lot of ‘defending’; and are vulnerable to degeneration, wipe-out or internal collapse. Against the backdrop of increasingly diverse and multifaceted populations, communities and countries, such enclaves of ‘purity’ stand out. These are cultural communities that identify themselves as indigenous. However, the fate of indigenous populations at the hands of capitalism and now globalisation (worldwide) has been either exploitation (worked to death or injury), or abandonment (dumped and ignored); or both. In these circumstances, whether in India or the UK, indigenous comes to mean, not settled and self-sufficient, with established (or sacred) rights: but poor, immobilised, outcast, left behind or moved on.

  • gender inequalities, misogyny, homophobia

At public meetings and events in Liverpool, whether cultural or political, the line-up of key speakers remains persistently mainly older white men. Depending on the event, these will be men from working-class backgrounds and/or middle-class backgrounds. I am not saying these men are irrelevant, past their use-by date; but they are part of the problem, a symptom, in that their unselfconscious dominance has blocked and continues to impede the participation and prominent contribution of other constituencies: notably women and members of BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) communities.

That this continues to be the public profile unselfconsciously presented in the C21 by institutions, the City Council, organisations, such as unions and corporations, suggests a lack of equality experience and expertise amongst organisers and convenors: resulting in no active seeking out of those different from themselves; and a lack of awareness of and concern about the resulting imbalance and exclusions; or resistance to involvement on the part of those absentees. And while nationally, homophobia has substantially receded since the 1980s, Liverpool does not feel as if it has quite joined the C21 in this respect, and gay men are likely to identify Liverpool as less safe and welcoming than nearby Manchester, for example.

The greater acceptance of lesbians and gay men nationally (though it is mainly men who have the visibility and increased business and cultural presence) has run parallel to a worsening of the pressures on girls and women, via the media and society’s institutions and industries, to preoccupy themselves with and conform to a hypersexualised, heterosexual norm that is costly, coercive, dangerous and damaging, and all about woman as body, as sex, as available. So, win some lose some.

  • ethnicity

Returning to Liverpool after ten years working in the USA, Dr Mark Christian, a Liverpool-born Black academic, now of the Miami University, Ohio, shared his dismay that the prospects for Black people seemed hardly to have changed. In two lectures during his recent visit: one at Liverpool’s new International Slavery Museum, entitled ‘The Age of Slave Apologies’,[5] the other, with co-presenter Dr Philip Boland of Cardiff University (also an ‘exile’), under the banner of: ‘Whose Capital and Whose Culture? Looking Back on 08’, as part of the WOW (Writing on the Wall Festival, 13 05 09), he concluded that the city had effectively failed to move towards equality and integration.

And I have often asked myself, why would members of the BME communities / people of colour, an undeniable minority @ c6% of the population, but nonetheless significant and important to the City, want to get together with whiteys, who have so visibly held sway in the City for so long? Not to mention the broader issue of our ‘shared’, unequal, painful and shameful history worldwide. Nonetheless, Liverpool has four universities attracting a wide range of international students. Yet it is not an integrated city, with its range of ethnic and social class communities held together in productive tension, or social and creative symbiosis. In the light of this recent history of multicultural failure, one wonders what lies ahead for more recent incoming communities, for example asylum seekers and workers from the enlarged EU.

As a white woman who came to Liverpool from multicultural London, I note, with Mark Christian and Tayo Aluko, that Liverpool has not achieved a working level of multiculturalism and equality, and that therefore it has a way to go before it achieves Sandercock’s shared commitment to political community, and an empowered citizenry, and can identify itself as an intercultural city. Meanwhile Liverpool is marketed as a European Capital of Culture (2008); ‘the world in one city’; and as ‘cosmopolitan’.

‘Beautiful Words for Difficult Times: We are the sum of our parts.’
This was the title of a poetry event that took place in Liverpool (05 04 2009). It was organised as part of a wider, interdisciplinary, multicultural festival, PAX, which ran over several days, at one of Liverpool’s iconic Victorian venues, The Black-E, an arts and community centre focussed on: ‘education / exploration / enthusiasm’.[6]

The relevance of Liverpool’s social, cultural and political waters.

When asked to organise this event, I approached local poets whose work I knew, and whom I thought would be drawn to the stated aims and values of the PAX project. My goal was to bring together diverse poets, encompassing difference, including ethnicity.

These poets had all been involved in previous community events: such as   poetry events organised for International Women’s Day week in 2008 and 2009; as well as other poetry forays into the community, for example Liverpool’s annual Poetry Marathon, part of National Poetry Day, held in the magnificent Victorian Picton Library in the city centre; Liverpool’s now annual Peace & Ecology Festival, which brings together a range of activist groups inside the shell of a bombed out church in the city centre in July, with a view to engaging with the public in a positive way, including young people: enjoying music and poetry; providing information; participating in social and political discussions and debates, etc. in the best British tradition of free speech on the street or in the park.

There are a number of other festivals throughout the year, for example outdoors at the wonderful Wildflower Centre, and indoors at events organised throughout May by the WOW (Writing on the Wall) Festival, which in 2009 included theatre performances, e.g. plays and readings related to the Israel/Palestine situation; writers reading memoir and short stories; a multi-media community art/music/poetry performance; social/political meetings considering aspects of Liverpool’s recent history; and a meeting about the phenomenon of Barack Obama and the actual consequences and potential implications for the City of Liverpool (and the world), and in particular the BME   communities in Liverpool.

But segregation across these events was evident: for example (on consecutive evenings), between the Obama meeting (Afro-Caribbean) and the Palestine performances (Muslim). And at the event where Dr Mark Christian was one of two keynote speakers, apart from the WOW Festival co-ordinator, Madeline Heneghan, there was only one other member of the BME community in the audience: the architect, activist, writer and singer, Tayo Aluko. The rest of us were variously white. And, on taking a voluntary count, hardly anyone in the audience was indigenous: born in Liverpool.

Such social / cultural / political events provide opportunities for creative and campaigning groups to engage with the public, and for the latter to find a place for the day in a positive community setting: listen to music, play games, get information and learn stuff, discuss and argue, rub shoulders with people different from yourself, eat food, buy plants. And sign petitions![7]

But many of these groups and events attract the support of only small numbers of white working-class people from the outlying estates mentioned above, and fewer from BME communities; and even fewer of either as members and as activists. This suggests that these populations, along with asylum seekers, feel least like ‘empowered citizens’ and are least committed to a shared political community; and/or community action is all/mainly local to and within their own ethnic and social class ‘home’ patch.

The key locations over several years for the most mixing across and between communities and generations, have been street protests, marches, vigils and other events, involving food and films, triggered by the intensifying plight of the Palestinian people, notably events in GAZA in 2008 and 2009. On these occasions, we are all ages (from babies to the elderly), all cultures, all backgrounds, and all ethnicities. No longer strangers to each other, even if we haven’t met before, the action of risking visibility for a common cause, and in a city (and national) environment that is increasingly and tightly under camera surveillance and police control, produces a momentary bond. This is Liverpool at its integrated best: in solidarity and strength, standing up for peace, and against abuses of power, be they military or political.

Poetry as community, as partnership.

The process we went through in developing the first poetry event was a model of creative and social development that was not premeditated or mapped out, but experiential, informal, organic:

  • we came together as individuals
  • we formed a group
  • we became a team.

Starting as a top-down initiative, the project quickly moved to a flatter structure, where everybody felt able to engage (critically if necessary) with the initial suggestions and plan, and make their contributions to what would emerge as the performance on the night. [8]

Our patience and stamina were tested along the way, due to delays and postponements, but his did not dent our determination and commitment to deliver something special: because by then, we knew we could do something unique in and for Liverpool. Out of this process arose a new way of performing our poems together: not as a sequence of individual sets, but as an integrated performance; a choreographed sequence with harp accompaniment and back projections, within which individual voices intertwined to produce an experience, for both poets and audience, that was more powerful and more challenging than conventional approaches.

This new form was akin to a conversation or verbal dance, and suited our purposes, which were not simply poetic. As one of the poets, Brenda Vasona Gwanvoma, who came to Liverpool from the Cameroon via Paris, puts it in the title of one of her poems: ‘Building Bridges Not Walls’.

Dr Wendy Sarkissan, a social planning consultant, who has worked with Aboriginal communities in The Block, Sydney, Australia, recognises:

“the need for a language and process of emotional involvement and embodiment using a range of techniques, such as storytelling, drama, music and visualization, to enable people of widely different backgrounds to describe the world as they saw it.”[9]

As poets, we aim to cross the divide between social, political and cultural communities of interest; to get poetry to people who think they ‘don’t do’ poetry; and ‘politics’ to those who prioritise poetry as some apolitical, artistic special case. And to do this we must embody both the challenge of difference and its resolution: by being a team that encompasses, for example, differences of age, colour, culture, faith, health status and social and class background. Our complex and multiple identities are vital to this project, not as fixities, but as ingredients in our creative and social interactions, and our cultural output. (See Appendix I) [10] 

Interculturalism and identity.
“Poetry was privileged speech – simple, but never ordinary. The magic of poetry was transformation; it was words changing shape, meaning and form. Poetry was not mere recording of the way we southern black folks talked to one another, even though our language was poetic. It was transcendent speech. It was meant to transform consciousness, to carry the mind and heart to a new dimension.” [11] Added emphasis.

This is bell hooks reflecting on how she experienced poetry as a child, growing up as a black woman in the racist South of the USA. She illuminates the potential and purpose of poetry for everyone: the politics of language, speaking, writing, and being a poet in your society; and these insights are set firmly in the context of her understanding of both the psychological and political significance of speaking, in particular for the marginalized and oppressed, and women most of all.

“Speaking becomes both a way to engage in active self-transformation and a rite of passage where one moves from being object to subject. Only as subjects can we speak. As objects, we remain voiceless – our beings defined and interpreted by others.”[12] Added emphasis.

She also implicitly demonstrates how taking the lead from women’s lives and testimony affords insight into general human predicaments and social projects.

“To know our audience, to know who listens, we must be in dialogue. We must be speaking with and not just speaking to.”[13]

This observation is as relevant to individual poets as to community organisers, or politicians, and by extension, for intercultural dialogue and co-creativity. Poetry is exploration and discovery, of world, self and Other, and involves an effort to make sense of something, where we experience dissonance, a puzzle, discontent, friction, an intensity of experience, such as loss, desperation or anger: to dig deep. It is also an effort to communicate beyond the self, to a public, to create a community of co-participants, and to make something capable of countering powerlessness, fear, despair, even the impacts of fascism and corporatism on individuals and communities. As hooks says, ‘It is transcendent speech’: at its best, transforming, healing, courageous and ambitious.

The quantum physicist, David Bohm (1917-1992), wrote eloquently about creative process and the importance of dialogue (1996; 1998) in his later years,[14] in the context of his growing concern for what he saw happening in the world.

“The defence of opinions separates people. Each of us defends his (sic) own opinion, and then we don’t meet. We don’t really listen to one another; we try to win.”[15]

Bohm’s words point to the value of the methodology of the arts: which is about listening, about being receptive, about being willing to be changed; equalising power relations; combination and collaboration, not competing or winning. The C20 British poet, W H Auden, believed that all poems are love poems, which hints at a poem’s roots, as well as its transformational potential. And the C19 British poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, invokes our courage and ambition:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;

To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;

To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;

To love and bear; to hope till Hope creates

From its own wreck the thing it contemplates . . .

We have used this stanza to open our poetry performances. We found it spoke directly to our human predicament, as well as our purpose and ambition as C21 poets and women.

We are not a group of women divorced from the common realities of women’s lives: as, for example, daughters, sisters, partners, lovers, wives, mothers, artists, non/professionals, colleagues, comrades, friends and activists, we variously embody women’s complexity, social vulnerability and strength. And we encompass the range of life’s disadvantages and sorrows: grief, prejudice, stigma, grievance, loss, abuse, betrayal, bereavement, exile, as well as the joys of intimacy, affection, love and community. And there are boys and men in our lives in various capacities, as well as in the audience; and as collaborators, providing lighting, back projections, sound technology and film documentation.

We nonetheless do not presume to represent women / all women, but to draw on, share and illuminate lives which infrequently take centre stage in the public domain, except, for example, as fodder for male fantasies, vehicle for corporate consumerism’s excesses, and as evidence of the widespread misogyny that continues to confine, damage and curtail too many women’s lives worldwide. Courage is what marks these women’s poetics. For speaking as a woman in and against a society that throws rocks in your path, because you are a woman, because you are Muslim, because you are old, because you have a disability or HIV status, because you speak (out / up), because you refuse to defer, remains a high-risk, ‘insubordinate’ act.

And identities, such as ‘academic’, ‘poet’, ‘activist’, ‘citizen’, ‘feminist’, rebel’, ‘woman’, ‘mother’, are not just attributed: labels acquired through position or performance. Identities are also to be claimed, taken up, activated: that journey from object to subject, so central to bell hooks’ critique and vision. For this is creative and political territory, involving struggles against oppression and injustice, stereotyping and marginalisation; as well as struggles over resources, policies, social, cultural and political priorities, and meaning. Women performing as EMBRACE in Liverpool, do so with some of those struggles under our belts too.

As editor Amy Wack testifies:  

“I’ve been privileged to witness the development of confident, technically astute, inspirational women poets of all ages. It is worthwhile to remind ourselves that these poems are the flowers that grew on battlefields.”[16] Added emphasis.

On the night:

  • What we had was a performance that went beyond individualism, and manifested our shared commitment to political community.
  • We were the sum of our parts: and more. We all felt it, poets and audience alike.
  • We were showing that we added up, that in that entwining, in that meshing and interaction, we make more sense, more beauty (and therefore safety): new possibilities of understanding and affection emerge and evolve; as well as intimations of future challenges. We were performing as empowered citizens.
  • We felt that our poems were enhanced and intensified as part of the integrated sequence, which itself had evolved so seamlessly out of our discussions, sharing and practices, because we listened to each other, gave each other good attention and support; and no egos reared up to create a negative or hierarchical organisational straitjacket. We are all women of substance (to borrow a phrase from my son); but there has been no competitiveness, no vying for centre stage or dominance. We have facilitated each other, and been clear and forthright when decisiveness was required.
  • Audience members said it had been, for example: beautiful / inspiring / inspirational / wonderful / so warm / lovely / thought-provoking / a lot to think about / beautifully performed with excellent content.
  • We went beyond poetry to act as a catalyst for community. But to go beyond poetry, we had to go via poetry. It is not the only route, but…… It’s the art element in experience and relationship that acts as both means and catalyst; triumph and surprise.

Art as experience,[17] art as behaviour

“All aesthetic judgements may eventually be re-examined and re-evaluated in terms of new cultural relationships.”[18]

Nathan Knobler signals the link between aesthetics and ethics; aesthetics and politics; aesthetics and people’s daily lives. Such a statement is a challenge to entrenched eurocentric values and assumptions, not least about the superiority of the white western way (in all things, not just art). It puts the idea of ‘civilisation’ up for scrutiny, and points to the ways in which these élite, disciplinary domains are open to plunder and reconceptualisation: not in the abstract, and strictly within the confines of the academy, but out in the wider, messy world, where beauty and hope are susceptible to attack and bleeding, as cultural relationships shift, become more interactive, even conflicted.

Thirty years later, artist turned author and social commentator, Suzi Gablik noted, in relation to what Ellen Dissanayake had referred to as ‘the anomaly of modern aesthetics’ [19] and Western art practices:

“One of the key points of contention in the culture war is the issue of intellectual and aesthetic merit. . . .[as] the site of aesthetic experience is shifting, . . . . from the self-referential orbit of museums  and galleries.”[20]

The “boundary which philosophical aesthetics so carefully makes between art and real life” [21] was becoming blurred and challenged by the practices of artists themselves, working out in the community, on the street, in the woods, etc.. Women artists, particularly feminists, were prominent contributors to this historical shift from the 1970s.

Ellen Dissanayake had asked, ‘What is art for?’

“When you view art as a ‘behaviour’ of making important things special, it seems quite evident that this is universal, even though every culture may not paint or sculpt or make installations.”[22] Added emphasis.

And she turns to the evidence of earlier societies, where, for example:

“Decorating and adorning were ways of showing that one participated in a social order and was a moral member of society.”[23]

The work of the EMBRACE poets in Liverpool attests to this social and cultural function: not as conformity, but as non-violent intervention. Similarly, Fiona Boundy discusses the cross-disciplinary and participatory practice of artist Lisa Cheung, who came to the UK from Canada via Hong Kong, and notes: “The relationship is the point rather than the outcome”. [24]

Carol Becker, Dean and Vice-President for academic affairs of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, USA, identifies the enduring distortion in the West:

“This is a very bourgeois notion of freedom that we’ve encouraged, which is a freedom for the individual apart from society, not a freedom for the individual within society.”[25]

This individualism is also a gendered model of freedom: implicitly rooted in the lives, expectations and sexual anxieties of élite white western men, aspiring to roam ‘free’ of emotional attachments and domestic responsibilities that might curtail their ‘creativity’ and ‘autonomy’.

The conversations in Gablik’s book are now fifteen years old. There was clearly an expectation at the time that the tide was turning for the arts; away from an emphasis on objects cloistered in museums and galleries; away from the idea of the artist as necessarily separate and élite. This had been foreshadowed, notably in Gablik’s lightening-strike earlier book, The Re-Enchantment of Art, [26] in which she charted a new paradigm that ‘reflects a will to participate socially: a central aspect of new paradigm thinking involves a significant shift from objects to relationships’;[27] ‘making the transition from spectator to participant’.[28]

However, during the intervening years, turbo-capitalism has gained ground and dominance, and the western art world has split rather than morphed. It has bifurcated into, on the one hand, a lucrative market within the global economy, mainly focussed on objects: art as commodity;[29] and on the other, a cultural fabric teeming with local and community projects, public art and creative interventions, that include the critical, participatory and interactive.[30]

Engaging as intercultural communities.

“Diversity (has been) regarded at best as an issue to be managed, at worst a problem to be solved – just another thing that makes life more complex and tiresome.”[31]

This is the ‘diversity deficit’, which impedes ‘the diversity advantage’ (of cities, for instance), where ‘the complexity of diversity is to be embraced and harnessed’.[32] The concepts of intercultural praxis and cultural competence;[33] of mediation and relationship-building at the centre of intercultural theory find echoes in the methodology of the arts. The specific relevance of the arts is also anticipated by the acknowledged importance of ‘needs, desires, dreams and prejudices’.[34] Art processes and projects can be one of the best ways of ‘working with the grain of diversity’ [35] and moving away from the parallel lives[36] alluded to earlier. Factors that exacerbate distrust and disengagement can be diffused, even overcome, through, not least, the process of getting to know each other and acting together.[37]

The UK Kings Cross Development Forum highlighted the challenges of overcoming pessimism;[38] Manchester City Council’s Sense of Place project found enhanced cultural literacy to be central; as well as sensory impact, in exploring ‘the meaning of belonging and placelessness’.[39] Storytelling and role play may uncover hidden traits, suppressed memories, latent fault-lines and unrealised aspirations.[40] And as Theodore Roszak observed in relation to (early) environmentalists, it cannot be about coercion:

“They’ve usually behaved as if they could simply force people to change their habits by sheer guilt-tripping or scare tactics.”[41]

Art is not about telling; more about sharing, showing, exploring. It requires discipline, but is not disciplinary or authoritarian. These are vital virtues.

Art’s register is rooted in the model adult-adult of Transactional Analysis, rather than its obverse, the conventional, negative parent-child structure of authority, which spells and perpetuates inequalities and prepares the ground for abuse and injustice. The problem of gatekeepers, and the importance of dealing directly with each other, with communities and people[42] is linked to this too-prevalent dynamic.

In this connection, the arts can contribute to the process of unlearning the inculcation in childhood and early adulthood, of the superiority of one way over another[43] as well as undoing internalised inferiority, and alleviating its consequences for individuals and communities. Making art in and with a community can help people acknowledge and provide insight into, the unequal power relations so influential in their lives, and wedded to differences, such as social class, ethnicity and gender; but, crucially, without the process undermining or breaking them. And so another western binary, art v therapy, gets disrupted.

Leonie Sandercock points to the extent of the challenge:

“The ‘right to difference’ at the heart of interculturalism must be perpetually contested against other rights (for example, human rights) and redefined according to new formulations and considerations.”[44]

Art too involves this critical, self-reflexivity, though its importance is still contested, in particular by those still wedded to the dominance of the western gallery system.[45]

To address societal problems, David Bohm, whose roots were hybrid (born in the USA of Hungarian-Lithuanian Jewish parents; later taking British nationality), wrote a proposal for a solution that has become known as ‘Bohm Dialogue’, in which equal status and ‘free space’ form the most important prerequisites of communication and the appreciation of differing personal beliefs;[46] as opposed to élites at the top and the disaffected at the bottom. The methodology and processes of the arts can facilitate and enact the transformation envisaged by Sandercock and Bohm. Rome’s L’Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio is one such inspiring example: fifteen musicians, eight languages, eleven nationalities.

Nine years ago, the project’s instigators, Francesca Povoledo and her rock musician husband, Mario Tronco, moved to a part of the city of Rome taken over by immigrants and avoided by ‘native Romans’. They found ‘an island of exhuberant diversity in one of Europe’s most conservative and conformist capitals’.[47] The initial idea, which could be seen as artistically motivated, underwent a sudden transformation, as Tronco explains:

“But then came 9/11, and what had seemed like just an idea became a political exigency,”[48] in the face of the escalating fear and suspicion of immigrants after the attack on the Twin towers. However, marrying so many diverse musical genres is no easy task.

“The Arabs, for example, don’t have the concept of four beats to a bar; they mark time essentially in twos. The most difficult thing was – and, at times, still is – the issue of tempo.”[49]

Sandercock spells out the learning curve required and the material obstacles:

“Reducing fear and ignorance can only be achieved by addressing the material as well as cultural dimensions of ‘recognition’. This means addressing the prevailing inequalities of political and economic power as well as developing new stories about and symbols of national and local identity and belonging.”[50] Added emphasis.

Building sustainable communities requires committed funding for the arts; not the insecurity and low status of sporadic, temporary, project funding (or no public subsidies from the Italian state, in the case of L’Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio; only promises). In C21 the arts and interculturalism go head to head with the media and its arsenal of resources: financial, political and cultural; as well as the forces of globalisation. Both treat us as targets and markets.[51] As consumers. This inequality / iniquity needs to be acknowledged and proactively redressed via funding agencies and public monies. These are Bohm’s equal status and ‘free space’ prerequisites, which have to be ‘designed in’, not left to chance.

Sandercock goes further, to emphasise the importance of ‘the critical freedom to question in thought, and challenge in practice, one’s inherited cultural ways’ and ‘the recognition of the widely-shared aspiration to belong to a culture and a place, and so be at home in the world’.[52] Here she touches on the core difference, even conflict, between dogma and the creative arts; between authoritarianism, fundamentalism and fascism, on the one side, and the aspirations and complexities of open democracies, academic and media independence, and interculturalism, on the other.

Through the arts, conflict can be experienced, plumbed and illuminated;  worked through, rather than denied, avoided and buried; only to erupt at a later date, often in an unrelated context. The turbulence that may be part of intercultural praxis need not be seen as a sign of failure or deficit. Friction, after all, is part of healthy relational process as well as creativity.

Echoing Bohm’s concern about separation and hierarchy, Sandercock maintains that it is vital to ‘recognise and nurture [those] spaces of accommodation and intermingling’.[53] These are, by definition, dangerous, liminal locations; where borders spill over or recede and reconfigure, and where hybridity flourishes. These ambiguous and unpredictable spaces and places can be experienced as intimidating, because unfamiliar, turbulent, and the site of ‘strangers’; but they are where movement, hope and creativity can break through stereotype and mistrust; fear and a sense of unbelonging and powerlessness. These are the liminal sites of creativity, interculturalism and renewal.

“Thus we arrive at a lived conception of identity/difference that recognizes itself as historically contingent and inherently relational; and a cultivation of a care for difference through strategies of critical detachment from the identities that constitute us. In this intercultural imagination, the twin goods of belonging and of freedom can be made to support rather than oppose each other.”[54] Added emphasis, last sentence.

The problems alluded to at the outset, in relation to the status quo in the City of Liverpool – of social class / ethnicity / gender / misogyny / homophobia  – are connected, deeply enmeshed. Hence the importance of educational, social and political action to combat the organised and well-funded forces of bigotry and prejudice in society (such as religious fundamentalisms and the rise of fascism in Europe), in addition to violence rooted in ignorance, inexperience, fear and uncertainty; as well as lack of education and opportunity. But this paper argues that, without the mind-opening, liberating and heart-healing opportunities afforded by the arts, and projects that ‘deepen communication and lead to celebration and cohesion’,[55] there can be little progress towards interculturalism and productive co-existence. 

From ‘gift’ to gifted, to gifts.
The significance of women for social recovery and renewal.

Women’s movements across the world have made women’s gifts / talents more visible, as we have risen to the challenges bequeathed us. Rochdale Open Forum in the UK, is but one example that ‘showed that women across cultures could connect in ways that men would not’.[56] Historically, women have been ‘gifts’: to be bought and sold, and as the means by which societies and cultures have been organised and controlled. The position, status and rights of women in different societies and cultures in C21 remain the sharpest, most poignant and most disturbing reminders of these differences, and how forcefully they are defended and secured.

It follows, therefore, that being at the centre of difference and conflict, women are well placed to act as creative agents for change, within the arts and interculturalism: helping undo the damage inflicted on populations, individuals and the environment, and envisaging ways out of the mess.There is a history of men and their hostilities, divisions, competitions, wars and abuse (colonial, tribal, economic, sexual). We need to build a history of humanity, and quick. If women, children and men remain buried in the rubble of men’s history and conflicts, sustainable communities will remain an unrealisable aspiration.

This paper has intimated the connections between inequalities and oppressive practices too often seen as distinct and separate. It follows that interculturalism, like anti-fascism, cannot be conceived as solely about anti-racism, but must embody the realisation that partnerships and sustainable communities require a more holistic approach. In C21 neither the arts nor interculturalism can proceed as single issue politics or cultural practice. Their synchronicity lies in their common and proven capacity to address our human complexity and the diversity of our identities, despairs, failures, dreams and aspirations. Simultaneously: as acts of responsibility and imagination. (See Appendix 3.) Even in making room for laughter.[57]

References, endnotes.

[1] Sandercock, Leonie (2004) ‘Reconsidering Multiculturalism: towards  an intercultural project’ in Phil Wood (ed.)  Intercultural City Reader. Book 1. Stroud, Comedia: 19.
[2] Landry, Charles (2004) Riding the Rapids: Urban Life in an Age of Complexity. London, Building Futures in association with Comedia: 24. See also Wood, Phil (ed.)(2006) Planning and Engaging with Intercultural Communities: Building the Knowledge and Skills Base. Stroud, Comedia.

[3] Wintour, Patrick (22 07 2009) ‘Britain’s closed shop: damning report on social mobility failings’. The Guardian: 4.
[4] Health is Wealth. A Report for Discussion (April 2008). The Liverpool City-region Health is Wealth Commission. See Walsh, Val (19 06 2008) ‘Health is Wealth. A report for discussion. Personal response.’ http://www.hapfel.co.uk
[5] Aluko, Tayo (06 2009) ‘A Christian greeting to the former Capital of Culture’. NERVE Issue 14: 23.
[6] The Black-E was in fact the first such centre in the UK, when it opened its doors in 1969, with the aim of drawing in its surrounding multicultural communities (it lies at the entrance to China Town in Liverpool and in close proximity to Toxteth, an ethnically mixed area mainly identified with the Afro-Caribbean community), as well as others, such as students and those in  informal education, to events and exhibitions which always placed the emphasis on interaction and participation: on creative involvement and co-operation. The Black-E was seen as a suitable venue for PAX, because of its declared emphasis on creativity, the values of intercultural dialogue, and trans-national communities and understanding.
[7] Aside from these events, this strand of community and public life is sustained routinely in the city centre throughout the year, by a variety of community and campaign groups: for example, peacefully setting up their tables and publicising the issues that concern them. These range from, in 2008/9: Animal Rights, No To Identity Cards, Freedom for Palestine, Keep Our NHS (National Health Service) Public, Liverpool Friends of the Earth, and most recently, the national, anti-racist, anti-BNP (the fascist British National Party) HOPE NOT HATE campaign, in the lead up to the EU and local elections, jointly sponsored by a national newspaper, The Daily Mirror, and a national union, UNISON.
[8] We also had to cope with organisational obstacles and inconveniences not of our own making and beyond our control over several months, as the date got put back more than once. These delays and obstacles could have led to a loss of motivation and confidence, given that as women we all have busy lives, other responsibilities and are mainly time-poor.
[9] Cited Wood, Phil (11 2006): 39.
[10] The team of women, known as EMBRACE: Women’s Words Live. Liverpool Poets / International Voices, in itself attests to our potential and purpose, when we present ourselves to an audience or community, before a single poem is read. We simultaneously embody our visible (and invisibe) differences, as well as our willing partnership. (See Appendix 2.)
[11] bell hooks (1989) Talking Back: Thinking Feminist – Thinking Black. London, SHEBA: 11.
[12] Ibid.: 12.
[13] Ibid.: 16.
[14] See Bohm, David (1996) On Dialogue, editor Lee Nichol. London, Routledge; and (1998) On Creativity, editor Lee Nichol. London, Routledge.
[15] Cited Gablik, Suzi (2000) Conversations Before the End of Time. 19 Dialogues on Art, Life & Spiritual Renewal. New York, Thames & Hudson: 108.
[16] At the end of her Introduction to Salzman, Eva & Wack, Amy (eds.) (2008) Women’s Work: Modern Women Poets Writing in English. Bridgend, Wales, Seren: 38.
[17] Art as Experience (1934) was the title of the philosopher John Dewey’s influential book.
[18] Knobler, Nathan (1966; 1971) The Visual Dialogue. An Introduction to the Appreciation of Art. Holt, Tinehart & Winston.
[19] Dissanayake, Ellen (1988; 1991) What Is Art For? Seattle & London, University of Washington Press..Cited Gablik (2000): 38.
[20] Gablik (2000): 31.
[21] Ibid.: 275.
[22] Dissanayake, in Gablik (2000): 43.
[23] Ibid. (2000): 46.
[24] Boundy, Fiona, Lisa Cheung, Colchester, First Site Papers, cited Khan, Nasseem (2006) The Road to Interculturalism: Tracking the Arts in a Changing World. Intercultural City Series: Book 4. Stroud, Comedia: 30.
[25] Becker, Carol in Gablik (2000): 362/363.
[26] Gablik, Suzi (1991) The Re-Enchantment of Art. New York & London, Thames & Hudson.
[27] Ibid.: 7.
[28] Ibid.: 83. See also Walsh, Val (1995) ‘Eyewitnesses, not spectators – activists, not academics: feminist pedagogy and women’s creativity’, Katy Deepwell (ed.) New Feminist Art Criticism. Critical Strategies. Manchester & New York, Manchester University Press: 51-60.
[29] See Wu, Chin-tao (2002) Privatising Culture. Corporate Art Intervention since the 1980s. London & New York, VERSO.
[30] This certainly describes Liverpool’s cultural fabric, with its proliferation of writers, poets, musicians, singers, and other creatives and performers, meeting and making in a wide range of groups and venues across the City.  See also Higgins, Charlotte (09 07 2009) ‘The birth of Twitter art’, The Guardian.  For some bureaucrats and funders, still bound by conventional categories and demarcations, this poses the ‘problem’ of how do you identify what is ‘art’ and what is ‘environmental’ and/or ‘community’ and/or therapy and/or (worse) ‘political? And how do you judge ‘intellectual and aesthetic merit. . . .?! In Liverpool, if a project is identified as ‘political’, rather than ‘cultural’, it will not get funded. NERVE magazine, ‘promoting grassroots arts and culture on Merseyside’, falls into this category.[31] Wood, Phil (ed.) (2006): 10.
[32] Ibid..
[33] Ibid.: 7.
[34] Ibid.: 9.
[35] Ibid.: 11.
[36] Ibid..
[37] The Four Corners Project (now in its 4th year ) in Liverpool, is an example of participatory art processes being linked to making changes in the way people live. Residents made connections and links between themselves, others and the wider world: showing ‘how people can come together to imagine, create and realise new ways of being.’ Ruth Ben-Tovim, Artistic Director Four Corners 2009. The project brings together cultural organisations, neighbourhood management services and hundreds of residents from Liverpool’s five neighbourhoods, and culminates in an exhibition at The Bluecoat, an established visual and performing arts venue in the city centre.
[38] In Wood (2006): 28.
[39] Ibid.: 31.
[40] Ibid.: 15.
[41] In Gablik (2000): 341. See also Walsh, Val (2002) ‘Equal opportunities without “equality”: redeeming the irredeemable’ in Howie, Gillian & Tauchert, Ashley (eds.) (2002) Gender, Teaching and Research in Higher Education. Challenges for the 21st Century. Aldershot, Ashgate: 33-45.
[42] Wood (ed.)(2006): 36.
[43] Ibid.: 13.
[44] Sandercock (2004): 19.
[45] See the conversation with art critic Hilton Kramer (2000) ‘No art in the lifeboats’, Gablik: 106-132.
[46] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David­­_Bohm Downloaded 27 07 2009.
[47] Hooper, John (17 07 2009) ‘A piazza of their own’, The Guardian: 11.
[48] Ibid..
[49] Ibid..
[50] Sandercock (2004): 19.
[51] See Wu (2002).
[52] Sandercock (2004): 19.
[53] Ibid..
[54] Ibid.: 19/20.
[55] Ben-Tovim, Ruth (2009), Artistic Director Four Corners 2009, Liverpool. Introduction, Four Corners 22-29 July 09 (programme & brochure): in which people in Liverpool’s five neighbourhoods explore the question: ‘What makes a neighbourhood?’
[56] In Wood (2006): 33.
[57]The members of L’Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio have had to learn to live with each other, not just to make music together: ‘We even manage to joke about subjects like Islam and homosexuality’, said Mario Tronco. Hooper, ibid.. And British stand-up comic, Chris Addison (21 07 2009), explaining ‘how to get comedy out of awfulry’, argues that ‘not only is it OK to laugh at bad things, sometimes it is – in all senses of the word – vital.. . . . Analysis helps us understand them; grief and sorrow help us exorcise them; but laughter gives us power over them’. Added emphasis. In ‘Any hedge fund managers in tonight? The Guardian: 22.

APPENDIX 1

Our founding statement for the poetry event:

‘Bridges Not Walls’:

The Sum of our Parts

An evening of poetry, stories, music,

in the performance space at The Black-E, Liverpool:

5 April 2009.

Our vision and conviction are that culture and art are peace-making activities: the quintessential bridge-builders, with the potential to move us out of narrow and private worlds, towards each other and our co-creativity – personal / domestic / social / public. Pleasure and joy are vital parts of these experiences and efforts, as we hope the evening will demonstrate. And risk-taking is also required, if we are to work with and across our differences: not to become like each other / the same, but to like and trust each other enough to hold hands and dance!

This is a collaborative performance, evoking both difference and commonality, rather than a series of individual readings. From the problems of society, we move through matters of the heart: including loss and mourning; we celebrate recovery and renewal; life process itself, through poetry, story and music.

To avoid catastrophe, we must first name our concerns; through our co-creativity, we demonstrate our capacity for survival, reconciliation, adventure, and the enduring power of love.

APPENDIX 2

From first version of poster (printed in a combination of colours):

BEAUTIFUL WORDS FOR DIFFICULT TIMES

Poetry and story from Liverpool’s

multicultural heart.

To be held in the performance space at

The Black-E: connecting artists and communities

Great Georges Street, Liverpool L1 5EW

 Sunday, 5 April 2009

Arrive @ 4 40pm for 5 00pm start. Finish @ 8 00pm.

Naming anger and despair
in the face of violation, atrocity and injustice.

 Demonstrating courage and imagination
in the face of damage, loss and bereavement.

 Evoking the healing processes
of conversation, compassion, community and creativity.

Asserting art and love
over the dead hands of fear and guilt.

JOIN US!

Bring your community!

APPENDIX 3

                                                                                             High Wire Act

love
is all about
difference

you bring your
difference
to me

I bring my
difference
to you

and we begin
the process
of knowing
called
love.

Val Walsh (2006)

The Politics of Love (May 2009)

[see togetherfornow.wordpress.com, poems section]

In 2009, ‘The Politics of Love’ was performed at the following events:

  • 16 05 2009: ‘Jamsoup’ multimedia event, in the WOW (Writing on the Wall) Festival at Park Palace, Liverpool.
  • 19 05 09: by radio presenter and former actor, Roger Phillips, morning show, Radio Merseyside.
  • 25 05 2009: HOPE NOT HATE open air Music Festival, sponsored by UK national newspaper, The Daily Mirror and UK national union, UNISON. Crosby Village, Liverpool
  • 03 06 2009: Dead Good Poets Society, Liverpool. Third Room, Everyman Bistro.
  • 25 07 2009: The Peace and Ecology Festival, within the shell of St. Luke’s Church, Liverpool.

On not reducing ‘inequality’ to income differentials or social class.

Kate Pickett is Professor of Epidemiology in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, UK. She is co-author, with Richard Wilkinson, of The Spirit Level (2009), a now famous book translated into 23 languages. She gave the annual John Hamilton Memorial Lecture to a packed auditorium at the University of Liverpool (30 10 2013), her chosen title: ‘Inequality: The Enemy Between Us’.

Kate Pickett is an excellent speaker: clear, probing, nuanced and expressive. I have heard her speak on the Spirit Level work three times now. The themes and issues raised by this body of research support such in depth scrutiny and reiteration. It is clearly one of the most important books published in the last several years. Mine is a 2010 copy and is well thumbed and festooned with post-its!

At the end of her talk, she responded thoughtfully to questions and comments from the floor. I raised my concern that The Spirit Level evidence was being used by men on the Left as a basis for an economistic definition of equality, where inequality is understood as simply equating to poverty, i.e. economic disadvantage.

While many may argue persuasively, on the basis of the available evidence, that “Poverty is the cause of causes”, for example in relation to psychosis,[i] the danger is that this in fact simplifies and ‘disappears’ the inequalities, disadvantage (including stigma) and injustice consequent upon power differentials rooted in and serving to perpetuate, racism, homophobia and misogyny, which in turn are not bound, determined or explained by social class.

For example, the fact that 48% of women who experience psychosis have previously suffered sexual abuse, 48% physical abuse and 69% one or the other,[ii] evokes an inequality and injustice insufficiently captured by an economistic focus on income differentials, poverty indices or social class statistics. The social determinants of (mental) health / public health include racism, homophobia and misogyny. These each produce bullying, intimidation, violence, fear and trauma:[iii] psychic and social disorder of a high order with severe personal and societal consequences. Damage.

Given that for many men on the Left in particular, an economistic analysis, emphasizing poverty and social class, is a familiar comfort blanket, grounded in their interpretation of Marxism, the challenge to stop these other significant determining factors from dropping further out of sight becomes harder but even more urgent.  Not least because they are all historically well established justifications worldwide, not just for discrimination, but for violence, abuse, even annihilation.

Poverty and social class are being ‘re-discovered’ as sociologically and politically relevant. To counter the accompanying political cover up taking place, the Left needs more holistic, qualitative, intellectual and political approaches, that incorporate, rather than deny, the insights of the identity politics and liberation movements that have contributed to the greater visibility of the social and political needs and rights of those affected by these inequalities, violations and violences.

val walsh / 19 11 2013


[i] John Read (18 11 2013) ‘The Social Causes of Psychosis: From Heresy to Certainty.’ ISPS UK (The International Society for Psychological and Social Approaches to Psychosis) Evening Event. Liverpool Quaker Meeting House.

[ii] Ibid. See also John Read & Jacqui Dillon (eds.) (2013, 2nd edition) Models of Madness: Psychological, Social and Biological Approaches to Psychosis. East Sussex, Routledge.

[iii] As Derry Hunter’s gendered autobiographical narrative of sexual violence, oppression and psychosis testifies (18 11 2013): ‘Madness and uncivilisation’. ISPS UK Event, Liverpool.